Author Archives: ianjs2014

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2021

Having directed the award-winning 2011 documentary about Gene Sharp, How To Start A Revolution, Ruaridh Arrow has now published an engrossing biography of the man who CNN once called ‘the father of nonviolent struggle’.

Sharp, who died in 2018 aged 90, led an extraordinary life.

He was sent to prison for refusing to be drafted at the time of the Korean War, worked as assistant editor at Peace News in the late 1950s, observed firsthand the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, and trained activists in Burma in the early 1990s.

Along the way he corresponded with Albert Einstein, argued with Frantz Fanon in Accra and tried to convert Yasser Arafat into adopting a nonviolent strategy.

This was crucial: Sharp saw strategic planning as essential if a nonviolent movement was to succeed. ‘No military commander would ever dream of putting 1,000 soldiers on a battlefield without a strategy for how to use them and so it was of nonviolent action’, Arrow summarises.

Moreover, Sharp’s argument for pursuing nonviolent struggle is not that it is moral but that it’s the most effective method to effect change – something confirmed by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works.

With his journalistic eye for a story and access to archival material, Arrow runs through a number of fascinating case studies, highlighting the impact Sharp’s thinking had on the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, as well as in Burma, the Baltic states (against the Soviet Union), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.

Arguably Sharp’s most spectacular influence was on the Otpor movement that played a central role in the overthrow of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević – described by Arrow as ‘the most advanced nonviolent campaign in history’.

Though he clearly admires Sharp, Arrow provides a rounded, very human portrait, noting how he could often be obstinate – it was Sharp who chose the Albert Einstein Institution as the confusing name of the organisation that he founded in 1983 – and how several close professional relationships eventually broke down.

Anti-imperialist activists will likely baulk at Sharp’s links with the US defence and state departments, as well as with organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute.

However, it’s Sharp’s huge, power-threatening body of work – something he argued could be used by anyone – that is most important to peace activists today. And there is much to do.

As Sharp told US activist George Lakey: ‘We are simply at the bow and arrow stage of the development of nonviolent struggle.’

For those hungry for more, Arrow provides good news – Jamila Raqib, Sharp’s colleague at the Albert Einstein Institution in his later years, is currently writing her own book about Sharp.

How To Start A Revolution is published by Big Inky Books, priced £14.99.

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 May 2021

RUPERT Read’s latest book on the climate crisis is underpinned by the realisation pretty much all of us are “in some form or another of climate denial” – about honestly facing up to the level of threat, and the speed and depth of change required to successfully deal with it.

On the former, Carbon Action Tracker estimates the current policies in place around the world will lead to 2.9oC of warming by 2100. Read believes it is “very likely” climate and ecological chaos will lead to civilisation disintegrating “within the lifetimes of some readers”.

For the latter, he argues the desperate situation we now find ourselves in cannot “be adequately addressed from within our current paradigm of politics and economics.” As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warned in 2018, limiting warming to 1.5oC will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

A call to arms for everyone to step up to the challenge, Read’s thesis is, in many ways, very simple: if you care about your children (or other people’s children), then you should also care about their children, and their children’s children – “the whole human future.” And this means you should also care about the future of the planet all these future generations will live on.

He presents three core proposals for embedding this transformational thinking. First, the setting up of citizen’s assemblies that would be empowered to make the long-term proposals and decisions our fatally compromised and short-termist political system is unable to do. Second, the introduction of what he calls Guardians For Future Generations – a permanent “super-jury” that would sit above parliament and consider the interests of future generations in policymaking. And, finally, adherence to the Precautionary Principle – “when you lack full evidence and potential consequences [of a path of action or inaction] are grave, you need to err on the side of taking care.”

The book’s logical, essay-length polemic points to Read’s academic position as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Likewise, the clarity and urgency of his message also highlights the influence of his time as spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Compelling and deeply challenging, it is often an uncomfortable argument (Read tells readers: “you… need, at a minimum, to devote either your time or the bulk of your financial resources to this cause”). Which, of course, is why it is such an essential read. Time to get busy.

Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse is published by UEA Publishing Project, priced £10.99

A Timeline Of The Plague Year

A Timeline Of The Plague Year
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 April 2021

To mark the one year anniversary of the first national lockdown, last month the Guardian published profiles of Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.

“The wealthy civil servant’s year of speaking truth to power”, was the title of the fawning article on Vallance. Discussing the early days of the pandemic, the Guardian’s Rupert Neate asserted “Vallance may have been one of the few people in Whitehall who understood what was coming”. Echoing the title, he noted “Vallance’s friends and colleagues say that he is not afraid to speak scientific truth to power.”

The profile on Whitty was similarly obsequious, titled: “The calm voice who steered a nation in crisis”. The co-authors Ian Sample and Heather Stewart wrote “The crisis has demanded dedication and stamina, but Whitty has also needed the trust of those around him”. There is a brief reference to mistakes made in the early days of the crisis, such as Whitty responding to covid as if it was a flu pandemic, but overall the tone is deeply flattering. “Whitty’s calm authority appealed far beyond Westminster”, they note.

All of which makes the 2019 claim made by Guardian Editor Katharine Viner that Guardian journalists “believe in holding the powerful to account” sounds rather hollow. More accurate is journalist Peter Oborne’s recent analysis in the Morning Star: “We have to understand that the British media class is an instrument of power and should be treated as such rather than a fourth estate holding power to account.”

Partly in response to the media’s poor performance at the beginning of the pandemic, since April 2020 Rupert Read and I have been compiling a detailed timeline of the government’s response to coronavirus. Updated and published every week since then and now totalling over 69,000 words, the timeline is made up of thousands of sources, including press reports, television and radio news, medical journals, health experts and organisations, trade unions and polling results.

Working with editor Joanna Booth, we have just published the timeline as a free eBook and pay-to-print book too – titled A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

So how does the Guardian’s stenography on Vallance and Whitty compare to the information found in our timeline?

For starters, the deadly concept of “herd immunity” is not mentioned in either of the two profiles. Herd immunity is when a large majority of the population are infected or vaccinated, and therefore gain immunity and stop the spread of the virus.

In contrast, our timeline records that a senior politician told the Sunday Times he “had conversations with Chris Whitty at the end of January [2020] and they were absolutely focused on herd immunity.”

Vallance was even clearer about the government’s strategy on BBC’s Today programme on 13 March 2020. One of “the key things we need to do” is to “build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission”, he noted.

There are two huge problems with herd immunity – both widely understood in March 2020. First, the estimated mortality rates of the virus at the time – around 1%, according to a Guardian report on 7 March 2020 – would have meant around half a million deaths in the UK to achieve herd immunity. Second, there was ‘no clear evidence people who had suffered the virus would have lasting antibody protection’, as the Sunday Times explained on 24 May 2020.

Vallance and Whitty also made a series of catastrophic calls in the run up to the first lockdown on 23 March 2020. On 9 March 2020 Vallance said holding “mass gatherings and so on — actually don’t make much difference”. Three days later he asserted “the peak may be something like 10 to 14 weeks away – it could be a bit longer”. The peak was actually under four weeks away, with 1,461 deaths recorded on 8 April 2020.

Discussing restrictive measures, such as lockdown, to fight the virus at a Downing Street press conference, on 9 March 2020 Whitty stated “There is a risk if we go too early people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain this over time.”

Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews and member of SPI-B (the group that provided behavioral science advice to government), later described Whitty’s analysis as “just plain wrong”. Similarly, A BBC Newsnight investigation broadcast in July 2020 concluded there “doesn’t appear to have been much evidence… at the time” for Whitty’s claim that if lockdown is implemented too early people would get “fatigued”. Robert West, Professor of Health Psychology at University College London and member of SPI-B, commented: “this term ‘behavioural fatigue’… certainly didn’t come from SPI-B, and it is not a behavioural science term. If you look in the literature you won’t find it because it doesn’t exist”.

The delay to lockdown was extremely costly. Back-dated modelling by Oxford University estimates there were just 14,000 infected people in the UK on 3 March 2020. By 23 March 2020 the number was likely to have been 1.5 million. “Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world”, the Sunday Times noted in May 2020. A December 2020 report by Imperial College estimated that imposing a national lockdown in just one week earlier in March 2020 would have saved 21,000 lives.

Moreover, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact Vallance and Whitty have been at the centre of the government’s response to the crisis, which means they oversaw the decision to stop mass testing on 12 March 2020, the ending of the quarantining of people arriving at UK airports from coronavirus hotspots a day later, the thousands of deaths in care homes and the shambolic test and trace programme.

With over 150,000 people having died from covid in the UK, according to Office for National Statistics figures, the government’s response has been, as Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton noted, “a national scandal”.

None of this highly pertinent and damning information appeared in the two Guardian profiles.

In contrast, all of the information above can be found in our timeline, along with other key aspects of the crisis, including the mounting death toll, lockdowns, the Personal Protective Equipment shortage, the (lack of) border closures, the disastrous Eat Out To Help Out scheme, the dangers of Long Covid, and support for a Zero Covid strategy.  

We hope our comprehensive account of the plague year will be useful to anyone interested in understanding the UK government’s response to the crisis, historians studying the pandemic in the future and to the public inquiry that must be established.

“They really are scared that the verdict of history is going to condemn them for contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of British citizens”, Horton commented about the UK government in April 2020. “They are desperately trying to rewrite the timeline of what happened. And we must not let them do that.”

A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis by Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read is available as a free PDF download, free ebook and pay-to-print book from https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/ . Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 April 2021

FROM Reagan-loving Republican Tom Clancy, to the Conservative Frederick Forsyth and Jonathan Freedland’s rose-tinted views of Democratic presidents, political thrillers are often underpinned by some unpleasant, power-friendly politics.

Which makes Steve Howell’s Collateral Damage a welcome addition to the genre.

The book’s politics are perhaps unsurprising when you consider the author’s position as Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership team during the 2017 UK general election.

However, more pertinent is Howell’s activism in the late 80s – along with being Secretary of UK Local Authorities Against Apartheid, in 1987 he attended a conference in Tripoli, Libya to mark the first anniversary of the US air strikes on the country.

With the US warplanes taking off from UK bases – the first US combat operation launched from British soil since the Second World War – Howell believes the attacks mark the beginning of the era of regime-change wars.

Accordingly, the novel begins with the death of British peace activist and journalist Tom Carver while attending a conference in Tripoli in 1987. Suspecting foul play, Carver’s partner Ayesha, a Palestinian exile, works with young London School of Economics lecturer Hannah and lawyer Jed to uncover the truth.

Fast-paced and carefully-plotted, it’s a short and punchy read, which I devoured in a couple of sittings. While Clancy and Freedland fantasise about grand presidential politics in Washington D.C., Howell’s canvas is much more modest. The action does shift to Libya at one point, but most of the events occur in and around London. He provides some authentic period detail, including passing mentions of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Spycatcher and the unsolved murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan. Of course, there were no mobile phones in the late 80s, with the characters making copious use of phone boxes on the street.

And while the novel’s central twist is very much of its time, unfortunately it continues to have painful relevance today.

Echoing films from the period like 1986’s Defence of the Realm and Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda from 1990, there is a foreboding sense of the British secret state working to protect the powerful in the name of “national security”.

With former Head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove branding Corbyn a “present danger to our country” just before the December 2019 general election, the struggle between the general public and established power continues, it seems.

Collateral Damage is published by Quaero Publishing, priced £8.99 https://www.steve-howell.com/collateral-damage/

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 April 2021

“There is… no credible route to a zero covid Britain or indeed a zero covid world”, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on 22 February. “We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children”.

To confirm, a zero covid strategy aims for the total elimination of covid. Many people may be confused, thinking “Isn’t this exactly what the government has been trying to do since the start of the pandemic?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. The UK has followed what science writer Laura Spinney recently described in the Guardian as “a mitigation and suppression strategy, according to which we will have to live with Covid-19 and therefore we must learn to manage it – aiming for herd immunity by the most painless route possible.”

The Prime Minister’s dismissal of zero covid puts him at odds with a large body of scientific expertise. In early July 2020 Independent SAGE published a report calling on the government to “fundamentally change its approach” and follow a “new overarching strategic objective of achieving a Zero COVIDUK, i.e. the elimination of the virus from the UK”.

Individual members of the group – including ex-Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King and Professors Anthony Costello, Christina Pagel and Susan Michie from UCL – have continued to push for zero covid since then.

And there is some support amongst the government’s own scientific advisers, including Professor Robert West from University College London and Professor Stephen Reicher from University of St Andrews – both member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

In addition, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, Professor Devi Sridhar from the University of Edinburgh and clinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani from Queen Mary have also voiced support.

In parliament, zero covid is backed by the Socialist Campaign Group of more than 30 MPs, and in August 2020 Layla Moran MP, as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus (consisting of 60 MPs and Peers), wrote to the Prime Minister pushing for a zero covid strategy.

Turning to the national press, the Morning Star was, as far as I can tell, the first UK national newspaper to support zero covid, while the Guardian backed it in a December 2020 editorial.

Speaking on BBC’s Politics Live in February, Pagel summarised the key reasons for pursuing an elimination strategy: “Keeping cases low is by far the best for keeping the economy open, and for saving lives, and for reducing the chances of a new variant, and for preventing Long Covid”.

In short, it would mean less people getting seriously ill, and less people dying.  

However, while there is significant support for zero covid, there is also considerable opposition, often based on a number of evidence-light assertions:

Zero covid is not possible.

New Zealand and Taiwan have both successfully pursued an elimination strategy. New Zealand has had 26 deaths from covid. Taiwan, which has a population of 23.4 million and a population density of 652 people per square kilometre (the UK’s population density is around 275 people per square kilometre), has limited its death toll from covid to just ten people. The UK has recorded over 125,000 deaths from covid.

Speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “I’m puzzled by this, because it’s not just Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan (adopting zero-Covid tactics), which are islands, but it’s also Vietnam, and there are other parts of the world that have been very successful even if they do have challenges, like Uruguay or Rwanda or Finland or Norway… So there are plenty of places that are trying to do this [achieve zero-Covid status].”

Zero covid is not possible at this point in time as the UK has such a high number of cases across the nation.

China is pursuing an elimination strategy, and according to a January CNBC report on Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, “Life has largely returned to normal in the city of 11 million, even as the rest of the world grapples with the spread of the virus’ more contagious variants.”

Similarly, the Australian state of Victoria (population 6.7 million), recorded 723 new cases on one day in July 2020. On the same day the UK recorded 763 new cases. However, on 4 November 2020, Hassan Vally, Associate Professor in Public Health at La Trobe University, noted in the Guardian, “Victoria is recording no new cases, while the UK has 18,950.”

“The goal was not just to slow Covid-19 down. It was to eradicate the virus”, Vox reported in December about Victoria’s success.

However, even if it is not possible to completely eliminate new cases in UK right now, a government committed to zero covid would significantly reduce cases, and therefore significantly reduce deaths. As Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago, and McKee, noted in the Guardian in January: “Aiming for zero-Covid” produces “more positive results than trying to ‘live with the virus’”.

Zero covid would mean more, perhaps endless, restrictions and lockdowns.

In fact the exact opposite is true. “A zero covid strategy (which means zero tolerance of any level of infection) is the antithesis of lockdown. It is the failure to implement such a strategy – and hence the loss of control over infection – which leads to lockdown”, Reicher tweeted in February.

Thus, sporting events have been held in packed stadiums in New Zealand, and the country’s Prime Minister Jacina Ardern has been posting videos of herself at community BBQs. To date Taiwan has not had any national lockdowns.

Zero covid is redundant now we have the vaccine.

In March the Guardian reported “Experts on the modelling subgroup of SAGE calculate that even under the most optimistic scenario, at least 30,000 more Covid deaths could occur in the UK.” This testimony points to an uncomfortable fact – the vaccination programme, while very important, will not prevent a large number of deaths over the next few months. Moreover, “We have to prevent new variants arising that put our entire vaccination programme at risk, and potentially set us back to the beginning again”, Pagel explained on BBC Newsnight in February. “The more opportunities it [the virus] has to infect people, the more chance it has to mutate. So the lower cases are, the less chance it is going to have.”

Frustratingly much of the left has failed to back a zero covid strategy. Where are the unions – the TUC, Unison, Unite, GMB? Where is the Labour Party? Where is Momentum?

Key left-wing figures have dismissed or questioned zero covid. In September, Tribune Culture Editor Owen Hatherley tweeted “’it’s just like the flu, calm down’ and ‘we must have zero covid’ are both bad takes”. Elsewhere, Richard Seymour recently tweeted he was “still unsure about zero covid”, while Novara Media’s Michael Walker has argued an elimination strategy was the right course of action in summer 2020 but with the introduction of the vaccine he no longer supports it.

There is still lots of work to do to persuade the broad left – and wider society – to back a zero covid strategy. One thing every reader can do is contact their MP and ask them to sign Early Day Motion 1450, which “calls on the UK Government urgently to adopt a zero covid plan that seeks the maximum suppression of the virus as the best way to save lives and allow our communities and the economy to safely reopen.” So far 42 MPs have put their names to the EDM, including SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Lib Dem Tim Farron and Plaid Cymru MPs.

More broadly, a campaign strategy of pressuring members of the SAGE group advising government to publicly support zero covid could well be the best way to apply pressure on the government itself.

As McKee noted in a letter published in the BMJ in October: “No one pretends that achieving zero covid is easy, but in the long term the alternative is far worse.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair

New book published – ‘A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis’

I have a new book out. Co-authored with Rupert Read (and edited by Joanna Booth) ‘A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis’ is, we think, the most comprehensive record of the UK government’s response to covid.

Covering key aspects of the crisis, including the huge death toll, lockdowns, herd immunity policy, the Personal Protective Equipment, care homes, long covid, the test and trace system, border closures, Eat Out To Help Out and statements made by official government advisors and independent experts, we believe the timeline is a must read for anyone interested in understanding what happened and stopping it happening again

Free ebook and pay-to-print book available here: https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance by Helen Beynon with Chris Gillham
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 February 2021

IN 1989 the Thatcher government announced the “biggest road-building programme since the Romans”. One of the new schemes was the M3 extension past Winchester across Twyford Down.

With local groups having fought the planned road for decades with little success, in the early 1990s there was a shift to direct action. Concerned about the proposed road’s impact on the land, the so-called Dongas Tribe – named after the ancient trackways in the area – set up camp on the Down.

Skilfully using original interviews, letters, memoirs, photos and poems, the authors paint a vivid picture of outdoor living, with many people recalling a deep, spiritual connection to the land.

The Dongas were soon joined by members of radical environment network Earth First!, while local residents, such as ex-Tory Councillor David Croker, continued to lobby against the road through more conventional methods (some also participated in actions too).

There were tensions between the different groups, of course, but from summer 1992 onwards they were able to carry out regular nonviolent direct action, often forcing a stop to work on the site. In 1993 the Department of Transport claimed the protests were adding £20,000 a day to the costs of the road.

The crunch came on 9 December 1992 – known as “Yellow Wednesday” – when the camp was violently evicted by a small army of private security guards. The authors painfully highlight just how traumatic the clearance was for those who experienced it. Activist Becca records “Female protesters were sexually assaulted and had their clothes ripped off.”

With the camp forced off the Down, people continued organising, with large rallies and mass trespasses taking place at the work site in 1993 and 1994, including one in which Kinder Scout trespasser Benny Rothman spoke at.

The road was eventually built but not before the resistance at Twyford Down had lit the touch paper for the wider anti-roads movement. There were protests against the M11 Link Road in east London, Fairmile in Devon, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle and, most famously, the Newbury Bypass. Like Twyford, these hard fought battles ended in defeat for the protesters, though arguably they won the war.

“When we began campaigning there were 600 proposed schemes in the Government’s roads programme”, John Stewart, then chair of the anti-roads group ALARM UK, noted in 1998. “Now there are 150 and we expect that number to be cut further… we have done our job.”

More broadly, Twyford “begat a hundred campaigns”, activist Shane Collins notes, including Reclaim The Streets and the anti-GM movement of the late 90s. Key figures also assisted Plane Stupid with their campaign against airport expansion, and there is a clear link between the anti-roads movement and the climate camps of the 2000s and Extinction Rebellion.

Hugely inspiring, Twyford Rising is an engrossing account of one of the most important protests in recent British history. As the authors conclude: “Twyford richly deserves to be part of the legends of these Islands, for it is a lost land now, which once was filled with beauty and hope.”

To order Twyford Rising visit https://twyfordrising.org/.

How They Made Us Doubt Everything

How They Made Us Doubt Everything
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2021

“The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance”, Alex Carey noted in his seminal 1995 book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: “the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

The Australian writer’s analysis is well illustrated by the engrossing ten-part BBC Radio 4 series How They Made Us Doubt Everything.

Presented by Peter Pomerantsev, author of the 2019 book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, the series looks at how corporate public relations firms engineered doubt about the connection between smoking and cancer in the 1960s, and then used similar tactics to manufacture doubt about climate change.

The story begins in December 1953 soon after the publication of an article titled “Cancer by the carton” in the popular US magazine Reader’s Digest. The heads of the major tobacco industry companies hold a secret crisis meeting in New York, having hired John Hill, the founder of Hill & Knowlton, the world’s first international PR firm, to assist them.

“Because of the grave nature of a number of recently highly publicised research reports on the effects of cigarette smoking widespread public interest had developed causing great concern within and without the industry”, noted a Hill & Knowlton memo written a few days later, titled ‘Preliminary Recommendations for Cigarette Manufacturers’. “These developments have confronted the industry with a serious problem of public relations”.

Hill had made his name helping steel companies undermine trade unions and protecting big business. And, true to form, Hill & Knowlton put together the PR playbook the tobacco industry used to protect their profits – most infamously the 1954 A Frank Statement advertisement.

Appearing in nearly 450 newspapers and reaching an estimated 43 million Americans, according to a 2002 article in Tobacco Control journal, the advert emphasised there was no agreement amongst scientists on what caused lung cancer, and pledged tobacco industry “aid and assistance to the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health.”

Ingeniously, Hill didn’t reject the science, but selectively used it to confuse the public. “It is important that the public recognise the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer”, he argued. Pomerantsev calls this the “White coats” strategy, with the tobacco industry using scientists often funded by the industry to call into question the work of independent scientists. “You undermine science with more science”, he notes.

A 1969 secret tobacco industry memo perfectly distilled Hill’s approach: “Doubt is our product. Since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing controversy.”

It is now well understood the tobacco industry’s manipulation of the public delayed regulation and behaviour change, leading to hundreds of thousands of avoidable early deaths. However, years later the playbook was dusted down and put it into action again – this time by an oil industry whose profits were under threat from the public’s increasing concern about global warming. And the stakes were even higher than with tobacco, both in the scale of the threat to humanity and for the companies involved: in 2000 the oil company Exxon Mobil logged $17.7 billion in income, giving it the most profitable year of any corporation in history, according to CNN.

Shockingly, How They Made Us Doubt Everything highlights how Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change, and their role in it, by the early 1980s. Speaking to Pomerantsev, Exxon scientist Martin Hoffert explains he successfully modelled the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change in 1981, passing the results onto management. However, ignoring their own research, in 1996 Exxon CEO Lee Raymond stated “the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate.”

This was likely part of Exxon’s broader strategy to confuse and manipulate the public about the reality of climate change. A 1989 presentation by Exxon’s Manager of Science and Strategy to the company’s Board of Directors noted the data pointed to “significant climate change, and sea level use with generally negative consequences”. Furthermore, the long hot summer of 1988 “has drawn much attention to the potential problems and we are starting to hear the inevitable call for action”, with the media “likely to increase public awareness and concern”. His recommendation? “More rational responses will require efforts to extend the science and increase emphasis on costs and political realities.” Discussing the presentation with Pomerantsev, Kert Davies from the Climate Investigations Center says it shows “they are worried that the public will take this on and enact radical changes in the way we use energy and affect their business.”

Indeed, by 1988 Exxon’s position was clear, according to a memo written by their Public Affairs Manager, Joseph M. Carlson: “emphasise the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect.”

Similarly, in 1991 the green-sounding Information Council on the Environment (ICE) – which in fact represented electrical companies in the US – set out their strategy: “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Surveys commissioned by ICE recommended targeting specific segments of the population, including “older, lesser educated males from larger households who are not typically information seekers” and “younger, low income women”, who they believed were more easily influenced by new information. Thankfully, following an embarrassing leak to the New York Times, the organisation quickly folded.

Just as the public’s concern about smoking and health led to industry competitors working together to save their businesses, following the signing of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol committing states to reduce the carbon emissions, Exxon joined forces with Southern Company and Chevron to design a “multi-year, multi-million dollar plan to fund denial and install uncertainty.” This Global Climate Science Communications Plan noted: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in the climate science”.

In many ways this corporate-funded climate denial propaganda campaign was hugely successful in its aims. Pomerantsev quotes the results of a 2016 Pew Research Center poll of Americans, which found just 48 per cent of respondents understood that the Earth is warming mostly due to human activity, with just 15 per cent of conservative Republicans agreeing.

And like the tobacco industry strategy of doubt, the fossil-fuelled PR campaign has undoubtedly confused the public in the US and beyond and delayed action on the biggest threat facing humanity, meaning perhaps millions of unnecessary deaths. However, there are reasons to believe the fossil fuel corporations are now losing the war.

Speaking to the Morning Star in March 2019, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, explained there have been significant shifts in US public opinion over recent years. For example, a 2019 Yale University/George Mason University survey found six in ten Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with the proportion of people “alarmed” having doubled since 2013.

A January 2021 poll by the United Nations Development Programme – the largest poll ever conducted on climate change, with 1.2 million people questioned in 50 countries – confirms these hopeful results: two-thirds of respondents said climate change is a “global emergency”, including 65 per cent of respondents in the US.

Indeed, it is important to remember Democrat Joe Biden was elected to the White House after campaigning on what Nature journal called “the most ambitious climate platform ever put forth by a leading candidate for US president.”

Two important conclusions can be made from listening to How They Made Us Doubt Everything. First, while Pomerantsev himself has written extensively about Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts directed at the West, his BBC Radio 4 series suggests the main threat to the wellbeing of Western publics actually comes from Western corporate propaganda rather than Russian troll farms and cyberwarfare groups like Fancy Bear. And second, there is an ongoing struggle between corporate power and democratic forces across the globe – what former US Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards called an “epic fight”. The outcome could not be more serious: future generations will only inherit a liveable planet if we are able to successfully confront corporate propaganda and tame corporate power.

How The Made Us Doubt Everything is available to stream or download from BBC Sounds.

Is the most popular form of feminism today Imperial Feminism?

Is the most popular form of feminism today Imperial Feminism? 
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 February 2021

In the last decade or so there has been a resurgence of feminist writing and activism in the UK and beyond, which has raised consciousness in both women and men. Best-selling British Young Adult fiction author Holly Bourne, Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates have been three key figures in this important and necessary upsurge. I think they have all done, and continue to do, brilliant work popularizing feminism and feminist arguments for young people, and those who don’t identify as feminists, which has helped to improve the lives of women across the world. Indeed, I have given books written by all of them to family members in recent years. 

However, while I am an admirer of their work, I also think it is important to understand the dangerous limitations of the brand of feminism they propagate. 

Asked in a 2016 online Q&A “If you were going to create an all-girl group of superheroes who’d you choose (real people and/or cartoon characters)?”, Bourne replied “Hillary Clinton.” She continued: “There’s so many awesome people in the world”, before also choosing “Malala” – that is Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani female education activist who was shot in the face by the Taliban in 2012. 

Adichie is also a big fan of the former US Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate. Sitting down for an obsequious Q&A with Clinton at a 2018 Pen America event, Adichie opened by noting “When I said hello to Mrs Clinton backstage, I had to try very hard not to get emotional.” She also explained she had recently written an article titled “Why is Hillary Clinton so Widely Loved?” The event ended with the two women embracing for a long time on stage.  

And writing in her inspiring 2016 book Girl Up about women and leadership, Bates highlights how Condoleezza Rice became US Secretary of State and “pioneered the policy of Transformational Diplomacy to increase the number of responsible democratic governments internationally”. 

Undoubtedly Clinton – and to a lesser extent, Rice – are role models for many women, and have been public advocates for women’s rights and other causes that impact women around the globe, such as female education. 

However, the inescapable fact is Clinton has been a senior member of the US government and wider US political establishment since the early 1990s, and therefore her crimes have been extensive and hugely destructive.  

As Secretary of State Clinton played a leading role in NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011. With the mission quickly morphing into regime change, in September 2016 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee concluded the intervention resulted in “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.” In November 2014 the Guardian reported on research conducted by Dignity, the Danish Institute against Torture, in Libya after the US-led intervention. “Our data supports the allegations that widespread… and gross human rights violations have taken place in Libya”, the report noted after conducting a household survey. 20 per cent of households had a family member who had disappeared, and 11 per cent had had a family member arrested. Of those arrested 46 per cent reported beatings, 20 per cent positional torture or suspensions and 16 per cent suffocation. 

Clinton also backed Obama’s surge of US forces in Afghanistan in 2009 and the covert US intervention against the Assad government which played a role in escalating the conflict in Syria. While she was Secretary of State, the US support for women’s rights champion Saudi Arabia continued, and the US conducted hundreds of drone strikes across the world. Indeed, when Malala Yousafzai met Obama in 2013 she expressed concern that US drone strikes were “fuelling terrorism”, according to CNN. 

As a US Senator Clinton voted for the illegal 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which a 2013 PLOS Medicine journal study estimates led to 500,000 Iraqi deaths. According to the 2004 Lancet study “most individuals reportedly killed by [US-led] coalition forces were women and children”. More broadly, Brown University’s Cost of War research project estimates, as of 2020, 9.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or refugees abroad due to the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. A 2008 Brookings Institution think-tank policy paper noted “some 80 percent” of Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq “are women and children”.  

Back in the United States, it is worth mentioning Clinton’s role, as first lady, in President Bill Clinton’s move in 1996 to “end welfare as we know it” by signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. “It would be hard to imagine a bigger blow to the material well-being of poor women in America”, Liza Featherstone noted in The Nation in 2016. “As first lady, Hillary wasn’t a mere spectator to this; within the White House, she advocated harsher policies like ending traditional welfare, even as others in the administration, like Labor Secretary Robert Reich, proposed alternatives.” 

In summary, as Dr Patrick Barrett Professor Deepa Kumar noted in Jacobin magazine in 2016, Clinton’s record is “one which has been devastating for millions of vulnerable people (especially women and children) both at home and abroad”. 

Feminist scholar bell hooks concurs, explaining in 2016 she couldn’t support Clinton because there are “certain things that I don’t want to co-sign in the name of feminism that I think are militarist, imperialist, white supremacist.”  

Indeed, a Clinton-supporting feminism is, by definition, Imperial Feminism – what Zillah Eisenstein, Professor of Politics at Ithaca College, defines as “feminism that operates on behalf of American empire building.”  

Clinton, then, can only be a feminist icon if you ignore, or are ignorant of, her deadly impact on non-white women and their families in nations like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.  

The young people who engage with – and look up to – Bourne and Adichie deserve to be exposed to more humane, non-racist versions of feminism than this. 

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.