Harry’s Race to the Bottom: the bullies who drive blogs Print E-mail
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by Laurie Penny

Today's monotheistic patriarchal desert religions were not designed with the Internet in mind. In the sandy days of yore when Isaac and Ishmael were going their separate ways across Canaan, a RAM was something you sacrificed and Google was the noise that your enemies made as you slit their throats for worshipping the local animal deities. It’s safe to say that the ancient prophets probably didn’t envision their followers, three millennia on, hacking out their politics in the comments threads of liberal websites.

The Internet, however, has been curiously conducive to sectarian squabbles, and nowhere is this more evident than in the demonising of, respectively, ‘Zionist’ and ‘Islamist’ thinkers on websites such as Harry’s Place and MPACUK (the Muslim Public Affairs Committee). The sites place themselves on opposite sides of a notional split in the British liberal left between anti-war thinkers who advocate solidarity with Muslim groups, and the theorists and activists behind the Euston Manifesto.

Journalist Nick Cohen, a founding member of the Euston group, explained that sites like Harry’s Place are founded on the reasoning that “people once assumed that left-wingers were against antidemocratic sectarian movements that seek to justify oppression on the grounds of nationality, race or religion, but this is certainly not true of our times.

“As long as movements and regimes of the far-right are anti-western, then western liberals and leftists will fail to confront ideologues who want to subjugate women, murder homosexuals and Jews and institute an inquisitorial theocracy that seeks to tell Muslims what they can or cannot believe.”

This reasoning, however, has not translated into reasoned, inclusive debate in the blogosphere. Whilst most contributors to sites such as Harry’s Place or MPACUK attempt to maintain at least a façade of tolerance, a scan of the comments to the average article reveals reams of virulent and poorly understood dogma, much of it founded on ignorance, racism and religious intolerance.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by anyone who has spent time moderating blog comments that as well as being a brilliant place to share ideas and force the pace of social change, the blogosphere has a tendency to lure idiots, bigots and bullies from their hiding places. Such is the case in comments threads of both camps in this debate. Not content with hosting frothing wingnuts, however, Harry’s Place has pursued what has been seen as a ‘witch-hunt’ against any Muslim or Muslim-ally who does not fit the site editors’ strict definitions of ‘moderation’; to whit, near non-involvement in politics.

In recent weeks the site has featured tasteless smear campaigns against, amongst others, recently deceased London politician Redmond O’Neill (“I am angry that a man whose life was spent in marginal and nasty political parties was able to attain such power…not everyone misses Redmond O’Neill”, said a guest blogger on the day of O’Neill’s funeral) and 17-year-old Young Muslims Advisory Group member Sabiha Iqbal, who has the temerity to be a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, an activity which in the eyes of Harry’s Place is clearly akin to spending one’s school holidays in terrorist training camps.

MPACUK and other anti-Islamophobic sites have a better track record of keeping their own house in order, calling out wingnuttery in the ranks and even denouncing prominent British Sharia activists such as Anjem Choudary as ‘extremist Muslim nuts’. This, perhaps, is as much a prudent response to contemporary suspicions of Muslims in politics as it is an objective ethical stance. Nonetheless, the sites are marred by reductionist attitudes to ‘Zionism’ that border on the anti-semitic, and by language that, at times, is just as threatening and hostile to site users from a Jewish background as Harry’s Place is to its Muslim readers.

A measure of sectarianism is in the nature of the Internet. When the theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the term 'Global Village' to describe the coming communications revolution in the 1960s, he did not envision an international cyber-community characterised by bucolic tranquility. Anyone remotely charmed by the notion of a Global Village has probably not spent a great deal of time in villages, which, global or otherwise, involve a whole lot of gossip, backstabbing, isolationism and petty vendettas for every bastion of smalltown solidarity.

That sites like Harry’s Place and its anti-Zionist equivalents have sprung up, peddling rumour, slander and intolerance on both sides of the debate, is an inevitable side-effect of the low cost of entry to online politics, as irksome and expected as the nausea that accompanies a course of antibiotics.

But sectarianism is not inevitable in the blogosphere. A still, small voice of reason in the virtual mud-slinging match of the past decade has been Sunny Hundal*. Hundal established Liberal Conspiracy and Pickled Politics, the sites he now edits, as a direct antidote to the sectarian ideology of websites like Harry's Place and MPACUK. After less than two years, they now dominate every left- and centre-left UK blog ranking, belying the inevitability of intra-liberal conflict. As a member of Liberal Conspiracy's advisory board, it's a delight to observe how simple and effective have been the tactics employed to avoid sectarianism: a rigorous comments policy, avoiding censorship but weeding out infighting and abuse, and the foresight to engage commentators from a wide variety of viewpoints.

The Global Village may never be a place of total harmony, because the blogosphere is about diversification of ideas rather than consensus. Where consensus occurs, the Internet is a powerful tool for activism – but where it does not, our reaction as liberals should be to forge links and build bridges between different liberal interest groups, just as it should be in activist meatspace. Sectarian slanging-matches are older than the Internet, older than the Left, older even than the Abrahamic faiths whose more bigoted factions have driven the current split in liberal politics – but with a little integrity and imagination, a progressive consensus can be built in the blogosphere.

[*Who didn't know this piece was going to plug him, or ask for it btw! - Ed.]

This article was corrected on 14 November 2009. The Euston Manifesto does not explicity support the Iraq War, as previously stated, and this detail was introduced in sub-editing. This has now been removed.

Last Updated on Monday, 16 November 2009 01:30
 
Comments (16)
Neuroskeptic
16 Wednesday, 18 November 2009 18:18
http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com
"After less than two years, they now dominate every left- and centre-left UK blog ranking, belying the inevitability of intra-liberal conflict."

Alexa Traffic Ranks for today. Lower is better.

pickledpolitics.com - 177,826
liberalconspiracy.org - 137,854
hurryupharry.org - 110,774
mpacuk.org - 72,083
The strange world of Harry's Place
15 Tuesday, 17 November 2009 18:57
Thesheikhofalamut
Funnily enough I just wrote a blog post about Harry's Place too, having got tired of the righteously Islamophobic tone:

http://politicoassassin.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/harrys-place-and-the-red-mist-of-rage/
append this
14 Monday, 16 November 2009 00:11
Josh Scholarj
That last comment was aimed at Gary Day
consistently shallow
13 Monday, 16 November 2009 00:10
Josh Scholar
There you go, another example. Just mislabel the site as "right wing" and you can ignore the actual content.

Apparently reading in any depth, or heavens, going back through the archives of a blog before passing judgment on it would be way too much work, as would actually considering the positions taken.
They just proved your point
12 Sunday, 15 November 2009 23:34
garry day
Good article Laurie. I think the fact that Harry's Place now have a post up inviting the right-wingers who comment at their site to indulge in a Sunday Special bullying festival shows you were bang on the money!

One question though: why will you not support the slaughter of the Somalian pirates? (That post was breathtakingly surreal!)
She's only a baby...
11 Sunday, 15 November 2009 21:46
zachary esterson
Only 22? They're starting blaming the Jews (sorry, "Zionists") early these days.
Mislabeling HP
10 Sunday, 15 November 2009 19:16
Josh Scholar
It occurs to me, as I read Harry's Place and notice that an anti-Iranian-regime activist occasionally comments... Do you classify siding with the Iranian people over the regime "Islamophobia"?

HP's positions are based on morality and principle not sectarianism or bigotry, so you are slandering them. Your will to dismiss them without debating their moral position smacks of an unwillingness to engage in a moral argument.
Bill Corr's post
9 Sunday, 15 November 2009 17:25
Sy
Now that's real Islamophobia. There is a difference.
LETS HELP MUSLIMS ALL WE CAN
8 Sunday, 15 November 2009 14:57
Bill Corr
We are truly fortunate to have so large, and so fecund, a Muslim minority.

While it is true that - of all 'Faith Communities' - Muslims have the highest rate of unemployment, the highest rate of incarceration, the highest rate of certified and compensated disability and the fewest educational qualifications, Muslims are a dependable voting bloc for the Labour Party.

Best of all there is a growing number of ever-so-clever Muslim MPs, one of whom - quite justifiably - spoke openly about the day when "the whole Parliament will be Muslim" and even anticipated the happy day when a Muslim is installed as Prime Minister!

O happy fate for barbarous Britain!
War cheerleaders
7 Sunday, 15 November 2009 13:54
teektaak
Nonsense, there war cheerleaders. Main figures associated with Euston manifesto such as Nick Cohen very vocal supporters of the Iraq war, that is what they / Harry's place do, to suggest otherwise if misleading. By their logic the evidence of depleted uranium and phosphorus munitions causing birth defects in Fallujah is probably the work of Islamists and the swp as well. Last comments typical of their spin and obtuse nature to give a liberal veneer to their rank bigotry.
Correction
6 Sunday, 15 November 2009 00:52
admin
Thanks Josh, our fault not Laurie's - the article was amended in editing. Have fixed it now.

RL
A smear on the decent left
5 Saturday, 14 November 2009 22:01
Josh Scholar
The Euston Manifesto neither supports nor attacks the Iraq War and some of the drafters and signers were opposed to the war, though probably not with the frothing hysteria you require..

You might try actually reading things before smearing them.

http://eustonmanifesto.org/the-euston-manifesto/

Until you actually read and understand the Euston Manifesto you will have no idea what Harry's place is about, so it's a given that you didn't understand that blog either.
Oh, and this
4 Friday, 13 November 2009 12:52
Mark T
"Not content with hosting frothing wingnuts, however, Harry’s Place has pursued what has been seen as a ‘witch-hunt’ against any Muslim or Muslim-ally who does not fit the site editors’ strict definitions of ‘moderation’; to whit, near non-involvement in politics."

is complete bollocks.
Err...
3 Thursday, 12 November 2009 22:41
Mark T
"In recent weeks the site has featured tasteless smear campaigns against, amongst others, recently deceased London politician Redmond O’Neill (“I am angry that a man whose life was spent in marginal and nasty political parties was able to attain such power…not everyone misses Redmond O’Neill”, said a guest blogger on the day of O’Neill’s funeral)"

I'd like to know - in what regard - that piece constitutes a 'smear'. Because frankly you don't seem to know what the word means.
Yes, but...
2 Wednesday, 11 November 2009 23:00
Oli
It's not only religious/ethnic issues that lead to this sort of behaviour to be fair - Spiked being a case in point. They manage to be sectarian even about science!

The blogosphere seems to encourage a sort of intellectual intolerance - maybe it's just an inevitable result of free speech; maybe it's down to the relative anonymity of the internet; maybe it's because online audiences have fragmented into ideologically and socially homogeneous groups who see no need to talk to people outside of their circle. Whatever it is, I'm not sure we can do anything about it save leading by example and doing our best to be civil.
Harrys Place witch finders and inquisitors
1 Wednesday, 11 November 2009 10:17
teek taak
About time some one did a proper critique and showed Harry’s place for what they are, witch finders and inquisitors that slander and vilify progressive figures both in the anti racist movement and any Muslim that has the audacity to object to either British or indeed Israeli state foreign policies. All this whilst often hiding behind anonymity and aliases as well. MPAC leave a lot to be desired and are often a mirror reflection Harry’s place. Harry’s place a pernicious bunch of bigots and fascists.

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