Pantomime liberals

<strong>Waiting for the Etonians: Reports from the Sickbed of Liberal England

</strong>Nick Cohen

Somewhere in this fat, wordy tome is a thin, sensible book trying to get out. This 383-page collection of Nick Cohen's columns and essays for the Observer, New Statesman, Standpoint and others features some funny, insightful stuff. I enjoyed his attack on well-to-do environmentalists who believe it is acceptable to condemn farmers in the developing world to the "back-breaking drudgery" of organic farming if this allows the Islington set to continue buying lumpy, bumpy, pesticide-free apples from Waitrose. He is also right to condemn official multiculturalism as a form of "state-sponsored sectarianism". His account of the ban on fox-hunting is an enjoyable romp: Cohen realises that it was less about protecting bushy-tailed Basil Brushes than punishing "the caricature Tory toff with a red coat and redder face".

If he had included only such reports - generally well-observed accounts of how new Labour rule has proved ultimately disappointing for newspaper columnists and other members of the middle-class, Orwell-reading set - this book would have been far better (and significantly shorter). Cohen knows his audience: his columns are stuffed with references to Bulgarian nannies and chats with dads in swimming-pool changing rooms; there is a heady mix of pity for the white working classes and what he proudly labels "middle-class hatred of the upper classes". This book could well have come recommended as a "must-read for those who find themselves sandwiched between the lower and upper orders, somewhat ill-at-ease in garish, moneyed, modern Britain".

Only there is something else in the book, too. Something strange. Something that I am sorely tempted to describe as paranoia - and, yes, I am aware how strong a word that is. Cohen has become so utterly convinced that western civilisation is threatened by an apocalyptic sect of Islamic nutjobs that it colours everything else he says. Every sensible observation he makes about the rise of relativism or the diminution of Enlightenment values is undermined by his borderline conspiracy theory about a "wave of religious mayhem" that is "swirling around the globe" and that would "murder [us] without restraint". The use of the word "swirling" is telling, because often it seems to be Cohen's mind that is spinning out of control.

Many of the columns collected here focus on the alleged unholy alliance between world-threatening radical Islam and the British cultural elite, whose response to Islamist terrorism Cohen sums up as: "Kill us, we deserve it!" In these columns, his language changes dramatically: there is none of the lightness of touch and "Do you know what I mean?" banter that underpin his observations on middle-class sensibilities in "sick liberal England". Instead, a humourless and hysterical shrillness takes over. Radical Islam is "the most psychopathically anti-liberal ideology since Nazism". This is a "clerical fascism" that has "swept the Muslim world". There are "gangs of totalitarian fanatics" who want to run things "according to the barbaric principles of medieval religion". Iran is in the grip of "the messianic ideology of religious fascism". Saddam Hussein was "from the classic fascist tradition" and his "extermination of the Kurds" is comparable to Hitler's "extermination of European Jews". Even Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian theologian with mad views on wife-beating and homosexuality, is compared to Hitler.

Sometimes, Cohen takes leave of reality altogether. In the introduction, he writes of the "growing availability of weapons of mass destruction" and today's "nightmare of relatively small bands of psychopathic men obtaining and detonating armaments that had previously been the sole possession of superpowers". What, like aeroplanes? Or Semtex? Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, no known terrorist outfit - or even psychopathic, Hitlerian gang of murderous, marauding religious lunatics - has used WMDs, which are defined as chemical, biological or radiological weapons. No wonder Cohen describes the psychopathic use of WMDs as a "nightmare", because that's what it is: an event that has occurred only in his feverish, fearful imagination.

The writer's promiscuous use of the F-word, "fascism", quickly becomes grating. However much one opposes al-Qaeda and other forms of Islamist radicalism (and I am one of the many left-wingers who do oppose them), it is historical illiteracy on stilts to compare such ragbag collections of nihilists, more influenced by the western culture of victimhood than by religious medievalism, to the Nazis. When Cohen implies that the killing of 180,000 Kurds between 1987 and 1988 by Saddam, a non-Islamist, is comparable to the extermination of six million Jews, he means to stress how evil the Iraqi dictator was, but ends up obscuring the truth and any historical understanding of the Ba'athists' brutality at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq War and denigrating the uniqueness of Hitler's vaporisation of European Jewry besides. When writers whore the Holocaust in this way in order to label as evil some contem­porary tinpot dictator, they treat Nazi-style extermination as an everyday event, a pretty unexceptional thing that crops up again and again in human history, like herpes. They insult the memory of six million dead Jews. (For the record, by "historical understanding" of Saddam's attacks on the Kurds, I don't mean "excuse-making" - I mean that old-fashioned academic pursuit of studying the context, cause, meaning and impact of events in human history.)

Cohen seems unaware (or maybe he doesn't care) that accusing authoritarian third world movements of being the New Nazis and labelling their sympathisers as the New Appeasers is old hat. Juan Perón, Leopoldo Galtieri, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Muammar Gaddafi: all have been labelled by British governments as "Hitlers". What's more, left-wing anti-imperialists have long been denounced as colluders with fascism. Stalin himself invented the term "Trotsky-fascists" to discredit those who dared criticise his foreign policy in the 1930s.

Finally, to paraphrase Voltaire, those who believe absurdities can end up supporting atrocities. Cohen describes the Afghan War - that eight-year mess of bombing, fatally misfired missiles and intra-western squabbling that has intensified bloody separatism and warlordism - as a "liberal struggle".

It strikes me that Cohen, along with other liberal and left-wing writers who have signed up for the war in defence of western civilisation against "militant religion", is pursuing a pantomime Enlightenment. In place of a proper analysis of contemporary politics and world events, he gives us fantasy fascists and New Nazis to boo and hiss at. And, in presenting the threat to Enlightenment values as something external - the WMD-wielding barbarians are at the gate, apparently - he obscures the fundamental fact that, today, Truth, Liberty and Faith in Humanity are corroding from within; it is inside the west's own increasingly relativistic ivory towers and misanthropic political movements that the Enlightenment outlook is being snuffed out.

Indeed, in dogmatically denouncing their opponents as fascists or fascist sympathisers, and in treating Enlightenment values as nuggets of received wisdom to be guarded by newspaper columnists, today's pantomime defenders of civilisation come across more as religious-style elders than true men of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is about attitude. It is a way of looking at the world; it is about questioning, challenging, "daring to know"; it is not about subscribing to an imaginary, comforting, ossified politics of good and evil.

Brendan O'Neill is the editor of spiked (