Establishment smear campaigns serve an important and politically strategic purpose. Their aim is to delegitimize social movements not by countering the ideas behind these movements-which are often very popular in themselves-but by destroying the reputations of the people who lead these movements.
This is why every major anti-war, socialist, and otherwise dissident public figure necessarily will be smeared; if these people can be discredited in the mind of the public, the causes they represent will be hurt too.
This is the fiendish logic behind the anti-Bernie Sanders smear effort of the Clinton campaign in 2016. Sanders’ ideas about economic justice were and are very popular among the American public, especially among Democratic voters.
To some extent, the Clinton campaign and/or their allies convinced many of Clinton’s supporters to stick with Hillary by painting Sanders as a sexist, by propagating bizarre theories about Sanders being a Russian asset, and by spreading the absurd meme about his supporters being “Bernie Bros” who oppose Clinton out of misogyny.
The cynical playbook of David Brock’s Correct the Record troll operation, which gave Clinton supporters talking points and instructions on how to smear Sanders online, was created to help reinforce this echo chamber of manufactured drama anti-Sanders vitriol.
Brock’s methods of bullying and character assassination mirror how the political and media establishments tear down other disfavored public figures. The details of these smear campaigns are as fascinating as they are odious; hence, to studying these teaches us how best to combat them. Let’s recount the following additional examples of how the centers of power ruin the reputations of their enemies.
There’s no evidence Corbyn is bigoted against Jews, and Corbyn’s left-wing populism is in fact society’s best chance for defeating a rising anti-Semitic far-right. The narrative that Corbyn is behind a crisis of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is constructed from misleading innuendos and wild misinterpretations of Corbyn’s statements and actions. And the nature of these smears are often mixed in with attempts to defend power.
For instance, there’s is an effort to equate Corbyn’s crusade against the capitalist class with a campaign against Jews. The academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts charged simply by assigning moral blame for inequality on the rich, or by characterizing the economic system as rigged, Corbyn is guilty of creating the conditions for anti-Semitism.
By their reasoning, Corbyn shouldn’t even acknowledge the reality of an oppressor class. These kinds of fallacious arguments give credence to the McCarthyist assertions of people like Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, who recently said “to be anti-capitalism is to be anti-Semitic.”
The attempts to conflate Corbyn’s economic populism with anti-Semitism are as absurd as the attempts to do the same with his criticisms of Israel. Israel’s propagandists, never able to resist the opportunity to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, have targeted Corbyn with their standard set of character assassinations. Just as with every other time someone gets attacked as an anti-Semite for being disloyal to Israel, the charge is completely disingenuous; there are in fact many Jews who see Zionism as an inherent evil to be opposed.
The “He’s a Russian asset” part of the anti-Corbyn smear campaign is also rather predictable. Whenever Corbyn doesn’t accept transparently fraudulent Western accusations against Russia, or so much as call for peace with a nuclear superpower, he’s hit with baseless accusations of him being a Kremlin asset.
When politicians and pundits smear Corbyn for attacking the rich, criticizing Israel, or desiring better relations with Russia, they’re trying to get him to back down and change his positions on these issues. As we’ll see, this is a recurring aim of political slander campaigns.
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An even more absurd case of the media’s pro-war gaslighting against Gabbard is when Morning Joe’s Kasie Hunt aggressively interrogated Gabbard about Syria, and then revealed herself to not be aware U.S. troops are in Syria to fight ISIS and not Assad.
Asked Hunt: “What do you say to Democratic voters who watched you go over there, and what do you say to military members who have been deployed repeatedly in Syria pushing back against Assad?”
Hunt’s comment show the people who try to police Gabbard’s foreign policy positions are often uninformed about basic parts of world affairs, in comparison to Gabbard’s exceptional knowledge of geopolitics.
This makes it very unfortunate Gabbard in some cases capitulates to their bullying. Perhaps for fear of further repercussions, Gabbard didn’t express doubt over whether Assad is behind a chemical attack in April of 2018, despite the mounting evidence against Assad’s involvement.
And last month, in an interview with The View, Gabbard said “there’s no disputing the fact” Assad is a “brutal dictator” who has “used chemical weapons” against his people, and many U.S. wars are “begun and waged from a place of humanitarianism.”
The smear campaign against Gabbard and other dissenting public figures is about narrative control. When pro-war propagandists try to intimidate someone into going along with war narratives, their goal is to squash opposition to the official line. This is why we must not make Gabbard’s mistake of trying to partially appease her attackers; they won’t be happy until their opponents totally conform with the push towards war.
This dynamic of pro-establishment gaslighting works the same way with Israel. Whenever a public figure expresses opposition to Israel’s genocidal actions, a coordinated army of trolls is sent to try to intimidate them into walking back their statements.
This happened last year when Sarah Silverman was swarmed with denunciations and harassment for agreeing with Amnesty International in calling for the freedom of Ahed Tamimi. Silverman, rather disappointingly in my view, appeased Israel’s propaganda army saying, “Both may even be right” in the Israel/Palestine dispute.
Israel accomplished this again, by pressuring Congresswoman Ilhan Omar to apologize for pointing out the influence of AIPAC. To her credit, Omar otherwise continues to be a brave and outstanding voice against the evils of the U.S./Israeli imperialist power establishment. Yet through endless repetitions slandering Omar as “anti-Semitic,” Israel’s defenders managed to intimidate yet another public figure into ceding ground to them.
The Democratic Party is chiefly responsible for creating this dynamic in which those who tell the truth subsequently have their reputations sabotaged. Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are pushing a resolution to condemn Omar over this fabricated claim she’s expressed anti-Semitism, a move which legitimizes Israel’s bogus argument all opposition to the Netanyahu government’s murderous policies equates to hatred of Jews.
This bipartisan assault on the truth and on those who speak it has frightening consequences for the very nature of our society.
The disinformation campaign against Assange and WikiLeaks is mind-boggling in its scope. As Suzie Dawson documented a year ago, in her lengthy article Being Julian Assange, the accomplishments of Assange-like WikiLeaks’ campaign to free Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks’ technological inspiration for the tool SecureDrop are consistently minimized or erased by the media.
This discounting of Assange’s vast contributions to society made way for a grotesque distortion of his image. The baseless charges about WikiLeaks colluding with Trump and Russia, along with the litany of other lies about Assange pundits can get away with telling, turned Assange into an intensely reviled figure among those who believe what the media says about him.
Yet according to the one of Assange’s visitors John Pilger, Assange has not given up the fight, despite all the forces arrayed against him. As Pilger recently wrote in a piece which compares Assange’s room to the torture chambers of Orwell’s 1984:
Assange is the biggest victim of gaslighting, smears, and persecution from the ruling oligarchy. But he’s been able to keep hope alive by following a vital principle, which is to never stop fighting for what’s right. He hasn’t let the abuse of his oppressors grind him down.
Though few of us likely ever will be under the duress Assange is going through, we can apply his attitude of defiance to our own struggles against injustice. The lesson we can take from his story is when someone tries to intimidate you into submission -whether through imprisonment or through a smear campaign- you shouldn’t give in to their demands. You should stand your ground and continue to speak the truth.