What’s Left by Nick Cohen

This is an important book. It deserves a far wider readership than it will get. It is an introduction to the phenomenon of the regressive left, a recent arrival in left-wing politics that casts aside the proudest traditions of that part of the political spectrum, abandoning the universality that used to come with ideas like human rights, and making its peace with fascism and other illiberal ideas that used to be the exclusive property of the far-right. First printed in 2007, What’s Left has recently come back into print, and has been enjoying a flurry of sales because of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour party in Britain. Certainly Cohen was prescient, and his book can be profitably read to increase one’s understanding of British politics, but I think its significance goes far beyond that. For me, the book is important for the insight it gives into the philosophical school known as postmodernism: the regressive left is what happens when postmodern ideas take root in political life. Cohen covers some difficult intellectual ground with magnificent clarity. The result is a book that reads like a novel and will greatly deepen your understanding of ideas that are coming to define the times we live in (and with the arrival of president Trump, postmodernism has come to have a terrible relevance to American political life as well; I’ll say a word about that at the end).

I’ve long had an interest in how certain seemingly esoteric ideas – that is, ideas that you would assume were of interest only to a few professors in ivory towers – are in fact critically important to everyday life. Cohen’s book shows how ideas that have been peddled by academics for the last half-century or so have trickled down into everyday life, with deeply troubling effects in political life across the West.

The book is not, however, a philosophical tome. What’s Left focuses on recent history, reaching its climax in the second Iraq war. Cohen experience of this time is what brought about the book: as a friend of certain Iraqi exiles, he found himself occupying different ground than many of his fellow leftists, and the perspective proved fruitful. He tells us he didn’t join protests against the first Iraq war because he saw Arabs carrying signs saying things like “Free Kuwait.” He supported the second Iraq war because of Iraqis who vehemently supported it, and because he was all too aware that the line about Saddam Hussein being a brutal dictator who ought to be removed was, well, true (you’ll learn a thing or two about Hussein’s Iraq along the way). But a key insight clearly came as Cohen reflected on the distance the rest of the left had travelled without him since the 80’s. Back then, on the basis of its support for universal human rights, the left was against Hussein and in favour of Iraqi democracy. By the time of the second Iraq war, it was the right that was against Hussein and in favour of Iraqi democracy, while the left was at best confused. Actually, Cohen makes clear that ‘confused’ is too generous, for it becomes clear that many left-wingers had simply abandoned their previous commitment to universal human rights.

Iraq, then, is one of the book’s central threads. If, like me, you were against the Iraq war from the start and have on that account felt rather pleased with yourself ever since, the book can be uncomfortable reading – and all the more valuable for that. This is far the most thought-provoking thing I have read on Iraq.

But I think the book’s real value lies in the ideas that it treats, ideas relevant far beyond a particular conflict. One idea central to the book (and to postmodernism) is relativism. You have probably encountered the doctrine in the form of cultural relativism – i.e., the idea that no culture’s practices are better than any others. So, for example, in some cultures, it’s appropriate to eat with a knife and fork, in others, with chopsticks, in others still, with your hands. The cultural relativist reminds us that no one of these approaches is better than any other – indeed, that it would be deeply wrong and even evil to take any one of them as absolute and to try to impose it on others. In theory, this sounds great, and many of the doctrine’s advocates see it as necessary to sustain or to further develop the left-wing movements of the 20th century, in that they think it the only foundation on which real tolerance and coexistence are possible. Cohen, however, deals with the way the doctrine actually plays out in the real world, and there it proves to have disastrous potential.

One relatively recent application of relativism involves a sharper and more exclusive focus on minority groups. So, for example, Cohen tells us how “the idea that a homosexual black woman should have the same rights as a heterosexual white man was replaced by a relativism which took the original and hopeful challenge of the early feminist, gay and anti-racist movements and flipped it over. Homosexuality, blackness and womanhood became separate cultures that couldn’t be criticized or understood by outsiders applying universal criteria.” This refusal of criticism involving universal criteria was applied above all to the foreign cultures found in other countries.

Consider, for example, Michel Foucault, celebrated among many academics as one of the great minds of the 20th century, and often taken to be a particularly progressive thinker. In the  early 80’s he became enamoured of the Ayatollah’s new regime in Iran, and warned against criticising it – Iranian culture has a different “regime of truth,” he said. That is, they have their own culture with its own practices, and we have no right to try to criticise it in terms proper to our own culture. But what was at issue in this case was not merely matters like how we eat our food, but questions such as whether or not people who protest against the government should be tortured, or questions concerning the rights of women. Cohen brings the heart of the matter out clearly: “if the bishops of the French Catholic Church had achieved the theocratic power of the ayatollahs and used it to prescribe what Foucault and his colleagues could teach at the College du France in Paris, I’m sure Foucault and all his admirers in Anglo-American academe would have gone ape and shouted ‘fascism.’ As it was, the victims of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy had brown skins and lived in a faraway country.” Far from being a progressive thinker, Foucault supported tyranny and the crushing of human rights – not in his own country and for himself, mind you, but for other people born elsewhere. More than that, he effectively brought the weight of his academic reputation to bear against those in the West who would criticise the Iranian regime and who would support Iranians who wanted something better.

Cohen shows how Foucault is far from an isolated example. There is no shortage of other instances of the same phenomenon, such as the academic we encounter who objects (in almost incomprehensible prose) to the fact that certain people in the West are criticising the practice of burning women to death. To be quite clear: the complaint is not that women are being burned to death, but that people are criticising the practice of burning them. After all, what right do westerners have to criticise another culture?

A major theme of the book, then, is the abandonment of universal values for a view of the world that understands people to be fundamentally different from one another on the basis of some favoured category (gender, race, culture, etc.). People are effectively put into silos, on this view, and told they cannot understand or criticise those who occupy other silos. Spend a little time with this idea and you’ll start to see it all over the place. Consider, for example, how England’s Guardian newspaper produced a fawning puff-piece about the local leader of the extremist Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. I can’t remember ever having seen a similar treatment of, say, Tommy Robinson in those pages: he’s a western right-wing extremist, and as such is to be subject to severe censure. More telling still, a few days later, the same Guardian published a considerably less flattering piece on Majid Nawaz, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir who has turned into a crusader for a liberal order. The Guardian has internalised the idea that the appropriate relation to culturally foreign ideas (even if they’re now on the streets on England) is to be one of understanding, not criticism, and this is now so deeply rooted that even a reformer of Pakistani heritage gets treated with hostility. (The phenomenon was remarked on at the time; see also this post by David Paxton on a related issue).

Angela Merkel gave another example when she responded to the US presidential election by saying that Germany was prepared to continue to work with the US, but only on the basis of the liberal values both countries had long held dear. Laudable, yes, though a colleague at work pointed out that she had made no such statement concerning president Erdogan in Turkey. For those who have not been paying attention, Erdogan has not merely run a campaign that was beyond the pale, but has recently used his office to do things like close down newspapers and lock up dissenters in their thousands.

But I digress. There is another idea that crops up repeatedly: relativists will tend not to think ideas through to their logical consequences – indeed, the doctrine makes this impossible in some circumstances – and so we encounter people who adopt doctrines in a merely partial fashion, unwilling really to commit to anything and failing to confront the full reality of what they are advocating. This brings about what I call mere criticism – that is, we end up with people who focus all their energy on being against something, often coming up with effective critiques of it, but never offering solutions, never being for anything. So, for example, Cohen points to the oft-repeated claim that the war against Saddam Hussein was ‘illegal:’ “logically, they should then have followed through and demanded that the Americans release Saddam Hussein from prison and restore him to the presidency that the invading forces had ‘illegally’ stolen from him. But, as the theorists of the Eighties and Nineties had anticipated, there wasn’t much call for logic in a post-modern world that welcomed self-righteous fury without positive commitments.”

Noam Chomsky (“the boy at the edge of the gang”) as he appears in the book provides an example of this phenomenon that gives it focus: he is seen to be very much against mass killing, so long as the blame can be pinned on America. If it’s America’s enemies who are to blame – well, let’s just say that chapter Six, together with Chapter 5, contains an utterly devastating, crushing attack on Chomsky, in particular on his moral authority. I can remember people gushing about him in Vancouver in the 90’s, talking about his upcoming talk as though it were the chance of a lifetime to stand in the shadow of one of the greatest intellectual lights of our time. I couldn’t make it; I now feel rather glad not to have been involved. Cohen’s criticism is a knock-out blow: I can no longer take Chomsky seriously as a moral authority, and I will feel forced in the future to question the judgment of those who do.

Chomsky’s one-sided anti-Americanism points to a reality about the regressive left that Cohen has brought out more clearly elsewhere (for example here): they tend often simply to be against the West, or against America, rather than for the universal values that the West (or America) ought to stand for, and sometimes fails to live up to. This notion of mere criticism is also worth keeping in mind as you watch current events, because it is the difference between the regressive left and the left that has integrity.

It is in relation to Iraq, however, that the bad ideas from academia really go mainstream, as the great mass of people opposed to the war fail to make important distinctions, and wind up effectively – and sometimes explicitly and actively – opposing democracy and supporting a brutal dictatorship for the people of Iraq. An ethical approach would have been to oppose the rash activity of Bush and his followers while supporting Iraqis who wanted democracy by all possible means. Instead, we read of occasions on which Westerners actually shouted down left-wing Iraqis who were trying to achieve for their own country the same rights we enjoy in our own. Being against Bush was more important than allowing any kind of help for democratic Iraqis. Thus the German government refused to allow its own officials who had experience in dealing with the legacy of the GDR and Third Reich in Germany to go to Iraq to advise on how to approach the same sort of issues there.

But perhaps the best example in the book of how postmodern thought such as that of Foucault had filtered down to the mainstream comes in the following exchange:

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, Feb. 2007)

I’ve always hated Blair, but there’s no disagreeing with him in this exchange. I’d like to hear if Humphrys made an apology to all those young Iranians who in 2009 proved willing to be imprisoned and tortured because they wanted “our idea of democracy.”

Cohen lands some decisive blows on other leftists I had previously admired (or at least not despised). I can’t pass up the chance to quote Cohen on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: Moore “brushed aside the millions forced into exile and the mass graves and torture chambers and decided instead to present life in one of the worst tyrannies of the late twentieth century as sweet… Presented with propaganda which might have come from the studios of the dictators of the Thirties, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and audiences in art house cinemas on every continent did not protest at the whitewash of totalitarianism, but rose to their feet and shouted themselves hoarse.”

(And I’d just like to say that I find it extremely pleasing to hear Jean Baudrillard described as “an overrated French theorist.”)

As I said at the start, What’s Left is currently enjoying good sales in Britain because of its relevance to current political events there. But the ideas it treats – bad ideas whose progress Cohen follows from relative obscurity among top academics and fringe movements to subsequent ubiquity in mass street protests and mainstream politics – have come in no small way to define the nature of our times. The book is thus relevant far beyond Britain. As a former humanities academic, I think it should be required reading for all students of postmodernism: it gives a look at what this intellectual movement actually means in practice, something we rarely hear about. There’s more insight into postmodernism in this easy-to-read book than in many pounds of incomprehensible academic prose.

Unfortunately, What’s Left is likely to be relevant for a long time to come, because all levels of our society have been marinated in these bad ideas to the extent that they’ve come to seem self-evident to many. They’re still being taught at every university; read the book and you’ll start to see them everywhere. And because they have the imprimatur of many of the supposed great minds of our times, those who speak against them can often seem like unintelligent cranks. Cohen’s book is a reminder of the importance of good theoretical thinking, and a reminder of the importance of speaking up against bad ideas like these.

A final thought, and one that goes beyond the book: perhaps the most fundamental idea in postmodernism is the denial that there is any reality beyond particular, limited perspectives. I can remember when I was a postmodernist (I was about 18), I would deny that there was any such thing as truth at all. One particularly worrying aspect of both the Brexit campaign in Britain and the US presidential campaign is that both campaigns could legitimately be described as “post-truth:” claims that were simply false were able to take on a life of their own, and the fact of having spoken falsely does not seem to have carried a penalty. Indeed, in the case of Trump, his falsehoods and self-contradictions were so numerous that reporters simply couldn’t keep up. It has not always been like this, and with the arrival of this post-truth reality, our politics have become genuinely postmodern. We can only hope that we can find a way out of this postmodern condition before we’re subject to the most devastating consequences.

What’s Left is a first-rate, readable book that will not only make you think hard about Iraq, but also provides an introduction to some of the defining ideas of our time. A must-read for anyone interested in politics or the deeper intellectual currents that drive things. Books this good are rare indeed.

(also, if you want an idea of what Cohen’s all about, try here or here)



Haffner and Hitler

I’ve had Sebastian Haffner on the brain lately, so I’m going to post something I wrote a little while ago on him…

The beginning of 2016 saw a significant passing: the Bavarian government lost control of the copyright to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This means that it is now legal to print a new edition of the work in Germany. A massive 2000-page scholarly edition has arrived, and it will include the 800 or so pages of the original text with ample commentary pointing out every factual error and self-contradiction. There has been some commentary suggesting that a way ought to be found to keep it illegal to produce new editions, but I don’t really see the point. Not only is the book freely available online, but it’s not like it’s a work of any real intellectual power – I have a hard time believing that anyone who’s read it has suddenly found himself converted to Nazism by the sheer force of the arguments.

I’ve never read Mein Kampf. From what I’ve heard, it’s long and terribly boring. My own contribution to this particular anniversary will be this post, on by far the best author I’ve encountered who has treated Hitler.

I have read a fair bit on the Third Reich. Many know far more than me, but I’ve read many thousands of pages. However, it’s not the heavy tomes by Shirer or Kershaw or Bullock that have contributed the most to my understanding of the subject, but rather what are probably the two shortest relevant books I’ve read, both by Sebastian Haffner. (admittedly, you probably have to go through a few of the 800-pagers to really get the most out of Haffner.)

The first of these books is Geschichte eines Deutschen, available in English under the cringe-worthy title, Defying Hitler. (It seems publishers will do anything to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a title.) The second is Anmerkungen zu Hitler (“Remarks on Hitler,” though sold in English as The Meaning of Hitler, a translation disliked by the author.) You should read both.

Since I’ve already done a couple posts touching on the former book, I’ll focus on the latter here. Part of the book’s genius is the writing itself. Short, simple sentences, no big words, no massive accretion of footnotes with a vast bibliography at the end, no vast accumulation of facts in the manner of the 800-page tomes that historians today typically produce. Haffner feels no need to impress us with this sort of thing; what does impress is his thought itself. Psychological insight, thoughts on the significance of the last eight months of the war, on Hitler’s decision to declare war on America, on the meaning of the Battle of the Bulge: there is a great deal to mull over in this book, and I think most of it is correct (Haffner does try to argue that Hitler would not have been remembered as a great man if he had died in 1939, which I don’t find so convincing: with genocide and war, the difference between talking and doing is an important one).

One central thesis of the book is altogether compelling. Winston Churchill, in his memoires of the Second World War, declared himself content to be judged on his results. Haffner applies this criterion to Hitler, and comes to the conclusion that Hitler was a total failure, one of the greatest failures in history.

People look to the fact that Hitler got control of so much of Europe, and feel that he must therefore have been some sort of genius – an evil genius, but a genius nonetheless. In fact, insofar as he did enjoy some kind of success, he did so where there was no substantial resistance to him, but he wasn’t really all that successful: virtually everywhere, he achieved virtually the opposite of what he aimed at.

One of his major aims was a war against Russia and Marxism; his actual accomplishment was to bring both into the heart of Europe, and even of Berlin. He tried to destroy Poland, and the Poles ended up with an awful lot of German land. He set out to destroy the Jews, and instead created conditions in which the creation of a Jewish state was all but inevitable (ohne Hitler kein Israel, he says: without Hitler, no Israel). He did not set out at the start to harm Great Britain, but his war had the effect of radically reducing that country’s place in the world. Certainly Hitler did succeed in killing large numbers of people, including his enemies, but he was interested in the fate of nations, not of particular individuals.

The Russian campaign was the most fateful, and here Haffner remarks that Hitler might have won if he’d come as a liberator. This is exactly right but there’s a fair bit to unpack. I’m going to go into it because it’s an excellent illustration of the importance of the moral aspect in international relations – and a recognition of the importance of this aspect may prove useful in the coming era. Hitler practised an extreme form of power politics that absolutely discounted the importance of morality, and ended up a particularly potent example of the power of the moral element to determine events.

The thing that has to be kept in mind with regard to Hitler’s attack on Russia was that Germany had beaten Russia in World War One, and had done so at the same time as fighting the major democratic powers to the west in another land campaign. In 1941 Russia’s military (and Russia more generally) was greatly weakened by Stalin’s recent purges, and Russians after two decades of Marxism had rather more reason to rebel against their government than they’d had in the days of the Tsar. How was it that Russia surrendered to Germany in 1917, but Hitler lost in the 40’s?

The answer lies in Hitler’s peculiar genius, which found a way to make defeat all but certain. By waging an unprovoked war of annihilation and enslavement, he gave the people of Russia a reason – even a need – to fight to the death, calling forth in them tremendous reserves of determination and hatred, and further, bestowing a legitimacy to Stalin’s government that it would never have achieved on its own. None of this was true in the First World War. In 1917, an end to the war against Germany, even though the terms might be highly disadvantageous to Russia, might have seemed an attractive option to many average Russians; from late 1941, it was not an option at all. If, on the other hand, Hitler’s attack on Russia had been preceded by a propaganda campaign about the iniquities of the Marxist system and the sufferings it had brought to the Russian people, and if Hitler had invaded making it clear in word and deed that he was a friend of the Russian people and an enemy only of its oppressors – well, in that case it’s difficult for me to see how he might have lost. But of course, if he’d taken that route, he would have been somebody else.

Thus it seems to me that the moral element was decisive on the eastern front in WWII. One of Hitler’s (numerous) failings as a thinker was his inability to see the significance of this element. If you push out to the extremes, they push back; in this case, by denying that justice had any power, Hitler made himself utterly subject to that power. He said that once the campaign had been won, nobody would worry about how it started; no remark could have been more blind. (Hitler was looking to Friedrich the Great, who made an unprovoked grab for Silesia, but he ignored the fact that Friedrich did not wage wars of annihilation against whole peoples, but rather campaigns against foreign monarchs. Anyway, it is instructive that even here the hatred aroused by an unprovoked attack never dissipated: Maria Theresa of Austria never forgave Friedrich and remained his implacable enemy for life.)

Above all, Hitler claimed to be acting on behalf of the German nation and people, and here the gulf between aim and achievement is extraordinary. Nobody in human history has ever done his own country so much harm. In a speech in the 20’s, he declared “it cannot be that two million Germans died in vain;” in his own war, seven million would. The cities and towns in the more western part of Germany were largely bombed to rubble, but they got off easily in comparison to East Prussia and Silesia, which simply ceased to exist.

The fate of these two territories is something of which there’s very little consciousness in the English-speaking world – in the histories I’ve read, it’s covered in a few sentences or (more often) not at all – so it’s worth going into a bit of detail at this point. Before the Second World War, Germany extended hundreds of kilometers to the East of its current border; Germans had been living there since the middle ages. After the war, the population was expelled. Before the war, nobody would even have imagined trying to dislodge the people of East Prussia and Silesia from their ancestral homes, and still less would anybody have been able to do so. Even if someone had somehow managed it, the idea that the people of those territories had a right to that land would have remained – and not only in Germany – making an attempt at taking them back all but inevitable (I think it was Foch who said of Versailles, “this isn’t a peace, it’s an armistice for twenty years”).

The unique genius of Hitler proved capable of overcoming all of these obstacles. Not only did he gradually get Germany into an unwinnable war, but he made sure it was waged with such brutality that he gave Germany’s enemies a terribly compelling reason to want to expel the eastern German population from their homes and force them to resettle as far as possible towards the west. That is, the further to the west the German population was, the safer Russians could feel in the future. And because Germany had by her actions aroused such hatred virtually everywhere in Europe, when the time came to redraw the map of Europe, not only did the Germans not have an advocate present, but nobody who was present was likely to have any sympathy for them.

I have a large book of photos from Silesia. A City Hall built in the 14th century, churches, houses, monuments, Breslau (then among the six largest cities in Germany) – a world that looks very much like the Germany I’ve visited myself. It’s hard to imagine the disbelief and horror with which people would have reacted to the news: all Germans were to leave, on pain of death. That couldn’t possibly be true, could it? But it was, and whole cities were driven onto the roads, bringing with them what they could, never to return. A world simply disappeared, and none of it could possibly have happened if not for Hitler. It was a condition of the acceptance of German reunification by the major foreign powers in 1990 that Germany would give up its claim to these territories, settling this Hitlerian achievement for good. (In Görlitz, a Silesian city that remains part of Germany, there’s a Silesian museum which is worth a visit; among the exhibits are house keys that people took with them.)

More than five hundred kilometers to the east of Berlin was Königsberg, the city where Immanual Kant lived (and never left); it’s now Kalingrad, inhabited by Russians (with short-range nuclear missiles that can reach Berlin).

In his youth, Hitler had admired the Teutonic knights, who over centuries pushed German territory east; he himself would undo their work almost literally overnight. He also admired Friedrich the Great, who had added the (then German-speaking) region of Silesia to Prussia. Thanks to Hitler, not only was Silesia detached from Prussia, but its population was expelled. Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, Romania – all had had significant German minorities for centuries, but Hitler taught all these countries that they’d be much safer without these minorities, so all those Germans were expelled. There had even been Germans living along the Volga in Russia; they were resettled to the far east of Russia. (I met one of the Volga-Deutschen in the US some years ago. He came from a town now in Kyrgistan, called Kant.)

But Hitler achieved even more than this, for he waged the most effective assault imaginable on the very idea of being German: after him, many would say they felt ashamed to be German. This continues even today, when some in Germany support the European project so that they can abandon their German identity for a European one. Hitler and his Nazis actually were what they declared the Jews to be: an utterly negative and essentially destructive force.

This idea of failure, which I’ve now supplemented with my own thoughts, is a central idea of the book, but it’s not the only one. If you want to understand Hitler and the Third Reich, you won’t do better than Sebastian Haffner.

Crying Wolf? Trump and Racism

I have long thought I might write something pointing out that while it is important to call out bigotry, it’s also important to call out false claims of bigotry. As of the election last week, this theme has become partly superfluous, as we’re now knee-deep in commentary saying that the left has gone too far and created a backlash. And strangely enough, I’ve just come across a piece that does an admirable job of calling out some false claims of bigotry, and yet I feel moved to answer it.


Is Donald Trump racist? Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex, thinks not: “there is no evidence that Donald Trump is more racist than any past Republican candidate (or any other 70 year old white guy, for that matter). All this stuff about how he’s ‘the candidate of the KKK’ and ‘the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement’ is made up. It’s a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump that could have convinced voters to abandon him. That it came to dominate the election cycle should be considered a horrifying indictment of our political discourse, in the same way that it would be a horrifying indictment of our political discourse if the entire Republican campaign had been based around the theory that Hillary Clinton was a secret Satanist. Yes, calling Romney a racist was crying wolf. But you are still crying wolf.”


It’s a well-argued piece, providing a much-needed dose of sober and critical thought on a subject that often tends towards hysteria. In general, I agree with the points made, but I think the thesis (just quoted) goes too far. That is, at the end of the day, I don’t see that we are still crying wolf, and the reason is this: what about the birther movement?


I think the word ‘racist’ is tossed around far too frequently these days, but I can’t see any other explanation for the birther movement. No president before Obama ever had to put up with the charge that he wasn’t born in America – what a coincidence that the first black president is also the first who has to refute this particular claim that he doesn’t have the right to be president! I’m sure it was just a coincidence, right?


Okay, actually I’m not at all sure. What I found significant (and particularly pernicious) about the whole birther thing is that it provided a means by which the notion that Obama was not a legitimate president could be aired in public and at length. In fact, given that I never heard any reason at all to doubt Obama’s place of birth, I’m inclined to think that the conclusion-tail was wagging the evidence-dog – that is, that people who started with the idea that Obama, the first black president, had no business at all being president, then came up with a line of thought that provided evidence for that view. People who were thinking “this guy has no business being president” could hardly just say that out loud.


I found the whole thing quite disturbing. No, more than that, I found it vile. As much as I think it’s far too easy to get called ‘racist’ these days, I do think the birther movement was racist, racist, racist.


Donald Trump kept the whole thing going longer than almost anyone. Maybe he was moved by a sincere concern regarding the president’s place of birth. Maybe he just wanted to be the guy who was able to force the president’s hand by making him produce the birth certificate. Certainly Trump did declare in September 2016 that Obama was born in America – though of course, at that point it was extremely politically expedient to say that. The fact is that whatever Trump’s motivations, he chose to spend time in the sewer of birtherism. An apology, an expression of regret, might have washed off some of the filth, but without having done even that, he can hardly complain if people think he stinks.


I certainly don’t agree with Obama on everything, and I do think there’s something to be said about the fact that eight years of Obama will end in a Trump presidency, but all that’s for another time. Watching Obama have to sit next to Trump in the White House last week made me ache. Of all the people in America to have to hand over power to, that man. No wonder Obama looked like he couldn’t believe this was happening. (Or perhaps he’d just realised how little Trump knows about his new job – it was reported that Trump didn’t even know that a new presidential administration hires so many people (several thousand), something I, who have never run for president, have known for about two decades.)


Scott Alexander does show that people have been rather over-eager and incautious in their attempts to attribute racial prejudice to Trump, and that accusations have been made that are not justified. But maybe there was a reason for all that.

More Haffner: Irrefutably Clear

In my last post, I wrote around a passage from Sebastian Haffner’s Geschichte eines Deutschen. The book is still on my mind, so I’m going to do the same tonight.

I’m in Europe. This means that tonight, election night in America, I will not be staying up to see the results as they come in. Instead, I will get up tomorrow, not long after midnight New York time, and find out what happened. I find myself thinking of Haffner’s description of the tense situation the night before World War One was declared, when he, as a child, was on vacation with his family in the country:

“Downstairs, in the hall, with its hunting trophies on the walls and a row of pewter jugs and bright earthenware plates ranged along a high shelf, I found my father and our host, the owner of the estate, seated in deep armchairs, solemnly and weightily discussing the situation. Of course I did not understand much of what they were saying and I can recall no details. But I have not forgotten how calm and consoling their voices sounded, my father’s higher tones against the deep bass of our host; how reassuring the sight of their leisurely manner was, the fragrant smoke of their cigars rising above them in slender columns; and how, the longer they talked, the clearer, the better and the more comforting everything became. Until, finally, it was irrefutably clear that war was quite impossible and, therefore, we would not let panic chase us back to town. Instead, as in all previous years, we would stay on to the end of the holidays….

When I was awakened next morning, packing was in full swing. At first, I did not understand what had happened. The word ‘mobilisation,’ which they had sought to explain a few days previously, conveyed nothing to me. Anyway there was little time to explain anything…”

I don’t think this is an election like any other. You could fill an encyclopedia with substantive objections to Trump, but for me, the worst are his statements concerning the use of nuclear weapons, which exhibit an ignorance of the (non-humanitarian) reasons they are never used, and point to a willingness to use them. For example, watch this.

So I don’t think the comparison to WWI is overblown. Since the Comey intervention I have been genuinely nervous. I have literally lost sleep. This is real, and it could happen. Thus I, too, seek comforting thoughts.

Friends remind me that Hillary has a far better ground game, and this is true. They remind me that it’s not entirely clear where Trump’s necessary voters will come from – he’ll win much of what Romney got in 2012, some people who don’t usually vote, and he’ll lose big-time among minorities. It now looks like Nevada and Florida should be blue, and that should surely do it.

And yet… This has felt wrong for a long time. Trump has been riding a wave (and anyway, read this or this).

So I go through everything again and again, until, finally, it is irrefutably clear that a Trump victory is quite impossible.

Hope I don’t wake to something quite different tomorrow.

Active Participation

In the past week, as the US presidential election drew near, perhaps bringing catastrophe with it, I found myself thinking again and again of Sebastian Haffner’s book, Geschichte eines Deutschen. (The title means “Story of a German,” but the English translation is sold under the unfortunate title Defying Hitler, there evidently being an imperative to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a book title: Jesus saves, but Hitler sells). The book is a memoire of Haffner’s life growing up in WWI and Weimar Berlin, and then in the early years of the Nazi regime. Together with Haffner’s study of Hitler, it is the best thing I have ever read on Hitler and the Third Reich.

I read Haffner’s memoire more than a decade ago, but a number of particularly vivid passages have long stuck in my mind. Among these is a scene in which Haffner’s father finds himself obliged to express his support for the new Nazi government. I’m going to quote it at length, because it seems to me to touch on something relevant to our own times.

My father himself had retired long ago. He had no official powers any more and he could have done nothing to harm the Nazis, even if he had wanted to. It seemed as though he was out of the line of fire. But one day he too received an official letter. It contained a detailed questionnaire. ‘Under Clause X of the Law for the Re-establishment of the Civil Service, you are required to answer the following questions truthfully and in full… Under Clause Y, refusal to answer will entail loss of pension…’

There were a lot of questions. My father had to state which political parties, organisations and associations he had ever belonged to in his life, he had to list his services to the nation, explain this and excuse that and finally sign a printed declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ In short, having served the state for forty-five years, he was required to humble himself again in order to continue to receive his well-earned pension.

My father stared silently at the questionnaire for a long time.

Next day I saw him seated at his desk, the form in front of him. He was staring past it.

‘Are you going to fill it in?’ I asked.

My father looked at the questionnaire, grimaced and said nothing for a long time. Then he asked, ‘Do you think I should?’


‘I wonder what you and your mother would live on?’ he said at last.

‘I really don’t know,’ he repeated after a while. ‘I don’t even know,’ and he tried to smile, ‘how you will be able to go to Paris to write your thesis.’

There was an uneasy silence. Then my father pushed the questionnaire aside, but he did not put it away.

It lay on his desk for several days. Then one afternoon as I entered the room I saw my father filling it in, slowly and laboriously, like a child writing a school essay. Half an hour later he went out himself and took it to the letter box before he could change his mind. He showed no outward change in his manner and spoke no more excitedly than usual, but it had none the less been too much for him. With people who are used to restraint in word and gesture, some part of the body is invariably affected by severe mental stress. Some have heart attacks in such cases. My father’s weakness was his stomach. He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body, which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.

Why, you ask, do I find myself thinking about this particular passage?

Item: a bakery run by Christians in Northern Ireland was taken to court for its refusal to produce a cake with the message, “Support Gay Marriage.” The court case recently came to an end, and the bakery lost: by refusing to make the cake, they committed a crime.

Item: a professor in Canada is being persecuted at present because of his objection to new pronouns (ze, zim, zer, and others) which are supposed to replace ‘he’ and ‘she.’ “I won’t mouth the words of ideologues,” he says, “because when you do that you become a puppet for their ideology.”

Needless to say, there has been an abundance of commentary on these two items, on either side, but I don’t think any of it has really gotten to the heart of the matter, and I think the Haffner passage I quoted does. In the case of both items, the demand is not that dissenters be required to tolerate others with different opinions, nor is it that they must refrain from criticising the dominant ideology. No, the demand is that people must be compelled to participate actively in support of an ideology they reject.

The question of whether we agree with each end in question is beside the point (me, I’d be happy to produce the gay-marriage-cake, but not to switch pronouns). The fact that these two items line up in the decisive respect with Haffner’s tale from the Third Reich is, I think, a window into a problem of our times. Progressive activists are not usually wicked people, and they act as they do out of a desire to bring about something good. Their myopic focus upon their own ends is to be expected of activists. What should concern us is rather the failure of society more generally to assert the right to dissent from what the majority believe. To the extent that we forget that right, we quickly find ourselves in some very poor company.

How Could It Happen?

Some years ago I was walking through Heidelberg in Germany, and noticed a book sitting in a store window. The title: Wie konnte es geschehen? That is, How Could It Happen? This was the question for the Germans, and it’s now the question for much of the West.

The immediate question is, how did we get to a point where something like Trump was possible? If he wins on Tuesday, the question will become academic: we will have moved from whatever mistakes brought this situation about to the consequences of those mistakes. If he doesn’t win, maybe there’s a chance to do something to correct this. I’m not optimistic – indeed, I’m utterly pessimistic – but I see the possible beginnings of that conversation out there already, and it’s worth trying to explore where it should go.

The problem, of course, is not only American. In France we have the FN, in Germany, AfD, in Holland, Geert Wilders’ party, and so on: unsavoury populist parties that reject much of the consensus that has reigned for a generation. America is more of a concern because it’s far more important than anywhere in Europe, but in the long term, I’m more inclined to worry about where Europe could go. (I’m not sure where to place the UK in all this, since it has enjoyed some success in defusing the problem – but that’s another post).

So where is it all coming from? There are plenty of proximate causes, but in the end I think it comes to this: the elites have failed us all by overreaching. The immediate problem may be coming from the masses and from the right, but I’m increasingly inclined to see that as a reaction. The most fundamental problem, the first mover in all of this, comes from above, from the intellectuals, the universities and the media – i.e., from the left. The problem is not that they aimed at something bad, but rather that they pushed too hard towards something good, pursuing it in a one-sided fashion. Further, the problem is systemic, a matter of a thousand paper cuts rather than some one big mistake that some one person made somewhere.

I do see the beginnings of the conversation that I think needs to happen (though again, this is not to say I’m optimistic that it will happen).

If there’s a problem on the left, it’s no surprise to find that the right gives a clear view of it. Accordingly, the (in)famous “Flight 93” piece points right to the heart of the matter: “the Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.”

That’s what I would trace things back to: the left, in its attempts to seek out and crush bigotry, has cast the net too wide, failing to keep in mind that not everyone caught up in the net belongs there.

When Andrew Sullivan, in an absolutely spot-on piece on the likely results of a Trump victory on Tuesday, mentions in passing that “the cultural left has overplayed its hand on social and racial issues,” I think he’s pointing in a similar direction. And this piece by Charles Cook notes that the left has a problem coming up with adequate language to describe Trump, having already used all the most damning words on much more moderate people.

Most significant of all is a video from Friday, in which Bill Maher, a left-wing comedian, says the following (from 0:40): “I know liberals made a big mistake, because we attacked your boy Bush like he was the end of the world, and he wasn’t. And Mitt Romney we attacked that way – I gave Obama a million dollars ‘cause I was so afraid of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney wouldn’t have changed my life that much, or yours. Or John McCain. They were honourable men who we disagreed with, and we should’ve kept it that way. So we cried wolf, and that was wrong. But this is real. This is gonna be way different.”

I’ve long thought Maher remarkable for his readiness to think – and express – thoughts that other popular media figures shy away from. It may be that his remarks are the last we hear from the left along these lines for some time: if the crisis passes, it will likely be business as usual again before long. But if we survive the vote for president, that will do nothing to address the problems that brought us here. The next Trump may be more intelligent, more calculating in his approach to minorities…

I think the present moment of crisis has shone a light on an important truth, and I’ve given a sketch here of where I might like to go with this. Though this is not going to be the only thing I write about (I hope), it will provide a thread of continuity, as I try to define things more clearly and provide examples.






It Begins (Again)

I don’t have time for this. Really I don’t. I tried a blog a few months ago and gave up for lack of time. But the reality is, I have too many thoughts – and anyway, I’ve observed that a blog doesn’t need to be updated every month: David Paxton, for example, has written some quite useful things, and he sometimes goes months without posting.

More than having thoughts, though, I have more and more of a feeling that ours is a time in need of thinking. It’s becoming clear that the world I grew up in is being shaken apart by a gradual move towards the extremes. If anything can be done about this, it will start with thinking. That will be a guiding theme.

The great English essayist Theodore Dalrymple occasionally quotes Pascal: “Let us work, then, to think well, for that is the principle of morality.” Let this be our motto.