Thursday, July 19, 2007

Books You Should Be Reading Number 26 Of A Bunch

Apathy Jack writes:

What’s Left? By Nick Cohen

In the early seventies, my mother searched the supermarkets for politically reputable citrus fruit. She couldn’t buy Seville oranges without indirectly subsidising General Francisco Franco, Spain’s fascist dictator. Algarve oranges were no good either because the slightly less gruesome but equally right-wing dictatorship of Antonio Salazar ruled Portugal. She boycotted the piles of Outspan from South Africa as a protest against Apartheid, and although neither America nor Israel was a dictatorship, she wouldn’t have Florida or Jaffa oranges in the house because she had no time for the then American President, Richard Nixon, or the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

My sisters and I did not know it, but when Franco fell ill in 1975, we were in a race to the death. Either he died of Parkinson’s disease or we died of scurvy.

This book should go on the reading list of anyone who actively identifies as left wing. Span, Mr Stupid and Hewligan spring immediately to mind (not because I think any of them are wrong-headed; just because they live close enough for me to lend the book to them) but also our friends on the right; Comrade Olthwaite for example, so they can get a leftist perspective with a lot of the dogma removed.

The book isn’t without its flaws; Cohen contextualises his arguments with history lessons that are many pages longer than they probably need to be to get his points across. That having been said, his points are good ones: In the years after the fall of Communism, being left-wing has stopped being so much about equal rights and employment relations (because of partial victories in those areas) and has become more and more about anti-Americanism. The most pressing example of course being those people who condemned the Ba’ath Party as totalitarians in the eighties, but who have become apologists for the regime, saying that it was Iraq’s business what Iraq got up to and there should be no condemnation or interference, since America decided it was an enemy.

Cohen further says that left wingers who conveniently ignore the reality of oppressive regimes - because if America is the villain, logic dictates that whoever is against America are heroes – are suffering from “the denial of a boy on the edge of a gang of bullies who can step back and smile innocently when the teacher storms into the playground”.

Sure, you might be saying that to ignore the horrors of, say Slobodan Milosevic’s genocide in Bosnia, is just silly, but Cohen points out a great number of left-wing thinkers who did just that – including quoting extensively from Noam Chomsky’s attempts to refute evidence of the genocide; evidence collected, as it happens, by the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, who you’d think would be pretty good at that sort of thing... (All-in-all, Chomsky takes a bit of a kicking in this book, so if you’re too big a fan, you might want to skim over chapter six pretty swiftly.)

Sure, I don’t agree with everything Cohen says. In Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, Moore’s myopia comes out when, in his desperation to prove that it was the titular Caucasian males who are responsible for the world’s ills, he declares Condoleeza Rice an honourary white man. The fact that Moore is right for a lot of his book doesn’t make this any less ridiculous a claim. In What’s Left?, Cohen starts to suffer a similar fate: he is certainly right when he says a lot of left-wingers are thoughtless apologists for unacceptable politics, but you start to see (in part thanks to his lengthy history lessons) that the left wing has never really met his standards. As it goes on, the book becomes less about how the left lost its way, and more about the fact that it has never actually lived up the halcyon potential of what it could have been. We can't reclaim a legacy that was never real.

That having been said, there is no doubt that there are many on the left (perhaps the majority) who are thinking in the way that Cohen talks about. So I do think that all of us still calling ourselves left wing should read the book, because, in the same way that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, we need to make sure that he’s not talking about us.


Hewligan said...

Ooh! Me first! Lend it to me first!

I need something to read, and your house is closer than Borders.

Apathy Jack said...

You get it after Arna.

Ben Thomas said...

Cohen's a brilliant polemicist. His previous effort, Pretty Straight Guys, was a stinging attack on both Blair-ite Labour for selling out the principles of social democracy, *and* the anti-war left. As you would expect, it took soime juggling. Stripped of his (admittedly pretty breathtaking in parts) rhetoric, his argument boils down to "how can the left believe in equality and egalitarianism, but also support sexist, homophobic and racist cultural relativism?"
To be honest, what I find most surprising about this argument from Cohen, Hitchens et al, is that it took so many books and articles for the Post-Modern academic left to confront such a basic question.
(It doesn't crop up so much n the old-school unionist left, which is why people like Trotter and McCarten tend to make more snese than leftists with MAs)
Anyhoo, I'll swap you PSG for What's Left? I still like reading this stuff, after all.

Eric Olthwaite said...

I'll read it too. Might have to get my own copy, looks like most of the blogosphere and by an educated guess most of the two schools that Jack has taught at will be before me. :-)

David S. said...

"how can the left believe in equality and egalitarianism, but also support sexist, homophobic and racist cultural relativism?"

It may be a little OT, but I think the answer to that is... we don't. We just don't support the solution the "coalition of the willing" went for.