Bristol University Bristol University. Photo: Pixabay

Trade unionists should defend workers against management attack, and defend academic freedom in universities, argues Mike Wayne

It should be no surprise that the tidal waves of propaganda threatening to drown political debate and our capacity for reasoned discussion, are now washing over university campuses. In such circumstances reasoned arguments, truths even, are swept away by a barrage of smears, disinformation, innuendo and false inference making. Trying to pick your way through the wreckage of what is left of our public sphere is tricky. Here is The Guardian reporting on Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism in the Labour party:

‘Jeremy Corbyn has rejected the overall conclusions of a report on antisemitism in Labour, saying the problem was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and the media’ (Oct 29, 2020).

The Guardian, with its begging-bowl pleas to fund its fearless speaking truth-to-power journalism, unmasks itself yet again as liberal propaganda. Corbyn in fact called for the report’s recommendations to be implemented, but he was perfectly entitled to argue that the scale of the problem inside the party was exaggerated for political purposes.

What little research that was conducted on discrepancies between public perception and the actuality, was produced by Professor Greg Philo at Glasgow university, which suggested that there was indeed an exaggerated public perception of the problem. Yet, under a propaganda regime, reasoned views must be sanctioned. Corbyn suffered the consequences and meanwhile, antisemitism in the party, such a hot news story while Corbyn was leader, very quickly disappeared off the agenda once Starmer became leader. A co-incidence no doubt.

Now Professor David Miller has been sacked by Bristol University following a two-year campaign for that outcome by various groups and individuals accusing him of antisemitism. Miller had a background in Media Studies before moving onto researching public relations, especially by powerful corporate and state actors. He is a leading figure behind the website Spinwatch.

Public relations of the powerful involves managing the reputation of organisations and neutralising detractors and challengers. As any student of public relations knows, it often works behind the scenes, influencing outcomes and perceptions through third parties such as lobby groups and journalists. The lack of transparency is a problem. Studying it and exposing it is a problem too for that very reason, and because uncovering links between powerful actors in elite networks can easily be re-interpreted as ‘conspiracy’ thinking.

Criticising the Israeli state

When Miller moved into studying how Islamophobia was being fanned by Israeli state actors and intermediaries, the potential for the accusation of being a tin-foil hat wearer was now combined with the much more serious charge of recycling antisemitic theories of Jewish plans at world-wide domination, such as the Nazis’ talk of Jewish control over the banking sector in the 1930s. Conflation, the submerging of two categories that are distinct, as in the case of Jewishness and finance capital, is a typical strategy of ideology.

Here is another conflation: that attacking Zionism is synonymous with attacking Jews. It is a conflation that is extremely useful in protecting the reputation of the Israeli state and neutralising its detractors. It is absurd to suggest that the Israeli state has not had a hand in promoting this conflation in the sphere of western public opinion. To be honest, it would be stupid for it not to try. Miller has made his anti-Zionist critique very public and can now consider himself ‘neutralised’ by the very phenomena he was studying.

In a free society it cannot be beyond the pale to make the case that Israel looks remarkably like a settler-colonial project, from the date of its foundation to the present day. Or that as a result, like other settler-colonial projects, pursued by the British, the French and other European nations, racism comes in handy as a justifying rationale. Nor can it be forbidden to suggest that the cause of social justice would be best served by calling for an ‘end to Zionism’, as Miller did. Agree with it or not, such views are hardly lunacy, indeed the lunacy would be to argue that such views are incompatible with acceptable thought.

Suppressing dissent

In the case of Bristol University, they decided to take the path of lunacy. They called in a Queen’s Counsel to examine the case against Miller, who concluded, according to Bristol University’s own statement, that ‘Professor Miller’s comments did not constitute unlawful speech’. Naturally they fired him, nonetheless.

In an ominous warning of what this may portend, The Jewish Chronicle, taking time out from having to pay libel damages to various figures it has impugned (e.g. Marc Wadsworth and Nada Al-Sanjari), declared that Miller’s sacking should only be the start of a campaign:

‘The tide is turning and … universities will no longer be able to offer … a safe space from which to spread their toxic poison.’

If David Miller is a ‘Holocaust denier’ as ex-Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has claimed, then that would indeed be a ‘toxic poison’. I could find no evidence of this. Perhaps Jenrick, who wrote repeatedly to Bristol University urging them to take action against Miller, might want to provide that evidence, or alternatively contact his lawyer in the event Miller sues him for defamation.

Political opportunism

One of the factors corroding public debate and the robustness of democracy and political consciousness, has been the rising tide of ‘feelings’ of hurt, offense and discomfort as evidence of discriminatory discourse. The problem with making feelings so important in our political debates is that we are no longer looking at what people say, but at the reporting of the responses people are said to have at what people say.

This can only encourage political opportunism, as criticised groups wheel out their bruised sensitivities whenever they hear something they do not like, and denounce their detractors. That is why Victim Impact Statements in criminal cases are only heard if a guilty verdict is handed down by the court. They cannot form part of the evidence to be weighed by the jury. The endgame of the tyranny of feelings is a deeply authoritarian reluctance to be offended.

And it is not just the right that will play this game. What the philosopher Nancy Fraser calls ‘progressive neoliberalism’ is also very adept at it. The Guardian has run numerous articles claiming that ‘cancel culture’ on university campuses is part of a right-wing conspiracy (that word again) dreamed up by a government pursuing its culture wars. How embarrassing for The Guardian then that this imaginary conspiracy exploded on 7 October at the University of Sussex. Posters appeared there calling for the sacking of Professor Kathleen Stock. Her crime? That she is ‘gender critical’, meaning she believes biology is a co-determinant in the lives of women, and cannot be simply wished away by the belief that anyone can be a woman. Further, she and fellow gender-critical feminists have reasonable cause to think that such beliefs will have negative consequences for women. Again, hardly lunacy.

Unlike Bristol, the vice-chancellor of Sussex has defended Stock and academic freedom, launching an investigation into the campaign to have her fired. One would like to think that the University and College Union (UCU) would have enough of a moral-political compass to follow suit. But alas, at the time of writing, despite many Twitter communiques to the General Secretary Jo Grady, there has been a devastating silence.

Similarly, only UCU Scotland have defended David Miller (who is Scottish) but the national UCU are once more keeping their heads down. If the culture-war warriors from the right and the ‘progressive neoliberals’, who have unfortunately colonised much of the left, continue to hold sway, then Higher Education and democratic values more broadly, will be irreparably harmed.

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