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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.