Obsessive Angry Detractors

(This is a self-indulgent post, so bear with me.) I have my critics, and I have my trolls too, but here’s another category: let’s call them the Obsessive Angry Detractor (OADs). This is what they do. They attach themselves to me — or rather my twitter feed — like a barnacle, and they never let go. Just mute or block them, you say, and of course that’s what I tend to do. But OADs not only spam me, they invite others to spam me too, and search my twitter feed to spam anybody who tweets me. They mix passive aggression, abuse, and the persistence of a pub bore. They invent things I don’t believe and demand I apologise for them. Sometimes they have a series of ridiculous, simplistic, bizarre and/or leading questions they DEMAND I answer. If I don’t, well, that says it all, I have REFUSED to answer.

Occasionally I make the mistake of engaging with OADs (and this piece arguably falls into that category), when they succeed at getting under my skin (I am a human being), against the advice of my friends. No good comes of it, they say. You will never satisfy them. They are not trying to invite you to have a rational discussion. Answer one thing, and they’ll just move on to the next. They want to denounce you and “expose” you, and nothing else. By engaging with OADs, you feed them: they are deliberately seeking your attention, and all you’ll do is increase their appetite for more. OADs vary. Some believe I am am outrageous left-wing radical, others a right-wing Establishment careerist shill; some that I have an anti-West bent, others that I am a stooge of Western imperialism; some think I’m a hardened British Unionist, others outrageously soft on Scottish nationalism; some that I am an apologist for ISLAM!!?!?! etc etc. Some OADs come from opposite sides of the spectrum, but find common cause in attacking me. And they believe that not enough people know that’s what I really am, and it’s about time they did. Often they fixate on my motives: that I’m not really driven by my beliefs, but rather by self-aggrandisement or something more sinister.

Here’s one example. One OAD would intermittently send dozens of tweets denouncing me a day (how do I know given I blocked her? Because people would respond to her many tweets, leaving me trapped in non-ending twitter conversations). When I pointed out to one that her behaviour was obsessive, that opened the floodgates. I had apparently put the life of her and her child at risk because she had a stalker who had accused her of being obsessive and I “validated” their claim.

Here’s another example. I wrote a piece supporting trans rights last year, which led to one of the most surreal and intense twitter storms I have ever been subjected to. So-called ‘trans exclusive radical feminists’ — that is, those who reject the idea trans women are women — were frankly disgusted with me. Every day, I had demands placed on me to take up the ‘cunnilingus challenge’. Apparently, by supporting trans rights I was implicitly arguing that lesbians had to have sex with pre-operative trans women (no, me neither — my belief is that people should, well, have sex only with people they want to have sex with). Therefore to be consistent, as a gay man, I had to perform cunnilingus on a pre-operative trans man. On a daily basis, I was attacked with increasingly vitriolic attacks: I was a misogynist and lesbophobic. When one my closest friends tweeted a picture of us hanging out, she was denounced for hanging out with a misogynist. And so on.

Why am I writing about this? Well, I’ve been meaning to write it for a while, and the latest OAD has prompted me to do it. Firstly, let me put this OAD into context. I am intermittently denounced by Media Lens, or rather two men called Dave who have appointed themselves watchdogs of the corporate media. They are not obsessive or angry enough with me to be OADs, though they can certainly be persistent. Why, you might ask, are they going after a left-wing writer like me. It’s very straightforward. Their view is the mainstream media, including The Guardian, is beyond salvage, the mouthpiece of corporate interests in its entirety (I am not mocking this — I have routinely attacked our corporate-owned press). But they believe my existence upsets their narrative. Here I am, a left-wing critic of the status quo with a mainstream media platform. How can this be squared with their analysis? The only explanation is that I am really either a shill, or a fig-leaf for the mainstream media to pretend they tolerate a diversity of opinions, or a little from column A and a little from column B. They will often try to “expose” how I’m not really left-wing at all (once tweeting a paragraph I wrote summing up the arguments of those who attacked critics of Obama, and pretending those arguments were what I actually thought).

Media Lens believe that, in order for their narrative to work properly, I have to be exposed as not really being left-wing at all, merely being used by the corporate media for presentation purposes. And so often they will attack me with even more force than writers who actually defend the status quo. Those writers confirm their analysis, after all: my presence disrupts it, and therefore I’m actually arguably worse.

And that brings me on to my current OAD. Last week, I wrote a piece tackling anti-Semitism on the left. The scourge of anti-Semitism is a particular passion of mine. Many of my close friends are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors: their relatives were murdered by the Nazis in the forests of Latvia and in death camps in the East. They had grandparents who died with camp ID numbers still tattooed on their arms. I have written about anti-Semitism time and time again. Before I even had a newspaper column, I wrote a piece attacking Labour MP Paul Flynn in 2011 for questioning the loyalty of Britain’s Ambassador to Israel because he was Jewish. I have written about the warning from history that is the Holocaust; about the rise of anti-Semitism in 2014; in 2015; and last week (I note two of the articles start with the same sentence — “Antisemitism is a menace” — which is less a verbal tick than a heartfelt statement). I’m not sure if many non-Jewish national newspaper columnists can claim to have written so much about the issue (not that I’m after a cookie here).

My piece last week met a disappointing (to say the least) response from some quarters, who accused me of capitulating to the Establishment and joining in a smear campaign. The activist Tony Greenstein denounced me as “the right’s sockpuppet”. But others were very welcoming about the piece, including those who otherwise disagree with me, often passionately. I wrote it because anti-Semitism is a menace (there it is again) that has to be defeated wherever it appears, including on the left.

Which brings me on to Saul Freeman, who believes the left — or at least what he believes to be my wing of the left — is institutionally either soft on anti-Semitism, or outright anti-Semitic itself. Freeman is very angry with me indeed. He is even angrier with me since my piece denouncing anti-Semitism on the left. That might not make any sense, but it does. For the same reason Media Lens attack me for upsetting their narrative, so does Freeman. If my wing of the left is riddled with anti-Semitism, or at least is soft on anti-Semitism, then how can it be that me — a left-winger with a platform — is denouncing anti-Semitism? Even worse: I have criticised the policies of Israel’s government vis a vis Gaza and the West Bank, and Freeman thinks people with that standpoint are automatically suss. To resolve the conundrum, I have to be denounced. I can’t really be sincere at all about anti-Semitism. It must all be a con.

So Freeman wrote a piece attacking me, riddled with inaccuracies. For example, he stated that I had “long campaigned for BDS” (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign directed at Israel). In fact I’ve never campaigned for it: his evidence is that I attended a Palestinian solidarity conference at which it was discussed. In actual fact I support the right to boycott goods from illegal settlements on the West Bank and to stop selling Israel’s arms used to kill civilians, though I have been far more vociferous about, say, arms to Saudi Arabia (here and here).

Then, he believed, he struck gold. My OAD found edits to Wikipedia I made 12 years ago, when I was 19 years old and studying 20th century history at Oxford University. Specifically, Freeman focuses on three edits. In one, I left a note to an edit which read: “Clarified that Hamas is best known in the West for suicide bombings, but not strictly true in Palestine — West-centric. Plus added some of its support comes from welfare.” I have no idea what the context is here, obviously. I am (and always have been) entirely opposed to Hamas and support a secular, independent, democratic Palestine. I find the targeting of civilians — including by Hamas — to be abhorrent and criminal. That Hamas won support partly by providing a patchwork of social services is clearly just a fact, and in no way means support for Hamas. The second edit reads as follows: “the notion of Jewish ethnicity is a lie invented by 19th century German anti-Semites. Replaced with “origin” — this including ethnic Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Ethiopian etc Jews”. This entirely ill-informed sentence was a misreading of late 19th century German anti-Semitism: before then, Jews were regarded as a religion, and if they converted to Christianity, they could be spared persecution. But by the late 19th century, being Jewish was racialised: for these anti-Semites, if you were once Jewish, you were always Jewish, and would always be persecuted. But that’s a separate point to ‘ethnicity’, a word I clearly didn’t understand. Being Jewish is an ethnicity, as is being Ashkenazi. Someone can have a Jewish ethnicity and an Ashkenazi ethnicity, too.

The final edit Freeman has fixated on reads as follows:

“The Israeli occupation is one of THE most important issues of this period. Historians in the future will simply not understand the modern era without referring to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Arab nationalism, Muslim-West hostility, Islamophobia, September 11th, Islamic terrorism, the “war on terror”, both Gulf Wars, the Afghan war — all of these issues which dominate our time cannot be understood without reference to the occupation of Palestine. It is a travesty for an article on Wikipedia, in defiance of what anyone else is writing on this matter, to not include a reference to something as important as the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

Clearly this lobbying for a separate article on the occupation of Palestine is overegging it. Both supporters and opponents of the Israeli government’s policies in Palestine would agree that the intractable conflict is one of the most significant. Yes, fundamentalist terrorists exploit conflicts to further their own agenda, including the occupation of Palestine. Middle Eastern dictatorships have often used the conflict to deflect domestic opposition to their rule. But I don’t think the Israel/Palestine conflict has anything to do with a discussion about, say, the Gulf Wars or the Afghan war.

Yet Freeman has latched on to this edits. Over and over again, he demands I apologise for these edits made as a 19-year-old, and for the harm that he says they’ve done. He gets in touch with hard right blogger Guido Fawkes to try and get him to write a piece attacking me for them; he lobbies other bloggers to write about them. He tweets people screenshots of the edits (not informing that they’re things I wrote as a 19-year-old, of course). On a daily basis, he sends me multiple tweets, ever more urgent, demanding full penitence; he even says this is about his son whose future he worries for. I cannot be serious about anti-Semitism unless I denounce my 19-year-old self. Aware of his behaviour, he tweets: “To be fair he hasn’t blocked me. And lord knows most would have by now :)” Others demand I recant all my criticisms of Israel’s policies directed at Palestinians, and denounce the radical left, to prove that I’m serious. EDL supporters join in the denunciations.

And here’s the thing. If I hadn’t written yet another piece attacking anti-Semitism on the left, he wouldn’t be launching these obsessively daily/hourly attacks. He’s not going after those who could be accused of being soft on anti-Semitism, or worse. Because this isn’t about dealing with anti-Semitism on the left. As Media Lens fear that when they attack the media for depriving opponents of the status quo of a platform, others will dispute their argument and cite me as evidence, Freeman worries that if he denounces the left on anti-Semitism, others will cite me as evidence of left-wingers passionately confronting anti-Semitism. And so on I must be discredited on the issue. And no, this won’t stop me from taking on anti-Semitism, though I worry it will deter others from doing so. And that, frankly, is tragic.

This isn’t me getting out a small violin. Some will say, ah stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’re fortunate to have a platform, and this is what comes with the territory. But other than being exhausting, it undermines debate and dialogue. Engaging and talking to critics is important: it’s about learning, and refining arguments, after all. OADs intend to make you feel under attack and defensive, leaving you less able to separate genuine critics acting in good faith from the malign. Whatever I write, the OADs will still attach themselves like barnacles to my twitter feed. And yes, I know you’re thinking that this piece is doing exactly what an OAD would want me to do. But I still think it’s worth writing.