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Postscript to the New Edition of “What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way”

[Nick Cohen, author of the bestselling polemic What's Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way (the subtitle's slightly different in the UK), has generously agreed to let us reprint his new preface for the paperback edition. In August, I defended Cohen's … Read More

By / December 11, 2007

[Nick Cohen, author of the bestselling polemic What's Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way (the subtitle's slightly different in the UK), has generously agreed to let us reprint his new preface for the paperback edition. In August, I defended Cohen's book, and the Euston Manifesto, against the mendacious attacks of Johann Hari. --MW]

Tony Blair: There is global struggle in which we need a policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justice . . John Humphrys (a BBC presenter): Our idea of democracy. . . Blair: I didn't know that there was another idea of democracy. . . Humphrys: If I may say so, that's naïve . . . Blair: The one basic fact about democracy, surely, is that you can get rid of your government if you don't like them. Humphrys: The Iranians elected their own government, and we're now telling them. . . Blair: Hold on John, something like 60 per cent of the candidates were excluded. BBC Radio 4, February 2007

WHEN I published What's Left? I did not expect to be universally loved. I have lived among London's liberal intelligentsia long enough to know that while it is hard on others it is always easy on itself, and would not take kindly to a history of how leftish people had ended up apologizing for the ultra-right. The reviewers who praised this book are all over its cover, what surprised me about the critics was their denial. A few said the book was a defence of the second Iraq war, even though every time I mentioned opposition to the war I said the opponents were right in nearly all their arguments but had astonished me and others by their inability to support those Iraqis who wanted something better after thirty-five years of a vile dictatorship. More common was a transparent shiftiness.

All right, critics conceded, a few leftists had flipped over and gone along Islamism and Baathism. But these people were not worth bothering with. No connection existed between the ideological contortions of the extremes and a liberal mainstream that remained wedded to the highest principles. All I had done was use odious but fringe figures to smear decent and moderate men and women, such as themselves. As an account of my argument, this was partial in the extreme. What's Left? looks at how the Left picked up and then dropped the opponents of Saddam Hussein; why the European Union stood by and allowed Slobodan Milosevic to ethnically cleanse the Balkans; the reasons for the liberal middle class's disillusion with democracy and free speech; the instant willingness of respectable writers to excuse Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks; the inability of the British Liberal Democrats and European Social Democrats to oppose George W. Bush while supporting a free Iraq; the growth of polite antisemitism; and the propensity of liberals everywhere to portray a global clerical fascist movement as a rational response to Western provocation. Say what you will, but these were and are mainstream phenomena. Liberal writers did not examine them and explain why I was mistaken. They just ignored what I had written and hoped that if they insisted on their righteousness with sufficient vehemence, others would believe them – and maybe they would believe themselves. For denial about what had happened to the liberal-left was not confined to the reaction of a couple of reviewers to one political book. In Europe and North America intellectuals worked ferociously to maintain the illusion that a principled consensus survived the mayhem after 9/11. I can sympathize with them to an extent because although it is essential to realize where the received wisdom is going wrong it is rarely a simple or painless task. Historians have it easy. They can look back at another time and see the faults in what almost everyone took for granted. In theory, we know future historians will do the same to us and find elements of our beliefs as wrong-headed and narrow-minded as we find many of those of our ancestors. In practice, however, self-examination is psychologically impossible for many. When you live in a consensus, it does not feel as if you have an ideology that needs examining. If the overwhelming majority of people you meet agree with you, your assumptions do not appear tenuous or debatable. They are just there – as natural as the air you breathe and as unquestionable as the weather.

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