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.
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.