Nick Cohen’s reply to Johann Hari’s review of What’s Left
The following piece appears in the next issue of the leftish new York journal Dissent
My book What’s Left? is about deceit and the rich world’s left, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the most deceitful piece to be written about it in any journal in any country should appear in a magazine of the intellectual left produced in New York (“Choosing Sides,” by Johann Hari, Dissent, Summer 2007). As readers were not given an honest account of its contents, I should begin by saying that I ask how wealthy socialists, liberals, and feminists in Europe and North America came to turn their backs on the victims of movements that in their misogyny, homophobia, and racism represented everything the left is against–or says it’s against. I ask whether the betrayals are merely a product of a justifiable revulsion against the Bush presidency that will go when he’s gone or whether there are deeper and more uncomfortable causes that call into question what it means to be left wing today.
When presented with an uncomfortable argument, serious editors usually invite a critic to present a clear account of what is said, correct mistakes, and argue with interpretations and extrapolations. The trouble with looking for a critic in the British media is that normal intellectual standards are collapsing over here. At this writing, even the once-respected BBC has admitted to fixing competitions and deceiving its viewers as a matter of routine. The behavior of much of the press is worse, and if you trawl what used to be called Fleet Street for a reviewer you run the risk of picking up Johann Hari, who from almost the first paragraph of his piece in your last issue, misleads your readers.
I was, I am told, brought up by left-wing parents who raised me “to see Orwell in Catalonia as his moral archetype.” Their indoctrination, apparently, makes me confront all great issues with the question, “what would Orwell do?”
I make clear in the introduction that my parents were ex-communists who remained conventional members of the late-twentieth-century left. They didn’t “raise me” to see Orwell as “a moral archetype.” Indeed, I’m not sure that they ever read Orwell themselves. If they had, they would have hated his argument about totalitarianism because, as I say again in the introduction, they did not see a moral equivalence between communism and Nazism. For my part, it’s true that I did start Homage to Catalonia a few years ago, but to my shame I never finished it. I would no more ask “What would Orwell do?” than I would “What would Jesus do?”
Hari makes up these stories about my mother and father solely so he can declare that I am an “ostentatious claimant of George Orwell’s mantle.” This would indeed be a preposterously self-aggrandizing claim to make if I had ever made it. But I haven’t, in print or in private.
Having misrepresented my parents, he goes on to misrepresent my book.