Such a waste of energy

Nick Cohen is getting careless. On the Guardian Web site, a recent Cohen column with the uncompromising headline “Face up to the truth” is now prefixed with the following health warning:

The comment piece below was wrong to say that the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was ‘delighted’ at the attack on the World Trade Centre, describing it as ‘a great work of art’. In fact, Stockhausen made a statement to the effect that he believed the devil was still an active force in the world and condemned the attack as ‘Lucifer’s greatest work of art’. Apologies.

And what are we to make of this?

In 1989, the number of sexual offences recorded by the police shot up. … The Home Office’s statisticians took a hard look at their data, and noticed a peculiar increase of 500 in the number of arrests for indecency. Odder still, 350 of the arrests had been made in Slough or, more specifically, in the public conveniences in Slough town centre.In 1988, there had been just six. Within a year, Slough had become the San Francisco of the south, the Sodom of suburbia. The Home Office dug deeper. Its researchers found that one of the local police commanders had firm views on the homosexual question and had ordered handsome PCs to go to the lavatories and arrest any man who tried to seduce them. The purge of Slough’s lavatories sent recorded indecency offences in Britain back towards the highs of the 1950s, when homosexuality was illegal. Until, that is, the policy changed and Thames Valley Police pulled its men out of the cottages.

Slough’s gays carried on cruising, but their assignations were no longer recorded. The crime figures depended on what the police were looking for and what the police counted.

The broader point, in this case, is reasonable – the last sentence is an essential caveat for anyone dealing with crime statistics – but the way Cohen gets there is distinctly questionable.

Here are the figures (from the Home Office Web site):


Well, yes, there was a spike in 1989, and the figure recorded had only been surpassed in 1954 and 1955. Beyond that, though, Cohen’s account of these figures is alarmingly slipshod. First, a minor but significant point: the figures didn’t go up by 500 between 1988 and 1989, but by over 700. This in itself suggests that Cohen’s story is a little too neat: if Slough’s extra 344 arrests had been added to the 1988 total, the result would have been a spike of 1,650, well above the levels of the mid-eighties but below the levels recorded in 1974, 1975 and 1978. (All together now: The British police are the best in the world…). Second, the law. Cohen’s reference to “the 1950s, when homosexuality was illegal” sounds plausible, but in fact it’s irrelevant twice over. On one hand, the Wolfenden reforms weren’t introduced until 1967; (male) homosexuality was just as illegal in 1965 (when arrests were in the low 800s) as it was in 1955 (2,322) – or, for that matter, in 1949 (852). On the other hand, these arrests were for ‘gross indecency’, an offence which stayed on the statute book until 2003. The police devoted considerable resources to ‘gross indecency’ during the ‘Great Purge’ of the mid-1950s, then gave it a lower priority in the run-up to Wolfenden. However, there was another period of high arrest rates in the mid-1970s, followed by another trough in the early 1980s. Against this background, the 1989 spike looks less like an aberration caused by an individual police force, and more like an abortive third peak. (Before 1989, it’s worth noting, arrest numbers had risen for three years in succession.) In other words, it looks as if the situation developing in 1986-9 parallelled 1950-3 and 1970-3 – the difference being that the Home Office reined in police forces (not only in Slough) earlier and more sharply than it had done on previous occasions. Taking the 1989 spike out of context, then blaming it on one off-message senior police officer, is hardly a shining example of intellectual honesty.

Intellectual honesty, however, is Nick Cohen’s stock in trade; we have it from the man himself. Cohen made a brief appearance on a Crooked Timber comment thread recently. Both the tone and the content of his intervention are interesting, so I’ll quote it in full:

Look, I’ve learned after the last few years not to appeal to basic principle or to imagine that those who say they’re leftists are within one thousand miles of the left. But after being sent to this thread by Harry I’m genuinely curious: didn’t you people take my reference to the best and the brightest to refer to the democrats, liberals, women—and, yes, for there are still a few—socialists who are being slaughtered in the Middle East?
Can one person here name one genuine secular democratic party in Iraq—or Iran, or Syria or Palestine—they support and which acknowledges their support?
If your answer is no, and you fully understand why it is no, you may at least, after all this time, be experiencing the novel thrill of intellectual honesty.

The argument is stark and simple, not to say simplistic. I am True Left, you are False Left. I am intellectually honest, you are congenital liars.

Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this line of argument is its insulation against any possible rebuttal. It doesn’t greatly matter what Cohen’s opponents say in reply, because he already knows they’re liars. This, of course, is an appallingly dangerous train of thought, reminiscent of the mentality of commissars and heresy-hunters through the ages: if those who oppose you are also liars, you won’t accept new information unless it supports your existing position. We’re back with Caliph Omar, who (apocryphally) ordered the burning of the Library of Alexandria on the grounds that it contained works which conflicted with the teachings of the Qur’an; on being told that some of the works in the library were in conformance with the Qur’an, the Caliph replied that they could be burned as well, as they were clearly surplus to requirements.

Ironically, Cohen appears to be well aware of the shortcomings of his current position, although he associates it with his opponents:

The least attractive characteristic of the middle-class left – one shared with the Thatcherites – is its refusal to accept that its opponents are sincere. The legacy of Marx and Freud allows it to dismiss criticisms as masks which hide corruption, class interests, racism, sexism – any motive can be implied except fundamental differences of principle.

I think Cohen’s describing a real problem here, but I don’t know what Marx is doing in there (let alone Freud). I blame the rationalism which goes along with a certain kind of commitment to bodies of ideas. (As the anarchists used to say, ‘theory’ is when you have ideas, ‘ideology’ is when ideas have you.) The logic goes like this. You know that you’re a reasonable and well-intentioned person, in possession of the facts; and that you’re on the Left; and that you believe in policies X, Y and Z. I tell you that I don’t believe in X, Y and Z – perhaps even that I oppose those policies – but that I am also a reasonable, well-intentioned and well-informed Leftist. But your beliefs are underpinned by a rational assessment of the facts and a freely-chosen commitment to Leftist principles. My beliefs are therefore wrong. I am clearly mistaken in thinking of myself as a Leftist; if I persist in maintaining that I am, I should be resisted and denounced. Cue Caliph Omar: if I am trustworthy, I will agree with what you already believe; if I disagree with you, I am untrustworthy and can be ignored.

I agree with Cohen that this mentality is distressingly common on the Left: I’ve criticised Chomsky along these lines before now. What Cohen seems not to have registered is that the Leftists he prefers are not immune: witness Geras’ recent tirade against people who have recently written articles which he interprets as erring on the side of apologia for terrorism (or, as Geras puts it, against apologists). Nor, sadly, is Cohen himself.

Postscript: here’s Cohen, back in February :

Over the past year, I’ve been astonished and delighted by the quality of British political blogs. What’s happened reminds me of the punk explosion when I was a teenager. People are ignoring the established system and beating it at its own game. Obvioulsy, there’s a great deal of dross, but what is heartening is how much original and intelligent journalism is coming from people entirely outside the media class, whose only chance of talking to the world would once have been confined to a few paragraphs on a letters’ page or a few minutes on a radio phone-in.As I’m on the left I started out with Harry’s Place, Normblog and Socialism in an Age of Waiting. But as my confidence has grown I find myself zooming all over the net and listening to people I would have crossed the street to avoid in the past. I’ve also realised with a feeling close to despair that if I write a lot of nonsense, it will be exposed and dissected.

We try, Nick. We try.

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