Book review, published in Diplomaatia 104/April 2012
Nick Cohen, You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, Fourth Estate, 2012, 330 pages
We Estonians – at least those of us born in the 1960s and 1970s (and earlier) – remember too well the time when freedom of speech was just an abstract dream and ubiquitous official censorship was an unpleasant reality; when there was no slightest hope of having a normal, open public debate about anything remotely political (or interpretable as political) – there was just one and only one possible position on those issues, that of the leaders of the one and only political party. At that time, writers, poets, musicians and playwrights were glad when they sometimes managed to smuggle a hidden message into their texts and plays, a thought everyone had on their minds but no one dared to express – provided that the censors were too lenient or ignorant to notice the forbidden message in time.
That experience of real and habitual censorship – in fact, a censorship that prevented most of us from even trying to ever say anything inappropriate (which, for many, meant not trying to say anything at all in public) – distinguishes us from the people in the ‘old West’, who have got used to enjoying freedom of speech at best for centuries. The relatively fresh memory of not having had this precious freedom may be a reason why we have quite a lot of it today – Reporters without Borders listed Estonia the third freest country in the world after Norway and Finland. Therefore, even though our own ACTA protests recently brought thousands of people to the streets, some of the problems assessed by the British journalist and author Nick Cohen in his new book, You Can’t Read This Book, are not very familiar to us. Still, it is good for us to be reminded that even in the ‘old West’ freedom of expression is not always as self-evident as we might think it is in the 21st century, long after the ‘end of history’.
Just like the late Christopher Hitchens (to whom the book was dedicated), Cohen, who is a columnist for the Observer, belongs to the rare class of thinkers who position themselves politically on the left, but have the capacity to rise above ideologies when assessing any particular topic at hand, and who is therefore hard to categorise politically to the confusion of those who desperately try to do so. Cohen can harshly criticise economic inequality and the bankers’ greed, but he does not share the view, popular among left-wing thinkers, that everything bad comes from capitalism and ‘American imperialism’, and consequently nothing bad can come from cultural ‘non-West’ that is seen as their opposite. Cohen opposes the repression of freedom regardless who and where it comes from – in his own backyard or out in the world.
This intellectual integrity helps Cohen to detect and condemn the lack of freedom of speech also in an area where many of his (often, but not always, left-wing) colleagues prefer tactful silence to show their respect for ‘differences’ – be it about the anti-Rushdie campaign, the Muhammad cartoons, a play staged in Birmingham offending (some) Sikhs, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s fight for the rights of Muslim women. Cohen understands that just as Western liberals had supported the Soviet dissidents who had defected to the West, they should support the liberals and freedom fighters who emerge from culturally defined minorities and who defy the taboos and dogmas of their own traditional background societies. But it is not easy to find this kind of support today.
You Can’t Read This Book is a book about censorship in free societies – and very much about self-censorship caused by different methods of pressure – from violence and threats of violence by religious fanatics to libel courts with a capacity to ruin your economy. The book is, in spite of its title, recommended reading for anyone who is interested in preserving and protecting free speech as a necessary pillar of free society. The book is divided into three parts, each describing one major factor that can be used, in one way or another, to limit free speech: God, money and the state. The first and longest part is dedicated mostly, but not only, to the challenges posed to free speech by Islamic fundamentalism. The ‘Money’ part deals with the (in)famous English libel courts, but also with the meaning of privacy protection, the anatomy of some aspects of the financial crisis and even workplace democracy. The censoring potential of the state is assessed in the third part, in connection with the new methods of spreading information in the wake of the IT revolution.
It is an irony of fate that the most serious recent setback to freedom of speech in the West occurred in the same year when the fall of the Berlin Wall – soon followed by that of the Iron Curtain – liberated the Eastern half of Europe after decades of totalitarianism. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published in 1988 and Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death in 1989. This call for murder as a punishment for blasphemy was unprecedented because even though Rushdie was born to an Indian Muslim family, he was a Cambridge-educated British citizen living in London, meaning that the harsh Qu’ranic blasphemy laws, still valid in stronger or weaker versions in many Muslim-majority countries, were for the first time applied globally, with nothing less than death as the punishment for violating them.
The Rushdie affair, which Cohen calls ‘the Dreyfus affair of our time’, ‘redrew the boundaries of the free world’, or rather, it dissolved the borders that had framed and protected a zone where the right to have free, playful and provocative discussions about any issue had become self-evident. The fatwa ‘ensured that London, New York, Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam could no longer be places of safety for writers tackling religious themes’. It was not just Rushdie who was threatened. Cohen gives a good overview of the reactions of publishers, book sellers and translators to the threats they, too, had received. Some were more prone to give in to the threats than others who chose to defend the writer and the principles of free speech, sometimes paying a high price for that. It is most amazing that not all intellectuals rushed to Rushdie’s defence – there were those, both on the right and on the left, who did not share the instinctive reaction of people like Hitchens and Cohen who immediately took the side of the threatened novelist against those who threatened him. Some blamed Rushdie for his lack of ‘respect’ for the sacred, instead of condemning the religious fanatics who wanted to kill him for writing a novel.
Cohen argues that this apparently benevolent understanding of ‘other cultures’ was, and still is, based on a similar mistaken conception of ‘a clash of civilisations’, like ‘neo-conservative’, or even plain racist, denunciations of the cultural (or racial) ‘other’ as essentially different and incapable of moral responsibility. Cohen rejects this essentialist perspective. “The Rushdie affair was not ‘a clash of civilisations’ but a struggle for civilisation,” he asserts. Nevertheless, after the Rushdie affair, the Western liberal proponents of ‘understanding’ have demonstrated over and over again an incapacity (or unwillingness) to seriously stand for liberal values when these are threatened by religious fanatics coming from non-Western cultures – in addition to Muslims, the book contains examples where Sikhs and Hindus are involved. For Cohen, such reluctance to stand by dissidents and liberals from other cultures is itself a form of racism. ‘The others’ are seen as homogenous groups, not individuals who can disagree with each other within (and beyond) those cultural groups.
In twenty years, violence and threats on the one hand, and misplaced attempts at respect on the other, have had a profound effect. When the American author Sherry Jones wrote an innocent novel about the life of Muhammad’s favourite wife, it took just a hint from an American academic that it could possibly ‘be offensive to some in the Muslim community’ and ‘incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment’ for Random House to cancel the contract and pull the book. Violence or threats are no longer needed: we have learned to censor ourselves. Paintings are removed from exhibitions and plays are cancelled as soon as someone hints that they could ‘offend’ someone. Self-censorship does not mean so much that existing books get banned as that possibly provocative books remain unwritten. Since the fatwa, Cohen writes, Western culture has changed: “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.”
The bankrupting truth
A quite different form of censorship is the one that has brought dubious international fame particularly to England – it threatens those who break the rules not with physical violence, but with unbearable financial losses. English libel courts are well known for making writers pay for smearing someone’s good name, regardless of whether what they write is factually true or not, and even whether they end up winning or losing their cases in court. Even though this method of pressure is different, its end result is the same: preventive self-censorship. Knowing that they can always be outdone by rich claimants, individual writers and smaller papers prefer not to write about certain persons and topics. This modern form of censorship also has a global reach: the British courts have protected, among others, Saudi sheiks and Ukrainian oligarchs from uncomfortable revelations or critical remarks. To sue writers for ‘smearing their name’, it is enough that the material, even if published abroad, is available in Britain. In the era of the Internet and global markets, this could include virtually anything.
Just like Part I, the part about the censoring power of money is a multi-layered story consisting of history, arguments and detailed examples. It does not simply demonstrate how rich people living far away have managed, with the help of English libel courts, to silence papers published far away. It also offers an interesting insight into the history of libel law not just in Britain, but in the USA, the country whose free speech law, the First Amendment, is in Cohen’s opinion the one law that everyone should enact to protect free speech, if they can enact just one law. Cohen recalls the situation in the South of the United States in the 1960s where the civil rights movement was initially silenced by the same libel laws, inherited from England – civil rights activists who criticised racist officials and policemen were sued for libel. Cohen draws a parallel between the people who tried to preserve segregation then and the people who buy the media’s silence today – both of them could shut their critics up by appealing to generous interpretations of libel law. However, the American courts fixed this problem in 1964: the Supreme Court decided that libel law could not be interpreted so as to punish citizens for freely expressing their opinions. Sadly, it is still not equally obvious everywhere.
Cohen even sees a connection between the repression of free speech and the financial crisis. Criticising the corporate culture as the ‘cult of the supreme manager’, he pays attention to a fact that also should stop us up here to think: democracy often ends at the office door. Today, in the Western world, it is quite risk free to criticise political leaders. As seen above, criticising religious authorities is trickier. But if you publicly criticise your employer, you run a very high risk of losing not just your job and livelihood, but also a chance to be hired by any employer in your field. Even though it is justified to keep some information secret within companies and institutions, suppressing all internal criticism may have disastrous results. Cohen believes that the financial crisis was predictable and that there were experts in the banking sector who warned their employers about the risks. But more often than not, the whistleblowers were fired by their bosses who wanted to keep the status quo in the hope of rapid profits. And others preferred to remain silent.
Freedom is political
In Part III of the book, Cohen reminds the reader that there are still plenty of states in the world that do not grant their citizens even the most basic freedoms. He warns against an overwhelming IT optimism – in spite of the Arab Spring which demonstrated the power of the Internet and the social media to help mobilise democratic protests, authoritarian governments have learned to restrict Internet freedom and, worse still, to use new technologies in their own interests.
“Cyber-utopians do not study history. If they did, they would not be utopians,” says Cohen and turns to the past again to find parallels between today’s Net enthusiasm and the introduction of new printing presses in the 1450s. Then, too, the possibilities of spreading information improved at a revolutionary speed. Then, too, there were people worried about the harmful effects of the new technology, people who would have preferred to restrict the availability of information to the masses. And there were those who believed in the enlightening power of the new technology. Cohen reminds us that even though parallels are gladly drawn today, anyone who would have predicted in the 15th century that the ‘Gutenberg Revolution’ would bring a ‘new age of transparency’ to late medieval Europe would have been wrong in their assumption that the ease of spreading information in itself would make wars and massacres less likely to occur.
Today’s technological developments are also radically changing the speed and nature of the exchange of information. Cohen offers an illuminating example by painting a picture of a Xerox-era Wikileaks: the people who leaked the information should have been able to make hundreds of thousands of photocopies and smuggle a truckload of them out of offices without anyone noticing. He concludes that the ease of the transfer of information certainly changes the world, but it does not contain an inherent value – Cohen is ironic about the Net radicals who treat transparency in itself as a positive and at the same time depoliticised value. For example, by exposing ‘non-political’ information Wikileaks revealed the identities of Belarusian dissidents to the oppressive regime. Cohen does not oppose the pursuit of transparency, but he insists that the activists who swear they act in the name of information freedom try to understand whether the free flow of information indeed benefits liberals or supports the enemies of freedom.
The book ends constructively with a dozen tips for all ‘free-speaking citizens’. Well argued, logical and even funny, You Can’t Read This Book is more than just a source of information about the limits to free speech in free societies. It invites the reader to think about the weaknesses of democracies today and it teaches citizens of the free world, who have got so used to freedom that they tend to take it for granted, how to notice and recognise attempts to suffocate their freedom.
Freedom of speech is not irrelevant to world politics. When Western courts use their libel laws to protect the strongmen of authoritarian states from criticism and when Western artists submit to pressures from foreign religious-political leaders and refrain from criticising the dogmas and ideologies professed by those leaders, it means that free societies implicitly support authoritarian governments abroad, instead of helping the dissidents who challenge them.
Cohen relies on John Stuart Mill’s good old Harm Principle when searching for justified limits to free speech: he subscribes to Mill’s view that no speech that does not constitute a direct incitement to violence should be prohibited. But he considers John Milton, an earlier thinker who fought for the right to criticise the dogmas of the Church of England in the mid-17th century, to be the father of the English freedom of speech. Cohen writes: “Milton’s advantage over modern writers and academics is that he had experienced censorship. He knew the humiliation of having to take work to a censor, and had a justifiable contempt for the type of man who would choose bowdlerising as a career.” That is an ‘advantage’ that we in Eastern Europe have over our fellow Europeans who have enjoyed liberty much longer. We should use this advantage to recognise and resist the hidden forms of censorship that our time has in store.