The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others.
David Cromwell and David Edwards
A major theme in the writings of Media Lens is silence. This is usually of the corporate media variety: Silence over Iraq, silence over Libya, silence over global warming. Being silent on these crucial matters is, by any measure, the wrong thing to do. Presumably, then, speaking about these and other political issues through any medium available to us is the action of someone concerned with doing something about the world’s human and environmental catastrophes. But what does this silence/speaking dichotomy, so pervasive in the writings of Media Lens, suggest about other forms of action, like sit-down strikes, tax avoidance, protest rallies, public stunts, and boycott?
The Media Lens editors, David Cromwell and David Edwards, who for over a decade have carefully exposed the shortcomings and lies of the press, seem to respond to questions like ‘What can I do?’ with only one familiar answer: Email the corporate journalist who’s reporting the issue you’re concerned with in a skewed or reactionary way, and point out to them that they are reporting the issue in a skewed or reactionary way. They often urge their readers to sign various petitions, but, as far as I can see, there are few calls, if any, for direct action, non-violent civil disobedience, or even the odd promotion of an upcoming rally or lecture (last August Jean Bricmont gave a few good reasons to be sceptical of these petition/email-oriented approaches). Although they have in recent weeks added a few links to Green websites when discussing global warming, the ‘suggested action’ at the end of the vast majority of their Alerts sadly reduces to emailing Nick Robinson to let him know we’re onto him.
What follows is not an exposé or an effort to discredit the meticulous work of Cromwell and Edwards. It’s rather something of a nudge, an attempt to encourage the editors (and other leftists whose actions can be characterised in similar ways) to rethink their tactics when trying to influence, typically through electronic means, the actions and thoughts of other political writers and their general readership. But first some background.
The liberal media are the primary focus of Media Lens’ attention. The Guardian and Independent, being Britain’s staple liberal-leaning press, reveal the limits of mainstream discussion and the parameters of debate (‘this far and no further’). Edwards and Cromwell assessed the balance of reporting when it comes to ‘our’ crimes versus ‘theirs’ in their brilliant and rarely read Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media (London: Pluto, 2006, p. 88):
‘On the one hand, the Guardian, like the rest of the corporate media, consistently, over many years, provides massive coverage of the crimes of “enemies”: Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Iraq under Saddam (in the 1990s), Serbia under Milosevic. On the other hand, these same media have provided minimal coverage of crimes for which we bear some or all responsibility: those committed in Chile under Pinochet, Guatemala under Armas, Indonesia under Suharto, Iran under the Shah, Iraq under Saddam (in the 1980s), Afghanistan now, Turkey now, Colombia now, etc.’
A signature Media Lens tactic is the careful attention they pay to the writings of George Orwell, noting the prevalence of clichés which should arouse suspicion in any reader of the press or listener of parliamentary debates. These include ‘at a time when’, ‘demands difficult choices’, ‘pivotal moment’, ‘towards’, ‘inextricably linked’, ‘courage’, ‘human being’, ‘some people say that’, ‘left of centre’, and ‘history tells us’. Cromwell and Edwards observe that ‘it is not important to make sense in the media; it is important only to be able to bandy the jargon of media discourse in a way that suggests in-depth knowledge: Iran-Contra, IMF, G8, the “roadmap to peace”, “UN resolution 1441”, and so on’ (Guardian of Power, p. 135).
The editors have taken to heart Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s lessons about the manufacturing of the public’s consent through the numbing effects of a media subservient to power probably more than any other writers in Britain, but this is something which has unfortunately in the past, despite their largely excellent output, resulted in quite a few cold and self-indulgent essays and letters on their part, which are typically polite in a sterile, aloof way. See, for example, David Edwards’ interview with Jon Snow shortly before Media Lens was formed (which is at times petulant, despite Snow’s increasingly demeaning tone), their ‘Alert’ on Ben Goldacre, their criticisms of Naomi Klein and Peter Tatchell (usually through their Twitter account), and their brief encounters with ZNet, which refused to publish an essay of theirs which claimed George Monbiot was a defender of corporate power. The Buddhism-influenced editors (who once complained that Chomsky isn’t open enough to matters of the soul, as if that somehow showed they were ‘more spiritual’ than him) reacted almost joyfully to this, boasting about it in an Alert in June 2011 and claiming ZNet were suppressing their radical thoughts. Michael Albert explained the situation in 2009 on the Media Lens forum.
To take some more recent cases, one of Media Lens’ latest Alerts, ‘The Neverending ‘Wakeup Call”, is an illuminating and rare examination of the BBC’s terrible coverage of the latest IPCC report on global warming. Their Alerts are invariably well researched, well argued, and often entertaining. But, as with their attempts to ‘call out’ Owen Jones and Peter Tatchell over the past year or so without hardly ever ‘sharing’ or promoting their excellent work, in late March they launched what might appropriately be called a ‘pre-emptive call-out’ against Jones, Mehdi Hasan and Glenn Greenwald, demanding to see IPCC-related tweets from them (although, oddly, not other, more direct forms of action).
This alone is indicative of their general goal to appear ‘more moral’ than any Anglo-American writer who has more Twitter followers than them (something Edwards even confessed to in one of his spiritually motivated Cogitations, more on which below). But their response to Hasan’s reply that he had in fact already sent out an email that day about the IPCC report in his morning memo reveals something else. They responded: ‘Thanks, surprised not to see a flurry of tweets from you. By far the most important issue of our time’. This kind of response is very common for them. It basically says ‘We obviously care about the issue under discussion, but are more interested in saving face and taking the moral high ground than whether or not you also happen to care about it (and may in fact be doing more about it than we are).’
Likewise, when Jones replied to their query with ‘it’s splashed over every media outlet from the Beeb to Telegraph. Presumed it’d, er, been picked up’, Cromwell and Edwards responded tersely: ‘Thanks for the reply, Owen’. Media Lens’ test for being a Good Leftist, then, is based primarily on how many characters you can cram into your latest Tweet, and not on how deeply committed you are to more direct, less ephemeral forms of action. But having surrounded themselves for years with the corporate media they rightly despise, perhaps it’s no surprise that a few tricks of ‘setting the framework of debate’ have filtered through to their own work. For another recent case (there are many more from years gone by), this short spat with Jones again illustrates the point.
The rhetoric of their ‘Neverending ‘Wakeup Call” Alert is also telling. They conclude: ‘If we continue to look to corporate media and corporate politics for hope, this deceptive, reassuring propaganda may well continue to the bitter end. Ordinary people will have to take action. We will have to rise up and physically stop the maniacs from killing us, our children and our precious world. This is not hype; it is that serious, that late. The choice is ours’. As the Twitter critics of Media Lens, Mediocre Lens, said of this final paragraph: ‘If Alan Partridge converted to Chomsky, he’d sound like [this]’. And even though this paragraph may sound bold and Chomsky-like to Cromwell and Edwards, it isn’t: Who do you know who ‘look[s] to corporate media and corporate politics for hope’? Similar cries were chanted in Cromwell’s Why Are We The Good Guys?, which ends with the following words: ‘And so, if we really want war to stop, if we want peace instead, we can make it happen. It starts with each of us. It starts with you’.
But appearing neither in the audience nor on the panel of political meetings of any persuasion, and refusing, apparently, to engage in any way (other than calling them out on Twitter) with real-life, non-cyber activists, are not the actions of one with such passionate beliefs. Writing detailed critiques of corporate media reports is admirable, but isolating yourself from those who could not only help you out, but who may in fact also need your help in undermining the very corporate media forces you’re attempting to expose as fundamentally subservient to power, is not the action of an organization trying to improve the world. As their Twitter career demonstrates, Cromwell and Edwards have a dangerous tendency to alienate potential allies purely to secure the moral high ground.
Likewise, when popular science writer Alice Bell (whose writings on climate change have appeared in New Left Project, something which you might expect would please the editors) encouraged her Twitter followers on May 3rd to complain to the BBC about Jeremy Clarkson’s apparent racism, Media Lens were quick to respond: ‘How many complaints have you suggested for BBC journalists who helped make war possible in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya?’ Bell replied ‘there are many things the BBC have done that piss me off that I haven’t bothered to tweet a link to the complaints page for’, and added that ‘I’m puzzled as to why you wish to derail a point about racism in public life with that point, and why you’d pick me to address’. Sensing injustice wherever they go, Media Lens replied: ‘So you ‘bothered’ on eeny meeny, but not on wars that cost 100,000s of lives? Is this worth a complaint?’ Bell replied: ‘I’m bothered about a lot of things. Are you not bothered by the huge, embedded racism of everyday British life?’ Doctoral student Seán Duffy at the University of Glasgow asked Media Lens ‘why you think these holier-than-thou non-sequiturs are constructive? They detract from the good work you do’, before pointing out that ‘someone caring about one thing does not follow that they don’t care about another. Interest and activity are finite’. Like the many corporate journalists they criticise, Media Lens chose not to respond to Duffy.
On April 24th, Media Lens message board contributor Joe Emersberger, whose work the editors have praised as ‘excellent’ and ‘superb’, wrote a blog called ‘Media Lens VS Owen Jones – a Sterile Debate’. After explaining Media Lens’ frustrations over how mainstream journalists rarely criticise their editors, Emersberger pointed out that the options for writers like Jones and Hasan and Milne are limited, since they can either ‘Resign and write in outlets with no direct ties to very rich donors’, or ‘Do [what Media Lens do] collectively in order to draw larger audience and source of donations’. Emersberger added: ‘Can anyone doubt that these options involve writing for a much smaller audience when even small progressive outlets like Democracy Now! have ties to billionaires like Patrick Lannan?’ The problem as he saw it is with the nature of public media funding, and ‘If writers like Owen Jones and the Media Lens editors were to debate proposals [to reform the funding system], I think they would find their exchanges far more worthwhile. I certainly would’. Media Lens responded to Emersberger not by agreeing to come up with constructive proposals (either on their own or in concert with experienced journalists), but simply by repeating the usual line: ‘The main reason we challenge Jones, Monbiot, Milne, Hasan, Greenwald, Klein, Steel, Fisk, Palast, Weisbrot and others about their silence on the catastrophic role of the liberal media, including their own employers, is to simply point out to readers that this silence exists’. They added: ‘We’re trying to break some silences, to get people thinking, challenging. We’re trying to make it harder for the Guardian to be taken seriously next time it publishes half a dozen comment pieces on ‘our’ ‘responsibility to protect’ the people of Syria or Venezuela’. And, as Emersberger knows, they have managed to do this very effectively over the years, and the world would certainly not be better off without Media Lens, but again, the editors aren’t grasping that their social media lives have created far more enemies than they need have made in order to carry out their task of, as their Twitter profile puts it, ‘Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media’.
While his words may have been too critical of them at the time, when George Monbiot in 2002 wrote to the editors with the following explanation for his refusal to lend them sympathy, what he captured is today a far more accurate characterisation of Media Lens’ general approach to interacting with others: ‘Rather than offering a clear, objective analysis of why the media works the way it does, who pulls the strings, how journalists are manipulated, knowingly or otherwise, you appear to have decided instead to use your platform merely to attack those who do not accept your narrow and particular doctrine. Whenever a journalist takes a line at variance to your own, your automatic assumption is that he has stopped thinking for himself, and has been, wittingly or otherwise, coerced by dark forces. As a result, you are in danger of reproducing the very problems you criticise. You appear to me to be confronting one form of bias and intolerance with another.’
Philip Larkin, in a letter to Kingsley Amis on July 17th 1946, seems to have foreseen well the type of social media activism Media Lens promote: ‘I am getting to the stage when I hate anybody who does anything unusual at all, whether it’s make a lot of money or dress in silly clothes or read books of foreign words or know a lot about anything or play any musical instruments or pretend that they believe anything out of the ordinary that requires a lot of courage, or a lot of generosity, or a lot of self-control, to believe it – because they are usually such sodding nasty people that I know it is 1000-1 that they are showing off – and they don’t know it but I know it’.
A few weeks ago, Media Lens announced on Facebook how they are often asked why they don’t write about the NHS, the housing crisis, the educational system, the welfare system, immigration, and a host of other issues (of the kind Owen Jones, for instance, discusses regularly). They answered this question by saying that, since its inception, Media Lens has focused on corporate media bias in the reporting of wars and global warming. So it appears they are more than willing to criticise influential figures like Jones and Hasan for restricting their time and energy to certain issues, but are perfectly happy to let themselves off the hook.
What would Chomsky, their main political idol, make of all this? He often stresses the importance of applying the ethical principle of universality, that we apply the same standards to ourselves that we do to others, ‘if not more stringent ones’ if we’re serious. But Media Lens increasingly seem to be doing the opposite: they are not following the very principle they often invoke themselves, lapsing into (well-mannered and well-researched) hypocrisy. What’s more, Media Lens were also one of many during Israel’s November 2012 assaults on Gaza who falsely attributed a quote to Chomsky without checking sources. Predictably, what hasn’t been ‘shared’ by Media Lens and described as ‘the best, and most important, thing you’ll read all week’ (as they characterised a recent Chomsky interview, oddly in the same week as the IPCC report…) are Chomsky’s repeated criticisms of Twitter for reducing discourse to bite-sized chunks, rendering genuine discussion a contracted affair. His close friend Michael Albert has criticised it for similar reasons. Chomsky seems to be the only person immune from Media Lens’ constant criticism, even though his writings often appear in the corporate press.
Does any of this mean that Media Lens are, to quote Larkin, ‘sodding nasty people’? Unless their attacks become more ruthless and personalised, the answer is clearly no. In the past they’ve swiftly and helpfully replied to my emails, shared things I’ve written, and judging by most of the activity on the Media Lens message board this willingness to engage with their readers is quite typical. But many on the left still feel, to varying degrees of justification, that their self-image is problematic and, as mentioned, their tactics questionable or even self-serving.
On the self-image issue, following on from Larkin we can ask whether being a critic of the corporate media in Britain requires sacrifice and ‘a lot of courage, or a lot of generosity, or a lot of self-control’. My own feeling is no. There are some things that do take courage: Being homeless, organizing anti-government protests in a militarised Pearl Roundabout, or going on a hunger strike in occupied Palestine. There are things that take less courage but still require a good deal of nerve, like reading chapter four of The Minimalist Program, doing an impression of Christopher Walken as a Chinese Scottish gangster in front of a live audience, or being part of the audience at a Stewart Lee gig, constantly unsure whether to laugh or feel uneasy. But being a ‘comrade’ and condemning the crimes of others (whether it be the crimes of our own state or another) is not courageous, though it is, beyond doubt, important and laudable on many other levels. A large part of the left, especially its academic elements, often like to pretend otherwise, engaging in nightly episodes of self-congratulatory mania: ‘Tonight’s speaker is a courageous writer on the topic of Scottish independence, coming all the way from his office in the East Wing’. And so it continues.
It does not take courage to attack Ben Goldacre simply because his persuasive and seminal book Bad Pharma didn’t go quite far enough in its criticisms of the pharmaceutical industry. In fact Media Lens’ often comical urge to take the moral high ground seems to be modulated by how much of a threat someone is to them (hence why they didn’t apply the Goldacre tactic to Russell Brand, praising him unreservedly, and why they promote virtually everything Jonathan Cook writes). In a similar connection, some think Owen Jones can often be patronising, as Charlie Brooker recently claimed. But on this particular occasion, Jones was directing his criticism towards the infinitely more patronising presenter of Newsnight, Kirsty Wark, whose concern for the themes of ‘love and belonging’ recently found in her debut novel The Legacy Of Elizabeth Pringle curiously doesn’t seem to extend to the non-fictional residents of ‘Benefits Street’.
But the detached tone of Media Lens’ correspondences hint, I think, at more fundamental issues. The kind of detachment they display is found, for instance, in Hollywood, engraved onto the hard faces of Eastwood, McQueen, Stallone, Statham, staring into the middle distance. We are encouraged to see the world through these intense gazes, searching for enemies, determined to stay alert at all costs. For many, the social media provides an easy means to express this Hellenic vision of self-fulfilment, as do other political outlets. The people you speak to on the phone from HSBC, for instance, are often less aggressive, have less inflated egos, than the people you speak to from Friends of the Earth.
In November 2013, Mark Fisher wrote ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’, a by now infamous essay on left-wing internet activism. In it he confessed similar concerns to ones which Murray Bookchin used to express, condemning what he called neo-anarchists ‘whose involvement in politics extends little beyond student protests and occupations, and commenting on Twitter’, and who include many privileged graduate students, typically ‘critical theorists’ and the like:
‘ ‘Left-wing’ Twitter can often be a miserable, dispiriting zone. Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-identifying figures were ‘called out’ and condemned. What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism. … The most frequent object of this resentment is Owen Jones, and the attacks on Jones – the person most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years – were one of the reasons I was so dejected. If this is what happens to a left-winger who is actually succeeding in taking the struggle to the centre ground of British life, why would anyone want to follow him into the mainstream? Is the only way to avoid this drip-feed of abuse to remain in a position of impotent marginality?’
Fisher never answers this last question, and the remainder of his article focuses on academic manifestations of neo-anarchism (see Ray Filar’s piece for some objections to Fisher’s notion of the ‘Vampire Castle’). But the picture I’ve sketched so far seems to suggest the answer to Fisher’s question may (currently) be ‘Yes’. Many leftists have an aptitude for engaging in geologic amounts of Twitter time, but don’t have much interest in pursuing actions which might render them part of an organised community with problems and conflicts and risks, place them no longer at the centre of attention, or simply make them tired and bored. And Media Lens aren’t helping make the situation any better (in the world of videogames, Patrick Klepek from Giant Bomb recently discussed similar issues at PAX East with Zoe Quinn).
As Fisher says of those who quickly condemned Russell Brand after the Paxman interview for his sexism, ‘questioning should take place in an atmosphere of comradeship and solidarity, and probably not in public in the first instance – although when Brand was questioned about sexism by Mehdi Hasan, he displayed exactly the kind of good-humoured humility that was entirely lacking in the stony faces of those who had judged him’. Media Lens’ own attempt at this tactic once resulted in the following revealing reply to Josh Dougherty of the Iraq Body Count project, which they later deleted: ‘I used to have a girlfriend like you – huge, wide-eyed melodrama; a fantastically dramatic, Silent Movies-style departure. Five minutes later she’d be back and we’d be having a cup of tea together laughing about it’. Childish and aggressive writings like this have no place in rational discussion, and have helped create a picture of the Media Lens editors as bitter, envious, and egotistical.
Daniel Day-Lewis paints this picture well in his terrific performance as the oil baron Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood. The legal obligation firms have to pursue profit at the expense of all else is smartly depicted in the hills and deserts of California in the early decades of the twentieth century. Day-Lewis puts on what some critics have called the greatest male performance in the history of cinema, playing the part of a self-proclaimed ‘oil man’ and ‘family man’ who sacrifices the livelihood of a small town in an effort to secure power and security. The tale of the burgeoning power of the American corporation is told well through the eyes of Plainview, an archetypal imperial CEO. At one point, he comments on what Joel Bakan would call his ‘pathological’ motives, revealing a form of egotism any reader of Media Lens’ Cogitations could easily identify.
The trouble, then, is that even though they rightfully condemn and expose the crimes of the corporate world, Media Lens often display precisely the kind of mentality that Bakan documents as evident in corporate personhood, so disturbingly portrayed in There Will Be Blood. Edwards wrote in a Cogitation last year that ‘Praise and applause made us “special” yesterday. But if, today, no-one emails us with, “Dear beautiful Media Lens people, I just want to tell you again how much you move us who read you, and how deep and enduring is our love and admiration for you” (Email to Media Lens, April 12, 2003), the feeling quickly decays.’
He goes on to quote the ‘rogue Indian mystic’ Osho, who writes that ‘You like a person because he helps your ego. You like a girl because she says you are the perfect man’. Speaking very much for himself, Edwards adds to these family-friendly insights by writing that ‘Friends stay friends when they are careful to reinforce our sense of “specialness”.’ He continues, echoing Plainview: ‘Strictly speaking, the friend who becomes a “star” ceases to be a friend, becoming instead someone who holds a mirror to our relative lack of “specialness”. Technical term: “enemy”.’ The idea that we are friends or fall in love with someone primarily because they ‘feed’ our egos and make us feel that ‘Everything is awesome’ smacks of the kind of narcissism and self-adulation another major Hollywood figure once portrayed well. It’s almost as if that by identifying these (for him, clearly overpowering) aspects of human psychology, Edwards is somehow able to get away with employing them – ‘after all’, he might say, having just criticised Peter Tatchell for only mentioning five recent war crimes committed by the UK government instead of the more preferable seven, ‘it’s just my ego talking’.
If Edwards has genuinely never had a friend who challenges, disturbs, or downright insults him on occasion, then it’s little wonder why his character appears to be so swollen and in constant need of praise. Perhaps this explains why on Twitter you will lose count of how many times Media Lens re-post their latest Alert (sometimes multiple times within a few minutes, often even re-tweeting someone else’s post of it) but can count with your fingers the number of times they share the work of those whose views clearly side very close to theirs, but who happen to be a bit too well known, a tad too famous, for their pride to handle. I suspect it may even be therapeutic for Edwards to write these Cogitations, but would any sensible person respond to them in the style Media Lens have done to the (non-existent) silence of Jones, Hasan and Greenwald over the IPCC report? Who would ever think of writing: ‘Hi David, hope you’re well. I notice your latest Alert didn’t mention anything about Michael Gove’s attacks on education. This is a central issue of our time’. This is conceitedness, not peace activism.
This raises a question: What are the reasons for Edwards’ eagerness to improve the lives of others and promote compassion if the very people he apparently wants to help are just another wasted opportunity to, as he puts it, ‘reinforce my ego’? I suspect he’d answer by saying that feelings of compassion can help overcome the urges of his ego (what he calls, perhaps thinking of another ex-girlfriend, ‘a magpie, such an attention slut’), and since political activism helps with this while also achieving other goals, political activists is what we should become.
But there’s another problem here: Why do Media Lens persistently fail to display any genuine compassion towards other activists and writers who share their feelings about the urgency of a drastic structural reform of Western neoliberalism? This question has many potential answers, but Edwards’ self-revelatory words might narrow the list down: ‘After I published my first book, I encountered quite a few celebrity writers, journalists and activists. I discovered that some of the planet’s most difficult and arrogant people have devoted their lives to “making the world a better place”. They claim to be driven by compassion, but their harshness and hatred of criticism (as though their very souls have been scalded) suggest otherwise. Yes, they want to change the world, but their ego’s concern is to be a recognised “mover and shake”, to be seen and remembered as “important”.’
I suspect these feeling lie behind Media Lens’ apparent lack of interest in establishing new alliances and friendships with some of the most commendable and astute political commentators in the US and Britain. No amount of ‘Hi, hope you’re well’ emails or ‘You haven’t answered our simple question’ tweets can achieve what the fashionable British left is currently in need of: Broader collaboration, a sense of camaraderie, and the identification of common enemies emerging from acts of unconditional solidarity. And like Fisher’s ‘Vampire Castle’, Media Lens specialise in ‘propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd’. Though Cromwell and Edwards don’t fit too much into the hipster category, priests and pedants they unfortunately often are. This touches on one of Owen Jones’ objections to Media Lens, articulated well by Fisher: ‘Mainstream media is to be disdained, but BBC Question Time is to be watched and moaned about on Twitter. Purism shades into fatalism; better not to be in any way tainted by the corruption of the mainstream, better to uselessly “resist” than to risk getting your hands dirty’. Richard Seymour also said something along these lines in a recent blog post.
The tactic of taking the moral high ground which often results from this is quite an unusual one. Let’s say I moved to Australia and started documenting meticulously the crimes of the state, corporations, law enforcement, and other powerful bodies, then challenged anyone and everyone who wrote or said something which deviated even the slightest from my account. Following Bakan, if a psychologist were observing my behaviour they surely wouldn’t conclude that my goal was to undermine and challenge power, since tactically speaking I’m alienating myself from those who could help me. Yet despite all this, I could still – and probably would – believe in my own head that I was doing noble and important things. As far as I can see, this practice of moral high-ground taking should primarily be reserved for undergraduate political philosophy seminars, to be used sparingly elsewhere; in fact, to be used if and only if we have good reason to believe that our action will result in either a positive shift of attitude or will serve to identify, undermine, and ultimately dismantle bases of power.
Some final observations will serve to wrap up and hopefully reinforce the above. Norman Finkelstein is renowned for many reasons, one of which is because, as the Economist put it in a predictably scornful review of Knowing Too Much, ‘he spares nobody’. For instance, he ‘calls out’ Bertrand Russell for his response in 1940 to his removal from the College of the City of New York philosophy department by the Catholic Church and other reactionary forces. Russell suggested that an academic should be appointed based on technical proficiency, not on lifestyle. Finkelstein rightly stresses that ‘It cannot be plausibly maintained that a scholar, however gifted, who advocates “all niggers be lynched” would, or should, be granted an academic post’. But does Finkelstein simply point out the dubious moral position Russell took before claiming to have a better one up his sleeve, as Media Lens repeatedly do? No. In fact he builds on those aspects of Russell’s record his own sympathies depart from (as he also does in Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, in which he points to Russell’s early Zionist sympathies) to constructively suggest alternative viewpoints and actions, and not simply assert any superiority in integrity or level of interest in a particular topic.
Media Lens’ Twitter activities also have an effect on what we might call, for lack of a better term, the ‘potential leftist’. When this sideline figure looks at Media Lens, what do they see? Do they see the upstanding honesty of a Martin Luther King, the charisma of a Bill Hicks, the determination of a Mark Curtis? Or do they see the weeded cries of men more concerned with being correct than doing right? Being a critic of state-corporate power would not be seen by this onlooker as a collaborative effort, requiring alliances and friendships with other like-minds, but rather as a solitary effort, demanding little more than an email account, a sharp and sarcastic wit, a signature for petitions, and perhaps some spare cash to donate to a handful of Green organizations. Observing such behaviour, the potential leftist would likely react in a similar way to Dom Joly in an early Trigger Happy TV clip: namely, get away as soon as possible, preferably on a quad bike.
Alienating potential allies does not produce an effective affront to parliamentary or corporate power. It at best makes a few hundred people (or sometimes thousands, in the case of the more popular Media Lens writings) that bit more cautious and sceptical about what they read in the papers and buy in the supermarkets. Cromwell and Edwards most likely don’t intend their work to produce this kind of insular, maniacal name-calling, and would most likely prefer their readers to join their nearest anti-cuts and anti-war campaign, but the actual effect of their endless call outs only serves to distract Twitter and Facebook users away from these forms of bedroom-external actions.
There are, on the other hand, certain forms of isolationism which should plainly be encouraged, and are even moral obligations. The words of Thomas Arnold (brother of Matthew) evoke a sense of community and genuine, unmitigated self-sacrifice which – in their seemingly endless quest to elevate themselves above every writer in sight – the Media Lens editors all too often lose sight of:
‘Take but one step in submission, and all the rest is easy … satisfy yourself that you may honestly defend an unrighteous cause, and then you may go to the Bar, and become distinguished, and perhaps in the end sway the counsels of the State … All this is open to you; while if you refuse to tamper in a single point with the integrity of your conscience, isolation awaits you, and unhappy love, and the contempt of men; and amidst the general bustle of movement of the world you will be stricken with a kind of impotence, and your arm will seem to be paralysed, and there will be moments when you will almost doubt whether truth indeed exists, or, at least, whether it is fitted for man. Yet in your loneliness you will be visited by consolations which the world knows not of; and you will feel that, if renunciation has separated you from the men of your own generation, it has united you to the great company of just men throughout all past time; nay, that even now, there is a little band of Renunciants scattered over the world, of whom you are one, whose you are, and who are yours for ever.’
Social networking sites have made it increasingly easier for these Renunciants to share ideas and work together to achieve their goals (ultimately through bedroom-external means). But so long as online platforms of confrontation, fuelling dreaded sectarianism, continue to plague the left, it will be next to impossible for the social media not to be seen by the potential leftist as a tool designed to make its users out-smart each other, redirecting anger away from the destructive neoliberal forces political disagreements typically centre around. If Media Lens and any other organisation concerned with social justice don’t take this into consideration soon, they run the risk of falling into an old definition of irony: The song of a trapped bird protesting against its condition, whilst all the while loving its cage.