“You can’t read this book” but you should

Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games spread a warm glow through liberal hearts. His imaginative sweep over British history and culture, which managed to be both reverent and irreverent, was filled with a human chaos that constituted a nicely judged response to the shock and awe of the massed ranks who launched the Beijing games. Better yet, Boyle’s history lesson also pointedly recalled 20th Century protests for women’s and workers rights and had the temerity to remind the incumbent UK government of the value of the National Health Service it has set about dismantling. The ceremony spoke truth to power and pushed at boundaries, apparently being responsible for the first lesbian kiss to be broadcast on Saudi TV.

Alex Wolff, writing for Sports Illustrated in the US, captured the import of Boyle’s audacious vision: “He gave us a chance to celebrate protest and dissent.” Evidently caught in the moment he rounded off his paean to the ceremony with the words, “To speak one’s mind or assert one’s rights is as irrepressible a human instinct as running or jumping. Of that, let us be not afeared.”

Wolff’s piece cropped up time and again on my Twitter feed on Saturday, much liked by the like-minded whom I follow.

You can't read this book

But lest we should be carried away on the liberal currents sweeping out from the ceremony, may I recommend Nick Cohen’s ‘You can’t read this book’ as a stinging slap that will wake you from this pleasant delusion?

Cohen’s book on censorship is a terrific but terrifying read. I was surprised to be so shocked by it. As a paid up member of Amnesty International, a lifelong Guardian reader, and someone who has followed closely the campaign to reform the abysmal libel laws of this country (which features prominently in the book), I had supposed his analysis of the modern ways and means of suppressing freedom of speech would be wholly familiar territory.

Indeed I had already heard of most of the incidents that Cohen assembles to build his case. But it’s one thing to half-remember newspaper reports of censorship and harassment over the course of several years, where the impact is serial and diluted by time; it is quite another to have them assembled into a powerful and far-reaching critique of the watery intellectualism of much of western policy-making in the past couple of decades.

The book pulses with examples and argument. Cohen never lets up as he rips into the corroding censorship reaching into almost every aspect of modern life.

He starts with religion, focusing on the response of Western democracies to the threats of violence from Islamic extremists. Like a tenacious boxer Cohen uses case after case — the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the reaction to Danish cartoons satirising Islam and the persecution of women’s rights activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, being just a few of the incidents cited — to batter the ‘identity politics’ that have, though self-censorship, ceded ground to religious fundamentalists who are too demanding of respect and too quick to take offence.

But the suppressive power of God on Earth — which remains a fearful concern that takes real courage to resist — is not Cohen’s only concern. The latter half of the book warns of the ease with which governments, corporations and wealthy individual can silence their critics within and without, all to the detriment of society at large. The stifling of insiders by corporate hierarchies that refuse to be questioned, to take just one example, was a significant contributing factor in the banking collapse of 2008. Cohen reminds us that censorship costs us our money, as well our freedoms.

Even the advent of the world-wide web, commonly supposed to have engendered freedom of expression on a global scale, with power sufficient to topple governments in north Africa in the past year, does not escape the lash of Cohen’s critique. I don’t entirely share his pessimism but his points are well made and bear thinking about: publishing for the masses it may be, but the web is also a potent distraction that fragments audiences and provides too many escapes into cliques of the like-minded. Nor, he warns, should we underestimate the ability of the rich and powerful to bend it to their purpose. Reports last night of that a UK journalist has been banned from Twitter* for publishing the corporate email address of the NBC executive so that others might join in his criticism of the company’s Olympic coverage provide an unfortunate but timely reminder of Cohen’s point.

‘You can’t read this book’ is driven by a burning, principled anger. On rare occasions it might spill over into purple prose, but the urgency and immediacy of the issues at stake make that forgivable, especially since Cohen is at sensible pains to remind us that the solutions to these problems were worked out centuries ago.

He calls on Milton (memorably quoted by the judges who found in favour of Simon Singh’s libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association) to reiterate the point that religious ‘truth’ should have no rights above any other kind of truth in a free society. Mills is brought in to explain the value of complete freedom of expression that, while firmly in the grip of the founding fathers who wrote the First Amendment to the US Constitution, has been forgotten in the fearful censoriousness of recent times: “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the key condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”

Amen to that.


Update (09:58, 01-08-2012): The reporter, Guy Adams, has now been unbanned and Twitter have acknowledged their mistake.

This entry was posted in Book Review, Libel Reform, Science & Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to “You can’t read this book” but you should

  1. Nico says:

    I would agree with Nick Cohen that the freedom provided by the web for anyone to publish anything is partly an illusion. There is of course the long, heavy and clumsy arm of the English libel laws, but there is more. Your ISP can be pressured, your hosting company blackmailed, and you yourself can be tracked. Only the most tecnhically proficient can truly set up pages that are difficult to pull down, while at the same time remaining untraceable. Add to that the social networking that most do, on Facebook, Twitter, IRC (or even, for a few, on Google+), and we are handing much power and information to criminals, corporations and governments alike.

    It is also interesting to see that while the British tradition of protest was celebrated in the stadium, cyclists were being detained, for cycling in London: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/bike-blog/2012/jul/30/critical-mass-arrest-olympic-games

  2. cromercrox says:

    I watched the opening ceremony. I thought it was great. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that it was leftish, particularly, had I not had the inane BBC commentary, which was as vapid and leftish as the BBC usually is. The NHS is a cause for celebration (and no, the government is not dismantling it as you suggest) as is universal suffrage, Time Berners-Lee, the industrial revolution, for all its warts – they are all contributions that Britain has made to the world. Those who castigated it for being leftish forgot the memorable sequences involving the Queen, showing just why people of every shade of opinion in the UK think the monarchy is a fine thing.

    But I have said it before, and I’ll say it again – the elephant in the room here, at least in western so-called democracies, corporations or governance, but news editors. These are the people who filter the news and decide what is fit for us to see, read and hear. They are biased. Of course they are. The BBC, for example, is biased against Israel. A report was commissioned into this, I believe, but it has been suppressed. I wonder why.

    • Stephen says:

      Many, including Marcus Chown, would disagree with you on the direction of Government policy on the NHS, though Chown would probably accept your criticisms of the BBC: he thinks they did a lamentably biased job of covering the health service reforms.

      • cromercrox says:

        Stephen: until the Left in general and the BBC in particular faces up to its own hypocrisy regarding Israel, I’m not really inclined to being lectured to about censorship from a Guardian-reader.
        It seems that the general desire for human rights, equality and representation of all minorities stops for Jews, who of course all have tails and horns.

        • Stephen says:

          Forgive me Henry but I wasn’t lecturing. This is a blog where the default mode is debate.

          Thanks for the link. I wasn’t aware of the report; from that article it certainly seems that the BBC had little justification for not publishing it’s findings.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Says that no-one is free from self-censorship. Ask yourself why Nick Cohen did not mention the BBC’s suppression of the Balen report. Indeed, ask yourself whether the Left isn’t just as good as anyone else at suppressing the things of which it doesn’t approve. What makes the Left so hypocritical is the very loud and holier-than-thou campaigning against such censorship. I, for example, have been in the very unpleasant position of having petitions raised against me because I have published things that some people don’t like. That’s the Left’s philosophy in a nutshell – everyone can believe what they like so long as it’s what’s prescribed by us. You can ignore it all you like, Stephen, but the hypocrisy of the Left is deep rooted.

    • Stephen says:

      I had already wondered why the Balen report was not mentioned following your comment but am not in a position to speculate. Perhaps we can ask the author? His book doesn’t strike me as particularly friendly to the left. For example, Cohen loudly castigates Julian Assange of Wikileaks for relying on Israel Shamir, “a renegade Russian Jew who converted to Greek Orthodoxy and embraced every variety of contemporary anti-Semitism” (p296).

      In my experience hypocrisy is the preserve of no particular political faction. I’m no expert on the Left, nor an apologist. I read a book that I found interesting and wrote up my impressions. I was not mindful of deliberately ignoring anything, though of course I remain ignorant of many things.

    • Stephen says:

      I put a question about the Balen omission to Nick Cohen on Twitter. Here’s his replies (originals here and here):

      @Stephen_Curry It’s a vast subject and I had to concentrate on a few cases to keep it manageable

      @Stephen_Curry So I concentrate on censorship that hurts. No one punishes, kills or bankrupts you for saying BBC has bias against Israel.

      You’ll be able to judge them for yourself when you’ve read the book. Would be interested to read your own take on it.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Thanks for asking the author. I have downloaded the book to my iPad and look forward to being outraged by getting into it.

    The responses you’ve received raise a nice point. Of course, when one is compiling anything, from a research paper to a polemic to a list of items to cover on the News and Ten to a list of papers that one might consider for publication in One’s Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, there is never enough room to include everything, so you have to make choices about what to leave out. Mr Cohen gives a very good plausible and cogent reason for not discussing the Balen report.

    Were I a feminist, I might invoke the words ‘unconscious’ and ‘bias’, but I won’t as the bias against Israel and Jews found on the Left especially in British academia is entirely concious.

  5. Nico says:

    Henry, I am a bit puzzled by the left-right opposition that you mention above. Censorship, as I understand it, is more an issue of authoritarianism vs liberalism. There are plenty of right- and left-wing authoritarians, just as there are plenty of right- and left-wing libertarians, and even more in the middle.

    I like the approach of http://www.politicalcompass.org/ with their four quadrants. The test is a little bit odd in places, and many times I would have like a “neutral” option, but it is still good fun to see where you are. I am close to Mahatma Ghandi, unfortunately there are few politicians in this quadrant for me to vote for.

    • cromercrox says:

      I tried the political compass test and came out in the bottom left-hand quadrant as a mildly-left-wing libertarian. Libertarian I can live with, but left-wing? For shame. I blame the questions. They seemed very loaded to me. On quite a few of the issues they didn’t have a box you could fill if you had no opinion, and some of the issues, to me, weren’t really subject to snap agree-disagree decisions. There was nothing about Europe, nor indeed Israel.

      • Nico says:

        So far everyone I know has come out in that quadrant, which suggests that either the test is biased, or you are a closet pinko 🙂
        I would have thought you would show up in the bottom-right corner.

        I’ve tried to find more details about their methodology and failed, so mea culpa for promoting it here, it seems to be an amateur propaganda tool or a toy rather than anything rigorous. Shame, because the idea of the quadrants to show how close you are to other people was interesting. And a bit weird that they have a question about astrology.

        I am not sure whether a question about say Europe would help much on the axes used, both leftists who want to stabilize smaller economies and free-marketers who want big markets could be positive about it, depending on how you frame the question. Depending on the country you live in you might have a different outlook too. Similarly with Israel, I doubt the Front National (FR) are particularly keen on it, and some far-left groups are positively hostile to it, thus uniting the extremes.

        • cromercrox says:

          our responses crossed!! Perhaps I am a closet pinko after all. I’m happier being a libertarian.

      • cromercrox says:

        The questionnaire probably puts everyone in the bottom left. My score put me (curmudgfonly, 50) next to Nelson Mandela. Crox Minor (idealistic, aged 14) came out next to the Dalai Lama. And you’re next to Mahatma Gandhi. I think the questionnaire is designed to make you feel good about yourself. After all, wouldn’t ANYONE prefer to be closer to these people than to Stalin or Pinochet or Netanyahu? I think this is proven in the breach – it puts Ed Milliband in the top right. Bonkers!

  6. rpg says:

    Yeah, I came out as Gandhi too. I think it concentrates on authoritarianism too much and gets it wildly wrong: after all, it was the Labour government (nominally at least ‘left’) that really crippled civil liberties in this country, and it is generally communist regimes that are notorious for Bad Things…

  7. cromercrox says:

    Stephen – I am halfway through the book. It puts into words in ways I never could the hypocrisies of western Guardian-reading intelligentsia concerning race, immigration, religion and human rights. It’s not the antisemitism (my particular beef) I mind so much as the hypocrisy. If the right-wing are racist, they are usually more transparent and some are at least honest about it.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Henry

      Again I prefer to deal in specifics. Are you saying that anyone who reads the Guardian is a hypocrite on race, immigration, religion and human rights? Who is this “western Guardian-reading intelligentsia” that so exercises your ire? Am I among them, I wonder? I don’t claim immunity from hypocrisy — who can? — but I make an effort to deal honestly.

      Cohen, it seemed to me, took the trouble to identify and quote the people he was criticising, a more constructive way to proceed than swipes at supposedly homogenous groups (which I find frustrating because there’s nothing to get your teeth into).

      But does this mean you are appreciating the book?

      • cromercrox says:

        My swipes are at precisely the broad-brush targets identified by Nick Cohen – ‘European liberals’. I tend to treat these as including Guardian-readers, but that could be just my idiosyncrasy. I have much more to say on this, Stephen, but I shall message you privately for reasons which will become apparent.

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