Nick Cohen is undoubtedly one of Britain’s finest living polemicists, and Waiting for the Etonians will be a genuine treat for readers who have come to rely on his rigorous thinking, stylish phrase-making and carefully controlled rage. The book’s subtitle, Dispatches from the Sickbed of Liberal England, reflects his despair in the current state of left-wing (or “left-ish”) thinking in Britain, which he sees as almost irrevocably compromised by post-modernism, cultural relativism and the focus-group politics of New Labour. The book collects some of Cohen’s published essays from the last five or six years, covering topics from foreign policy, alternative medicine, human rights, celebrity chefs, class hatred, intellectual freedom and fox-hunting.
One of Cohen’s great strengths, especially in this book, is the connections he draws between apparently disparate ideas. When discussing the provision of homeopathic medicine on the National Health Service, Cohen notes that defenders of the practice often cite the “placebo effect”: that even if the treatments aren’t medically effective, many patients with minor ailments feel genuinely better believing they have been treated. He then demolishes it by pointing out that this is the same argument which Roman aristocrats advanced for hypocritical religious belief: of course the gods didn’t exist, but the women and the plebs believed in them, which meant religion was useful for keeping the lower orders quiet. He then brings the argument up to date with Ophelia Benson’s description of the ‘Tinkerbell effect’, “the notion that unsupportable ideas will stay in the air as long as the childlike believe in them.” By the end of this page, the reader may be in doubt as to whether belief in homeopathic medicine or belief in the placebo effect is more “unsupportable”. These are a stylish couple of jabs, but more importantly, Cohen picks a fair fight. In attacking alternative medicine he doesn’t ask the audience to laugh at it because it is ridiculous, or spurn it because it makes charlatans rich, he asks them to reject it because it is untrue and intellectually dishonest.
The same rigour is evident in his argument on celebrity chefs. During a piece on the Gay Hussar restaurant, Cohen points out that the “reality” television shows, in which a famous chef shouts abuse at everyone, have their roots in the rather more genuine “reality” of workplace dynamics. “At least in a school, factory or office, there are places to hide. The kitchen, by contrast, is a perfect environment for the sadist because there is nowhere to run until a temper tantrum passes.” In his analysis, the “giggling approval” which TV audiences give to “culinary tyrants” isn’t wrong because it is vulgar or frivolous, but because these shows take the exploitation of economically vulnerable people and use it to develop an entertainment format. If this all sounds a little dour, it’s because an explanation of Cohen’s arguments can’t convey the witty fury of his style.
There are occasional flaws in the book, the kind which inevitably appear in a collection of essays written over a number of years in different publications. For example, there’s a feeling at times, particularly in the pieces on foreign policy, that the same point is being tackled from a different angle. (Though Cohen could quite justifiably retort that if being intellectually consistent is a flaw, then Britain could do with a lot more seriously flawed journalists at the moment.) There’s another glitch when he calls Location, Location, Location “property porn” in one essay and Shameless “poverty porn” in another. “Porn” is already becoming a compromised term – Saw is “torture porn”, those M&S adverts are “food porn” – and is in danger of losing any meaning whatsoever. In fact Cohen has used it cleverly and thoughtfully in the past, stating in What is Left? that he had avoided listing the atrocities of the Baathist regime in Iraq because “the pornography of violence” was a way of morally blackmailing the reader. When these pieces were scattered across various papers the readers could get the gist of what he meant, but when they can be put next to each other thee phrases betray him into an appearance of sloppy thinking. Similarly, beginning an essay with reference to the sadistic sexual tastes of a merchant banker is a good hook for a newspaper column, but it loses traction in a collection. Though Cohen could defend including the anecdote as a demonstration that belonging to a moneyed class encourages people to dehumanise others, that’s not the argument he makes in this piece, and the technique risks coming off as flashy, an attempt to discredit nasty people instead of nasty ideas.
However, these minor glitches aside, Waiting for the Etonians is a superb and invigorating book. Cohen has been called a pillar of the “muscular Left”, and this collection provokes a response on that level – reading it is a physical experience. So much so that some essays are best read in private, at least for those who prefer to grunt, snort and cackle unobserved. Many of those cackles will be prompted by the index, which is constructed with deadly care. Like the marginalia in a seventeenth-century Bible, these abstracts and page numbers tell their own stories, for example:
awards sub-prime executive £23m package 296
refuses cleaners £6.50 an hour 296
loses $10.6 billion in sub-prime debt 298
then another $3.4 billion 298”
asks public to sympathise with upper-middle class 8
not as mad as she seems 8-9”
The book’s title is a fair enough description of how many in Britain feel about the next election. The probable triumph of David Cameron and his modernising Conservative leadership, whose tactics appear to be largely modelled on the playbook which brought New Labour to power, has produced a sense of ideological stalemate and hopelessness which the recent financial crises and “expenses scandal” have only deepened. Aside from being a welcome and cogent analysis of the last five years, Waiting for the Etonians could serve a useful purpose in reminding liberals that there is no shame in being the opposition. And it might just remind them of why it’s worth being left-wing in the first place.
This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, July 2009