Guardian at the crossroads

Distortions of my writing serve to illustrate a much larger problem.

October 3, 2006 19:05


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The Guardian and its jointly-owned sister Sunday publication, The Observer, which used to be liberal British newspapers, have become the full-fledged Pravdas of the British hard left, especially when it comes to one-sided bashing of Israel. Like Pravda, they will not publish alternative points of view, even when the alternative points of view seek to correct willful misstatements of fact. It's gotten to the point where a reader simply cannot trust the credibility of the writing. Two recent incidents, in as many months, regarding total distortions of my own writing simply serve to illustrate a much larger problem. I have heard similar stories from others. Most recently, The Observer published an op-ed devoted to an article I had written. The writer turned virtually everything I had argued on its head. Before we get to the specifics, let's get to the Der Stuermer-like characterization of my appearance that became a centerpoint of the articles. The author of the article, Henry Porter, claimed that he saw me on television in 2001 "looking like Animal, the wildman drummer from The Muppet Show." What Porter did not know is that I have been clean-shaven with short hair for a decade, thus undermining Porter's claim that he actually saw me on TV. But I suppose I'll always be, to people like Porter, the stereotypical hairy, wild-eyed Jew. Porter then writes that, although I say I am against torture, I really am all in favor of torture. Apparently, despite the hundreds of times that I've written and said publicly and clearly that I am against torture, Porter believes he knows better - that he can read my mind or discern my views from my Animal-like face. His third point was that "Dershowitz doesn't understand that [i]f governments are given powers, they will almost always find a way to abuse them." In fact, not only do I make this cautionary point, but it is a large part of my article. I write: It would also be relatively easy to combat terrorism if our government had earned more of our trust over the years. But most governments - even most liberal democracies - have tended to abuse extraordinary powers given to them during emergencies. And then I launch into a list of examples, with suggestions as to how to prevent them recurring. Significantly, Porter manages to contradict himself in the span of less than half a page. First he takes me to task for setting up a straw argument against "liberal fundamentalists," when he insists that he "cannot think of one who believes that all rights are unqualified, that all freedoms are absolute." And then he concludes his rant by himself advocating the fundamentalist position that "[f]reedom is the thing which patrols and constrains government and that is why it is not amenable to compromise." I was compelled to write a letter to the editor correcting the many inaccuracies and pointing out the inappropriate ad-hominem attack on my appearance (or rather, the appearance that the author assumed I have). I sent the letter to The Guardian at least three times. My assistant and research assistant left several phone messages. None of them were returned. When this article was first published, the editor of The Guardian said that The Guardian couldn't have published my letter because the original appeared in The Observer. This is a disingenuous excuse, given that on-line, where I found the article and where Americans see the papers, the two papers are presented together under The Guardian's banner. Here is where I found the article, for example:,,1863865,00.html There's no indication in the URL that this is The Observer. The bar at the top of the computer screen, as well as the banner on the Web site, say that this is part of the "Guardian Unlimited." Only under the byline and date is there a small link to The Observer. If there was any misunderstanding by readers of the Web site such as myself, it is entirely the fault of The Guardian, which obviously seeks the benefit of its association with The Observer while, at the same time, trying to distance itself when mistakes are pointed out. If The Guardian and The Observer are truly different papers, they had had several months to say so, and chose not to. Because of their common ownership, one would think The Guardian could have forwarded my letter to its weekend sister, but instead ignored it. The first incident, which took place in June, occurred when The Guardian published a review of my most recent book Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways. I should say from the start that it was not the negative tone or conclusion of the review that bothered me. I write, on average, a book every year, and I have been an outspoken Jew and criminal defense lawyer for decades. Therefore, having a thick skin is a prerequisite of everything I do. What amazed me about this article, though, was the fact that the reviewer simply lied about what was in my book. She made things up. She said the book was about something it wasn't about. She said I took positions, when I explicitly wrote the opposite in my book. Why would a book reviewer go to such great lengths to defame me and to falsify what I wrote? After all, I am a liberal Democrat and have spent my career as a law professor, author and defense lawyer fighting for civil liberties and the rights of the accused. In fact, my book is precisely about how to take the lessons of liberal democracy marked by transparency and accountability and apply them in a world that increasingly relies on preventive and preemptive criminal justice procedures and international military interventions. One would think that these credentials and this topic would endear me to The Guardian. But I am also, as I wrote above, an outspoken Jew and Zionist, and I wrote a section in my book about Israel. It was supportive of some, and critical of others, of Israel's preemptive military actions. And it is just this sort of balanced assessment of Israel's behavior, coupled with a refusal to demonize the Jewish state, that sends Guardian writers into apoplectic fits. Liberalism and Zionism are not considered mutually exclusive in America. In fact, they are complementary. The prevailing view at The Guardian is to the contrary. Let's look at what The Guardian actually said. The reviewer of my book, a woman named Louise Christian who claims to be a lawyer but who demonstrates none of the requisite analytical skills of the profession, immediately seized upon my section on Israel and focused on it for the majority of her article. She characterized the book as "an attempt to justify the Iraq war and even the actions of the State of Israel (which the author, a Harvard law professor, obsessively admires)" (emphasis added). First, notice the "even" before Israel, showing that the author assumes the actions of Israel to be particularly indefensible. Second, I do not try to justify Israel's actions. I analyze its actions, and I conclude that some of them were justified and beneficial, while others were wrongheaded and unnecessary. Finally, had Christian read the book, she would know that I opposed the war in Iraq. She apparently assumed that because I support Israel's right to exist, I also supported America's war in Iraq. It's a telling assumption. Not only does Christian mischaracterize the topics of my book and my positions. She goes right ahead and lies about what I say. For example, she writes, "In its concluding chapter the book goes so far as to suggest that theories of chromosomal abnormality should be pursued as predictive of violent crime to justify long-term detention." In fact, I say just the opposite. Christian is referring to an appendix in which I reproduce an article I published in 1975. The whole thrust of the article is categorically against the use of the XYY chromosome to predict violence, since I demonstrate conclusively that the XYY karyotype is not predictive. Here is what I say: "Nor is it likely that the XYY karyotype, even in combination with other factors, could be used to predict violence. There is simply no hard evidence establishing that any combination of factors can accurately spot a large percentage of future violent criminals without also including an unsatisfactorily number and percentage of false positives." How on earth could Christian transform my strong opposition to using chromosomes as criminal predictors to support? She simply reversed my position. This cannot be a simple mistake. It is plainly a willful deception of her readers. A mendacious review is one thing, but what's worse is that The Guardian refused to correct its mistake. When I wrote a letter to the editor refuting Christian's blatant lies, The Guardian responded that they could not publish my letter. The reason given was that my letter was too long. And so I responded that I would cut my letter to any length requested. But The Guardian persisted in refusing to let me set the record straight. It was only after this article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post that The Guardian was willing to entertain a letter from me. It would be unthinkable for an American or Israeli newspaper to publish a full-blown attack on an individual without at least extending the right to reply on the letters page. The Guardian and Observer did precisely that to me, and twice in a single summer. Perspective is one thing, but there's something very wrong with any paper that would publish and then stand behind factual inaccuracies in the service of a political agenda. That sort of cavalier attitude toward the truth is more fitting for a Stalinist newspaper than for Britain's liberal newspaper of note. It's discouraging to see such prominent and previously honorable publications abandoning their standards so readily. I challenge The Guardian and Observer to print my letters, or else to defend or even explain their journalistic decision to stand by the demonstrable falsehoods and defamations of its writers. The writer is a professor of law at Harvard. His most recent book is Preemption: A Knife that Cuts Both Ways. This is a revised version of an article that first appeared last week.

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