Why I changed my mind

By John Rentoul

I wrote about how people change their minds in my Sunday article for The Independent, and quoted the late Norman Geras, one of my heroes. He once asked me, “Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you’ve ever changed your mind?” I said, markets, the kibbutz movement, nuclear disarmament, vegetarianism and television.

My friend Michael Walsh wanted to know more, so I have an excuse to elaborate. To start with markets, I decided I was a socialist at school, and that “from each according to ability, to each according to need” (Karl Marx, but of disputed origin) was the principle on which society should be organised. I said that everyone ought to be paid the same, which isn’t quite the same thing but you get the gist. My sister said, “But what if not enough people want to be doctors?” As Marvin the Martian said, back to the old drawing board.

I was primed, therefore, when in my gap year I went to work as a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel. The kibbutz movement was communist in its inspiration: the idea was to set up utopias governed by Marx’s doctrine, in which all material possessions would be held in common.

I enjoyed my stay, but the reality did not live up to the ideal. The internal politics of the kibbutz were obscure to us outsiders but were plainly fraught. Work in the kitchens seemed to be the price of losing out in a faction fight. As for equality of labour, the kibbutz employed casual Arab workers for the orange harvest.

The most striking retreat from the idealism of the founders was the abandonment of collective child-rearing. Until a few years before my arrival in 1977, the kibbutz children would spend some time with their parents during the day but would mostly be learning and looked after collectively and would sleep in the communal children’s quarters. Even to me, who could see that the family could be the original institution of oppression, this seemed terrible, and it seemed only sensible that kibbutz families now lived in family homes.

Anyway, one of the jobs I did on the kibbutz was working in the chicken house, a long shed with thousands of chickens filling the floor space, who had to be de-beaked – having the tips of their beaks sliced off by a hot wire – to stop them pecking each other to death. I didn’t become a vegetarian straight away, but by the time I left university the only meat I ate was fish. That was on the grounds that fish don’t feel pain, which a friend told me, but I wasn’t sure it was true. After a few years I changed to free-range meat only, which has been my rule since.

Meanwhile, I had joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, part of the movement’s upsurge in 1981 in response to the replacement of Polaris by Trident missiles. My early enthusiasm for the cause was checked abruptly when a friend asked, “Why should we give up our nuclear weapons if other countries don’t give up theirs?” For years afterwards I was an unenthusiastic unilateralist. As deputy editor to John Lloyd at the New Statesman, I was embarrassed when he wrote a leading article on the eve of the 1987 election condemning Labour’s policy of one-sided nuclear disarmament. But only because he did it without consulting anyone, and because it undermined Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, not because I disagreed with it.

Finally, television. This one really is embarrassing. I once thought it was a bad thing, an opium of the people, which kept them from morally superior and more active pursuits. That was before I discovered American football, a sport designed, literally, to be watched on television. Talking of American football, I have changed my mind about that now, too. It is a wonderful spectacle and an intricate tactical struggle, but the evidence of brain damage from the helmet collisions is unavoidable, so I cannot watch it any more.

It would seem that I changed my mind in two ways. One was simple, which was by someone I knew asking me a question. The other was by experience. Only the last case, the American football, came about through the classic means of seeking out and studying the evidence.

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Twenty-Five questions to Owen Jones on his conduct regarding Venezuela

By Jack Staples-Butler

“What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened… but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.”

– George Orwell, ‘Arthur Koestler – The Darkness at Noon’ – 1941

 

Hello Owen,

I hear you have finally broken your English-language silence of over 750 days on Venezuela. Some questions:

1) In 2008 Human Rights Watch was expelled from the country by force. Why didn’t you feel the need to mention this in any article you wrote?

2) Who paid for that ‘Election Observer’ trip you went on in 2012, and why was it not UN or EU-organised but one by Chavez-backed ‘UNASUR’?

3) Why did you consistently repeat Chavismo’s lofty claims about oil production, poverty rate etc despite many economists warning otherwise?

4) Why did you contribute to the demonisation of Venezuela’s opposition by repeating Chavismo propaganda tarring all with ‘CIA coup’ etc?

5) Did it ever cross your mind from 2012 onwards that Chavez referring to Kim Jong-il as a “comrade” he mourned might be a warning sign?

6) Did Chavez’s hero-worship of Fidel Castro and claims he wanted to turn Venezuela into ‘Venecuba’  ever cause you any concerns?

7) Did Chavez’s suppression of independent trade unions, social democratic parties and NGOs ever prick your conscience as a leftist?

8) Did Chavez’s hours-long rambling speeches which TV stations were forced to broadcast ever strike you as disturbing or suggest he was mad?

9) Did the fleeing of tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens to neighbouring countries strike you as odd or unsettling at all?

10) In your three years of writing praise and apologetics for Chavez, did you ever read any Human Rights Watch or Amnesty reports – at all?

11) Did you think it honest, decent and proper to take part in a propaganda tour in 2012 organised by the Venezuelan Embassy in the U.K.?

“… In addition to our Venezuelan guests plus Ambassador Samuel Moncada, a fantastic array of speakers includes: Owen Jones; Seumas Milne; Ken Livingstone; Esther Armenteros (Cuba); Alicia Castro (Argentina); Frances O’Grady (TUC) & Jeremy Corbyn MP.”

12) Did you ever tell people who went to those speaking events about the collectivos? Were you aware of the collectivos, Owen?

13) Did you support the Chavismo policy of taking street gangs, politically indoctrinating them then turning them loose with their guns?

14) Did you ever mention to your readers that Chavez was a 9/11 Truther, a Moon Landing hoaxer, and believed the CIA had given him cancer?

15) In other words, a psychologically disturbed crackpot whose spiritual successor is probably Donald Trump?

16) Did you think it ethical to propagandise on behalf of this regime, knowing as you did the history of the USSR and the Useful Idiots?

17) Given you mentioned the Useful Idiots and insisted you weren’t, did you read anything by Caracas Chronicles or a non-Chavismo NGO?

18) Do you feel any sense of moral responsibility for acting as an apologist and legitimiser for a regime now starving its people to death?

19) Do you feel any pangs of conscience? Do you feel a sense of remorse? Do you think of the people whose lives Chavismo has ruined?

20) Do you feel any obligation to your readers whom you spent 2012-15 misinforming about Venezuela only to then go silent on the subject?

21) Do you recognise that for your young and unworldly readers, you were their main source on Venezuela at the time? That they trusted you?

21) Did you stop talking about Venezuela in 2014-15 out of shame, guilt, embarrassment or just political expediency?

22) If yourself and Jeremy Corbyn had been listened to in 2012-15, the UK could now look like Venezuela. Why should you be listened to now?

23) Can you name a single Tory, Lib Dem or New Labour MP who said that Saudi Arabia was so amazing that it should be emulated in the UK?

24) Can you explain why you have deserted the subject of socialism in Venezuela and your ‘solidarity’ with it until forced to speak on it?

25) Finally, why did you live your life from 2015 onwards ‘as if’ nothing happened? As if you did not personally cheer on this catastrophe?

Those are my questions. Call me an Obsessive Angry Detractor if you want. Your right to self-righteous self-pity is now as bankrupt as Venezuela.

Open letter to Owen Jones

By Connor Pierce

Dear Owen

You’ve gone a bit funny lately.

I was once a fan of yours. While I did not always agree, I often read your journalism and respected your opinion. You were principled, had integrity, and fought for your beliefs, which I believed you held for the right reasons — even if we did sometimes reach different conclusions.

I no longer believe that. Many others agree, and you seem perplexed as to why. You think it’s because of Brexit, or the “degeneration of political discourse”, or something. It isn’t. It’s because of you.

I’d like to explain — but before I go further, allow me to digress into analogy.

British politics is a secondary school playground.

The Tories are the teachers. The rest of us are the students. Aloof, distant, powerful: they are generally resentful of — and certainly resented by — the rabble they rule. They squabble and gossip amongst themselves, playing petty power games behind the Staff Room door which impact our lives immeasurably but which we are powerless to change.

While they patrol the boundaries of our metaphorical playground for signs of trouble, they are, for the most part, oblivious to — and uninterested in — the social and political dynamics playing themselves out right under their noses.

The coolest kid in the playground is Jeremy Corbyn. Everyone wants a piece of him. The fit girls all fancy him. The music kids — the ones in bands and the wannabe rappers and DJs — all want to hang out with him. They even invite him to their gigs.

His champions — the journalists and activists who praise him at every opportunity — are the In Crowd. They strut around the playground with patches of Che Guevara sewn on their bags, making in-jokes and taking selfies as they flick two fingers up at the Tory teachers behind their backs.

Down at the bottom of the social spectrum are the sorry group to which I now belong: the Dorks, the Nerdlingers — the centre- and soft-left Labour voters and (God help us) Liberal Democrats who always thought Corbyn was vain and disingenuous; who always thought his pontifications over the teachers were superficial posturing without substance. We now lock ourselves in an unused, distant classroom at lunchtimes, eating ham sandwiches and playing chess, complaining about how unfair it all is and how we can’t wait to grow up and leave this fucking school.

Owen, you were never in the In Crowd. But, when you found yourself rubbing shoulders with those cool Vice journalists and the letterman-jacket-wearing jocks at Momentum, you didn’t really change. You still wrote with clarity and with integrity. You kept your head when the frenzied cult of Corbynism steamed into British politics; you didn’t engage (much) in petty squabbles and in-fighting with “Blairites” and “Neoliberals”; and you were not afraid to hold the mirror up. You were brave enough to criticise Corbyn in public: that took courage in the circles you moved in. The Nerdlingers respected you for that.

Something changed after the General Election.

After having been one of the Left’s best young journalists, you hurtled full throttle into the Corbyn-led In Crowd with all the passion, vigour and intensity of the repentant sinner turned TV evangelist. Your volte face on Brexit was only one of several other issues on which you supported a party line that contradicted your earlier ‘principles’. Your inability to even acknowledge such blatant hypocrisy was the start of your undoing as a writer of integrity.

But your Damascene conversion to Corbynism is not the only cause of disillusionment. Like the wimpy sidekick punching dorks to impress the high school bully, you have sought to prove your worth to the cool kids by doubling down on your attacks on the Nerdlingers at the bottom of the political high school food chain — that disparate, varied, and ever growing group of the politically homeless, the “Centrists” (whatever that actually means) that you now attack on a daily basis.

You have written blog posts, Guardian articles, Facebook posts and countless tweets about “Centrist abuse”, “Very British Coups” and “Militant Remainers” which deliberately seek to portray “Centrism” (which apparently means “not agreeing with Jeremy Corbyn”) as some kind of dangerous, sadistic cult. This is absurd. While I do not seek to deny the very real abuse you receive both on and offline (I do not know the political position of the sad and loveless perpetrators — some may indeed be “Centrists”), it is clear that you deliberately and disingenuously blur the line between what one might loosely call “sweary insults” and “abuse” in order to achieve this aim.

In one of your blogs on how online abuse was not the sole domain of the Left (it is not, but the Left has a huge problem on that front), you cited Nick Cohen and Janan Ganesh calling Jeremy Corbyn supporters “fucking fools” and “thick as pigshit” as examples of abuse. You more than anyone should know the difference between comments like that and targeted, sustained harassment of specific individuals, yet you mendaciously seek to cast them as the same thing. There is a name for that kind of thing: it’s called gaslighting. Everyone can see you doing it.

The sad thing about all of this is that the motivation for your transition from leading light of left wing writing to one of the most cynical hacks in journalism seems to be nothing short of popularity.

In an interview you held with Alistair Campbell some time ago, you revealed a trait not desirable of journalists: an unappealing preoccupation over what others think of you, particularly those on the far left. You have unfortunately surrendered your integrity to this sad fault.

Ultimately, you have decided that you want to be one of the In Crowd after all. To get there you are willing to tread not only on your own previously held beliefs, but on others who formerly shared them with you. That’s why people are mad at you.

What happened to you, man? You used to be cool.

 

Republished from the author’s original posting by kind permission.