Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word: A question of semantics

Misinformation is betraying everyone – from low-wage workers to civilians in Syria, writes Robert Philpot

The United Nations last week confirmed that it is investigating multiple reports that president Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched chemical weapons attacks on two Syrian towns, Saraqeb in Idlib and in Douma in Eastern Ghouta, earlier this month.

The chlorine bombs were reportedly dropped from helicopters by the regime’s airforce.

‘I feel like death is at our doorstep,’ one survivor told CNN. ‘We are used to barrel bombs and artillery, but this is something different. I smelled it, I felt it. This isn’t something you can hide from. You have to run, but there is nowhere to run.’

It is, believes the US State Department, the sixth occasion since the beginning of January when the Syrian regime has deployed chemical weapons against civilians. What was once unthinkable has now become routine, relegated to the inside foreign news pages.

The chlorine attacks are just the darkest chapter in the story of terror inflicted by Assad and his Russian allies on the few parts of the country which remain outside his control. Ahmed Sheiko, a volunteer for the White Helmets rescue team, said of Idlib: ‘It’s like doomsday. Screaming sounds are echoing around the streets.’ In recent airstrikes, pro-regime forces reportedly hit three hospitals, leaving doctors desperately trying to remove premature babies from their incubators.

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More than 350 people – including 86 children and 68 women – have been killed in bombardments in eastern Ghouta alone since the beginning of the new year, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights believes.

Russia’s complicity in Assad’s war crimes is total. Since October 2015, its jets have pounded Syrian towns and villages without a hint of concern for civilian casualties. At the United Nations, Vladimir Putin wields Russia’s security council veto to protect Assad, including, last week, preventing passage of a resolution condemning the most recent chemical weapons attacks.

Putin’s cynicism is seen, too, in the manner in which the Russian government has sought to promote a sick concoction of lies and conspiracy theories designed to absolve Assad of responsibility for the atrocities committed by his forces.

What Newsweek this week described as ‘a growing community of denialists … comprising online commentators, bloggers, pro-Bashar al-Assad activists and fringe websites’ has even succeeded in entering the mainstream media discourse.

‘One of the key weapons in the chemical weapon denialist arsenal is discrediting and demonising individuals and organisations who witness and document events on the ground, including chemical weapon attacks,’ writes the magazine.

A primary target has been the White Helmets, who have been portrayed as terrorist accomplices, tools of western imperialism and frauds who fake footage of their work.

It is, Amnesty International told The Guardian last December, less the group’s rescue work and more its effort to document the crimes perpetuated against the Syrian people which has most rankled Putin.

Unsurprisingly, at the forefront of this wretched campaign has been Moscow’s media mouthpiece, Russia Today. Just this week, RT, as it now brands itself, published reports suggesting that the White Helmets had helped to stage the chemical attacks in Saraqeb. Again and again, RT has sought to tarnish the group’s reputation; to attack those who call out its campaign; and to peddle Kremlin disinformation aimed at shifting the blame for Assad’s crimes on to others. Last August, for instance, it attempted to pre-empt a UN investigation which concluded that the Syrian Air Force carried out the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, which killed at least 83 people, a third of them children, by reporting utterly spurious regime claims that the ‘incident’, as RT delicately called it, was ‘orchestrated by terrorists’.

Britain effectively washed its hands of any responsibility for the welfare of the Syrian people when, in the wake of Assad’s gassing of 1,400 people in Ghouta in August 2013, parliament voted against assisting President Obama enforce his self-declared ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons in the conflict. Assad subsequently managed to find ways around the deal between the US and Russia to disarm him of his chemical weapons.

There is little that British politicians can do for Syria now. At the very least, however, they can show some respect to Assad’s victims by giving a wide berth to propaganda outlets which lie about those who are responsible for their suffering and besmirch the brave few who have tried to ease their plight.

Zero-hours contracts at dawn

The Times last weekend previewed James Bloodworth’s new book, Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, with a grim extract relating his experience of working at an Amazon warehouse in the small Staffordshire town of Rugeley.

Perhaps more striking than Bloodworth’s retelling of the seeming exploitation of the largely migrant workforce (many of whom appear totally unaware of the rights afforded to British workers); the dehumanising culture of surveillance and searches; or the physical and mental toll taken by the work, was the company’s doublespeak:

‘Almost everything that had a name was given a euphemism,’ writes Bloodworth. ‘Even calling the place a warehouse was a minor transgression. Instead, you were informed on the first day that the building would henceforth be known as a “fulfilment centre” – or FC for short. You were not fired or sacked; instead you were “released”. Significantly, the potentially antagonistic categories of Boss and Worker had also been abolished. You were all “Associates” – both high and lowly alike.’

As George Orwell once suggested: ‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.’

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A policy petri dish

In 1932, the US Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, coined the phrase ‘laboratories of democracy’ to describe how a ‘state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country’.

Last week, the Washington Post carried an extraordinary account of what has occurred under the bell jar of Trumpian conservatism in the state of Oklahoma.

The results of its effort to slash taxes, spending and regulation are not pretty. Rural hospitals and nursing homes are closing, prisons are at breaking point, and one in five schools now holds classes on only four days a week. So cash-strapped is the state government that it gave the highway patrol a mileage limit because it literally couldn’t afford to put petrol in its tanks. And has this experiment produced the much-promised burst of wealth and prosperity? Not thus far: Oklahoma ranks 43rd in the United States for household income.

Review: Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House 

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Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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