Admirers of violence and lies must go carefully. As true cowards they must leave themselves an escape hatch in case they are forced to retreat. They never quite commit to the suppression of rights, the rigged elections, the secret policemen and the torture chambers. Instead they tell us we are not hearing the full story, and switch the argument.
The real problem is not the oppressive state and its suffering citizens, they say. The problem is the fake media. Not media faked by government propagandists and controlled by censors, not countries where every TV station and mass circulation newspaper must follow the party line, but the free media in their own country.
As individual journalists and news organisations are often stupid or biased or both, few people notice that they have changed the subject. Their listeners respond with enthusiasm. They don’t know the truth about tyranny in a foreign country whose language they don’t speak, whose cities they have never visited, but they do know that they hate Fox News or the New York Times, the Daily Mail or the Guardian.
Trump’s cries of fake news are famous. As is his tactic of floating a lie that a rival’s father was present at the assassination of JFK or that American Muslims celebrated the attack on Twin Towers, and then adding the sly caveat that he’d read it somewhere. The alt-left isn’t so different from the alt-right. All ages have their ways of lying and whether the liar calls himself left-wing or right-wing is less important than his willingness to imitate the successful propaganda techniques of his time. Trump, Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin are today’s winners. Every charlatan on the make can watch and learn.
At the Labour party conference rally to defend Cuba and Venezuela I saw old apologists of tyranny show new tricks. On the platform was Chris Williamson, a Corbyn supporting MP. His menacing rhetoric, bald head and bulging eyes meant that to my mind there was a touch of Benito Mussolini about him. Karen Lee, John McDonnell’s PPS, could not be more different in style. Low key and earnest, her sole concern at the meeting was to prevent the smallest departure from the approved line.
Williamson and Lee assured the audience that they were not ‘uncritical supporters’ of the Cuban and Venezuelan states – like Trump they had their escape route prepared. Yet the Cuban ambassador was on stage with them and an admirer read a statement from the Venezuelan ambassador, who had been called away. Both were met with uncritical support. Even when our woman from Havana talked about the upcoming Cuban elections, there were no snorts or boos. The panel and the audience did not protest that Cuba was a dictatorship and a military dictatorship at that. They did not ask whether the opposition candidates could win or where they could find criticism of the government in the Cuban media. They accepted the dictatorship without ever acknowledging it was a dictatorship.
Statement from the Venezuelan ambassador read out at Labour conference: pic.twitter.com/hHlcWzGqnQ
— Alex Wickham (@WikiGuido) September 26, 2017
The complicity extended to Tony Burke, the assistant general secretary of Unite, who could not manage a word of protest about the suppression of free trade unions by the Cuban Communist party – a failure of nerve and principle shared by much of the British trade union movement.
At every stage the excuses came in. Cuba’s problems were the fault of US embargo not the communist party. Venezuela’s descent into destitution was the result of Trump’s threats or the fall in the oil price, not mafiosi who have ransacked the country. American policy in Cuba and Venezuela is indeed deplorable. Everyone including boring establishment European governments says so. But unlike the far left, they at least have the integrity to condemn the abuse of human rights too.
Then Williamson rose to declaim, and I was greeted with the spectacle of a Trot Trump in action. These tweets capture the flavour of the event
I can't wait till these people are running the country. pic.twitter.com/04xww3mWZG
— Stephen Daisley (@JournoStephen) September 26, 2017
But they don’t convey the weaselly malice. The health crisis in Venezuela, the suppression of democratic protections, the hunger, the censorship and the astonishing corruption that has enriched the socialist elite, were forgotten. Michael Crick and I were in the audience. We, rather than the Venezuelan people, became the rally’s focus.
The opposition was always ‘the extreme right opposition’ for Williamson, and it was guilty of violent crimes. ‘Why aren’t Michael Crick and Nick Cohen telling you about that?’ The impoverishment of Venezuela was the work of ‘extreme right-wingers’ sabotaging the economy not Williamson’s friends. ‘Why won’t Michael Crick and Nick Cohen tell you about this’.
‘All I am asking for is a little balance’.
I felt American reporters let Trump get away with lying because they did not challenge him to his face as he lied. I wondered how to respond. Should I go for the corruption that has turned Chavez’s children into oligarchs? I might have mentioned Amnesty’s International’s blunt description of a Venezuelan state that ‘engages in lethal violence to strangle dissent’ . Or talk about the destruction of the rule of law. I could just have referred him to my newspaper’s coverage.
But I knew I’d only get a sentence or two out before I was shut down. So I decided to expose the rigged debate by the simplest means at my disposal.
‘Can I ask a question?’
‘No,’ said Lee, suddenly coming to life.
‘I can’t ask a question?’
There’s an argument going back to George Orwell that British supporters of foreign tyrannies transfer their nationalism. Instead of excusing the British state for its crimes, they excuse overseas regimes for theirs. They think they are different from right-wing power worshippers, but in truth they only disagree on which power should be worshipped. I once saw them differently, as the political equivalent of sex tourists, who looked for the revolutionary thrills abroad the frigid British proletariat would not give them at home.
Both arguments may be out of date. We have already seen supporters of Corbyn, the incessant rebel, condemn Labour MPs who break the whip as traitors rather than men and women of principle. If Corbyn becomes prime minister, I expect to see the left’s justifiable suspicion of the British state vanish. Spin, incompetence, breaches of human rights, police violence will no longer be condemned but tolerated and even applauded. In other words, the far left won’t need to idolise the state machinery of a foreign power, it won’t need to go abroad to get its thrills. It will find all the excitement it needs right here in Britain.