This is my review of You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom by Nick Cohen.
At the time of writing this, the Turkish leader Erdogan is clamping down on access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, modern "apples of knowledge" which he presumably fears are undermining his authority. Yet, if you regard the UK as a bastion of free expression, Nick Cohen will undermine your complacency.
Organising his material under the main heading of "God", "Money" and "State", Cohen moves from the ayatollah-supported death threats against Salman Rushdie, who dared to use fiction as a tool to satirise certain aspects of Islam, through the suppression of whistle-blowers who would have forewarned us of the recent Icelandic banking collapse foreshadowing those in the US and Britain, to the illusion that the web will sound the death knell of censorship in repressive regimes – the latter may become yet more successful by using technology to track down and crush opposition.
The author's subjective and polemical style often seems more suited to disillusioned-with-the-left-and-liberals popular journalism than a book in which one hopes to find balanced analysis. For instance, he describes British judges as being drawn from "the pseudo-liberal upper-middle class who have no instinctive respect for freedom of speech or gut understanding of its importance". Then there is his repeated attack on Western radicals who "either dismiss crimes committed by anti-Western forces as the inventions of Western propagandists or excuse them as the inevitable if regrettably blood-spattered consequences of Western provocation. The narcissism behind their reasoning is too glaring to waste time on". But Nick Cohen has found time to expand on the crimes of Charles Manson and Roman Polanski, salacious digressions from his main point, in this case to expose the excessive protection offered by British courts to those, often foreigners, rich enough to buy protection from criticism by exploiting libel laws and hiding behind super-injunctions.
Cohen seems particularly exercised by the Western liberals who appear to him to have put more emphasis on respecting Islam than on protecting the rights of individuals like Rushdie to freedom of expression. Although I tend to agree with Cohen's views, I was disappointed that he did not show more understanding over people's very understandable fear of losing their lives, or those of their loved ones, if they dare to take a stand. I was also troubled by his apparently somewhat partisan attitude to the rights of Israel, and lack of an at least even-handed examination of the role of Wikileaks overall.
This book covers important themes, it provides telling examples for those too young to have read about them in the press, but I had hoped for a more objective style together with a more systematic and synthesized approach to defining and discussing censorship, made all the more necessary by the inevitable "dating" of this kind of book, which, for instance, misses out on the potential debate over the role of Edward Snowden.
Quotations from some of the pioneers of tolerant thought make some of the best points, like Jefferson who wrote in 1776 with timeless clarity: "no man shall be compelled to support any religious worship.. nor suffer on account of his beliefs….but …all men shall be free by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of Religion."
Yet, of course, apart from the lack of specific reference to women, at the time, Jefferson still owned slaves……..