“What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way,” Nick Cohen

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
29 January 2007


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"What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way"

by Nick Cohen

Fourth Estate | January 2007 | ISBN 0007229690

Extract from "What's Left"

Sexist judges used to say that women who went out in miniskirts were "asking for it". Their provocative dress was the root cause of their rape. So it was with the intellectual left after 9/11. We "had it coming"; we were the root cause of our own murder. In mitigation, you could say that if women wore veils or never went out then the incidence of rape would fall. Equally if western powers had left East Timor under Indonesian rule, promised not to oppose Islamists if they attempted to take over Saudi Arabia or any other state, ended their efforts to promote democracy and women's rights and imposed Sharia law on their Muslim minorities, they would have been on the receiving end of fewer assaults. The old sexist judge and the modern literary intellectual are not entirely wrong. The fault with their victim-blaming reasoning is that the victimizers disappear behind the wall of excuses. Just as judges once removed responsibility from rapists and didn't want to know why some men raped and others did not, so intellectual leftists made mass murder appear a natural response to external provocation and didn't ask themselves if any free society could remain free if it didn't provoke Islamists.

The Left's critics attacked it at the time for wanting to appease al-Qaida, but the charge was too kind. Giving Hitler territory in Czechoslovakia appeared a rational solution to German grievances. Even if it proved to be a disaster, you can understand why the appeasers thought their policy of accepting Hitler's demands would avert war. The difference in 2001 was that the Islamists couldn't have what they wanted because the Caliphate they wanted was impossible. Rather than listening to what bin Laden was saying, leftish intellectuals adopted a stance for which I find no precedent: they urged the appeasement of demands that hadn't been made. They used bin Laden as an ally to promote their own wish list and called for a limit to globalization, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank or a rerun of the disputed 2000 American Presidential election. The contrast with the Thirties isn't flattering. Say what you like about the appeasers of Munich, but they studied Hitler, even if they got him wrong. Their successors didn't know what the Islamists wanted and didn't want to find out.

I was no different. My instant reaction to the 9/11 attacks was that they were a nuisance that got in the way of more pressing concerns. Throughout the Nineties, I had been writing about the overweening power of big business and how it could corrupt democratic governments. I had lambasted New Labour for its love of Conservative crime policies and attacks on civil liberties for years. Attacking Tony Blair was what I liked doing - what got me out of bed in the morning. Accepting that fascism is worse than western democracy, even western democracies governed by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, sounds easy in theory, but it is very difficult to do in practice when you are a habitual enemy if the status quo in your own country. Seeking fascism for what it is means shaking yourself out of old habits and looking at the world afresh. In my case as a journalist, it involved going to the trouble of finding new contacts and thinking through new arguments, as well as the unpleasantness that comes with disagreeing with people you took to be friends and finding yourself on the same side as people you took to be enemies. The easy option, for me at any rate, was to carry on as if nothing had happened. I berated Bush for failing to predict and prevent the atrocities, as if a child could have seen them coming at bedtime on 10 September 2001. I followed up with articles calling for the Americans to suspend the invasion of Afghanistan because Oxfam and Christian Aid said the bombing campaign would stop aid reaching starving villagers and millions would die in a famine. (In the event, they did not die. Instead, 3.5 million refugees returned home once the Taliban was gone.)

My pieces weren't written in good faith. I wanted anything associated with Tony Blair to fail because that would allow me to return to the easy life of attacking him. If propagating scare stories from Oxfam and Christian Aid allowed me to undermine him, then I was more than prepared to do it. Like the fellow travellers with the Hitler-Stalin pact, I couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time: criticise the faults of democratic governments while supporting democracy against its enemies. The Taliban and al-Qaida were the embodiment of everything I was against - superstition, mass murder, racism, misogyny, tyranny - but as I said before, people oppose what they know.

Not that anything I or anyone else in the leftish press said mattered. After 9/11, intelligent liberals, as well as conservatives, denounced and mocked the views of self-deluding leftists in equal measure. In How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, Francis Wheen said that the claims of a portion of the Left to possess a sceptical intelligence had been destroyed by its inability to look squarely at a cult of death. "Like generals who fight the last war instead of the present one, socialists and squishy progressives were so accustomed to regarding American imperialism as the only source of evil in the world that they couldn't imagine any other enemy."

The conservative historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft said that Marxism had died long before the Berlin Wall came down. Democratic socialists had given up as well and embraced market economies to varying degrees. The 9/11 atrocities marked the death of something vaguer: a leftist mentality or style that flourished without practical left-wing politics. It wasn't just that "clever and famous people" had made fools of themselves - they had done that many times before - but that 200 years after the French Revolution "a large part of the progressive tradition" had made a final declaration of bankruptcy.

"...If the old Leninist left was buried politically in the rubble of the Berlin wall, the literary-academic intelligentsia disappeared morally in the ashes of ground zero..."

We last met Wheatcroft when he was in a tizzy about "those chatterers" winning the argument against Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties. Now - after two decades of waiting - he could at last say that they had discredited themselves beyond rehabilitation.

He couldn't have been more wrong. When New York and Washington were bombed in 2001, you were a bankrupt crank if you said America had it coming. When they came for London in 2005, conveniently minded BBC presenters would gasp if an interviewee suggested there was more to Islamist violence than a dislike of British foreign policy.

Up to a point, the eruption of liberal bad faith was the fault of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, but only up to a point. Longer-term trends in both the liberal mainstream and the nihilist left had created the ideal circumstances for millions of people who considered themselves thoughtful and honourable to make a nonsense of their beliefs.

Republished with kind permission of the publishers. 

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About the author: Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and New Statesman. His books include Cruel Britannia (1999), Pretty Straight Guys (2004), and What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way (2007). His website is at www.nickcohen.net.


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