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Lost Compasses

Johann Hari has a very interesting and thoughtful review of Nick Cohen’s “What’s Left?” up on his website. Hari is a seldom less than compelling columnist, though I don’t share his politics, and his comments on Cohen’s [excellent] book are … Read More

By / July 24, 2007
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Johann Hari has a very interesting and thoughtful review of Nick Cohen’s “What’s Left?up on his website.

Hari is a seldom less than compelling columnist, though I don’t share his politics, and his comments on Cohen’s [excellent] book are well worth exploring. However, as much as his criticisms of the Eustonite left (with which I am broadly in sympathy) occasionally hit the mark, there’s an instructive passage towards the end of his article which exposes the essential weakness (for me) of much of the Left, particularly when it comes to the Middle East:

He [Cohen] writes apropos Iraq: "You have to choose which side you are on, and those who don't usually end up as the biggest villains of all." The obvious response is – why? Why do you have to pick a side between two forces that repel you? There are plenty of conflicts where no sensible person would pick a side: the Crusades, for example. Indeed, Cohen himself did not "pick a side" in the Cold War. He sensibly opposed both the US-led assaults on democrats in Iran, Guatemala, and Congo, and the Soviet-led assaults on democrats in Hungary, Czecholslovakia and Afghanistan. This injuction to "pick a side" is Cohen's way of ironing out the cognitive dissonance that comes from being aware of crimes by the Bush adminstration, but supporting them anyway.

I don’t know whether Nick Cohen “picked a side” in the Cold War or not: but if he didn’t, he should have, and those on the Left who didn’t – or, worse, picked the other side – were guilty of the same moral confusion as their contemporary counterparts in organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), whose response to Iranian ducking and weaving on the nuclear issue betrays the most extraordinary hypocrisy. (More of them later.)

In pointing out that Cohen opposed both US and Soviet aggression during the Cold War Hari is, ironically, making Cohen’s point for him: if the Left is to have any relevance in the modern world – if it’s to stand for anything at all – it surely stands for denouncing human rights abuses wherever they occur – Gitmo or Tehran – and standing up for democracy everywhere, not just in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that are perceived as US client states but also in countries like Zimbabwe and North Korea, whose disgusting human rights abuses seem not to trouble the radar of a surprising proportion of today’s Leftists. A principled Left must stand up for these values as universal, not apply them selectively whilst, almost in the same breath, lauding tinpot dictators from Belarus to Venezuela just because they’re willing to say rude things about George Bush.

Anyone who watched the anti-war marchers turn out in force last summer, during the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, with their nauseating “We are all Hezbollah now” banners, may reasonably ask why no-one is marching about Zimbabwe. Why do Darfur marches get hundreds or thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands? And how much bigger would those demonstrations magically become if the US announced plans to invade Sudan; how many leftist groups would suddenly crawl out of the woodwork to express an interest in that miserable and repugnant genocide – express an interest for the very first time?

If you doubt what I say, read Cohen here on the left’s betrayal of Iranian trade unionists, and the account of how CND invited the Iranian ambassador to speak at their annual conference (savour the irony!). When exiled Iranian leftists in London showed up to protest this embrace of the brutal, “fascistic” regime in Tehran, they were thrown out. Or consider the grotesque hypocrisy of my old MP and occasional sparring partner “Gorgeous” George Galloway, a target of Cohen and Hari both, who thinks nothing of defending quasi-fascist regimes all over the world so long as they are anti-American in their outlook, and who infamously said that the assassination of Tony Blair would be “morally justifiable”.

To claim a moral equivalence between a regime like that in Iran, which executes homosexuals and stones adulterers to death, or North Korea, where scientists test chemical weapons on political prisoners and their families, with liberal democracies like the US or Britain, however flawed and often worthy of condemnation their policies may be, is worse than a misuse of language; it’s deliberate moral blindness. And to reflexively and uncritically take the side of the some of the worst regimes on earth in the name of “anti-imperialism” is not just forty years out of date; it’s a moral obscenity, and we owe it to every imprisoned pro-democracy activist and murdered dissident to scream it from whatever rooftop we can find to clamber onto.

Seen from this perspective, taking the side of the West, even a West that breaches human rights itself, doesn't make us guilty of a "cognitive dissonance"; on the contrary, it's an absolute precondition for being taken seriously, be it as a commentator, activist, or politically engaged citizen. I don't abhor Guantanamo, or torture, or the assault on civil liberties in both the US and Britain, because I believe us to be no better than the suicide-murderers ranged against us. My despair and fury at these actions stems from precisely the opposite root; that our way of life is precious and worth protecting; that these abuses are a standing rebuke to our cause, not a necessary compromise in its defence; and that if we surrender the moral high ground then, in a very real and immediate sense, we have already lost.

When you are facing a nihilist death-cult like Al-Qaeda, to which death and destruction is not so much the means to an end as an end in itself, and an ideology which may fairly be described as fascist, I don't expect you to subscribe to Bush's "they hate our freedoms" tripe; but I do expect you to have a functioning moral compass which is capable of telling right from wrong. Cohen and Hari, much as they differ on some pretty fundamental points, both clearly do. But a lot of their comrades seem to have misplaced theirs.

I can't resist making one final observation. When I was younger, back in the 80's, there were of course Palestinian flags at Left-wing marches, but when you bought a copy of Living Marxism (she was cute, OK?) or went to a demo, you would have seen headlines and banners everywhere urging, "Free Kurdistan".

You don't see them too much any more. Why, you may ask, don't you see "Free Kurdistan" placards at demonstrations these days? Because we did.

I guess I must have missed the celebrations down at Living Marxism.

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