The problem with Nick Cohen’s very readable You Can’t Read This Book is the way that you can, glaringly, read this book. This isn’t quite as glib an observation as it sounds. Cohen’s central point is that the censors’ pens did not fall down with the Berlin Wall. And yet here he is, very obviously free to tell us about them.
Cohen is a rambunctious pessimist. His style involves mustering a degree of anger for a page or two, often through an outrage only loosely connected to the matter at hand (Islam’s treatment of women, segregation in the Deep South, the crimes of Roman Polanski, for example) and then, once the wheels of our righteous indignation are drawn back to the point where they start clicking, he lets go, and lets rip, and woof, it’s awesome.
Strictly speaking there are three essays here. The first, ‘God’, deals with religious censorship; the second, ‘Money’, with legal censorship; and the third, ‘State’, with the internet. Religion takes up over half the book, and starts with Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. ‘I can place public figures of my generation by where they stood on Rushdie,’ Cohen writes. He describes a ‘blame the victim’ mentality, evinced by the treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali after the murder of her film-making partner Theodore Van Gogh, and by the Danish Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons of 2005. Fear, he argues, has made us dishonest. Those who consider themselves brave for railing against bigoted fundamentalist Christianity are in fact more cowardly for so glaringly ignoring those other fundamentalists who might put up a fight. ‘Censorship is at its most effective when victims pretend it doesn’t exist.’
This is all good stuff, although Cohen does have a tendency to argue as though he were in a world in which hardly anybody ever says anything critical of Islam, and those who do are invariably making rational points. People who are offended by blasphemy, he notes, consider it akin to libel: the spreading of an untruth. In fact, he points out, it’s more like an invasion of privacy, forcing them to consider arguments they’d rather not. From this, the law has no business protecting anybody.
The essay on the law, and the ability of the rich and powerful to bully their way out of scrutiny, is probably the strongest. Cohen is that rare and essential breed, the unapologetic hack who wants more invasion of privacy, more investigation, more protection for whistleblowers. He draws a direct link between the decline of media profitability and the financial collapse — the press, he believes, was a watchdog that didn’t bark. He blames this in part on the British courts, and their tendency to help the powerful milk their critics dry. As with those cowed to silence by Islamist terror, censorship here is present in the projects which, for fear of a similar outcome, are never begun.
Where Cohen flounders is when he tackles the internet. In a section about the writer Simon Singh’s libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association, he’s full of approval of the online sceptical communities who begin to make life a misery for all chiropractors, in Singh’s support, reporting them to advertising authorities for making outlandish claims on their websites. Yet isn’t this exactly the sort of thing he’s been railing against, just done by those of whom he approves?
Cohen regards it as naive to think that the web empowers only the powerless; it also empowers those with power already. He’s right, of course, but it empowers both equally, which is progress. ‘Putin and his mafia friends do not worry overmuch that their opponents can publish somewhere in cyberspace,’ he writes, ‘as long as they cannot break away from the fringe and reach the mainstream.’ This was obviously written before a blogger, Alexey Navalny, became the very mainstream face of opposition to Vladimir Putin, but the sentiment is in any case wrong. The great boon of the web is that distinctions between the mainstream and the esoteric crumble. How can Cohen not see that? Maybe it’s an age thing.
But for the most part, he is a deft guide to the frontiers of freedom of the written word, and a welcome reminder that, if you want to find the essential battlefields, Max Mosley and Hugh Grant are entirely the wrong people to ask.
You can read this book, and you probably should.