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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.