Tuesday, December 27, 2016
The decline and fall of Snopes
Leftists in the truth business was always an oxymoron and a paradox. Inherently unstable. I have been critical of Snopes for years so this is validation
One of the websites Facebook is to use to arbitrate on 'fake news' is involved in a bitter legal dispute between its co-founders, with its CEO accused of using company money for prostitutes.
Snopes.com will be part of a panel used by Facebook to decide whether stories which users complain about as potentially 'fake' should be considered 'disputed'.
But the website's own troubles and the intriguing choice of who carries out its 'fact checks' are revealed by DailyMail.com, as one of its main contributors is disclosed to be a former sex-blogger who called herself 'Vice Vixen'.
Snopes.com will benefit from Facebook's decision to allow users to report items in their newsfeed which they believe to be 'fake'.
It is asking a number of organizations to arbitrate on items which are reported or which Facebook staff think may not be genuine, and decide whether they should be marked as 'disputed'.
The others include ABC News, the Associated Press and 'fact-checking' websites including Politifact.com.
Now a DailyMail.com investigation reveals that Snopes.com's founders, former husband and wife David and Barbara Mikkelson, are embroiled in a lengthy and bitter legal dispute in the wake of their divorce.
He has since remarried, to a former escort and porn actress who is one of the site's staff members.
They are accusing each other of financial impropriety, with Barbara claiming her ex-husband is guilty of 'embezzlement' and suggesting he is attempting a 'boondoggle' to change tax arrangements, while David claims she took millions from their joint accounts and bought property in Las Vegas.
The Mikkelsons founded the site in 1995. The couple had met in the early 1990s on a folklore-themed online message board, and married before setting up the site.
Profiles of the website disclose that for some time before it was set up, the couple had posed as 'The San Fernardo Valley Folklore Society', using its name on letterheads, even though it did not exist.
A profile for the Webby Awards published in October describes it as 'an entity dreamed up to help make the inquiries seem more legit'.
David Mikkeleson told the Los Angeles Times in 1997: 'When I sent letters out to companies, I found I got a much better response with an official-looking organization's stationery.'
In 2015, their marriage ended in divorce - but a bitter legal dispute continues. Both stayed on as co-owners of Snopes - which is registered under its legal name of Bardav, Inc. and were its sole board members.
Legal filings seen by DailyMail.com detail a lengthy financial and corporate dispute which stretches long after their divorce, and which one lawyer describes as 'contentious' in court documents.
In the filings, Barbara, 57, has accused her former husband, 56, of 'raiding the corporate business Bardav bank account for his personal use and attorney fees' without consulting her.
She also claimed he embezzled $98,000 from the company over the course of four years 'which he expended upon himself and the prostitutes he hired'.
When contacted by the Dailymail.com, David said he was legally prohibited from discussing his ex-wife’s allegations.
'I'd love to respond, but unfortunately the terms of a binding settlement agreement preclude me from publicly discussing the details of our divorce,' he said. Barbara Mikkelson said: 'No comment.'
In court records, Barbara alleged that her ex-husband removed thousands from their business accounts between April and June of 2016 to pay for trips for him and his 'girlfriend'.
She claimed he spent nearly $10,000 on a 24-day 'personal vacation' in India this year and expensed his girlfriend's plane ticket to Buenos Aires.
'He’s been depleting the corporate account by spending monies from it on his personal expenses,' said Barbara in a filing last June.
She added that he needed to be suspended from using the company checkbook and debit card 'right away before there are no funds left in the corporate account'.
David and his attorneys countered that the India visit was a legitimate business trip, and that he only expensed a fraction - 22.5 per cent - of the total cost of the excursion.
He said he was considering setting up a fact-checking website in India, and wanted to get a sense of the culture. He also said he went to Buenos Aires to attend an international fact-checking conference.
Meanwhile, his attorneys blasted Barbara as 'a "loose cannon" who simply must have her way'.
One major point of contention was David’s 2016 salary – which Barbara was responsible for approving.
David wanted his salary raised from $240,000 to $360,000 – arguing that this would still put him below the 'industry standards' and that he should be paid up to $720,000 a year.
'As I said, based on industry standards and our revenues, my salary should be about 2x to 3x what it is now,' he wrote in an email to Barbara in April 2016. 'I'll settle for $360K with the understanding that it’s to be retroactive to the start of the year.'
Barbara responded that his request was 'not even in the galaxy of reasonable'.
So bitter was the dispute, that they even fell out over the arbiter they had appointed to settle disputes, meaning that Facebook's arbiter cannot even agree on its own arbiter.
The court papers also detail the substantial financial rewards 'fact-checking' brought the former couple - and how they have even fallen out over remuneration.
The divorce settlement stipulated that David Mikkelson receive a salary of $240,000 a year in 2015, while both of the former couple were due to receive $20,000 a month as a draw against profits, as well as a share of any net profit the company made after those payments.
The settlement also noted: 'Each party waives his or her claim upon Bardav's revenues received by Husband into his PayPal account and spent by him, accountant's fees for restating tax returns to reflect previously unreported income...'
The nature of those revenues and fees, and of the unreported income is not disclosed.
The settlement saw savings, IRAS and stockholdings of well over $1.5 million given to Barbara, while she renounced claim on their marital home in Calabasas, California, in return for a payment of $660,000.
David kept their joint baseball card collection, a savings account with $1.59 million balance, and other savings worth more than $300,000. They also agreed to split the company checking account's $240,000 balance at the end of 2015 after his salary had been paid and a $50,000 float left.
Much more on Snopes bias and inaccuracy here
Academic: ISIS 'as Islamic as Anything'
"These things come and go," declared University of Toledo Islamic Studies professor Ovamir Anjum of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a phenomenon he demonstrated is not an aberration in Islamic history. His December 1 presentation, "ISIS & the Future of Islam," at Georgetown University's Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) indicated that ISIS has far more Islamic legitimacy than many will admit.
Speaking in ACMCU's small conference room to about thirty-five listeners, including Georgetown Islamic Studies professor Emad Shahin, Anjum stated that "Islam is a discursive tradition; there are many different interpretations on any issue." In Islam, "to say that something is wrong and I disagree with it - that is easy. To say that something is beyond the pale of any possible legitimate interpretation is very, very, very, very difficult." Regarding ISIS, "misinterpretations like this in a free-floating enterprise like Islamic law happen all the time."
As Anjum noted, ISIS consistently seeks justification in "Islamic texts, which they seem to know more or less," although members "use the hadith and the Quran in a way that is not resonant with the scholarly tradition and with the scholarly consensus." Nonetheless, the condemnation of ISIS from many Muslim organizations, including the terrorist group al-Qaeda, "does not demonstrate that ISIS does not represent one plausible interpretation of Wahhabi or Salafi doctrine."
Explaining that ISIS is not unique in Islam's past, Anjum described the historical example of a "charismatic figure on the margins of the Islamic world agonized by the depraved condition of the community." He "unites tribes under his leadership to wage war against existing regimes and peoples for their loose practices, [and] sternly and violently imposes moral norms." "Most crucially, [he] calls his Muslim opponents disbelievers and uses that to declare jihad against them." "Ultimately, his successors succeed in establishing a powerful dynasty over a large and prosperous stretch of territory."
Anjum suggested that this description could bring to mind eighteenth-century Saudi Arabian theological founding father Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Yet Anjum actually wanted to examine the twelfth-century North African Almohad leader Ibn Tumart. He also thought his statements had applicability to the Shiite Safavids in Iran.
Anjum's main criticism of ISIS was that it "excludes other Muslims from being part of Islam" similar to the "super-pietists, fanatics, zealots" of the Khawarij sect (modern-day Ibadis) from Islam's founding era in the seventh century. "You have checked out of the discursive community; you have excommunicated other Muslims; you are killing other Muslims," he stated about ISIS members who violate Islamic norms demanding communal review of behavior. "It is kind of like the academic process of academic review and other people holding you to account, and you act in accordance with the respect for the academic community." Yet ISIS "is a group that draws on a very legitimate set of grievances and the rejection of these people as Khawarij comes from the mouths of people that serve up...the tyrants who create the conditions," giving ISIS "their major rebuttal."
Even these qualified theological criticisms of ISIS, which Anjum denounced as an "abomination by any standard," have flaws. He condemned ISIS's slaughtering of civilians, claiming that in Islam's "legal, juristic tradition, you do not kill noncombatants" and that "in Islamic law, taking a life is the biggest crime" and must be "meticulously justified." Yet these assessments are otherworldly in light of the brutal history of Islamic subjugation of non-Muslims under the dhimmi pact, which ISIS has newly implemented. Additionally, a bearded Muslim audience member noted that historically, numerous Muslim scholars have issued religious opinions or fatwas contradicting an Islamic legal consensus or ijma: "giving fatwa against ijma is not something rare."
Anjum did not strengthen his argument with jabs at non-Muslims. He opposed "ignoring the direct immediate role of Western imperialism, the two Gulf Wars, and the intervening sanctions on Iraq, and so on, on giving rise to ISIS." He relativized ISIS in relation to other atrocities, such as Pol Pot's murder of millions in Cambodia, stating that the "secular Middle East regimes, many U.S.-backed, have for decades killed and imprisoned a far greater number of people." The former argument disregards that ISIS arose in Syria, not just in Iraq, while the latter argument disregards that secular dictators have kept groups like ISIS in check, as Saddam Hussein's overthrow indicated.
Anjum's presentation belied his previously articulated thesis that ISIS is no more Islamic than the Ku Klux Klan is Christian. Glossing over the non-Muslims outside Islam's "discursive community" who are subject to ISIS's genocidal rage, he could only conclude that ISIS jihadists are errant Islamic black sheep, no more misguided than others in Islamic history. Given his concession to the historical controversy over such judgments, Anjum's paraphrase of Princeton University Near Eastern Studies professor Bernard Haykel is far more realistic: "ISIS is as Islamic as anything else."
The triumph of Chanukah
BECAUSE CHANUKAH usually occurs in December, it is sometimes thought of as the "Jewish Christmas." It isn't, of course. And yet it is fair to say that the reason for Chanukah's popularity — especially in America, where it is the most widely observed Jewish holiday after Passover and Yom Kippur — is precisely its proximity to Christmas.
Chanukah used to be regarded as a minor half-holiday, cheerful but low-key. It has become something bigger and brighter in response to Christmas, which transforms each December into a brilliant winter festival of parties, decorations, and music. Attracted by the joy of the season, not wanting their children to feel left out of all the merriment and gift-giving, American Jews in the 20th century began to make much more of Chanukah than their grandparents ever had. Today Chanukah is well established as part of the annual "holiday season," complete with parties, decorations, and music of its own. Its enhanced status is a tribute both to the assimilating tug of America's majority culture and to the remarkable openness of that culture to Jewish customs and belief.
Ironically, Chanukah was established to commemorate the very opposite of cultural assimilation. It dates back nearly 22 centuries, to the successful Jewish revolt against Antiochus IV, one of the line of Syrian-Greek monarchs who ruled the northern branch of Alexander the Great's collapsed empire. Alexander had been respectful of the Jews' monotheistic religion, but Antiochus was determined to impose Hellenism, with its pagan gods and its cult of the body, throughout his domains. When he met resistance in Judea, he made Judaism illegal.
Sabbath observance, circumcision, and the study of Torah were banned on pain of death. A statue of Zeus was installed in the Temple in Jerusalem, and swine were sacrificed before it. Some Jews embraced the new order and willingly abandoned the God and faith of their ancestors. Those who wouldn't were cruelly punished. Ancient writings tell the story of Hannah and her seven sons, who were captured by Antiochus's troops and commanded to bow to an idol. One by one, each boy refused — and was tortured to death before his mother's eyes.
The fight to reclaim Jewish religious autonomy began in 167 BCE. In the town of Modi'in, an elderly priest named Mattathias refused a Syrian order to sacrifice to an idol. When an apostate Jew stepped forward to comply, Mattathias killed the man and tore down the altar. Then he and his five sons took to the hills and launched a guerrilla war against the armies of the empire.
When Mattathias died, his third son, Judah Maccabee, took command. He and his band of fighters were impossibly outnumbered, yet they won one miraculous victory after another. In 164 BCE, they recaptured the desecrated Temple, which they cleansed and purified and rededicated to God. On the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, the menorah — the candelabra symbolizing the divine presence — was rekindled. For eight days, throngs of Jews celebrated the Temple's restoration. "All the people prostrated themselves," records the book of Maccabees, "worshipping and praising Heaven that their cause had prospered."
In truth, though, their cause hadn't prospered — not yet. The fighting went on for years. It was not until 142 BCE — more than two decades later — that the Jews finally regained control of their land. Geopolitically, that was the moment of real triumph.
But Chanukah isn't about political power. It isn't about military victory. It isn't even about freedom of worship, notwithstanding the fact that the revolt of the Maccabees marks the first time in history that a people rose up to fight religious persecution.
What Chanukah commemorates at heart is the Jewish yearning for God, for the concentrated holiness of the Temple and its service. The defeat of the Syrian-Greeks was a wonder, but the spiritual climax of the Maccabees' rebellion occurred when the menorah was rekindled and God's presence among His people could be felt once again.
Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday not found in the Hebrew Bible and the only one rooted in a military campaign. And yet its focus is almost entirely spiritual, not physical. For example, there is no feast associated with Chanukah, the way there is with Passover and Purim, the two other Jewish festivals of deliverance. Its religious observance is concentrated on flame, nothing more. And the menorah's lights may only be gazed at; it is forbidden to use them for any physical purpose — not even to read by.
The lack of a physical side to Chanukah is unusual but appropriate. For the Maccabees' war against the Hellenists was ultimately a war against a worldview that elevated the physical above all, that venerated beauty, not holiness; the body, not the soul. The Jews fought to preserve a different view of the world — one with God, not man, at its center.
Had they failed, Judaism would have died. Because they triumphed, the Jewish religion survived. And from it, two centuries later, Christianity was born.
Standing up to the new school of anti‑Semitism
Hatred for Jews is now expressed in underhand ways
The British government’s announcement that it has agreed to adopt an international definition of anti-Semitism looks like another pointless exercise in ‘sending out a message’. Borrowed from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the definition says anti-Semitism is ‘a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews’. If you’re still confused as to what anti-Semitism is, the definition helpfully explains that ‘rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities’.
The stated aim of adopting this definition is to help tackle hatred towards Jewish people. But it’s far from evident how a mere definition could be used to curb hatred of any sort. Worse, this definition of anti-Semitism bears little relation to the context and situations in which such prejudice is expressed today, and to how anti-Semitism has changed.
The newly adopted definition fails to engage with the fact that, in 2016, anti-Jewish sentiment is rarely expressed explicitly. Consider this example. Recently, following one of my public lectures, a member of the audience came up to me to rail against ‘the Goldman Sachs of this world and the people who control all the banks’. In the old days, someone like this would probably have expressed his prejudices about Jewish world domination in unambiguously anti-Semitic language. Today, however, a wink and a nod and a reference to Goldman Sachs come to serve the same purpose. How can a new definition of anti-Semitism deal with the new culture of wink-and-nod prejudice?
The current culture of anti-Semitism bears only a passing resemblance to its old-school predecessor. Yes, this new-school anti-Semitism that has emerged in recent decades draws upon the conspiratorial imagination of old-school anti-Semitism, but otherwise it expresses itself in a very different way. In Western Europe, people, especially those on the left, who have a problem with Jews rarely use the vocabulary of anti-Semitism. Instead they use the language of bad faith. People express bad faith when they feel under pressure to adopt values that go against their own inclinations. So when people say something like ‘I don’t hate the Jews, but these cliquey people are far too powerful’, they are opting to self-censor, to express their prejudices in a somewhat disguised, guarded way.
New-school anti-Semitism often expresses its distrust of ‘those people’ through the language of anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism; it is perfectly legitimate to criticise Israel and to call into question every aspect of its history and its current political and military approaches. The problem is not attitudes to Zionism as such, but the way that some express their hostility to Jews through a hostility to Zionism. In recent years, hatred of Israel has come, among certain groups, to embody a venom towards Jews. So when British Labour Party councillors post images on Facebook calling on Israelis, or even Jews, to ‘stop drinking Gaza blood’, it is pretty clear that their target is not really Zionism. No, through resurrecting the infamous blood libel of the medieval anti-Semites, they have adopted the old outlook of the pogrom in what appears to be a new, politicised way.
The former Labour mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, shows us how anti-Zionist rhetoric can casually mutate into hatred towards a group of people. He tried to explain the difference between a ‘real anti-Semite’ and a mere critic of Israel in the following way: ‘A real anti-Semite doesn’t just hate the Jews of Israel; they hate their Jewish neighbour in Golders Green or in Stoke Newington.’ This attempt to explain what kind of Jews it is okay to hate, and which ones we might spare from our hostility, actually demonstrated how easily discussions of Israel can tip over into animosity towards Jews.
It is likely that Livingstone and his allies on the British Labour left do not perceive of themselves as anti-Semitic. However, they must be aware of the growing tendency for anti-Israeli views to serve as a vehicle for anti-Jewish views. A few years ago, one of my friends, who is from a Labour family, told me to ‘look out for the word “they”’. She had been caught off-guard when, during a family row about Palestine, her father kept repeating the word ‘they’. She was shocked and surprised. ‘In the recent past, it would have been unthinkable for him to describe Jews as “they”’, she said. How can a government definition of anti-Semitism deal with the word ‘they’?
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) tries to deal with the problem of Israel being used as a proxy for Jews by providing guidelines on what constitutes legitimate, as opposed to anti-Semitic, criticism of this nation. Its guidelines say that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic’. Its examples of anti-Semitic attacks on Israel include the now often stated accusation that Jews around the world are more loyal to Israel than they are to their own nations, or that the existence of Israel is intrinsically racist.
Fortunately, the UK government has not yet adopted the IHRA’s views on what should and should not be said about Israel. It is not the business of government to determine what is a legitimate way to criticise Israel. Not every radical criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. There is no reason why someone who accuses the state of Israel of being inherently racist is necessarily an anti-Semite. It all depends on the context in which such statements are made. And in an open society, critics of Israel ought to have the right to decide for themselves what points they want to make.
Unfortunately, the official codification of anti-Semitism distracts us from actively engaging with this evil. This definition will not defend Jewish people from hatred and prejudice. Doing that requires an active commitment to challenging the climate in which references to ‘those people’ have become tragically commonplace.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and DISSECTING LEFTISM. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.