Thursday, 8 February 2007

Some words on Nick Cohen's "What's Left?"

I have so far resisted the urge to buy Nick Cohen's What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, the latest missive from the shrinking ranks of Chickenhawk Armchair Generals. To be fair, Cohen is far from the worst. (Oliver Kamm? Stephen Pollard? Melanie Phillips?) On domestic issues, such as how management consultants are leeching the public sector, how big business avoids paying too much tax and how secular society is under attack from various religious totalitarians, he is still very much on the ball. However, anyone who has read his columns over the years will realise that he is returning to a limited number of issues in his various columns (in the Observer, New Statesman & Evening Standard). That's another problem with columnists: sooner or later they run out of new things to say, being reduced to saying the same old stuff or making complete u-turns on positions they held before.

Perhaps this is a reason why Cohen moved towards the a pro-invasion position on Iraq during 2002-3. USPs in politics and political journalism are very hard to carve out, and let's face it, Nick Cohen is one of the few British journalists who opposed the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, but supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In a way it is not necessary to read Cohen's book when the same themes have been coming up in his journalism for the last few years. One of his repeated claims is that opponents of the Iraq adventure have been duped into supporting an unholy alliance of the Marxist Left and Islamic Fascists. Cohen wants the hundreds of thousands who marched against possible war in Iraq on February 15th 2003 to be tarred as "objectively fascist", being led by George Galloway, the SWP and assorted Mullahs into metaphorically defaceating from a great height upon the brave people of Iraq.

Well, apart from George Galloway getting elected in Bethnal Bow with under 36% of the vote (a landslide of New Labour proportions) and Respect taking some council seats in a few areas with high Muslim populations, not that many people seem to be "objectively fascist". Indeed, it appears that less than 1% of the people who went on the Feb 15th 2003 march joined the SWP or other Marxist grouplets. Four years on it seems the SWP faces imminent liquidation into Respect. Perhaps most people are not the willing dupes of political extremists Cohen seems to think they are.

Another one of Cohen's bugbears is why "the Left" (which, as several reviews have noted, he never defines) concentrate on criticising the USA and Israel, rather than, say, Zimbabwe, North Korea or China. He attributes it to self-hating Western intellectuals and de facto anti-Semitism. There are self-hating Western intellectuals and anti-semites out there (who are generally such humourless nobodies that just making fun at their expense is enough). However, most criticism of Israel and the USA comes from people seeing these countries betraying their ideals. Most people expect China, North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe etc to be brutal dictatorships that terrorise their political opponents and are aggressive towards other countries. On the other hand, most people in Britain and elsewhere in the Western world expect the USA and Israel to conform to democratic principles and act in a peace-loving manner except when under direct attack. When Israel and the USA go to war in the face of world opinion many see these actions as betrayals of what these countries stand for. The USA and Israel get admonished more than other countries for their aggressive actions simply because people expect better of them. People expect governments, like individuals, not to be deliberate hypocrites. People see Bush and Blair acting like hypocrites in Iraq and they don't like it. It doesn't make them apologists for Islamic reaction, whatever Nick Cohen says.

A good a place as any to read about Nick Cohen and What's Left? is Aaronovitch Watch. Two reviews that don't respect the Great Man are for your perusal below. The second one I came across in the Daily Telegraph of all places. It wasn't like that when Conrad Black owned it. I bet Mark Steyn is crushing grapes in fury as we speak...

Into bed with Tony: Nick Cohen thinks his defence of the Iraq war in What's Left? is a sign of maturity. Peter Wilby begs to differ
The Guardian, February 3, 2007

Almost from the moment Tony Blair became Labour's leader, Nick Cohen was his fiercest and most articulate critic. While nearly every other liberal press commentator hailed Blair as the saviour of the British left, Cohen saw through new Labour from the start, denouncing it as modish, shallow and potentially corrupt. His rage, in columns for the Observer and the New Statesman, was unrelenting: in his own words, "attacking Tony Blair was what ... got me out of bed in the mornings". He brought to his mission not only a scornful wit that drew comparisons with Jonathan Swift, but also the skills of an exceptional news journalist who could unearth telling evidence to support his case.

For the past five years, those talents - in debased form, some would say - have been turned to supporting the US-British invasion and occupation of Iraq. It would be wrong to say Cohen has become a new Labour supporter, still less a Tory. But from being, at one stage, Blair's sole enemy on the mainstream journalistic left, he has moved, on the defining issue of Blair's premiership, to being just about his only remaining ally.

This book is the political testament of Cohen, Mk II. If you want a measure of how far he has travelled, consider what he wrote on November 4 2001, as Blair joined George W Bush's invasion of Afghanistan: "If Bin Laden died tomorrow, he could console himself ... that the deaths of civilians and the coming Afghan famine have ensured a posthumous victory ... Supporters of the war should be required to defend ... the refusal of America to accept restraints on weapons of mass destruction, the collapse of our national independence, mines falling from the heavens ... "

The Damascene moment - about which this book is frustratingly uninformative - followed shortly afterwards. "My pieces weren't written in good faith," Cohen states. "I wanted anything associated with Tony Blair to fail because that would allow me to return to the easy life of attacking him." Most people on the left, we are supposed to understand, took the easy option. Cohen chose the harder one and his subsequent political trajectory followed, with an interesting exactness, that of his journalistic hero, Christopher Hitchens, the self-styled "contrarian". When the Iraq invasion came, Cohen was onside with his new friend Tony just as the Washington-based Hitchens was with his friend Dubya.

Many commentators who supported the Iraq invasion....have since repented. Not Cohen. Far from accepting the war's aftermath as the left's vindication, he sees the post-invasion period as the most damning proof yet of its wrong-headedness. Indeed, he seems almost to blame the war's opponents for the anarchy and enormous loss of life in Iraq and to portray the present state of that country as a bigger catastrophe for the left than it is for Bush and Blair. The left, according to Cohen, has found itself backing a fascist attempt to regain power in Iraq, misrepresenting it as an "insurgency" against imperialist oppressors.

It has thus abandoned its "comrades" in the Iraqi trade unions who, even if they opposed the invasion, now want the occupation to continue.

This is not the first time the European left has dug itself into an embarrassing hole, Cohen argues. Its opposition to the war effort during the Hitler-Stalin pact, its collaboration with the Nazi occupation of France, its denial of Srebrenica - all these show that the left, in its determination to oppose western capitalism, too easily slides into uncritical alliance with fascist or other totalitarian regimes. Readers may object that only small sections of the left (and not always the same sections) were responsible for these crass misjudgments, just as only a few leftists have hailed the suicide bombers of Iraq as liberationists. But Cohen won't have it.

The more extreme individuals and groups, he insists, magnify an unsteadiness of principle that afflicts the entire western left. So we are asked to believe that George Galloway's feline antics on Celebrity Big Brother, the late Gerry Healy's sexual harassment of the women members of his Workers Revolutionary Party, and the preposterous attempt by the Revolutionary Communist Party's LM magazine to prove that people pictured inside a Serbian concentration camp were actually outside it are examples of where we shall all end up if we don't watch our step.

Cohen follows the precept that has served him, and many other journalists, so well in the past: simplify, then exaggerate. He never had much time for political trade-offs and, in his anti-Blair phase, couldn't accept that, for example, an outright Labour commitment to high public spending and egalitarianism might be at the cost of losing the confidence of the financial markets. He can't now accept that the overthrow of Saddam came at the cost of strengthening Iran, creating a rallying point for jihadists and, not least, causing (directly or indirectly) the deaths of hundreds of thousands who might have been miserable under the Baathists, but would probably have preferred to stay alive. Just as no prisoners could be taken in the war on British social inequality, so none can now be taken in the war against "a global fascist movement".

Cohen appears to think this book shows he has put infantile leftism behind him and attained a new maturity. Alas, it shows that he is, and always was, a political innocent.

Is a liberal a nincompoop? Nicholas Blincoe reviews What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way by Nick Cohen
Daily Telegraph, February 3, 2007

Let's begin with the diagnosis. As "Leftish puritanism" disappeared, "the rich world's liberals", afflicted by "enfeebling self-consciousness", devoted their energies to enjoying "exquisite regional cuisines" and "long holidays" while foregoing the "cost and inconvenience of raising the young".

Today, these liberals have to "live with the consequences" of a sybaritic life that "could not be borne without bringing in immigrants" who found their "values repugnant". The result is that "a part of British Islam went off into the wilds"; indeed, "by the time you read this, maybe the body count will have risen."

"Fortunately, one party "understood what was going on in the slums": the "BNP was seeing Britain clearly" when they claimed the "Muslim community… chooses to vote only for those political parties that explicitly promote the interests of the Muslim community itself".

At this point, I feel I should stop and reassure the reader that my quotations genuinely reflect Nick Cohen's arguments on the decline of liberalism. He really has come to praise the BNP, at the expense of the liberal elite: the Noam Chomskys, Jacques Derridas and… er… Malcolm Rifkinds of this world.

They are not, for the most part, outright villains but fools who created an environment that enabled the rise of the Islamic-Fascistic hydra. The liberals' crime is to prize individual identity above everything, forgetting that the Enlightenment rested on a respect for the universal Rights of Man, not the mere tolerance of difference.

In Cohen's view, liberalism begins in relativism and ends in "nihilism": a gobby blathering about cultural equivalence, without ever developing a real political programme.

The chief symptom of this nihilism, so Cohen argues, is to identify Israel as the source of all disquiet in the world. In his view, liberals are only obsessed by Israel because Islamists regard it as the "root cause". Liberals go along with this lie in the pursuit of a quieter life. In sum, they are fascist appeasers: and four years ago, one million of these nincompoops paraded through London to oppose the removal of a fascist dictator.

It is difficult to know how to address this tap-room rot. Perhaps it is enough to say that the only possible political programme it suggests is a pledge to breed more, eat less and never engage with a Muslim nation: just bomb them. Or to argue, as Peter Oborne has, that the people most obsessed with Israel are Cohen's "new-found neo-conservative friends".

As a Palestinian voter and thus a kind of Palestinian citizen, I can report that Palestinians are amazed that the world is so interested in their plight. Yet they would take issue with Cohen's claim that the world cares too much about them and insufficiently about Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Their reply would be that at least the world knows that Mugabe is engaged in the forced nationalisation of private property. No matter how often Palestinians try to make Israel's forced nationalisation of their land the chief issue, the terms of the debate are framed by Security, Islam and the clash of East and West – which, to conclude a rather circular argument, are the very issues that make Cohen so obsessed by Israel.

On another tack, one might suggest that calling everyone a fascist is the flabbiest kind of relativism: the so-called Reductio ad Hitlerum. Or perhaps point out that the only person ever to have advocated the wild-eyed relativism that Cohen describes is Aleister Crowley. Unless all the anti-war protesters were death metal fans, they may have had better reasons for marching. Surely respect for liberal democracy compels one to ask why about 60 per cent of the country opposed the war at a time when a cache of lethal weapons still seemed a possibility.

There were many reasons to go to war: to depose a dictator, to render these weapons safe, to secure energy supplies, to spread democracy or to remove an avowed enemy of Israel. Yet a majority of the country felt these reasons were insufficient.

Indeed, the very fact that so many arguments were offered suggested there was no true analysis of the situation and thus no credible war aim, and no possibility of victory. By their sheer numbers, a majority of Cohen's fellow citizens showed startling collective wisdom by predicting a grave problem before it arose. This is why we should love democracy.

To Cohen, the marchers were stooges of Muslims and Marxists. He cannot accept that ordinary people had, in essence, hijacked the event from its organisers. Yet he should consider why protest dwindled once Saddam was deposed and the issue became one of supporting Iraqi democracy and British troops. Or the fact that almost no one opposed the war in Afghanistan against al-Qa'eda and the Taliban, real Islamic terrorists rather than an abstract notion of "Islamo-Fascist Terror". Mind you, we learn from Cohen's book that one person, at least, opposed this war: Nick Cohen.

Finally, we might reply to Cohen's self-righteous claim that, unlike him, no protester bothered to ask an Iraqi his or her opinion of the war. I did, and their opinions varied – but most exiles opposed the war because they recognised the true nihilism of blowing up a country in the vain hope that the pieces might fall into a more perfect order. Cohen spoke to a few enthusiastic Kurdish nationalists, but found only one self-proclaimed Iraqi who supported the war. Just one. On this, he builds his arts and martial exercises.

"Hey, Your Highness, that Limey Pinko Nick Cohen reckons we're fighting for democracy in Iraq!"
"Neither am I, infidel scum."

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