The Art of the Smear: How to Tar ‘Jews’, ‘Neo-Cons’, ‘War-Mongers’, and ‘Propagandists’ in Shades of Shit
Richard Silverstein is an artist.
Others labor, with inordinate amounts of time and energy, to smear, tar, discredit, silence, and otherwise undermine others — perhaps because they disagree with or dislike, or feel threatened or snubbed by, them. But Silverstein’s got a gift. He and Anatoly Karlin, who seems to be tagging along for the ride, have recently rambled and ranted against Michael Weiss — an editor at The Daily Beast, author of a best-selling book on ISIS, and prolific writer and commentator — in a 6200-word diatribe and a 3700-word dump in (the euphemistically entitled) The Unz Review: An “Alternative” Media Selection.
They’d have people believe that Michael Weiss is a Jewish neoconservative propagandist who peddles his pen to war-mongering men of means and shadowy government agencies. (No word yet on whether Weiss hates puppies, Elvis, apple pie, and fucking freedom.)
Silverstein’s long letter is a smear, in the classic sense: he presents suggestions, insinuations, falsely framed facts, and — where premises can be divined at all — one non-sequitur after another to cloud his target’s reputation.
Silverstein presents a parallel — a poor one — to evoke Anti-Semitism in certain readers. He calls Weiss a “neo-con” — because, of course, only neoconservatives would consider intervening in Syria or adopting a more robust policy towards a newly-resurgent, but ultimately retreating, Russia. He attaches Weiss to controversies that surrounded others — Elizabeth O’Bagy and Radek Sikorski, for instance — through an amateurish sort of sleight of hand. Then he blasts Weiss for “sabotaging the careers of his adversaries” who “cross him in one of his spheres of interest.” (Well, Silverstein certainly seems qualified to talk about that: sabotage.) And he delights in noting that Weiss doesn’t speak Arabic or Russian, without at least having the courtesy — or clarity — to consider whether Weiss has access to translators, analysts, and/or English-speaking people from his areas of interest.
Silverstein’s screed doesn’t deserve attention, but Weiss — someone I consider a friend — deserves a defense… And, so, I wade into the shit.
Protocols for Anti-Semitic Smearing: Parallels, Suggestions, and Insinuations
In the “middle ages,” Silverstein reminds readers at the end of a section on Weiss’s alleged ties to possible patrons, “European rulers had court Jews who financed their wars and building projects. But these modern oligarchs don’t need money. They need popularizers who can package and transform political jihad into a simple, appealing mantra. Weiss performs this role admirably.”
Where to begin? First, Silverstein seems to believe — as the late Christopher Hitchens would say — that if he’s “found [someone’s] lowest possible motive,” then he’s “found the right one.” Weiss is a writer. And writers, ideally, write for a living — meaning, money. But what they write, and how they write it, isn’t necessarily driven by dollars. Even propagandists, not to suggest that Weiss is one, pick sides. And a purported propagandist as eloquent and as witty as Weiss — a “producer’s dream,” as Silverstein says — would have his pick of the litter when it comes to patrons and publishers. That he spends his time and words pushing to save lives in Syria or resisting the urge of angry Americans to shut their borders to Muslims instead of parroting Russia Today’s editorial lines or blindly attaching militias like Hezbollah to the cause of the global Left says something — something good — about him. Second, if this was a serious attempt at an analogy, then Silverstein botched the whole damn thing. While weaving his tale, Silverstein presented Weiss as the beneficiary of Russian oligarch Mikhael Khodorkovsky’s largesse. That would make Weiss’s purported patrons the “court Jews” and Weiss the “European ruler” — not the other way around.
Clearly, Silverstein isn’t presenting an analogy at all… He’s painting a parallel, between the “court Jew” of yesterday and the purported “propagandist Jew” of today, that evokes the Anti-Semitic and conspiratorial feelings of certain readers. Silverstein could have easily made his allegations — weak as they are, given that The Interpreter, for instance, discloses on its website the sort of funding and partnerships that Silverstein sees as shrouded in secrecy — without painting a parallel that was as flawed logically as it was ugly ethically. He didn’t. And then he doubled down, basically batting away accusations of Anti-Semitism by helpfully clarifying the Anti-Semitic implications of his statement.
The Greatest Scandal That Never Was — Or, the Cameo of a Controversial Commentator
In another amateurish section, Silverstein tries to get away with sleight of hand. He notes that Weiss and Elizabeth O’Bagy once coauthored a piece in The Atlantic pushing for regime change in Syria. He then illogically and irresponsibly jumps to controversies that surrounded O’Bagy without bothering to establish, directly or indirectly, that Weiss — or, for that matter, The Atlantic — had anything to do with them.
As Silverstein says, O’Bagy later published a piece — without Weiss, to be clear — in the Wall Street Journal (“WSJ”), which failed to disclose her role at the Syrian Emergency Task Force (“SETF”). Then, as people with an interest in Syria or congressional affairs know, O’Bagy fell from grace because she’d embellished her academic record.
But O’Bagy’s ethical shortcomings (real, exaggerated, or imagined) have as little to do with Weiss as the WSJ’s failure to disclose her role at the SETF has to do with The Atlantic. (In the piece coauthored by O’Bagy and Weiss, for instance, The Atlantic disclosed O’Bagy’s ties to the SETF — a fact conveniently left out by Silverstein.) So why did Silverstein connect Weiss to O’Bagy through their piece in The Atlantic, before jumping to another unrelated piece and series of incidents? He knew or hoped that at least some readers — especially those poor souls who were unfortunate enough to suffer through his screed without ready and replenishable supplies of caffeine and amphetamines — would attach Weiss to the controversy that once surrounded O’Bagy.
The “Neo-Con” Fetish: When all else fails… bring up Scoop Jackson
Like many on the Left, or in the Arab world and Eastern Europe, Silverstein describes an intellectual with whom he disagrees as a “neo-con” — a term that, in addition to being misunderstood generally, is often misapplied specifically. Taken together with Silverstein’s needless reference to the “court Jews” of medieval times, and his sloppy connection of Weiss to O’Bagy, Silverstein’s stab with the neo-con barb serves to further reveal the purpose of his piece: to ensnare Weiss in controversy in the short-term, while perhaps discrediting him in the long-term.
For starters, Weiss doesn’t strike me as a neocon. He may be an interventionist, when it comes to the tragedy in Syria; but then so are a host of realists and liberal internationalists. He may be a proponent of stronger, and indeed smarter, policies towards Russia; but then so are people with common sense.
Moreover, Silverstein errs in a deeper sense — as far as I am, but not necessarily Weiss or others are, concerned. He essentially perpetuates the fiction that neoconservatives are — and always have been — part of some monochromatic cabal of clever Jews hell-bent on leveraging American power to alter regional realities in a manner that favors Israel, or certain political and ethnic factions within it, at the expense of the interests of the United States and its allies around the world. In truth, however, neoconservatives differ within their school of thought — or “persuasion” — just as realists do within theirs, especially when it comes to whether, how, where, and why Americans must spend their blood and treasure.
Silverstein doesn’t care. He’s chiefly interested in associating Weiss with a group of individuals — and our memory of them — that he knows will earn him disfavor in the Middle East and Eastern Europe… just like linking him to “court Jews” could, too.
Secondhand Suggestiveness: He’s Told, Therefore He’s Responsible…
To paint Weiss as a saboteur, which reveals a comical lack of self-awareness on his part, Silverstein says that “Rosenthal believes that Weiss intervened with NR editors and advocated that they stop publishing his work. Even if [Weiss] did not, Rosenthal believes that Weiss was told directly by NR staff that Rosenthal would be barred.”
That’s a lot of belief.
Silverstein simply hasn’t produced proof, or even circumstantial evidence, for what he presents as fact: that Weiss is generally “not above sabotaging the career of his adversaries” and specifically sabotaged Rosenthal. But what is especially insulting, to the intelligence of people on this pretty planet, is the implicit assumption that Weiss is somehow responsible for (or implicated in) the sabotage of another writer’s career if — and that’s assuming if — a magazine’s staff member has merely told him that the magazine has blacklisted said writer (in this case, Rosenthal).
Perhaps these are the sorts of silly suggestions that led an esteemed publication like Alternet to conclude that publishing Silverstein’s piece would be a “mistake.” But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose…
Babbling On… Leaping for Irony, Landing on Idiocy
Silverstein’s pleased to point out that Weiss has positioned himself as an expert on Russia, Syria, and ISIS despite the fact that he doesn’t speak Russian or Arabic: “Oh,” he writes, “the irony of a journalist who doesn’t speak the language, yet edits a journal designed to translate the Russian language and nation to a Western audience!”
Oh, the idiocy…
If only there were a way for journalists and editors to survive and thrive, without speaking the languages of the people and areas they cover and even live in. If only they could hire translators and fixers and area specialists, on staff or as consultants, to assist them in their research and writing.
The Interpreter’s staff, for instance includes at least two people — Catherine A. Fitzpatrick and Pierre Vaux — who are qualified to translate and gist Russian-language work. And while writing two editions of a best-selling book on ISIS, Weiss worked with a Syrian national whose native tongue is Levantine Arabic; that national, incidentally, is the coauthor of both book editions — so it’s not as if Weiss is presenting himself to the Western world as some latter-day version of Ibn fucking Battuta.
The End of Misery: A Conclusion
Others have dealt with more of Silverstein’s “grotesque” and audacious accusations and attacks. Alex Rowell, writing in Beirut-based NOW, focuses a bit more an Silverstein’s (baseless) attempt to link Weiss to the arrest of an Iranian-American and also takes the time to explain how such a screed seeped out of the gutter and into the rest of the Internet. James Snell has also put up a rebuttal on his blog; he makes the simple, but important, point that this piece wouldn’t even have existed but for some sort of hatred harbored by Silverstein.
In the broad sweep, beyond the particulars of the piece, Silverstein’s argument seems to be: Because controversy. Because court Jews. And because neocons… and, oh yes, we met once, and irony, Hitchens, PNAC, and polemics.
5000 more words.