You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an age of freedom
By Nick Cohen
I raised the subject of Nick Cohen – who has written an incisive, depressing, and wonderful new book on censorship – over supper with some friends on Sunday evening. The topic of conversation had drifted from crappy remuneration – mine was the crappiest – to current reading habits. I supposed dropping the name of the impeccably progressive Observer columnist would score some acceptable-face-of-conservatism points from leftish friends who find my centre-rightish views eccentric.
This mild-mannered group – two journalists; a PR; a teacher; Paul, who does something in finance that I still don’t understand – responded with a cacophony of hooting derision punctuated by fitful denunciations largely populated by the terms “neocon”, “WMD”, “war-monger”, and “it’s all about Israel”. Cohen may not be an “Islamophobe” but he was “the kind of writer Islamophobes enjoy reading”. He was an “apologist for Bush’s war for oil” who was “almost as shrill as Melanie Phillips”. Paul, whose job, whatever it is, presumably doesn’t involve managing hedge funds on behalf of orphanages, deployed the most stinging insult in the liberal armoury: “Cohen should go write for the Daily Mail”.
Sensing that the conversation was exposing me to even greater opprobrium than a previous gathering when I brought a bottle of Judean Hills red hastily selected from the shelves of a wine store en route to dinner (a crime of expediency, not a statement of politics), I was relieved when our host announced the arrival of dessert and talk turned to politics of a more congenial nature – the Scandinavian sweater-clad socialism of Borgen.
It’s a pity my friends have already made up their minds about Cohen because his new book, You Can’t Read This Book, should be the manifesto for an insurrection that wrests control of contemporary liberalism from the relativists and the apologists and reasserts the Enlightenment values that underscore genuine progressive politics. He tears through “offence”, “respecting religion”, “non-judgementalism”, “hate speech”, “sensitivity”, and the whole wretched lexicon of suffocating euphemisms deployed by ruler-tapping schoolmarms when they counsel us to still our pens or hold our tongues. (The old, “conservative” censorship was justified on plain-spoken grounds of morality and order; only liberals could devise a form of censorship that sounds like a management studies textbook crossed with an Amnesty International spokesperson.)
Cohen’s book attends, broadly speaking, to five types of censorship: political, legal, economic, violent, and self-imposed. There is a lot covered but Cohen never lets it run on; he gives us breadth and depth in just the right ratio. All the same, some chapters stand out. In particular, he expertly contrasts the hunting of Salman Rushdie with the tumult over the Danish cartoons, and reflects on how the liberals in politics, academia, publishing, and media who stood with the death-sentenced novelist had lost their nerve or their principles or both a generation later when baying mobs firebombed embassies and called for murder and mayhem on the quaint streets of Denmark over a dozen satirical cartoons. The lesson Cohen draws from this is that free speech is not just under threat from those offence-seekers who “go through The Satanic Verses with the squinting eye of a censor searching for thought crimes” but from timid and complacent citizens who assume that their liberties will endure by tradition or convention. “National and political differences,” he cautions, “are no protection against the universal emotion of fear.” And the fear is very real when religious fanatics can storm your home or workplace or make you pay for your unwelcome ideas with your life or the lives of others. Per Voltaire: “What to say to a man who tells you he prefers to obey God than to obey men, and who is consequently sure of entering the gates of Heaven by slitting your throat?”
If this analysis is the sort that has convinced my dining companions that Cohen harbours bias towards Muslims – and the liberal-Left’s superstition that decent Muslims will be affronted by condemnation of violent, reactionary Islamism is ‘Islamophobia’ in its rawest manifestation – they might be more impressed by his take on the banking crash and the role of censorship in preventing whistleblowers from coming forward in time to stop it. “Every whistleblower I have ever known,” writes Cohen, “has ended up on the dole”, and he summons in support the story of Paul Moore, the risk manager of Halifax whose job was “made redundant” after he objected one too many times to excessive risk-taking. Despite his expertise, Moore was not snapped up by a rival bank because, Cohen maintains, to challenge practices at one bank is to challenge them all. Do it, and you’ll never work in this City again. Cohen’s broader assault on corporate censorship and “the cramped, fearful ideologies of the managerial economy” is necessary and welcome. As anyone who has worked in a corporate environment will attest, the “creativity” hollowly championed by middle management jargon is not to be confused with independent thinking or, worse, independent speaking.
The English judiciary’s preference that we not speak at all is most forcefully conveyed in the super injunction, “a court order so secret it is a contempt of court to reveal that it even exists”. Super injunctions are popular with the super rich, the super powerful, the super famous and anyone else who wants to shut up a troublesome journalist. Their potency and their cynicism lies in banning speech while also banning reference to the fact that speech has been banned. It’s like burning a book while insisting there was no fire. Cohen covers one of the most noxious – so to speak – uses of these orders. The Dutch raw materials corporation Trafigura slapped The Guardian with a super injunction to prevent the paper running a story about the dumping of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire. Labour MP Paul Farrelly, protected by parliamentary privilege, asked a question about the story in Parliament, thus allowing journalists to write about it. Not so fast, said Trafigura, whose lawyers maintained that to report on Farrelly’s question would breach the super injunction. In one of the better days for British democracy, the story leaked onto Twitter and citizens outraged at the attempt to gag Parliament and the Press furiously retweeted the scandal until it became a trending topic and an international news story. If that little free speech insurgency warms your heart, remember we have no way of knowing how many other super injunctions are in place and what they’re covering up.
Even if you fail to ban a journalist from writing about you, you can always punish him afterwards. Aromatherapists make unlikely assailants against press freedom but the attempt by a group of homeopathy enthusiasts to sue a science journalist into silence illustrates the dangers of our libel laws. The herb and crystal merchants of “alternative medicine” (an inadvertantly honest locution since the quack cures are an alternative to real, effective, scientically-tested medicine) tried to ruin Simon Singh, a celebrated scientist, for pointing out that their potions were pure hocus pocus. They pursued him through the courts, threatening his reputation and his pocketbook, demanding at every turn that he recant what he knew to be fact, a modern-day Galileo inquisition. And while Singh’s case had a rare happy ending, Cohen provides us with more than enough instances of the litigious bully boys triumphing to recognise that our libel laws are a censors’ charter.
Those laws are so sweeping that those who have an interest in censorship flock from far and wide to take advantage of British justice. Saudi bankers and Russian billionaires use England’s courts like a be-wigged PR agency to manage their reputations and silence critics of their dubious practices. A critic need not live in England, work in England, or even have published the offending material in England; one copy of one book bought from Amazon by one reader in England is sufficient to give standing. We manufacture less and less in Britain but we have found a way to export censorship.
Cohen returns often to his frustration that progressive people have not taken up this fight. He pleads for a resurrection of the solidarity that died bitterly with the fall of Marxism and was buried in the debris of Ground Zero. He frequently fires off his roster of the righteous – socialistsfeministstradeunionistsIraqiKurdishcommunists – but one suspects these talismans no longer carry the same mystical hold over Western intellectuals hostile to any alliance that might give succour to the hated regimes in Washington and Jerusalem. He warns:
If you believe that Western democracies are the sole or prime source of oppression, then you are wide open to the seduction of fascistic ideologies, because they come from a radical anti-democratic tradition that echoes your own.
Cohen speaks the vocabulary of liberalism with the weary, dejected timbre of a man who suspects his audience has already made its mind up.
The flaws in Cohen’s book originate, ironically, in his own left-wing worldview. He is contemptuous of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United – his rendering of American constitutional law is dubious in parts – while championing the virtues of the Fairness Doctrine. As a man of the Left, Cohen sees corporate speech and right-wing political speech as embodied by Fox News (whose viewers are “beer-swilling bigots”) as somehow less worthy of protection. He fails to grasp that this is self-defeating. When corporations’ speech options for promoting their interests are limited, they seek to limit the speech options of those who would damage their brand. Elsewhere, silly demagoguery creeps in – he advances, in all solemnity, a list of “the similarities between yesterday’s white supremacists and today’s super-rich” – and there’s a touch of high-church Fabianism: “At their best, journalists expose the crimes of the powerful”, as if the crimes of the “powerless” are intrinsically less evil than those of the “powerful”, even if we could agree on a definition of the two terms.
Aside from that, there is little on film censorship, a critical battle ground for political and artistic expression (ask the Canadian-Indian feminist film-maker Deepa Mehta, who has had her film sets besieged by Hindu nationalist mobs, just how critical), and he omits one of the greatest affronts to free speech in a generation – the Human Rights Commissions that scar Canadian intellectual freedom. Speech codes, a tyrannical tool for silencing (usually conservative) speech on American college campuses, are mentioned only in passing.
The book’s overarching achievement is to shift the debate from the methods of suppression to the underlying ideology. Censorship isn’t so much silencing ideas – it is the new idea. Say nothing that will offend, that will discomfort the powerful, that will enrage the extreme. Originality and provocation are cardinal sins, insipidity and asininity social virtues. Trashy TV, inane YouTube videos, silly hashtags; pilled up, boozed out, brain dead: Britain is becoming like Brave New World by way of Money. We have censorship and call it consensus, acquisence and we call it freedom. Cohen closes his book with simple but true words: “The Net cannot set you free. Only politics can do that.” A world that has lost Christopher Hitchens (see my obituary here: “Let us now praise an infamous man”) needs people like Cohen to argue for the primacy of politics.
You Can’t Read This Book is the finest long-form writing Cohen has published to date, surpassing even the righteous fury of What’s Left?, and explores ideas that can only be hinted at within the confines of his Observer columns and Standpoint essays. Far from becoming a right-winger – we would have him; he wouldn’t have us – Cohen is tilling away at the old values of freedom, justice, and solidarity that once bound together the soil of progressivism. It is true that his defence of Western values and contempt for moral relativism finds him in common cause with neoconservatives but Cohen would argue, with some justification, that it is his former comrades, not he, who have strayed. A good writer, Orwell admonished, must choose between truth and partisanship. Cohen has chosen, wants us to know it, and won’t let anyone shut him up.
You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an age of freedom by Nick Cohen is published by Fourth Estate and is available from Amazon.