Frightening numbers of people still believe that profit-maximising corporate media merely disseminate something called ‘news’. In reality, ‘mainstream’ ‘news’ is chock full of Pavlovian bells, trigger terms designed to shape and control public opinion.
When journalists use terms like ‘secretive’ and ‘hermit’ to describe North Korea, they mean ‘Evil’. When Venezuelan presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro are described as ‘leftist’, it means ‘Evil’. When Julian Assange is described as the ‘controversial’ WikiLeaks editor, it means ‘Evil’.
No news reporter would refer to the ‘secretive’ US. None would label George W. Bush the ‘hard-right’ US president. Barack Obama is never described as ‘controversial former US president Barack Obama’. Obama bombed seven Muslim countries, destroying Libya, but the word ‘controversial’ is not prefixed to his name in news reports. The same is true even of Trump. But why not?
The insertion of adjectives implies judgement and the default ‘mainstream’ position is that Western leaders should do the judging:
‘It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking… That is all someone in my sort of job can do’, as the BBC’s Nick Robinson infamously admitted while working as ITV political stenographer. (Robinson, ‘”Remember the last time you shouted like that?” I asked the spin doctor’, The Times, July 16, 2004)
It is Robinson’s job to report what Western leaders are doing and thinking, but he is allowed to judge and label enemies of the West.
Similarly, in journalistic usage, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ does not signify a theory that happens to involve a conspiracy; it means ‘Evil’. Pavlov’s bell is being rung and the words deranged, dangerous and unworthy of discussion are intended to pop, as if by magic, into the heads of readers and viewers.
During the 2003 Iraq war, we were criticised for promoting a ‘conspiracy theory’ – a deranged, dangerous argument – in explaining the US-UK rush to war. In fact, the Downing Street memo, and much other evidence, unarguably does show that Bush and Blair secretly conspired to wage war in 2003, come what may, regardless of UN arms searches and other bear-trap ‘diplomacy’ intended to jerry-build a casus belli for war. Bush and Blair wanted the war because Big Oil wanted the oil, and one million Iraqis paid the price with their lives. That was and is our ‘theory’, it does indeed involve a conspiracy, but it is not deranged, and it is not dangerous (except, potentially, for the criminals who committed the crime).
In May, the BBC reported on ‘conspiracy theories… such as 5G [mobile phone technology] being linked to the spread of coronavirus’. The Financial Times also reported:
‘Having first gained momentum online in early January, the 5G conspiracy theory — which alleges, among other things, that Covid-19 has either been caused by the frequencies used for the new wireless technology, or that those signals impair the human immune system — has spilled rapidly into the offline world.’
This does indeed describe a theory – one for which we have seen no credible supporting evidence – but not a conspiracy. The FT description does not point to a theory that the government and technology companies conspired to annihilate humanity by causing Covid-19 using 5G. In other words, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ was again here being used as a Pavlovian bell to mean ‘Evil’, deranged and dangerous.
Although journalists consistently load ‘conspiracy theory’ with this between-the-lines judgement, that doesn’t mean, as in the case of the Iraq war, that all conspiracy theories are deranged and dangerous. And it also doesn’t mean that it is wrong for us to view some conspiracy theories as deranged and dangerous.
Last week, Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens tweeted on the use of face masks:
‘the primary purpose of enforced muzzle wearing in public spaces (which protects nobody against anything) is to humiliate the wearer and make him or her accustomed to unquestioning obedience to authority’.
This was indeed a conspiracy theory – literally, and also, in our opinion, in the deranged and dangerous sense commonly used by journalists.
Remarkably, Hitchens was suggesting that governments around the world have ordered the public to wear face masks as part of a vast global conspiracy, presumably involving thousands of professional scientists, to train us in obedience to authority. Perhaps Hitchens also believes that the enforced wearing of seat belts in cars and on planes is part of the same sinister plan ‘to humiliate’ democratic citizens ‘and make him or her accustomed to unquestioning obedience to authority’.
We have been studying state-corporate efforts to instil obedience in citizens for decades – such efforts certainly do exist and we have written about them at length. Hitchens’ view, however, is laughable; or would be but for the stark fact that his readers of the Mail on Sunday are often elderly and therefore have much to lose from taking him seriously.
Hitchens’ argument is of course premised on his belief that a face mask ‘protects nobody against anything’, a view that is also well-represented to the left of the political spectrum. The OffGuardian website commented last month:
‘Face masks work well for surgeons who want to avoid dribbling or sneezing into their patients, but are useless when it comes to stopping viral infections. In terms of preventing the spread of COVID 19 there is no evidence that they achieve anything at all.’
Hitchens and OffGuardian had better be right. If they are not, they are handing out advice that is encouraging people to take risks that could cost lives.
OffGuardian focused on conflicting UK government guidance on whether wearing face masks protects against Covid-19. The advice quoted – that evidence on use of face masks was ‘quite weak’ and ‘extremely weak’ – was issued by the notoriously shambolic and mendacious Tory government in March and April when it was trying to protect the small available supply of protective equipment to ensure it reached front-line health workers. OffGuardian also focused on research mostly relating to influenza and influenza-like illness. The authors of a paper in The Lancet commented in April:
‘Previous research on the use of masks in non-health-care settings had predominantly focused on the protection of the wearers and was related to influenza or influenza-like illness. These studies were not designed to evaluate mass masking in whole communities.’
Cambridge University reported last month:
‘Population-wide use of facemasks keeps the coronavirus “reproduction number” under 1.0, and prevents further waves of the virus when combined with lockdowns.’
Lead author Dr Richard Stutt described the conclusion:
‘If widespread facemask use by the public is combined with physical distancing and some lockdown, it may offer an acceptable way of managing the pandemic and reopening economic activity long before there is a working vaccine.’
On June 24, the American Thoracic Society reported research by the Chinese University of Hong Kong on ‘how public interest in face masks may have affected the severity of COVID-19 epidemics and potentially contained the outbreak in 42 countries in 6 continents’. The study’s authors noted:
‘In many Asian countries like China and Japan, the use of face masks in this pandemic is ubiquitous and is considered as a hygiene etiquette, whereas in many western countries, its use in the public is less common.’
The authors found ‘a clear negative correlation between the awareness or general acceptance of wearing a face mask and its infection rates’. Sunny Wong, MD, associate professor, Department of Medicine and Therapeutics, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, commented:
‘One classic example is seen in Hong Kong. Despite [Hong Kong’s] proximity to mainland China, its infection rate of COVID-19 is generally modest with only 1,110 cases to-date. This correlates with an almost ubiquitous use of face masks in the city (up to 98.8 percent by respondents in a survey). Similar patterns are seen in other Asian areas, such as Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia. To date, there are more than two million cases in the U.S. and more than one million cases in Brazil.’
Another recent study by Virginia Commonwealth University looked at coronavirus death rates in 198 countries in an effort to establish why some had very high death rates and others very low. Christopher Leffler, one of the study’s authors, commented:
‘What we found was that of the big variables that you can control which influence mortality, one was wearing masks.
‘It wasn’t just by a few per cent, it was up to a hundred times less mortality. The countries that introduced masks from the very beginning of their outbreak have had hardly any deaths.’ (Our emphasis)
Research shows that even homemade masks made from cotton T-shirts or dishcloths can prove 90 per cent effective at preventing transmission.
In May, a paper published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences delivered this dramatic verdict:
‘Our analysis reveals that the difference with and without mandated face covering represents the determinant in shaping the trends of the pandemic worldwide. We conclude that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with extensive testing, quarantine, and contact tracking, poses the most probable fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, prior to the development of a vaccine.’ (Our emphasis)
A study in The Lancet has reached similar conclusions:
‘We encourage consideration of mass masking during the coming phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, which are expected to occur in the absence of an effective COVID-19 vaccine… Mass masking for source control is in our view a useful and low-cost adjunct to social distancing and hand hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic.’
The Lancet paper made the crucial point that face masks protect other people from the wearer, not vice versa:
‘People often wear masks to protect themselves, but we suggest a stronger public health rationale is source control to protect others from respiratory droplets.’
The point was reinforced by Rich Davis, Clinical Microbiology Laboratory Director at Providence Sacred Heart Hospital in the US. Davis has published photographs showing how face masks block respiratory droplets coming from the mouth and throat. Davis’ experiment used bacteria and, as he acknowledged, ‘bacteria are incredibly different from viruses!’ He added:
‘But since we expect respiratory droplets to be what primarily spreads #COVID19, I exploit the presence of (easily to grow and visualize) bacteria in respiratory droplets, to show where they go.’
A May 2020 evidence review cited by The Lancet – a review of dozens of scientific studies – found:
‘The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces the transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected droplets in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high. The decreased transmissibility could substantially reduce the death toll and economic impact while the cost of the intervention is low. Thus we recommend the adoption of public cloth mask wearing, as an effective form of source control, in conjunction with existing hygiene, distancing, and contact tracing strategies. We recommend that public officials and governments strongly encourage the use of widespread face masks in public, including the use of appropriate regulation.’
Online critics have poured scorn on this evidence, sometimes on the basis that the above evidence review, for example, and the Cambridge University study, have not been peer reviewed. But in a fast-moving field, where some kind of overview is needed promptly, it is the most reasonable approach, bearing in mind the usual caveats that the work has not gone through a thorough process of vetting and checking as part of the normal academic peer-review process. This nevertheless remains highly credible evidence.
It is not necessary to be 100% convinced by studies indicating the usefulness of face masks. The point is that Hitchens’ and OffGuardian’s declared certainty that face masks are worthless is highly questionable, to say the least. Given that this is the case, should we not all err on the side of caution by using face masks, particularly when interacting with the old and infirm who are at most risk from Covid-19?
Antisemitic Conspiracy Theory
Last week, another ‘conspiracy theory’ took centre stage after Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked as shadow education secretary for sending an approving tweet about an interview in which the actor Maxine Peake had said:
‘The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s office explained why he had asked Long-Bailey to step down.
‘The article Rebecca shared earlier today contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory. As leader of the Labour party, Keir has been clear that restoring trust with the Jewish community is a number one priority. Antisemitism takes many different forms and it is important that we all are vigilant against it.’
Again, Starmer’s use of ‘conspiracy theory’ did not carry the literal meaning of the words. It was being used to suggest that Peake’s argument was ‘Evil’, deranged and dangerous. After all, she was not proposing a conspiracy theory – the claim that the Israeli state helps train US police is factual, not theoretical, and such training does not involve a conspiracy but open cooperation between governments. Amnesty International reported in 2016:
‘Baltimore law enforcement officials, along with hundreds of others from Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Georgia, Washington state as well as the DC Capitol police have all traveled to Israel for training. Thousands of others have received training from Israeli officials here in the U.S.’
Writing for Middle East Eye, Sheren Khalel notes of the four US police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd:
‘before being fired and charged over the incident, all four officers had been employed by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), which participated in a 2012 training conference in Minneapolis that was held by the FBI and Chicago’s Israeli consulate’.
Derek Chauvin, the officer who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, ‘was a training officer at the department, having worked there for the past 18 years’.
LabourNet offers further evidence suggesting links between Minneapolis police and specialist Israeli training. Since Floyd’s death, numerous images and videos have appeared showing Israeli soldiers kneeling on the necks of Palestinians in an identical manner.
Peake’s comment was not anti-semitic – there is no reason to assume she implied, or was motivated by, hatred of Jews. It was not anti-Israel; it was not even anti the Israeli secret service. It was a statement of her belief about lessons learned by US police from Israeli forces. Inevitably, the Guardian’s leading columnist Jonathan Freedland took a different view, commenting that Peake displayed:
‘a cast of mind that sees the worst events in the world and determinedly puts Israel at the centre of them, even in defiance of the facts or basic common sense’.
For many British people concerned about human rights, Israel does indeed often take centre stage for a number of rational reasons: Israel is continuing to commit one of the most brutal acts of colonial-settler ethnic cleansing in recent history, and Britain bears moral responsibility for this catastrophe inflicted on the Palestinian people since 1948. Moreover, Britain and the US are currently supplying massive military, economic and diplomatic aid in support of this ethnic cleansing, which is happening, as Noam Chomsky noted in his classic work, ‘The Fateful Triangle’, in an oil-rich region where local conflict could easily trigger global and even nuclear conflict.
These are powerful, reasonable reasons for placing Israeli crimes centre stage. The deeper point is that most leftists place the destructive impact of the profit-orientation of corporate greed, not Israel, centre stage. If any country takes centre stage in leftist thought, it is the US, the key corporate power.
Of course, a tiny fringe of racist fake leftists (a racist cannot be leftist, if the term ‘leftist’ is to retain any meaning) do focus on Israel because they hate Jews who they believe control the world. But it is no surprise that a survey published in The Economist last November found that people identifying as ‘very left-wing’ were among the least likely to express antisemitic attitudes. Those identifying as ‘very right-wing’ were three and a half times more likely to express hostile attitudes towards Jews. Exactly what we would expect, of course, given the monstrous historical record of right-wing anti-semitism.
Other surveys have strongly supported these conclusions, including an October 2016 report by the Commons home affairs committee and a September 2017 report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and a Labour Party report discussed here in February 2019.
The Palestine Solidarity campaign has commented:
‘There is no clear evidence that Israel has trained US police officers in the technique of “neck kneeling” as a tool of restraint.’
‘Learning from forces who implement a totalising matrix of control and domination, through a belligerent military occupation, makes racialised communities in the United States less safe by facilitating the transfer of knowledge on how to repress and control oppressed communities.’
Even if Peake’s observation was factually wrong on the specific technique of ‘neck kneeling’, she nevertheless performed an important public service by drawing attention to issues that are never discussed. As Patrick Wilcken, Amnesty International USA’s researcher for arms control, security and human rights commented:
‘With a long record of human rights violations, Israeli security forces are an incredibly problematic training partner.’
For Freedland to link Long-Bailey to a mind-set that despises Israel for racist reasons smacks of a kind of McCarthyite extremism, given that she signed up to the Jewish Board of Deputies’ ‘Ten Pledges To End The Antisemitism Crisis’ in the Labour Party. As Israel-based former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook wrote at the time:
‘Under these new terms, anyone can be automatically denounced as an antisemite if they try to challenge the changed definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel, or if they acknowledge that a pro-Israel lobby exists’.
‘The decision by Long-Bailey and the other two [Labour leadership] candidates to back the Board’s pledges has effectively turned the pro-Israel lobby into an executioner-in-waiting. It empowers these groups to destroy any one of them who becomes leader and tries to promote a Corbyn-style progressive platform.’
Sure enough, Long-Bailey has fallen victim to the very pledges she supported, exactly as Cook predicted.
Not only has Israel trained US police oppressing African-Americans, Israel’s ambassador Alon Leil admitted that Israel gave armament technology to apartheid South Africa. In 2006, an article by Chris McGreal in the Guardian, quoted Leil:
‘We created the South African arms industry. They assisted us to develop all kinds of technology because they had a lot of money. When we were developing things together we usually gave the know-how and they gave the money. After 1976, there was a love affair between the security establishments of the two countries and their armies.’
The love affair was understandable. As McGreal noted:
‘Stepping into modern Israel, anyone who experienced the old South Africa would see few immediately visible comparisons. There are no signs segregating Jews and non-Jews. Yet, as in white South Africa then and now, there is a world of discrimination and oppression that most Israelis choose not to see.’
It is a bitter irony that the UK anti-semitism witch-hunt – ostensibly a campaign against discrimination and oppression – is in large part about protecting Israel’s apartheid discrimination and oppression. The hope is that by trashing the reputations of UK politicians, journalists and commentators seeking to break the silence, the British public can be denied even the option to ‘choose not to see’.
A key part of that strategy will continue to involve hanging Pavlovian trigger terms like ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘anti-semite’ around the necks of anyone daring to criticise Israel.