Nick Cohen's well written book is not quite an Encyclopedia of all things Left, but it's close. Where else can you read about Ernst Bevin and Jacques Derrida, Celebrity Big Brother and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the bloody history of the Baath party?
It's hard to argue with Cohen's main thesis: There are many in the Left for whom the loathing of everything western, particularly everything American, erases any sense of moral perspective. Thus the Liberals and the Lefts support the worst kind of anti-Westerners: racists, fascists, terrorists - anything goes as long as you're against America.
As an Israeli, I'm most attuned the anti-Semitic instances (but there are many others): As I'm writing this, the British Union of Colleges and Universities has cast another academic boycott of Israel. That decision is patently anti-Semitic: It singles out Israel from other nations. Alan Dershowitz is fond of quoting an exchange with Harvard's racist president in the 1920s, A. Lawrence Lowell:
Lowell decided that the number of Jews admitted to Harvard should be reduced because "Jews cheat." When a distinguished alumnus, Judge Learned Hand, pointed out that Protestants also cheat, Lowell responded, "You're changing the subject; we're talking about Jews."
Supporters of the Boycott of Israel will happily tell you all about the horrors of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, (while ignoring or excusing Palestinian terrorism), but they won't tell you what kind of criteria exists for boycotting Israel rather then the US, Russia, China or Sudan. That this sort of blatant racism is now heralded by Leftists and Liberals is symptomatic of a wider spread malady - the Left's crisis of faith.
Nick Cohen tracks the roots of the Left's crisis to many sources: I think he's right that the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Socialism as a viable option had much to do with it. I'm less certain that Deconstruction and the Nazi-Soviet pact are really direct causes. But whatever it's causes are, the left today knows what it is against: America, the West and Israel, but is far less certain about what it is for - which allows it support the Ayatollah Regime in Iran, murderous Baathists in Iraq, Castro's dictatorship in Cuba and Kaddafi's in Libya: in short, everyone who is against the West.
Nick Cohen rightly lashes against these trends. But even as he takes us back to 19th century Russia or to the wildest domains of French pseudo-intellectualism, the central point is always Iraq.
Cohen supported the Iraq war. Maybe he supports it still. He does not like the Bush administration and its lies and deceits. He acknowledges that there was a good case against the war; but the enthusiasm of the European crowd, their march against Bush became almost a celebration of Saddam's rule. In Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, pictures of pre-invasion Iraq are always idealic: the ethnic cleansing, the prison abuses, the rapes, the one-party-rule and Saddam's personality cult go entirely unmentioned. That the left could be against the war is understandable. That they could be so oblivious to Saddam Hussein is troubling.
The Iraq War raises the question of Cohen's affinity to an earlier generation of disillusioned Lefties: The Neo-Conservatives. Although the Neo-Conservative alliance is a complex one, at its heart were a group of Lefties who revolted against the moral relativism of the extreme Left in much the same way Cohen does. They remained committed to Liberal causes such as human rights and the welfare state, but rejected the Left's descent into relativism, anarchism and moral blindness. (See George Packer's The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq for an intellectual group biography).
It is easy to identify with the Neo-Cons critique and with Cohen's rage. But when Neo-Conservatives came to power, thirty years after their parting of the ways from the Leftist establishment, a terrible thing happened: The Iraq War. The bankruptcy of the Neo-Cons would be the Death of the Cohenesque Left (dare we call it Eustonian Left after the famous Euston manifesto?)
There are, currently, three major schools of thoughts about how the West should treat "The Rest", and particularly the Middle East. According to the Chomskyan approach which Cohen targets, the West is responsible for everything bad that happens anywhere in the world. The root of Terrorism is in the justified grievances of Palestinians, Saudis, Afghanis, etc, etc. Once these grievances would be assuaged, the problems in the Middle East: The Dictatorships, the Terrorist regimes, the extreme fundamentalists would go away. This is what Cohen goes out against: It is the main target of his books.
The second approach is realism: the view that the Middle East is dangerous and unstable and the West should seek to stabilize it by negotiating with the dictators in it, supporting client states such as Saudi Arabia against internal and external enemies. This is a gloomy view, and unlikely to appeal to Leftists. It calls, explicitly and unshamefully, for the maintenance of the Status Quo, the anathema of anything progressives.
The alternative offered by the Neo Conservatives was muscular democracy: No longer shall the West sit quite while genocide and oppression takes place within other countries. "No man is an island" said Donne, and the absence of Freedom for Iraqis is a problem for Westerners as well, who should help - militarily if necessary - in the over through of Dictatorships. This is a grand vision, suitable for the Left. It has also led to the greatest foreign policy failure in living memory.
This is not the place for a post mortem of the Iraq War. But clearly, its failure has discredited the Neo-Cons, and thus also the prospects of Eustonian Leftists to reverse the Left's trend towards nihilism and Chomskyan accomodationism. Unless the Neo-Conservative project can be resuscitated - and I see scant hope of that happening anytime soon - or unless some previously unthought-of of policy would emerge, Leftists stand to chose between Noam Chomsky and Henry Kissinger. And for most Leftists, that is not a hard choice.