Prescribed Reading

Book review of You Can’t Read this Book by Nick Cohen

Anthony Julius

You Can’t Read this Book. You can, of course. And you should. Cohen is right about everything that matters. So I am ready to forgive his disparagement of, variously, English lawyers, the lawyers, the legal profession (who “served the Russian oligarchs as attentively as the shop girls in the Harrods Food Hall”), not to mention the English judiciary (“which hit its nadir when it allowed David Irving to sue Deborah Lipstadt”) and the law of precedent. 

Cohen assembles a miscellaneous group of relatively recent censorship events, and makes a compelling narrative out of them. He writes about, among other such cases, the Rushdie affair, the hounding of the Indian artist M.F. Husain, the suppression of Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, the Danish cartoon “crisis”, the South Park abstention from the use of Muhammad images, the reception of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books, the sentencing to death for alleged blasphemy of the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, and the subsequent murder of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, the Amnesty whistleblower Gita Sahgal, Fred Goodwin’s privacy injunction, the Trafigura toxic dumping case, the Rachel Ehrenfeld Funding Evil case, the Simon Singh “trick or treatment” case, and some prosecutions under the anti-terror laws.

Taken together, they are evidence, first, of a resurgence of the unloveliest aspects of religion, supported by the theft of universalist language in defence of particularist causes; second, of the emergence of a global culture of denunciation, aided by the internet; and third, of the oppression by the plutocratic of investigative writers, relying on new or newly extended laws protective of their undeserved privacy and reputation. All this finds expression in censorship. 

Cohen is right about this, and right about many other things too. He is right that censorship is one thing, not other things. He is against the inflation in meaning of words that insists that everything is censorship — because then nothing is censorship. It is not, for example, mere manipulation, or “spin”. He is also right to distinguish between types of censorship. Serious or “true” censorship is characterised by its removal from the censored person of all choice. At the extreme, it kills. It is now, commonly, a form of terror. There is, then, the censorship that hurts (his subject) and there are other types, somewhat less consequential, such as editorial suppressions. Notwithstanding these important discriminations, however, loyal readers of Nick Cohen should not despair. He has not lost his polemical edge. He does not flinch, say, from comparing the English judiciary to the secret police in a dictatorship. 

Cohen is also right about Rushdie. Of course The Satanic Verses is blasphemous. But equally of course, it is not agitprop, it is not an incitement. It is certainly not an incitement to violence. Specifically, Rushdie did not incite violence against Islam. It was the Islamists, a movement of the radical religious Right, who incited violence against him. The world changed with Khomeini’s fatwa, Cohen argues. The fatwa was an incitement to murder without precedent; it was not even preceded by a show trial. It redrew the free world’s boundaries. And the outcome? A triumph for liberalism, in as much as Rushdie lived, and the book continues to be read. But liberalism also retreated: the threats against Rushdie have paralysed Western culture’s best instincts. No young artist of Rushdie’s range and gifts would dare write a modern version of The Satanic Verses today, and if he or she did, no editor would dare publish it — or even an anti-Satanic Verses (such as The Jewel of Medina).

Cohen reminds us of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s disgusting snootiness at the time of the Rushdie affair: “I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring Rushdie’s manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.” And of Rushdie’s despatch of John le Carré, who took the “philistine, reductionist, militant Islamist line that The Satanic Verses was no more than an insult”. These two men were early joiners of the queue of writers and intellectuals ready to side with the censors against freedom of expression. This readiness has led to the prevalence of what Cohen terms the “post-Rushdie rules of self-censorship”. Censorship, he observes, is at its most effective when its victims pretend that it doesn’t exist. 

The majority of Western liberals reached this settlement with Islamism, concludes Cohen: they would offer no criticism of the life or teachings of Muhammad; they would treat the Koran as the inerrant word of God; they would not defend Muslim or ex-Muslim liberals or feminists; they would continue to criticise Western governments and other religions; they would never admit to hypocrisy or double standards. On this last point, Cohen suggests, we should salute Grayson Perry for owning up: “[On the subject of Islam] I just play safe all the time.” And South Park‘s Matt Stone: “[You’re not liberals who respect Islam,] You’re afraid of getting blown up.” Cohen concludes that “a prissy nervousness afflicts writers when they tackle people who can afford to sue: plutocrats, banks and corporations, or those who have a reputation for using no-win, no-fee lawyers to sue.”  

Cohen is properly dismissive of the phonily self-pitying language of Islamists and the usage of “insult” as the cover for terror and murder. He is unmoved by the damage done by the victimless crime of blasphemy, and deplores the illegitimate extension of arguments against racism to suppress criticism of religions. He condemns the racism of anti-racists, the shamelessness of Islamism’s “anti-imperialist” allies on the secular Left.

But he is also right that censorship is not limited to Islamists. Free thinkers, he proposes, have just made a better job of containing the censoring practices embraced by zealots of other religions — though the story of M.F. Husain, the Muslim artist who fell foul of what Cohen refers to as the self-pitying and vicious world of Hindu sectarianism, is evidence of the limits of that “containment”.    

And then Cohen surprises us, by being right too about WikiLeaks. He writes: “For all my liberalism, I cannot think of one honourable reason why governments should not be able to keep information secret that might be used by the Taliban to compile a death list.” What is more, for all his reservations about the development of privacy law, he also writes: “I accept that the judges will have to tackle the explosion of character assassination on the Net.” He regrets the loss of British reticence and the coarsening of public life, though he finds the decline in deference has compensated for the decline in civility.

Cohen is right that the struggle for freedom of speech is a political struggle. He offers as an example the mobilisation in support of Simon Singh, “the most successful British free-speech movement since the campaign 50 years previously against the obscenity laws the state used to prosecute Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover“. The internet does not itself liberate, Cohen reminds us. On the contrary. Both the powerful and the weak can use internet technologies. Techno-utopianism is a dangerous distraction, encouraging the illusion that the censors can be defeated by the click of a mouse.  

Cohen celebrates Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) and Mill’s On Liberty (1859). His own book stands alongside them. 

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