Lost for words

You Can't Read This Book

You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an age of freedom

By Nick Cohen   Fourth Estate

I raised the subject of Nick Cohen – who has written an incisive, depressing, and wonderful new book on censorship – over supper with some friends on Sunday evening. The topic of conversation had drifted from crappy remuneration – mine was the crappiest – to current reading habits. I supposed dropping the name of the impeccably progressive Observer columnist would score some acceptable-face-of-conservatism points from leftish friends who find my centre-right views eccentric.

This mild-mannered group – two journalists; a PR; a teacher; Paul, who does something in finance that I still don’t understand – responded with a cacophony of hooting derision punctuated by fitful denunciations largely populated by the terms “neocon”, “WMD”, “war-monger”, and “it’s all about Israel”. Cohen may not be an “Islamophobe” but he was “the kind of writer Islamophobes enjoy reading”. He was an “apologist for Bush’s war for oil” who was “almost as shrill as Melanie Phillips”. Paul, whose job, whatever it is, presumably doesn’t involve managing hedge funds on behalf of orphanages, deployed the most stinging insult in the liberal armoury: “Cohen should go write for the Daily Mail”.

Sensing that the conversation was exposing me to even greater opprobrium than a previous gathering when I brought a bottle of Judean Hills red hastily selected from the shelves of a wine store en route to dinner (a crime of expediency, not a statement of politics), I was relieved when our host announced the arrival of dessert and talk turned to politics of a more congenial nature – the Scandinavian sweater-clad socialism of Borgen.

It’s a pity my friends have already made up their minds about Cohen because his new book, You Can’t Read This Book, should be the manifesto for an insurrection that wrests control of contemporary liberalism from the relativists and the apologists and reasserts the Enlightenment values that underscore genuine progressive politics. He tears through “offence”, “respecting religion”, “non-judgementalism”, “hate speech”, “sensitivity”, and the whole wretched lexicon of suffocating euphemisms deployed by ruler-tapping schoolmarms when they counsel us to still our pens or hold our tongues. (The old, “conservative” censorship was justified on plain-spoken grounds of morality and order; only liberals could devise a form of censorship that sounds like a management studies textbook crossed with an Amnesty International spokesperson.)

Cohen’s book attends, broadly speaking, to five types of censorship: political, legal, economic, violent, and self-imposed. There is a lot covered but Cohen never lets it run on; he gives us breadth and depth in just the right ratio. All the same, some chapters stand out. In particular, he expertly contrasts the hunting of Salman Rushdie with the tumult over the Danish cartoons, and reflects on how the liberals in politics, academia, publishing, and media who stood with the death-sentenced novelist had lost their nerve or their principles or both a generation later when baying mobs firebombed embassies and called for murder and mayhem on the quaint streets of Denmark over a dozen satirical cartoons. The lesson Cohen draws from this is that free speech is not just under threat from those offence-seekers who “go through The Satanic Verses with the squinting eye of a censor searching for thought crimes” but from timid and complacent citizens who assume that their liberties will endure by tradition or convention. “National and political differences,” he cautions, “are no protection against the universal emotion of fear.” And the fear is very real when religious fanatics can storm your home or workplace or make you pay for your unwelcome ideas with your life or the lives of others. Per Voltaire: “What to say to a man who tells you he prefers to obey God than to obey men, and who is consequently sure of entering the gates of Heaven by slitting your throat?”

If this analysis is the sort that has convinced my dining companions that Cohen harbours bias towards Muslims – and the liberal-Left’s superstition that decent Muslims will be affronted by condemnation of violent, reactionary Islamism is ‘Islamophobia’ in its rawest manifestation – they might be more impressed by his take on the banking crash and the role of censorship in preventing whistleblowers from coming forward in time to stop it. “Every whistleblower I have ever known,” writes Cohen, “has ended up on the dole”, and he summons in support the story of Paul Moore, the risk manager of Halifax whose job was “made redundant” after he objected one too many times to excessive risk-taking. Despite his expertise, Moore was not snapped up by a rival bank because, Cohen maintains, to challenge practices at one bank is to challenge them all. Do it, and you’ll never work in this City again. Cohen’s broader assault on corporate censorship and “the cramped, fearful ideologies of the managerial economy” is necessary and welcome. As anyone who has worked in a corporate environment will attest, the “creativity” hollowly championed by middle management jargon is not to be confused with independent thinking or, worse, independent speaking.

The English judiciary’s preference that we not speak at all is most forcefully conveyed in the super injunction, “a court order so secret it is a contempt of court to reveal that it even exists”. Super injunctions are popular with the super rich, the super powerful, the super famous and anyone else who wants to shut up a troublesome journalist. Their potency and their cynicism lies in banning speech while also banning reference to the fact that speech has been banned. It’s like burning a book while insisting there was no fire. Cohen covers one of the most noxious – so to speak – uses of these orders. The Dutch raw materials corporation Trafigura slapped The Guardian with a super injunction to prevent the paper running a story about the dumping of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire. Labour MP Paul Farrelly, protected by parliamentary privilege, asked a question about the story in Parliament, thus allowing journalists to write about it. Not so fast, said Trafigura, whose lawyers maintained that to report on Farrelly’s question would breach the super injunction. In one of the better days for British democracy, the story leaked onto Twitter and citizens outraged at the attempt to gag Parliament and the Press furiously retweeted the scandal until it became a trending topic and an international news story. If that little free speech insurgency warms your heart, remember we have no way of knowing how many other super injunctions are in place and what they’re covering up.

Even if you fail to ban a journalist from writing about you, you can always punish him afterwards. Aromatherapists make unlikely assailants against press freedom but the attempt by a group of homeopathy enthusiasts to sue a science journalist into silence illustrates the dangers of our libel laws. The herb and crystal merchants of “alternative medicine” (an inadvertantly honest locution since the quack cures are an alternative to real, effective, scientically-tested medicine) tried to ruin Simon Singh, a celebrated scientist, for pointing out that their potions were pure hocus pocus. They pursued him through the courts, threatening his reputation and his pocketbook, demanding at every turn that he recant what he knew to be fact, a modern-day Galileo inquisition. And while Singh’s case had a rare happy ending, Cohen provides us with more than enough instances of the litigious bully boys triumphing to recognise that our libel laws are a censors’ charter.

Those laws are so sweeping that those who have an interest in censorship flock from far and wide to take advantage of British justice. Saudi bankers and Russian billionaires use England’s courts like a be-wigged PR agency to manage their reputations and silence critics of their dubious practices. A critic need not live in England, work in England, or even have published the offending material in England; one copy of one book bought from Amazon by one reader in England is sufficient to give standing. We manufacture less and less in Britain but we have found a way to export censorship.

Cohen returns often to his frustration that progressive people have not taken up this fight. He pleads for a resurrection of the solidarity that died bitterly with the fall of Marxism and was buried in the debris of Ground Zero. He frequently fires off his roster of the righteous – socialistsfeministstradeunionistsIraqiKurdishcommunists – but one suspects these talismans no longer carry the same mystical hold over Western intellectuals hostile to any alliance that might give succour to the hated regimes in Washington and Jerusalem. He warns:

“If you believe that Western democracies are the sole or prime source of oppression, then you are wide open to the seduction of fascistic ideologies, because they come from a radical anti-democratic tradition that echoes your own.”

Cohen speaks the vocabulary of liberalism with the weary, dejected timbre of a man who suspects his audience has already made its mind up.

The flaws in Cohen’s book originate, ironically, in his own left-wing worldview. He is contemptuous of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United – his rendering of American constitutional law is dubious in parts – while championing the virtues of the Fairness Doctrine. As a man of the Left, Cohen sees corporate speech and right-wing political speech as embodied by Fox News (whose viewers are “beer-swilling bigots”) as somehow less worthy of protection. He fails to grasp that this is self-defeating. When corporations’ speech options for promoting their interests are limited, they seek to limit the speech options of those who would damage their brand. Elsewhere, silly demagoguery creeps in – he advances, in all solemnity, a list of “the similarities between yesterday’s white supremacists and today’s super-rich” – and there’s a touch of high-church Fabianism: “At their best, journalists expose the crimes of the powerful”, as if the crimes of the “powerless” are intrinsically less evil than those of the “powerful”, even if we could agree on a definition of the two terms.

Aside from that, there is little on film censorship, a critical battle ground for political and artistic expression (ask the Canadian-Indian feminist film-maker Deepa Mehta, who has had her film sets besieged by Hindu nationalist mobs, just how critical), and he omits one of the greatest affronts to free speech in a generation – the Human Rights Commissions that scar Canadian intellectual freedom. Speech codes, a tyrannical tool for silencing (usually conservative) speech on American college campuses, are mentioned only in passing.

The book’s overarching achievement is to shift the debate from the methods of suppression to the underlying ideology. Censorship isn’t so much silencing ideas – it is the new idea. Say nothing that will offend, that will discomfort the powerful, that will enrage the extreme. Originality and provocation are cardinal sins, insipidity and asininity social virtues. Trashy TV, inane YouTube videos, silly hashtags; pilled up, boozed out, brain dead: Britain is becoming like Brave New World by way of Money. We have censorship and call it consensus, acquisence and we call it freedom. Cohen closes his book with simple but true words: “The Net cannot set you free. Only politics can do that.” A world that has lost Christopher Hitchens (see my obituary here: “Let us now praise an infamous man”) needs people like Cohen to argue for the primacy of politics.

You Can’t Read This Book is the finest long-form writing Cohen has published to date, surpassing even the righteous fury of What’s Left?, and explores ideas that can only be hinted at within the confines of his Observer columns and Standpoint essays. Far from becoming a right-winger – we would have him; he wouldn’t have us – Cohen is tilling away at the old values of freedom, justice, and solidarity that once bound together the soil of progressivism. It is true that his defence of Western values and contempt for moral relativism finds him in common cause with neoconservatives but Cohen would argue, with some justification, that it is his former comrades, not he, who have strayed. A good writer, Orwell admonished, must choose between truth and partisanship. Cohen has chosen, wants us to know it, and won’t let anyone shut him up.

You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an age of freedom by Nick Cohen is published by Fourth Estate and is available from Amazon.


  1. Nice review. As someone who, I suspect, is rather more to the left than you, I despair sometimes of those claiming to be on the left who can’t criticise fascism because it wears an anti-Washington face. Indeed, those who want the world to fall into neatly divided us-versus-them scenarios, with their hideous over-simplifications. “Oh, Cohen supported the war in Iraq, therefore he’s as bad as Melanie Phillips”, and other nonsense.
    One minor point – it was chiropractors, not aromatherapists who tried to sue Simon Singh. You may view them as all purveyors of quackery, but if you’re going to defeat them with evidence, you need to get things right.

    All the best!

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Matt. “Aromatherapists” was my snarky little attempt to mock the chiropractors. I’m rubbish at irony.

  3. No serious person could call Nick a right winger or Islamaphobe.

    However, he is a neo colonialist as with so many on the left.

    This censorship stuff is a huge huge issue though, it is the bastard child of political correctness.

    Rather than censoring, let’s fight racism where it exists with argument.

    However, important not to let the right have its way and allow all those hidden assumptions aimed at undermining minorities and the poor go unchallenged – ie I defend Clarkson’s right to spew whatever bile he wants, but I defend my right to say that public money should not be used to facilitate it.

  4. I don’t think Nick is a neo-colonialist or a neo-anything for that matter (neo-disco, maybe; it’s making a comeback).

    I don’t think censorship or, for that matter, racism cuts down traditional Left/Right lines. As I say in the review, look to the Canadian Human Rights Commissions or speech codes on US college campuses. Both are gross infringements on free speech and both are policies designed, implemented, and defended by people who consider themselves liberals.

    Equally, while I agree that Clarkson’s fulminations are rebarbative, a worrying number of putatively liberal news media outlets recycle classically antisemitic rhetoric and canards in their denunciations of Israel and “Zionism”.

    The answer, as I see it, is to agree that a right to free speech, something along the lines of the US Constitution’s First Amendment, is desirable because freedom of expression is the most fundamental human liberty and the foundation of politics.

  5. Very good review of an utterly excellent book. Like the first commenter I consider myself left-leaning but despairing of the left’s ongoing tolerance for any anti-Western/democratic fascism.

    Cohen’s books are intelligent and important, and I hope people such as those mentioned in the review’s second paragraph can get over their misinformed bias and do a little reading and thinking.

  6. Thanks for your comment. It’s heartening to see that Nick is not alone as a liberal-leftist who champions liberal-left values. I started out as a person of the Left but over time realised my politics belonged on the right. While the move was motivated by many things, it was certainly helped along by fellow left-wingers who denounced America and Israel but refused to see wrongdoing in those Islamic regimes that oppressed women, gay people, Jews, and other minorities. The apologism for terrorism/Saddam/Hamas was particularly disturbing to my liberal worldview and I vividly recall being at a demonstration on socio-economic matters around 2006 that after five minutes turned to chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “two, four, six, eight – Israel is a racist state”. I hadn’t quite worked out that I was a conservative yet but I figured that if this was the Left, I wanted nothing to do with it.

  7. Hi eclecticpartisan

    Your review is impressively written and highly professional and I wonder that you have not considered becoming a journalist! Very few blogs seem worthy of pecuniary reward.

    I agree with you about certain excesses of the left, such as the support for Milosevic in the Balkans and defence of extreme Muslim fundamentalist beliefs and actions. Certain left-wingers do seem determined now to appropriate an irrational religious movement in the same way as Reagan and the neocons did with fundamentalist Christianity.

    Unfortunately I must take issue with you over your last posting about Israel and Palestine. Whether this challenges current political prejudice or not, Israel is a European settler state similar to South Africa and Rhodesia and this is why Nelson Mandela recognises the Palestinian resistance movement publicly, such as on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People:


    Mandela describes the occupation as the greatest moral issue of our time. To set the Palestinian people free would be the biggest step forward in the struggle to stop the expansion of extremism and limit terrorism. After all, doesn’t the support of Israel expose liberals as hypocrites and call into question the real value, portability and integrity of liberal democracy?

    So I can well understand frustrated demonstraters, horrified by the atrocities prosecuted in that land and rendered powerless to do anything about it by the monolithic bias of the media and government, going a little too far in expressing their opposition to the occupation.

    May I also add that I was as incensed by the reaction to the Mohammed cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten as I was decades ago by the fatwa against Rushdie, and heartened by the actions of the many European newspapers who reprinted them in solidarity with the Danes.

  8. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

    You’re of course wrong about the nature and origins of the State of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Jewish claim to the land goes back further than any other groups and, prior to the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, there had only ever been a sovereign Jewish entity in the land (the ancient Commonwealth of Israel, comprising the Kingdom of Israel and the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south). As Efraim Karsh notes in his excellent history, Palestine Betrayed, there has always been a Jewish presence in the land, however small, even after invasions, occupations, and brutality towards the Jews from a series of neighbouring empires (the Assyrians through the Romans and culminating with the Ottomans). Jerusalem has had a Jewish majority since the mid-19th century. While it is true that European and North American Jews made bet aliyah to Palestine from the 1880s onwards, there were also roughly 700,000 Jews expelled from the surrounding Arab nations at the time of partition who fled to Israel. So, far from “European colonists”, many Jews came from Arab lands. There is also the flip side: the Arabs/Palestinians, whose population was always in flux because Palestine was seen as a region within whichever Arab or Islamic regime was occupying it at the time and so people from anywhere in the empire could come, settle, and call it home right up until partition.

    As much as I admire Nelson Mandela, he is not an authority on Israel/Palestine but an authority on South Africa and the resistance to Apartheid. He is entitled to favour the Palestinians; that does not make his views a holy writ.

    How supporting a democracy which has parliamentary elections, the rule of law, a free press, equal rights for woman, LGBT people, minorities, and allows its Arab citizens to vote, serve in the Knesset, sit on the Supreme Court, fight in the IDF, and serve in government, undermines liberal democracy is beyond me.

    Your justification of chants for the destruction of Israel is a curious one. The demonstrators’ “frustrations” and their supposed “powerlessness” makes their actions “understandable”, as though a sense of outrage and a strong conviction that one is right excuses conduct unbecoming. I wonder if this principle would apply to other political groupings and whether calls for the destruction of other peoples’ would be justifiable on these grounds.

    Your use of the term “occupation”, like so many in the anti-Israel movement, is nebulous and imprecise. Does it mean Israel’s military presence in Areas B and C of the disputed territories? If so, there’s nothing wrong with objecting to that but it seems unlikely that people chanting “from the river to the sea” are talking about merely Areas B and C. If “the occupation” refers to what Hamas calls “the historic borders of Palestine” – Greater Palestine – it is a call for the destruction of the State of Israel. Although anyone who wants to should be able to express such a viewpoint, they are inciting the destruction of a state – the only Jewish state in the world – and invite the social and political opprobrium deserving of such belligerent opinions. They also relinquish their right to encase their prescriptions in the language of international law. Israel has a right to exist under UNSCR 181 and those who seek to end its existence cannot then cite international law in their criticisms of Israel’s military conduct or in support of the Palestinians. To quote Norman Finkelstein, “If you want to use the law as a weapon, to influence public opinion, you can’t be selective with the law.”

    Thanks once again for reading and commenting. Thanks also for the inspiration: I was puzzling over what to write for Israel’s upcoming Yom Ha’atzmaut but I’m now thinking through a piece on the Left’s abandonment of Israel.

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