I have already criticised Johann Hari's column in The Independent this week. Johann is entitled to change his views and apologise for what he formerly argued; but in his indictment of those of us he terms the pro-war Left, he is duty bound to give an accurate account of our position. If he seeks to depict the malign influence of neoconservatism on our thinking, then he is duty bound also to give an accurate account of that movement and its role in US foreign policy.
I concentrated on the second of those requirements, which Johann signally failed to fulfil. It was particularly ironic that he accused us on the interventionist Left of a "shallow and ahistorical reading of neoconservatism", because - as I trust I have shown - his own reading of that phenomenon is trivial and unlettered. There is a substantial difference between the views of Wolfowitz and Kirkpatrick, never mind Wolfowitz and Kissinger; to suppose that "the invasion of Iraq was motivated not by Enlightenment values, but by a desire to achieve US control over Middle East oil" requires evidence of a type and strength that Johann never produces. (Famously The Guardian once did claim evidence for that proposition, and then rapidly and with good reason withdrew it.)
I didn't notice till after I had posted my comments, however, that Johann's column was a much abbreviated version of a piece published elsewhere. That piece is a review-article, from Dissent magazine, about Nick Cohen's book What's Left?; my comments in this post are about Johann's treatment of that book.
I am not Nick Cohen's plenipotentiary, nor should Nick be assumed to agree with anything I say. But I am familiar with and sympathetic to the thesis of his book, on which I gave some very minor assistance. (There is a Raymond Williams quotation in the book that comes from me; and I persuaded Nick to moderate his criticisms of Noam Chomsky, which - strange but true - I felt were too harsh.) In my judgement Johann's article is a shoddy piece of work, and Johann fails in the first task of any reviewer. In evaluating a book, a reviewer has no responsibility to the author but an inviolable one to the reader, namely to represent accurately the argument of the book under discussion. Johann omits altogether the argument of Nick's book - a task of précis that I modestly submit I accomplished with complete accuracy in three sentences, here:
In the last century, material betterment and the steady diminution of discrimination against blacks, women and homosexuals have advanced progressive goals. Much of the left has yet to come to terms with this achievement. At the extreme, some who were once thought of as being on the left have adopted the language and outlook of the right.
But Johann is more culpable still on what he does discuss: his review distorts the book, and not by accident. Let me give a few examples only. The conceit in the review is that Nick is an "ostentatious claimer of George Orwell's mantle [who] has forgotten the quality that made Orwell great - the power to face inconvenient truths". The claim, so far from being ostentatious, is nowhere asserted or even insinuated (in which case it wouldn't be ostentatious) in anything Nick has written. So far as I can see, the only evidence Johann adduces, or can possibly adduce, for this characterisation is Nick's family upbringing: "He was raised to see Orwell in Catalonia as his moral archetype - the socialist bearing a pack and going abroad to fight fascists."
There is nothing in the book to substantiate that remark. On the contrary, so we are told, Nick's grandfather worked for the Communist Party, his great-uncle emigrated to Moscow when Stalin was consolidating power, and his parents, while ex-Communists, were far from being anti-Communists. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell wrote scathingly of the "Left intelligentsia [who] made their swing-over from 'War is hell' to 'War is glorious' not only with no sense of incongruity but almost without any intervening stage." He urged readers to "dig out the files of New Masses or the Daily Worker, and just have a look at the romantic warmongering muck that our left-wingers were spilling at the time". Almost a decade later, in 1947, Orwell wrote of the Labour MP and crypto-Communist Konni Zilliacus: "Is he under the impression that he can frighten me into silence? Let him be sure that I shall continue my efforts to counter totalitarian propaganda in this country." The notion that the young Nick Cohen was brought up on this sort of thing is pure invention.
Nick's biographical details are of less moment for his book than the issues of war, totalitarianism and terrorism. But those details are important in this discussion, nonetheless, for this reason. Johann seeks to argue that Nick, while vaingloriously affecting to be Orwell's heir, has in fact abandoned his ideological roots; and in order to generate that argument, Johann just makes up the evidence. Nor is this an isolated instance. Here he goes again:
Cohen is enraged by people who simplistically ascribe jihadism to the "root cause" of the Israel/Palestine conflict, which he says is "to make a very large assumption about a very small war." That's true enough: getting justice for the Palestinians is morally essential, but the idea it will stem jihadism other than in Palestine itself was always fanciful. However, Cohen then extends this argument - in a bizarre leap - to claim that jihadism has no root causes at all, and that anybody who suggests it does is "appeasing fascists".
This is what Nick really says about "root causes" of jihadism:
Once you have exhausted all comprehensible reasons for a great crime there remains a gap. The "root causes" take you to its edge, but then wave goodbye and leave you peering into an unfathomable abyss. The famines Stalin, Mao and the Ethiopian colonels unleashed, Pol Pot's extermination of anyone who could read or write or Hitler's annihilation of the Jews, gypsies, gays and Slavs, Saddam's regime of torture and genocide and the Islamist cult of death aren't rationally explicable. You can cross over to the other side of the abyss only if you shrug off your reasonable liberal belief that every consequence has an understandable cause and accept that enthusiasm for the ideologies of absolute power isn't always rationally explicable.
Many people criticise Nick for his views. I've never come across anyone - not a single critic - who accuses him of obscurity in expounding them. It is impossible for any careful or honest reviewer to infer, from the passage I've just quoted, that jihadism "has no root causes at all". The argument is rather that invoking "root causes" takes you only so far when explaining a cult of death. I am also fairly certain, without reading Nick's book for a third time from cover to cover, that the phrase "appeasing fascists" appears nowhere in it but is a straight fabrication by Johann - and a particularly serious one given that the convention with quotation marks is, as the name suggests, that they denote a direct quotation rather than a paraphrase.
Further, I know of no writer of the school Johann attacks who would fit his caricature of believing that "jihadism is ... a spontaneous theological psychosis sprouting in the void". Take, well, me. In my book Antitotalitarianism I argued: "Granted that the foreign policies of Western nations generate hatred that in turn stimulates terrorism - and I see little purpose in denying it in order to present a sanitised assessment of the consequences of an interventionist foreign policy - it is almost impossible to conceive of a foreign policy we could pursue that would not have that outcome." In reference to the 7/7 bombings and the notion that they were a protest against Western foreign policy, I wrote: "Even allowing for the broadest possible interpretation of 'foreign occupation' to include the objection of young Western Islamists to the occupation of Iraq, we are still left with an inadequate account of the motivations of the terrorists.... Even 'religious fanaticism' is too weak a term for this destructive nihilism." The obvious unfortunately appears to need stating here: an account of terrorism that is inadequate is not the same as an account that is baseless.
In fact, I'm being too kind to Johann. His rhetorical techniques don't reach the level of caricature, for a caricature at least incorporates, in order to exaggerate, some authentic and identifiable characteristic of what is being depicted. Charles de Gaulle really did have a big nose, and John Prescott is indeed fat. But Johann Hari's arguments are, to coin a phrase, a spontaneous psychosis sprouting in the void.
Try another. Here's Johann:
[Cohen] accuses the left of supporting Saddam Hussein - and then, in his most shocking claim, says the US was right to support Saddam in the 1980s anyway because it was the only way to stop the 'Islamic revolution'.
And here is what Nick says in his book:
Instead of fighting the Islamic revolution themselves, Britain and America were happy for a fascistic despot to do its fighting for them. There was no complaint when Saddam acquired between 2,000 and 4,000 tons of chemical agents; no real protest beyond mealy-mouthed mutterings when he used them to kill about 50,000 Iranian soldiers. Donald Rumsfeld went to Baghdad in 1984 to assure the Baathists that what condemnations there had been were for form's sake and should not be taken personally. To stop the Islamic revolution spreading, the West was prepared to hold its tongue.
As distortions go, Johann's rendering is beyond conventional categories of the disgraceful. It is completely obvious what Nick is arguing here, and it is the polar opposite of the view Johann attributes to him. Again, Nick is far from being an elliptical writer, and nor is his view unusual. I've heard Christopher Hitchens expound the same point, and I've written it too: the bankruptcy and sheer imprudence of a foreign policy that sought a stable balance of power sooner than the expansion of democracy may be gauged by the fact that that policy once extended as far as allying with Saddam Hussein himself.
There is much else in Johann's review that is worthy of comment - or perhaps, unworthy of comment but deserving of notice. The review is dishonest and it's incompetent, and it frequently evinces an intellectual certainty unsupported by anything the reviewer has to say. Johann, for example (in a discussion about "root causes"), cites Keynes's criticisms of the Versailles Treaty and refers to "a near-total consensus among historians that the Versailles Treaty helped to create the trough of national humiliation and grievance in which the fungus of Nazism could grow". There is a trivial sense in which this is and cannot but be true, but I assume Johann means it in a non-trivial sense that there was a rational basis to complaints that Versailles imposed, in Keynes's phrase, a "Carthaginian peace [that] is not practically right or possible". I wonder (and it's not a rhetorical question) just how many historians, in how many languages, Johann has consulted to determine the existence of near-unanimity on this point. I can tell, without waiting to hear his answer, that he has not consulted all the competent authorities.
The editor of Dissent, the political philosopher Michael Walzer, wrote some years ago a study of social criticism in the twentieth century, entitled The Company of Critics (2nd edition, 2002). Concluding a chapter on "Julien Benda and Intellectual Treason", Walzer wrote of "what may well be the most attractive picture of the true intellectual: not as the inhabitant of a separate world, the knower of esoteric truths, but as a fellow member of this world who devotes himself, but with a passion, to the truths we all know".
If the current issue of Dissent is any indication, then the gap between that picture of intellectual engagement and what the magazine will accept for publication is wide indeed.