Stifling expression

A new book excoriates the self-appointed censors
January 25, 2012

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 write a book, to name a name—than in any other time in recent history. Cohen traces the strange shift in fears in the newsrooms and publishing houses of the west. Modern writers in democratic countries, he argues, are not frightened of attacking politicians. The old deference has gone and no editor stops journalists or comedians mocking their country’s leaders in the most vicious terms. But artists and reporters who boast of their willingness to “speak truth to power” quietly step back from offending religious fanatics, who might kill them and, he adds, the super rich, who might sue them.

Cohen really hits his stride in the chapter The Racism of the Anti-Racists, a remix of the best bits of What’s Left. Once again that peculiar sort of modern white leftist is robustly fingered; the type of half-wit who, had he come across his own poor grey-haired old mum being ravished by the late Osama bin Laden and the late Saddam Hussein, would have accused the hapless pensioner of being an agent provocateur of the American Zionist imperialist war machine. As it was, he had to make do with calling Ayaan Hirsi Ali a neocon for daring to speak up for women’s rights. Such people go beyond chutzpah—the first bigots ever to accuse their critics of bigotry when their own bigotry is highlighted.

Cohen also fast-forwards to the brave swordsmen of today—Mosley, Goodwin, Marr, Clarkson, the footballers—and their fearless crusade to obstruct the press. The sinister and the silly join forces once more over super-injunctions to silence others—particularly women.

For years, certain lefties have appeared to put more faith in unelected judges than elected politicians to make laws—no doubt something to do with not having to answer to the baying hoi polloi of the electorate. Cohen flays this theory with all the enthusiasm of Miss Whiplash dishing out an Old Bailey Lunchtime Special, fingering British justice as “a legal system that strained its sinews and besmirched its country’s good name to help rich men who thought they could get away with anything”. I remember once, on a tour of Pompeii, being shocked when the guide told me that prostitutes of the time were not allowed to speak to civilians, but were generously permitted to howl, like dogs, after dark to advertise themselves. Whoever would have dreamed that in the 21st century so many people—men and women alike—could have their voices literally taken from them once more.