It is part of my job, as a newspaper columnist and broadcaster, to be called rude names by opponents and critics. I don’t usually mind. The abuse of the modern internet is not really much worse than the sort of thing that used to flourish in the early years of newspapers.
In any case, most of us secretly enjoy dishing out a bit of ad hominem abuse, especially mockery. Some people simply cannot argue properly, but can sometimes be jolted back into reason by a bit of well-aimed jeering.
I can’t really pretend that I’ve never given in to this temptation myself. And, as I sometimes point out, even Jesus of Nazareth got personal, denouncing his opponents and critics as "serpents," "whited sepulchers" and "ye generation of vipers," which, I suspect, sounded much ruder in first-century Aramaic than they do in the sonorous poetry of the King James Bible.
But, just as there are real limits on the application of the U.S.’s First Amendment, which prevent incitement to criminal acts, there are - or ought to be - limits on abuse. If, for instance, I call someone a "racist," I think I am obliged to show, with referenced examples, that my target discriminates against certain persons because of their ethnicity. I think it just won’t do to use the word as an all-purpose condemnation of a person you don’t like.
So when Oz Katerji wrote in Haaretz on August 29th 2018 (Why Assad's Western Apologists Think the White Helmets Should Choose Death Rather Than Rescue via Israel) that I was a "racist hatemonger," I think he went a good deal too far.
I think he was simply inaccurate to call me, as he also did, "far right" and "Putin-enamored." I wasn’t especially keen on being coupled with the controversial writer Katie Hopkins, either, but I will leave it to others to judge whether we have much in common.
I assume Mr Katerji’s wrath was provoked by this article, which I wrote at the end of July last year: Are we saving Syrian 'heroes'... or just importing more fanatics?
I did receive quite an angry reaction after I wrote it, from some journalists and others who have been involved in the coverage of the Syrian conflict. I understand that those who have long sought full western engagement on the side of the anti-Assad rebels might dislike it. I did not write it for fun, but because I have serious doubts about the wisdom of the current Western policy of support for Islamist factions in Syria.
But anyone who reads it will note that it is very careful to remain within known facts. And I genuinely cannot see what is "racist" about it. I have guessed (for I cannot see any other conceivable reason for the charge) that the accusation may be based on what I say about the hostility towards Israel in the Arab Muslim world.
Well, any traveler in the Arab and Muslim world (and I have made some journeys there, including to Egypt, Gaza, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and the great Islamic university at Deoband in India) knows the visceral hostility to the Jewish state which abides there, often in the minds of otherwise calm, educated and rational individuals. I can hardly see that it is "racist" to describe, truthfully, the existence of racism among others.
Apart from that, the article simply sets out an alternative view of the Syrian conflict from the one generally accepted by mainstream Western diplomacy, broadcasting and newspapers. This is broadly that the opponents of the Assad state are democrats or apostles of freedom, whereas Assad is a tyrant.
Well, I agree that the Assad state is a tyranny, and I have a long record of attacks on that tyranny, stretching back many years. But I am not persuaded that the Nusra Front or Jaish-al-Islam would be any better, and suspect that, in some important ways they might be even worse.
In any case I simply cannot see why my country or any other free country, should engage on the side of these Islamists. As for being "Putin-enamored," I was one of Vladimir Putin’s earliest press critics, see: Getting Putin Right - but Russia Wrong. I frequently refer to Mr Putin as what he is, namely a sinister tyrant.
I suspect that the attempt to overthrow the Assad state will come to be regarded as a mistake, in time, along with several other equally misconceived Western initiatives in the region.
I have to recognize, as any fair-minded person must, that journalists such as Mr Katerji are rightly moved by the plight of powerless individuals caught in these terrible circumstances. Who is not?
But compassion for human suffering does not automatically lead those who feel it to identical political conclusions. The crude accusation of "racism," in my view, frees those who employ it from the usual rules of debate. It also tends to dehumanize those at whom it is aimed. That is never a good idea.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday. His most recent book, "The Phoney Victory," is an attack on the use of myths about WWII to justify modern wars of choice. @ClarkeMicah
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