Owen Jones: the self-delusion endures

Owen Jones

He still looks like a high-school kid – in fact, he’s 34 – but he’s been called “by far and away the most influential left of centre commentator” in all of Britain. To read him is to be baffled by the thought that anyone, anywhere, could possibly be influenced by him. The son and grandson of card-carrying Communists, he’s the ultimate knee-jerk ideologue, who, in his columns for the Guardian, his zillions of tweets, and his endless TV appearances, never comes out with anything remotely surprising, nuanced, perceptive, or thought-provoking. As we noted when we first wrote about Owen Jones on August 2, 2016, he has actually written the following sentences: “Modern capitalism is a sham.” “Democratic socialism is our only hope.” These two statements are at the core of his belief system. He is a fan of Cuban Communism and for a long time was a staunch defender of chavismo in Venezuela.

There’s more, to be sure. Jones is gay, and never tires of railing against right-wing homophobia; at the same time, however, he’s a big booster of Islam, and consequently a sworn enemy of right-wing “Islamophobia.” But what about the fact that sharia law calls for gays to be executed, and that several Muslim countries do indeed punish homosexuality with death, while others prescribe long prison terms and/or various forms of torture? Well, when confronted with those facts, he had this to say: “I’m done with people only mentioning LGBT rights when Islam is involved.”

The big walk-off.

This self-contradiction came to a head in June 2016 when a jihadist killed dozens of people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Discussing the massacre on Sky News, Jones attributed the murders to the perpetrator’s homophobia, but refused to discuss the Islamic roots of that homophobia, claiming that to do so would be to diminish the atrocity’s horror. Jones further insisted that neither the host of the Sky News program, Mark Longhurst, nor his fellow panelist, Telegraph journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer, were, as Hartley-Brewer later wrote, “entitled to venture any opinion on any issues arising out of this crime because we were straight and therefore could not presume to care as much about the deaths of 50 gay people as Owen.” In short, to quote our own summing-up of the exchange, “Jones was trying to use his gay identity to shut down any effort to link this mass murder to Islam.” Pressed on his refusal to face the simple fact that Islam has a problem with homosexuality, Jones walked off the show, later asserting that he’d done so because Longhurst had “repeatedly refused to accept that this was an attack on LGBT people” – which, as Hartley-Brewer put it, was “a blatant flat-out lie.”

Katie Hopkins

Jones’s walk-out drew many other media comments. In the Spectator, Rod Liddle, wrote that “the reliably idiotic left-wing columnist Owen Jones had a temper tantrum,” storming off the TV set because neither Longhurst nor Hartley-Brewer “would accept that the tragedy [in Orlando] was all about Owen.” In the Mail, Katie Hopkins drew a clear line in the sand: “Until Islam is tolerant of gay rights, we cannot tolerate Islam….LGBT rights or Islam….It is a binary thing.” Fellow gay writer Douglas Murray tweeted: “I’m sorry for Owen Jones. I would also feel guilty if I’d spent my life covering for the ideology that just killed 50 LGBT people.”

Douglas Murray

What happened on that Sky News show, of course, was that Jones was confronted with the irreconcilability of his pro-Islam and pro-gay stances. A more mature and honest commentator would have felt compelled to acknowledge this conflict and to do some serious rethinking. Instead, Jones sought to distract the TV audience from his predicament by throwing a fit and lying about his interlocutors. You might have thought that this pathetic display would have put a dent in his growing fame. On the contrary: it only enhanced his celebrity. Too many British newspaper readers and TV viewers, apparently, prefer his self-referential, ideologically reliable, and often hysterical commentaries to the views of more sophisticated, intelligent, reflective, well-informed people.

Margaret Thatcher

Anyone who expected that Jones, after his Sky News crisis, would actually work out his self-contradictions on Islam and homosexuality has been sorely disappointed. Incredibly, nearly three years after the Orlando massacre, he’s still toeing the same exact line. “Muslims and LGBTQ people should stand together, not fight each other,” read the headline on his Guardian column for April 11. In the piece, he took on a current controversy in Britain, where primary schools have announced plans to introduce “LGBTQ-inclusive education” and Muslim families have protested, in many cases successfully pressuring the schools to withdraw their plans. Jones harked back to “Section 28,” the long-dead law introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 to prevent the “promotion of homosexuality in schools.” Section 28 was repealed in 2003, and the prejudices that gave rise to it have almost entirely disappeared from English society – except, of course, in the rapidly growing Muslim community, where the reigning views of gay people are far more chilling than those held three decades ago by even the most bigoted member of Thatcher’s government.

British Muslims protest “inclusive education.”

But Jones is still unwilling to go there. Anent the ongoing Muslim campaign against “LGBTQ-inclusive education,” he writes: “The dangerous conclusion to draw from this saga is that Muslims and LGBTQ people are on a collision course.” But Islamic doctrines being what they are, how can he deny that these two groups are in fundamental conflict? As has been the case for years, Jones, being unable to honestly address this question, instead dodges it entirely and makes this move: “That is certainly the battle cry of ever more emboldened Islamophobes, who never talk of LGBTQ rights except when it becomes convenient artillery in their bigoted war on Muslims.” Note the wily wording here: Jones doesn’t exactly deny that being gay is a capital crime under sharia law; he just shifts ground, shoving Islamic homophobia out of the way and changing the topic to right-wing “Islamophobia.” There should, he insists, “be bonds of solidarity between two oppressed groups who are liable to have had abuse yelled at them on the streets by the same people.” But how often are Muslims in Britain actually victims of public abuse – and how often are Muslims the abusers? Is a gay person in Britain more likely to be harassed or beaten up by a Muslim or by a right-winger of British extraction? Jones doesn’t dare to ask these questions, the honest answers to which would upset his base, threaten his Guardian gig, and slow his meteoric rise to the top of the commentariat pack.

Che as Jesus?

Everyone’s favorite psychopath.

We’ve been working the Useful Stooges beat for a few years now. We’ve been at it so long, in fact, that you might imagine that we’re no longer remotely capable of being shocked by the high levels of self-delusion, evil-worship, and all-around moral depravity of which some of our fellow homo sapiens are capable. On the contrary, even we do the occasional double or triple take.

Kunzel’s book

Consider this story, courtesy of Arik Schneider at Campus Reform. On April 4, David Kunzle, a professor emeritus in art history at UCLA, gave a talk under the auspices of that university’s Department of Religion. In the talk, based on his book Chesucristo: The Fusion Image and Word of Che Guevara and Jesus Christ, Kunzle described Che as a “hero of the Cuban Revolution” and a “quasi-divine cosmic force.” Sharing various artworks in which Che is depicted in Christ-like fashion, Kunzle said that “Che Guevara, once the epitome of armed struggle, has evolved to an avatar of justice, peace, and love, as Jesus always was but no longer is exclusively.” Both Jesus and Che, maintained Kunzle, were leaders of “armed guerilla struggle[s].” Kunzle further stated that “[a]s God created light – is light – Che is radiance” and that his nickname, Che, is a “sacred trinity of letters.”

Still a bestseller.

Now, the fact is that in the half century since his death, images of Che Guevara actually have become iconic. We don’t deny that this makes the topic a legitimate subject of study for historians, social scientists, and students of art. Kunzle might have performed a genuine and multifaceted public service if he had been thoroughly honest about the life, ideology, and actions of Che Guevara, a bloodthirsty murderer who was dedicated to promoting a totalitarian dictatorship, and had provided a legitimate scholarly account of his posthumous transmogrification, on millions of t-shirts, posters, and other objects, into “an avatar of justice, peace, and love.” It doesn’t sound, however, as if Kunzle brought to his UCLA discussion very much in the way of aesthetic judgment, moral perspective, or historical objectivity. Yes, we gather that Kunzle realizes that there is at least some degree of tension between this image and the original reality. But the term “armed struggle” is so insufficient as a means of summing up the totality of Che’s career that it amounts to sheer whitewash. Did Kunzle, one wonders, use the word torture? Did he mention summary executions? Did he say anything whatsoever to indicate an awareness of Che’s profound sadism, the unbridled enthusiasm with which he butchered innocents by the score? Apparently not, especially given that his presentation “was followed by a thirty-minute Q&A period, where some of the attendees mentioned their own visits to Cuba and one faculty member ruminated on his experiences personally meeting Guevara.” The audience, reported Schneider, “appeared to approve of the depiction of Jesus and Guevara, going so far as to call the latter individual a ‘martyr’ in some of their own remarks in the Q&A portion.” It sounds, in short, like a lovefest, a fan club meeting, an exercise in nostalgia for the early days of the Castro Revolution.

The catalog for Kunzle’s 1997-98 exhibition

Schneider writes that “Kunzle seems to have hosted the talk at least once before, in 2011.” In fact it turns out that his interest in – obsession with? – this topic goes back a long way. Over two decades ago, in 1997-98, the Fowler Museum at UCLA held an exhibition curated by Kunzle under the title Che Guevara: Icon, Myth, and Message. And more than two decades before that, in 1975, Art in America ran an article by Kunzle about Che posters. As for Kunzle’s other writings, their topics include murals celebrating the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, art associated with Chilean Communist guerrilla movements, and Soviet film posters. Are you sensing a theme? Then there’s the fact that, in articles and reviews written before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Kunzle, in accordance with preferred Soviet and Maoist usage, routinely referred to Communist tyrannies as “revolutionary” societies and to the nations of the Free World as “bourgeois countries.” His politics, then, are clear enough. And his decades-long attraction to the idea of Che as Jesus is manifest – and, yes, even after all these years, shocking in its utter abhorrence.

Horrible Hamid

Hamid Dabashi

How vile an apologist for tyranny is he? So vile that in February 2017, we spent a full five days on him. We’ve discussed a good many professors of Islam or Arabic or Middle East Studies who have incredibly ugly things to say about Israel and Jews, but even in that crowd Hamid Dabashi stands out. A protégé of Edward Said and a longtime Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Said’s own longtime academic home, Columbia University, Dabashi was named by fourteen Columbia students and recent graduates in a 2004 video as one of the three most anti-Semitic professors they’d had. In a 2005 article, he wrote that Jews possess “a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep” and that “a systemic mendacity…has penetrated the deepest corners of what these people have to call their ‘soul.’”

Afar Nafisi

In 2006, he savaged Azar Nafisi’s widely praised book Reading Lolita in Tehran, about literature classes that she taught secretly to women in post-revolutionary Iran, calling her a postcolonialist tool and likening her to Lynndie England, the U.S. soldier notorious for mistreating inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. In 2007, when the Iranian tyrant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was asked to speak at Columbia, many observers criticized the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, for issuing the invitation, but what outraged Dabashi was Bollinger’s introduction, in which he called Ahmadinejad “a petty and cruel dictator.” Bollinger, wrote Dabashi, was a “white racist supremacist.” In 2011, he accused ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq of having “demonized their own cultures and societies” “to advance their careers” and “justify US carnage.”

Lee Bollinger

You’d think that at some point Dabashi’s job at Columbia would have been in danger. Nope. Complaints have been made over the years, but Dabashi has never even been rebuked, let alone disciplined, by any of the higher-ups at Columbia. Far from being a pariah in the academic community, in 2015 it was reported that Dabashi, after giving a series of talks in Germany in which he smeared Israel and minimized the Holocaust, was now “the darling of German academe.”

And we’re here to report that he’s still at it. On March 30, he took to Twitter to react to the U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel had captured in the 1967 Six Day War and formally annexed in 1981. “What’s the difference between ISIS and ISRAEL?” Dabashi asked in his tweet. The answer: neither has a claim to the Golan Heights. “All of Syria belong to all Syrian people, not an inch it either to ISIS or to ISRAEL.” He also wrote that if ISIS doesn’t enjoy U.S. support, it’s because “ISIS does not have a platoon of clean shaven and well coiffured columnists at the New York Times propagating the cause of the terrorist outfit as the Zionists columnists do on a regular basis.” Unusually for Dabashi, he later deleted the tweets. It’s hard to imagine why, because they were hardly any more offensive than many of his other public statements about Israel.

Applauding Brunei

Sultan of Brunei

Now that the government of Brunei has fully implemented sharia law in regard to gays and adulterers – meaning that those found guilty of these violations of Islam will henceforth be stoned to death – politicians, celebrities, and commentators around the world have been unhesitant in their expressions of outrage. People like Ellen Degeneres, George Clooney, and Elton John have called for boycotts of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Dorchester in London, the Plaza Athenee in Paris, and other the posh hostelries that the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, owns in the U.S. and Europe; Deutsche Bank has banned its employees from staying at the hotels, and the Financial Times and other firms have cancelled events scheduled to take place in them. Ads for holidays in Brunei have been pulled from London buses; Virgin Australia terminated a deal with Royal Brunei Airlines, the state-owned carrier, as has at least one major travel agency; Western universities that have awarded honorary degrees to the Sultan (who also serves as his nation’s prime minister, defense minister, finance minister, and foreign minister) have said that they are reviewing those honors.

Interior, Dorchester Hotel

Yet this fury over the Sultan’s action is not universal. Residents of Brunei interviewed by the Agence France-Presse gave it a thumbs-up. “I’m proud, because implementing the law feels like it solidifies the Islamic identity of Brunei,” said Muhammad Antoni, a 27-year-old worker. Haziah Zainal, a 36-year-old civil servant, said that famous people calling for boycotts should mind their own business. “These actions seem ignorant,” said Zainal, “as they have not even been here to experience what it’s like.” While everyone is focusing on Brunei, homosexuality is a capital offense in at least ten other Muslim countries, although in Yemen the punishment is applicable only to married men and in Qatar only to married Muslims. One of the countries in question is Saudi Arabia, but this has not prevented companies like Uber, Lyft, Twitter, and Snapchat from accepting Saudi investment or universities like MIT, funded by Saudi money. Polls have shown that close to half of Muslims in Britain would like to see sharia law introduced in that country, but when UKIP head Gerard Batten said on LBC the other day that many British Muslims do indeed hold anti-democratic views, his interviewer called this a grotesque exaggeration and branded Batten a far-right bigot for even suggesting such a thing.

Daniel Haqiqatjou

Among those celebrating Brunei’s tough new laws was Daniel Haqiqatjou, a Harvard-educated American Muslim who, in a March 30 article, praised the Sultan for “implementing hudud [punishments dictated by sharia law] to crack down on sodomites and fornicators!” Haqiqatjou explained his enthusiasm as follows: “Allah created human beings in a certain way. Our bodies and minds are created in a certain way and only certain types of relationships allow human beings to flourish in this world and the next, while other types of behaviors lead to destruction and widespread suffering.” Taking note of the organized effort to persuade people not to stay at Brunei-owned hotels, Haqiqatjou wrote: “I think Muslims need to counteract any boycott by making Brunei their next vacation destination spot. Maybe some of these expensive spiritual tourism tours…can make Brunei the next go-to site, maybe attend a caning or two so Western Muslims can experience first hand what implementing hudud actually means.” If Haqiqatjou were some rara avis, of course, his views wouldn’t be worth heeding. The alarming fact, however, is that his number is legion.

Great! Another movie with a Stalinist hero

When, other than under the Third Reich itself, did any major film producer ever release a movie in which the hero is a devoted Nazi? The answer, of course, is never. If any such picture ever hit the theaters, it would be universally denounced as an endorsement of totalitarianism.

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

But for some reason the same doesn’t apply to Communists. For decades, Hollywood has made one picture after another in which out-and-out Stalinists were treated sympathetically and their poisonous nature of their political beliefs was totally whitewashed. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) depicted the atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg not as villains but as victims. Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) portrayed the Hollywood Ten, all of them card-carrying members of the American Communist Party who were taking orders from Stalin, as First Amendment heroes. Four years ago, Jay Roach’s Trumbo essentially turned Cold War screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – who in real life was a hard-core Stalinist ideologue, an unquestioning supporter of Uncle Joe’s Gulag, show trials, and summary executions – into something resembling a classical liberal.

The real-life Melita Stedman Norwood

The latest contribution this reprehensible genre is Red Joan, based on the life of Melita Stedman Norwood, a London woman whose secretarial job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association provided her with access to her country’s atomic secrets and who spent decades of her life working for the Soviet Union, first as an NKVD spy and later as a KGB agent. The material she passed to the Russians enabled them to produce a copy of the UK’s atom bomb. Incredibly, not until 1999 – years after the fall of the USSR – were her espionage activities publicly revealed. Also incredibly, she was never prosecuted for her crimes.

Trevor Nunn

Directed by 79-year-old Trevor Nunn (who is best known for directing plays on Broadway and in the West End), written by Lindsay Shapero, and starring Sophie Cookson (as the young spy) and Dame Judi Dench (as her older self), the movie has been shown at film festivals and will be released in the US and UK on April 19. The key point is that Nunn treats this traitor – who in the film is given the name Joan Stanley – as a hero. And reviewers have bought into it. The Hollywood Reporter called Red Joan a “good old-fashioned British spy thriller …with a bewitching female heroine.” It’s “a story of ideals and self-sacrifice that seem impossibly distant in the current day and age.” While stealing state secrets, Joan “demonstrates nothing but courage, intelligence and furious conviction.” She is “every inch a heroine.” Variety, while finding the film “flat,”also had no problem describing Joan as a heroine.

Judi Dench as “Red Joan”

In real life, Norwood was the daughter of Commies – a red-diaper baby – so loyalty to the Kremlin came naturally; the only motive she ever gave for having betrayed her country was that she was, indeed, a convinced Communist, full stop. Apparently in order to give Joan Stanley a more appealing motive for treason, Shapero’s script depicts her as being influenced, in her callow youth, by a couple of appealing friends who are German Jews and devout Communists – and whose Communism, as is so often the case in these movies, is equated with opposition to Hitler. At the same time, Shapero plays down her protagonist’s Communism, investing Joan with the belief (never held by the real Norwood) that giving atom secrets to Moscow would deprive the West of a monopoly on nukes and thus make the world safer.

After perusing the idiotic reviews in the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and elsewhere, we were pleased to encounter at least one critic who had his head screwed on right. Calling the film “Operation Whitewash,” the Daily Mail‘s Guy Walters described it as “preposterously sympathetic to a woman who betrayed Britain’s most precious state secrets to Joseph Stalin, one of the most evil and murderous men who has ever lived.” Bingo. Why is this so hard for some people to see?

Maduro: down but not out

Nicolas Maduro

We’ve written about Venezuela a great deal at this sight, but not lately. What more is there to say? We reported faithfully on its decline, which now seems pretty much complete. Why repeat ourselves? Given what the people of Venezuela are being put through because of the idiocy of chavismo, it seems almost cruel – almost like rubbing it in, like slumming, like saying “I told you so” – to keep returning to the scene of the crime and gazing, like callous rubberneckers at a car accident, at the sad wreckage of Hugo’s and Nicolás’s tyranny.

On the other hand, there have been a few developments worth taking note of. For example, the fact that while most of the governments in the Western hemisphere have joined the U.S. in recognizing Juan Guaidó as the new president of the beleaguered country, Maduro, the former bus driver who inherited the Bolivarian throne from Chávez, still has allies.

Hugo Chavez

One of them is Cuba, whose Communist regime was the model for Chávez’s own. As Eli Lake of Bloomberg News reported recently, the Venezuelan military and police are infiltrated with members of Cuban intelligence, some of whom are responsible for giving Maduro daily briefings. Thousands of Cuban “security forces” harass Venezuelan citizens. The Organization of American States has said that Cuba has what amounts to an “occupying army” in Venezuela numbering about 15,000. “This contingent of Cuban advisers,” Lake wrote “will make it much more difficult for Venezuela’s military to help Guaidó prepare for new elections, as it is being pressured to do.”

Moreover, the ties Chávez forged with Russia and China are still strong. Maduro has shipped cheap oil to China and allowed Russian warships into its ports. Russia, like Cuba, has “military advisers” in Venezuela, and promised in late March to keep them there as long as Maduro needed them — in response to which Trump, while meeting with Guaidó’s wife at the White House, demanded that they be called home. The ayatollas in Iran also continue to support Maduro. Those alliances, of course, are to be expected. Rather more surprising is the apparent coziness between Mexico’s new leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and Maduro, whom he invited to his inauguration in January.

Juan Guaido

Even after month after month of painful headlines about the present social and economic conditions in what was once one of the world’s richest countries, some Western politicians continued to profess admiration for Maduro, and some Western media not only find ingenious ways to avoid blaming his nation’s catastrophe on socialism but even try to perform at least a partial whitewash that catastrophe. As recently as in late January, for example, the BBC described Venezuela as having experienced a “reduction in inequality and poverty.” What kind of way is that to describe a country where countless people are eating pets, countless more are fleeing to neighboring Colombia, and the inflation rate is just shy of 10 million percent?

From palace to prison

It’s fun to be a British royal in Cuba.

Vanity Fair apparently found the whole thing delightful: “With make-your-own mojitos and stylish sunglasses, the future King of England proved that diplomacy can be fun.” The occasion in question was a four-day Cuba trip in late March by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. As VF put it, they “decided to mix work and play,” seeing the island’s “nicest sites and activities” (translation: their hosts took them on what used to be called a “Potemkin tour”), “embrac[ing] Cuba’s love for vintage cars” (as if the superfluity of junky 1950 vehicles were a product of taste and not of necessity), “spoke to artists about their response to a tornado that hit Havana in January” (these were, of course, government-approved artists, not dissident ones who are languishing in jails as political prisoners), and “met with activists who work on issues connected to domestic violence” (again, they certainly didn’t meet with pro-democracy activists).

Charles, meet Che.

Town and Country was so excited by the royal drop-in that it ran a glossy spread featuring “the best photos” of it – for example, an image of the heir to the British throne posing in front of that famous mural of Che Guevara in Havana. Interesting, isn’t it, how these high-class magazines devoted to capitalist comfort are so charmed by one of the world’s few remaining Communist dictatorships? Town and Country, by the way, was one of several publications that included a photo of a bench with a statue of John Lennon seated on it. Nobody bothered to comment, however, on the appropriateness of the Lennon figure: for the fact is that the end result of the political views articulated in Lennon’s anthem “Imagine” is always a terror state like the Castro’s.

Imagine there’s no Windsors.

Then there were the British newspapers. The Express focused on a supposedly whimsical part of the tour, when Charles and Camilla were shown how to use a large press to crush sugar cane to make mojitos. In a classic photo op, the Prince of Wales tried his hand at the press, quipping, apparently to the delight of the press contingent on hand, that he was certainly “cheap labour” – riotous humor for somebody visiting a country that is, in essence, an island prison. The august Times was presumably amused too, running a headline about the wonderful success that had been achieved by the royals’ “mojito diplomacy.”

Making mojitos.

Recall that when Donald and Melania Trump visited Britain last summer, Prince Charles and his older son, Prince William, both refused to meet him, obliging the Queen to greet the President and First Lady alone. When Charles referred to the Holocaust in a speech and lamented the fact that hatreds of the kind that motivated the Nazis are still alive and well, many observers got the distinct impression that he was alluding to Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban.” Prince Harry, Charles’s second son, has also publicly badmouthed the American President. Curious how key members of the House of Windsor are so eager to be on jolly good terms with Caribbean tyrants but don’t mind insulting the elected leader of their country’s strongest ally and protector.