An essay written on Thursday February 1st. Posted here as preparation for my main essay of the day.
Disclaimer: I have not read Nick Cohen's new book, nor even skimmed through it in a shop, as my local Waterstones does not seem to be carrying it yet. I'm basing this commentary on interviews I've read with him, reviews I've read of his book, and his previous book Pretty Straight Guys
I think that Nick Cohen has two major motivations at the moment, and one of them is to be the new George Orwell. That's a good goal to have; I suspect every English-language political commentator probably harbours a similar ambition. Orwell is, of course, the obvious reference point whenever a left-wing writer goes public with grievances against his own 'side', and Cohen is certainly following that career path. Fair enough; as anyone who's read my comments about the Guardian
will know, there's an awful lot of drivel being talked on the left, and it's up to us to dispose of it hygienically before it becomes an active embarrassment. My problem with Cohen is that his criticisms don't seem to come from identifying genuine problems with the modern left. They seem to come from him viewing every other political affiliation and historic situation through ridiculously rose-tinted glasses.
Cohen's superhero-style origin story was laid out in the final chapter of Pretty Straight Guys
; after spending the majority of the book's length excoriating Blair and his party for lying through their teeth, he also criticises the people who marched against the Iraq War, saying that they seemed prepared to let one of the Middle East's worst dictators off the hook, and that they were marching alongside unrepentant Communists and apologists for human rights violators. In his new book, Cohen expands this into a general thesis about "the death of the left", arguing that modern leftists are predisposed to favour dictatorships and have betrayed the principles their grandparents had.
There's one problem with Cohen's critique of the modern left -- I don't think it's specifically modern, and I don't think it's specifically leftist. If you look on the front cover of this week's [er, now a few weeks back
] edition of the popular right-wing weekly The Spectator
, you will find an enticing trail for an article by Taki on "My Favourite Dictators". Last month, too, we all had to suffer Margaret Thatcher's rheumy-eyed eulogies for Augusto Pinochet, and you don't have to cast your mind too far back to remember Ronald Reagan and his cabinet offering financial and military support for any dubious regime they could find in Latin America. For Blair's part, he's certainly guilty of ignoring the human rights abuses in nations such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for fear of offending governments who were friendly to the War on Terror.
Perhaps Cohen's standpoint on this would be that he criticises the left because he expects a higher standard of behaviour from them -- in short, he only criticises because he cares. I'm not sure I could claim to "care" about Nick Cohen, possibly because the choice of wording is a bit creepy. But I think he's a good writer, and he can do better than this.
Besides, that still doesn't explain his apparent belief that apologists for dictators historically have not existed on the left, and especially his holding up of the 1930s and 40s as the Golden Age. What does he think writers like Orwell or Arthur Koestler were protesting about? Moderate leftists fought alongside unapologetic Communists in the Spanish Civil War, too, but Cohen seems less troubled by this than he does by crowds of ordinary people unforgivably
failing to do a full background check on people who they'd just met that afternoon.
At this point, I'm worried that I'm starting to sound a bit like an apologist for dictators myself. I did actually take part in a protest march during the run-up to the Iraq war, but my motivations -- shockingly! -- did not include a deep-seated love for Saddam Hussein and a nostalgic longing for the Stasi. I thought we were being led into a war based on faulty evidence by leaders who were incompetent, at a time when our real enemy -- al-Qaeda -- was still out there. I don't think that's a difficult line of reasoning to understand, and I don't see why it needs 'simplifying' into "J00 LUFF THE SADAMMS!!!!1!!!the numeral one".
This is unpleasant, offensive drivel, and it falls to John Harris (these days, a better political critic than a musical one) to point out what it is - namely, a straw-man
, an inaccurate and unfounded characterisation of your enemy as such a monster that the terms of the argument cannot fail to run in your favour. I know Nick Cohen enjoys punching old ladies and torturing kittens, to say nothing about his seventy-eight separate convictions for sheep-worrying, but I expect a full-length book to contain a better standard of debate than the average junior school debating team.
But this, I think, feeds into Cohen's other motivation. Like a lot of British political writers, I suspect he's been looking with green eyes at America, where writers who would be marginal figures in this country can command massive advances and sales figures. It's impossible to imagine, say, Simon Heffer having the same public profile as Rush Limbaugh, or Johann Hari boasting the cultural recognition factor of Michael Moore. Whether we'd want them to is another issue, but it remains the case that a lot of political writing in this country at the moment has an unmistakable American influence, the result of our writers trying to co-opt the magical formulae for success. I remember with great amusement Iain Duncan-Smith's attempt to rebrand himself as a political journalist, which kicked off
with an article in the theguardian
asking why Hollywood has such a left-wing bias. A subject of no relevance or interest to a British audience, frankly, and one which made it embarrassingly obvious who he'd been cribbing from.
Cohen's writing betrays a bit of that influence too. I find it hard to believe that, given the examples of support for dictatorships I've cited earlier on in this article, it was the anti-war protests that really
pissed him off. If the people who went on those marches were actually doing it out of loyalty to Saddam Hussein, they chose a staggeringly oblique way of demonstrating it -- more oblique, certainly, than Taki or Thatcher or George Galloway, who, being as he is still alive and on the left, is the only genuine apologist for dictators who makes it into the field of Cohen's tunnel vision. Prodding the British audience out of political apathy is a laudable goal, but I find it hard to believe that this American-style debating method of "You're a traitor to your country!" "No, you're
a traitor to your country!" is going to do the trick, especially since most Americans I talk to are heartily sick of it anyway.
I'm not a fan of dogmatically following one political party or philosophy, but you can stand against the people you usually agree on without making a nonsense of your core beliefs. The last chapter of Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
criticises the anti-war movement, but in a way that's internally consistent with both the rest of the book and Wheen's own ideology. At the end of Pretty Straight Guys
, I felt frustrated that, having railed so righteously against New Labour's habit of lying, Cohen took a starry-eyed ends-justify-the-means stance on their biggest and most destructive lie -- that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda and was an immediate threat to our nation. Besides, if Cohen is so wound up about people defending dictators, he could always join Amnesty International, or an equivalent right-wing group.
Oh, wait. There isn't one.