Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nick Cohen, "What's Left? How Liberals lost their way"

A Review

'A theme of this book is that ideas on the fringe are worth examining' writes the author.

Read his new book, and you may end up taking his word for it. Far from examining ideas on the fringe, one chapter down and it's quite clear that the focus has turned into sheer obsession, almost couch-like, for the myriad of the tiny -and irrelevant- factions of the far-left. Cohen is probably the last mainstream UK journalist who's still truly preoccupied with (and quite obviously in awe of) the petty squabbles that lacerated the far-left thirty years-plus ago while still (conveniently) overrating their influence on British politics.

No doubt Nick Cohen rates the internal-wrangling of the WRP, the Redgraves' family history and the clownesque deeds of political zombie George Galloway the key discourse behind the millions who dared to feel a touch iffy about the consequences of the military adventure in Iraq.

Incidentally, while Cohen has a point in knocking Galloway and the likes' gargantuan power-trips, it's exactly work like "What's left?" that hands their trifling ego way too much credit. To read Cohen's argument, one would almost buy into the idea that the two million people who marched against the Iraq war in February 2003 were mere pawns in the devious game of Galloway, the minute SWP (Socialists' Workers Party) and their alleged media machine - and wouldn’t have demonstrated otherwise. You really wonder if the author has lost his sense of proportion over who actually holds the balance of power in UK politics.

Then Cohen proceeds to muddle the game up even further. The genocides in Bosnia and Kosovo are none other than another piece in the jigsaw; along with Iraq, 'freedom causes' that evil leftists never understood. In fact, they chose to stick by their 'Serbian comrades'. Cohen forgets tiny details, like the fact that the Lib-Dems, The Independent -and most of the Labour MPs (think Robin Cook) who voted against Iraq- were actually very vociferous in favour of intervention in the former-Yugoslavia.

But Cohen's clever. He's not sidetracking you out of thin air. Cos while he's yakking about Bosnia, Galloway, the 'no-globals', Kosovo, Noam Chomsky et al., he also dodges the most delicate questions.

Taking a country to war on the basis of a dodgy dossier? Surely that's a blunder that will end up in history books? Nah, you Stalinist, let's run through the antics of 2006's Celebrity Big Brother again instead cos that's what really matters in international relations.

Or…surely it's a worry to a liberal like Cohen that 60% of the British public were against the war and weren't at all reflected in the Feb 2003 parliamentary vote? You've got to be joking. There are more pressing matters, like Michel Foucault's stance over Iran in 1979.

And how about: are you really one of those mugs still frowning upon Blair's apocalyptic claim that Saddam was 45 minutes away from washing Britain's shores with WMDs? Don't you worry. Let Cohen tell you about what a pervert and a despot Gerry Healy was in 1973.

In fact, since I'm on it, I mean, what's all that about? Though I was born in the Seventies, I used to consider myself quite clued up with politics and current affairs. And yet I'd never heard of Gerry Healy and the WRP, Workers' Revolutionary Party, a tiny little sect on the far-left that imploded while nobody noticed (except Cohen, of course) in the 1980s. Granted, there's no excuse for my ignorance, so I typed up "Gerry Healy" and "WRP" on Google. A couple of rickety paragraphs on Wikipedia was the best I could get. I then went on to ask my older colleagues, but none of them had ever heard of Gerry Healy or the WRP. Yet in 2007 Nick Cohen manages to devote more pages to the WRP and their Jurassic-era Stalinist rituals than they had perhaps enjoyed throughout their entire party history. It's a bit like Classix Nouveux getting media coverage only twenty years after their split.

Cohen's is textbook political manipulation of the most vintage kind. As if in order to discredit the tens of millions of workers who ask for better living conditions, one chose to write a 300-page tome solely focusing on the Angry Brigade and other groupuscules of the early-70s who also happened to blabber against "the capitalists" and so on. You hand the spotlight to some dubious cults and the result is that an entire movement - no matter how complex or massive - is forced on the back-foot. Want to sidestep a debate on why the Euro may be a bad idea? Rant about Combat 18 also being anti-Euro and half the job's done.

The author deserves credit for his emphasis of the dangers of Islamofascism, already the most lethal ideology of the 21st century. Alas, it all goes down the drain the moment he turns it into the mainstay of his grudging political propaganda: '[the Left] used bin Laden as an ally to promote their own wish list and called for a limit to globalization […]'. For a moment I had to double check I hadn’t bought Melanie Phillips' "Londonistan" instead.

You've got to hand it to Cohen; his case is extremely passionate and heartfelt. However, that is perhaps why it misses out on clarity, ending up in a 386-page binge of spite being hurled at all directions: Iraq, Iran, Gerry Healy, university lecturers, the Redgraves, Galloway, old Labour, New Labour, post-modernism, WWII, the Tories, Bosnia, Naomi Klein, John Major, Michael Young, The Independent, the liberal media, the BBC, even Derek Jarman and other unlikely subjects.

It literally becomes a clutter of bitterness and incongruous slating, all thrown in the same cauldron. In his black and white-tinted world, Cohen implies that those against intervention in Iraq would be so from the comfort of not having had to live under Saddam's genocidal tyranny. True. Except reality isn’t so simple and Cohen knows it.

By the same token one could retort that those in favour of war can easily do so with their arse safely tucked in their armchair as they watch the war unravelling on Sky News. They're not the ones putting up with four years of non-stop carnage, roadside bombs and the likes. In any case, if a military intervention is such an easy-peasy option to replace the Saddams of this world with nice'n'neat democracies where feminists-and-gays are all liberated at the blink of an eye and can hop up-and-down the street holding hands, then let's go bomb the shit out of China, Iran, North Korea at once so that we can all feel as progressive and liberal as Nick Cohen.

In the meantime, four years down the line and Iraq is as tangled up as ever a mess. Last month the Red Cross produced the Iraqis' plea to the world: the streets are filling up with corpses and urgent help is needed to remove them.

Try and tell Cohen. He'd probably remind you that it's all the Left's fault. He may then patronise you by insisting that we're all so anti-American that we're rubbing our hands in satisfaction. Then he'd go off on a loop repeating that at least Saddam's gone.

1 comment:

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