Friday, August 21, 2009

When Newspapers Publish Antisemitic Slanders and the Origins of "Lying for peace"

By Barry Rubin

Just to clarify things, the issue regarding the publication in Sweden or elsewhere of crazed and slanderous antisemetic and anti-Israel materials in the media is not a question for censorship. Nobody should be asking for governments to ban such things or punish those who publish them. Holocaust denial laws were a terrible mistake which proved that the founders of America were right in prohibiting limits on freedom of speech.

The issue is for editors, publishers, and journalists to exercise professional ethics and rational thought in their work. If these are reduced to two key principles they would be:

--Make every effort to ensure to the greatest possible extent that what is published is accurate. And if you don't know either hedge it with qualifications, do more investigation, and get both sides. Use also the rules of logic. Does it really make sense that a liberal democratic country with a free press is so monstrous as to murder people to steal their organs? Would you even publish such a story without proof of a closed, ruthless dictatorship like North Korea?

--Be balanced and don't let political bias determine what you write or publish. For example, you might hate Israel but that doesn't mean you should publish falsehoods about it. Be aware of the track record for accuracy and honesty of those trying to persuade you about something. History shows that Palestinians, who want to destroy and discredit Israel, energetically and systematically make up lies and try to get the media to publish them.

I have written about the phenomenon I call "lying for peace," the justification of telling deliberate falsehoods because they serve a "good" cause. If a cause requires falsehoods then perhaps it isn't such a good cause.

Several people have asked me about the origin of the concept of "lying for peace" or for some other "good cause." Clearly, this was a powerful force in the "progressive" (read: pro-Communist) left of past decades.

An interesting recent example was the deliberate underplaying of the Iranian threat during the last administration because journalists, writers, and academics (I heard people say or saw them writing this) that if the truth were to be known it would give aid and comfort to some mythical Bush plan to invade Iran.

I am now reading Max Eastman's 1934 book, Artists in Uniform. Eastman at the time was a left-wing socialist who nevertheless exposed the rising repression in the Soviet Union. He clearly had to confront these issues.

His introduction begins:

"This is a sombre book, and will be denounced as `counter-revolutionary' by those who think the world can be saved by Soviet ballyhoo. I do not think it can. I am on the side of the soviets and of the proletarian class struggle. But I think that critical truth-speaking is an element of that struggle essential to its success."

Do supporters of the Palestinians, haters of Israel, Islamists, and the Politically Correct think that "critical truth speaking" is essential for their movements? Well, the problem is how they define "critical truth speaking." For them, this means pushing their political line in the belief that it is absolute truth and any dissenting view is evil, unacceptable, racist, or whatever.

But what Eastman meant by that phrase is that you have an open mind, a battle of ideas, a free marketplace of ideas, and you direct "critical truth speaking" not only against the beliefs of others but against your own as well.

Eastman is also trying to maintain both a commitment to the revolutionary left and to truth. But he admits that his decision to publish the book--which we should remember was the first documentation about the suppression, torture, and murder of Soviet intellectuals--was a close-run thing. We should remember that Western counterparts should have been passionately interested in the persecution of these people. It was also an important indication of the direction of Communism and the USSR.

Today, such people should be demonstrating and complaining loudly about repression of intellectual dissidents or women's rights in places like Iran and Syria, Cuba and Venezuela, China and Gaza. But they don't, do they? Just as in Eastman's time, these are generally seen as places or movements to be defended against the "true evil," Western democracies (including Israel).

Of course, Eastman was right: he was denounced and vilified as a counter-revolutionary. While only a portion of Western intellectuals were Communists or even Fellow Travellers in the 1930s, these were generally the most outspoken and active people. To cross them was to be unfashionable and perhaps even to risk one's career, in some places one's life.

He concludes his introduction by writing:

"I have debated in my mind whether this book should be delayed, in view of the reactionary world-tendency of the moment....The decision was not lightly taken."

In 1934, an American intellectual had to apologize for revealing the crimes of a ruthless dictatorship because its progressive pose and anti-capitalist, anti-American orientation was so attractive to other intellectuals.

Someone said that if you read the Reader's Digest--considered to be a low-brow, conservative publication--in the 1930s and 1940s--that person would know far more accurately about Communism and the USSR than if he'd read the New York Times.

Perhaps the world hasn't changed so much.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books go to To see or subscribe to his blog go to

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