A new book excoriates the self-appointed censorsby Julie Burchill / January 25, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Nick Cohen’s books are like the best Smiths songs; however depressing the content, the execution is so shimmering, so incandescent with indignation that the overall effect is transcendently uplifting. In 2007’s What’s Left, the last book which I felt compelled to order by the dozen and press upon whoever came to the door (a few Jehovah’s Witnesses went away with more than they bargained for) he examined the truly repulsive spectacle of “how the liberal left of the 20th century came to support the far right of the 21st.” That is, how the enemies of sexism, racism, homophobia and religious mania came to embrace all of those evils in their eagerness to suck up to the last beacon of anti-Americanism: political Islam.
Still, it wasn’t the first time that a strand of Islamism had found itself in bed with an unlikely playmate. In his new book You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate)—which deals with the rise of self-appointed censors from jihadis to judges—Cohen reminds us that the apartheid regime in South Africa banned The Satanic Verses, and that Salman Rushdie had to pull out of a trip to Johannesburg to discuss the censorship of opponents of white rule because of death threats from South African Islamists.
Closer to home, Cohen tells the story of a band of Asian women who ran hostels for battered wives under the banner Women Against Fundamentalism finding themselves in the middle of warring National Front thugs and religious maniacs: “The women never forgot the experience of seeing apparent enemies unite against them,” says Cohen.
In the unseemly struggle to stifle expression, an unholy smorgasbord of the sinister and the silly (to paraphrase the book’s dedicatee, Christopher Hitchens) have linked arms to keep free speech at bay. While we congratulate ourselves on our unparalleled freedom to “be ourselves”, we have in fact seen a greater curtailment of real freedom—to…