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Saps distingir la dreta de l'esquerra?
21 gen 2007
In the early Seventies, my mother searched the supermarkets for politically reputable citrus fruit. She couldn't buy Seville oranges without indirectly subsidising General Francisco Franco, Spain's fascist dictator. Algarve oranges were no good either, because the slightly less gruesome but equally right-wing dictatorship of Antonio Salazar ruled Portugal. She boycotted the piles of Outspan from South Africa as a protest against apartheid, and although neither America nor Israel was a dictatorship, she wouldn't have Florida or Jaffa oranges in the house because she had no time for then President Richard Nixon or the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
My sisters and I did not know it, but when Franco fell ill in 1975, we were in a race to the death. Either he died of Parkinson's disease or we died of scurvy. Luckily for us and the peoples of Spain, the dictator went first, although he took an unconscionably long time about it.
Thirty years later, I picked up my mother from my sister Natalie's house. Her children were watching a Disney film; The Jungle Book, I think.

'It's funny, Mum,' I said as we drove home, 'but I don't remember seeing any Disney when I was their age.'

'You've only just noticed? We didn't let you watch rubbish from Hollywood corporations.'

'Ah.'

'We didn't buy you the Beano either.'

'For God's sake, Mum, what on earth was wrong with the Beano?'

'It was printed by DC Thomson, a non-union firm.'

'Right,' I said.

I was about to mock her but remembered that I had not allowed my son to watch television, even though he was nearly three at the time. I will let him read Beano when he is older - I spoil him, I know - but if its cartoonists were to down their crayons and demand fraternal support, I would probably make him join the picket line.

I come from a land where you can sell out by buying a comic. I come from the left.

I'm not complaining, I had a very happy childhood. Conservatives would call my parents 'politically correct', but there was nothing sour or pinched about our home, and there is a lot to be said for growing up in a household in which everyday decisions about what to buy and what to reject have a moral quality.

At the time, I thought it was normal and assumed that all civilised people lived the same way. I still remember the sense of dislocation I felt at 13 when my English teacher told me he voted Conservative. As his announcement coincided with the shock of puberty, I was unlikely to forget it. I must have understood at some level that real Conservatives lived in Britain - there was a Conservative government at the time, so logic dictated that there had to be Conservative voters. But it was incredible to learn that my teacher was one of them, when he gave every appearance of being a thoughtful and kind man. To be good you had to be on the left.

Looking back, I can see that I got that comforting belief from my parents, but it was reinforced by the experience of living through the Thatcher administration, which appeared to reaffirm the left's monopoly of goodness. The embrace first of monetarism and then of the European exchange-rate mechanism produced two recessions, which Conservatives viewed with apparent composure because the lives wrecked by mass unemployment and business failure had the beneficial side-effect of destroying trade-union power. Even when the left of the Eighties was clearly in the wrong - as it was over unilateral nuclear disarmament - it was still good. It may have been dunderheaded to believe that dictators would abandon their weapons systems if Britain abandoned hers, but it wasn't wicked.

Yet for all the loathing of Conservatives I felt, I didn't have to look at modern history to know that it was a fallacy to believe in the superior virtue of the left: my family told me that. My parents joined the Communist Party, but left it in their twenties. My father encouraged me to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's exposés of the Soviet Union and argue about them at the dinner table. He knew how bad the left could get, but this knowledge did not stop him from remaining very left-wing. He would never have entertained the notion that communism was as bad as fascism. In this, he was typical. Anti-communism was never accepted as the moral equivalent of anti-fascism, not only by my parents but also by the overwhelming majority of liberal-minded people. The left was still morally superior. Even when millions were murdered and tens of millions were enslaved and humiliated, the 'root cause' of crimes beyond the human imagination was the perversion of noble socialist ideals.

Every now and again, someone asks why the double standard persists to this day. The philosophical answer is that communism did not feel as bad as fascism because in theory, if not in practice, communism was an ideology that offered universal emancipation, while only a German could benefit from Hitler's Nazism and only an Italian could prosper under Mussolini's fascism. I'm more impressed by the matter-of-fact consideration that fascist forces took over or menaced Western countries in the Thirties and Forties, and although there was a communist menace in the Cold War, the Cold War never turned hot and Western Europe and North America never experienced the totalitarianism of the left.

There were many moments in the Thirties when fascists and communists co-operated - the German communists concentrated on attacking the Weimar Republic's democrats and gave Hitler a free run, and Stalin's Soviet Union astonished the world by signing a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. But after Hitler broke the terms of the alliance in the most spectacular fashion by invading the Soviet Union in 1941, you could rely on nearly all of the left - from nice liberals through to the most compromised Marxists - to oppose the tyrannies of the far right. Consistent anti-fascism added enormously to the left's prestige in the second half of the 20th century. A halo of moral superiority hovered over it because if there was a campaign against racism, religious fanaticism or neo-Nazism, the odds were that its leaders would be men and women of the left. For all the atrocities and follies committed in its name, the left possessed this virtue: it would stand firm against fascism. After the Iraq war, I don't believe that a fair-minded outsider could say it does that any more.

The long road to Baghdad

Iraqis have popped up throughout my life - indeed, they were popping up before I was born. My parents had Iraqi communist friends when they were students who came along to their wedding in the late Fifties. God knows where they are now. My mother certainly doesn't. Saddam's Baath party slaughtered the Iraqi left; and in all likelihood the Baathists murdered her friends years ago and dumped their bodies in unmarked graves.

I grew up in the peace and quiet of suburban Manchester, started out in newspapers in Birmingham and left for Fleet Street in 1987 to try my luck as a freelance. I wangled myself a desk next to a quiet and handsome young Iranian called Farzad Bazoft in the old Observer newsroom, round the corner from St Paul's Cathedral. In 1989, he went to Iraq, where extraordinary reports were coming out about Saddam Hussein imitating Adolf Hitler by exterminating tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds with poison gas. Farzad was a freelance like me, and perhaps he was looking for a scoop to make his name and land himself a staff job. More probably, he was just behaving like a proper reporter. He had heard about a sensational story of gigantic explosions at secret rocket bases and wanted to nail it down, regardless of the risk or reward. The secret police caught him, and after taking him to a torture chamber, they murdered him, as they had murdered so many before.

It is hard to believe now, but Conservative MPs and the Foreign Office apologised for Saddam in those days. Tories excused Farzad's execution with the straight lie that he was an Iranian spy - and one reptilian Thatcherite declared that he 'deserved to be hanged'.

By contrast, Saddam Hussein appalled the liberal left. At leftish meetings in the late Eighties, I heard that Iraq encapsulated all the loathsome hypocrisy of the supposedly 'democratic' West. Here was a blighted land ruled by a terrible regime that followed the example of the European dictatorships of the Thirties. And what did the supposed champions of democracy and human rights in Western governments do? Supported Saddam, that's what they did; sold him arms and covered up his crimes. Fiery socialist MPs denounced Baathism, while playwrights and poets stained the pages of the liberal press with their tears for his victims. Many quoted the words of a brave Iraqi exile called Kanan Makiya. He became a hero of the left because he broke through the previously impenetrable secrecy that covered totalitarian Iraq and described in awful detail how an entire population was compelled to inform on their family and friends or face the consequences. All decent people who wanted to convict the West of subscribing to murderous double standards could justifi ably use his work as evidence for the prosecution.

The apparently sincere commitment to help Iraqis vanished the moment Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and became America's enemy. At the time, I didn't think about where the left was going. I could denounce the hypocrisy of a West which made excuses for Saddam one minute and called him a 'new Hitler' the next, but I didn't dwell on the equal and opposite hypocrisy of a left which called Saddam a 'new Hitler' one minute and excused him the next. All liberals and leftists remained good people in my mind. Asking hard questions about any of them risked giving aid and comfort to the Conservative enemy and disturbing my own certainties. I would have gone on anti-war demonstrations when the fighting began in 1991, but the sight of Arabs walking around London with badges saying 'Free Kuwait' stopped me. When they asked why it was right to allow Saddam to keep Kuwaitis as his subjects, a part of me conceded that they had a point.

I didn't do much with that thought, but carried on through the Nineties holding the standard left-wing beliefs of the day. By the time New Labour was preparing for power, I was a columnist on The Observer, and my writing was driven by disgust at the near-uniform good press Tony Blair got in his early years. I felt the adulation was unmerited and faintly sinister, and became one of the few journalists to bang on about the dark side of the shiny, happy people who had moved into Downing Street. My pet topic was the treatment of asylum seekers. I was infuriated by the sight of New Labour pretending Britain welcomed the victims of persecution, while all the time quietly rigging the system to stop genuine refugees reaching Britain. Once again, I ran into Saddam Hussein. I had to. It was inevitable, because among the asylum seekers fleeing genuine persecution were countless Iraqis whom the Baathists had driven to pack their bags and run for their lives.

I got to know members of the Iraqi opposition in London, particularly Iraqi Kurds, whose compatriots were the targets of one of the last genocides of the 20th century. They were democratic socialists whose liberal mindedness extended to opposing the death penalty, even for Saddam Hussein. Obviously, they didn't represent the majority of Iraqi opinion. Equally obviously, they shared the same beliefs as the overwhelming majority of the rich world's liberals and leftists, and deserved our support as they struggled against fascism. Not the authoritarianism of a tinpot dictator, but real fascism: a messianic one-party state; a Great Leader, whose statue was in every town centre and picture on every news bulletin; armies that swept out in unprovoked wars of foreign aggrandisement; and secret policemen who organised the gassing of 'impure' races. The Iraqi leftists were our 'comrades', to use a word that was by then so out of fashion it was archaic.

When the second war against Saddam Hussein came in 2003, they told me there was no other way to remove him. Kanan Makiya was on their side. He was saying the same things about the crimes against humanity of the Baath party he had said 20 years before, but although his arguments had barely changed, the political world around him was unrecognisable. American neoconservatives were his champions now, while the left that had once cheered him denounced him as a traitor.

Everyone I respected in public life was wildly anti-war, and I was struck by how their concern about Iraq didn't extend to the common courtesy of talking to Iraqis. They seemed to have airbrushed from their memories all they had once known about Iraq and every principle of mutual respect they had once upheld.

I supposed their furious indifference was reasonable. They had many good arguments that I would have agreed with in other circumstances. I assumed that once the war was over they would back Iraqis trying to build a democracy, while continuing to pursue Bush and Blair to their graves for what they had done. I waited for a majority of the liberal left to off er qualified support for a new Iraq, and I kept on waiting, because it never happened - not just in Britain, but also in the United States, in Europe, in India, in South America, in South Africa ... in every part of the world where there was a recognisable liberal left. They didn't think again when thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered by 'insurgents' from the Baath party, which wanted to re-establish the dictatorship, and from al-Qaeda, which wanted a godly global empire to repress the rights of democrats, the independent-minded, women and homosexuals. They didn't think again when Iraqis defi ed the death threats and went to vote on new constitutions and governments. Eventually, I grew tired of waiting for a change that was never going to come and resolved to find out what had happened to a left whose benevolence I had taken for granted.

All right, you might say, but the reaction to the second Iraq war is not a good enough reason to write a book. The US and British governments sold the invasion to their publics with a false bill of goods and its aftermath was a bloody catastrophe. It was utopian to hope that leftists and liberals could oppose George W Bush while his troops poured into Iraq - and killed their fair share of civilians - while at the same time standing up for the freedoms of others. There was too much emotional energy invested in opposing the war, too much justifiable horror at the chaos and too much justifiable anger that the talk of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be nonsense. The politically committed are like football fans. They support their side come what may and refuse to see any good in the opposing team. The liberal left bitterly opposed war, and their indifference afterwards was a natural consequence of the fury directed at Bush.

It is a fair argument, which I've heard many times, although I wince at the implied passivity. People don't just react to a crisis: they choose how they react. If a man walks down the street trying to pick a fight, you can judge those he confronts by how they respond. Do they hit back, run away or try to calm him down? The confrontation is not of their making, but they still have a choice, and what choice they make reveals their character and beliefs. If you insist on treating the reaction to the second Iraq war as a one-off that doesn't reveal a deeper sickness, I'll change the subject.

Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam which stands for everything the liberal left is against come from the liberal left? Why will students hear a leftish postmodern theorist defend the exploitation of women in traditional cultures but not a crusty conservative don? After the American and British wars in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansers, why were men and women of the left denying the existence of Serb concentration camps? As important, why did a European Union that daily announces its commitment to the liberal principles of human rights and international law do nothing as crimes against humanity took place just over its borders? Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal left, but not China, Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Congo or North Korea? Why, even in the case of Palestine, can't those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see? After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a superior literary journal as in a neo-Nazi hate sheet? And why after the 7/7 attacks on London did leftish rather than right-wing newspapers run pieces excusing suicide bombers who were inspired by a psychopathic theology from the ultra-right?

In short, why is the world upside down? In the past conservatives made excuses for fascism because they mistakenly saw it as a continuation of their democratic rightwing ideas. Now, overwhelmingly and every where, liberals and leftists are far more likely than conservatives to excuse fascistic governments and movements, with the exception of their native far-right parties. As long as local racists are white, they have no difficulty in opposing them in a manner that would have been recognisable to the traditional left. But give them a foreign far-right movement that is anti-Western and they treat it as at best a distraction and at worst an ally.

A part of the answer is that it isn't at all clear what it means to be on the left at the moment. I doubt if anyone can tell you what a society significantly more left wing than ours would look like and how its economy and government would work (let alone whether a majority of their fellow citizens would want to live there). Socialism, which provided the definition of what it meant to be on the left from the 1880s to the 1980s, is gone. Disgraced by the communists' atrocities and floored by the success of market-based economies, it no longer exists as a coherent programme for government. Even the modest and humane social democratic systems of Europe are under strain and look dreadfully vulnerable.

It is not novel to say that socialism is dead. My argument is that its failure has brought a dark liberation to people who consider themselves to be on the liberal left. It has freed them to go along with any movement however far to the right it may be, as long as it is against the status quo in general and, specifically, America. I hate to repeat the overused quote that 'when a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything', but there is no escaping it. Because it is very hard to imagine a radical leftwing alternative, or even mildly radical alternative, intellectuals in particular are ready to excuse the movements of the far right as long as they are anti-Western.

This work is in the public domain
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