On Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, Holocaust Denial is Becoming Fashionable in Western Life

 

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Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in general is rapidly on the rise in the West. This should not surprise us; polite society has allowed atrocity-denial and the hatred it vomits out to become normal and acceptable. If a person can deny the documentary and photographic proof of a massacre in Syria, Bosnia, Rwanda or anywhere else without suffering ill for it, the denial of Auschwitz will follow suit.

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Holocaust Memorial Garden, Hyde Park, London, UK. Photo: Royal Parks

Denying the Holocaust is now at risk of becoming fashionable once again. It is on the cusp of being, so to speak, ‘cool’. It positions you against the Establishment, the metropolitan elite, the leisured and educated bien-pensants who have been losing every election and Referendum for some time. Denying the “official story” gives you the ability to fight back against the Mainstream Media (MSM) whose agenda to manipulate you into conformity can be resisted by “doing research” and getting your facts from true and alternative media sources. Believing the Holocaust happened makes you an establishment shill; but “questioning” it makes you an independent mind who cannot be bought off or brainwashed by the globalists who control all the television networks, newspapers and History Departments in the Western world.

If this parody is offensive, the subject matter is an obscenity. I wrote an undergraduate Dissertation on the subject of genocide denial in two libel trials; Irving v Penguin and ITN v LM, both concluded at the High Court in the year 2000. I completed and printed this work in the summer of 2016. Even in the time since then, I find the scale of the successes enjoyed by genocide and atrocity-deniers in recent years to be staggering. Do not heed the well-meaning advice of “don’t read the comments”, and gaze into the comments section below any major news story related to Syria published in 2015 or 2016. As the Syrian conflict draws to a bloody denouement; the “peace” of silence over a graveyard once everything remaining in it is dead; we may forget these stories ever happened as they did.

There you will see, with hundreds of upvotes of approval from other users, fellow members of your society accusing CNN, the BBC, Channel 4 News, the Guardian or the Washington Post of promoting fabricated atrocity stories in the service of an imperialist or ‘globalist’ geopolitical agenda. The work of journalists and war correspondents is dismissed out-of-hand as a calculated effort to deceive and manipulate. The photographs of bloodied, crying children and the mass graves holding their relatives are “dubious” or outright fraud given centre-stage by “the media”, a monolith dedicated only to demonising the Syrian government for the purposes of regime-change. Inevitably, anti-Semitism and allegations of “Zionist” puppetry behind Western involvement and Western media reporting on Syria emerge, gaining hundreds of upvotes even when openly proclaiming admiration for Hitler and the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

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Heavily-upvoted comments on a Channel 4 News FactCheck video describing Channel 4 journalists as “criminal propaganda peddlers”.

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Anti-Semitic comments posted on a YouTube video claiming ‘TRUTH REGARDING SYRIA – NOT CIVIL WAR BUT US INVASION’.

The rage against the victims of atrocities, and those exposing the atrocities, has never been more publicly visible and hence, publicly acceptable. I submit that, as a result of the acceptability of denying other genocides, we are now facing the prospect of a new generation denying or shrugging-off the Nazi Holocaust. If you want some immediate evidence, break the “don’t read the comments” rule again, and go to the YouTube uploads of theatrical trailers for the historical and courtroom drama film Denial, released in British cinemas on Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th. Every YouTube video related to the film is flooded with downvotes; the ‘dislikes’ have been in the majority or winning 50-50 since each video was uploaded, the comments section dominated by tech-savvy members of the alt-right or the conspiracy subculture. Deborah Lipstadt, the historian whose legal battle with neo-Nazi historical fraudster David Irving inspired the film, regards the problem as the same:

“Of course the thumbs down and the comments on [the trailer] were pure anti-Semitism,” Lipstadt tells TIME… “I think we’re living at a time when conspiracy theorists and people with outlandish ideas that do not correspond to the facts are finding more of a fertile field, more of a welcome, more of an ability to promulgate their claims than we’ve ever had before…”

They are winning the battle of approval and platform vocals in burying the film’s online reputation as a Hollywood propaganda exercise to promote the ‘Holohoax’. The favourite quote of the commenters is the favourite of all anti-Semites who abuse history; the immortal quote by Voltaire that “to know who rules over you, notice who you cannot criticise.” Except it is not an immortal quote by a French philosophical and political genius; it is a claim made in an hysterical 1993 book by none other than “Kevin Strom, an American white nationalist, neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.” The quote itself, a favourite of neo-Nazis which has spread into a broader conspiracy subculture, entered the news in Australia in 2015 when a conservative politician tweeted it with the Internet-sanctioned authority of its Voltaire origins. Unfortunately:

“The suspected source of the quote is Strom’s 1993 essay, All America Must Know the Terror that is Upon Us… In 2008 Strom was sentenced to 23 months in prison for possessing child abuse material.”

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Anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial comments in the majority of hostile comments posted on a ‘Making of’ Featurette for the film ‘Denial’.

The online warriors, who exist in the very real physical world, fear no response and no repercussions, socially or otherwise, for their actions.

None of this matters. Truth has already been abolished for those who spend their time downvoting film trailers and upvoting comments proclaiming the most well-documented events of the twentieth century to be a hoax propagandised by an invisible global conspiracy. Case in point is a popular online documentary praising and lavishing glory upon Adolf Hitler, enjoying high ratings on IMDB and more than 140 user reviews, called ‘The Greatest Story Never Told’. The approval given by fans to the documentary in the top-rated reviews, is primarily for the Hitler-worshipping film challenging “history as told by the other side (the winners). Which is the story we are indoctrinated with through the school system and our media.” The Truth, or in this case, the denial of overhwelming evidence of the Truth, shall set you free. So saith the collective wisdom of the alt-right.

The far-right and the alt-right are not alone in their quest for ‘truth’.

The front pages of a socialist newspaper, one disseminated and promoted by the leader of the British Labour Party who remains a contributor, proclaim the “liberation” of a city being subjected to massacres and mass executions by a dictator who has used chemical weapons against civilians. Viral videos circulated among the politically interested, those who consider themselves ‘activists’ for one or many causes, whose favourite words are ‘resistance’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘justice’, boastfully deny the existence of atrocities which are extensively-documented. Unsatisfied with denying the suffering of those in the frames of photographs and videos, the deniers embrace the intoxicating self-righteousness of the conspiracy narrative; the alleged surviving victims are not survivors at all, but merely actors and fakes, paid as part of a malevolent conspiracy led by the mass media and Western governments. As the American children massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 were victimised again after their deaths by InfoWars.com and its owner Alex Jones denouncing the massacre as a “hoax” by the US government, and their families denounced as “crisis actors”, so to for every Syrian civilian murdered by the Baathist regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The White Helmets volunteers trying to dig them out of the rubble and save them from barrel-bombs are not really humanitarian rescuers at all – they are really Al-Qaeda terrorists trying to overthrow the Syrian state. Their ‘volunteers’ are jihadists, the children they rescue are props, their statistics and documentation are a propaganda effort organised by the CIA and/or Mossad.

ISIS is a terrorist death cult which has brought racial genocide, social apocalypse and totalitarianism to Iraq and Syria, and would launch a war of extermination against the Jewish people if it possessed the material capacity to do so. Yet, the “anti-establishment” and “open your eyes” media have discovered the shocking truth. ISIS is in fact a creation of Israel itself, designed to bring chaos to Arab Muslim countries and distract the world from Israel’s own catalogue of offences. This belief has taken hold powerfully in many Muslim countries; whether by state propaganda in Iran, statements by the foreign minister of Lebanon, or simply where the cognitive dissonance and moral conflict of confronting a self-identified ‘Islamic’ holy state, has been too difficult for many believers to manage. Muslim communities in the West face similar problems. According to a study by Policy Exchange which surveyed 3,000 British Muslims on their beliefs, a shocking 52% of respondents in the survey said that they “do not know” who was responsible for the September 11th 2001 attacks. More respondents (7%) blamed ‘Jews’ than Al-Qaeda (4%). This could represent a combination of factors; failures in the education system, the difficulty of discussing recent and politically-loaded historical events and again, the cognitive dissonance in confronting members of one’s own group being responsible for a violent atrocity against others. However, the fact that the gradual development of the “don’t know” majority has faced no response from wider society is the most troubling aspect of these findings.  Khalid Mahmood MP wrote of the damaging impact that this was having, in the Foreword to the study:

“But it is deeply troubling that this seems to have led a not-insignificant-minority to believe that the world is at the mercy of the machinations of dark, anti-Muslim forces… This readiness to believe in conspiracy theories and the mentality of victimhood to which it speaks is having a pernicious effect on British Muslims and the way they see the world. It is holding us back – as a community – and ensuring that we remain locked in a paranoid and at times fearful worldview.”

No substantial government or civil society effort has been made to counteract the spread of this ignorance among members of the Muslim community or among others. From this it would seem that “don’t know, don’t care” has become the attitude taken to 9/11 conspiracy beliefs by the body politic and even those who do not share said beliefs.

Conspiracy-belief and denial pertaining to ISIS and Islamist terrorism have also taken hold among Western non-Muslims, for whom opposing another military intervention in Iraq leads them to believe, for the preservation of their own worldview, that ISIS atrocities are hoaxes by the US government. The Anti-Defamation League has catalogued a repeating wave of stories and viral images blaming various terrorist attacks in the West, as well as the workings of ISIS itself, and even natural disasters, on Israel and “Jewish lobby” conspirators. Whilst many such claims originate in mainstream newspapers in the Middle East, including leading daily papers in Egypt, Qatar and Jordan, there is a base of support for them in the West. They extend beyond anti-Israeli conspiracy sites like the neulously named ‘Veterans Today’. There is the case of Naomi Wolf, a respected feminist author and former Presidential campaign adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, in October 2014 declared her belief that videos of ISIS members beheading foreign hostages were faked, along with the equally baseless claim that the US response to Ebola in West Africa was a plot to deliberately infect the US population with the virus. After a predictable critical response, she ‘clarified’ her comments – but there is no doubt that many of her 100,000+ Facebook fans will have shared and further disseminated her ideas.

A similar storm erupted in 2016 when Joy Karega, a professor at the prestigious Oberlin College in Ohio was revealed to have spent several years claiming ISIS was a “CIA and Mossad operation”, reposting anti-Semitic claims about the Rothschild family, and responding to the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack by posting an image referring to the trope ‘JSIL’ – that is, ‘Jewish State of Israel in the Levant’, a ‘satirical’ slur created by anti-Israel activists to promote moral equivalence between Israel and ISIS. The image in question is one depicting ISIS emerging from the body of Benjamin Netanyahu, with a Star of David Tattoo bearing their ‘real’ name. As it happened, the Charlie Hebdo attack was carried out by self-proclaimed supporters of Al-Qaeda, not ISIS.

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Anti-Semitic image posted by Oberlin College professor Joy Karega following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January 2015.

In this case, the professor was eventually fired – though not without considerable support from the student body, particularly on the ‘social justice’ left. What is startling is that the posts, of a grievously anti-Semitic character, which denied historical events (recent terror attacks) or assigned blame for them to Jews, were posted openly under Karega’s own name whilst she was teaching at a higher education institution. Her friends, colleagues and those who could see the posts did not raise them prominently until they were first exposed on the website of The Tower magazine in February 2016. Despite her dismissal, Karega has apparently doubled-down in her beliefs and according to Matthew Gidin, is producing an academic text to ‘study’ the following:

“(1) How has the term “conspiracy theory” been used (is being used) to control the parameters of inquiry and research in the academy?; (2) How has the uncomplicated tying of conspiracy theories to accusations of anti-Semitism been used (is being used) to control the parameters of inquiry and research in the academy?”

Those who attempt to criticise conspiracy theories or anti-Semitism, are merely reinforcing their own power as part of the conspiracy itself. As Gidin put it, “In other words, Karega wants to study how Jews silence anti-Semites.”

A similar process occurred with many subjects of the British Labour Party’s anti-Semitism scandal which dragged on throughout 2016. Complaints were made that “old social media posts” had been “dredged up” by muckrackers to cause embarrassment to Labour and particularly to Jeremy Corbyn. His defenders were adamant that the posts had only come to light for this specific purpose. However, if the posts were ‘old’, why had it taken so long for them to be exposed and the authors challenged? Why would it have taken anti-Corbyn muckrakers to find and condemn anti-Semitism among Labour members?

Hoax executions and terror attacks are but one facet of the conspiracy world’s fascination with blaming the existence of ISIS on everyone but ISIS. “ISIS armed by America” is a pervasive myth fed by a network of conspiracy sites – some dismissable as ‘fake news’, others pursuing long-established propaganda wars waged by a gargantuan conspiracy site with the deceptively academic name of ‘Globalresearch.ca’. Its philosophy towards democracy and human civilisation can be summed up in an article it actually thought morally and socially worthy of publishing: “North Korea, A Land of Human Achievement, Love and Joy”. Needless to say, it is the home of the most far-reaching claims that “Is Uncle Sam Funding the Islamic State?”. Globalresearch is just one of a network of conspiracy sites which have been servicing the demands of the “alternative media” market for Syria and ISIS-related stories for years. Others include Mint Press News, a site founded specifically to act as a pro-Assad outlet in the West, The Duran, and the Russian state media vehicles Sputnik and RT.com.

The work of outfits like this would be laughable were it not for the reality of what they deny. The victims of mass murder, torture, assassination and yes, genocide, are either screamed at for being fakes and stooges, their deaths attributed to other parties to excuse the guilty, or as the Jews of Europe were intended to be by the Final Solution, their very existence is erased from the historical record entirely.

Why is this monstrous enterprise increasing in popularity? Why has the denial of atrocities become so casual, so commonplace and out-in-the-open? Why do people not fear to speak, in public, that the parents of children killed in airstrikes or shot at point-blank range by death squads are just actors? Why do the ‘Holohoax’-obsessive trolls seem to be gaining the upper hand over any online media to do with the Holocaust?

I have considered several ideas; their relationship and contributory causality is not precise. However, I think all are important in understanding why Holocaust denial specifically is apparently on the rise in Western society, and its relatedness to atrocity-denial more generally. The most important, I think, is this:

People who casually deny atrocities are no longer paying any meaningful social price.

Probably the ultimate example of conspiracy theorising, atrocity denial and brazenly dishonest acts of defamation going unpunished is the election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency. Trump, who had pursued a bizarre self-appointment as the birther-in-chief, had promoted discredited and wholly fraudulent claims about links between vaccines and autism, repeatedly claimed climate change was a “hoax”, came to his logical conclusion when he rewarded the Sandy Hook victim-abusing fanatics at InfoWars with his loyal support during and after the 2016 campaign. Writing in The Washington Post in October 2016, Cheryl Greenberg discussed the complex and confusing relationship between Trump’s loud-and-proud xenophobia with an apparently more subtle undertone of anti-Semitism in his speeches:

“Trump’s alt-right followers… have certainly understood the anti-Semitic implications of these particular allegations. The stunning recent rise of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish journalists, politicians, performers and others, as well as the violent threats against their lives and their families, has made that clear. In the past few days, a new Nazi-inspired expletive has been reported at Trump rallies: “Lügenpresse!” (lying press)…”

Trump’s most devoted support base derives its news, when not watching the Fox News Channel, almost entirely from its own compartments of the online conspiracy subculture aforementioned. But the problem extends elsewhere, not least to Britain and to any country besieged by the tsunami of fake news which smiled so favourably on Donald Trump. The promulgators are not all Russian state agents; many have their own ideological agenda, some considerably more sinister even than Russia’s geopolitical gamesmanship.

For those who have carved out an audience and a support-base for their ideas, social rules of shame or disgrace which would preclude a person from speaking easily-exposed falsehoods about an historical event, no longer apply. The dedicated readerships of fake news websites and those who believe in a conspiracy narrative, or are open to entertaining it on equal terms with an empirically-based narrative, see no disgrace in casually blaming 9/11 on the Israelis or attributing the massacre of children in Syria to video-fakery. David Irving once had a ‘respectable’ career in popular history writing and an associated reputation which was destroyed by his exposure as a Holocaust denier and professional anti-Semite. However, if you have built your career and primary appeal around your anti-establishment, anti-media, anti-everything credentials, your income and social status are not threatened.

In the UK, this lack of consequence is found in the leadership of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has been wearing the badge of the Holocaust Memorial Trust this month, perhaps out of admirable solidarity. This cannot rewrite the historical record that Corbyn took £20,000 from Iranian state television Press TV, and by extension from a state which organises official conferences denying the Holocaust. He vociferously defended an Anglican priest, Rev. Dr. Stephen Sizer, who had been investigated by the Church and criticised by members of the Jewish community for persistently posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media. Blaming a particularly nasty post made by Sizer in 2012 on “a technical oversight in terms of computer links”, Corbyn portrayed Sizer as the victim, predictably: “Might I suggest that such criticism is part of a wider pattern of demonising those who dare to stand up and speak out against Zionism…?”

Sizer eventually did suffer appropriate consequences for his persistence in promoting conspiracy theories which claimed Jewish involvement in 9/11 or getting too chummy with Holocaust deniers – such as at a 2014 conference organised by the Iranian state. From the Jerusalem Post:

“Iranian-run Press TV has described the conference as intending to “unveil the secrets behind the dominance of the Zionist lobby over the US and EU politics,” with one session devoted to examining “Mossad’s role in the 9/11 Coup d’Etat,” and another discussing “9/11 and the Holocaust as pro-Zionist ‘Public myths.’”

For this and other offences against reason and human decency, Rev. Sizer was first banned by his superiors from posting about Middle East issues on social media, and is now accepting an ignominious departure from his position with the Church. Jeremy Corbyn, however, was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 with a large personal mandate, and was re-elected on a larger mandate in September 2016. The scandals and political damage caused by the anti-Semitism crisis in Labour which have alienated the Jewish community from the party have not removed him. Even David Irving, whose entire political career has been on the far-right, recently stated that he was impressed by Corbyn, calling him “a very fine man”. What the Jewish community considers to be a matter of moral urgency is dismissed entirely by Corbyn’s supporters. Headlines about his work for Press TV, his praise of Hamas and Hezbollah or defending individuals like Rev. Sizer are dismissed as proof of a media conspiracy to oust him – sometimes of course inflected with the prefix ‘Zionist’ media conspiracy. Anti-Semitic incidents rose in Britain and especially London during the first half of 2016, when the anti-Semitism crisis was in the news, with many incidents directly linked to it, such as through the abuse of Jewish Labour MPs via social media. No amount of protests or complaints from the Jewish community, whether made by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Community Security Trust or polls of Jewish Britons generally, had any dent or measurable impact on Corbyn’s re-election and personal popularity among his base.

Why should Holocaust denial not begin to flourish when political allegiance triumphs over historical facts and basic empathy for the Jewish people on such a scale?

The liberal-left writer George Monbiot has long been a critic of genocide-denial in all quarters. He despairingly asked in May 2012, “How did genocide denial become a doctrine of the internationalist left?” Casual belief and promotion of atrocity-denial and attendant media conspiracy narratives by intellectuals; not least John Pilger, Edward S. Hermann, David Peterson and to an extent by Noam Chomsky had not prevented them maintaining loyal followings of fans and academics who considered their work worthy of praise and emulation. Much of the controversy involving Chomsky related specifically to Bosnia; the location of a genocide during a war of aggression by Bosnian Serb forces and allies from Orthodox Christian countries which an undercurrent of popular opinion in Serbia and throughout the Orthodox world has been attempting to deny since.

During the late 1990s, a series of conspiracy theories promoted by the magazine Living Marxism, re-named LM in February 1997, alleged that the existence of concentration camps in Bosnia were based on exaggeration and fakery by ITN and Guardian journalists. ITN sued and won at the High Court – but whilst the magazine folded under bankruptcy, its members re-formed under various names (collectively known as the ‘LM Network’ by the monitoring group Lobbywatch) to continue promoting the group’s professional contrarianism. Today, the most prominent members of the group, including Mick Hume, Brendan O’Neill and Claire Fox, enjoy decent media careers writing for The SpectatorThe Telegraph and The Times and the LM-successor project Spiked Online. Those on the left and the right who defended LM’s right to publish lies about the Bosnian camps against ITN’s apparent “deplorable attack on press freedom”, included the writer and columnist Toby Young, the playwright Fay Weldon and the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who never suffered any lasting damage to their credibility. Nor did the Institute of Contemporary Arts which hosted a three-day conference lavishing support on LM and its members.

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ITN footage of the Trnopolje concentration camp, 6th August 1992. This image would become the subject of a libel suit after LM published articles falsely claiming the camp was a “hoax” invented by British journalists.

An expert on the ITN v LM case, Prof. Duncan Campbell of Durham University, discussed the legacy of the trial in a 2009 article concerning other efforts to obfuscate the historical record of Bosnia, ‘Chomsky’s Bosnian Shame‘. The lack of remorse, and more importantly the lack of any long-term loss of influence for the LM network was clear and unambiguous:

“It was LM’s lies about the ITN reports that bankrupted themselves, morally and financially. Despite their failure, those who lied about the ITN reports have had no trouble obtaining regular access to the mainstream media in Britain, where they continue to make their case as though the 2000 court verdict simply didn’t exist.”

No shame, and no loss in terms of commanding influence over public discourse. Genocide denial and libelling of professional journalists and the victims of concentration camps may have been reprimanded by the High Court, but it commanded few negative social results. On the contrary, the ‘LM network’ is doing better now than it ever did as a glossy, loss-making special interest magazine in the 1990s. Its members, who have never issued a moment’s apology to the victims of the genocide they dismissed as a hoax, are much more successful today.

What the past decade has taught us is how little the educated and professional world cares about investigating or delivering consequences for a person committing the act of denying a genocide. You could spit on the graves of the murdered, scream “liar!” at those who published photographs of the dead and buried, and keep your column, your academic post or your political party membership. Even if you lost one of these, the act of losing it would earn you the mantle of a victim of persecution by the establishment, and a fan base to follow you to your next enterprise.


 

Who is ultimately responsible for this? We could easily blame the post-truth generation of politicians and the anti-consensus contempt of the 2016 illiberal revolutions. Perhaps more controversially, Brexit comes into consideration. There is a chilling undertone to Michael Gove’s now-infamous denigration of experts and expertise during the Vote Leave campaign. It is unclear, and unlikely that the majority of people really have “had enough of experts”. But the democratisation of information via the Internet has brought with it a renewed vigour in popular contempt for sources of information based on the empirical sciences and quantitative research. Since “the experts” failed to predict the financial crisis, wrongly predicted the outcome of General Elections, Referendums and Presidential Elections, their word is worth no more than the viral video shared by a politically active friend on Facebook.

But the “experts” and acronym-holding organisations who can be denigrated and dismissed, whose painstaking research is no better or preferable to that promoted via Globalresearch or Naturalnews or InfoWars are not just economists or climate scientists. It includes historians and Holocaust experts, whom amateurs and imposters can demolish for the audience of an unknowing and unfamiliar public. There has been since Brexit a similar phenomenon to the publicly acceptable posting of anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories by persons who feared nothing would happen to them. Since the Referendum vote, racially and religiously-motivated hate crimes have rapidly increased across the UK, the attackers feeling legitimised in their actions – as well as a belief that they can act without endangering themselves to negative repercussions. Despite the scoffing and conspiratorial efforts of Brendan O’Neill and other LM Network members, all of whom took a pro-Brexit line and are defenders of Trump as an “anti-establishment” force, to paint the increase in hate crimes as an establishment media plot to undermine Brexit, the figures and combined weight of personal accounts are hard to dispute.

In the new wave of Holocaust denial, the discourse resembles the contempt for established knowledge aimed at the targets of Brexit and Trump’s contempt for experts and ‘the elite’. To reject the ‘mainstream’ and ‘elite’ consensus, and to embrace the controversial knowledge, the alternative media, the “alternative facts” as Trump’s Presidential spokespeople now describe them, is to be a rebel in a narrative of resistance to tyranny. The hatred of the media common to all deniers was expressed in a sinister vogue by Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who wrapped an authoritarian threat to the media in populist tones: “And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.”

To the British left, I would argue that the Middle East dictatorship-hopping cranks were tolerated and kept around for too long. New Labour tolerated the presence of MPs like George Galloway for years, despite his slavish enthusiasm for genocidal dictators like Saddam Hussein, and only expelled him when his behaviour spilled over into inciting the murder of British soldiers. Similar tolerance was given to Jeremy Corbyn despite his involvement in the same sinister promotion and apologetics for various anti-Western terrorist organisations when it suited his interests. Both have since given their credibility as Western politicians and media figures to the state-sponsored churnalism of foreign dictatorships. Both have been embroiled in rows over anti-Semitism which keep recurring without them discarding their particular beliefs which cause the rows to erupt.

More prominently and with a greater shrug of the shoulders, British and American society have normalised the denial of atrocities, along with the denial of ordinary historical facts, to the point where Holocaust denial is no longer as publicly outrageous as it once may have been. Anti-Semitism and belief in conspiracy theories which lead inexorably to it is not a career-ender for many people with a social circle that is amiable to their warped understanding of the world. Only when concerned members of an outside community notice the obscenity is it picked up. Soon, we may no longer regard publicly posting viral photos on Facebook claiming the gas chambers to be a “mainstream media Zionist hoax” to be an obscenity or an abnormality of any kind.

A major post coming soon…

There will soon, on HistoryJack.com or possibly another medium which will be linked to here, be a long-form article of 8,000 words in length on a subject of immense importance which has until now escaped the attention it should be getting.

It will be published in the New Year for 2017.

For now, enjoy an image of the White Mountain National Forest region of New Hampshire taken at the end of summer.

… – Jack

ITN vs LM revisited and undergraduate thoughts on the British Library

Ordering the copies of texts and materials held by the British Library (BL) can be an exciting experience for new scholars and I would suppose any scholar who loves the nuts-and-bolts side of their work. Collection times at the humanities reading rooms can feel like Christmas if you have found that one juicy text or pile of texts that you have wanted to get your hands on for some time. Fresh discoveries and the unexpected find can be an exhilerating source of anticipation.

That was the mood which struck as I discovered that the BL held among its collections the back issues of the now-defunct Living Marxism (known after 1997 as LM). This magazine will form one of the cornerstones of my History Undergraduate Dissertation; if we imagine a basic four-column structural plan, the temple of the Dissertation is supported at one side by the work of Deborah Lipstadt and Richard J. Evans and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy and on the other by the writings of David Irving and Living Marxism. Perhaps the analogy is fudged; the Dissertation is, after all, the subject-container for content which involves the discussion of this literature. That would make Irving and LM the sacrificial offerings. Or the Scriptures. Henceforth theological and ecclesiastical analogies shall be withdrawn from circulation.

And withdrawn from circulation was LM following the successful suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) against the small magazine in 1997 following the publication in LM 97 of allegations that ITN journalists had exaggerated, misrepresented or even staged atrocities during the Bosnian War in 1992. The case lit up the world of literary London in the late 1990s and attracted much fanfare, much of the support which LM received coming from writers and journalists who defended the publication on free-speech grounds. By LM 105, the campaign to raise war-fighting funds for the magazine’s defence had adopted this line. The editors and publishers fought the legal battle in the public domain by asserting a resolute commitment to their rights to publish the work of Thomas Deichmann, a German writer and electrical engineer whom Nick Cohen described as a “power-worshipping fruitcake” and a “crank”. The back of LM‘s print editions adopted a fundraising campaign logo in the shape of barbed-wire (central to the original Deichmann article in LM 97 alleging misrepresentation in the ITN report) which had been ‘redacted’ in the censor’s black pen.

This information is now in my possession thanks to the archiving practices of the BL. I am uncertain how they procured their copies of LM, possibly deposited at the time of the magazine’s publication or donated after LM folded in 2000. But my initial fears that the Dissertation would have to rely entirely on second-hand accounts of the magazine’s contents, like ferreting through Eusebius to find quotations of lost ancient works, have been allayed. When I first read Nick Cohen’s What’s Left, one of the most widely-read and compelling accounts of the intellectual and moral crisis of the post-1989 political Left in the Western world, I pondered where Cohen had got hold of his sources for the discussion of the LM trial. The magazine which ITN sued was at its peak reaching a readership of around 10,000. Aside from copies tucked away in the attics and personal collections of bibliophiles or the magazine’s former staff, I would not have been surprised if no physical traces of the publication readily existed. I seriously doubted that physical copies would be procurable, not least for an undergraduate student researching for a dissertation.

However, thanks to the BL, I was able to take a look at the records for the entire back catalogue of LM, requesting and collecting their copies of issues LM 97 and LM 105 for my first source reading. They have the dubious honour of being the first pieces of primary sources to enter my notes for the Dissertation, which is still awaiting final formal proposal and approval by the Department of History. Honour is something which really belongs to the BL; preserving the physical copies of the weird and the bizarre for posterity should be the archivist’s bread-and-butter. I felt proud to be handling the copies of this quite ignominious publication knowing the work that must have gone into keeping it safely stored in the BL’s possession. For this reason and much else besides, I sincerely hope that the BL does not cave to the pressure of critics and boot out undergraduate researchers by raising the membership age back up to 21. It would be a terrible blow to my new plans for the Dissertation and I have no doubt would adversely affect the plans of many others – even if, as many older academics plead, “we want out British Library back!”.

‘Back in the Nineties, I was in a very famous libel case…’ – the Dissertation post!

HistoryJack is what else but a student of History. Following several consultations with members of the Faculty of the Department of History at the University of York and many months of deliberation, I decided yesterday on a definitive topic for my undergraduate Dissertation. It is something I found to be both original and intellectually demanding but one that would provide myself with something that combined many of my existing interests.

The subject will be a comparative study of genocide denial in British libel cases of the 1990s. Wait, come back!

Whilst reading into the relationship between academic historians, independent enthusiasts and the murky swampland of cranks, cooks, crackpots and quacks (readers of a scientific bent will be familiar with the interplay between creationist and Spirit Science quackademics and actual scientists), I stumbled upon a fascinating factoid and what might be one of the bizarrest coincidences in British legal history. In the late 1990s; in fact, from the years 1997 to the Spring of 2000 to be precise, two libel cases were contested concurrently in the Royal Couts of Justice, Queens Bench Division – both of which concerned accusations of genocide denial and defamation of character.

The first case, best known to historians, was Irving v Penguin Books, the infamous suit filed by the far-right military historian David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and her publishers for Lipstadt’s claim that Irving was a “dangerous” promulgator of racist pseudo-history and a prolific Holocaust denier. The case involved the expert witness testimony of Richard J. Evans, Professor of History at Cambridge and author of the now celebrated text In Defence of History, published 1997. Despite becoming known as ‘the Irving trial’ in the press, the civil case was brought against Lipstadt and Penguin by an Irving as claimant. English libel law then (and still) placed the burden of proof on the defendant and Lipstadt was forced into a costly legal battle against an author whose work had been published to popular and bestselling acclaim in previous decades. The outcome of a case, championed as a vindication of History and its methods, resulted in Irving’s professional discrediting as an author as well as bankruptcy from the award of legal costs to the defendants. Irving’s name became synonymous with Holocaust denial and he has not been granted a column or contract by a respectable newspaper or publishing-house since.

The second case remains less well-known among historians specifically but famous among journalists and the London intelligentsia; the suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy against the publishers of LM, a magazine formerly known as Living Marxism. The magazine had printed allegations in 1997 that an ITN report on the Bosnian war broadcast in 1992 had fabricated evidence of atrocities committed by Serb forces, particularly the subsequently infamous scenes of starving concentration camp inmates in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The case, as did the Penguin trial, dragged on for three years and LM became a cause celebre for many on the intellectual Left, as well as several libertarians and conservatives who had opposed intervention in the Balkans and regarded LM‘s right to print the accusations as a free speech issue. Reputations were dragged through the mud of the docks in cross-examination and ITN won a resounding victory; the magazine folded but subsequently reformed under new imprints. Bosnian genocide denial has only become more contentious as former leaders of Serbian forces and political movements were tried for war crimes and genocide throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Even Noam Chomsky entered the lasting affray in 2005 and one of the most common tropes for Serb nationalists and their supporters who deny that genocide in the Balkans took place are rehashes of the original claims made by LM.

So what would this have to do with history? The libel trials provide, not least for their simultaneous occurrence, a tremendous insight into the relaitonship between historians, the public, the press and everybody else. The Irving trial was an instance of historians becoming agents of causation; Evans’ expert testimony led to Irving and his claims being completely discredited, with press and public confidence in History restored to new heights. Historians became actors and participants in major events in British legal history. Postmodernism and the narrative question were thrown into focus once more as the rationale for LM and Irving’s claims was invoked as a defeater for the claims of postmodernist conceptions of History. Denial of historical crimes against humanity and the spectre of organised racial hatred seeped into public consciousness again as the supporters of both denying parties were exposed as propogating intellectual fraud in the guise of radical scholarship and ‘dissent’.

The exact angle I wish to take with this study is not entirely settled upon yet. However, the trials were major subjects in polemical writing and reportage by one of my favourite and most-cited authors, Nick Cohen, and Richard Evans was one of the most influential forces in my decision to pursue History as an A-Level student. It would be an appropriate culmination of my study to turn the analytical focus onto the career of an historian who set the hare running to begin with.

Intellectual, social and legal history in a time very far removed from our own – the 1990s!

Here is to a year with some of my favourite writers and some of the darkest hours that modern history has had to confront.

Artsy history: pre-Raphaelites as the original ‘fan art’ people?

The_Young_Lord_Hamlet

The Young Lord Hamlet by Phillip H Calderon (1868).

The author’s ignorance of historical matters artistic will show through as the light of the Last Judgement over Patmos, but one subject that came to mind today was the issue of ‘fan art’ and its precursors or prototypes in the History of Art. It would be easy to reduce fan art to an invention of the digital natives, or at the very least a product of twentieth century mass culture and mass communications. Drawing one’s own conceptions of images from cinema or television is a hobby of any child raised with a visual medium as a major influence alongside those of creative disciplines. For me, that meant drawing my own reimaginings of the Death Star Attack and the Batte of Endor with felt tip pens. The freedom to extrapolate an existing license or canon of ltierature, film, television or otherwise and add one’s own spin has been the impulse behind the world of fan fiction and Live Action Role-Playing in vast subcultures of ‘fandom’, as well as the titular subject of fan art.

However, is fan art something which came into existence only with mass culture and the age of comic books and the cinema screen? Fandom as a social force existed before the movie camera; the hounding of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle following his decision to send Sherlock Holmes falling to his death is known well enough, though authors long before Doyle had legions of devoted followers. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther became famous for the wrong reasons after a wave of copycat suicides were attributed to young men in depsondency deciding to emulate the character in dress, philosophy and self-destruction. This behaviour was subsequently named the ‘Werther effect’ in 1974 by the American sociologist David Phillips. Modern studies have challenged the extent to which media reporting and the power of suggestion influence the overall rate of suicides, as well as the number of suicides causally linked to the novel itself in the late 1700s, but the power that Goethe’s novel held over some of its fans was one approaching religious fervour. Among those who did not follow Werther’s pistol-based solution to rejection, the character remained an endearing hero for the bitter and unrequited. Antecedent to the bard Morrissey, doth thou not concur?

Fandoms are understudied social movements; the impact they can have on cultural evolution in the long term can be immense. Arnold Schwarzenegger would unlikely have risen to the public prominence which allowed him to sweep into the California Governor’s mansion had it not been for truck driver and future Terminator creator-director James Cameron’s obsession with emulating 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, resulting in his aggressive advance through the film industry. The enduring devotional power of fandoms to have killed-off characters resurrected or entire series returned to publication and airtime (think the original Sherlock Holmes and his current Cumberbatchian iterations as well as Futurama and Family Guy) is a force to be reckoned with that historians have paid relatively little attention to cf. labour movements, permanently rising middle classes and social activist groups. Something for the future, perhaps.

But away from this and to the matter of fan art. If fandoms existed before the term itself entered the lexicon and before ‘fans’ would even self-identify as such, could their artisitc proclivities have done so likewise? This is an area that, were the author an art historian, it would be consuming a great deal of my time in the library. We know the famous trope, established most prominently by journalist and full-time science-denying crackpot Christopher Booker of there being only five, six or seven at the most core stories that are adapted and retold across every culture. There may be some weight in it – the Hero Archetype of Joseph Campbell generally holds up under scrutiny at the very least. But the fact remains that the adaptive storytelling practices of humankind have made it possible for Shakespeare and Milton to retell older chronicle-histories, ballads and folklore as dramatic catastrophes and centuries later have their theatrical versions reshaped and retold by Hollywood and Broadway. Humans of every generation adapt the fictions and histories of old for their own purposes. Among the reinvention is the adding, subtracting and division of characters. Entire scenes are invented and when juxtaposed with the source material, the process can be consternating. Dramatic license can quite literally be a license to kill (entire dynasties who actually lived) and a license to conjure. Shakespeare worked from adaptation and invention, though his deployment of familiar characters from earlier works and the use of earlier dramatic structures (medieval morality plays influenced the presentation of the monstrous Duke of Gloucester in Richard III and his soliloquies) draws the lines for a brutal fisticuffs over whether the he undertook ‘fan fiction’ of a kind.

What merits consideration is the place of art in all of this. Shakespeare, who “departs from his source materials repeatedly” (in relation to Coriolanus in the linked accessible example) was not above inventing entire scenes that existed not in the historical or dramatic sources from which he worked. In the dramatic cases it was probably beneficial; though no copyright laws as modernity knows them existed at the time, originality and innovation are why we study Shakespeare and not the poems of Rupert Brooke with such intensity. So what of the artistic depictions of dramatic works? The inspirations for portraiture and draughtsmanship found in the works of Shakespeare himsef provide one of the most illuminating examples.

Now to the titular matter. It should be worth pointing out that this idea came to me whilst looking through the vast interconnecting fandoms on dedicated social networking platforms for, among other things, the Harry Potter series, Star Wars, SherlockStar Trek and the plethora of popular works that encapsulate the attentive fantasy and focus of the Millennial generation. Of course fandoms for these and countless other works existed before the age of the online fan forum but modernity gifts such ease of access to the inner workings of fan minds. Fan art, particularly the representation of imagined scenes from established canons, ranks hugely in popularity in fan communities. Imagined backstories, uncanonical actions by characters and the meeting of impossibly separated individuals, whether by crossover or resurrection from the canonical dead, are standard fare in the genre. It is difficult to believe, given the long pedigree of adaptive and creative license taken in literature and drama for centuries before the advent of modern communications, that this genre of artistic expression was itself merely a by-product of digital modernity.

The one exceedingly good example of this wroking thesis aforementioned is the 1868 painting by Phillip H. Calderon, The Young Lord Hamlet. The traditional depiction of scenes from the stage play are dispensed with in favour of something radically different. Hamlet is seen playing with Yorick the jester as a child, as family look on. Happier times. This memory or something resembling it is merely alluded to in the ‘gravedigger scene’ of Act V, Scene 1 in the play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and not even indirectly depicted besides the reference made by Hamlet’s speech:

“… he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Could Calderon’s work be among the first examples of truly imaginative ‘fan art’? Taking an unstaged scene, drawing the entire foundations of a painting from one stanza in the tragedy would not be out of place among Tumblr pages dedicated to the unknown histories of various Doctor Who villains, the lovelorn youth of Professor Snape or imaginings of Luke Skywalker’s boyhood on Tatooine. Is the Calderon imagining of Yorick and Hamlet among the first of its kind? Nestled among the work of the Pre-Rafaelites of the later nineteenth century could be the starting-point of devotional fan art extending beyond the parameters of canonical authority.

With the help of fellow postulators on Reddit, I have located the works of John William Waterhouse in a similar context. An artist in the post-Pre-Raphaelite vogue (they ought to have found better prefixes and placeholders for their clubhouse name), Waterhouse was immensely fond of classical and mythic subjects, especially women. Among his forays into myth-making with historical characters are his The Remorse of Nero After the Murder of his Mother in addition to his Shakespearean portraiture which includes a consistent fondness for Ophelia.

This midnight rambling has gotten to the ghost of a point. Was there a genus of the modern fan-art phenomenon within the pre-Rafaelite movement? Did it begin even earlier? Again, there has been comparably little historical study of this when one considers the energy expended upon textual criticism of the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Middleton or the career-bending controversies thrown up over two centuries of the Stratfordian Question (like creationism and climate change denial, most scholarly effort has been sunk into rebutting the curve-arrow claims of cranks and crankhood, fired from the high parapets of quackdemia). Nor has there been much social history done on the issue of fandoms, again treated mainly by sociologists in their contemporary contexts.

Treat this, as you like it, as a placemark for future research. The question of what constitutes ‘fan art’ and whether a chronology can be developed based on the work of the pre-Rafaelites will be of interest to the author for some time to come!

On having joined the American Historical Association!

This short post will consist of a declaration of joy at having finally joined the American Historical Association under a student membership. Having selected not to receive print publications (moving addresses semi-frequently, backtracking from the U.S. to my British hometown, then to the University of York, then to the hometown again), I procured a one-year membership for $28. Not bad given the services offered by the main professional community of historians and historical enthusiasts from outside the discipline.

Among the many grants, fellowships and academic opportunities that the AHA makes available to its members, there is the invaluable benefit of having immediate access to the professional and social networks of the mainstream body of history in academia. Acquiring membership of the AHA is something I would highly recommend to students even at undergraduate level (why not pre-university level?) for these reasons foremost. And for $28, why not?

The erstwhile British Empire, Islamic State and Eric Hoffer

As planes of the Royal Air Force conducted their first sorties over Iraq following the House of Commons vote authorising UK military involvement in the war against Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh), it seems apt to post something about the relationship of the present crisis to British history. The Noahide flood of online traffic discussing the crisis undoubtedly contains many arks of dubious construction, their inhabitants the opinions formed over generations of commitment to theoretical or theological understandings of Middle Eastern politics. Pro-intervention, anti-intervention, blame the West for the situation or blame the heart of the Islamic faith itself, you may find your own tent and a flag to hoist above it in the online armies of political certitude. To declare interest, I was a phone-in guest on LBC 97.3’s Andrew Pierce Show on Saturday September 27th and briefly set out my views therein – they may be considered cautiously pro-interventionist in this instance.

As you may have guessed by the title, this will also be an apt place to discuss the work of Eric Hoffer, one of the greatest and most under-appreciated political thinkers and social theorists of the twentieth century. He holds a rare distinction of having been publicly vaunted in his time for the profound insights of his bestseller books, most notably The True Believer (1951), yet his present-day legacy is largely restricted to fans in American conservative intellectual life. He is the subject of laudatory posts in The American Spectator and typically ranked among ‘Great Conservative Thinkers’ but is relatively unknown in political science classes. This may be an ancestral curse resulting from his criticism of the anti-war, anti-capitalist subversive orthodoxy he perceived to have consumed scholarly and student life at UC Berkeley, where is served as an adjunct professor in the 1960s, as well as Hoffer’s dislike of intellectuals generally. His unfinished tract on the character of the intellectual contained the inflammatory accusation that “Any social order…which can function well with a minimum of leadership will be an anathema to the intellectual” – libel to the intelligentsia and gold dust for neo-con opponents of campus leftism. But Hoffer has greater appeal than a minor deity of the conservative thinkers’ pantheon and offers far greater critical insight into the driving forces behind mass movements, whether religious, political or beyond taxonomy.

Britain’s state of collective self-belief has not only changed but has shifted paradigms; the imperial power which redrew the boundaries of entire regions of the Middle East within the horizons of 1920s geopolitics has, in less than a century, taken the position of a minor and even ceremonial participant in an American-led multinational campaign against one ideological descendant of that same era. The first Islamist movement of the modern era, the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in British-dominated Egypt. The boundaries of modern Middle-Eastern states were not all drawn with the dramatic simplicity of the tale of ‘Winston’s Hiccup’, a legend about imperial diplomacy which the latter-day Churchill encouraged himself in vein of his fondness for the old historical tropes of Great Man and accident-driven historical contingency. However, as Michael Collins Dunn, the Editor of the Middle East Journal stated of the ‘Hiccup’, “It’s one of those apocryphal tales in history that should have been true, even if it’s apocryphal”. The wages of short-sighted colonial map-drawing have caused generational headaches far and wide beyond the Middle East; consider the resounding successes of British ‘Divide and Quit’ partitioning in India and the post-1921 constitutional settlements for the counties of Ireland and Britain’s handling of the Mandate of Palestine up to 1948 become marginally more comprehensible.

What fun Christopher Hitchens may have between prophetic despair at the realisation of warnings about the explosion of radical Islamism dealt with in all ways but the effective. In a 2003 article for The Atlantic, the British imperial ‘legacy’ to the Arabian peninsula and surrounding regions is summarised with the relevant associations between past and present laid bare:

Sir Henry Mortimer Durand had decreed so in 1893 [the separation of Pashtun peoples between ‘India’, later Pakistan, and Afghanistan] with an imperious gesture, and his arbitrary demarcation is still known as the Durand Line. Sir Mark Sykes (with his French counterpart, Georges Picot) in 1916 concocted an apportionment of the Middle East that would separate Lebanon from Syria and Palestine from Jordan. Sir Percy Cox in 1922 fatefully determined that a portion of what had hitherto been notionally Iraqi territory would henceforth be known as Kuwait. The English half spy and half archaeologist Gertrude Bell in her letters described walking through the desert sands after World War I, tracing the new boundary of Iraq and Saudi Arabia with her walking stick. The congested, hypertense crossing point of the River Jordan, between Jordan “proper” and the Israeli-held West Bank, is to this day known as the Allenby Bridge, after T. E. Lawrence’s commander. And it fell to Sir Cyril Radcliffe to fix the frontiers of India and Pakistan—or, rather, to carve a Pakistani state out of what had formerly been known as India”

The anti-war movement is significantly quieter than a decade ago; the political mainstream, including most of the Labour Party has now in 2014 taken a similar position to that of Hitchens and his pro-interventionist ally Nick Cohen in the 2003-2011 Iraq War (see Nick Cohen’s direly necessary 2007 polemic What’s Left?, a tome I think will one day be regarded in the same breath as Paine’s Common Sense and the post-Catalonia essays of Orwell). ISIS cannot be written off as a reaction to Western neocolonialism and, as Cohen argued potently in What’s Left? and since then, an anti-imperialist narrative which places the moral responsibility for Islamist movements and their atrocities at the foot of Western powers alone is in itself an inversion of the white imperialist mentality; political power and responsibility can only be exercised by all-powerful Westerners, whilst political and moral agency cannot be ascribed to Muslims or the Global South. To deny the agency and decision-making faculties of individuals who make up Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and other groups in turn removes any agency from their victims and the cultures most radically affected by their existence. Even a recent article on ISIS by Matt Carr for Stop the War Coalition, one of Cohen’s many targets in What’s Left? recognises that, “Such collaboration doesn’t mean that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are mere pawns of Washington. It is difficult to see how current developments in Iraq can possibly be in the interests of the United States.”

Material interests are certainly not the driving force behind the exponentially growing ranks of ISIS; what material, rational, self-interested goals are realised by severing ties to the developed world, renouncing one’s identity and making tracks to join a new rogue state engaged in an apocalyptic war with all its neighbours and all the world’s major powers? ISIS has threatened attacks on Russia and promised to extend its ‘Caliphate’ to Chechnya, thus destroying any prospect of advantageous neutrality or covert support from the Putin regime. It is reasonable to provisionally assume that ISIS regards itself at war with the world, or any world outside potential integration into its proclaimed Caliphate.

One notable example of the driving mentality behind ISIS’s wave of foreign fighters (there is a debate to be had on whether one should consider any members of ISIS ‘foreign’, as the entity seeks the establishment of a transnational theocracy – is a British jihadist more ‘foreign’ to the Islamic State than an Iraqi, Syrian or Jordanian jihadist?) can be seen in this September 25th Vice News interview with Abu Usamah Somali, a Canadian jihadist who burned his passport in a video ‘message’ to the West. In a statement with some implications for the public portrait of ISIS/Da’esh theology and its relationship with orthodox Islam, Abu Usamah responded to the question “how do you guys get recruited to go?”:

“No one recruited me, actually no one spoke a single word to me. All I did, I opened the newspaper, I read the Qur’an – very easy.”

Self-radicalisation did not begin with the ease of propaganda and training availability proffered by the Internet. Much commentary has been made on the sophisticated propaganda methods employed by ISIS, which has mastered the use of online communications and social media. The FT offered the assessment from jihadist expert Aaron Zelin that ISIS was “probably more sophisticated than most US companies” in its use of social media platforms to spread awareness of its victories and draw recruits from across the globe to its captured territories. However, the individual radical can be won over without electronic media and historically radicalization has required materiel no more technologically sophisticated than pamphlets, Gospels and well-executed demagoguery. Ted Kaczynski, the ‘Unabomber’, along with his fellow ‘lone wolf’ terrorists of late-twentieth century American nightmares Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolf were brought to radicalization by readings of texts which matched up with their own frustrated understanding of the world and personal psychologies that remain difficult, if at all navigable territory for the historian.

But ‘lone wolf’ incidents aside, what makes ISIS a most relevant subject for a penetrative critique using Hoffer’s aphorisms and perceptive litmus tests for fanaticism is its very self-proclaimed status as a transnational movement. It has certainly succeeded in convincing young men and women to uproot from otherwise settled and undistinguished lives outside the Middle East to join its ranks, most with no previous experience in combat or any fighting capacity, let alone as black-garbed volunteer martyrs.

One of Hoffer’s most consistent themes in The True Believer is the relationship between Self and the externalized Self in the form of mass movements; principally, that the self-abrogation demanded by religions, political parties and other ‘greater causes’ is actively sought out by the most zealous recruits to the movement:

There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization. The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest. On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.

– Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Section 7.

Marxist analysis of class conflict and the struggle for markets can go so far in history even among non-communists and non-Marxists – it was indespensible for E.P. Thompson’s magnificent studies of the working-classes in England and Richard J. Evans’ later work on German social history. However, the individual will – from Weber’s charismatic figure of authority to Hoffer’s multitude of True Believers – exists in an historical paradigm outside materialism.

The Dialectic can help; one long-term project of this blog will be to sow the seeds of a Marxian-Weberian synthesis of a kind which accommodates for advances in psychology and anthropology, particularly in the origins of religions and the group mentality of board-room politics at the heart of global capital. But in addressing the historical questions of ISIS, we cut ourselves short by making conclusions with Empire and American geopoliticking. To understand what has caused hundreds of young individuals from around the globe and across the social strata to make flight in the direction of almost certain death, fighting for a movement which has emerged from obscurity to the world’s terrified focus in the space of mere months, we must pay attention to the individuals. Economic classes are of comparably little relevance in the question of ISIS. What drives the formation and growth of mass movements like ISIS is foremost belief. Among Marx’s shortcomings was his underestimation of the power of belief – this is where, as an historian interested in the beginnings as much as the pathology of religions and political movements, I find Weber is our better friend here.

And Hoffer, the ‘longshoreman philosopher’ of San Francisco who stated not only of the propagandistic arm of the mass movement, but of the movement in general, “Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience… and also a readiness to identify themselves wholly with an imposing spectacle.” When Hoffer is read alongside the video streams of ISIS’s defiant barbarism and spectacles of neo-medievalism, proudly narrated by British, American and Canadian-born jihadists, complaints of cliche should be muted in light of the self-evident.