Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Follow-Up: The BHHRG Effect (with Update)

In "How Did the Blogosphere Get Fooled on Ukraine?", I failed to address one important factor influencing the stubborn refusal of the greater part of the blogosphere to recognize the complexities of the Ukraine situation: namely, the role played by John Laughland and the British Helsinki Human Rights Group (BHHRG), of which Laughland is a trustee, in first raising the alarm about both certain tactics of the "Orange" coalition in Ukraine and certain ideological currents in its ranks: most notably, anti-Semitic and fascistoid currents. Given Laughland’s record of opposition to the Iraq war and his tendency to see American geo-political machinations at work in every regional crisis, he was quickly identified by the more conservative, more pro-American – or, as I put it, anti-anti-American – sectors of the blogosphere as part of the loony “left”. These sectors of the blogosphere – including some of the most influential addresses on the web – were thus immunized from having to examine any of Laughland’s or BHHRG’s factual claims.

Laughland has in fact been known to spin some rather outlandish yarns on the ubiquity and perfidy of American power: yarns that have that hermetic quality that is so characteristic of anti-Americanism as an ideology or indeed of ideology in general. Arthur Chrenkoff has discussed a particularly egregious example of Laughland’s lack of lucidity, to say the least, when it comes to American matters. Nonetheless, if one is to judge by Laughland’s earlier scholarly efforts – notably, his books The Death of Politics, on France under Mitterrand, and The Tainted Source, on what the book's sub-title provocatively labels “the undemocratic origins of the European idea” – Laughland is decidedly not a “leftist” or at least he was not one when he wrote them. His scholarly writings reflect more what one could call a broadly “liberal” inspiration, i.e. in the classical sense of the term, comprising commitments to, among other things, economic liberalism and free trade, the balance of power in international relations and, perhaps most importantly for Laughland’s itinerary, the nation-state as the framework for democratic politics. These are, namely, commitments that ought, if anything, to mark Laughland as a “conservative”. Indeed, as this article from the Guardian illustrates, in “leftist” circles it is precisely Laughland’s and BHHRG’s direct or indirect, substantial or circumstantial, links to conservative figures and institutions – Mrs. Thatcher, Bill Cash, the Spectator, the Wall Street Journal and so on – that is supposed to discredit their factual claims about the Ukraine election crisis. The ideological diversity of the attacks on Laughland and BHHRG in connection with the Ukraine crisis lends support, incidentally, to my hypothesis that what is at stake in the latter escapes the traditional “left”/”right” divide as inherited from the Cold War.

Whereas, moreover, Laughland seems nowadays to be particularly animated by the anti-American Zeitgeist, in geo-political terms he seems at one time or another to have been against just about everything. The Tainted Source is or ought to be a standard text of Euroscepticism and, if memory serves (I am afraid I do not have the text to hand at the moment in order to verify), it ends with a decidedly Russophobe warning of a possible rapprochement between a German-dominated Europe and a renewed Russian empire. So, I suspect that those who have wanted to dismiss Laughland as a shill for Putin would find some cause for pause if they actually examined his writings more carefully.

Unfortunately, Laughland has given free reign to his current idées fixes on American “empire” also in his reporting on the Ukraine elections. Thus, for instance, in an editorial that he has published in various outlets, he says that the “Orange” youth organization PORA was “created and financed by Washington”. No evidence is given in support of this claim. If Laughland has some supporting evidence, I would be curious to see it. Other sources have identified George Soros and the Democratic Party’s National Democratic Institute (NDI) as possible sources of PORA funding. Considering the fervency of their opposition to the current inhabitant of the White House, it would hardly seem reasonable to identify either the Democratic Party or Soros with “Washington”. Moreover, as I have noted here, the NDI itself receives funding not only from the American government, but also from European ones and international institutions. In a similar vein, BHHRG’s report on anti-Semitism in the “Orange” coalition states that Viktor Yushchenko “enjoys the open support of the Bush administration” and implies that George W. Bush in person has “endorsed” Viktor Yushchenko. Again, no evidence is provided to support these claims, and in light of Viktor Yushchenko’s and the “Orange” coalition’s open opposition to the Bush administration’s foreign policy – notably, as concerns Iraq – it is extremely far-fetched to imagine Yushchenko enjoying any such “endorsement” from President Bush. (The outgoing Secretary State Colin Powell is, of course, another matter.)

I say that it is unfortunate that Laughland and BHHRG have indulged such phantasms in their reporting on Ukraine, since their doing so has provided a large part of the blogosphere and the public more generally all the excuse it needed to ignore the massive evidence supporting many of the core claims in their reports on the Ukraine election crisis. All that Laughland’s and BHHRG’s detractors would have needed to do to verify the claims of the latter regarding anti-Semitic and fascistoid currents in the “Orange” coalition, for instance, would have been to click through to the sources provided in the BHHRG report. These include numerous direct citations from both members and key backers of the “Orange” coalition. That this evidence has by and large gone unexamined provides an object lesson in the efficacy of ad hominem argument. Despite its efficacy, however, ad hominem argument is, of course, fallacious, and the common inference made in much of the blogosphere to the effect that the Laughland and BHHRG claims must be false since it was, after all, Laughland and BHHRG that were making them, provides a text book illustration of this fallacy.

What might be called the "BHHRG effect" has also, incidentally, been observed here on Trans-Int. For instance, when I first called attention to the BHHRG report on anti-Semitism and the "Orange", one DavidP. saw fit to leave a comment to the effect that "nobody takes BHHRG seriously". I wrote in reponse: "Well, if BHHRG cites the editor of a major 'pro-opposition' Ukrainian newspaper saying 'I personally have nothing against common Jews, but rather against a small group of Jewish oligarchs who control Ukraine both economically and politically. I believe the point of Zionism today is Jewish control of the world, and we see this process at work in Ukraine today' - then maybe it is about time for somebody to take BHHRG seriously."

I believe my point still stands....

UPDATE: By the way, the "Discoshaman" on the Postmodern Clog also uses the ad hominem approach to evading the specific charges of the BHHRG, "informing" his readers in a 28 November post that "[t]hey're an extremely biased group with no ties [link in the original] to the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights." Since BHHRG does not claim to have any connection to the International Helsinki Federation, the inclusion of the latter point is itself something of a dodge. (The word "Helsinki" in the title of both groups refers to the 1975 "Helsinki Accord", the implementation of which by state parties is officially supposed to be monitored by the OSCE. The BHHRG - which is also known as the "OSCE Watch" - makes no secret of its disdain for the OSCE.) Apart from this single sentence impugning the character of the BHHRG, the "Discoshaman" merely offers a link to another site that is supposed to reveal the group's "actual nature". The linked page offers no more detailed information on the subject than the Discoshaman himself, but includes a link in turn to the Guardian article mentioned above.

In the comments section, however, one of the Discoshaman's readers by the name of Christopher Price contributes to the cause by linking to a detailed exposé on John Laughland and the BHHRG titled "Can a Lobbyist for Dictators Work as a Journalist?" (The title, incidentally, is quite similar to that of the Guardian piece, which calls Laughland a "PR Man" for "Europe's nastiest regimes".) Lest anyone miss the point of his contribution, Christopher Price helpfully adds: "They [the members of the BHHRG] are not nice". The link leads to the Ukrainian Archive website of the anti-Semite and Ukrainian patriot Lubomyr Prytulak, who is also a favorite reference of Holocaust deniers or "revisionists" such as David Irving and Ernst Zundel. The esteem enjoyed by Prytulak in such circles is hardly surprising. His own site, as another reader of the Postmodern Clog points out in reponse to Christopher Price, contains passages such as the following:

Jews have an overpowering motive to gather the evidence. The story of the Jewish Holocaust has been widely disseminated, and yet the argument that the story is in part a fabrication is gaining ground. Thus, Jews have a powerful motive to discover physical evidence of Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Babyn Yar — the motive of demonstrating to the world that they are people of integrity, that they have an abiding committment to truth, that they are not corruptors of history, and that the reparations and sympathy that they have won for themselves have been deserved.

Jews have the means to gather the evidence. The Jewish Holocaust has become possibly a multi-billion dollar industry, such that the funding needed to substantiate the story on which the industry depends can easily be gathered.

As readers will be able to confirm in consulting the text from which the passage is taken, Lubomyr Prytulak's clever implication in this passage is that the required evidence of Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Baybyn Yar is not to be found - and hence that some of the key episodes of the Holocaust are "myths".

I discuss Lubomyr Prytulak's "Ukrainian Archives" at greater length here in "Nicholas Kristof and a 'Ukrainian Democrat'". In light of Discoshaman's seeming non-sequitur concerning the lack of ties between the BHHRG and the International Helsinki Federation, it is interesting to note that much of Lubomyr Prytulak's exposé on Laughland and the BHHRG is devoted to demonstrating the "bogus" character of the BHHRG and its unconnectedness to a "genuine" BHHRG (which, however, does not in fact use this acronym) that is a member of the International Helsinki Federation. Prytulak's exposé, furthermore, links the same document from the International Helsinki Federation dissociating itself from the BHHRG as is linked by Discoshaman. The BHHRG is apparently supposed to be an ideologically suspect source for the Discoshaman and his admirers: "extremely biased", as the Discoshaman says. Perhaps it is. But is Lubomyr Prytulak's Ukrainian Archives supposed to be a reliable source, by contrast?