Show Hide image

''We're still fighting the Civil War here"

Virginia, a former slave state and Republican stronghold, could help secure the presidency for Barac

It is lunchtime in Petersburg and Alice McAlexander and David Nibert are on the prowl. The two Obama campaign staffers have come to the campus of Virginia State University, a historically black college that is still overwhelmingly African-American. Armed with clipboards, they fan out across the scrub lawns between the red-brick halls. “Are you registered to vote in Virginia?” shouts Nibert, clad in flip-flops and a red Obama T-shirt. The VSU students, in mottled hoodies and low-slung denim, look on curiously, but by the end of an hour-long blitz the two operatives have helped a clutch of teenagers negotiate the mauve text of the Virginia voter registration application form. “I’m excited about voting,” says one of their conquests, Davina Pitts, an 18-year-old psychology student.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, lodged above the Carolinas on America's Atlantic coast, has not voted for a Demo cratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B Johnson in 1964. (Historically, the "Solid South" of the United States was a blue stronghold, but when the Democrats announced their support for the civil rights movement in the 1960s the former Confederate states switched allegiance.) As recently as the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry wound down his Virginia campaign in August, reckoning that the state was forfeit to the Republicans.

But things have changed in recent years. Virginia has elected successive Democratic governors since 2002, and in 2007 the party won a majority in the state senate. Says Dr Dirk Philipsen, a political scientist at VSU: "Virginia is now absolutely in play." With 13 electoral college votes, a higher number than all but 11 other states, it is more than just a potentially rich prize for the Democrats. The Old Dominion may be the place where the presidential election is won and lost.

In 2004, John Kerry wound down his Virginia campaign in August, reckoning the state was forfeit to the Republicans

Demographic change in the suburbs of Washington, DC is one factor in Virginia's shifting political make-up. There, the sprawl has brought an influx of liberal-minded voters to Virginian boom towns such as Woodbridge in Prince William County. However, the change in the hue of the state from Republican red to a pregnant purple is also a result of the increasing political engagement of its large African-American population. As Harry Lewis, the black owner of a real-estate appraisal firm in the state capital, Richmond, says: "Obama is a very intelligent young man. He's got all the qualifications to be president. He's a black man, and he ought to be supported."

African Americans, who comprise 19.9 per cent of Virginia's total population of 7.6 million, generally vote Democrat. However, Obama's candidacy has created a new wave of enthusiasm among black Virginians that extends well beyond traditional party allegiances and youthful idealism.

In Chesterfield County, Sandra Noble, a 59-year-old grandmother and the former principal of Harrowgate Elementary School, is one of many professional African Americans who are looking forward to the election. "I've been listening and watching since the beginning of the campaign," she says. "I think Obama is the one to make the change. Something is changing, and our youth is changing. The higher levels need to take control to meet the needs of what is happening today."

If McCain wins, Noble says, "I would feel highly disappointed. I would feel people had not been putting in their whole spirit. I would feel it would be due to the fact that those who could have voted did not."

Elsewhere, Taniki Boyd, a black single mother from Richmond, is also gearing up for 4 November. "I'm looking forward to it," says the 28-year-old administrative assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I just hope it'll be a fair race." Boyd, whose daughter Maria is three years old, is backing the Democrats because she hopes their proposals for social reform could improve her standard of living. "I am a single mother and sometimes I find it hard," she explains. "Do I come to work or do I stay with the child? And as for health care - it's getting outrageous. Sometimes I have to choose between food and medicine."

But converting African-American enthusiasm for Obama and his message into returns at the ballot box is a substantial challenge for the Democratic campaign. In a picture that is repeated across America, black involvement in politics in Virginia lags behind that of whites. In the US, citizens must register before they can vote, and in 2004 only 64.4 per cent of blacks had done so nationwide compared to 67.7 per cent of whites. Voter turnout is lower, too, with 56.3 per cent of African Americans casting a ballot on polling day, compared to 60.3 per cent of whites. As Dr Pamela Reed, a diversity consultant, says: "A lot of African Americans think why even bother, their vote doesn't count."

Moreover, in a society like Virginia's, which is still heavily racially segregated, there remains a deep undercurrent of resistance to involvement of black Americans in the political process. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s theoretically swept away the legislative bars, such as literacy tests, that Southern states introduced to circumvent the 15th Amendment of 1870, which forbade the government from preventing a citizen from voting on grounds of race. However, under a system where federal elections are administered by states, and run by individual counties themselves, vaguely worded regulations are still bent to discourage African Americans from voting. As Kent Willis of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says, the election architecture is a "crazy quilt. No two registrars do their job the same."

When I visited King Salim Khalfani, the barrel-chested executive director of the Virginia state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), he explained that the authorities try to discourage black voters through the way polling stations in poor, minority neighbourhoods are run.

“You have to be part of the decision-making process,” said Hasan Zarif. “I’m not just voting because I’m voting, but because my vote counts”

"There's always a line, and the workers are elderly," he observed, speaking in a room at his Richmond headquarters lined with state law reports. "Sometimes we have to wait. They put hurdles in our places; for instance, they have police officers and police cars in black polling places. That's a deterrent. The perception is they're the enemy."

For Khalfani, the intimidation of African-American voters is an unwanted hangover from Virginia's past. "It's this sense of history," he argued. "Race is the most dominant factor in the society. Virginia is the first state. They made people into property in the Virginia constitution. This is where it all began, where Thomas Jefferson, hailed as a father of the nation, bedded down with underage African girls. This was a breeding state, and their main crop was African people. They stole us from Africa and put us on the plantations. We built this for free." As I prepared to leave, the NAACP executive's rhetoric began to soar. "There's a lot of blood in these red bricks," he said. "We're still second-class citizens in this society. We are still fighting the Civil War here."

And yet, despite all the obstacles, if a campaign is able to mobilise historically disengaged African Americans, the payback could be enormous. This is particularly true in Virginia, where there are 360,000 unregistered black voters, substantially more than the 260,000-vote, 8 per cent margin by which the Republicans won in 2004.

Early on, the Obama campaigners realised that black voter registration could give them a substantial advantage on 4 November. But it was the campaign's record fundraising that allowed them to undertake expensive voter registration activities to try to alter the political map in states previously thought to be unobtainable, such as Virginia. "The guy's got money," says Dr Daniel J Palazzolo, a political scientist at the University of Richmond. "He can take a shot at Virginia." In May, Obama's campaign launched Vote for Change, a 50-state registration drive in pursuit of new voters, with lavish internet hype and large-scale events across the United States. However, this process remains an infantry war, particularly in poor minority communities, with junior staffers and volunteers as its foot soldiers.

This was immediately apparent when I visited the Virginia headquarters of the Obama campaign in the Fan district of Richmond. In a backstreet, a red-brick warehouse had been converted into a hive of political activity. Volunteers’ feet pattered on the stripped wooden floors, chasing down the statewide 6 October deadline for voter registration in front of a huge monochrome portrait of the Great Leader. Elsewhere I saw Alice McAlexander, the campaign organiser I had met earlier, dressed in denim shorts and with a telephone glued to her ear. She sat before a trestle table laden with cans of Diet Coke and laptops emblazoned with Obama ’08 stickers. “Registering an unprecedented number of new voters is critical to our success here in Virginia,” Ashley Etienne, a campaign spokeswoman, told me. “In this state we have had an unprecedented outreach to African-American voters.”

Hearing my British accent, Tam Muir, a Scotsman from Edinburgh who had used his holiday to come to Richmond to volunteer for the Obama campaign, introduced himself. "I've been following Barack Obama from '04," he said. "I felt the time was right." The idealism was palpable, but the atmosphere at the headquarters, beneath sugar paper posters and hand-painted murals, was more playroom than war room. At the blunt end of the campaign it seemed like a student-run junket, with a few harried grown-ups toting BlackBerries in the midst of a sea of flip-flops.

However, it cannot be denied that voter registration has achieved results in Virginia. According to the most recent figures from the state board of elections, there has been a net increase of 283,695 registered voters since the beginning of this year. In Richmond City alone, where the population is 57.2 per cent black, the increase of 11,673 since 1 January represents more than 10.4 per cent of the total number of registered voters. "It's been overwhelming," said Garry E Ellis, the state voter registration co-ordinator, as he showed me around the board of elections office in Richmond's gridded downtown area. And, pointing out mailboxes that were overflowing with forms, he said: "Our processing centre is handling thousands of applications."

The increases in African-American voter registration in Virginia are even more startling given that they have been achieved in spite of the state's draconian felon disenfranchisement law. The Virginia system, which in the US is matched in severity only by Kentucky's, declares that anyone with a felony conviction is banned from voting for life without a special grant of clemency from the governor. This creates a huge pool of disenfranchised citizens, the vast majority of whom have served their prison time and are living freely. For example, at the time of the 2004 election there were 35,172 prisoners in Virginia compared to 297,901 ex-felons.

The bulk of Virginia's prison population is black, and today 20 per cent of African Americans in the state are banned from voting due to felony convictions. For black men, the figure may be well over a third. Although I was aware of these statistics, the human cost of the felon disenfranchisement policy did not strike me until I spoke to Hasan K Zarif, a 57-year-old African American who was convicted as a young man in 1974.

One-fifth of all African Americans in the state are banned from voting due to felony convictions. For black men the figure may be well over a third

"It was concerning an incident that happened while I had been drinking and going through tough times," he explained. "I had lost a brother and grandfather. I was going through some mental problems, I was not aware of what was going on and I shot someone. At the time I was convicted, in the 1970s, African Americans did not receive fair trials. You had a state-appointed attorney who just went through the motions. They were mostly farces. All of your information is going to be supporting the Commonwealth case."

Zarif ended up serving 17 years in Virginia State Penitentiary, and as a felon he was stripped of his right to vote.

"When they convicted me I felt my life was completely over," he continued. "I had never voted before. As I was in prison I realised I had lost being a citizen, being a contributing member of society, being able to elect officials. I realised I had lost a great deal. I decided if I was ever released I would do whatever I could to regain my right to vote. I became a model prisoner, went to school, got a college education."

However, under Virginia law the restoration of his rights was a tortuous process. "I had to finish the 17 years in prison," he recalled. "Then I had to get off the parole. After 12 years I was discharged. That enabled me to start the clock ticking. Then I had to wait an additional five years. After 34 years I was able to get the documents together. I put together a mountain of information. I presented as much information as I could present to them. The requirement was three letters. I had 20."

Finally, on 6 August 2007, he had his rights restored by the governor, Tim Kaine. "It felt like the greatest gift you can give," said Zarif who, on the cusp of his sixth decade, will be voting for the first time in a presidential election. "You have to be a part of the decision-making process," he said. "I am not just voting because I'm voting, but because my vote counts."

The evening after the lunchtime voter registration drive I had another opportunity to see the role of race in Virginian politics at first hand when I returned to VSU for one of its regular “Hot Topic” evenings. To publicise the event, Dirk Philipsen, the white professor I had interviewed earlier, had superimposed his face on to J M Flagg’s 1917 recruitment poster of a finger-pointing Uncle Sam. Beneath the figure the legend read, “I want you NOT to vote.”

As I watched, Philipsen addressed a packed crowd in the university's Foster Hall. "The road to the White House runs through Virginia," he said, reminding the students of their importance in the election. "Everything that is good happens because people do things. History shows that you can make a difference with your friends and families if you know what you are talking about."

Philipsen, in jeans and a navy blazer, then asked the overwhelmingly black crowd who did not want them to vote. There was a pause as drumbeats and cymbal smashes from the band practice outside crashed in on the night air. Then someone shouted, "The man. The white man."

In the final analysis, it is still unknowable whether the Democrats will be able to turn Virginia blue. Large-scale voter registration, not only by the Obama campaign, but also by other groups such as the Community Voting Project and My Vote Will Count, is changing the state's demographic make-up, and drastically increasing the involvement of African Americans. Yet there is always an element of uncertainty as to whether newly registered voters will turn out at the polls. In 2004 many thousands of those signed up in voter registration drives, including P Diddy's widely ridiculed Vote or Die! campaign, stayed at home on polling day. As Daniel Palazzolo says, "If Obama is to win in Virginia, the African-American vote has to come out for him."

If it does turn out on polling day, the result will be historic. For then Virginia, the former slave state that calls itself the Mother of Presidents, and has sent eight of her sons to the White House, could well end up holding out a guiding hand to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to a black man from Hawaii.

Simon Akam is a Fulbright Alistair Cooke scholar at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
Show Hide image

The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas