Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What's Left? A Chat With Nick Cohen About It All

More berserking about Cohen's book What's Left? ensued yesterday following Norm Geras and his take, and Oliver Kamm and his. Here's mine, in today's Tyee. One of things I asked Cohen when we spoke a couple of days ago is why, exactly, certain otherwise reasonable-sounding people tend to go batty when the questions he raises in his book are openly discussed.

“People don’t like admitting that there are significant disagreements within the left. It breaks the air of moral superiority and makes them seem more fragile,” he said. “So anyone who does disagree is immediately attacked, as though you can’t be left wing and find fault, as though we are all united and there are no cracks in the armour. So you’re anathematized as soon as you start talking out of it.”

You're also anathematized for having supported the invasion of Iraq - which Cohen did, for all the good reasons many people on the Left did. But Cohen points out that if he'd opposed the invasion - as did some of his fellow Euston Manifesto co-authors and many of its signers - it wouldn't have made What’s Left? all that different a book.

Kamm supported the invasion and hasn't backed down. Geras supported the invasion and has since said that if he'd known how things would have turned out, he wouldn't have. Shalom Lappin opposed the invasion (but Lappin's take on the trajectory of the Left complements Cohen's perfectly), and on it goes. But with the benefit of hindsight, what does Cohen say now?

“Maybe I wouldn’t. I don’t know. But if you were to ask me, `Would you turn the clock back and put Saddam Hussein back in power?’ I would find that very hard to say. If you were to have been given foresight at the time, and said, `Well look here, you see now what’s going to happen,’ then you’d also have to give the foresight to say, `This is what will happen if you leave Saddam Hussein in power.’ ”

No matter how badly things have gone in Iraq, those of us who were against the invasion have no right to get on a high horse about it, not just because the drama is still unfolding, but because none of us is clairvoyant. None of us can say that things would have turned out better if George W. Bush and Tony Blair had gone for a long walk one day and just decided then and there to drop the subject and leave Hans Blix to figure it all out.

All you have to do is say this out loud to see how stupid it sounds. "Things would have been better if they'd just left Saddam Hussein in power."

Try it. See?

There comes a point where all these might-have-beens become completely irrelevant. We're actually long past that point: It occurred on March 20, 2003, when the bombs started falling. From that moment on, the Left, all over the world - in government and in the streets - should have come to the aid of Iraqi democrats, Iraqi teachers, Iraqi feminists, trade unionists and socialists. It didn't. There were exceptions, of course. But in the main, the Left was paralyzed.

Cohen sets out to explain the reasons why this was the case, and he traces the paralysis to its origins (the book is by no means just about Iraq or the contemporary "anti-war" movement). I think Cohen does a splendid job, and I think What's Left? is a brave book, a smart book, and damn well-written, in the bargain.

Agree with him or not, anyone who says Cohen's book is just a "smear job" is someone who's trying to hide something. And if you think what Cohen has to say has no direct relevance to Canada, you simply haven't been paying any attention at all.

9 Comments:

Blogger double-plus-ungood said...

All you have to do is say this out loud to see how stupid it sounds. "Things would have been better if they'd just left Saddam Hussein in power."

Even, hypothetically, if the result is far more misery and suffering than Hussein could have inflicted?

5:18 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I have no problem with disagreement within the left. I know that there are a variety of opinions within the progressive community, and I think that the tradition of passionate and thoughtful debate and discussion within the progressive community is something for us within it to be very proud of.

I haven't actually read his book, but from what I've read about the book it sounds to me like he is actually questioning the left credentials of certain people on the left.

I know I'm going to sound like a bit of a hypocrite when I say this. I'm sorry, but supporting the invasion of Iraq is a thoroughly un-progressive position by any standard as I see it. Everyone new it was based on lies, and everyone knew it would make things worse in many respects. I'm not saying that their intentions weren't good - I'm sure they were - or that they're not left/progressive on other issues. However, anyone who supported it, wittingly or not, was a dupe of the neocons.

6:17 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

DPU: Come on, pal. You know dang well it sounds stupid. Point is, I can't say, and you can't say. The point is also, in the words of the Euston Manifesto, "rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention," all of us on the Left should have moved on rather than continue to fight an argument that we'd lost, an argument it was too late to win. I'm happy to concede that I can't say it would have made any big difference if we'd moved on and put our backs into it on behalf of Iraqi democrats. But at least there would have been the hope of a difference.

Stephen: ". . .anyone who supported it, wittingly or not, was a dupe of the neocons."

If one supports a thing "wittingly" one is not a "dupe" - to be a "dupe" requires doing something unwittingly. By your analysis, the Kurds were dupes of the neocons. And somehow I don't think you really mean that. . .

8:46 PM  
Blogger double-plus-ungood said...

Point is, I can't say, and you can't say.

Not really my place to say it or not say it, I think. But a mangled Iraqi woman was quoted the other day saying just that as she was being wheeled into a Baghdad hospital.

The point is also, in the words of the Euston Manifesto, "rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention," all of us on the Left should have moved on rather than continue to fight an argument that we'd lost, an argument it was too late to win.

King of Swamp Castle: Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who. - Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I'm afraid that despite the wishes of the Euston Manifesto, the rubble and arguments of support for the Iraq catastrophe are going to picked over for years, and there's going to be a heavy stain of guilt that won't wash out. Those on the left who opposed the war were enthusiastically denounced as traitors to their ideology and supporters of fascism by other members of the left who thought they'd found their generation's fight against Franco in the form of an undereducated and intellectually incurious US President. That isn't likely to be forgotten for a while, I'm afraid.

Now, as I'm trying to not hog the last word in these threads, I'll bow out.

10:18 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

Making an exit by inventing straw men "who thought they'd found their generation's fight against Franco in the form of an undereducated and intellectually incurious US President."

Can't say you didn't go in style.

10:45 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Yes, I know the sentence was awkward. Thanks for calling me on it. Remove the 'wittingly or not' and you have the intended meaning.

For clarification, I'm not blaming the Kurds for any position they would take. I was referring to Western left/liberals who somehow found justification (out of thing air?) for the invasion.

I do have strong feelings on this issue, I was heavily involved in the anti-war movement at the time, and became better read on this issue than probably more than 99% of the population. I stand by the intended meaning of the sentence to which you refer.

9:41 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

Hi Steve.

Let's be clear. I also opposed the invasion, for reasons similar to your own, by the sounds of it. But I don't know what you could possibly mean by the assertion that there were "Western left/liberals who somehow found justification (out of thin air?) for the invasion."

Be reasonable. The daily brutalization of an entire people, the slaughter of 1.5 million, the genocidal Anfal, the death-camp ministrations of the sanctions and the so-called oil-for-food program - this is not "thin air." Something had to be done and everyone on the Left in the 1990s knew it. And everyone on the Iraqi Left knew that Saddam wasn't going to be overthrown without outside military intervention, which they begged for.

You and I were on the same side of the question about whether a U.S.-led invasion run by what was possibly the most backward and arrogant American administration in history would do more harm than good. Where I'm with Cohen (on this specific point) is when he observes, with the hindsight that three years allows, that people like us (and I'm not accusing you of this) "were right in all respects except one: they couldn't support their comrades in Iraq once the war was over."

9:19 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

OK, that clears things up a bit. Yes I think that more support should have been given the Iraqis after the invasion. The US is in a precarious position. They have created a huge mess. The people of Iraq don't want them there. They should leave, but if they left without rebuilding infrastructure and providing resources for the Iraqis (in other words, reparations), the country would probably disintegrate. And rightly so, as the US should pay war reparations Ideally, some impartial third party (the UN?)would come in to help with the rebuilding.

The whole matter disgusts me.

3:39 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

Good one, Stephen.

Cheers.

6:30 PM  

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