A response to Gerard Henderson

I’ve generally considered the amusement some leftists take from Gerard Henderson’s blog to be slightly distasteful, an echo of the nineteenth-century fashion for visiting London’s asylum to giggle at the Bedlamites as they grimaced and drooled and tugged at themselves.

Sure, there’s a degree of gall that some might call admirable involved in convincing the mysterious corporate backers of the Sydney Institute to fund Henderson’s late career reinvention as an internet pest. But his obsession with trivial slights from five decades ago, his penchant for posing as a dog, the peculiar interjections from his imaginary editor (‘They make him sound batshit crazy!’ – Ed), the narcissistic publication of the letters in which he harasses correspondents about inanities, his stalkerish refusal to move on from his failed bromance with Robert Manne: together, it all renders Media Watch Dog unpleasantly like the digital chronicle of a slow-moving nervous breakdown.

In the normal course of events, one avoids tossing a bone to such an obvious and tedious troll but Henderson’s tremendously dishonest response to my Drum article on the Ben Zygier case merits some sort of comment, partly because he’s now cut and pasted himself into the Sydney Morning Herald but, more importantly, because his argument inadvertently provides a neat illustration of the parallels between Stalinism and Zionism to which I originally sought to publicise.

Henderson takes umbrage at my comparisons between backers of the Soviet Union and those who support Israel, a country he deems a democracy. Perhaps, then, he should fire off some angry correspondence to the estate of George Orwell, complaining about the contents of the classic essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. For in that, of course, Orwell writes:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

In this justly famous passage, Orwell explicitly compares Stalinist apologists with … defenders of democratic Britain and the US.

Let’s pause to allow Henderson his moment of apoplexy … and then, with that out of the way, move on to the Zygier episode itself. In MWD, Henderson argues:

Israel is a democracy with an elected government and an independent judicial system. Israeli intelligence organisations are beholden to the law. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian police state without an independent judiciary and its secret police were only accountable to Stalin.

The truth is that we do not know much about why Zygier was arrested and incarcerated or how he died in prison. However, according to reports, an Israeli judge who investigated his death did not find evidence of murder or manslaughter.

In other words, Henderson says we shouldn’t be outraged about secret detention since we can’t know what happened … because the detention was secret. Seriously. That’s his argument.

It’s desperately, desperately silly stuff, and instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the tortured, nonsensical apologetics produced by old-time pro-Moscow hacks. You might classify it as the ‘bored monkey’ style of disputation: you fling as much faeces as you can in the hope some of it will stick.

In response, let’s take instead Orwell’s approach, reframing the discussion to pose the questions ‘too brutal for most people to face’.

To put it bluntly: does Henderson support the right to an open trial or does he not? If, for sake of argument, a government decided, rightly or wrongly, that members of Gerard Henderson’s family posed a security risk, would it be legitimate for police to throw them in a secret prison, without announcing the charges against them? Would Henderson be OK with his relatives disappearing into a detention so anonymous that not even their gaolers knew their names? Would there be nothing to complain about if these hypothetical Hendersons were kept in prolonged solitary confinement, denied legal representation, visitors and so on? Would Henderson senior approve if all details of his family’s detention were censored from the media – if, in essence, his loved ones simply disappeared from public view? Then, if they were later found dead in their secret cells, would he blithely accept that nothing untoward had happened, because of ‘reports’ allegedly produced by an investigating judge, whose findings he was not even allowed to see?

One presumes the answer to all of these queries is ‘no’.

After all, Henderson self-evidently does not oppose all rights (his blog reveals, for instance, an extraordinary sensitivity to the rights of elderly white men – particularly their right to unlimited blathering time on the ABC). He’s merely indifferent to cruelties and transgressions committed against his political opponents.

Yet, of course, he cannot actually say that.

Again, Orwell describes precisely the situation.

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’ […Instead] a mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.

Substitute ‘English professor’ and ‘Russian totalitarianism’ for ‘Internet troll’ and ‘the detention of Ben Zygier’ and you have a pretty exact description of Henderson’s own modus operandi. He daren’t proclaim: ‘It’s OK for a government to make its opponents vanish when it can get good results by doing so’, for fear that such unabashed authoritarianism might dry up the (taxpayer-funded) gigs on Insiders and curtail those peculiar columns that somehow still appear in the SMH despite giving the impression (to mangle Randall Jarrell’s line) of having been written with a filing cabinet, by a filing cabinet.

So, like Orwell’s famous cuttlefish, Henderson empties his ink sac on the page to obscure the real issues behind a cloud of empty words.

That’s why the comparison with Stalinism becomes so interesting. Think of Henderson’s assertion about democracy in Israel. The appeal to theoretical democratic rights as a counter to actual abuses was a characteristic rhetorical move of the most famous Western mouthpieces of the Stalinist regime. Anyone who’s interested can read the long and tedious tracts produced by the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in which they denied that Russia was a dictatorship on the basis that Stalin’s constitution was the ‘most democratic in the world’. On paper, of course, that was all true. But people weren’t dying in the purges on paper – they were dying in real life. And, as Orwell says somewhere else, anyone who actually wanted to know what was really happening in Russia in the thirties, knew.

Here’s a report on what transpired when Zygier was found hanging in his secret prison.

When an Israeli news website reported that the prisoner died in his cell in December 2010, Israeli authorities removed its web pages.

Within hours of the Foreign Correspondent report going to air, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office summoned Israeli editors to ask them not to publish a story ‘that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency’, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said.

‘The emergency meeting was called following a broadcast outside Israel regarding the incident in question.’

Shortly afterwards, references to the ABC report vanished from Israeli news sites, including that of Haaretz itself.

Members of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem asked justice minister Yaakov Neeman to confirm if the report was true, and demanded to know if other prisoners were being held in secret.

Henderson says, correctly, that we have no idea what happened to Zygier. But, in a context in which Israeli parliamentarians are themselves complaining they have no information about who’s being kept in secret gaols and the state is seeking to suppress any mention of the case, Henderson’s proclamation that ‘Israel is a democracy with an elected government and an independent judicial system’ could only come from someone who actively wants to remain ignorant, who refuses to pose the most obvious of questions.

As I asked in Drum:

How many other Prisoner X, Y and Zs are languishing anonymously in tiny cells? If a well-educated middle-class Australian-Israeli boy can simply be disappeared, how do you suppose an impoverished Muslim might fare? […] Indeed, Amnesty International says that Palestinians in the Occupied Palestian Territories (OPT) continued to be tried before military courts and routinely denied access to lawyers during pre-trial interrogation, that allegations of torture and other mistreatment continue to be made and that, in 2011, the Israeli authorities held at least 307 Palestinians from the OPT in custody without charge or trial.

Then again, in Henderson’s MWD discussion of Israeli ‘democracy’ there’s no mention of Palestinians at all.

At the risk of taxing the reader’s patience, there’s one other point about Stalinism that’s worth making – and, again, Henderson unwittingly provides an illustration.

In MWD, he argues that I bear some political responsibility for Stalin’s atrocities – in particular, the execution of Rose Cohen. Or, rather, he doesn’t argue it – he implies it, entirely on the basis of apologetics about Czechoslovakia written by former Overland editor Stephen Murray-Smith, a man with whom Henderson seem to have had greater personal connection than I ever did (‘[b]y all accounts, [he] was a good bloke.’)

That’s the backdrop for Henderson’s triumphant revelation, announced with all the sweaty glee of Joe McCarthy fronting a HUAC meeting: ‘Jeff Sparrow is an academic and a continuing Trotskyist’.

Now, Henderson tells his readers that Cohen died after being falsely labeled a spy. But he neglects to mention that the espionage case against her and her husband rested entirely on the couple being unmasked as Trotskyists.

In other words, the ‘ta-dah!’ moment in Henderson’s accusation of Stalinism comes as he levels precisely the same charge that the Stalinists employed to send Cohen (and hundreds of thousands of others) to their graves! It’s a truly spectacular piece of beclowning, a master class in historical idiocy, comparable, perhaps, to denouncing someone as a Nazi solely on the basis of new information revealing their Jewish ancestry.

If Henderson’s antics serve any useful purpose, it’s because they remind us that Stalinism was a far more complex phenomenon than the conventional Cold War historiography would have us believe. Within the Soviet Union, Stalinism developed as a (more or less) coherent doctrine explicitly in opposition to the Left and, though the ideology mutated in peculiar ways during its dissemination throughout the world, it always maintained an element of that virulent anti-Leftism. That’s why the Stalinist echo in the work of today’s Red-baiters and authoritarians is not entirely coincidental but rather reflective of the utility of particular tropes for particular purposes.

Hence Orwell’s argument about language. He described the commissars of his day as ‘half gangster, half gramophone’. If that’s a tag that fits many of pundits of the Right today, it’s became trollumnists like Henderson play an entirely familiar role. There’s only so many ways you can sugarcoat arguments that are too ‘brutal for most people to face’. In an era in which the politics that must be defended has become more indefensible than ever, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing a reinvention of the methods pioneered in the low and dishonest thirties.

Of course, that’s not to deny that there’s a certain rhetorical style that comes naturally to aggrieved men of advancing years, whose prose by no means improves when they shift from writing angry letters in multicoloured ink to banging out their frustrations on an ineptly designed blog.

Nonetheless, it’s worth thinking through the historical antecedents of that mix of hectoring rancor and authoritarianism that underpins Media Watch Dog. Trotsky noted the peculiarly unpleasant sensation produced by perusing Stalin’s writing, akin to choking on mouthfuls of finely chopped bristles. Henderson’s readers know exactly what that’s like.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. A truly excellent column, Jeff. It’s astonishing to me that Henderson can get away with refusing to name his Institute’s donors. His role is that of an agent of influence for various corporate interests and governments; naming his sources of funding would reveal a very great deal. I’m only puzzled by one comment of yours. What is a ‘bromance’?

    1. Ha! Thanks for that. I mean, in his obsession with you, he acts like an unrequited lover, unable to deal with the fact that you and he now have different politics.

    1. Here’s a coda to this discussion, which underlines why the issues are important.


      A Palestinian prisoner has died in an Israeli jail, according to a prison spokesperson.

      The news prompted a Palestinian official on Saturday to charge that he was killed during questioning and demand an international probe.

      Arafat Jaradat was “arrested a few days ago. He was killed during the investigation”, Issa Qaraqaa, Palestinian minister in charge of prisoner affairs, told the AFP news agency.

      “We demand the creation of an international commission of inquiry to probe the circumstances of his death,” Qaraqaa added.

      Sivan Eqizman, an Israel Prisons Service spokesperson, said Jaradat, a 30-year-old from the West Bank city of Hebron, died at the Meggido detention centre in northern Israel.

      “I can confirm that a Palestinian prisoner died today in the Meggido prison. It was probably a cardiac arrest. I don’t have additional details at the moment,” Weizman said.

      On Sunday, Al Jazeera’s Nicole Johnston outside Ofer military prison, said there were some 3,000 Palestinian prisoners taking part in a one day hunger strike to protest Jaradat’s death.

  2. Stalinism is a term derived from the depraved era of Joseph Stalin. It was employed by Trotsky in his denunciation of the bureaucratic tyranny created by Stalin and his GPU/KGB henchmen. In contemporary politics the term has matured. I’ve always believed that Stalinism, in its modern context, has become a state of mind. It now refers to the blinkered, one-eyed loyalists who unswervingly support the party line. In Australian it refers to those in the right-wing and so-called left of the ALP. We all know them: Labor hacks who will go along with every class betrayal and every opportunist capitulation to the diplomatic and defence requirements of imperialism. Whether hardline Zionists can be described as Stalinist is a different question. Extreme 21st century Zionism as a religious cult laden with racism, outlandish revision of Judaism and rabid nationalism. Zionists believe in Israel right or wrong and to that extent they are similar to the CPSU members who believed in the USSR right or wrong. One represented a blind loyalty to a set of social beliefs based upon the emancipation of people from the tyranny of feudalism and capitalist exploitation while the other is devoted to the celebration of a state which came into existence by dispossessing a people, the Palestinians, seizing their homes and land by superior force of arms and then subjecting them to an extended armed occupation under which they are denied basic humanitarian rights. Jeff has written an excellent article and opened an important debate. Are Israeli citizens with Australian passports entitled to work for Mossad or Shin Beth, foreign intelligence services, and if so, why can’t Iranians, Arabs, Chinese and Indonesians with Australian passports work for their intelligence agencies as well? Will Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus (and Gerard Henderson) address this question?
    At the same time they might consider the legality of Jewish Australians travelling to Israel to undergo military training, arms training and participate in military operations against Palestinians and Lebanese which may be deemed to involve war crimes. And if it’s okay for Jewish Australians to engage in this conduct, surely patriots from Ireland, Greece, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Kashmir, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere should be allowed to do the same.

  3. Bad move Jeff, you don’t feed the trolls. You summed it up with three wods – “Henderson takes umbrage” – that’s it, full stop. He should be left to umbrage himself until he goes blind.

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