22 February 2021

David Miller’s anti-Semitic invective is an affront to academic inquiry – and his university should say so

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In his classic essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ (1963), Richard Hofstadter noted:

“Notions about an all-embracing conspiracy on the part of Jesuits or Freemasons, international capitalists, international Jews, or Communists are familiar phenomena in many countries throughout modern history.” 

He was right, of course, but there is an under-remarked common aspect of these conspiratorial fantasies. Because there is no evidence to support them, and plenty of real-world facts that undermine them, their advocates will be forced to spin an ever-more-complex story about how the Truth is being suppressed. Ultimately (indeed, within a few steps), they will end up with an explanation that traces the conspiracy back to the Jews.

There is no inherent reason why conspiracy theories should alight on anti-Semitism, but it is an observable fact that they do. For example, I’ve written about how the 9/11 Truth movement has embraced Holocaust denial, and how the ostensibly non-political conspiracy theory that the Earl of Oxford secretly wrote the works of Shakespeare is inextricable from the far-right beliefs of its founder, the unimprovably named J. Thomas Looney, and prominent supporters such as the syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran, who ended his days as an apologist for Nazi Germany. 

The McCarthyite scare alluded to by Hofstadter was also anti-Semitic, exemplified in the ludicrous accusations of the John Birch Society. (So, by the way, was the counter-propaganda of Communists and their fellow-travellers. Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, publicly supported the anti-Semitic purge of Rudolf Slansky, the Czech Communist, in 1952, even while knowing Slansky’s confession of treachery to be bogus.)

This brings me sadly but ineluctably to David Miller, professor of political sociology at Bristol University. Leading Jewish organisations, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, have in the past few days, urged the university to take action against Miller for calling, in a virtual event purporting to be about free speech, for the “end of Zionism as a functioning ideology”.

In response to the dismay of Jewish students, Miller complained: “There is a real question of abuse here – of Jewish students on British campuses being used as political pawns by a violent, racist, foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing. The [Union of Jewish Students’] lobbying for Israel is a threat to the safety of Arab and Muslim students as well as of Jewish students and indeed of all critics of Israel.”

Miller’s invective is clearly anti-Semitic and is not a one-off. If you listen to his contributions to various virtual events posted on YouTube, you will note his preoccupation with what he depicts, though does not describe, as an international conspiracy. When he was suspended from the Labour Party last year (he has since resigned before he could be expelled), Miller issued a statement declaring that “the Zionist movement is an actually existing transnational network of organisations, which work tirelessly to justify Israel’s ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians. It works in collaboration with the leading imperial powers, most obviously the US and the UK”.

His allegation that the Jewish state is manipulating its “pawns” is instantly recognisable as part of a long and ignoble tradition of conspiratorial fantasy. It plays into the notion that Jews in the diaspora have a “dual loyalty” to Israel and to their host nation – an accusation that, because it deals with psychological states, is incapable of disproof and is hence peculiarly toxic.

Bristol University has issued a statement saying: “We do not endorse the comments made by Professor Miller about our Jewish students.” Well, I should hope not – but it’s not really the point, and I have every sympathy with Bristol’s Jewish students who don’t feel this is an adequate response. The university does have a responsibility to condemn outright Miller’s behaviour, and it’s worth being clear why. 

An issue of free speech?

This is not a free speech issue. If it were, I’d unhesitatingly come to Miller’s defence while deploring his opinions. Over many years, I’ve defended the freedom of extremists to express anti-Semitic and racist views, and urged support for the civil liberties of such noxious figures as David Irving, Nick Griffin and the anti-Muslim demagogue Geert Wilders. I’ve done this in Jewish publications and in front of Jewish audiences.

Nor is it, as his supporters preposterously claims, a witch hunt against the left in academia. Again, if it were, I’d defend Miller. (As it happens, one of the finest teachers I ever had was a Marxist professor of sociology, Paul Hirst, who was for many years head of the Department of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck College, London.) Nor is it because Jewish students have been understandably offended by Miller’s comments; again, I’ve long argued that a free society should take no account of psychological hurt caused by speech.

No; it’s an issue about the integrity of scholarship and the role of the academy in upholding it. One of the points rightly raised by the Board of Deputies in their letter to Bristol University is that Miller is part of a small group of UK academics who have spread pro-Assad conspiracy theories, supposedly exonerating the Syrian dictator on charges of using chemical weapons. The Times exposed this group’s output in 2018, and has kept track of its work ever since. As we commented in a leading article, this type of activity “is a violation of the ethos of academic research and gives succour to an appalling regime by trampling on evidence in favour of obscurantism”. A university cannot say it’s nothing to do with them if its academics are spreading material that is inherently hostile to the notion of scholarship and critical inquiry. The leader drew an analogy with a geocentrist teaching in an astronomy department or a Holocaust denier teaching history. 

Miller has contributed to many of this group’s publication, which are actually listed on his university profile page. Neither he nor his colleagues have any specialist knowledge of chemical weapons, Middle East studies, strategic studies or any other relevant discipline. They are no more informed or reputable than any other conspiracy theorist you stumble across online, or indeed the next person you pass in the street. I’m relieved to relate that a co-founder of the group, Piers Robinson, who purports to be a specialist in political journalism, has since left his post at Sheffield University and apparently no longer has any academic position. He was last seen (by me) getting himself banned from Wikipedia for posting a threat of legal action on the site. He used to tag me (and probably still does, but I don’t see it) on Twitter trying to interest me in publications of the 9/11 Truth movement. 

The conspiracy type of material is far from unusual in Miller’s output. It is in fact characteristic. In a blog post, Dave Rich refers to Miller’s theories about the role of “the Israel lobby” in supposedly promoting Islamophobia, and observes: “His research was based on cherry-picked data and his conclusion relied more on inference than evidence, but astonishingly this was enough for Bristol University to give him a Professorship…”

In a sardonic comment on Twitter concerning Miller’s convoluted joining-of-the-dots, Sir Lawrence Freedman observed: “This is what his research is all about – showing networks of individuals who are all related to each other and are up to no good.”

The apotheosis of Miller’s conspiracy theories came in a virtual event (you can watch it on YouTube) last June for a group called Labour Left Alliance, where he complained that an interfaith venture in which Jews and Muslims made chicken soup together in a London mosque was “an Israeli-backed project to normalise Zionism within the Muslim community”. It’s hard not to hoot in derision on hearing this, but in truth Miller’s output – while certainly a joke – is not funny at all.

And it’s always been like that. Miller’s PhD thesis from 1994 is titled The Struggle Over, and Impact of, Media Portrayals of Northern Ireland. It shows scant acquaintance with the historiography of Northern Ireland but extensively cites Edward Herman, a genocide denier and fraudster whose death in 2017 I marked on CapX. The quality of its research and documentation is poor. Among other errors is Miller’s assertion: “During the 1980/1981 hunger strikes journalists were simply not allowed to interview hunger strikers.” Not true at all. I could refer him to a prominent US network journalist I used to be related to who did precisely this, at the specific request of one of the ten prisoners who died. 

Universities have intellectual responsibilities. They can’t, or at least shouldn’t, just say it’s nothing to do with them if a member of staff promulgates irrationalism. Take an unrelated example: some years ago the BBC gave coverage to the work of an academic called Andy McIntosh, emeritus professor of thermodynamics and combustion theory at Leeds University. He’s a biblical creationist who maintains that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. 

Does a university have nothing to say about a science academic who publicly espouses such a view? If not, where does it draw the line? A science academic who maintains the Earth is flat? In fact, Leeds University quite rightly saw that it had a problem, so it issued a press statement dissociating itself from McIntosh’s views. It should have done more, because creationism is hostile not only to evolutionary biology but to scientific thinking itself (for example, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis is incompatible with the findings of historical linguistics). But silence was not an option.

And this is where Bristol University needs to stand too. Miller’s output is an affront to critical inquiry. His institution should clearly say so, and do it right now. 

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.