Read Me If You Can: Censorship Today

You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom
Nick Cohen (London: Fourth Estate, 2012)

If I complacently accept the idea that freedom is something that happens in some places and is prevented in others, I am implying that freedom is a matter of accident, or privilege, occurring—if I happen to have it—at the place where I live. This attitude to freedom really undermines it, for it is to support the views of those who hold freedom to be a luxury enjoyed by bourgeois individualists. Therefore if I consider myself not just in my role of lucky or unlucky person but as an instrument of consciousness, the writer or scholar deprived of freedom is also an instrument of consciousness, and through the prohibition imposed on him my freedom is also prohibited.

— Stephen Spender, writing in the first issue of the Index on Censorship, March 1972

It all goes back to the Rushdie Affair. In 1988, when an Indian-born Briton wrote a novel that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad in a less-than-reverent light, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, a religious edict, encouraging any Muslim, anywhere, to kill him. It’s irrelevant what parts of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses Muslims might have found offensive. The author could have depicted Muhammad as a whore-mongering, bacon-eating pederast and it ought not to have affected—by one iota—his right not to be killed. What’s relevant is that a clerical fascist in Tehran issued a death sentence for an author living halfway around the world because of something he wrote.

One would have thought that prominent personalities, especially Rushdie’s fellow writers, would have risen to his defense. The truth is that many, if not most, people in positions of political and artistic authority betrayed what is perhaps the most fundamental precept of the liberal society: freedom of speech. As Rushdie’s books were burned around the world and his Japanese translator was assassinated, spy novelist John le Carré pronounced that there was “no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” (Actually, there is such a law, at least in America, and it’s called the First Amendment to the US Constitution.) Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in a remark that should put more than a chink in her Iron Lady armor, blurted that “we have known in our own religion people doing things which are deeply offensive to some of us. We feel it very much. And that is what is happening to Islam.” Rather than direct their anger at the promulgator of the death warrant and those who tried to carry it out, much of the British establishment turned its ire on the man who, just by doing his job, had earned a bounty on his head. The whole event exposed, in the words of Nick Cohen, a “fear that suffused Western culture and paralyzed its best instincts.” To this day, the best barometer of an individual’s commitment to individual rights and classical liberal values is where they stood, or stand, on l’affaire Rushdie.

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In You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, Cohen, a columnist for London’s Observer, begins with the Rushdie Affair because its echoes of cowardice and moral asininity have only grown louder with time. Late last year, for instance, when the offices of a French satirical publication were bombed after it put an image of Mohammad on the cover, Time Paris correspondent, Bruce Crumley, claimed that it was not the attempted murderers who were at fault, but the magazine staff, a “victim,” he declared, only of “its own obnoxious Islamophobia.”

Cohen’s book is a full-spirited, wide-ranging defense of free expression, and an unsparing attack on those, like Bruce Crumley, who would try to shut people up and justify violence against those who don’t.


Cohen sees the enemies of free thought and free speech as coming from three separate, though at times collaborative, realms: god, money, and state. Skeptical readers may not think that Britain’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws or the lack of adequate protections for corporate whistleblowers belong in the same category as religious fanatics suborning the murder of writers and artists, and Cohen does not attempt to equate fatwas with “super injunctions” that prevent reporters from even mentioning the legal enactment of prior restraint. But he makes a convincing case that they are all part of a similar, sinister trend. “All the enemies of liberalism are essentially the same,” Cohen writes, in that they attempt to “restrict the scope for action.” This is the heart of censorship. 

In the context of Great Britain, Cohen traces the onerous restrictions all the way back to the thirteenth century, when King Edward I created the crime of scandalum magnatum, which criminalized the publishing or uttering of anything remotely negative about the monarch. By the mid-seventeenth century came the advent of the Star Chamber, a secret court in which those who spoke too freely were judged with no jury or right of appeal. While such archaic notions of justice have been left behind, at least formally, “an element of the feudal concern to defend the mighty remains in English libel law and the laws of many former British colonies.” Thus, Cohen informs us, it costs citizens of the United Kingdom an average one hundred and forty times more in legal fees and penalties than it does other Europeans to defend themselves from libel charges. 

Cohen shakes us out of a complacency that sees humanity inching ever more slowly toward a broader understanding of what a true commitment to individual liberty entails. The arc of history is not so straight or predictable. The largely peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and the Western victory over Communism convinced many liberals that major, transformative political change could forever be effected nonviolently. “History’s lesson was that dictatorships would collapse of their own accord without the usual wars and revolutionary terrors,” Cohen writes. A consequence of this newfound optimism has been technological utopianism, or the belief that the Internet will set us free. While Cohen is happy to concede the power of the Web in democratizing political discussion in the West, where anyone with a computer can start a blog, he scoffs at those who think that Twitter and Facebook campaigns will bring about meaningful liberal transformation in repressive societies. Social networking and other online tools can certainly play a constructive role, but the hard stuff of politics remains. 

Writing for the Sunday sister paper of the left-leaning Guardian, Cohen has been a lonely voice arguing for a liberalism that is morally serious and intellectually consistent, and which does not fall into the trap of seeing the crimes of the West as the only ones worth caring about and fighting against. He is the sort of left-of-center writer who makes frequent reference to John Stuart Mill, and has no time for Noam Chomsky. There are few journalists in the English-speaking world who can delineate the boundary between liberalism and leftism as well as Cohen. Partisans of the latter tendency, Cohen writes, have an “inability to oppose racism and support individual liberty simultaneously,” as its followers are more interested in “group rights” than “the rights of individuals not to be persecuted by their own ‘community.’” His is a liberalism rooted in a solidarity that transcends skin color, class, language, ethnicity, and religious background (or lack thereof). This is a trait missing from many on the contemporary left, which, as Cohen convincingly demonstrated in his 2007 manifesto What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, all too often demonstrates a tendency to sidle up to, or excuse, the most reactionary individuals and movements as long as they fly a banner of

As for European liberals, Cohen argues that they don’t understand how good they have it. “I can think of no better antidote to Western ennui than the writings of poor-world liberals,” he says. This refreshing statement will ring true to anyone who has met, or read the works of, a liberal from a non-Western country. Cohen makes this observation in reference to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the impossibly brave, Somali-born activist raised in a violently misogynist household who escaped to Holland in search of freedom. She rose to become a member of the Dutch Parliament, and used her status to advocate for the rights of women abused in Muslim households. Her agitation brought on a series of death threats from Islamists and the murder of her artistic collaborator Theo van Gogh. In a depressing twist on the maxim that “no good deed goes unpunished,” she was eventually forced to leave Holland after a colleague opportunistically claimed that she had lied on her asylum forms. For her refusal to moderate her message, Hirsi Ali endured withering attacks by a series of Western, so-called “liberal” writers, who accused her of demagoguery and racism.  

The sad reality, Cohen reminds us, is that people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali are few and far between. And why would we assume otherwise, when she must live under round-the-clock police protection and men like Salman Taseer, a Pakistani politician, are gunned down merely for questioning the legitimacy of blasphemy laws? In forcing Rushdie to live underground for so many years, by murdering Taseer, or in bombing a newspaper office over a cartoon, the enemies of free thought make their point, and the lesson has been learned. “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,” Cohen writes. And so the fanatics win. We in the West may believe we live in total freedom, but as long as such self-censorship persists, can we really say that we do? 


A few quibbles with an otherwise excellent book: in the case of Bradley Manning, the American soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of confidential State Department cables to WikiLeaks, Cohen writes that “a vindictive Pentagon [that] held him in solitary confinement.” If anything, the US government has been lenient in its treatment of this accused traitor whose actions put the lives of many innocent people in danger and, at least under American law, could warrant the death penalty. (Elsewhere, however, Cohen gives a proper skewering to the megalomaniac recipient and publisher of the memos, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, deriding the self-professed “apostle of openness” as a charlatan and a creep.) 

And while Cohen is spot-on in his observation that many on the left “assume that democratic abuses are the major or only abuses of power worth protesting about,” he is wrong to equate such self-absorption with what he describes as “the tendency of democratic elites to succumb to dictator-envy.” Cohen assails “a craving by the U.S. government to have the same ability Islamist militias and Saddam Hussein possessed to torture suspects and hold them outside the Geneva Convention,” what he calls “the shortest and best description for the moral and political disaster of extraordinary rendition and Guantanamo Bay.” But reasonable people should be able to differ about America’s antiterrorist detainment and interrogation policies, the questions surrounding their implementation are hardly as clear-cut as Cohen would have us believe. 

“I devoutly believe that words ought to be weapons,” the late Christopher Hitchens, a former member of this journal’s editorial board and the dedicatee of Cohen’s book, once said. “That is why I got into this business in the first place. I don’t seek the title of ‘inoffensive,’ which I think is one of the nastiest things that could be said about an individual writer.” No truer words have been uttered about the role of the political polemicist. It is an affirmation to which Cohen, a worthy heir to the Hitchens legacy, adds his own: “Stop offending, and the world stands still.” 



James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for World Affairs and the New Republic.

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