Nick Cohen’s Nazi confusion

The Observer columnist’s odd piece on Israel, Islamists and Godwin’s law.

Nick Cohen, formerly of this parish, has devoted his latest Observer column to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the siege of Gaza. I can't help but respond to some of his weird and wonderful claims.

Let me begin with a confession: I used to be a huge fan of Nick Cohen's. I bought, read and reread Cruel Britannia. During the early, cautious, frustrating, triangulating New Labour years, it was Cohen's columns to which I turned for solace, guidance, enlightenment and -- even -- wit. "When the rest of the press was cheering on Blair, particularly in New Labour's early days, Cohen was his most virulent critic and almost the only coherent voice asserting 'real left' values," wrote the former NS editor Peter Wilby, as he examined and analysed his friend's "rightwards lurch" back in 2005.

But 11 September 2001, to borrow a cliché, changed everything for Cohen (although perhaps not immediately -- as late as January 2002, four months after the terror attacks on the twin towers, he was happy to rage against George W Bush, the United States and its "poodle", the United Kingdom, and, in a column in defence of "anti-Americanism", he wrote that "there is little about modern America to be for").

He has since become monomaniacally obsessed with Islamism, Islam and Muslims, and an ardent defender of the US, the UK and Israel. He has described the British army as the "armed wing of Amnesty International" while castigating Amnesty itself for being an "evil corporation". His shift to the Bush-loving, warmongering, liberal-imperialist, neocon right was even more sudden, surprising, simplistic and shameful than Christopher Hitchens's. Predictably, perhaps, Cohen has ended up with a column, reviewing television, at the right-wing, ultra-conservative, Islam-obsessed Standpoint magazine ("Standpoint's core mission is to celebrate our civilisation, its arts and its values . . . at a time when they are under threat"), which he has used to rail against, among other things, the "liberal" bias of Channel 4 News and the BBC's alleged belief that "all Islamist atrocities were the work of the international Jewish conspiracy".

Unlike, say, Johann Hari, Cohen has yet to apologise, or show any remorse or regret for, his outspoken support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. (You can catch up on the amusing spat between Hari and Cohen here and here. Or you can check out the row he had with his former Obs colleague and one-time Euston Manifesto ally Sunder Katwala, of the Fabians. The latter concluded: "We also have here the well-known phenomenon of the zeal of the convert. That is why several of the keenest neocons and Thatcherites had been Marxists . . . It is the personal politics of exchanging one set of absolute certainties for another, and proclaiming them with equal conviction and lack of nuance. Nick Cohen is another case in point. He offered an absurd 'agitprop-left' response to 9/11 and the initial military action against Afghanistan, then accused anybody who couldn't agree with him over Iraq as being in bad faith. As we all pick up the pieces, he is now shouting about the betrayal and failure to engage liberal Muslims . . . Cohen had every reason to already know he was spouting nonsense.")

I don't know Cohen. I've never met him or spoken to him. Upon joining the New Statesman last June, I made a conscious decision not to take potshots at him, out of a misplaced admiration for a journalist whom Roy Hattersley once described as "lucid, principled and irresistibly readable". (I even held my tongue in January when, unprovoked, he joined the online smear campaign against me on his Standpoint blog.)

But I can't do it any more. His columns become more ridiculous (not to mention right-wing) by the week. On 8 May, for example, Cohen urged the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition with the Conservatives (and not Labour): "There is no point in being in politics if they do not." The following week, however, on 16 May, he accused the Liberal Democrats of having "toffed up" the Cameron-led coalition and "sundered their links with the social democratic tradition", and described Vince Cable as a "good social democrat who threw in his lot with the Tories . . . a man with a mortal sin on his conscience."

Bizarre. Does the Observer not provide this man with an editor? A sub? A reviewer of copy?

Yesterday's column from Cohen saw the former leftist truth-teller eagerly defending Israel -- a country whose record of aggression and ethnic cleansing he had acknowledged in Cruel Britannia -- and accusing liberal critics of Israel of reviving "Europe's oldest anti-Semitic tropes". Perhaps Cohen should read the Israeli press before he sounds off about anti-Semitism and the Jewish state. Here are four headlines from Haaretz last week:

Ari Shavit: "Fiasco on the high seas"

Reuven Pedatzur: "A failure any way you slice it"

Yossi Sarid: "Seven idiots in the cabinet"

Gideon Levy: "Operation Mini Cast Lead"

Does Cohen expect us to believe the staff of Haaretz are Jew-haters? And is Nelson Mandela, who described Palestine as "the greatest moral issue of the age", a lazy anti-Semitic liberal as well?

But here is my favourite bit from Sunday's Obs column, on the subject of "Godwin's law":

Mike Godwin held in 1990 that the longer a discussion continues on the web the greater the likelihood that some fool invoking the Nazis would reduce it to absurdity. Today, reduction to Zionism has replaced reductio ad Hitlerum. It is impossible for discussions of Middle Eastern dictatorship, the rise of psychopathic Islamism or the alienation of immigrant Muslim communities in the west to continue without participants maintaining that Jewish influence is "the root cause" of the evils to hand. From the far left to the Liberal Democrats, alleged progressives have Jews on the brain.

Put aside the ludicrous and patronising idea that "alleged progressives" are all secret anti-Semites; focus instead on his invocation of Godwin's law, because he then hilariously confirms and obeys the law himself later in the same column. And not once, but twice:

1) "They [modern Arab rulers] need a conspiracy theory to divert the attention of their subject populations from the failures of their rule as badly as the tsars did in the 1900s and the Nazis in the 1930s."

2) "As with the European reactionaries of the 20th century, Islamists do not stop with Jew hatred."

I ask again: does the Observer not provide this man with an editor? A sub? A reviewer of copy?

One final point on Cohen: a man so committed to detecting anti-Semites and "Islamists" under every liberal and Muslim bed should be ultra-careful about his own language and indulgence of "tropes". Cohen claims to oppose Islamism, not Islam; Islamic extremists, not ordinary Muslims. But here he is, writing in the Observer in November 2009 about the Labour government's alleged "wooing" of religious, and in particular Muslim, "extremists":

At the Department for Communities, I am told that real power does not rest with the ineffective John Denham, but Shahid Malik, his deputy, who perhaps hopes that appeasing Jamaat and the Brotherhood will help him keep the core vote in his Dewsbury seat and enable a few other desperate Labour MPs to survive a potential Tory landslide as well.

Reread that paragraph again. It suggests that the then junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, a Muslim, controlled the department from the shadows and used his "power" to advance the sectarian interests of "Islamist" groups and secure Muslim bloc votes. It is deeply offensive, paranoid and wholly inaccurate. Imagine if Cohen had written the following paragraph instead:

At the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I am told that real power does not rest with the ineffective David Miliband, but Ivan Lewis, his deputy, who perhaps hopes that appeasing Bicom and the Board of Deputies will help him keep the core vote in his Bury South seat and enable a few other desperate Labour MPs to survive a potential Tory landslide as well.

If he had written such a paragraph, we would, rightly, all be up in arms. Perhaps Nick Cohen should think about that the next time he chooses to fear-monger about Islam and Muslims.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Iraq war opponents were called traitors and snakes – now it's happening with Brexit, too

After an “us and them” narrative this strong is established, often any empathy for “them” gets lost.

“We are all Brexiteers now,” said the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, in July, explaining why he felt comfortable backing the Remain-supporting Theresa May as his party leader. To which I’d like to reply: I’m not. Leaving the EU still seems like an act of wanton economic self-harm, and constitutional wrangling will crowd out any serious discussion of domestic policy and public services for years to come. Yes, it has to happen. But don’t expect me to be happy about it.

The other reason why I’m not cheering on the idea of Brexit is that it’s so clear that the Brexiteers don’t want me to. Their entire narrative relies on casting themselves as the underdogs, fighting the pernicious dominance of the “liberal elite”. These two words are a magic mantra, stronger than any industrial solvent: they wash away money, privilege and connections, rendering even the poshest bloke the authentic voice of the humble working man.

Unfortunately, encouragement for this type of attitude comes from the top. It was striking how little Theresa May’s Conservative party conference speech had to say to anyone who voted Remain and, indeed, how casually it caricatured 48 per cent of the population as la-di-da latte drinkers in £2m houses.

Are the people of Northern Ireland, who have the UK’s lowest average pay, weakest productivity and highest unemployment, members of this hated elite? They must be, because a majority of them voted to stay in Europe. What about the people of Lambeth, the area that had London’s highest Remain vote? They can’t escape the accusation of being metropolitan, true, but as the 22nd most deprived borough in England, I doubt they feel like elites, either.

Once an “us and them” narrative this strong is established, often any empathy for “them” gets lost. On 12 October, the Daily Express ran a comment piece by Chris Roycroft-Davis claiming that anyone who wanted a Commons vote on Brexit was arguing: “The people have spoken, we don’t like what they said because they aren’t as clever as us, so let’s ignore them and try to reverse the referendum result.” He added, “Such snake-like treachery cannot go unpunished. Here’s what I would do with them: clap them in the Tower of London.” And in case you think that this was just a columnist getting overexcited (like when Rod Liddle has too many cod liver oil pills and – oops! – ends up breaching a court order), consider the front-page headline: “Time to silence EU exit whingers”.

This madness is spreading. A Tory councillor called Christian Holliday recently started a petition calling for the Treason Felony Act to be amended, so that it would become an offence “to imagine, devise, promote, work, or encourage others to support the UK becoming a member of the European Union”. It got a dribble of signatures before he was suspended from the party. (Side note: his name would make him an excellent choice to lead this year’s inevitable round of the War on Christmas.)

I know that, individually, these seem like minor examples: we can’t ascribe too much significance to the ravings of local politicians and Express op-ed contributors. My concern is that these are only the lurid flowerings of a much deeper phenomenon: an insidious recasting of the events of 23 June as a huge landslide in favour of the hardest possible Brexit, rather than a 52-48 decision with millions of people in the soggy middle, worried about both immigration and the economy – and imagining that the government will try to arrange the best compromise between competing interests.

Yet we have already slipped into a space where “ordinary people” supported Brexit; where it is unpatriotic to question the exact form that leaving the EU should take. Any scrutiny by parliament is “subverting the will of the British people”, as if MPs were elected by some other group entirely. No one should try to overturn or even temper the referendum result, because, after all, it’s not as if Nigel Farage and his friends spent decades fighting the consensus in politics.

All of this reminds me of the rush to go to war in Iraq, when similar arguments were deployed: why do you hate freedom? Are you a terrorist sympathiser? Why aren’t you getting behind your government? Rereading some of the rhetoric from the early 2000s is chilling. A Sun front page in 2003 showed the then Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy, next to a cobra, asking readers to “spot the difference”: “One is a spineless reptile that spits venom . . . The other’s a poisonous snake.” At the 2004 Republican national convention, the keynote speaker Zell Miller told delegates: “Our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander-in-chief.” In other words, opposition was divisive and unpatriotic.

We are back in that dark place. We have lost the idea of politics as the art of endless compromise, trying to deliver the best possible result, pleasing the greatest possible number of people – and protecting a space for dissenters. Only 52 per cent
of us matter.

In her conference speech, May attacked Remainers for “find[ing] the fact that more than 17 million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering”. Well, yes. It sounds like a terrible idea to me. But I’m sure that Brexit voters would say the same about my opinions. Do we really think that Farage has an intuitive sense of my concerns? Yet, in this new world, he isn’t expected to understand me, although I have to understand him. And I have to shut up, too.

None of this is good for democracy. Good opposition makes governments better, by forcing them to think more deeply and strategically. The atmosphere in 2003 led to a catastrophe in another country. In 2016, it could lead to a disaster in this one. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood