Thursday 3 January 2008

Has the world gone mad, or is it me?

Over Christmas I read Andrew Anthony's The Fallout: how a guilty liberal lost his innocence. Anthony's book covers much the same ground as Nick Cohen's What's Left and like the latter is a searing indictment, with plenty of examples to prove the point, of the capitulation of some sections of the Left to various forms of political and religious totalitarianism. What it adds to Cohen's account is a deeper analysis of recent events such as 7/7, the Danish cartoon furore, and the persecution of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Needless to say, the Pilgers, Milnes and Buntings of this world do not emerge from these pages covered in glory.

The book's key strength is its grounding in the personal experiences of its author, whether as a husband fearing for his wife's safety in New York on 9/11, a father worried about his family living in an increasingly crime-dominated area of north London, or a long-time leftwing activist concerned about the direction taken by some of the causes he once passionately supported. But that personal dimension is also the book's weakness, for it makes it possible for critics to charge that it is the author, and not those on the Left he lambasts, who has changed. In fact, a number of the reviews of Anthony's book in the liberal press have been along these lines: dismissing it as the story of a middle-aged man's move to the right with age. It has to be said that the book's sub-title encourages this reading, as does the inclusion of a chapter on crime, which does indeed chart the author's change of heart on this issue in response to the drug-fuelled violence and burglaries in his locality. Like Cohen's book, Anthony's story oscillates between personal and political change and brings to mind that immortal line in Hawkwind's 'Master of the Universe': has the world gone mad, or is it me?

Of course, there is a necessary confessional element to Anthony's story, and it is honourable and honest of him to admit where he was mistaken or deluded in his youthful beliefs. I identified particularly with his description of the way a close-up encounter with the Sandinista revolution first alerted him to the totalitarian tendencies of even the most idealistic of far-left movements. Like Anthony, I was a firm supporter of the Sandinistas, though my involvement only extended to subscribing to the international solidarity campaign, whereas he actually went as far as joining a Nicaraguan labour brigade.

Looking back, it was probably the Sandinistas who provided me with my own initial 'Euston moment' - my first experience on the road to Euston, perhaps? As someone actively involved in the adult literacy movement at home, I was fascinated to hear about the new Nicaraguan regime's mass literacy campaign, inspired (as all of us were in those days) by the ideas of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. But when I actually had the chance to look at what went on in those revolutionary literacy classes, and at the teaching materials the Sandinista educators had developed, I was appalled. Rather than the Freirean dialogical 'starting from where people are', approach I had expected, I saw instead dogmatic statements praising the revolution being used as the basis of teaching, with little room for dialogue or questioning. However, over the years I've found little criticism of the Sandinistas on the Left, where they are still held up as an example of a revolution that (unlike all the others) didn't go wrong, and would have been fine and democratic if the Americans had just left them alone. So it was refreshing to read in Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism that he had entertained similar doubts, and - as Anthony's book reminds us - tried to publish them in Mother Jones but had his piece rejected by the editor - a certain Michael Moore (someone else who doesn't emerge well from Anthony's book).

As a footnote - and it's no reflection on the quality of the book - I was pretty annoyed by its sloppy editing and frequent grammatical and spelling errors - and this from Jonathan Cape, supposedly a 'quality' publisher. I won't go on - otherwise I too will open myself to accusations of sounding like an angry middle-aged man...

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