[Originally published by Now Lebanon on 18/8/2016]
Why have a Pulitzer Prize winner and a NYT bestselling author, among others, promoted a hideous racist screed this week?
A persistent dilemma, in our social media-centered age, in which any fool can (and will) voice their opinion on any given topic on an essentially equal footing with people who actually know something of what they’re talking about, is how to deal with the ignorant, fatuous, hostile and/or dishonest detractor, also known as the ‘troll’.
The sensible policy has long seemed to me to be simply to ignore them, especially where they decline to identify themselves by name and/or photo. A thoughtful reader or correspondent with an intelligent criticism is more than welcome to get in touch, and fully deserves a considered response, but a cretin looking for nothing more than a rise out of you must never be engaged. The same goes for the crackpot who elevates his toxic emission to the more elaborate media of the blog post or full-length column. It isn’t just about denying them the airtime and platform they don’t remotely deserve. It’s about not paying them the compliment of taking their writing as though it were serious enough to merit attention. It’s a question, in the end, of self-respect.
By that standard, this article published Monday on the far-right website ‘The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection’ should have been safely ignorable by all people of discriminating taste. As a general rule, one should think of the concept of ‘alternative’ media much the same way one does ‘alternative’ medicine: if it worked, it would just be called medicine. As a particular rule, one should steer clear of websites that publish articles beginning with such sentences as “The Jews can be a formidable enemy: devoid of scruples, they hunt in packs.”
However, the piece in question – ‘Michael Weiss and the Iran-U.S. Hardline Nexus That Led Iranian-American to Evin Prison’ by Richard Silverstein – has become a special case, owing to its rapid circulation far beyond the neglected neo-Nazi gutters of the Internet to something alarmingly close to the high table of polite society. Yesterday, WikiLeaks shared it with their 3.4 million Twitter followers. The writer Glenn Greenwald beamed it out to his 723,000 Twitter followers, by means of re-tweeting one Trita Parsi, who described it to his own 43,000 followers as a “MUST READ” [his capitals]. The author Reza Aslan re-tweeted the same to his 182,000 followers.
These are big names, and big numbers. Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize winner, while Aslan’s 2013 book Zealot debuted at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list. So just what is this article they agree is such a “MUST READ” all about? The kindest thing that can be said for it is it’s a nasty work of racist conspiracy theorizing. Its subject, the author and The Daily Beast editor Michael Weiss, is portrayed as a bloodthirsty Muslim-hating warmonger bent on manipulating American foreign policy at the behest of Israel, in the mould of what Silverstein calls the “court Jews” of “European rulers [in] the Middle Ages.” You read that right – Weiss, an atheist of partial Jewish descent, is likened by the article’s author to a medieval “court Jew.” In a tweet clarifying this terminology Thursday, Silverstein explained, “Weiss does the bidding of oligarchs & the powerful much like court Jews once did for rulers.”
It’s extremely tempting to leave things there. Need any more time be wasted on a piece so nakedly manured with textbook anti-Semitism? Will anyone be prepared to stand up and say, ‘Sure, some passages rather whiff of the Protocols, but otherwise it’s a cogent critique’? Actually, it turns out they are, yes. Someone named Kevin Rothrock, editor of a website called RuNet Echo, who tweeted the article more than once to his nearly 9,000 followers, found himself able to declare that, “The “court Jews” comment is disgusting, but my Twitter interest is in media focused on Russia, hence my focus in [sic] the funding rumor.”
Very well, then. Welcome to 2016. Degrading – no, humiliating; revolting – a task as it may be, let’s briefly consent to set aside the fascist innuendo and address the piece’s key arguments, such as they are.
It begins with an artless, hysterical caricature of Weiss as a “military interventionist gun-for-hire” and “leading neocon propagandist.” [Disclosure: Weiss was a regular NOW contributor between March 2013 and April 2015, and while he and I have never met, I believe I may describe him as a friend. I have also written three times for The Daily Beast, where he is an editor.] The words “neocon” and “neoconservative,” indeed, appear no fewer than sixteen times (for the authoritative definition of this protean term, look no further than Weiss’ own indispensable lexicon). Hand-in-hand with this is a continuous effort to paint him as an ultra-Zionist Kahanist with an implacable loathing of Palestinians and “anti-Muslim […] sympathies” more broadly. Here, in no particular order, are some facts I happen to know about Weiss that would make all this laughable if it weren’t so malicious:
- About half a year ago (as best as I can remember), he declared on Facebook he was backing Bernie Sanders for president, and would vote blank in the event of a Hillary nomination by the Democrats. If he has since, very grudgingly, come round to the idea of a Hillary presidency, it’s only because (unlike Silverstein’s colleague at The Unz Review, Pat Buchanan) he finds the Trump alternative so absolutely unconscionable
- Though supportive – like almost every foreign policy analyst on earth – of military action against ISIS, Weiss has been at the forefront of those warning that force alone is useless, even dangerous and counter-productive, without parallel non-violent efforts to address the political grievances of the communities living under ISIS’ control – almost all of whom happen to be Muslims. This is the polar opposite of the sort of vulgar militarism espoused by, say, Ted Cruz, who vowed to “carpet-bomb” ISIS till he found out “if sand can glow in the dark” (and who, unlike Weiss, thought kindly of Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of half a million Syrian Muslims. It’s interesting to see Silverstein describe Assad as “a Weiss bete noire,” as though there were something peculiar, even sinister, about disliking the 21st-century’s leading mass murderer)
- Weiss is on record supporting the creation of a Palestinian state, and is no admirer of Benjamin Netanyahu. These stances have caused him some professional headaches over the years
Much else in the piece is gallingly ignorant, or cheap, or both. Weiss is attacked for having co-written a piece with Elizabeth O’Bagy, as though he should have personally demanded to see her PhD dissertation before agreeing to do so. He is briefly praised for being “glib and articulate,” which Silverstein apparently doesn’t understand is a contradiction. Silverstein appears greatly amused that Weiss should simultaneously admire Karl Marx and oppose Communism, which suggests nothing more than that Weiss understands left-wing politics much better than Silverstein does. At one point, Silverstein raises the possibility, without any substantiation at all, that an interview Weiss published with an ISIS defector in November was a fabrication.
Must I continue? He claims, falsely, that Weiss “recruited” Maajid Nawaz to write for The Daily Beast, for whom Nawaz was already writing before Weiss joined. He accuses Weiss of destroying the career of one John Rosenthal, who by the sounds of it did the destruction all by himself when he began denying Assad’s very-well-documented culpability for the massacre of Syrian civilians. Silverstein correctly notes that Weiss opposes the Vladimir Putin regime, a position which, in conjunction with his “anti-jihadism,” Silverstein asserts “makes for a supremely ambitious, geopolitically sweeping, and exceedingly dangerous stew.”
Finally, Silverstein throws in the story of Siamak Namazi, an American-Iranian dual national currently incarcerated in Tehran, which he imagines to be his ace-in-the-hole; the nail in Weiss’ coffin. Namazi’s unfortunate history is as follows. In July 2015, his passport was confiscated by the Iranian authorities during a brief visit to the homeland. He was repeatedly harassed and interrogated by regime officials from that moment onward. Two months later, in September, The Daily Beast – which knew nothingof Namazi’s circumstances, nor even his presence in Iran – published an article criticizing his alleged lobbying in Washington in favor of the historic Iranian nuclear deal that had just, two months previously, been signed by all parties including Iran. One month later, Namazi was arrested and imprisoned, and hasn’t been heard from since.
This is, obviously, a terrible state of affairs, but Silverstein doesn’t demonstrate why it should in any way implicate Weiss. For starters, Weiss was neither the author of the piece, nor the final editor responsible for it (he’s told me this personally). Should anyone take any issue with its content, the proper people to consult would be the Beast’s editor-in-chief and lawyer, both of whom gave it their approval.
Second, there’s no evidence beyond the merely circumstantial linking the publication of the Beast report in September and Namazi’s arrest in October. As noted above, the regime had already been on Namazi’s case since July, two months before the piece saw the light of day. Since the Iranian judiciary won’t reveal the charges for which Namazi was arrested, any comment made on the topic cannot be other than speculative. Silverstein is free to speculate, if he wishes, that an article published in English on an American website was the determining factor in the authorities in Tehran snatching a target they already had squarely in their sights. Others would be equally free to speculate that Namazi’s arrest fits coherently with the now-well-established pattern of dual-nationality Iranians being imprisoned in Tehran for the purpose of their subsequent exchange for Iranians incarcerated in foreign countries. Namazi’s former business partner of nine years, Bijan Khajehpour, wrote a whole article in March speculating as to the reasons for his friend’s arrest, which he narrowed down to “three possible explanations,” none of them connected to the Beast report (which he did not mention). One can only hope Namazi will be released as soon as possible and given the opportunity to voice his own thoughts.
And there, mercifully, 6,200 words later, the article ends. I must say I feel rather unclean at this stage, and I suspect any readers who’ve made it this far will too. And perhaps we should, though not nearly as unclean as the public figures who lent their names and reputations to the promotion of a hideous racist screed, and a grotesque attack on a brilliant writer.