By David Edwards
One of the great tasks of the state-corporate commentariat is to install electrified thought fences between the public and rare voices attempting to challenge the status quo.
Dissidents are attacked from ostensibly noble positions opposing fascism, genocide, sexism and selfishness. The smears are empowered by the fact that they target an opponent’s reputation with ugly-looking labels that nobody really understands.
For example, no-one in fact knows at what point (if any) honest disagreement morphs into the Thought Crime ‘genocide denial’. But if enough pundits shriek with sufficient conviction and disgust that they know, many will believe them.
The mix of feigned outrage and genuine confusion deters neutrals from challenging the smear for fear of appearing foolish, or of being tarred with the same brush. They may instead step back from supporting, or even mentioning, the work of someone that ‘everyone knows’ is a ‘genocide denier’, a ‘sexist’, or a ‘narcissist’.
Last month, Joan Smith of the Independent wrote of Russell Brand:
‘I don’t think you would have to be a passionate feminist to conclude that this guy is (a) a sexist idiot and (b) a narcissist whose ideas about politics are likely to be only slightly more coherent than those of a 13-year-old boy.’
Smith’s comment was provoked by Brand’s opening sentence in a long article for the New Statesman:
‘When I was asked to edit an issue of the New Statesman I said yes because it was a beautiful woman asking me.’
Numerous commentators denounced this as an unacceptable, sexist remark. But does anyone believe that Brand was seriously claiming he had chosen to edit a national political magazine – incorporating his own impassioned, 5,000-word, political/spiritual essay – in response to a sexual urge? Brand, a comedian, was clearly mocking the all too human tendency to be at least in part guided by ‘lower’ urges as we pursue ‘higher’ ideals (classic comedic fare). He was surely also firing a shot at his own ego, at the idea that he was setting himself up as some pompous political leader.
As even Smith observed, ‘the “beautiful woman” who asked him is, I assume, the paper’s associate editor and current Brand love interest (for want of a better phrase), Jemima Khan’.
Describing Khan as merely the ‘current Brand love interest’ is itself dismissive and patronising. Perhaps Brand is the ‘current Khan love interest’. Or perhaps she is Brand’s soul-mate and they are desperately in love. In which case, Brand’s comment could be viewed as a loving gesture in her direction, rather than an example of crazed sexual Pavlovianism. One can imagine that if a Clinton or an Obama had delivered a comparable reference to Hillary or Michelle, the press corps would have smiled at this ‘human touch’ and shifted admiringly in their seats.
Again, most people are unsure exactly what Brand has said, meant and done in his life, just as they are unsure where reasonable references to sexuality end and sexism begins. They are also unsure when comments and actions justify someone being permanently branded (indeed) as thoroughgoing ‘sexists’. But Smith seems to know. Many will have deferred to her fierce certainty, particularly given that she describes herself as a feminist, a label which suggests a depth of understanding on these issues which she may or may not in fact possess.
In the New Statesman, Laurie Penny (formerly of the Independent) also took Brand to task for being ‘clearly a casual and occasionally vicious sexist’. This sexism, ‘It’s everywhere’ on the left, Penny claimed: ‘It’s Julian Assange and George Galloway…’
In fact the evidence justifying such damning criticism of Brand, Assange and Galloway is pitifully thin and even fabricated. Consider, after all, that Penny commented:
‘Brand is hardly the only leftist man to boast a track record of objectification, of harassment and of playing cheap misogyny for laughs.’
The serious claim that Brand boasts a ‘track record’ of sexual ‘harassment’ came with an embedded link to an August 3, 2012 blog on a website called ‘Jezebel – Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing,’ which reported that Brand had refused to begin filming a musical, ‘What About Dick?’, ‘until he convinced a wardrobe assistant to flash him [her breasts]. He actually delayed production for two hours, haranguing her the entire time’.
The blog continued: ‘co-star and comic Billy Connolly took him [Brand] aside for a stern talking-to. So, yup, Hollywood is full of professionals and no breasts are safe. Good Lord, imagine what Brand might have requested from a PA?’
Jezebel’s source for the story, to which it linked, was Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. Easy to understand why the author of the ‘Penny Red’ blog chose not to link to the Sun as some kind of credible source.
Worse still, in December 2012, the Independent published this comment by Connolly:
‘”That [widely reported] story,” says Connolly evenly, “is a total invention. A complete fabrication. It’s total bollocks. It never happened. Russell was very well-behaved, and I found him very interesting.”‘
We wrote to Penny, asking whose account of the story was accurate. She replied on November 6:
‘I understand that Connolly refuted the claims – amended the copy 4 days ago to reflect that.’
But ‘4 days ago’ was close to one year after the refutation had been published by the Independent! We pointed out that the claims had not been amended in the version posted on ZNet (where we read them). Penny answered:
‘Znet isn’t my responsibility – I wasn’t consulted before they published.’
A curiously passive reaction from someone who portrays herself as a tub-thumping ‘activist’. Penny commented in her New Statesman/ZNet piece:
‘The left, because we like to fight from the moral high ground, is particularly bad at confronting its own bullshit.’
Suzanne Moore wrote in the Guardian of Brand:
‘He may indeed be a sexist. Or, as he put it earlier this week in these pages, in his most imitable style, may “suffer from the ol’ sexism”.’
Brand, it seems, is also guilty of unbearable ‘braggadocio’.
Moore has previously described Julian Assange as ‘the most massive turd’.
In the Sunday Times, Katie Glass described Brand as ‘an exhibitionistic narcissist obsessed with celebrity’. (Katie Glass, ‘The ultimate Marmite Brand,’ Sunday Times, September 22, 2013)
Arguably, one could search long and hard before finding a ‘mainstream’ politician of whom this could not be said. But of course no corporate journalist would ever dare heft such a ferocious smear in the direction of an Obama, Cameron or Blair.
‘If you did not find his drugtaking, philandering or humour off-putting, you should try him now he has reinvented himself as a yogaaddicted, transcendentalmeditating vegan hippie, and a modern prophet with a Jesus complex.
‘We suspect his arrogant bravado, his over-the-top narcissism, even his sex addiction are signs that he is deeply fragile.’
While accusations of ‘sexism’ are used to smear high-profile dissidents, feigned concern for women’s rights is also deployed as a weapon in the propaganda arsenal promoting ‘humanitarian intervention’. This played a crucial role in the 2001 demonisation of the Taliban as targets for Western attack.
In 2007, we conducted a Lexis media database search for the terms ‘Taliban’ and ‘women’s rights’. Since 1995, there had been 56 mentions in the Guardian. Of these, 36 had appeared since the September 11, 2001 attacks. There was the same number of mentions (nine) in the last three and a half months of 2001 as in the previous three years combined. 90 per cent of the mentions in 2001 occurred after September 11. We found a similar pattern of reporting on gay rights in Afghanistan.
In 2011, concocted tales of Viagra-fuelled mass rape were also used to target the Libyan government for ‘intervention’ and destruction amid widespread concern about the security of women’s rights under Gaddafi. Notice, we are not here for one moment challenging the merits of feminism, but the abuse of feminism by state-corporate propagandists.
The Herd Behaviour Of Media Parrots
The focus on the ‘narcissism’ of leading dissidents is a recurring theme across the corporate media. Bloomberg Businessweek featured an article entitled, ‘The Unbearable Narcissism of Edward Snowden.’
Jeffrey Toobin condemned Snowden in the New Yorker as ‘a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison’.
On CBS, Bob Schieffer commented:
‘I think what we have in Edward Snowden is just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us.’
Richard Cohen in the Washington Post:
‘Everything about Edward Snowden is ridiculously cinematic. He is not paranoiac; he is merely narcissistic. He jettisoned a girlfriend, a career and, undoubtedly, his personal freedom to expose programs…’
Cohen detected no cognitive dissonance in the idea that a narcissist would be willing to sacrifice his girlfriend, career and personal freedom to expose political corruption. In reality, this is exactly what narcissists are not inclined to do.
Similarly, Seumas Milne protested in the Guardian that, despite not having been charged, let alone convicted, of any crime: ‘as far as the bulk of the press is concerned, Assange is nothing but a “monstrous narcissist”, a bail-jumping “sex pest” and an exhibitionist maniac’.
Sir Harold Evans commented in the Observer: ‘I have not been impressed by the blather about “freedom of the press” surrounding the narcissistic Edward Snowden…’
Glenn Greenwald who, unlike most of the above critics, has met Snowden and worked closely with him, observed:
‘One of the most darkly hilarious things to watch is how government apologists and media servants are driven by total herd behavior: they all mindlessly adopt the same script and then just keep repeating it because they see others doing so and, like parrots, just mimic what they hear… Hordes of people who had no idea what ‘narcissism’ even means – and who did not know the first thing about Snowden – kept repeating this word over and over because that became the cliche used to demonize him.
‘The reason this was darkly hilarious is because there is almost no attack on him more patently invalid than this one. When he came to us, he said: “after I identify myself as the source and explain why I did this, I intend to disappear from media sight, because I know they will want to personalize the story about me, and I want the focus to remain on the substance of NSA disclosures.”
‘He has been 100% true to his word. Almost every day for four months, I’ve had the biggest TV shows and most influential media stars calling and emailing me, begging to interview Snowden for TV. He has refused every request because he does not want the attention to be on him, but rather on the disclosures that he risked his liberty and even his life to bring to the world.’
But according to the Daily Banter blog, none of this should be taken seriously. Why?
‘Glenn Greenwald has been looking to take down Obama and feed his own depthless narcissism for years now. He just managed to accomplish one of these goals in spades…’
Further ironies afflict these many casual denunciations of Assange, Brand, Snowden and Greenwald as ‘sexists’ and/or ‘narcissists’.
Most commentators – including many on the left – appear to have little or no understanding of what these terms actually mean.
As the psychologist and social theorist Erich Fromm noted, narcissism in fact is characteristic of individuals ‘who are preoccupied with themselves and who pay little attention to others, except as echoes of themselves’ (Fromm, The Heart Of Man, American Mental Health Foundation, 2010, p.66). A narcissist is unable to see issues from the point of view of others and has ‘a lack of genuine interest in the outside world’. (p.67)
But as Fromm (and Freud) also noted, ‘even in the case of normal development, man remains to some extent narcissistic throughout his life’. Indeed, ‘The “normal,” “mature” person is one whose narcissism has been reduced to the socially accepted minimum without ever disappearing completely.’ (pp.60-61)
In other words, rare corporate bodhisattvas aside, the critics damning Assange, Brand, Snowden and Greenwald as ‘narcissists’ are busy throwing stones in greenhouses. But this only scratches the surface of their hypocrisy.
Sexism, of course, is a prime example of ‘group narcissism’, the idea that: “‘I am somebody important because I belong to the most admirable group in the world – I am white”; or, “I am an Aryan”.’ (p.76) Or indeed, ‘I am male.’
Group narcissism is so dangerous because it generates extreme distortions of rational judgement. Fromm commented:
‘The object of narcissistic attachment is thought to be valuable (good, beautiful, wise, etc.) not on the basis of an objective value judgement, but because it is me or mine. Narcissistic value judgement is prejudiced and biased.’ (p.70)
This, of course, is in direct collision with rational analysis, scientific method and simple common sense. Alas, Fromm concluded that despite some ameliorating impacts from higher education, ‘it has not prevented most of the “educated” people from joining enthusiastically the national, racial, and political movements which are the expression of contemporary narcissism’. (p.81)
And this, indeed, is the great irony of so much criticism of Brand the ‘narcissist’. Because Brand is a rare dissident precisely throwing off the corporate chains of ‘contemporary narcissism’ to point out ‘the absolute, all-encompassing total corruption of our political agencies by big business’.
‘The planet is being destroyed. We are creating an underclass. We are exploiting poor people all over the world. And the genuine legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political class.’
These are some of the central truths and crises of our time that corporate journalists employed by the very system doing the damage will not and cannot discuss. Brand’s willingness to discuss them in the face of intense pressure to do otherwise – the corporate system will continue to strongly punish him for speaking out – his empathy with victims of corporate power, are again the exact opposite of what one would expect from a narcissist.
On the other hand, the determination of corporate commentators to ignore the importance and truth of Brand’s arguments, and to focus instead on his ‘sexism’, ‘narcissism’, and his relationship with Jemima Khan, are classic examples of group narcissism; of journalists prioritising their careers, their corporations, their class, ‘not on the basis of an objective value judgement, but because it is me or mine’.
As for the people and planet being subordinated to power and profit – they barely even register.