Tuesday 24 March 2009

The difficult art of polemical persuasion

Nick Cohen's dismissive response to the 'olive branch' letter does not much impress Sunny Hundal, nor others who think that it is a strange response, given that the challenge was that his column now too often predictably misses the mark with its unguided missile polemical lambasting of the entire liberal-left, to recommend that we all read his new book, consisting mainly of said columns.

But let's be fair, Nick has a book to sell. (Buy it here!). So I am rather putting my faith in Tariq Modood getting a little bit more sense out of him at the Bristol festival of ideas. Despite Sunny's disapproval, I am trying to remain in bridge-building mode. But it takes two to tango.

That Cohen no longer seems interested in trying to engage in a way which might persuade reasonable critics is strange, by his own account of why he writes. Democratiya - a journal of hawkish and anti-fascist liberalism, to which Nick contributes regularly - contains a review from Paul Thompson of the new Nick Cohen book. Perhaps the most interesting thing is a quotation from Nick Cohen, in defence of polemic but setting out how to make a polemic work:

Admitting in the book that he is happier when being miserable and firing critical missives, the piece in which Cohen's personal ethos is most likely to be found is the final one – The Reasonableness of Ranters. Likening his outlook to that of Christopher Hitchens, he offers his own broad back for receiving lashes of hate and affirms the highest status in intellectual life for the polemicist.

Such a person 'Produces a respect for argument that those who dismiss all polemic as mere ranting fail to see. If you can feel a need to make an unpopular case, and there is no point in being a political writer if you cannot, you must use your talent to win over a sceptical audience. You must acknowledge doubts and counter-arguments, and above all, you must write clearly' (p. 371).

But Thompson thinks Nick Cohen has stopped trying to do this himself, offering a similar critique to our letter in more detail. (I had a similar response to Cohen's "What's Left?").

It is a pity that this book does not back up those wise words. The barbs of a polemic have to be sharp and accurate to sting. Too many of these pieces are ill-considered, illogical and repetitive rants that will convince only those already converted.

Where I agree with Thompson is that this used to be among Cohen's greatest strengths. Cohen may believes that he is still acknowledging doubts, counter-arguments and trying to engage with critical arguments seriously. Yet some of us who know that he has an important point against value-free relativism - if only he would direct it accurately, with evidence, against those who hold those views - end up challenging his increasingly strident belief that just about everybody except Nick Cohen has gone mad.

The letter could help him to identify several new potential allies, particularly among liberal Muslims. While Nick notices that a couple of journalists - Peter Oborne and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - signed the letter: he seems to be simply blanking out the liberal Muslims involved: he does not yet seem interested in the grassroots work they are doing. None of them have a history of violence or extremism. If there is less of a whiff of excitement about that, I don't think that should mean their views on challenging extremism should not count, alongside those who now repudiate their former extremism.

So I am left wondering whether Nick Cohen still agrees with himself about the art of polemical persuasion.

PS: But one can not fault his industry. Even while I have been writing this, Nick has added a footnote comparing his critics to Harold Shipman. ("Last Sunday I wrote about the willingness of doctors to go along with remarkably ugly standards in NHS hospitals. The comment editor has just warned me that a round robin from Lord Winston, David Tennant, Miriam Stoppard and Harold Shipman is on the way").

Personally, I think that is quite funny. But Nick is engaged in some nifty goalpost moving. He wants to claim I am challenging his attack on Jamaat-e-Islami. (On that I agree with him as, happily, do the voters of Bangladesh). He knows very well that my challenge was whether he might care to try to stand up his accusation that the entire liberal-left - and the Fabians and ippr in particular - have a policy of appeasing and condoning fascism.

Cohen thinks that was excitable and over-the-top. I think there are two possible reasons why one might agree with him about that.

1. Being accused of condoning and appeasing fascism is not a serious charge.

But I don't agree with that. That was why I asked Nick to make a serious attempt to defend his argument and to offer some evidence. (His main defence now seems to be that it was a hit-and-run smear, made near the end of his column!).

2. One is not meant to take seriously what Nick Cohen writes in newspapers.

Well, I disagree with that one too. But, if that was my mistake, I apologise.

1 comment:

Andrew Adams said...

Yes, he can't have it both ways - he can't claim that appeasing fascism is a terrible thing for people on the left to do and then complain when people on the left take offence when they are accused of doing such a thing.