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Editorial: ‘Talking points’ – the new language of censorship

THIS week, commenting on a Morning Star editorial urging the TUC not to endorse sending arms to Ukraine, the journalist Paul Mason criticised our references to 2014’s Maidan coup and Nato’s eastward expansion since the end of the cold war as “Kremlin talking points.”

The “talking points” concept has crept in too among that minority of the British left who try to justify Russia’s war. Raising Vladimir Putin’s comparison of himself to expansionist Russian tsars like Peter and Catherine the Great, his regime’s national chauvinism or war crimes allegations can attract accusations of spreading “Nato talking points.”

It’s important that the left challenges this language, which is intended to suppress serious discussion of the war and its causes.

It is common enough to accuse opponents of spreading “propaganda” or “disinformation.” Both allegations are being used by governments to restrict access to alternative accounts of world events, and the massive expansion of online censorship needs to be opposed.

But these charges are more straightforward to challenge. “Disinformation” indicates that a particular narrative is untrue. Though “propaganda” originally merely meant the promotion of ideas (both the Catholic church and communist parties have historically had propaganda departments tasked with this) in common usage it also implies dishonesty.

You can counter an accusation of spreading disinformation or propaganda with evidence that what you are saying is true. 

That the elected government of Ukraine was overthrown by force in 2014 is a fact. Its immediate consequences included the Russian annexation of Crimea and the eruption of a separatist war in the Donbass, whatever you think about either of those developments.

That Nato’s eastward expansion broke US promises made to the Soviet Union in return for its withdrawal of troops from eastern Europe is also a matter of historical record. 

That it would be perceived as a threat by Russia and make conflict more likely was a view expressed by a huge range of political figures, including within the US foreign policy establishment.

US diplomat George Kennan, one of the foremost “cold warriors” who had advocated an aggressive anti-Soviet policy throughout the cold war, called the first round of Nato expansion eastwards in 1998 a “tragic mistake” to which “the Russians will gradually react quite adversely.” 

Henry Kissinger, an unscrupulous champion of US imperialism and one of the most influential US strategists of the last century, predicted that offering Nato membership to Ukraine would lead to war.

So it’s hard to justify the idea that references to the 2014 coup, or Nato expansion, as factors which contributed to the war in Ukraine are mere propaganda.

But calling them “talking points” avoids such scrutiny. If something is a “talking point” of your enemy it no longer matters whether it is true. The simple fact that Russia has cited these factors means that we should not be allowed to consider them.

The “talking points” dismissal has been used too when anyone on the left raises the role of openly neonazi units like the Azov Battalion in the Ukrainian military. 

Because Putin cited “denazification” as one of three war aims when invading Ukraine (another was “decommunisation,” which those on the left who try to defend his war should remember), we should apparently ignore the voluminous evidence of the Azov Battalion’s fascist ideology, its founder’s stated desire to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade against semite-led untermenschen,” and reports of its war crimes by organisations like Amnesty International.

Putin has attacked the Azov Battalion — so it’s a “talking point” and if we mention it we are playing into his hands.

This is guilt by association. It is impossible to analyse world developments if whole subjects become taboo as soon as they are mentioned by an official enemy.

Anyone who uses the “talking point” charge to try to shut down debate should be given short shrift across the left.

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