Saturday, October 05, 2013

Book review: "You can't read this book" by Nick Cohen.

The most interesting and frightening book I've read in some time, which I picked up at the bookstore at Conservative conference, is called "You Can't Read This Book" by Nick Cohen, and it is about Censorship in the internet age. Which turns out to be rather more prevalent than most of us would like to think.

Nick Cohen is a left wing journalist, but one with a mind of his own, and consequently although I sometimes strongly disagree with him he is often worth reading. His previous books include "Pretty Straight Guys" which was a coruscating attack on the integrity of the New Labour government under Tony Blair, and "What's Left?: How the Left Lost its Way: How Liberals Lost Their Way."

"You cannot read this book" is a chilling account of how Western civilisation has, largely through a failure to stand up to those who are willing to kill or threaten anyone who writes or publishes something they disgree with, allowed it to become difficult to publish certain types of idea, and that we voluntarily censor what we will write or allow others to write about certain subjects.

He begins the book with a ruthlessly candid account of the controversy over Salman Rushdie's book, "The Satanic Verses" which concludes by suggesting it is unlikely that any author of equivalent status to Rushdie would dare try to bring out such a  novel today, and that if someone did, it would be very difficult for them to find a publisher.

From Rushdie onwards, Cohen points out a horrifying number of cases where somone who was trying to publish a work of fiction or art which should never have offended a reasonable person, or to express an opinion which ought not to have been controversial to anyone who believes in basic human rights, was threatened with violence or became a victim of actual violence.

What is worst was that in almost every one of these cases, people in the West who should have been willing to stand up and defend freedom of speech have instead attacked the victims for "provoking" the threatened or actual violence.

Those who were guilty of failing to support free speech came from both right and left. In an interesting illustration that those of us with any idealism tend to expect more of our own side, Nick Cohen appears rather more disappointed with the left wingers who failed the test, where I was most upset while reading the book with centre-right people guilty of the same thing. Sadly there were too many of both.

In the case of Salman Rushdie the main culprits were Ayatollah Khomeini and Islamist extremists but Cohen shows how other religious or racist fanatics were quick to copy what the Islamists achieved and use a warped idea of tolerance as a weapon to suppress legitimate criticism and perpetuate oppression, particularly but not exclusively of women.

My worldview differs from Nick Cohen's in a great many ways, and there were more than a few opinions in this book which I strongly disagree with.

For example, I was surprised when a chapter of this book which otherwise contained a number of strong arguments about the way the British legal system makes it too easy for powerful vested interests to sue people suggested that "In 1998 the English Judiciary hit its nadir when it allowed David Irving ... to sue the American historian Deborah Lipstadt for saying that he manipulated evidence to 'prove' that the holocaust had never happened."

There have indeed been instances in which fear of legal action from David Irving in the English courts appears to have persuaded publishers to remove passages from books by other historians which would have made rather better examples of exactly the sort of censorship Nick Cohen is discussing in his book. For example. the publisher of the British edition of  John Lukacs's book "The Hitler of History" omitted certain passages which had appeared in the American edition of  the book and which were highly critical of David Irving's historical methods, apparently because Irving had threatened to sue Lukacs over those passages.

However, the Irving v. Lipstadt case, far from being a "nadir" for the British judiciary, was a massive defeat for both Irving - whose pretensions to being a serious historian were forensically destroyed in court and who was made responsible for the costs of the case, subsequently going bankrupt - and for holocaust deniers in general.

I deplore "libel tourism" and hope that the defamation bill brought in by the present government succeeds in reducing it, but since Lipstadt's book "Denying the Holocaust" had been published in Britain, and since it accused Irving of being a holocaust denier, falsifier and bigot, charges which would certainly have been defamatory had they been untrue, it is difficult to see how the legal system could have refused to allow Irving to bring the action.

Mr Justice Gray summarized his findings as follows:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism ... therefore the defence of justification succeeds. ... It follows that there must be judgment for the Defendants.

Another example is that Cohen thinks "The Satanic Verses" is a great book and I did not, though for that very reason I found it all the more important to resist the idea that anyone had the right to incite Rushdie's assassination for writing it.

Nick Cohen's main arguments, however, about the need for those who believe in democracy to stand up more effectively for free speech were extremely powerful.

Before reading this book, I would have said that the fundamental test of your commitment to freedom of speech within the law is not your willingness to stand up for the right of people to publish books you agree with, but your willingness to defend the right to publish opinions you detest.

What really frightened me about "You cannot read this book" was that Cohen demonstrates convincingly that far too many people in the West not merely failed to stand up for the right to publish things they didn't like, but wouldn't even stand up to defend the right to publish things they should, if they were constent in their views, have supported.

You may think that in the internet age suppressing ideas would be out of the question. This book demonstrates that for those who are determined to do so, making it very difficult to express ideas you don't like is far easier than it should be.

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