Nick Cohen is in your house
by Sam Kriss
This is urgent, so I’ll get straight to the point. Nick Cohen is in your house. Yes, that Nick Cohen, the Orwell Prize-shortlisted writer, journalist and commentator, the author of five books, frequently published in the Observer and the Spectator, the one who looks like a kind of malignant egg, with his pervert’s dent of a top lip, his strange remnant of a haircut, and those eerily mild eyes, the faint twirling eyes of a man who likes more than anything to observe, to spectate: he is in your house. I don’t know exactly how he got in there. I can’t tell you exactly where he is. Nick Cohen might be hiding under your bed, rolling a carelessly drooped bit of fabric between his gleeful fingers. He might be in your closet, his breath hard and ecstatic through the slats as you unthinkingly undress in front of him. He might peek through cracks in the plaster, he might take photos while you sleep. You think you know your own home, but so does Nick Cohen, and there are a thousand places he might be, film camera in hand, watching you. He could be standing right behind you, pale bloated fingers hovering just above your shoulders. Don’t turn around. You won’t see him unless he wants you to see him. But you can speak to him if you want. Take out your mobile phone and call your home number. You’ll hear it ring, and then his voice. ‘I told you I was in your house,’ he’ll say. ‘I’m in your house right now. You need to listen to me. The regressive left poses a very real threat to free speech.’
Nick Cohen is a bad writer with terrible opinions, but there are teeming thousands of those; there’s something else about him that makes the man so creepy. His views are, broadly, those of the liberal commentariat in general, and arguing against them would just mean repeating the same lines, endlessly, until every newspaper columnist in the country has heard them. An utter waste of time. This is why you have to resort to personal attacks. ‘So you’ve got a problem with what I have to say?’ Nick Cohen asks. ‘You want to silence me?’ And it’s true, I don’t agree with what he says, but that’s not the problem: the problem is that he’s saying it while inside my house.
If you’ve seen the 1997 David Lynch film Lost Highway, you’ve met Nick Cohen before. He is the Mystery Man, the sinister deathly-white figure at the party who is, simultaneously, in your house. I’m not just saying that Nick Cohen looks absolutely identical to him – although he really does; they have the same bulbously terrifying face, with its deep-set eyes and its obscene red gash of a mouth – but that they are, quite literally, the same thing. (A brief detour. Lynch scholarship is still very much dominated by Slavoj Žižek, and under this Lacanian rubric his films are held to be all about dreams, the play between fantasy and reality; the point, as Žižek puts it, is ‘to discern in [the film] the part of (symbolic) reality and the part of fantasy hallucination.’ Less scholarly critics are also fond of this line – describe a film as ‘dreamlike,’ and you’re suddenly under no obligation to make any sense of it whatsoever. This is nonsense. A film is fantasy throughout, there’s no point in trying to identify which part of it contains the ‘real’ narrative and which does not; it’s as stupid as trying to work out whether Tony Soprano dies at the end, as if he were ever alive. Lynch’s films aren’t about dreams, they’re about media, infinite layers of image and representation. The camera in the Mystery Man’s hand, the tape mailed to your house, the video you watch from your seat until you find yourself, suddenly, within it. Reducing the Lynchian vertigo to oneirocriticism is actually deeply boring. Dreams are just a rearrangement of reality, but if you fold the process of representation you get mise en abyme, the image emerging from the void.) The Mystery Man tells you that he is in your house, and that you invited him in, even though you’re repulsed by him, even though you don’t want him there. Later, he shoves his camera in your face. ‘And your name,’ he barks. ‘What the fuck is your name?’
Nick Cohen is in the political left. It’s not that he’s part of it, exactly; he doesn’t fight in the left’s struggles, he doesn’t seem to care about leftist causes, but he’s there, within, watching. This has been, for some years now, his journalistic gimmick. He’s on the left, yes, but he’s also possibly the last journalist in Britain to still defend the 2003 attack on Iraq, he endlessly whinges about student no-platforming of fascists or the censure of Charlie Hebdo‘s state-sponsored racism as a threat to freedom of speech, and he’s never met a socialist government or a popular resistance movement that he didn’t loathe. But because he’s on the left, his global hostility to actual socialism must therefore be an authentic leftist position. A strange, greasy three-stage manoeuvre: first he’s in the left, then he is the left, then you’re not. Nick Cohen’s favoured term for people who don’t think exactly like Nick Cohen is ‘pseudo-left’: people who oppose imperialist wars, for instance, or defend successful socialist revolutions – what the fuck is your name? This was the subject of an entire book, but it seems the theme hasn’t yet exhausted itself. In his most recent article, an utterly bizarre outburst, politically useless but the kind of parapraxical emission that’s always been of interest to psychoanalysis, he writes that Westerners who have solidarity with the progressive government in Venezuela are exactly like sex tourists. During the Labour leadership contest, he dismissed support for the socialist Jeremy Corbyn as a kind of ‘identity leftism’ on the part of the narcissistic youth, people who just want to see their opinions reflected in someone else – a strange critique, coming from a man whose only real connection to the left is that he identifies himself as being within it. But there he is. Nick Cohen is in your left. As a matter of fact, he’s there right now.
Nick Cohen is a Jew. He’s not halachically Jewish – one paternal grandfather, enough to claim Israeli citizenship, not enough to help make up a minyan – and neither is he in any sense culturally Jewish. It’s not only that he never spun a dreidel or had to ask why his penis looked different to all the other boys’; as anyone who’s read his columns will know, he has no connection at all to the great Jewish literary, comedic or radical traditions. But he has decided to be a Jew. In fact, he’s decided to do so not once but twice. He’s not actually converting, you understand; no siddur will pollute his atheist’s hands. He’s becoming a Jew first of all so that he can claim for himself a slice of Jewish oppression, so he can rub oily indignity all over his face – but also so he can have a peek at his newfound co-religionists, and he doesn’t like what he sees. In his most recent statement of conversion, he spares a few lines for those actual Jews who oppose the state of Israel, people like me. ‘Whenever I hear Jews announce their hatred of Israel’s very existence,’ he writes, ‘I suspect that underneath their loud bombast lies a quiet plea to the Islamists and neo-Nazis who might harm them: I’m not like the others. Don’t pick on me.’ If this invective was coming from someone who was not Jewish, it would be recognised for what it is: a collection of classically antisemitic tropes, the cringing Jew, the cowardly Jew, the conniving Jew, the Jew who will lie and grovel and dissimulate to protect himself and his miserly little pile of belongings. That would be unacceptable; surely nobody would publish him, not even the Spectator. But Nick Cohen is in your Judaism. As a matter of fact, he’s there right now.
Nick Cohen is in your house. You might not think you want him there, but you invited him in. It is not his custom to go where he is not wanted. And it’s been a pleasure for him to talk to you.