Censorship is not always about hiding secrets. Sometimes it is just an assertion of raw power. — Nick Cohen, You Can’t Read This Book
There is something special about being ten years old. Every child knows this on his tenth birthday, crossing the shadow line from single to double digits. It means you’re all grown up. A similar thing happens to books, particularly those which concern themselves with politics and metapolitics. We read them again a decade after they were born and ask, “Well, you’re a big boy now. What have you got to say for yourself?”
Nick Cohen is a veteran English journalist and author. You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (YCR) was published in 2012 and so is now out of short trousers and, to a certain extent, stands up well for itself, although some developments must surprise the author now. Cohen is a writer of the Left, but a part of what politicians used to call “the awkward squad.” Tony Blair once said that “if I listened to Nick Cohen I would never win an election.” That in itself should speak in Cohen’s defense.
With the sort of happy coincidence that can happen on a tenth birthday, the book’s opening chapter concerns Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the resultant fatwa on the novelist which Cohen calls “the Dreyfus Affair of our age.” The fatwa was, of course, almost carried through earlier this month on a stage in New York, and Rushdie remains severely injured. The attack was not censorship but, in the mind of the attacker, the repayment of a debt to be paid in blood. Cohen reminds us that both Thatcher’s government and Prince Charles were critical of Rushdie at the time, showing how the defense of brand Islam that is now so reflexive for the British establishment was already taking shape in 1989.
Part of the importance of Cohen’s book is that it separates out the different strands of censorship, parsing the concept until it can be seen not as monolithic but invasive in multiple manifestations. The simplistic British model of censorship was always embodied by the old office of The Lord Chancellor. This was the man who would strike through passages in literary works with his infamous green pen and they would duly be excised. But this was censorship before publication, whereas the reaction to Rushdie’s book, and the resultant worldwide carnage, was exactly that, reaction after the event. This immediately opens up a dichotomy at the heart of the idea of censorship, to which the Islamic world’s response to Rushdie’s novel could best be described as a word to which it is kin: censoriousness. The point is not that the censor will stop you publishing but that he will punish you once you have, pour encourager les autres. Cohen’s book also winnows out censorship into sub-families, some of which force a wry smile. At a demonstration against Rushdie’s book, a group of Muslimas demonstrating for women’s rights in Islam were set upon not by the also-present English Defence League, but by Muslim men.
And now Cohen gets into gear, opening up the whole notion of censorship and showing it as a far wider concern than simply some journalistic, editorial strikethroughs on a page. An aspect of YCR which would jar with certain “communities” in today’s atmosphere is that for the first half of the book Cohen writes almost exclusively about Islamic intolerance. The lazy thinker would look at the author’s surname and think, “No surprises there.” But Cohen himself is far from being a lazy thinker, and if he pinpoints censorship in the Islamic world in a way some authors might shy away from now, he is to be applauded. As well as Rushdie, he also considers Hindu artist Maqbool Fida Husain and the author of the ill-fated novel The Jewel of Medina, pulled by Random House in 2008 after thinly-veiled threats from Islamists. He quotes the artist Grayson Perry who, when asked why he was so ready to attack Christianity through his art but not Islam, answered with candor that he didn’t want his throat cut.
Cohen changes tack, moving from religious concerns to those of dictatorial republics. There, the need for censorship is not tethered to religious peevishness but to political expediency. There are certainly Venn-like overlaps, but the engine of censorship has moved from the mosque to the presidential palace. However, despite one of his final chapters being about Belarus — which sounds like an appalling country — the wind still steers Cohen’s course back to Mecca.
The book enters its second trimester, as it were, and Islam is still very much a focal point for Cohen. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is well known: a Somali woman who escaped (so she thought) the clutches of Islam and moved to the Netherlands, where she was effectively persecuted for writing about escaping the clutches of Islam (and forging a political career as a strong woman amid a culture which despises that). She finally moved to the United States. Those books of hers about Islam I have read — Nomad, Heretic, and Infidel — are all worth your time.
The section on Ali does give us a first glimpse of a switch Cohen sometimes misses due to the ideological snowblindness which adherence to the political Left always brings:
Once, attacks on bogus asylum seekers and illegal immigrants were confined to the right-wing press. But those who attacked Ayaan Hirsi Ali used the language of the left.
I wonder what Cohen thinks about this moral elasticity now it is commonplace. It is a feature of Islamism that it can befriend either the far Left, because of a mutual interest in totalitarianism, and the far Right, thanks to a shared obsession with despising Jewry.
As well as informed polemic, YCR is also a serviceable history of censorship, at least in Britain. It is poignant now for the English to realize that, although a 1637 Star Chamber decree made the printing of “seditious, schismaticall, or offensive Bookes or Pamphlets” illegal on pain of imprisonment and torture, this was repealed when Charles I was forced to recall Parliament just three years later and get rid of both book-licensing and pre-publication censorship (as well as the Star Chamber itself), meaning that “[f]or the first time in their history, the English enjoyed the freedom to publish and read what they wanted.”
Almost 400 years later, the United Kingdom is about to pass into law the Online Harms Bill, which will effectively reverse one of the first acts of the new House of Commons. William Wordsworth cried in 1802, “Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour!”, referring to the Aeropagitica, Milton’s defense of free speech, but Milton would be appalled if he was living at this hour, and not least because the religion which is now protected in England is not his own but that of what he would have termed “the Mussulman.”
The inclusion of John Stuart Mill and his On Liberty is to be expected, and Cohen connects Mill’s famous “harm principle” — a central supporting wall of libertarianism — with a comment by philosopher Joel Feinberg, who states that what Cohen calls “naïve liberals . . . [have] replaced Mill’s harm principle with ‘an offence principle’.” This is a good piece of philosophical cartography. The strange epistemological sleight-of-hand that has allowed today’s progressive Left to somehow equate language with violence, and make the arbitration of that equivalence subjective rather than objective, is the delivery system for yet another strand of censorship.
The chapter on Mill moves Cohen to the start of this century, and the cautionary tale of two science writers who criticized the use of the law to deflect criticism, and thus protect the profits, of the strange world of alternative medicine. We are used to censorship to avoid offending Muslims or the LGBTQ community, but Cohen writes that in at least one case a legal decision was reached to avoid offending chiropractors. I suppose chiropractors are unlikely to bomb or behead you, but they might come round and break your back. Passing mention should be made of the title of a book of which I had never heard by the two men who were the focus of these legal wrangles: Singh and Ernst. Their book is about the validity of alternative medicine and is wonderfully titled Trick or Treatment.
Cohen is first and foremost a journalist, and a good one, well respected by his co-writers and a regular feature on the BBC until he wrote What’s Left?, a caustic critique of his own tribe. But because of his journalistic experience and expertise, his observance of the media’s mechanics is well informed. Occasionally, however, he reverts to Leftist type. Much of Cohen’s chapter on Fred Goodwin smacks of a hissy attack on capitalism, something a journalist of Cohen’s political stripe would never, could never, resist. Goodwin was the genuinely psychopathic CEO who caused the collapse of The Royal Bank of Scotland, which then had to be bailed out by the British taxpayer, including me at the time. I didn’t even get a ballpoint pen out of the deal. All Cohen really does to criticize the disaster that was Goodwin’s stewardship of the worst banking disaster in British history is to throw in the idea that office workers couldn’t speak out. That is not censorship; it’s called British management, and if you have never worked under it, I suggest you keep it that way. Cohen even makes that point himself elsewhere in the book: “Every time you enter your workplace, you leave a democracy.”
That is more true now than ever, albeit for different reasons. Employment also throws up the figure of the whistleblower, a rogue agent no company will fail to try to take down — and prevent from ever working again — should their whistleblowing become too shrill. “Every whistleblower I have ever met,” writes Cohen, “has ended up on the dole.”
On a national note, use of the law to censor dissent allows Cohen to remind us that England is notorious as a sovereign nation in which individuals can be sued where they could not be in other sovereign nations. A South Park episode has Tom Cruise yelling, “I’m gonna sue you! In England!” The most egregious collusion between the British judicial system and the most corrupt of tycoons is the case of Robert Maxwell, the newspaper magnate notorious for stealing £727 million of his employees’ pension funds. A friend of mine was one of them, and Maxwell’s embezzlement left him pensionless.
Maxwell issued many writs through the courts, and Cohen writes that
[t]he writs Maxwell issued . . . were directed at stories covering his business activities. All those stories turned out to be true, or on the right lines.
This is censorship in another form, that of the legal obstruction the super-rich can put between those authorized to investigate them and their corrupt empires. What this means is a directly repressive effect on journalism as “a prissy nervousness affects writers when they tackle people who can afford to sue.” It does not make an Englishman feel proud of his country when Cohen writes:
I still recall the shame I felt when the legal director of Human Rights Watch in New York told me she spent more time worrying about legal action from England than from any other democratic country when she signed off reports on torture.
Other than Maxwell, those who have benefited from the combination of vast wealth and the English courts include Russian oligarchs and Roman Polanski. Quite a crew to provide covering fire for.
Now, as YCR approaches its teenage years, with the World Wide Web stronger and more influential than ever, we are surrounded by censors. Western governments have been cunning about this, allowing Big Tech to do a job they would rather not be seen doing themselves. Effectively, government outsources the job of censorship to Facebook and Twitter in the same way British banks outsource their call-center services to India, although this is not to say governments let everyone else have all the repressive fun. As I have been writing this piece, the Biden administration has quietly closed down a free-speech hotline which was a Trump initiative, and the World Economic Forum has announced that it is to recruit an army of online “information warriors” to patrol social media and infiltrate groups and forums whose views may be out of keeping with the protocols of the Great Reset.
The greatest boost to information’s democratic availability in history is without doubt the Internet, which is why it is of such great concern to the new economic and technocratic monarchies. Cohen tells the story of Johannes Trithemius, a fifteenth-century abbot much concerned about the invention of Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press. Rather sweetly, Trithemius bemoans the fact not that more people can read what ought not to be read, but that the poor monks whose job was to transcribe ancient texts would be deprived of their meditations as they laboriously copied out the manuscripts. Then, when Trithemius wished to get his book published, he was forced to send it to the printers.
An amusing tale, but hardly a sufficient defense of the Net’s capability to make the lives of ordinary people riskier and more onerous than they already are. The Internet has undoubtedly benefited billions of people, but it is also a double-edged sword, one side of which is being sharpened to a fine point. As well as its benefits, the Web has allowed elites, corporations, and the super-rich — and amalgams of all three — to move from micro-censorship to the macro version. Thus, it is not plays or scientific articles or the leaking of government documents that are censored today so much as great swathes of people.
In the end, Cohen is a creature of the Left who wouldn’t have seen himself blindsided a decade ago by exactly who is using the Internet to do the surveillance and suppression, censorship’s two key ingredients. Consider this: “The Net does not make democratic change inevitable, because liberalism’s enemies can use it as well.”
Cohen would have to squirm very effectively to argue that liberalism ten years after YCR is not itself the enemy, and the following dichotomy unravels given that his script has been thoroughly flipped by the rise of woke and governmental collusion in its anarcho-tyrannical program:
The future may be one of greater information sharing and informed collective action as people exploit new resources, or one of suspicion as people understand the growing likelihood of surveillance.
The future turned out not to be either/or, but both. The paradox for Cohen is that the surveillance is coming from his side of the political canyon. We recall the Trump years in America, when the anti-Donald hordes thought of themselves as the resistance. No, not at all. You are the ones to be resisted.
In the past few years I have probably written that power and control are two sides of the same coin toss more times than I have actually tossed a coin. Censorship is the perfect manifestation of this hybrid. To censor someone’s speech or writing is to exercise both power and control over them, and the state is bringing its info-militia into position to ramp up both. “Privacy was meant to offer the citizen protection against the over-mighty state,” Cohen writes. In effect, the individual was able to censor the state. Those days are long gone. A new type of censorship has made personal privacy as outmoded as, to quote from another context, the bronze axe and the spinning wheel. With social credit systems migrating from China to the West faster than a speeding virus, with hate crime police units in the UK taught to look out for hate crimes in advance, with small (white) children reported as at risk of being racist, with traceable phones becoming mandatory (or at least necessary), with bank cards providing the state with a map both of your whereabouts and what you are spending your money on, and with hiring flourishing not just among Soros and Schwab’s people but America’s IRS, Big Brother is not just watching you, he wants to know what it’s like to be you.
And, when he finds out to his satisfaction, you may find out what censorship is about to mutate into.
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