On squabbling liberals

My mum did warn me about getting into rucks, but I’ve been at it again. Worse: I’ve been in the same fight more than twice. It’s starting to look careless.

First time around, in the comments here and elsewhere, on the Dilpazier Aslam affair, originally raised by the much-imitated Scott Burgess. Second, over the Guardian column written by “Saudi dissident” Saad al-Faqih, in the zoo comments at Harry’s Place.

I guess it’s no surprise to find messianic strands of left and right making common cause: same moral certitude, same authoritarian itch, same mistrust of letting people think for themselves. Deluded blah fellow-traveller blah blah useful blah idiot.

Essentially, the argument is this: I see no reason whatsoever why a Guardian political columnist ought to reveal (or have revealed by the paper) any affiliations, legal, disputed, proven or otherwise, should s/he choose not to. Note, I’m talking here about ought to, in the sense of being obliged, not might want to, or might be providing a useful service to readers by so doing, and so on. Nor am I arguing that a columnist should be protected from having any affiliations (legal, disputed, proven or otherwise) being revealed by others, like, say, Scott or David T. Nor, before any of the troglodytes come out to play, am I expressing any sympathy for the positions of Aslam or al-Faqih, though just like a stopped clock telling the time, some of what they write hits the mark.

No, I’m arguing that there is no reason why the Guardian should have “forewarned” their readers that Aslam was a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir or al-Faqih close (or maybe integral) to al-Qaeda thinking. Ditto for the affiliation of any political columnists, if they wish to keep those affiliations to themselves. I can’t understand why the semi-accurate though unpleasant riposte to Scott in the Guardian didn’t make this point more forcefully. If common sense doesn’t agree with me, then common sense is wrong:

1. Trumpeting the affiliation of a columnist is likely to induce overconfidence should the “expert” agree with our own prejudice. If the “expert’s” line is contradicted by a knowledgeable mate down the pub, we’re unlikely to give as much weight to his contrary arguments, even if they are better ones. This may cause us to make bad choices and form unbalanced opinions. Remember: you do need to consult a proper expert on the technical aspects of oil extraction. When it comes to geopolitics, however, anyone armed with quality information can be an “expert”. Believing otherwise is a straightforward cognitive bias.

2. Affiliations tagged to columns only play to our comfortable priors. They make for complacent and lazy opinion-forming. We might ignore something valid written by an aide of George Bush or give undue attention to the opinions a reputed genius, without proper consideration of content. How many people read this morning’s Independent column by Ariel Sharon with an open mind?

3. Forcing us to reveal legal (or not proven illegal) affiliations is illiberal. If people choose to write from a state of (partial or full) anonymity, that’s fine. If a newspaper like the Guardian is happy to publish under those terms, it shouldn’t be censured for that. Let’s hear a writer’s arguments and decide for ourselves how stupid or otherwise his opinions are. The eponymous Harry avails himself of that right, as do I. Recall:

Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.

It also means having the protection of anonymity to do so.

  1. But, but, but… namecalling is so much easier, and people DO like to get angry.

    Killjoy :p

    I agree pretty much entirely, although if we take your point 1) too far, we might as well stop quoting people, and where, pray tell, is the fun in that?

  2. Quoting people would fall under the might want to or be doing a service to readers by so doing category, not the ought to stipulation. Plus, a quote is only part of a piece, not an “endorsement” of the entire thread, like an affiliation is.

  3. David T said:

    Well, the point is this.

    If I wrote a piece – say – on a homesick Ghanaian immigrant who didn’t have the money to return home, and bemoaning the fact that he was eligible for housing benefit, but not to state funds to allow him to return, you might think that an interesting argument about the shortcomings of the benefit system.

    If it then turned out that I was an active member of the BNP, who had written articles for the BNP about compulsory repatriation of immigrants, claiming that they were all criminals and scroungers, scheming to polute our white blood, and so on, that would put what I wrote in quite a different context.

    Similarly, Al Fagih is the spokesman for Al Qaeda in Europe. If you know this, you know that his argument is the position of Al Qaeda, which has no interest in civil liberties.
    If you don’t, it is simply an interesting perspective on the way the state deals with civil liberties in a crisis.

  4. DavidT: well, that’s a cracking analogy. But I still don’t see any reason for compelling an author to reveal his affiliations (and what to do in the case of, say, al-Faqih when they’re contested?), or insisting that he should append them to a political thinkpiece. I’m not sure that your revealing as a BNP propagandizer would negate the validity of an argument. A liberal rag might want to out you as a fascist (or you might want to out your imaginary self at HP), which is fine. It might lead us to wonder about why the paper was giving a voice to you – as it does me with the Guardian and al-Faqih. But I’m basing my opinion on their choice of columnist or the idiotic opinions of their columnist, not their conduct in choosing to reveal his (with al-Faqih, probable) true self or not. On that point they have nothing to answer for, IMO.


    If you know this, you know that his argument is the position of Al Qaeda, which has no interest in civil liberties.

    Well, he does profess to care about liberal civil liberties in the UK. So, on your argument, he’s dissembling. A radical Islamist infiltrator – perfectly possible (cf. the Madrid takfiris). So, his position isn’t in fact the position of al-Qaeda at all, but a falsely liberal one. What exactly has he achieved by this? And how then would it benefit us to know he was al Qaeda’s spokesman in Europe? Wouldn’t we all get a warm cuddly feeling about AQ after reading this? Maybe the Graun comments editorial staff are in fact Five, defending liberal society by keeping his affiliation secret… ;-)

  5. David T said:

    Well, basically, I agree.

    There are three aspects to the argument:

    1. Authorial intentions

    (a) I read an article by Mr Y which argues that a particular government policy has made all members of Mr Y’s cultural group extremely angry.
    I am interested to hear why Mr Y thinks that members of his cultural group are extremely angry.
    I then discover that Mr Y is a member of a political party which recruits by persuading angry members of a cultural group that the only solution to their anger is to join together to establish a repressive and totalitarian state.
    I wonder why Mr Y has only provided half of the argument. I suspect it is because he thinks – correctly – that if I hear that his preferred solution is the establishing of a repressive and totalitarian state, I will not respond sympathetically to his anger.
    I also wonder whether Mr Y is trying to recruit new members to the cause of his party through the pages of the newspaper in which the article is published.

    (b) Mr X writes an article which professes concern for the preservation of liberal and democratic values and suggesting a course of action which might be taken to safeguard those values.
    I share that concern for liberal and democratic values. I read the article and agree with Mr X’s arguments.
    I later discover that Mr X is a member of a political movement which promotes repression and totalitarianism and which seeks to achieve its goals by murdering people at random.
    I still agree that Mr X’s arguments are good: but I now think that Mr X was not sincerely advancing those views.

    2. Subtext

    I re-read Mr X’s arguments, in the light of my knowledge that Mr X is a member of a political movement which promotes repression and totalitarianism and which seeks to achieve its goals by murdering people at random.
    I now am in a position to speculate whether one of the methods which the political movement advances its repressive and totalitarian agenda, is to advance arguments which are attractive to me, as a person who wishes to preserve liberal and democratic values.

    3. The Newspaper

    Over a period of months, I consistently read articles in a newspaper by people who I later discover are strongly in favour, in one way or another, of a repressive and totalitarian state. In fact, the creation of a repressive and totalitarian state is their central political ideal.

    However, none of these articles ever advance the view that a repressive and totalitarian state should be created.

    I wonder what is going on at that newspaper.

    I don’t think people should be compelled to reveal their political views at all. Generally, those views are well understood: in fact opinion piece writers make a feature of them.
    However, I do think that newspapers which profess to be liberal and progressive shouldn’t invite advocates of a repressive totalitarian political system to write articles which have been crafted to avoid the tricky issue of their support for that ideology. It makes me feel that I’m being fooled.

    I don’t think that this is always being done deliberately. Often, I think that newspaper editors are just ignorant about the nature of extreme Islamist politics.

    As far as I can tell in the Aslam case, most of the staff thought that Hizb ut Tahrir was a party of devout, angry, muslims and little more than that. They didn’t know, in particular, that they are distributors of extreme racist propaganda. According to the Guardian’s accunt, Aslam was shown some of the extreme racist propaganda which Hizb ut Tahrir produced: he simply denied that it was racist. The Guardian decided that they didn’t want to employ an unapologetic racist from a fringe extremist political party, and sacked him.

    It isn’t Aslam’s fault that the Guardian knew nothing about Hizb ut Tahrir. It is their own fault. Aslam told people he worked with that he was an activist with Hizb ut Tahrir. Most of his colleagues didn’t bother to find out what sort of party it was. They could have had him report on Sport, of Gardening, or anything other than the area in which he was politically conflicted. Or they could have published his material as “Hizb ut Tahrir’s view”. The one thing they couldn’t do is to allow him to him to produce what were in effect sanitised propaganda pieces for an extreme totalitarian and racist political party.

  6. Jarndyce said:

    I agree with most of that. There were two things you wrote on HP that I disagree on, though:

    July 26th, on Aslam
    If they knew the nature of Hizb, why did they continue to commission him to write articles on issues which are central to the Hizb political programme, without requiring the disclosure to their readership of Aslam’s membership of an extreme political party?

    August 11th, on al-Faqih
    Did the Guardian know any of this? Again, why didn’t they flag it up to their readership?

    For the reasons I’ve already given. So, if the authors in 1a and 1b don’t want to give you that little nugget of info to complete the picture, that’s fine with me. It doesn’t invalidate or recommend their opinions. In fact, before I knew who Aslam was, I already thought his column was shit.

    On 2:

    I now am in a position to speculate whether one of the methods which the political movement advances its repressive and totalitarian agenda, is to advance arguments which are attractive to me, as a person who wishes to preserve liberal and democratic values.

    But why do that? What’s the motive? Anyway, I don’t interpret what he’s saying like that. He’s quite clear that he thinks liberal and democratic values are fine for Britain. What he proposes for the Arabian peninsula we can maybe guess.

    On the goings-on at the Guardian, as you write:

    the Guardian’s accunt.

    Sometimes. IMO their biggest error with Aslam was sending him to interview Shabina Begum, when Hizb were intimately involved with the case. It was unprofessional in the extreme, on all sides, for the interest not to be declared there.

  7. dsquared said:

    It’s also worth noting that in the case of al-Fagih he specifically denies being a member of al-Qaeda, so your suggested disclaimer would have to run to about a paragraph in itself.

    You’ve also moved on from that in your latest venture into the “truth in labelling” debate to, shall we say, more borderline cases like:

    c) Ms X publishes an article saying that things have got worse in Iraq since the invasion. She was a Kurdish Iraqi communist who was tortured by Saddam so she might know a bit. However, the Guardian ought to put a little note in italics pointing out that she wasn’t actually executed and might have cut a deal in order to save her life, so maybe she’s really a collaborator and a closet Ba’athist.

  8. David T said:

    1. The point I’m making is that the Guardian should not commission authors in these circumstances if they are unhappy also about having their status in Al Qaeda or Hizb Ut Tahrir flagged up. Neither Aslam nor Al Faqih are under any obligation to write for the Guardian about these subjects.

    I don’t think that this is something which the Guardian generally ought to be disclosing. We don’t need a CV for all authors.

    But if Aslam says “I’m just an angry lad from yorkshire” when he is also a member of a racist theocratic totalitarian political party which seeks to establish a Caliphate, then that is a different thing.

    Ditto Faqih.

    The obligation is the Guardian’s not the writers.

    2. You think that Al Faqih is a supporter of liberal and democratic values for Britain? You should read a bit more of what Al Qaeda theoreticians write, mate.

    What is his motive. Well, I don’t know. Have a little speculate with me if you’d like. Perhaps he thinks that the only way that the UK will beat al Qaeda is to suspend civil liberties, and wants to enlist the support of liberals in opposing that. Perhaps he’s just teasing.

    Al Faqih denies being a spokesman for Al Qaeda. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he. The UN list says otherwise. The presence of his name on that list is all that needs to be said.

  9. 1. We’re not going to agree here. I take your point, I just don’t see it as an obligation.

    2. I’m well aware that some “AQ theoreticians” don’t see a liberal and democratic Britain as part of the picture. There are also plenty who don’t give a shit what we do as long as we return Andalusia, get out of Arabia, drive the Jews from Palestine, blah blah, and so on. It’s pretty clear that what al-Faqih is saying in his column supports liberal democracy in Britain… so then we’re back to speculating about clandestine motives. In which case, your guess is as good as mine. Personally, I think that suspending civil liberties is the act of admitting defeat to al-Qaeda. That’s the white flag. Maybe that’s what qualifies me as a useful idiot?

  10. dsquared said:

    The presence of his name on that list is all that needs to be said.

    I’m sure that you can see how taken out of context this might appear a little bit McCarthyite.

  11. David T said:


    Well, so do I.

  12. David T said:

    (on your point 2, that is…)