Notes From the Margins…

On Heretics and Thought-Crimes

  • December 10, 2015
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Bear with me readers, if I return to ‘InternationalBrigadegate’ one more time, because what I want to say is not really about me: it’s about us.  A lot of the writing I’ve done over the years, in books, articles, and blogposts, has been concerned with the subject of persecution.  I’ve always been concerned with the ease with which powerful societies can transform themselves into what the medieval historian R.I.  Moore once called ‘persecuting societies’.

These concerns have been present in all my books, from my history of terrorism to my novel The Devils of Cardona, which is due to be published next year.  Given these preoccupations, there has been a weird and bewildering irony about the events of the last week, which are still unfolding.

Today, for example  I came across a leftist blog attacking my Hilary Benn piece.  After the usual foaming at the mouth at my supposed iniquities, the writer contemptuously referred to my book about General Sherman’s March to the Sea,  with this observation:

The only walk to the ocean most people would like to witness on Carr’s part is one which ends with him lying ten fathoms deep.

In the opinion of this ‘critical marxist’ therefore,  it is legitimate to recommend my death because of a sentence that I wrote and a thought that he believed I had.

I recognize that this is an extreme reaction, even by the standards of the past week.  Nevertheless day after day newspapers, journalists, and politicians repeat my International Brigades quote or cite fellow-blogger Chris Floyd’s ‘reaping the whirlwind’ piece, without any sign that they have read the pieces concerned, and with the kind of horror and disgust that you would expect to be directed at Jimmy Saville’s memoirs.

I’m only surprised that these critics don’t brandish a crucifix or wear garlic round their necks.  Some of this, as I’ve said previously,  is clearly due to a blatantly McCarthyist campaign that is intended to destroy the Stop the War movement, and by association Jeremy Corbyn.

But what I find most shocking, and which I want to draw attention to here, is the fact that the hysterical vilification of Floyd and myself  is based entirely on our thoughts and words  – regardless of whether or not they have been interpreted in the way that we intended them to be.

In this sense, the incredible momentum that this campaign has acquired reminds me of medieval and early modern attitudes to ‘heresy’, when certain thoughts and ideas were considered so dangerous to society that they could only be purged and kept at arms length otherwise society faced complete destruction.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider my thoughts to be so earthshaking that they threaten society or the established order, and I don’t regard myself as a modern-day heretic.  But whatever you think I said, or whatever you think Floyd said, the fact remains that the moral opprobrium that has been heaped upon both of us has been entirely due to the fact that we expressed thoughts and ideas that are now considered illegitimate and taboo.

Were this not the case, it would have been perfectly possible to disagree with us, criticize us, or say that our ideas weren’t well-expressed or whatever.  Instead we have been objects of a collective rage, hatred and disgust, in some cases by people who have never even read what they are condemning.

Some of this outrage is due to the disgust and horror that ISIS incites, and the (false) assumption that Floyd and I somehow condone or minimize or even approve of these actions.   But ISIS itself cannot explain the knee-jerk responses of so many people to a sentence in a screenshot and a single phrase.

ISIS doesn’t explain why it is now becoming difficult to think or say anything about it beyond certain consensual parameters, and why a single phrase or sentence can be held up as evidence of evil intent or collusion.  It doesn’t explain why a British politician is hailed as a great orator if he compares the bombing of another Middle Eastern city to the International Brigades, or why George Osborne can tell a New York audience that the UK has “got its mojo back” because the RAF bombed Raqqa.

Yet MPs now read the words of two writers and bloggers out in parliament as though they were reading an indictment, and ‘leftists’ can call for the death of someone whose words they don’t like.  And even when Floyd and I have tried to explain and clarify our intentions, these explanations have made no difference and have even been interpreted as confirmation of our original ‘guilt.’

And all that, my friends, suggests that we have a problem, and it is not the one that has been raised so hysterically and so dishonestly during the last week.



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  1. Richard Carter

    11th Dec 2015 - 7:30 am

    Matt, you say rightly that “the hysterical vilification of Floyd and myself is based entirely on our thoughts and words – regardless of whether or not they have been interpreted in the way that we intended them to be,” but I think (as you imply elsewhere) that it’s worse than that: because, either through laziness or malign intent, your (and Chris Floyd’s) original words are not read, just the filtered version of some of the words, taken out of context, to the extent that they mean the opposite of what you wrote.

    It’s like the old days when papers kept cuttings files, and once a falsehood had entered the file it was almost impossible to have it removed. But now things are even worse, because through social media especially, the whole process becomes instantaneous and universal so that any idiot with access to a computer can repeat the lies.

    As you say, we certainly do have a problem here§1

  2. Rachel

    11th Dec 2015 - 8:46 am

    Hi Matt,
    MY COMMENT: I’ve just read the article of Chris Floyd’s you mentioned and again can’t see anything wrong with it. On the contrary, I’m now interested to read more of Chris’s work. Surely sites like print similar articles and get away with it? Is the situation in Britain worse than in North America? Or is the fact that the article was published on the Stop The War site the problem , since that organisation has the impossible task of presenting itself as politically neutral, (which means, of course supporting our government), whilst countering government policy?
    NB Feel free not to print this if I’ve missed the point and it’s not helpful. Also, I’m not after a personal response. When I sent you that long letter earlier in the week I’d no idea you were suffering such an extraordinary onslaught from national media, and my suggestion to ignore &/or block was therefore not relevant.

    Also, I can’t find a link that reproduces the short resume of Milton Mayer’s ‘They Thought They Were Free’, which I’ve therefore had to paste in full below. I think it was originally sent to a friend of mine by Ben Griffin of Veterans for Peace, who I believe headed a march to Trafalgar Square last week to leave military medals in protest against the attacks on Syria.

    by Milton Mayer, The Germans, 1938-45 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955)

    “What no one seemed to notice was the ever widening gap between the government and the people. And it became always wider…..the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting, it provided an excuse not to think….for people who did not want to think anyway gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about…..and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated… the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us…..

    “Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’…..must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing…..Each act is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next.

    “You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone… don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes.
    “That’s the difficulty. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves, when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed.

    “You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things your father…..could never have imagined.”

    • Matt

      11th Dec 2015 - 9:03 am

      Seems pretty relevant to me Rachel – I shall look that book up. Chris has been at it for a long time. His ‘Empire Burlesque’ site is well worth checking out. But you’re right: it was the STW publication that did for both of us. My piece got thousands of hits before that, and no one complained or came back at me. It was only when STW published my piece (and Chris’s) that they became politically useful. As one of the other respondents here has pointed out, that was a huge blunder, because it enabled STW’s enemies to cherry-pick quotes from two bloggers and present them as ‘official’ STW positions – the better to associate Corbyn w/ STW’s supposed depravity.

  3. Tim Niblett

    11th Dec 2015 - 10:46 am

    Hi Matt,
    I read your blog. Sorry about the sh**storm. I hope it doesn’t put you off.

    I read your article with the point about Hilary Benn and the International Brigades before the fuss, and thought it at the time (as now) completely inoffensive while being the most interesting point in your post.

    You seem to have been caught up in a huge torrent of abuse being thrown at Jeremy Corbyn. Putting the disgusting attacks on you to one side (sorry!) I would like to know (a) how its sustained and (b) who if anyone is behind it. It reminds me of episodes like the attacks on the retired Schoolteacher Christopher Jefferies, but with someone, perhaps, continually feeding the frenzy.

    Maybe, mass hysteria is a defining characteristic of social media combining with the old media?

    Anyway, for what its worth, you have my sympathy for what you’re going through. Please don’t let it change what you do.


  4. Nik

    15th Dec 2015 - 3:25 pm

    “This use of the blood of our martyred comrades of the Brigadas Internacionales to promote ‘understanding’ of Daesh…”

    Wow! You should have been more careful Matt! Seems like you offended this proud comrade who obviously also fought in Spain back in the day. How do I know? Someone who spells the International Brigades in Spanish and invokes martyred comrades must have been right there on the frontline… right?! Well probably not. On the contrary, this attack on you by that armchair martyr has about as much dignity as ordering food in Spanish with a heavy accent in a Spanish restaurant with a waiter who clearly does not speak Spanish.

    Not that my opinion counts a lot but still: Ignore that clown! What you wrote was about as spot on as possible!

  5. Richard Carter

    7th Jan 2016 - 11:07 pm

    And still the lies and misrepresentation go on: today in the Evening Standard, that beacon of truth (ha ha!), are the results of a questionnaire which purports to show that the majority of the public opposes Jeremy Corbyn on the Middle East wars ( This was based, in part, in the answers to this question:

    “The Stop the War website ran an article after the attacks on Paris which argued that Paris was “experiencing the whirlwind of western support for extremist violence.” Do you agree, or disagree, with this view?”

    Hardly surprising, then, that only 14 per cent of respondents agreed with this, given the ridiculously biased nature of the question. But as I’ve said elsewhere, once a lie of this nature becomes accepted as the truth, nothing can change it. Makes you want to despair, though I’ll try writing a letter to the ES to put this view.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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