Johann Hari: Modern-Day Democritus or Aristotelian Mythologos?

Guest-Post by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (aka “the obscure young Muslim”).

For those who do not know Greek, the word mythologos is a disparaging term used by Aristotle in his critique of Herodotus’ work. Indeed, the philosopher claims that Herodotus fabricated quotations and narratives to suit mythological patterns. The pre-Socratic thinker Democritus, in contrast, strove for accuracy and objective truth, as reflected in a later paraphrase, which attributes to him the sentiment that he would rather discover one cause than gain the kingdom of Persia (Diels-Kranz 68.B118). So, is Johann Hari more like Aristotle’s Herodotus, or Democritus?

Amid all the controversy regarding whether Hari has committed plagiarism (in my view, the accusation against him is correct. Hari’s defense that he takes quotations from elsewhere to make clearer what his interviewees are trying to say without misrepresenting them cannot be accepted, for misrepresentation is not the same thing as plagiarism), it is perhaps worth noting that Hari appears to be guilty of outright fabrication in quoting others.

For example, in his article “Thirty years on: Thatcherism is bankrupt,” Hari claims that General Augusto Pinochet- the former dictator of Chile who overthrew Allende in a coup in 1973 and stepped down after being rejected by a popular referendum in 1988- was a “self-described ‘fascist’.” Now, I despise Pinochet and think it is a shame that he was not put on trial for the detention, torture and murder of thousands of Chilean dissidents, but I have never found any reference to Pinochet supposedly describing himself as a “fascist.”

A Google search likewise reveals that the only sources for this alleged self-description are Hari’s own writings. In fact, it would not be accurate to characterize Pinochet and his rule as fascist. “Ultra-right-wing” might be better, because he implemented neo-liberal economic policies that differ greatly from the corporatist and broadly Keynesian economics of fascist regimes like Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany (none of this is to be taken as a condemnation of Keynesianism per se). One must therefore ask what is Hari’s source for his claim vis-à-vis Pinochet, and why he has never revealed it, if it exists. As much as I dislike Thatcherism and the former prime minister’s friendship with Pinochet, Hari’s agenda seems to be to depict Margaret Thatcher as a fascist through smear-by-association.

Another case in point is Hari’s article “Ethnic Cleansing Returns to Israel’s Agenda.” In that piece, Hari attributes the following quotation to David Ben-Gurion in 1937:

“I support compulsory transfer … The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.”

The first part of that quotation (i.e. “I support compulsory transfer”) is genuine, but the rest is pure fabrication. As with the self-description he imputes to Pinochet, Hari does not reveal the source for the quotation. It possibly comes from the “brave” Ilan Pappé, yet as Benny Morris comments:

“It is true that Ben-Gurion in 1937-38 supported the transfer of the Arabs out of the area of the Jewish state-to-be – which was precisely the recommendation of the British Royal (Peel) Commission from July 1937, which investigated the Palestine problem. The commission concluded that the only fair settlement was by way of partition, with the Jews receiving less than 20 per cent of Palestine, but that, for it to be viable, the 20 per cent should be cleared of potentially hostile, disloyal Arabs. Neither Ben-Gurion nor the Zionist movement ‘planned’ the displacement of the 700,000-odd Arabs who moved or were removed from their homes in 1948. There was no such plan or blanket policy. Transfer was never adopted by the Zionist movement as part of its platform; on the contrary, the movement always accepted that the Jewish state that arose would contain a sizeable Arab minority.”

In other words, the Peel plan that Ben-Gurion briefly supported was no worse than, say, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey after the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War. In the case of Greece and Turkey, the latter began the hostilities by instigating massacres of Greeks in Anatolia, Pontus and Lydia, inter alios locos, with the onset of the First World War, such that the events have now been recognized since 2007 as genocide by the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Incidentally, it is noteworthy how the Independent edited Benny Morris’ letter of complaint to read as follows concerning the Ben-Gurion quotation:

“Hari’s quote and take on Ben-Gurion and transfer is only half-true.”

That is, the Independent conveniently omitted the Israeli historian’s point about Hari’s use of fabricated words in attributing a quotation to Ben-Gurion.

Thus, with regret, I must say that the evidence points to Hari the modern-day mythologos, not the enduring truth-teller. I have truly enjoyed reading many of Hari’s articles- especially his recent essay on why we need paper books more than ever in the computer age- but his apparent record of fabrication seriously puts into doubt his integrity as a regular columnist for one of Britain’s leading newspapers.