Robert Spencer is making something of a nuisance of himself these days. I don't know much about Spencer. I do not spend a lot of time looking at websites and hardly ever visit Robert Spencer's Jihad Watch. It is not that I particularly disagree with him on the Muslim threat; it is only that he is a bit of a Johnny One-Note, and that note is not always sounded properly.
As a journalist, he is a dull writer at best, and, far from being a disciplined scholar, he is one of those people who leave graduate school without finishing a doctorate (in his case the field is "religious studies") and then enter the murky world of think tanks and advocacy polemics. Free Congress, where he spent some time, was an amazing fund-raising operation whose founder was constantly coming up with new programs based on news hooks. He leapt from one faltering project to another, beginning always with lofty pronouncements about saving the family or promoting light rail and then letting old programs dwindle and fade as he took up the cudgels for a new front page cause.
Spencer learned the art of mercenary journalism in a good school, and his mentor, Paul Weyrich, would be delighted with the alacrity with which he he has promoted himself as the official opposition to the Ground Zero mosque. Dick Viguerie, though possessed of genuine personal dignity, knew how get the rubes riled up. All you needed was a front-page story, a letter from an alcoholic skirt-chasing conservative congressman, and the money would pour in.
It is not that the Barnums of the conservative movement are necessarily liars, though too many of them are, but that they are forever making strategic moves dictated by career interests or their employers' current concerns. They have a quasi-Marxist definition of truth as whatever serves the interest of the movement, their employers, and, ultimately, themselves. They may often have a side they actually believe in, but in the long run they are guns for hire who shoot the people they are told to shoot.
Caution and prudence are not bad things in this business. I know what it is to have to raise money, and an independent minded scholar or writer like Sam Francis, Andre Navrozov, or Srdja Trifkovic can alienate donors, board members, and influential friends. They can even anger their editor. Of course, the same has been said about me by all of my bosses and board members. Chesterton once quipped, when someone complained that GK was always in hot water that he liked hot water because it kept him clean. That is why I try to support friends and colleagues when their enemies attack them. Spencer has another approach. This past week he has taken to attacking Srdja Trifkovic.
Srdja does not need my defense. He is a fine scholar and writes much better English than many native writers, including Robert Spencer. Ordinarily, I try to stay out of these squabbles, because, up to a point, I accept the motto that "He who is not against us is with us." And anyone critical of the Jihadists, unless he advocates violence and hate, should be generally regarded as at least an ally.
With some people, however, a "live and let live" attitude is impossible. These are the ideological game-players who do not think they can make any progress except at the expense of colleagues and rivals. One of the least attractive aspects to Robert Spencer's career is his constant jockeying to define his position as anti-Jihad, though not anti-Muslim, and to represent himself as a neoconservative who can stay on good terms with the right without being compromised by them--or the other way around. Like actors who have to maintain the value of their screen identity, people like Spencer are forever dissociating themselves from colleagues and allies whose opinions they suddenly find inconvenient. And when you are the protégé of David Horowitz, anyone to the right of David Frum can be inconvenient. Constantly sucking up to the Left, as he has done, Spencer, first, has to misrepresent his own associations or support for rightists in South Africa or Belgium, but, finally, he must repudiate people who have done him favors. It's a living, I suppose, but so is selling heroin to children.
Spencer's former associates reduce his behavior to a pattern: First, he publishes something by an extremist friend or ally, then when attacked by someone--no matter how obscure or insignificant--who labels him a fascists or a friend of fascists, he throws his friend or ally under the bus. When he is attacked in the blogosphere, he retreats into narcissism and derides any and all criticism as smears and libels. Meanwhile, in private, he circles the wagons, demanding that his remaining supporters denounce the former ally. The outlines of this portrait are familiar to anyone who has studied leftist movements, whose fissionings are always accompanied by denunciations of rightwing or leftwing deviations. So far, he has maintained faith with the kookiest of his colleagues, Pamela Geller, a reckless anti-Muslim bigot who libels opponents and who is also a disciple of Ayn Rand. That's right, a veritable trifecta of filthy zaniness.
Spencer's latest episode in backstabbing appears to have backfired. Someone named Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi (a particularly obscure young Muslim) was looking for dirt to throw against Srdja Trifkovic, one of the few serious scholars who have opposed the Jihadist movement. The obscure young Muslim apparently is or was Spencer's friend--Spencer's friendships are of short duration--and he told his pal that Trifkovic's remarks, on an internet discussion of why Jews support the Left, were anti-Semitic. True to form, Spencer ran howling like a whipped dog, endorsing the libel and accusing a man he had repeatedly praised in the past, of anti-Semitism, and disclaiming any connection with him. The obscure young Muslim, unfortunately, does not buy Spencer's newfound holiness and has more or less given him the lie. Considering Spencer's strange connections with groups he later denounced as fascist and racist, the Muslim had reasons for his skepticism: Spencer's previous attempts to position himself have similarly backfired, a fact noted by The Guardian.
I would go into greater detail, but you can follow Spencer's twisted path on his own website. He well illustrates the old adage that it is better to deal with a strong enemy than a feeble and faithless ally. I have wasted a lot of time, in private and public, warning against forming alliances or even making contact with reprehensible people like David Horowitz and his satellites. In a crisis, they will never support an ally, whom they will inevitably sacrifice to the enemy, hoping to curry a little favor or gain a little mercy from the Left.
Ordinarily, I would prefer not to soil the pages of Chronicles or the bandwidth of this website with a discussion of this sort of people, but Spencer's dishonest and ill-advised attack on our foreign affairs editor made it necessary. Srdja Trifkovic is one of the few writers in America who has been critical of bad Israeli policies without falling into either conspiracy theories or anti-Semitism. On his frequent trips to Israel, he has been welcomed by political intellectuals across the political spectrum, and his well-informed and principled opposition to the spread of Islam has been appreciated by Jewish intellectuals, in and out of Israel, as a helpful contribution to to serious debate. Naturally, the enemies of our civilization--Jihadists, Leftists, and Neoconservatives--will use any weapon they can find to defame such a man. When a self-appointed spokesman for the Anti-Jihad movement joins this croaking chorus, he reveals himself as the ally and pawn of the Left.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.