What’s Leftery

The New Zealand Listener

by Simon Wilson

Has the liberal left really lost its way since the end of socialism? Are the West’s anti-war protesters really aligning themselves with misogynists and anti-Semites in the Muslim world? “Controversial and scathing” columnist Nick Cohen thinks so.

For the last few years, writer Nick Cohen has been chained to a post in the public square and whipped. It’s how they do things in Europe.
On the phone, Cohen is a helpful, nervously polite and stuttering Englishman, a man whose natural enthusiasm for his subject makes him immediately likeable. He is also driven by a great sense of moral duty, and because he is a polemicist in the long British tradition of political pamphleteering, his personal affability gives way in print to excoriation.
Cohen likes to attack, and his favourite target used to be Tony Blair. Week after week, in columns and features in the Observer, New Statesman and elsewhere, Cohen wielded his pen like a lash on Blair’s angry pink back.
But then came the call to war in Iraq, and Cohen found himself on the same side as Blair.
The world, he believed, had become engulfed in a conflict between democracy and radical Islam. Choosing to oppose tyranny and feudal repression was easy, and going to war was the logical correlative. Anti-Americanism, championed by the likes of Noam Chomsky, had blinded the Western liberal-left to the dangers of Muslim fundamentalism.
To Cohen’s dismay, though surely not surprise, people he had thought of as his co-defenders of democracy – his readers – jumped the other way. Opposing the war swiftly became a defining attribute of the liberal-left.
Cohen was not deterred, especially as the European anti-war movement tolerated and even welcomed in its leadership a number of people who didn’t just oppose the war, but actively supported the other side.
No matter that almost every dire prediction about the war has come true. To Cohen, there is something else going on, and in his new book What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, he explores what that means.
It’s a history of the liberal/left since 1968 which, he says, asks “why people in the West who are thoroughly liberal will make excuses for and even openly support the extreme right – the misogyny, the homophobia, the anti-semitism, the support for Adolf Hitler across large chunks of the Islamic fundamentalist world”.
On the right of British politics, the book was greeted with glee. In the Sunday Times it was called a “controversial and scathing critique of modern left-wing incoherence”. On the left, it’s been called the work of a “little right-wing extremist,” a “lunatic,” a “neocon.”
All of which explains Cohen’s current daily flogging. It’s administered not by his old nemesis Blair (whom he continues to excoriate on almost every other subject), but by his old friends on the left. The talk shows, the review pages of the liberal periodicals, and most of all the blogs, are full of bile directed at Nick Cohen.
How does he see himself now? “I would say I’m a democratic leftist.”
What does that mean? “I don’t want to give up the best of the left: the internationalism, the solidarity, the concern for the new movements like feminism and gay rights.” He chooses his words carefully. “I don’t want to give all that up and let self-righteousness, complacency, isolationism and laziness flourish.”
I ask if there is a third view to bring to the conflict. Perhaps the wider liberal perspective is both anti-war and anti-fundamentalist? The terror is created by people who proclaim they are doing God’s work, and so was the war. A plague on both their houses.
“The danger in refining the debate that way,” says Cohen, “is that we sit out the real struggle.” Bush is not as bad as bin-Laden. “America has a secular constitution, and no one is proposing to change that.”
So now he’s done the book, what’s the answer? Why have liberals lost their way?
Well, first up, there’s the death of socialism.
“One of the big facts of Europe is that socialism defined what it meant to be left wing from the 1880s through to the 1980s, and it has just gone. It went before the Berlin Wall. Nowhere on earth now are people looking for socialism to supply solutions. So it’s become very easy to be left wing in Europe, because there is no programme. All you have to do is oppose America.”
Then there’s the problem of relativism. The proposition that values should be applied with regard to specific circumstances.
Cohen believes the struggle for equal rights in law has been a triumph in the West. But, he says, “large chunks of liberal opinion are refusing to take [democratic] values into Muslim and other communities and confront people who are sexist and racist and homophobic.”
“In its extreme form,” says Cohen, “it’s racist to oppose sexists. Women’s rights are fine for white-skinned women in London, but not for brown-skinned women in Tehran.”
He cites the example of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian refugee who became a Dutch MP and who campaigns against reactionary Islam, despite death threats and the murder of a colleague. “She was driven out of Holland. By the left.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank in Washington. Isn’t she the sort of person who once would have been revered by the left?
“She would have been a feminist heroine. It’s happening all over, and that’s the worst thing. People in the poor world suffering far more than we can imagine, turning to the home of feminism, democracy and socialism and saying, we are feminists, democrats and socialists, help us. And they are absolutely blanked out.”
Cohen also blames parochialism for the current state of affairs. “If you are used to slamming the status quo in your own country, it is very hard to see that al Qaeda and the Taleban are infinitely worse than Tony Blair.”
And, he says, terror makes everyone frightened. “It’s like dealing with a psychopath. One thing to do is to hold up your hands and say yes, it’s all my fault, I’m the root cause of your anger, and you hope you can calm them down.”
In the grand tradition of democratic pluralism, Nick Cohen continues to write for New Statesman, often attacking its main editorial line and, presumably, the views of many of its readers. The NS review of his book suggests he might get a better hearing from his critics if he showed “a little contrition”.
Why won’t he admit he was wrong to support the war in the first place? Cohen says he has. “You never get it from the reviews, but I say in the book, opposition to American policy and George Bush is entirely justified. The protestors were more right than most of the so-called intelligent people in government.”
Now he wants people to stop fixating on why it was wrong to go to war. They need to move on. There’s a terrible disaster in Iraq to be relieved, somehow, not forsaken. And there’s democracy to defend at home.
The public whippings continue, but many people applaud him too. The book’s in its fourth printing in the UK after just a few months on release.
“I’ve had British Muslims shaking me by the hand because they are in despair about what’s happening on the British left.”
I ask him what he thinks the legacy of Bush and Blair will be.
“God knows. Britain will never go into another war like this and the US will be far more wary of overthrowing genocidal tyrants. And obviously that outcome is going to please genocidal tyrants above all others.”