City of Brass

City of Brass

Charles Johnson’s jihad

For those who wisely stay out of the blogsphere’s sea of meta-storms, Charles Johnson and his website Little Green Footballs (“LGF”) are probably unknown to you. This is why the fact that Johnson was the subject of three simultaneous profiles by the LA Times, the NY Times, and Vanity Fair deserves mention.

Johnson’s original blogging focus was the post 9/11 threat of Islamic terrorism, and also a fanatical defender of Israel. Where he went astray in those days was in using the latter as a litmus test for the former; as a result he earned quite a reputation as an Islamophobe which (in my opinion, unfairly) persists, to this day. But what makes Johnson noteworthy is how he has stood by his principles and now left the conservative blog movement which he semi-founded. And he has paid a price for doing so, noting that


“The kinds of hate mail and the kinds of attacks I am getting from the right wing are way beyond anything I got when I was criticizing the left or even radical Islam.”

I think this observation speaks volumes about our political atmosphere today. Not to mention being a pretty accurate proxy for assessing the relative threat. The right wing would love nothing more than to see Johnson silenced, rather than have him speaking out in defense of global warming, against Creationism, and domestic right-wing terrorism. Of course, Johnson remains a devoted fan of Israel, and a severe critic of Islamists and extremism. After all, in a way Johnson has never changed. It’s just that the world has – and he reacts accordingly.


Now, I’ve my own history with Johnson – he accused me of “blood libel” against the Jewish people for a monumentally stupid post I wrote as a newbie blogger back in 2003, where I accepted at face value a now-discredited report in the UK’s Sunday Times accusing Israel of developing biological weapons. I’m not proud of how gullible I was back then (for the record, the idea of Israeli bioweapons is paranoid nonsense, but falls far short of being a blood libel). However, though I’d only been blogging for a few years at that point, I had a record of being critical of Israeli policy but supportive of Israel overall. I’ve also always been a ferocious critic of violent Islamic extremism (ie, hirabah) and Palestinian terrorism in particular, but unfortunately it only took one gullible post to erase that credibility and undermined everything I’d written in defense of Islam to that point.


I learned a lot of valuable lessons about blogging and the blogsphere from that episode, especially about how dangerous it is to outsource your critical thinking to the mass media. By the time Johnson led the crusade against Dan Rather with incontrovertible proof of forgery, I was able to be convinced depite my partisan preferences. So to an extent I credit my thrashing at Johnson’s hands for this.

The blogsphere is a pretty harsh, unforgiving environment. That’s the lesson that Charles and his courtier websites taught, as they dispensed their ideological judgements. There’s considerable irony in the fact that those courtiers, who always took the green football of anti-Islamist critique and ran far deeper into the virulently Islamophobic endzone than Johnson himself ever ventured, have now turned on him. To Johnson’s immense credit he has repudiated the Islamophobia industry because he realized that his allies were essentially beccoming ideological brethren with racist, fascist and supremacist groups in Europe (another irony – the very Christian analogue to the Islamic extremists themselves).


The muslim immigrant population of Europe is particularly vulnerable to this kind of hatred, and Europe has a history of letting that kind of hatred get out of control. Muslims in the US are far more integrated, assimilated, and empowered to defend themselves under the law from the persecution and infringement of liberty that muslims in Europe must accept. Kudos to Charles Johnson for recognizing this and speaking out against it – and if in so doing he has earned the hatred of people who claim to be defending the West but still see Islam through the same lens as Osama bin Laden, then that’s all the more reason to congratulate him.

Related – the NYT profile was more critical of Johnson than the other papers, and he has a couple of posts in response. Also see the coverage of Johnson at Talk Islam. And I’m still critical of Israeli policy while remaining supportive of Israel overall.

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posted January 25, 2010 at 3:46 pm

“I think this observation speaks volumes about our political atmosphere today”
It doesn’t say anything without examples. In fact it’s the sort of boilerplate you hear from anyone who has “switched sides” in some political argument.

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Your Name

posted January 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Aziz; I am excatly one of those whom you chose to identify as you audience. One who doesn’t live a breath the blogoshere.The point that struck is the “not outsourceing your critical thinking to the mass media”. Yet, that is what most of us have to do. the access to “rational” though/opinions is confused by others who then denounce the same. The realization that the reading of newspapers, listening to radio, watching telivision must be done to keep informed. With the caveat that the information is just what the masses are thinking at the time. Mostly because of the very opinion being stated in the very article you are being exposed to.
If the mass media is right…state your opinion, then qualify it with the reminder…if the mass media is right.
We could go back and find the lone voices that speak out against the prevailing view, and find that they are almost always right. Then what? Rewrite history to show that is reflects where we ended up?
Hello Orwells 1984.
Speak out at your peirl. Though, if you are going against the flow you are probably going to be found to be right. Alas, almost no one will remember. Yet, in the bloggers fleeting world, memorries seem to die hard. Maybe there is hope.
Be careful out there.

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posted January 25, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Aziz, in your “supportive of Israel” post (Gaza and anti-semitism) you stated almost 1 year ago that “electing Obama virtually ended anti-Americanism’s spread worldwide overnight.” Now that it’s 1 year later, do you honestly still believe that? I find it kind of hilarious.
In 2009, we saw 2 attempted acts of terror (Ft Hood and Underwear Bomber), and we’ve seen Obama accomplish pretty much nothing on the international stage. In fact one could argue he’s worsened relations with our allies if anything.

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posted January 25, 2010 at 5:56 pm

I am pleased, overall, by the adult tone of your post – this is what we need in the blogosphere – in the world, in fact.
But, in that vein, I have only one criticism: it’s easy for you to say that your accusation against Israel wasn’t a blood libel – but you have to do more than just say so. I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, and that’s what you should say, but if you can own up to other mistakes, one more can’t kill you (at least, I hope not…!).

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Mike N

posted January 25, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Aziz –
It’s good to see. I still won’t agree with most of your opinions on Israel… and that’s fine. But finding the insane the conspiracies and frothing anti Israeliness especially in the Muslim world and seeping into the the Western world as well is nice to see.
Of course every high holiday on Egytpian and Syrian tv a 2 hour movie blood libel extrodiannaire is still shows with Arab actors as Rabbis taking the blood of Palestinian boys to bake Matzah is still shown… and now we see Turkey becoming as virulent as well.

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Ron Coleman

posted January 26, 2010 at 1:43 am

Aziz, Susan and Mike picked up on the same point I did here. I’m sorry if this is a distraction from the main point of your post, but frankly the Charles Johnson stuff is mainly inside baseball — I’m sure you realize that. Now, let’s talk “blood libel,” and what a “blood libel” accusation means today.
So, of course I read your link to the 2003 post in which someone calling himself the “Head Heeb” (excu-u-u-u-u-use me!) declares the bio-weapons canard a non-blood-libel. He does this by making a couple of distinctions, however, that are not differences. And because you are a man of good faith and a friend I am going to try to explain why.
First the negative criteria. Why are the two reasons posited in that ’03 post not good enough to resolve the issue? The first of them is that you didn’t make the libel on purpose. That’s kind of stupid. I am quite sure 80% of the Muslims and Arabs who pass on the modern-day blood libels spread via official Arab media are entirely sincere in their beliefs. Not only that, but giving you every benefit of the doubt, which I do, and deeming you far more sophisticated than those benighted unfortunates in and around the Levant and the Casbah, you still don’t get off the hook for spreading a lie if you are merely an innocent carrier. It’s still a lie.
The second suggestion was that a blood libel “has to be” based on ritual actions. That’s just silly. All he is saying is that THE blood libel — the original blood libel — was. When someone says, however, in modern times, that “such-and-such claim is a blood libel,” they are not saying “it is identical to the classic blood libel regarding mixing blood into matzos.” Otherwise the statement would be, ipso facto, incoherent. Rather, he is making an analogy. In analogy we abstract from immaterial similarities in order to focus on the pertinent ones. Here Mr. Heeb did not really demonstrate that the “ritual” aspect of the classic blood libel is truly pertinent to the use of this analogy.
So at least we have removed the scales from our eyes, however, as regards these two supposed exemptions from the blood libel claim. This is important, Aziz, because if you are indeed (and you may yet be) Our Friend Among the Muslims, you can’t place reliance on such flimsy reasoning. We need you to really get this, so: That brings us to the question of whether the accusation is, in fact, a fair one.
I don’t think it is. One reason is that I categorically reject the suggestion that when someone slanders Israel they are, per se, slandering the Jews. They are not the same. On the other hand, and in what may seem at first blush a complete contradiction to this, the the accusation is not in and of itself a sort of crying wolf. That is because all men of good faith will acknowledge that Israel is accused of things, and held to standards, and singled out for criticism, in ways that cannot possibly be explained by any motivation other than an anti-Israel sickness of mind. This is, in my view, not merely antisemitism, but an admixture that includes a very large dose of a kind of neo-antisemitism lumped in with unhealthy doses of reaction to modernity, envy, anti-westernism, and guilt… such that bona fide criticism of objectively questionable policies and actions can essentially never by separated out from the pure hate.
OK, I’m getting there. My point is this: Antisemitism is an important element of gentile anti-Zionism. They are not the same, but those who claim that they are unrelated are, well, antisemites, actually. And when Israel is accused of committing war crimes, or preparing to; and these war crimes are redolent of medieval accusations of well-poisoning as well as the classic blood libel, you can see a certain similarity: The Jews are claimed to be agents of not only mayhem but bearers of malefaction, poision, offal into the otherwise pure nature of things. This, then, is not such a nutty analogy.
Still, I reject, both for the reason I suggested above and because I think the analogy is too far-fetched. There are plenty of other problems with Arab, Muslim and leftist anti-Zionism and antisemitism that we need not get too caught up on this point; Mike raises a fair more insidious one that I would love to see you wrestle with publicly. But, again, I have taken it upon myself, as I do so humbly from time to time and in the spirit of universal enlightenment (i.e., I have a little insomnia), to put the world to right and, tonight, to make sure you get this piece of the puzzle right!
Good night!

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Aziz Poonawalla

posted January 26, 2010 at 9:55 am

Ron, I consider the chapter closed. You can call it whatever you like, I’ve made my feelings about the bioweapon accusation as clear as I possibly can.

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Ron Coleman

posted January 26, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Thanks as ever for sincerely engaging on the broader issue, Aziz.

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posted January 31, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Hmm… it’s hard to use Charles Johnson … or the reaction to his recent change… as a measuring stick. There is something fundamentally different about the way LGF is run now… the blog is much more about name-calling and guilt by association than it was even a year or two ago. Dissenting commenters are immediately kicked off … even for the mildest statements. Heck, even for statements on other blogs! I’d take his claims regarding “hate mail” with a grain of salt, judging from his characterization of publicly accessible writings.

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