Monday, March 19, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“YOU CAN’T READ THIS BOOK” by Nick Cohen (4th Estate / Harper-Collins $NZ34:99)
The Berlin Wall fell, Soviet Communism vanished unlamented, Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history” and open liberal democracy triumphed. Now there would be no more censorship of ideas. Free discussion of what was really important would be unimpeded. To reinforce the fact, social media, Twitter, Facebook and so forth played their part in evading the censorship of the remaining dictatorships and helping to bring them down. Think of the Arab Spring and all those young people in Libya and Egypt texting and tweeting and posting and circumventing state propaganda.

So we live in an age of unparallelled freedom of expression, right? It’s only a matter of time before other closed societies succumb to it.

Thus goes the current popular myth.

But Nick Cohen’s isn’t having a bar of it.

Controversialist and columnist for The Observer, Cohen is an angry man and has written a polemic to prove it. No friend of the Hard Left, he rejoiced in the fall of  European Communism and shared the hope that a new world was a-dawning. Now he isn’t so sure and he sees censorship reasserting itself. Intimidated authors and publishers censor themselves for fear of retaliation by powerful individuals who can sue the life out of them. Terrorists can issue effective death threats to silence their critics in press and print. Oppressive governments are able to seduce democracies into approving of their censorship, because trade is more important than human rights. (Think the Great Firewall of China.) And the Internet revolution is not necessarily as beneficial for free speech as some may think.

Making a survey of this new age of censorship, Cohen divides his book in three parts.

The first part he calls “God”. It examines the ways in which Islamist extremists are able to intimidate and silence their critics even in West. Cohen takes it for granted that in the West there are at least some bigots who dislike Muslims because of their race. While he deplores them, they are not the cause of his ire. Cohen is most shocked by the attitude of the liberal-left. When the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, says Cohen, the liberal-left failed to forthrightly defend Rushdie and the principle of freedom of speech. Instead, they continued to talk as if the West, heirs to powers that once practised imperialism, should express “sensitivity” to Islamic views. Cohen accuses them of failing to modify the “identity politics” they had learned in the 1960s. They appeared to genuinely believe that anyone who criticised an Islamist death threat was simply a blinkered, Eurocentric neo-imperialist who didn’t understand Muslims. For Cohen, their acceptance of the idea that Islam itself should not be “insulted” was no more than a replay of the type of Communist censorship that once claimed dissidents should not “slander” the Soviet state.

Further riling Cohen is the fact that there are genuine Muslim reformists, who would amend the worst aspects of Muslim culture (especially in regard to the status of women). But they are being silenced by those same militant Islamists whom Western liberals mistake for the true voice of all Muslims. So “identity politics” enables censorship to be carried out by threat, whether Islamists target novelists, Danish cartoonists or Muslim women. And publishers now self-censor, for fear of retaliation. Censorship includes, after all,  the failure of some books to ever appear, as well as the suppression of some books which have already appeared.

The second part of You Can’t Read This Book Cohen calls “Money”. Noting the rise of the super-rich, Cohen surveys the ways in which the wealthy can intimidate newspapers, publishers and authors by injunctions and the threat of long and expensive libel cases, which only the rich can afford. Money causes self-censorship. Here Cohen points the finger at the English legal system. While England is a democracy and its citizens are comparatively free to express their ideas, English laws of libel are such that complainants are favoured. Defendants’ words have to meet very tight standards indeed to prove that they are non-libellous. Consequently, when rogue Icelandic bankers, Robert Maxwell, representatives of dictators or associates of Russian gangster-capitalists wish to defend their “reputations”, they choose to do so in London courts. It’s not because the British judicial system is more fair. It’s because, in matters of libel, the British judicial system favours the rich.

Scornfully Cohen dubs London “A Town Called Sue”.

He gives the classic example of Roman Polanski. After drugging and raping a 13-year-old in America, Polanski fled the country and took refuge in France, which does not have a strong extradition agreement with the United States. An American magazine, Vanity Fair, ran a long piece about Polanski which contained one brief and incidental negative anecdote about him. Polanski sued. Did he have the case heard in America, where the magazine was written, published and largely distributed (and where he would have been arrested for rape)? Of course not. He waited until a few copies of Vanity Fair were sold in England, then he was able to claim that he had been libelled in England and have the case heard in London. (He gave his testimony via a video link from Paris. England has a strong extradition treaty with the USA.). Polanski won his case, and was awarded a large sum and costs.

Countering this woeful example, Cohen also chronicles the case of a robust critic of cranky “alternative” medicines who was on the point of being sued for libel, and financially ruined, by a group of chiropractors and homeopaths. Fortunately a massive Internet campaign drew attention to his case and British judges, embarrassed by all the publicity, suddenly retracted their pre-trial rulings and threw the case out. Amazing how a little adverse publicity suddenly made them reinterpret the law.

Cohen’s third, and surprisingly briefest, section is called “State”. This is not an account of the way dictatorships and other non-democratic states still censor. We may take that for granted. Rather it is a critique of the idealistic notion that the Internet can circumvent state censorship by making all information freely available. The reality is that supporters of dictatorship and repression can use the Internet as well as democrats. Did you really think that only nice liberals, who want to improve the world, can read the 20,000-plus stolen American State Department cables that Julian Assange and Wikileaks made public? Secret policemen read them too. Cohen argues that Assange’s chosen representative in Belarus was a supporter of that country’s dictatorship. He promptly alerted the secret police to all the names of Belarus dissidents who were referred to in the cables which Assange had forwarded him. Whereupon the secret police drew up death lists to deal with them.

Thanks Wikileaks.

This example takes Cohen some way away from his chosen subject of modern censorship, but it does remind us what a life-and-death matter the flow of information can be. Cohen quotes with approval George Orwell’s dictum that, in the democratic West, left-wing activists “often play with fire without really knowing what fire is.”

As you might have guessed by now, I find most of what Cohen says persuasive. He is clearly on the side of the angels, and he makes a good case for recognising the continuing power of censorship. Nevertheless, You Can’t Read This Book is a polemic and as such there are parts of the book that trail off into windy and non-specific rhetoric. This often happens when journalists try to make a whole book out of ideas that might be better examined in a series of feature articles.

There is also sometimes a certain confusion of aim and principle. Cohen takes his stand on the Enlightenment notion of freedom of speech, which allows him to concentrate on the suppression of ideas and legitimate discussion. But once of twice he has to acknowledge that freedom of expression has its seamy side. There is a curious passage in which he laments the lost world of British literacy, in which newspapers once limited the amount of salacious material they printed when it came to sensational court cases involving sex, and in which even tabloids aimed at working-class readers had long articles with big words in them. (You won’t find anything like that in The Sun now.) Implicitly Cohen notes the corrosive effects of widespread pornography, and suggests that not all things freely expressed are necessarily healthy. He is fully aware that most of our “free” media float in a sea of sensational trivia which acts as a distraction from, and deterrent to, the discussion of anything important. But he does not pursue this reality in detail and returns to his high-sounding (and sometimes strident) attack on the censorship of ideas.

Let’s not condemn him for his zeal, however. There are moments when his intellectual honesty forces him to admit things he would probably prefer not to admit. Like his friend and mentor the late Christopher Hitchens (to whom this book is dedicted), Nick Cohen is a “new atheist”, no friend of organized religion, and a foe of Christianity. But in discussing the impact of militant Islam upon Western journalists, he notes that many journalists, who wish to make a name for themselves as “edgy” controversialists, are only too ready to attack Christian churches, but wouldn’t dare to say similar negative things about Islam, for fear of retaliation. In other words, Christianity has become the “soft target” of pretend controversialists who know they are risking nothing.  Cohen also notes that in real terms, and especially in African states undergoing Muslim takeover, Christianity today is the world’s most persecuted faith.

But you won’t hear this discussed in our media. Self-censorship rules and the issue isn’t one that many journalists wish to know about.

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