One of the wonders of contemporary propaganda is the extent to which corporate commentators are in denial about their use of the term ‘genocide denial’. Clearly, they believe they are using a neutral, objective term to describe indisputable facts of genocidal killing and ugly refusals to recognise those facts.
The delusion is quickly exposed when we ask a few simple questions. For example: how often do we see ‘mainstream’ commentators describing US-UK sanctions on Iraq from 1990-2003 as ‘genocidal’, as affirmed by senior UN diplomats? How often do journalists describe supporters of the devastating Bush-Blair war on Iraq, the Obama-Cameron war on Libya, or May’s war on Yemen as ‘genocide deniers’? Can we imagine someone who supported the war on Libya being called an ‘Obama apologist’?
Like ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’, ‘genocide’ and ‘genocide denial’ are simply not terms that are applied to Western actions.
This really awesome level of bias points to the reality that ‘genocide denial’ is a propaganda term overwhelmingly used to portray Official Enemies as morally and intellectually despicable, in fact untouchable. As used in the ‘mainstream’, the term is antirational, an attack on honest debate.
‘Push Forward On Chomsky’
Relentlessly directed at key voices on the left, like Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and John Pilger, the real target is the public. ‘Genocide denial’ has been deployed by Western equivalents of so-called ‘Russian bots’ to deter people from even considering, much less sharing and supporting, dissident arguments that threaten the goals of established power. Ironically, then, ‘genocide denial’ is most often used to defend an extremely violent and exploitative status quo.
On the Mondoweiss website, Theodore Sayeed discussed a leaked memo of a meeting of the Henry Jackson Society from November 2005:
‘One of the items on the minutes, listed prominently in fourth place, was to discredit Chomsky. Their tack was to allege that he is a “denier” of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. In the art of controversy, slapping the label “denier” on someone is meant to evoke the Holocaust. Chomsky, the furtive charge proceeds, is a kind of Nazi.’
Sayeed assessed the credibility of the claim:
‘The only conclusion possible after surveying the material is that the evidence for this “denial” has all the merits of the evidence for chastity in a brothel.’
‘The task of getting this slur into circulation was delegated to Marko Attila Hoare and Oliver Kamm. Among the papers chosen to carry the charge were the Guardian, the Times and the Spectator magazine. The individuals to be approached were then Independent columnist Johann Hari, former political editor of the Spectator Bruce Anderson, and the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain at the time, Sir Iqbal Sacranie. The memo, written in shorthand, states:
‘Push forward on Chomsky / Srebrenica issue: Approach Guardian, Johann Hari, Bruce Anderson, THES, Spectator. Approach Sacranie and ask what he is to do about it. (Marko: coordinate with Oliver Kamm) Marko Atilla Hoare outlines the Chomsky case in the Guardian. In effect, this newspaper endorses genocide denial. Gideon Mailer mentions Jonathan Steel’s piece in the Guardian also. It was agreed that Marko Atilla Hoare would get in touch with Iqbal Sacranie (for example) and ask what can be done about the denial of genocide against Muslims in Europe during the Balkan wars. It was also thought that this should be mentioned to Johann Hari and the THES.’
As Sayeed noted, ‘genocide denial’ is intended to present the target as ‘a kind of Nazi’. The logic is crude but hidden: Holocaust denial is, of course, widely reviled as the product of minds so poisoned by racist hatred that they reject even obvious truth. Use of the word ‘denial’ is intended to invite the public to take a mental leap from ‘genocide denial’ to ‘Holocaust denial’, thereby tarring left dissidents with the same brush, rendering them intellectually illegitimate in the same way.
Sometimes the connection is made explicit. The same Oliver Kamm who featured in the Henry Jackson Society memo, wrote of us:
‘The stuff [by Chomsky and Herman] that they find so impressive is not merely the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial: it is the methodological equivalent too, using literally the same techniques.’
This was ‘literally’ nonsense. But anyway, Kamm’s real purpose was to suggest that we were morally and intellectually ‘the same’ as, ‘equivalent’ to, fascist Holocaust deniers. He has also written of us: ‘Genocide denial is the organisation’s orthodoxy.’
This use of ‘genocide denial’ is fundamentally antirational because it declares, not just that a particular argument is illegitimate, but that the particular person making the argument is illegitimate and should be shunned. The focus is on the intellectual and moral integrity of the targeted individual.
Thus, despite privately sending us numerous, oddly amiable emails over the years – beginning, for example, ‘Hello, gents’ (Email, September 16, 2017) – Kamm has repeatedly and publicly refused to debate with us on the grounds that we are ‘genocide deniers’:
‘It’s extraordinary that you consider you’re entitled to be treated attentively, or conversed with at all, when you [engage in genocide denial]… Not with any reputable person, you’re not.’ (This comment was originally posted under an interview with us on the New Internationalist website, but is now unavailable)
The Kafkaesque logic was as comical as it was closed: Kamm described us as ‘genocide deniers’, but would not discuss the arguments for and against so labelling us. Why? Because we were ‘genocide deniers’.
Consider, also, the complete redundancy of the term. In 2006, there was a good case for using the second Lancet study, which estimated 655,000 Iraqi civilian and combatant deaths as a result of the 2003 war, to challenge Iraq Body Count’s (then) toll of 49,000 violent civilian deaths.
While one could certainly compare and contrast the competing methodologies and findings of IBC and Lancet, as we did, nothing at all would have been added by describing people engaged in the debate as ‘genocide deniers’. The term adds nothing to a rational discussion. Quite the reverse, it actually demands that the argument is already settled. Indeed, as we have seen, it smears the ‘denier’ as morally debased, as beyond the pale, precisely because he or she is willing to debate an issue that is declared beyond doubt by all right-thinking people.
So, again, it is important to emphasise that the term is anti-intellectual and in fact an attack on rational discourse – it is an attempt to shut down debate.
Another Trot Sees The Light
Given the obvious rationale for, and clear history of, hard-right propagandists conspiring to use the ‘genocide denier’ label to eliminate dissidents from public debate, it is curious indeed that the Guardian’s ostensibly left-progressive columnist, George Monbiot, has repeatedly and aggressively deployed the term against these same dissidents.
In 2011 – six years after the Henry Jackson Society memo, and long after many of us had become fully aware of what Kamm and co were up to – Monbiot wrote a Guardian piece titled:
‘Left and libertarian right cohabit in the weird world of the genocide belittlers’
In 2012, Monbiot wrote an article titled:
‘See No Evil – How did genocide denial become a doctrine of the internationalist left?’
In 2017, Monbiot extended his use of the term to atrocity claims in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. In an April blog, he used ‘deny’ three times in a single sentence:
‘If we deny crimes against humanity, or deny the evidence pointing to the authorship of these crimes, we deny the humanity of the victims.’
In again smearing Chomsky, Pilger and others on the left, he commented in the Guardian last month:
‘Scepticism of all official claims is essential, especially when they involve weapons of mass destruction… But I also believe there is a difference between scepticism and denial.’
Monbiot recently hailed as ‘crucial’ a piece in which Oz Katerji, a fiercely anti-Assad activist, described Chomsky and Pilger as ‘men for whom genocide denial has become a point of pride’. Katerji even explicitly used the term to delegitimise Chomsky’s entire political output:
‘After decades of instances of this nature from Chomsky, how is he still seen as a credible voice in the media, and why is he still tapped as an expert in anything remotely touching war crimes?’
Discussing Monbiot’s attacks on Chomsky and Herman, hard-right columnist James Delingpole wrote in the Telegraph in 2012, apparently without irony:
‘Many of the most brilliant Right-wing politicians, journalists and polemicists started out on the Left: Ronald Reagan, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Hitchens, Paul Johnson, David Horowitz, Martin Amis, Toby Young, Clive James, Rod Liddle…
‘So three cheers for another trot – George Monbiot – who has finally seen the light.’ (James Delingpole, ‘George Monbiot: the new Christopher Hitchens?’, The Telegraph, May 23, 2012)
The story comes full circle when we note that Monbiot has drawn from and supported Kamm’s attacks; saying, for example, of us: ‘he [Kamm] rightly exposed your support for genocide denial’. We responded in detail to Monbiot’s claims, with all their gaffes and distortions.
Monbiot has often caveated his criticism of Chomsky and Pilger by noting that he admires them and is merely calling out wilful blindness on the left as he does on the right. We wholeheartedly support the sentiment. We have ourselves criticised Chomsky, for example on Libya and climate change (see here and here), and have even challenged the value of our entire career of political activism with Media Lens (see here). Nobody should be beyond criticism, and it is true that Chomsky is revered as an almost saintly figure by some on the left.
But if Monbiot really does admire the work of Chomsky, who he describes as ‘a hero of mine’, and Pilger, why did he not simply contest their conclusions and offer alternative facts and arguments? Why did he feel the need to associate them with ‘genocide denial’, thereby fuelling a hard-right campaign to render them untouchable – writers whom one dares not tweet, retweet or post on Facebook, for fear of being tarred oneself as a ‘genocide denier’ guilty of ‘the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial’?
Monbiot is no Kamm – he has real credibility amongst exactly the progressive audience that should be reading and sharing Chomsky and Pilger. Monbiot could easily have made his points without damaging Chomsky and Pilger’s reputations in Guardian columns reaching a national audience, thereby harming vital work that he says he admires so much.
Holocaust Denial and Climate Change Denial
Are we arguing that it is always wrong to label people ‘genocide deniers’?
Holocaust denial surely does fall into a special category. It is inextricably linked to antisemitic hatred, and has been used as a form of violence by other means – a way of continuing to demonise and attack the victims of one of history’s worst crimes.
Similarly, climate change denial refers to an organised, fascistic corporate conspiracy to suppress the truth of climate change, and to obstruct action in response that is already causing 100,000s of premature deaths per year and may result in actual human extinction.
These rare exceptions aside, ‘denial’ is a toxic term that is best left to propagandists. It is extremely dangerous to suggest, in effect, that atrocity claims are so certain, so clear-cut, that challenging them implies a kind of moral sickness that rightly results in reputations being trashed. Who decides when it is ‘the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial’ to challenge such claims: Oliver Kamm, George Monbiot, the British government, Media Lens?
The absurdity becomes clear as soon as we consider some examples. Was it ‘genocide denial’ when the BBC, ITN, the Observer and other media rejected former UN secretary-general Denis Halliday’s claim that sanctions, rather than the Iraqi government, were responsible for ‘genocide’ in Iraq?
Were Amnesty International guilty of ‘genocide denial’ when they told us in 2003 that, in the previous decade, Saddam Hussein had been responsible for executions in the ‘hundreds’ per year, rather than in the 10,000s or 100,000s, as some political commentators were suggesting?
Was it ‘genocide denial’ when newspapers challenged but mostly ignored the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies that found nearly 100,000 and 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, respectively?
The related term ‘apologist’ is increasingly being used to smear anyone who challenges warmongering US-UK claims made against the likes of Venezuela, Iran and North Korea. An ‘apologist’ is someone engaged in ‘denial’, which is again intended to link to Nazi ‘Holocaust denial’. To challenge BBC propaganda on protests in Venezuela is to be labelled a ‘Maduro apologist’, and so on.
The grim reality of the world in which we live is that cynical interests are determined to extend the prohibition on discussing the Holocaust to discussion of the Srebrenica massacre, to discussion of Syria, and to other issues. The laser-like focus on crimes by Official Enemies while Western crimes in Iraq, Libya and Yemen are blithely ignored, leaves no doubt that the concern is almost never for the suffering of victims in places like Bosnia and Syria. As Theodore Sayeed explained:
‘It’s all about… leveraging the debatable humanitarian motives of Western intervention in the Balkans as a precedent for invading Iraq and Syria and Iran and whatever enemy of the year beckons after that.’
It is all about delegitimising rational criticism of atrocity claims justifying Western ‘intervention’.
The horrific goal, then: to make it more difficult to challenge ‘our’ crimes.