Colluding in Character Assassination

Jonathan Cook says that opponents have become brilliant at deploying smears that alienate some of the natural constituencies of victims such as Assange, Corbyn and  Varoufakis. 

Yanis Varoufakis at Subversive Festival 2013 in Zagreb, Croatia. (Robert Crc, Wikimedia Commons)

By Jonathan Cook

There was a fascinating online panel discussion on Wednesday night on the Julian Assange case that I recommend everyone watch. The video is at the bottom of the page.

But from all the outstanding contributions, I want to highlight a very important point made by Yanis Varoufakis that has significance for understanding current events well beyond the Assange case.

Varoufakis is an academic who was savaged by the Western political and media establishments when he served as Greece’s finance minister. Back in 2015 a popular leftwing Greek government was trying to oppose the imposition of severe loan conditions on Greece by European and international financial institutions that risked tipping the Greek economy into deeper bankruptcy and seemed chiefly intended to upend its socialist program. The government Varoufakis served was effectively crushed into obedience through a campaign of economic intimidation by these institutions.

Varoufakis describes here the way that leftwing dissidents who challenge or disrupt Western establishment narratives – whether it be himself, Assange or the U.K.’s former Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn – end up not only being subjected to character assassination, as was always the case, but nowadays find themselves being manipulated into colluding in their own character assassination.

Here is a short transcript of Varoufakis’ much fuller comments – about 48 minutes in – highlighting his point about co-option:

“The establishment, the Deep State, call it whatever you want, the oligarchy, they’ve become much, much better at it [character assassination] than they used to be. Because back in the 1960s and 1970s, you know, they would accuse you of being a Communist. They would accuse me of being a Marxist. Well, I am a Marxist. I’m really not going to suffer that much if you accuse me of being a left-winger. I am a left-winger!

Now what they do is something far worse. They accuse you of something that really hurts you. Calling somebody like us a racist, a bigot, an antisemite, a rapist. This is what really hurts because if anybody calls me a rapist today, right, even if it’s complete baloney, I feel as a feminist I have the need to give the woman, implied or involved somehow in this accusation, the opportunity to speak against me. Because that is what we left-wingers do.”

Varoufakis’ point is that when Assange was accused of being a rapist, as he was before the U.S. made clear the real case against him – by trying to extradite him from the U.K.  for exposing its war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan – he could not defend himself without alienating a significant constituency of his natural supporters, those on the left who identify as feminists. Which is exactly what happened.

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Similarly, as Varoufakis notes from earlier conversations he had with Assange, the WikiLeaks founder was in no position to properly defend himself against accusations that he colluded with Russia and Donald Trump to help Trump win the 2016 U.S.  presidential election against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

At the time, Assange’s supporters were able to point out that the leaked emails were true and that they were in the public interest because they showed deep corruption in the Democratic Party establishment. But those arguments were drowned out by a narrative confected by the U.S.  media and security establishments that WikiLeaks’ publication of the emails was political interference because the emails had supposedly been hacked by Russia to sway the election result.

Because Assange was absolutely committed to the principle of non-disclosure of sources, he refused to defend himself in public by confirming that the emails had been leaked to him by a Democratic Party insider, not the “Russians.” His silence allowed his vilification to go largely unchallenged. Having already been stripped of support from much of the feminist left, particularly in Europe, Assange now lost the support of a sizeable chunk of the left in the U.S.  too.

In these cases, the one who stands accused has to defend themselves with one hand tied behind their back. They cannot hit back without further antagonizing a substantial section of their supporters, deepening divisions within the left’s ranks. The victim of this kind of character assassination is caught in the equivalent of reputational quicksand. The more they fight, the deeper they sink.

Which is, of course, exactly what happened to the former U.K. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn when he was accused of being a racist. If he or his supporters tried to challenge the claim that the party had become anti-Semitic overnight under his leadership – even if only by citing statistics that showed the party hadn’t – they were immediately denounced for supposed “anti-Semitism denial,” posited as the modern equivalent of Holocaust denial.

Notice Ken Loach, who was also on the panel, nodding in agreement as Varoufakis speaks. Because Loach, the noted leftwing, anti-racist film-maker who came to Corbyn’s defense against the confected media campaign smearing him as an anti-Semite, soon found himself similarly accused.

Jonathan Freedland, a senior columnist at the liberal Guardian, was among those using precisely the tactic described by Varoufakis. He tried to discredit Loach by accusing him of denying Jews the right to define their own experience of anti-Semitism.

Freedland sought to manipulate Loach’s anti-racist credentials against him. Either agree with us that Corbyn is an anti-Semite, and that most of his supporters are too, or you are a hypocrite, disowning your own anti-racist principles – and solely in the case of anti-Semitism. And that, QED, would prove you too are motivated by anti-Semitism.

Loach found himself with a terrible binary choice: either he must collude with Freedland and the corporate media in smearing Corbyn, a long-standing friend, or else he would be forced to collude in his own smearing as an anti-Semite.

It’s a deeply ugly, deeply illiberal, deeply manipulative, deeply dishonest tactic. But it is also brilliantly effective. Which is why nowadays rightists and centrists use it at every opportunity. The left, given its principles, rarely resorts to this kind of deceit. Which means it can only bring a peashooter to a gun fight.

This is the left’s dilemma. It’s why we struggle to win the argument in a corporate media environment that not only denies us a hearing but also promotes the voices of those like Freedland trying to destroy us from the center and those supposedly on the left like George Monbiot and Owen Jones who are too often destroying us from within.

As Varoufakis also says, the left needs urgently to go on the offensive.

We need to find ways to turn the tables on the war criminals who have been gaslighting us in demanding that Assange, who exposed their crimes, is the one who needs to be locked up.

We need to make clear that it is those who are so ready to smear anti-racists as anti-Semites – as Corbyn’s successor, Sir Keir Starmer, has done to swaths of Labour Party members – who are the real racists.

And we need to unmask as war hawks those who accuse the anti-war left of serving as apologists for dictators when we try to stop Western states conducting more illegal, resource-grab wars with such devastating results for local populations.

We must get much more sophisticated in our thinking and our strategies. There is no time to lose.

Jonathan Cook is a former Guardian journalist (1994-2001) and winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. He is a freelance journalist based in Nazareth. If you appreciate his articles, please consider offering your financial support.

This article is from his blog Jonathan

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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20 comments for “Colluding in Character Assassination

  1. jaycee
    January 9, 2021 at 22:40

    “when did you stop beating your wife?”

    the malicious logic requires exposure and a response which foregrounds the logic rather than a defensive reply or non-reply.

  2. Daniel Fry
    January 9, 2021 at 20:01

    Since they can’t assassinate all ‘leftist’ leaders outright, they just smear them with unfounded clap trap. Mainstream medias then amplify this falsehood. Forcing targeted people to ‘clear their names’ drags the debate down to the level of the vile accusers.
    Assange was right to ignore the accusations, and fight the extraditions instead. If it lost him ‘support’ amongst those who do not see (or want to see??) through this crude, base and obviously unfounded dastardly ploy, then who cares! He would have been no better, or worse off either way with or without their ‘support’.
    Corbyn played *their game*, lost and got chewed up anyhow. I bet he gets evicted from labor next. He should have run as an independent, stuck by those who stuck by him, and addressed his grass roots supporters only.

  3. Carolyn L Zaremba
    January 9, 2021 at 14:38

    This article raises some interesting points with which I agree, but I have to clarify what I believe defines feminism. To me, a woman, being a feminist means equality between women and men in pay, opportunity, respect as human beings. What it does NOT mean to me is the likes of the MeToo movement, a right-wing movement of the bourgeoisie used to smear all men and demand that we “believe women”, even without evidence that they may be lying. It is not a force for equality to demand “special” privileges or exemptions, for example, from an accused’s right to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Most women today who call themselves feminists are demanding more than equality. They are demanding some kind of revenge against men, and I cannot go along with that in any way.

    • Anne
      January 10, 2021 at 14:36

      As another female, a heterosexual one at that, and one from the late 1940s, I can only agree. Being a feminist was never meant to create females as superior to males, only equal.

      There were, however, some 1970s feminists who also believed that females were superior to males especially in their humanity, morality and so on….surely Thatcher would (should) have disillusioned them of that idiocy. Females are no more humane, no less immoral, unethical, barbaric, Mammon/Moloch worshiping than males (Clinton, Albright, Haspel, Haines and so on really demonstrate this were one unsure, deluded about this).

  4. Brian Eggar
    January 9, 2021 at 12:11

    Of course, Corbyn’s biggest mistake was to express vocal support to the Palestinian cause.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      January 9, 2021 at 14:39

      That was not a mistake. The Palestinian cause must be supported.

    • January 9, 2021 at 20:20

      It’s never a mistake to stand up for justice. In fact it’s always a mistake not to. It’s how you do it that makes the difference, not whether.

  5. Daniel
    January 9, 2021 at 11:18

    The smear tactics and their tragic results have been maddening to witness, as has the realization that the left seems to have spent no time developing broad, effective tactics for how to fight – a real failure, in my opinion. (Not to denigrate those who have tried, just to acknowledge that efforts made have so far proven ineffective.) My guess is that this is due to the left so far being unwilling, by and large, to risk offending the ‘gatekeepers of the possible’ or losing access to those gatekeepers. But we now know without doubt that few of these are or have ever been true comrades. This was exposed clearly during the last two presidential election cycles, and even more so since the last was called in Biden’s favor.

    Perhaps best now to simply agree that the left’s tactics have so far not worked, continue to define the real enemy, work quickly to develop strategies for fighting them, and build up the courage needed to withstand the institutional ire that will surely come for doing so.

  6. January 9, 2021 at 07:30

    I tend to disagree with this “double-bind” account of how all of the self-interest motivated antisemitism baiting of Jeremy Corbyn, in particular, and the Labour Party, in general, operated, and, a fortiori, with the particularly feeble responses to these patently spurious charges that were mounted by Corbyn et. al..

    My own view is much closer to the one articulated most forcefully by the redoubtable George Galloway at the time, namely that the best response, indeed almost the only effective response, would have been for the accused to turn the table on their accusers, reversing the burden of proof, and demanding that those making the ridiculous charges back them up with actual evidence, not merely monotonously repeated hearsay comments, both from right-wing members of the Labour Party, intent upon reclaiming the party for the old neoliberal “New Labour” agenda, and from the Tories, who also had many political axes to grind against the Labour opposition. Beyond merely consistently demanding actual evidence, however, the Corbynists also needed to counter-attack against their enemies by establishing that even were the Labour Party somehow covertly partially infected by antisemites, the party’s record in that regard is at least still vastly better than either the New Labourites or the Tories, both of which groups are truly saturated with antisemitism of every variety, facts which, had they bothered to do so, it would not have been difficult for the Labour left to emphatically demonstrate. But instead of fighting back in this way, Corby and Co. chose merely hunker down, deposing one falsely slandered Labour leader after another, and finally even himself, perhaps expecting that the many slanderous and libelous fusilades constantly launched at them would in a short while recede. And such might have been the case, too, did we live in the best of all possible political worlds, instead of the tooth and claw one in which we actually live, a world where the tearing of “first blood” merely renders one’s predators ever more wildly lethal! And thus it was that the hyenas overtook and destroyed their startled and frightened prey; a true tragedy considering the relative moral rectitude of the various contending parties. ……. It may well be, of course, that people like Galloway and I underestimate the complex difficulties and risks which might have been involved in such a frontal counter-attack against Labour’s determined enemies. That is certainly possible. And yet, I must confess, it is difficult for me to imagine how such a strategy could possibly have resulted in a more dismal and enduring failure than the disaster which emanated from the strategy actually deployed.

  7. January 9, 2021 at 04:05

    “when Assange was accused of being a rapist… he could not defend himself without alienating a significant constituency of his natural supporters, those on the left who identify as feminists” implies that those particular feminists were unwilling to explore the possibility of a man’s lack of guilt. Was that the case? Is it so still? I’d like to think not, but perhaps I’m naïve. Is it true that, once a man has been accused of a sexual offence, he is tarred for life?

  8. Edward
    January 9, 2021 at 03:48

    There is a famous story about Lyndon Johnson. He instructed his staff to accuse his opponent of having sex with pigs. When someone pointed out this wasn’t true, Johnson replied, “I know, but I want to hear him deny it.”

  9. Lee C Ng
    January 9, 2021 at 01:32

    Good article. As a left, unrepenting septuagenarian, however, I would persuade fellow leftists not to be too concerned with smears and whatnot but resolutely do what we can do to make ours a better world.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      January 9, 2021 at 14:40

      That’s a complete cop-out and I, too, am a septugenarian.

  10. Charles D
    January 8, 2021 at 23:22

    Reading this, I cannot but think that identity politics was designed for exactly this purpose. By dividing the left into groups with different radical agendas, the establishment can employ those agendas to prevent us from gaining the solidarity necessary to mount a challenge to the status quo. If it isn’t a conspiracy of the elites, then it is an extremely fortuitous development. We need to have the guts to support the human rights of every individual without allowing that concern to destroy the cohesiveness we need to succeed.

  11. Tom Kath
    January 8, 2021 at 18:55

    There was an outrageous joke when I was young about the bloke who stapled his balls together. – Someone had told him, “If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em.”
    I agree fully with Yanis about fighting harder, but I believe there must be a better way than simply abandoning principles in attempting to uphold them.

  12. PEG
    January 8, 2021 at 17:17

    The dishonesty and hypocrisy of the character assassinations of Assange, Corbyn and anyone not hewing to the mainstream are truly mind-boggling.

    The way to combat such character assassinations is certainly not Corbyn’s gentlemanly diplomacy, taking such criticisms under advisement, but rather to dismiss them totally with full force and conviction, no holds barred.

    As Joseph Welch did to Senator McCarthy in the Army-McCarthy hearings: ““Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Have you no sense of decency…?”

    • January 9, 2021 at 20:26

      Agree completely. What is difficult is that the MSM is virtually what’s on the side of the character assassin, therefore will repeat the slander endlessly and cast doubt on the denial. The MSM is the establishment’s most important manipulative tool.

  13. Piotr Berman
    January 8, 2021 at 17:02

    “We need to make clear that it is those who are so ready to smear anti-racists as anti-Semites – as Corbyn’s successor, Sir Keir Starmer, has done to swaths of Labour Party members – who are the real racists.”

    I think that this is wrong way to structure the dispute. Sir Starmer is elite functionary to the bone — as are Friedland and Owen. Sub-elites, if their aspirations do not conform to “rule based world order” are ignored or worse. Thus elite “friends of Israel” are his friends, leftist Jews are not.

  14. Justin
    January 8, 2021 at 16:48

    Thanks for pointing out this problem. Do you have any solutions, partial or otherwise, to proffer? Any chance you’d like to make a suggestion as to how any of your examples could or should have been handled differently? I was hoping you’d have some ideas that would help people “get much more sophisticated” in their thinking and strategies.

  15. Piotr Berman
    January 8, 2021 at 16:09

    “Mikado” of Gilbert and Sullivan is a necessary reading for interpreting current events, perhaps more in UK than Japan, but in actuality, everywhere.

    Friedland: “for me, it is but one of hundred crucial issues…”

    Ko-ko: “My brain it teams // With endless schemes // Both good and new // For Titipu // For Titipu;”

    Both the argument and the level of sincerity match exactly. I heard that the spine and sense of shame are removed in the same outpatient procedure.

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