You Can’t Read this Book: Censorship in an age of freedom – Nick Cohen

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It was some years ago that Matthew pointed out that I was more of a libertarian than a socialist. I hadn’t previously noticed, but he was, as ever, correct. It explains why back in my student activist days, I used to get frustrated with my hard left colleagues who were happy that they knew the truth and were not troubled about actually debating it, and how often at Council meetings I ended up on the same side as our resident tame anarchist. But this column about Nick Cohen, the Observor columnist. Back when I still had time to read a Sunday paper I was quite a fan of Cohen, who put across a strident liberal position. After such times were over I read his book attacking the liberal left – What’s Left? How Liberals Lost their Way. His thesis made complete sense until he arrived at Israel. But his contention that the left were anti-Semitic because they criticised the state of Israel made as little sense to me then as it does now. I really do not believe I have a trace of anti-Semitism within me, but many of the actions of the Zionist Israeli government are little more than a disgrace. So I parted company with Cohen. But his latest book is about censorship and freedom of speech, so I thought I would buy an e-edition for the kindle and read it on the way to work. And it was very well worth it.


It is a dreadfully written book. Hysterical, bombastic, overblown and more often carried away by his own rhetoric than not. But the questions asked, the challenges laid down are important – to me at least. His essential question is: do you believe in freedom of speech. Really believe? His argument is that the liberal left no longer does, hence his disaffection with them. He goes through a series of case studies, starting with Salman Rushdie, the ‘modern day Dreyfuss affair’. A writer, who happens to be a very fine writer – but that is irrelevant – writes a book about Islam. He is threatened with death for this ‘blasphemy’. What is the reaction of the liberal left? Essentially, that he brought it upon himself. This is nonsense, says Cohen and I am in complete accord. As he points out, the very essence of liberalism, freedom of expression and political thought was carved out in opposition to organised religion. The American settlers were setting their sights on freedom of religion over all other freedoms. Suddenly, many on the left believe that you cannot insult religious sensibilities; moreover, that to do so and then to be threatened is the fault of the individual, not of the organised religion. Cohen suggests that this is pure cowardice. Freedom of expression is easy if the oppressor is not threatening to kill you. So the left is happy to lampoon Christianity, which (outside of Central African Republic) is not going to threaten you, but not insult the Imams who may cast a fatwa upon you. And his examples keep coming, Maqbool Fida Hussain, an Indian painter vilified for suggesting that Hindu religion celebrates sex (doesn’t it?), Hirsi Ali, vilified for being an African Muslim feminist in Holland and the publishers of the infamous cartoons. Cohen’s view – that European cartoonists lampoon the Royal Family, Christians, politicians, so why not Islam? Is it anti –Islamic to point out that many of the religious leaders who are involved in these cases are misogynistic, deeply right-wing, authoritarian and illiberal? Why can’t the left state this obvious truth?


In part two Cohen moves on to the second group who he feels the left cannot criticise. The mega-rich and Big Business. Was the great crash of 2008 really a surprise? Not according to Cohen; it was simply that the journalists, commentators, bloggers, and politicians were too in awe of big business and the rich to actually tell the public. In the case of the rich, however, it is not the fear of being killed that stills the tongues of radical commentators, but the threat of libel. His attack on the British liberal law is long, slightly tedious but I suspect entirely accurate. The likes of Maxwell can use the libel laws to suppress criticism very effectively. Quite recently the pharmaceutical industry has gone for Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre, not suing The Guardian but Goldacre personally to get him to retract.


Finally Cohen suggests that the idea that the internet and world wide web will guarantee freedom of speech is simply a fantasy. Bearing witness may be an effective tool in a democracy, but if the totalitarian regime in Belarus see footage of citizens being abused then…. Well, nothing really. They don’t care. Only hard politics Cohen suggests, will make a difference where it really matters.


In summation Cohen believes that the liberal left have sold out their inheritance of freedom of speech, so hard won by our predecessors, because of physical and intellectual cowardice. His argument is wildly overblown, deeply emotional and very angry. I by no means agree with huge swathes of his polemic. But deep down, I think he is right. I think we now accommodate too many people with dubious views because they tick other boxes, that we too often take the ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ approach to those who are justifiable angry with US (and indeed UK) Neoconservatism. But being against the States should not mean you are immune to criticism on the basis of the liberal agenda, freedom to speak, publish, vote and demonstrate. These are hard won rights for us, and our aim should be to ensure they are spread to as many across the world as possible. Cohen argues that liberal values are universal, not just for a European elite.  Well worth a read.

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