You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, by Nick Cohen, Fourth Estate, RRP£12.99, 224 pages
Nick Cohen is a raging bull, but much of the time he’s my kind of raging bull. He has similar contemporary heroes: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose intolerance of intolerance has, incredibly, often confined her to the admiration of the right; the late Maqbool Husain, an Indian artist whose paintings were suppressed by mobs; Salman Rushdie, blamed by many (still) for disturbing bigots with literature; and Flemming Rose, culture editor on Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. Cohen is prepared to discuss the nature of free speech seriously, without lapsing into lobby group blinkerdom.
He rages in all directions, often at once, but the greatest force in You Can’t Read This Book is directed, as it is in his columns in The Observer and elsewhere, against religious hatred. Islamism is one of two main targets; the cowardice of western liberals the other. The overall theme of the book is censorship of one kind or another – from, at one extreme, threats of murder, to the use of strict English libel laws to suppress or punish publication at the other. In his attacks on liberals, he returns to a theme in his previous book, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way (2007), seeing his former comrades, with greater despair now, as incapable of discrimination between real and imagined evil.
The assassination threats against Hirsi Ali, Rushdie and the Danish cartoonists are well-rehearsed pieces of contemporary history; and though neither of the first two have been harmed, the murders of Hirsi Ali’s former collaborator Theo van Gogh and of one of the translators of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, together with a nearly successful murder of one of the Danish cartoonists, showed the threats were real and would, had they not had some protection, likely have been carried through.
More often forgotten, though not by Cohen, was the reactionary response of many in the west. Rushdie was blamed by such eminent figures as John le Carré – who wrote that “there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity”. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper went further: “I would not shed a tear,” he said, “if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.” Bill Clinton condemned the Danish cartoons; and Hirsi Ali’s detractors still proliferate. Jack Straw, when Labour home secretary, congratulated the British press for not reprinting the cartoons. In fact, this last was a shameful episode, especially for those newspapers that trumpet their attachment to freedom the most. Even as this is written, Indian officials are trying to persuade Rushdie not to attend the Jaipur literary festival because of extremist threats.
If anything Cohen’s scorn for nerveless liberals is greater than his hatred of violent Islamists. He believes the former lack confidence in intellectual freedom and “do not realise most people in modern democracies do not harbour secret fascist fantasies, and the best way to respond to those who do is to meet their bad arguments with better arguments”.
This is fine, robust matter – and it does matter. I depart from him when he inveighs against the libel laws. It is true that their strictness attracts their use by men with little of a reputation to protect; and it is true – and this needs reform – that only the rich can easily afford the costs of a suit. But libel law is there to protect reputation, and given the lies and allegations peddled so blithely – as confirmed by evidence to the Leveson inquiry – such a law is needed, and its strictness could as well be celebrated as lamented. It need not chill investigation – merely put it on its mettle to get it right.
Cohen also shows a certain carelessness. He attributes “parochial reasoning” and “narcissism” to all western radicals, yet there are many on the left who believe that freedom is tested most when challenged by fear. He falls into a rant about finance, turning away from any serious consideration of how its activities might be regulated and preferring to declaim that “sensible countries should treat banks as if they were hostile foreign powers”. He excoriates the writers Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for criticising Hirsi Ali – neglecting to mention that Garton Ash, at least, has publicly regretted his description of her as “an enlightenment fundamentalist”, and honoured her courage.
Raging bulls are not careful. Nor do they discriminate enough between injunctions to religious murder and laws designed to protect reputation. But among Britain’s present commentators, Cohen is surely one of the most attached to the freedoms democratic politics have brought us, as well as the most explicit in demanding that respect be paid to those who test them.
John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor and director of journalism at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University