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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle