“In this job, you will make enemies,” warned the then editor, John Maddox, not long after I started in my career at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N. This isn’t surprising, given that almost everything I receive as an editor gets rejected.
I wish I could tell you the story about the academic who wanted me fired after I’d rejected his paper, but I can’t, because it’s confidential. I’d like to tell you all about things I’ve published that have engendered varying degrees of outrage, whether genuine or synthetic, but I have been advised not to. People are so easily offended, you see, to the extent that they would deny the right of free expression by others, even to deny them liberty, livelihood, even life. But when one wants to discuss things that might have happened at one’s work, one cannot, because of corporate confidentiality. So, in an age of freedom, when one would think that one could say and write what one likes, one finds that one cannot, fearful as one is of the consequences, which range from legal to lethal. So we end up censoring ourselves. We have freedom of speech – provided that we don’t say too much. And things are getting worse.
‘No young artist of [Salman] Rushdie’s range and gifts would dare write a modern version of The Satanic Verses today, and if he or she did, no editor would dare publish it,’ says Nick Cohen in You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship In An Age Of Freedom, as recommended by fellow Occam’s Typist Professor S. C. of London.
Cohen starts with the easiest target – God – and the propensity of the religious to be offended by any perceived slight on their faith. In itself, blasphemy is the closest one can ever get to a victimless crime. Zounds! (There – did that hurt?) Cohen asks precisely who the victims of blasphemy laws really are, and notes that reactions are often out of all proportion to the perceived slight. So, whereas one can highlight the completely bonkers proscriptions that ultra-religious Jews can put upon themselves and others (these choice examples from the robustly free press of Israel furnished by fellow Occam’s Typist Professor S. C. of Omaha), one is less likely to dispense criticism about similar actions by the fanatical followers of some other religions, because they might kill you. If we censor ourselves against such eventualities, says Cohen, we should be honest about the reasons why – and not, as happened with Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsa Ali and others, ostracise critics of religion for having dared to speak up against bullies.
Twenty years ago, the writers of the TV comedy show Not The Nine O’Clock News engaged in much trenchant satire about the then-new theocracy in Iran. Against a picture of Moslems prostrate in prayer in a mosque, the voice-over read ‘The Search of The Ayatollah’s Missing Contact Lens Goes On’. Who would dare screen that nowadays? And if not, why not? Because we have adopted the contorted, patronising and somewhat phoney excuse that we ‘respect’ other peoples’ religions more? Or because we are, quite understandably, cowards who are afraid of the consequences? I know which one I am.
From such contorted dishonesty springs the kind of identity politics with which the Left is so easily suckered. ‘Oppression’ is what we do in the West. But religious intolerance; enslavement of women; legitimized rape of under-age girls by old men; legalised incitement to murder; female circumcision; ritual murder; ‘honour’ killing; discrimination against homosexuals; beheading of people for the ‘crimes’ of dancing, or educating young girls; and beheading of apostates in countries far away – well, we can’t criticize such things because such is ‘their culture’. From this craven position comes the shameful ostracism of people from those cultures who run into trouble for pointing out such horrors, or even just poking gentle fun at them.
Leftists could not make a stand [against the critics of The Satanic Verses] because to their minds defending [Salman] Rushdie would at some level mean giving aid and comfort to racists and strengthening the hand of the one enemy they could admit to having: the imperialist warmongers in Washington DC.
And, more directly:
[L]iberalism in Europe has turned septic. In the name of tolerance it is happy to abandon its friends and excuse its enemies.
Hence the remarkable sight of Left-wingers such as former London mayor Ken Livingstone giving a platform to clerics who professed the kinds of views to which anyone, particularly on the Left, should find abhorrent: the curious common cause of anti-war protestors and Islamist militants; and the upswing in antisemitism in the UK every time there is a war in the Middle east. Hence an itch you’d expect me to scratch: I have often contended that the Left, particularly British academia, is institutionally antisemitic. I was therefore refreshed, if somewhat startled, that Cohen describes antisemitism by the Left in such a casual manner that one can only assume that it’s generally known. The political slant of news media means that ‘readers can rarely find … a sympathetic article about Israel in a left-wing journal.’ And, more tellingly:
Left-wingers inflame prejudices against social conservatives, Jews, and all members of the upper and upper-middle classes except the public-sector great and good.
And on the general Leftish suspicion that Western democracies are the prime source of oppression:
If you think that Israel or the West is the sole or prime source of conflict in the Middle East, your defences against anti-Semitism are down, and ready to be overrun.
I’m not paranoid, then. The Left is institutionally antisemitic. People really are out to get me.
From religion Cohen then turns to money, and in particular how the widening gap between rich and poor has created a plutocracy that has the means to buy off criticism and squelch dissent. Now, I don’t mind people being rich, per se. What worries me is that the widening gap between rich and poor very likely has a toxic effect on economies as well as on democracy. Cohen highlights this staggering statistic: in 2003, around five million people raised more than £35m towards Comic Relief … a sum dwarfed by the £157.7m pocketed in 2002 by retail tycoon Sir Philip Green. And things have gotten worse. ‘Between 2002 and 2007,’ says Cohen,
65 per cent of all income growth in the United States went to the top 1 per cent of the population … The richest 0.01 per cent (the fifteen thousand richest families in the US) saw their share of pre-tax income rise from 1 per cent [of the US total] in 1974 to 6 per cent in 2007.
Now, I don’t mind people being rich, but one is entitled to ask whether riches are deserved if they fall into one’s lap, rather than having be earned by one’s toil, and if the incredible rewards on offer in some sectors of the economy are good for the economy as a whole. The financial crisis, in which ordinary people bailed out the banks (what the then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown thought was saving the world) removed the enormous risks that were meant to have justified the enormous rewards reaped by senior investment bankers and hedge-fund managers. And yet the crisis was just a temporary interruption in the growth of plutocracy.
From plutocracy to corporate governance, and how even in a free society, whistle-blowers are effectively defenceless. ‘If people criticise their employers in public,’ Cohen says, ‘they will face a punishment as hard as a prison sentence, maybe harder: the loss of their career, their pension, and perhaps their means of making a livelihood.’ Managers, like plutocrats, and unclad emperors, says Cohen, have no incentive to trust their subordinates:
But the cooperative approach based on openness and trust undermines the status of managers, whose wealth depends on the ability to create the impression that they have knowledge that their subordinates cannot be trusted to share.
As Tevye says in Fiddler On The Roof, ‘if you’re rich, they think you really know’. Perhaps best to keep Mum.
The greatest Satan, though, is the peculiar English law of libel, in which a person in the Khanate of Khanestan can sue another person in the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schtrumpfhosen in the English courts if they suspect that the latter has said something offensive about the former in any publication that might be read in England, even if nobody else has noticed. I needn’t rehearse this question here. Just key ‘Singh’ and ‘chiropractic’ into the search engine of your choice. And while on that subject, Cohen warns that the internet is a double-edged sword. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ might or might not have been made possible by Facebook and Twitter – but repressive regimes have access to the same tools.
The main lesson is that western liberalism has been compromised by identity politics, flawed logic, and fear. ‘Once one did not write the word ‘liberal’ and add ‘hypocrite”, says Cohen. But no longer.