“I have here in my hand…” Washington Post May 7, 1954.
Top tips to start you off
Wanna be a troll? Fancy trashing someone’s reputation forever, destroying their peace of mind, alienating their friends and wrecking their political career? This is a process known in the trade as “smearing”. All you need is a bit of ingenuity and an utter lack of human compassion.
From my own experience, here are a few insights into how smearing works.
A few years ago I was accused of antisemitism. What a shock!
It was the start of antisemitism being a thing. My accuser had trawled my Facebook page and found an article by Jewish academic Norman Finkelstein that he claimed proved I was supporting a Holocaust denier.
Finkelstein was, of course, not a Holocaust denier — on the contrary, both his parents were survivors of the Holocaust and met in a displaced persons camp. But he had written a book called The Holocaust Industry, which argues that some in the American Jewish establishment exploit the memory of the Holocaust for political and financial gain, as well as to further the interests of Israel. That was enough to make Finkelstein himself prime material for a fake antisemitic smear.
Not that the accuser had read Finkelstein’s book, of course. He’d just used Finkelstein’s name on my Facebook page as a shortcut to accusing me of antisemitism.
I was angry enough to phone my smearer, and he explained that the real reason he thought I was antisemitic was because I’d been to a demonstration outside our local arms manufacturer (yes, here in Broadstairs!) organised by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
The factory happened to be owned by an Israeli company.
“And that’s why you were there!” he claimed. “Because you hate Israel, and that’s antisemitic!”
I explained I was a pacifist and didn’t want an arms manufacturer — whatever country they were linked to — a couple of miles from my house. But my accuser knew only too well that calling me a boring old 60s peacenik wasn’t half as exciting — or damaging — as the trendy new smear of antisemitism, so that’s what he spread all over social media.
THE LONG LOGIC CHAIN
Since then, antisemitic smearing has almost become old hat.
All the smearer has to do is trawl your Facebook and make a really long chain of connections that leads to a juicy conclusion. Then put it out as fact! It’s only your word against the person you’re accusing, and if you’ve found something to links them to the killing of millions of Jews: success!
What could be nastier?
Of course, the fact that my whole life I have campaigned against all forms of racism, including antisemitism, and that to even hint that I am anything but utterly appalled by what happened to Jewish people because of the Nazis is a devastating lie and a slur, gets totally lost in all the vitriol.
Ironically, it was an antisemitism smear which, in a twisted and indirect way, got me expelled from the Labour Party last year — and it’s a wonderful example of the long logic chain.
In 2019 Jackie Walker, herself a victim of a totally false antisemitic smear — I should know, I was at the meeting that was the root of the false allegations against her — was nonsensically expelled from the Labour Party for “prejudicial and grossly detrimental behaviour against the party”.
He won a legal case against Labour, got suspended again and resigned from the party. In 2020 I was expelled from the party for the grave crime of wishing him good luck.
Once the smearer has labelled someone — antisemitic, paedophile supporter, mysogynist, etc — a key rule of successful smearing is to keep repeating it as if it’s accepted by everybody and has become part of their public persona.
So when you Google, for example, Ken Livingstone, it’s not long before you hit the accusations of antisemitism against him. One controversial, though true, bit of history mentioned by him, quoted out of context, and all his track record as socialist campaigner and iconic London mayor is shaded into the background.
Adding “notorious antisemite” in front of your target’s name is very easy, and then anything they do looks dodgy, no matter how reasonable.
One smear the right has tried on the left, but with less success, is the “paedophile supporter” slur.
Here, I think, the logic chain is too loose.
Remember the Rotherham sex scandal, where Labour councillors were accused of failing underage girls being groomed for prostitution? Well, a few years later I heard right-wing thugs shouting “paedophile supporters” at Stand Up to Ukip campaigners in Thanet.
But they weren’t really sure how to pronounce the word paedophile or, when we questioned them, what it meant. And remember how easy it is to mix up “paedophile” with “paediatrician”…? Lesson for the apprentice smearer: don’t make yourself look stupid for a spelling mistake!
The most skilful smearer knows how important it is to include in their attack something personal about their target. It’s gold dust for unnerving them. The smearer (who’s usually, but not always, anonymous) sends love to mutual friends, asks after their flu jab, and pretends to know everything about them.
An extreme example of personalising a smear attack I know of was one where the smearer photoshopped a friend of mine on a demonstration, changing the message on their placard to something embarrassing. The smearer then shared the photo everywhere on social media so my poor friend had to waste a ridiculous amount of time explaining it was a total fake.
Be careful if you think of taking on a smearer. Most smearers these days are pretty expert in turning attempts to deal with them back against their victims, using them to smear you some more. So the smearer turns up at your Zoom meeting and plays loud music or shows pornography or just shouts — anything to interrupt proceedings.
Do anything against the smearer to try to stop them disrupting your meeting and, chances are, they will smear you as a bully — while they pose as a champion of free speech!
One thing to remember about really good smearing is that, like Covid, it’s contagious. Defend someone who has been smeared and you may well find the smearers coming after YOU.
Film-maker Ken Loach is a case in point. He was one of the few high-profile figures who was prepared to speak out for Jeremy Corbyn when he was being attacked as an antisemite. He himself then became the victim of vicious smearing.
In February 2020 he was chosen by the charity Show Racism the Red Card to be one of the judges of a schools’ art competition. By March an aggressive campaign smearing him — totally falsely — as an antisemite directed at the charity’s funders had forced him to step down.
Now, almost a year later, the smearers are after Loach again. Based on an interview he did in the 1980s they’re trying — ludicrously — to make him out to be a Holocaust denier. But this time it looks like the smearers have overplayed their hand and have sparked a huge online campaign supporting Loach and refuting the accusations.
Of course, Loach’s real crime was to stick up for Corbyn. He wasn’t the main target of the smear — he just caught it from others.
TRANSPHOBIA – A NEW TREND
The latest development in smearing weaponry, in my experience, is challenging women about whether they support the proposition TWAW (Trans Women Are Women).
The debate over transwomen is a hotly contested one, with a lot to be said on many sides of a complex argument. I don’t confess to fully understand it myself — but feelings run very high and it’s easy to upset people.
Especially true if you’re standing in an election where the issue is raised. Give the “wrong” answer and you run the risk of being accused of transphobia — being hostile to trans people.
Maybe you are transphobic. Maybe you’re not. But don’t think it’s as easy as agreeing with a simple statement such as “Trans Women Are Women”. If a smearer wants to smear you for political advantage, then they won’t be interested in the nuances. They will call you transphobic — and that’s that.
THE BIGGEST SMEAR OF ALL
Of course, the greatest smearing in living memory was the McCarthy hearings in 1950s America.
These were triggered by Republicans desperate to break the long grip the Democrats had enjoyed on political power in the country.
Liberal-leaning and lefty people alike were smeared as commies or ex-commies, lost jobs, friends, peace of mind. Some even took their own lives.
The really nasty trick of this smearing, carried out by the vicious right-winger Joe McCarthy, was that you could escape being smeared by squealing on your mates. In other words, it was a sort of pyramid smearing. It started at the top and spread over many thousands of ordinary people.
This was a smear that became a dirty blot on American life. You can still see the imprint it left on those Trump supporters who believe that Joe Biden is a socialist and that socialism will destroy the American way of life. So, just in case, they’re cleaning their guns in readiness.
It’s a dirty, dangerous business this smearing. So watch out!
Christine Tongue was expelled from the Labour Party in October 2020 for wishing good luck to Chris Williamson. She is now a founder member of the Labour in Exile Network, http://www.labour-in-exile.org/.
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