Betrayal everywhere!

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More bashing of the left from Nick Cohen, once one of my favourite polemicists. It is always worth remembering that this is a man who wrote in 2002: “Former lefties can make a good living by attacking their ex-comrades – I’d do it myself if the price was right”. Since then he has been pursuing a rightwards political trajectory and has indeed been doing very well for himself out of it.

Another Paintbrusher and myself once bumped into Nick Cohen in a pub. I told him that we were thinking of writing an article about secularism for the Young Fabian magazine and asked whether, as a renowned secular humanist, he would be so kind as to give us some juicy quotes to include in the piece.

But hearing the word ‘Fabian’ seemed to cause some kind of allergic reaction in Cohen. His face flared up with righteous fury and, wagging his finger in a terrifying manner, he informed us that Fabian C-in-C Sunder Katwala’s public statements of support for that antisemitic creep Ken Livingstone amounted to a gross betrayal of everything decent and noble in the Fabian tradition, or something like that.

This may have happened simply because Mr.Katwala gave a less than complimentary review of one of Mr.Cohen’s books. Or maybe he has genuinely come to despise his ex-comrades for their alleged wrongdoings. Perhaps a bit of both.

According to Cohen’s article in the Observer, liberal Muslim Shiraz Maher was convinced that left-leaning think-tanks like the Fabian Society and IPPR would “never print” his report on government failures in dealing with Islamist groups.

This apparently indicates that the left is “no longer a home but an obstacle” for progressive-minded Muslims. Sunder Katwala is not taking this lying down and has produced a very thorough response to Cohen in which he points out all the areas in which Cohen has been “spouting nonsense”. It is quite a long response.

As well as his criticism of the Fabians, Cohen also quotes former Islamist Ed Husain exclaiming “Who on the left stands on the side of Muslims who want to support secularism and pluralism? Do they think that fascists only have white skins?”  Cohen reports that he “had no answer for him”.

I’ve got lots. Myself for one thing. One slightly more famous name that instantly springs to mind is another prominent columnist who is consistently arguing for secularism and universal human rights from a centre-left perspective – Johann Hari.

Funny that Cohen didn’t suggest Hari as a figure of possible left redemption…it couldn’t possibly be anything to do with their spat in 2007 when Hari took issue with Cohen’s arguments in his book ‘What’s Left?’ and then went on to win that year’s Orwell Prize (for which Cohen was also nominated)…

I do not dismiss Cohen completely. He is of course correct to say that sections of the left – namely the SWP – have disgracefully jumped into bed with the forces of political Islam in the hope that something politically productive will happen (what an image!). It must also be admitted that the government’s willingness to sometimes accommodate hardline Islamists has been disturbing and misguided.

However, Cohen’s generalisations about the left irritate me immensely. He has become prone to describing lefties as if we represent a near homogenous block of opinion. If even the five member Paintbrush collective cannot agree a common line on most issues, what chance does the wider left have? The man’s a former left-winger himself so he cannot be excused due to ignorance.

As important as it is for attention to be drawn to examples of left-wing hypocrisy or government ineptitude in dealing with Islamism, I object to his conclusion that the entire left is complicit in these mistakes. Much of his writing is now based on this narrative of Labour/left betrayal; the Labour government and the wider left have compromised on core values in their dealings with Islamic extremism and we’re now going to hell in a handcart; etc.

It’s not hard to see why such a narrative goes down especially well at The Evening Standard and The Spectator, where Cohen also writes regular columns. Constantly attacking the Labour government and the left insinuates support for the Tories and the right (though, like many public policy areas, we can’t be sure exactly what Prime Minister Cameron and his team of Old Etonians would do differently, but Cohen doesn’t appear to be especially bothered by this).

It therefore seems to me that the valid elements of Cohen’s articles are being undermined by his almost obsessive repeating of an unfair and inaccurate ‘betrayal’ narrative served up with lashings of hyperbole and possibly mixed in with some petty personal vendettas.

It’s a shame really, since he’s a talented writer talking about one of the most important and interesting topics of the age, but unfortunately I cannot take him seriously anymore.

Captain Jako

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One Response to “Betrayal everywhere!”

  1. Sunder Katwala Says:

    Interesting story – and thanks for the response.

    Yes, I did write negatively about “What’s Left”, having precisely the same reaction as you do: my left wasn’t the subject of the book at all, though he got the SWP bang to righs. (I sent it to him and got an email from Nick saying something like that would be fine if the Fabians had said anything at all to challenge the extreme left on foreign policy. So I sent him about a small selection of the squillions of things we’d done to do precisely that, and he said something like well OK, but I can hardly be expected to keep up with everything you’re doing.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/feb/02/myleft

    The London story is odd, because Nick is talking and not listening again.

    I couldn’t have been clearer (when asked to support efforts like drafting an independent candidate with 3 months to go. that (i) I’m Labour. That’s why I voted for Dobbo! (ii) I thought Ken was obviously much better than Boris (iii) The Al-Qaradawi thing was a blemish on his record (iv) If the small left anti-Ken group really did vote on that exclusively, and ignored the environment, transport, poverty, etc, that was mad.

    I can understand why Martin Bright would have taken it very personally, though for the rest of us the election couldn’t be about him, but Nick was a further remove from that, so its very much the left-bashing heretic approach you describe.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/feb/27/livingstoneswinningcoalition

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