Establishment smear campaigns serve an important and politically strategic purpose. Their aim is to delegitimize social movements not by countering the ideas behind these movements-which are often very popular in themselves-but by destroying the reputations of the people who lead these movements. This is why every major anti-war, socialist, and otherwise dissident public figure will necessarily be smeared; if these people can be discredited in the mind of the public, the causes they represent will be hurt too.
This was the fiendish logic behind the anti-Bernie Sanders smear effort of the Clinton campaign in 2016. Sanders’ ideas about economic justice were and are very popular among the American public, especially among Democratic voters. But to some extent, the Clinton campaign and/or their allies convinced Clinton’s supporters to stick with Hillary by painting Sanders as a sexist, by propagating bizarre theories about Sanders being a Russian asset, and by spreading the absurd meme about his supporters being “Bernie Bros” who opposed Clinton out of misogyny. The cynical playbook of David Brock’s Correct the Record troll operation, which gave Clinton supporters talking points and instructions on how to smear Sanders online, was created to help reinforce this echo chamber of manufactured anti-Sanders vitriol.
Brock’s methods of bullying and character assassination mirror how the political and media establishments tear down other disfavored public figures. The details of these smear campaigns are as fascinating as they are odious, and studying them can teach us how to combat them. So I’m going to recount the following additional examples of how the centers of power ruin the reputations of their enemies.
There’s no evidence that Corbyn is bigoted against Jews, and Corbyn’s left-wing populism is in fact society’s best chance for defeating a rising anti-Semitic far-right. The narrative that Corbyn is behind a crisis of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is constructed from misleading innuendos and wild misinterpretations of Corbyn’s statements and actions. And the nature of these smears are often mixed in with attempts to defend power.
For instance, there’s been an effort to equate Corbyn’s crusade against the capitalist class with a campaign against Jews. The academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have charged that simply by assigning moral blame for inequality on the rich, or by characterizing the economic system as rigged, Corbyn is guilty of creating the conditions for anti-Semitism. By their reasoning, Corbyn shouldn’t even acknowledge the reality of an oppressor class. These kinds of fallacious arguments give credence to the McCarthyist assertions of people like Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, who recently said that “to be anti-capitalism is to be anti-Semitic.”
The attempts to conflate Corbyn’s economic populism with anti-Semitism are as absurd as the attempts to do the same with his criticisms of Israel. Israel’s propagandists, never able to resist the opportunity to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, have targeted Corbyn with their standard set of character assassinations. And like with every other time someone gets attacked as an anti-Semite for being disloyal to Israel, the charge is completely disingenuous; there are in fact many Jews who see Zionism as an inherent evil that must be opposed.
The “He’s a Russian asset” part of the anti-Corbyn smear campaign is also very predictable. Whenever Corbyn doesn’t accept transparently fraudulentWestern accusations against Russia, or so much as call for peace with a nuclear superpower, he’s hit with baseless accusations of him being a Kremlin asset.
When politicians and pundits smear Corbyn for attacking the rich, criticizing Israel, or desiring better relations with Russia, they’re trying to get him to back down and change his positions on these issues. As we’ll see, this is a recurring aim of political slander campaigns.
The corporate media has made Gabbard out to be an Islamophobe in a way similar to how the British press has maligned Corbyn as an anti-Semite. Gabbard hasn’t expressed any bigoted views about Muslims, and she’s very clearly disavowed Islamophobia on many occasions. The myth of her being Islamophobic mainly relies on her supposed ideological similarity with the Hindu nationalist Indian PM Narendra Modi, who Gabbard has engaged with as a measure of pragmatic diplomacy and whose views she differs from greatly.
Tulsi Gabbard's prejudice against Islam directly flows from her Hindu fundamentalism. She has become one of the main U.S. political advocates of Narendra Modi, right-wing prime minister of India. https://t.co/PCONOSmMPx
— Socialist Worker 🚩 (@SocialistViews) March 7, 2019
But the more interesting part of the propaganda war against Gabbard is the one where she’s painted as a servant of America’s designated enemies. These attacks started two years ago, when Gabbard met with Bashar al-Assad and created a torrent of denunciations from the political and media establishments. When Gabbard expressed skepticism that Assad was behind the April 2017 Syria chemical incident, the fury against her was so intense that Howard Dean made the fascistic statement that she should not be congress. Since Gabbard started her presidential campaign, the media’s attacks on her have been frequent and hyperbolic, with pundits often using the tactic of insinuating that she works for Putin.
For instance, in January the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin engaged in a stunningly dishonest act of pro-imperialist manipulation by suggesting that anyone who opposes the illegal U.S.-backed Venezuela coup is a tool of Russia. Tweeted Rogin in response to Gabbard’s statement that “The United States needs to stay out of Venezuela:”
Again, Tulsi Gabbard shares the same foreign policy position as Russia and the Assad regime. It’s probably just a coincidence.
An even more absurd case of the media’s pro-war gaslighting against Gabbard is when Morning Joe’s Kasie Hunt aggressively interrogated Gabbard about Syria, and then revealed herself to not be aware that U.S. troops are in Syria to fight ISIS and not Assad. Asked Hunt: “What do you say to Democratic voters who watched you go over there, and what do you say to military members who have been deployed repeatedly in Syria pushing back against Assad?” Hunt’s comment showed that the people who try to police Gabbard’s foreign policy positions are often uninformed about basic parts of world affairs, in comparison to Gabbard’s exceptional knowledge of geopolitics.
This makes it very unfortunate that Gabbard has in some cases capitulated to their bullying. Perhaps for fear of further repercussions, Gabbard didn’t express doubt over whether Assad was behind a chemical attack in April of 2018 despite the mounting evidence against Assad’s involvement. And last month in an interview with The View, Gabbard said that “there’s no disputing the fact” that Assad is a “brutal dictator” who has “used chemical weapons” against his people, and that many U.S. wars are “begun and waged from a place of humanitarianism.”
The smear campaign against Gabbard and other dissenting public figures is about narrative control. When pro-war propagandists try to intimidate someone into going along with war narratives, their goal is to squash opposition to the official line. This is why we must not make Gabbard’s mistake of trying to partially appease her attackers; they won’t be happy until their opponents totally conform with the push towards war.
This dynamic of pro-establishment gaslighting works the same way with Israel. Whenever a public figure expresses opposition to Israel’s genocidal actions, a coordinated army of trolls is sent to try to intimidate them into walking back their statements. This happened last year when Sarah Silverman was swarmed with denunciations and harassment for posting an Amnesty International tweet calling for the freedom of Ahed Tamimi. Silverman, rather disappointingly in my view, appeased Israel’s propaganda army by tweeting that “Both may even be right” in the Israel/Palestine dispute.
Israel has accomplished this again by pressuring Congresswoman Ilhan Omar into apologizing for pointing out the influence of AIPAC. To her credit, Omar has otherwise continued to be a brave and outstanding voice against the evils of the U.S./Israeli imperialist power establishment. But through endless repetitions of the slander that Omar is anti-Semitic, Israel’s defenders have managed to intimidate yet another public figure into ceding ground to them.
Zionists, who espouse a racist philosophy of ethnic supremacy, have weaponized antisemitism even though they are not Semites themselves. cc @IlhanMN @SpeakerPelosi @RepEliotEngel #PoliticalLynching https://t.co/l4TRgwaxNg
— Teodrose Fikre ✒ (@TeodroseFikre) March 8, 2019
The Democratic Party is chiefly responsible for creating this dynamic where those who tell the truth have their reputations sabotaged. Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are pushing a resolution to condemn Omar over this fabricated claim that she’s expressed anti-Semitism, a move which legitimizes Israel’s bogus argument that all opposition to the Netanyahu government’s murderous policies equates to hatred of Jews.
This bipartisan assault on the truth and on those who speak it is having very frightening consequences for the very nature of our society.
The disinformation campaign against Assange and WikiLeaks has been mind-boggling in its scope. As Suzie Dawson documented a year ago in her lengthy article Being Julian Assange, the accomplishments of Assange-like WikiLeaks’ campaign to free Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks’ technological inspiration for the tool SecureDrop-have been consistently minimized or erased by the media.
This discounting of Assange’s vast contributions to society have made way for a grotesque distortion of his image. The baseless charges about WikiLeaks colluding with Trump and Russia, along with the litany of other lies about Assange that pundits can get away with telling, have turned Assange into an intensely reviled figure among those who believe what the media says about him.
One of the bravest & most principled people continues to be @xychelsea. And it remains remarkable that the Trump DOJ is clearly trying to prosecute WL & Assange for publishing pre-2016 documents – what even the anti-press Obama DOJ said would threaten press freedom – & few care: https://t.co/VNrGKBSixA
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) March 7, 2019
Yet according to the one of Assange’s visitors John Pilger, Assange has not given up the fight despite all the forces that have been arrayed against him. As Pilger recently wrote in a piece which compares Assange’s room to the torture chambers of Orwell’s 1984:
Room 101 is the room in George Orwell’s prophetic novel, 1984, where the thought police watched and tormented their prisoners, and worse, until people surrendered their humanity and principles and obeyed Big Brother. Julian Assange will never obey Big Brother. His resilience and courage are astonishing, even though his physical health struggles to keep up.
Assange is the biggest victim of gaslighting, smears, and persecution from the ruling oligarchy. But he’s been able to keep hope alive by following a vital principle, which is to never stop fighting for what’s right. He hasn’t let the abuse of his oppressors grind him down.
Though few of us will likely ever be under the duress that Assange is going through, we can apply his attitude of defiance to our own struggles against injustice. The lesson we can take from his story is that when someone tries to intimidate you into submission-whether through imprisonment or through a smear campaign-you shouldn’t give in to their demands. #PoliticalLynching Click To Tweet You should stand your ground and continue to speak the truth.