Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Not free speech martyrs

Those who keep themselves mercifully removed from the murky world of blogging narcissism will not be aware that for a brief period today, Harry's Place had their free speech violated. Their service provider removed their blog on the grounds that it violated the user agreement. The cry went up that censorship was afoot, and several blogs - several left-wing ones at that - protested in the name of free speech. It transpired that there had been a complaint. Someone had complained that a post on Harry's Place concerning one Jenna Delich, a Sheffield-based academic, was slanderous. Allegedly, the complaint was from Jenna Delich herself. The service provider apparently agreed with the complaint at any rate and, referring to their terms of use, pulled the blog for several hours before restoring it.

The post concerning Jenna Delich was actually one of a series of perfectly frantic and childish provocations about her - and, beyond her, about the true bĂȘte noire of Harry's Place, the Left. Delich was and is the subject of Harry's Place scrutiny for several reasons. The first is that she is an academic, and therefore is someone whose ideas can get her fired, particularly in light of well-known precedents. The second is that she contributes to the UCU mailing list, excerpts from which are regularly 'leaked' to Harry's Place, and the UCU is a regular target of HP saucery because a significant number of its members are prepared to support the Palestinian campaign to boycott Israeli institutions. (See this for a past example of HP's attempts to intimidate UCU academics). The third is that, in an absolute gift to Harry's Place and its miniature deep throat, she chose to support an argument about Israel by linking to a story on the website of David Duke, the white supremacist and antisemite. In and of itself the story does not appear to be explicitly antisemitic or fascist - although its author, who is not David Duke, may well be. It was reproduced from another website, which is apparently devoted to 'alternative' theories about 9/11 and other major events (both paranormal and parapolitical). It may be objectionable for other reasons, or it may contain alarming formulations, but a casual reader might easily read it and mistake it for a useful summary of facts.

In due course - or rather with indecent haste - Harry's Place posted the comment that she had made, along with a crudely subtitled photograph of her with her name featured in white-on-black lettering. In the photograph's subtitle, a deliberately ambiguous wording is deployed: "Sheffield-based academic, Jenna Delich - links to far right websites associated with the Ku Klux Klan". This could be read as meaning that she has links to far right websites associated with the Ku Klux Klan, rather than that she has 'linked', once, to said websites. The ambiguity was, in all probability, intentional. They headed their post 'UCU and the David Duke Fan'. Thus, Harry's Place asserted, based on this single incident, that Jenna Delich was a 'fan' of a Nazi ideologist. Further to this, the post accused her of "viciousness against Jews", which it said the UCU union had refused to act against (ie, it had refused to suppress her speech).

None of this is subtle. It is not a dog-whistle, even if it did set off a round of ferocious barking. It is a quite explicit campaign of vilification and demonisation, fucking someone over before the full facts are known, while distorting such facts as are known. The effects of falsely identifying someone as a Nazi sympathiser and an antisemite, particularly if they work in an educational institution, can be terrifying for the person thus calumnied. Universities are charged by the government with combatting 'extremism', monitoring both staff and students as part of the UK's 'war on terror'. Academics can be dismissed if they are explicit racists or Nazis. Reading about herself online, the academic would have realised that being identified in this way could mean her being fired. She would have known that it could mean her not being able to work in education any more. At the very least it would draw opprobium from colleagues and students alike. Personally, unless someone was an explicit or obvious member of a Nazi organisation, I would not like to be the one to expose them to that risk. I am not an investigator, nor a jury of her peers, nor a judge unto myself. And I do not carry out God's will, as far as I know (He is not as talkative as He once was). But Harry's Place, which is no better qualified than I am, had no hesitation in putting Jenna Delich through all that, without knowing what the situation was. It could be that Ms Delich was or is an antisemite, but it could just as well not be the case. She may have made a mistake; she may have been careless; she may have posted in haste having followed a chain of links from other less toxic websites; she may not know a great deal about the American far right. When Harry's Place decided to launch their attack on Jenna Delich, they did not know what the case was.

Or did they? They may at least have had good reason to think that she goofed up and was not being deliberately malicious. Their secret informer will surely have told them that, contrary to their insistence that UCU is filled with antisemites, the posting by Ms Delich was met with immediate criticism. That person would not have ommitted to mention, either, that Ms Delich acknowledged her mistake and apologised. If Harry's Place has been made aware of either fact at any point, it has ommitted to mention them. Instead, it has persisted with the insinuation that it is exposing a Nazi sympathiser and antisemite. Jenna Delich listened the advice of a Jewish socialist academic named Mike Cushman at the LSE, who was participating in the UCU forum. He advised her that she had a legitimate grievance, that she had been potentially libelled by Harry's Place, and that the proper procedure was to complain to the internet service provider. Whatever one thinks of the libel laws, this does not seem to me to be an unreasonable response. Harry's Place was quite vindictively sabotaging her career, and she had a right to seek accountability somewhere. However. Because the service provider in question warned the blog proprietors that they were in breach of their terms of use, and that as such it would be removed, Harry's Place was able to reinterpret its attack on free speech as the defense of free speech. They have behaved unconscionably, thuggishly, in a manner that befits far right websites such as Redwatch (to my knowledge, one of the few other websites that posts photographs, personal information and inflammatory material about private individuals). Because their behaviour resulted in their being pulled, if only for a few hours, bloggers who had utterly ignored the campaign against Jenna Delich decided that Harry's Place were free speech martyrs. It was a natural, but regrettable, instinct. They saw their own toys being taken away from them by moaning minnies, and their hearts went out to their fallen comrades. They extended 'solidarity' to the tormenters of Jenna Delich, but none to her. Even the Index on Censorship published a brief article about it, quoting David T, the blog's proprietor.

Jenna Delich has now been removed from the UCU discussion forum. In a message from the moderator, Matthew Waddup, it was averred that "having reviewed this and previous conduct; I have now suspended their list membership indefinitely". Waddup implied that he had acted on the basis of information that he had not previously considered. My own provisional conclusion, (you may draw a different one at liberty), is that he is caving in under a virulently nasty campaign of vilification. According to one of her colleagues, Jenna is now receiving hate mail and death threats. Her sole crime, so far as I am aware, is to have posted a link to a far right website featuring an article that in itself made no explicitly antisemitic or Nazi-like claims. If this was malicious, intending to cause hurt and offense, I would believe that further action would need to be taken both within the union and her educational institution. But as she apologised and accepted her mistake, it ought to have gone no further than that. Those who decided to take it further, and to distort the evidence to fit a prefabricated template for discussing such matters, are bullies, not defenders of free speech.

One last thing. It is important to at least take note of the broader political argument within which this preposterous, ugly saga has unfolded. David Hirsh of Goldsmiths College, and the website Engage, makes the argument explicit in his contribution:

Antisemitism within the UCU started to become a serious problem when people in the union began to support the campaign to exclude Israelis from British universities as a protest against Israeli human rights abuses. This campaign has dominated academic union Congresses in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

It is an antisemitic campaign. There is no proposal to boycott any academics from any country other than Israel. It seeks to exclude a significant proportion of the world’s Jewish academics. It treats Israel as though it was a unique evil in the world and as though it was an illegitimate state.

Predictably the campaign for this antisemitic exclusion creates an antisemitic atmosphere within the union.

The argument that a boycott campaign against Israel is 'antisemitic' is unsustainable and invidious. States have been singled out in the past and will be in the future. It is in the nature of politics that such 'singling out' will happen. Some states have been treated as illegitimate in the past (South Africa and Rhodesia, for example), and it is unsurprising that a minority of supporters of the Palestinians (myself included) don't accept Israel's inherent 'right to exist' as a state based on Zionist organising principles. Particularly since such an assumed 'right' seems to militate against the demands of justice for millions of refugees. What is distinctive about Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, however, is how little attention has been paid to it in the past, and how much effort went into explaining and justifying its actions. That this is no longer the case, and that a growing minority of people are deciding to take action in solidarity with the Palestinians - in this case, at the specific request of Palestinian trade unionists who are bearing the brunt of Israeli oppression - is not something to be angry about. Historically, the British Left has been complicit with the dispossession of the Palestinians, and a particular responsibility therefore falls on the British Left to help undo the effects of this (just as it once bore a particular responsibility for helping to combat colonialism and apartheid). In truth, there is something shameful and a little sordid about those whose response to this is to classify the whole enterprise antisemitic. Yet, without so branding it, and without therefore slandering thousands of well-meaning left-wing activists as antisemitic in toto, this cruel and idiotic spectacle would have been impossible.