You Can’t Read this Book – Nick Cohen
A man stands in court, appealing against his conviction. His crime? Making an off colour joke on a social networking site.
Another is fleeing for his life when, on an airport stop-over, he is arrested and handed back to his pursuers. He is lead away, to face trial and highly possibly, the death sentence. His crime? Making an off colour joke on a social networking site.
A respected author, who has spent his entire writing life exploring the meaning of story, and the contrast (but never clash) between cultures, cannot visit a literary festival in the land of his birth. Demagogues and compliant (perhaps even, instigating) police have made it unsafe for perhaps his homeland’s greatest living author to give a speech about writing fiction.
Police, perhaps compliant in law-breaking themselves, swoop and arrest the journalists who are alleged to have bribed their colleagues. Dawn raids and the kind of procedure usually employed against terrorists or drug dealers are the order of the day.
A footballer, who most feel is distinctly unpleasant, is seen on camera mouthing what may or may not be racial epiphets at an opposition player who may or may not have heard him. He comes to trial in the summer.
A medical writer publishes an article on a branch of “alternative” medicine. A libel case by their professional body is launched, which has the potential of bankrupting him.
Another footballer is still recovering from the terminal embarrassment of his lawyers threatening the entire Internet with a writ, when a super-injunction he had taken out to protect himself from revelations of an extra-marital affair is broken en masse, and with gleeful and anarchic abandon.
The public discourse, meanwhile, descends into a frenzy of constant searching for statements to take offense at, which is echoed by a defence of any remark against any criticism – no matter how reasoned, rational and engaged with the argument – with the mantra of freedom of speech.
These are some snapshots from the news of the recent past, often reading more like blurb on the back of a slightly paranoid thriller. Freedom of Speech has, unnoticed by most of us, very quickly become the battleground of the 21st Century.
Nick Cohen has attempted, and generally succeeded, in “You can’t Read this Book”, to set out some of the key terrain this battle is being fought on. It’s a lucid and well argued book, which aims for several targets – by dividing itself into three segments – “God”, “Money”, “State” – and hits each of them squarely where it matters.
The book starts with the cautionary tale of the Premiership player and the super-injunction, the Twitter and Facebook revolt it provoked, and the delusional lawyers who wanted to sue the Internet. This episode seemingly reinforced our naive belief that things were flowing in one direction – that the new technology, the new opportunities for organising, activism and dissemination of ideas – were moving us towards an anarchic playground Utopia, where no bully was too big to face, and everyone could be taken down a peg or two once the vox populi roared.
Cohen skillfully, and – it must be said, regretfully – punctures these illusions as quickly as he raises them. The new technology offers unrivalled chances for surveillance, the instant recall of websites offer new chances for libel cases to be launched over long forgotten articles stored in the online archive. Technology is – as Cohen rightly puts it – Janus-faced. And while English libel law still rests on the ludicrous precedent of The Duke of Brunswick’s Rule, which dates back to 1849 (in which the universally reviled Duke sent a manservant to purchase a copy of a newspaper produced 17 whole years previously, in order to bring a libel case), one can hardly feel too optimistic on this front. As Cohen puts it:-
“No precedent could be more dangerous in the age of the Internet, when readers can access blog posts, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and online newspapers afresh with every new day. Because of a case from the 1840s, any one of the millions of people who have published on the Web could be sued for something they wrote years before” (p.190)
The book starts with God. Here, perhaps one of my only two – minor – criticisms of the book emerges. As this is both the meatiest and the most urgent of the subjects, dealing as it does with fire-bombs and death-threats, synthetic whipped up rages and frenzies, and actual deaths, I do think it should have gone at the centre of the book, with the absurdities of the libel law leading on to it, with the segment dealing with the state as a coda. As it is, the book feels a tiny bit front loaded. However, that mild structural quibble aside, the issue is addressed, and addressed in a direct and forthright manner.
It is possible, of course, to write reams on the battle between religion and free expression alone. as Iain Banks says in his novel “Matter”:-
“Happily for the governing class,a well formed faith kept people from seeking their recompense in the here and now,through riot,insurrection or revolution.
A temple was worth a dozen barracks; a militia man carrying a gun could control a small,unarmed crowd only for as long as he was present; however,a single priest could put a policeman inside the head of every one of their flock, for ever.”
Cohen starts with the Rushdie case, the Ur-conflict of our time (or as he points out, the Dreyfus affair of our time, and, as one could identify two decades later the political position of someone based on the position they took over Dreyfus, so you may with its modern equivalent), and moves forwards from there. Along the way, a cast of craven apologists, excuse makers and useful idiots pop up, showing repeatedly how the intial victory for freedom of speech and against obscurantism was squandered not by any mob of “the faithful”, but instead by those in positions of power and influence in the West. The precedent set by the response of the great and good to the Rushdie affair, a distancing, a condemning of the victim, a (failed) soothing of the inflamed passions ended up bearing unintended consequences. For, instead of defusing the situation, as was, one would assume, the intention, rather, the stage was set for more and more and more of the same:-
“From their different perspectives, Susan Sontag, one of Rushdie’s most loyal defenders, Daniel Pipes, an American conservative, and, later, Keenan Malik, a British historian of the struggles for free speech, all noticed the dangers of London and Washington’s stance. They were telling Muslim democrats, free-thinkers, feminists and liberals that human rights were Western rights, and not for brown-skinned people from a clashing ‘civilization’. You can call this cultural relativism, but ‘racism’ is a blunter and better word” (p.38)
If that was the message that the free-thinkers and democrats were getting, then what message message were said obscurantists getting? Uh-oh. Yeah. That one.
At least, when the chips came down, the majority of the publishing world, and a good deal of liberal conviction, stood by Rushdie, despite the murmurings from the establishment. This was not a situation that would improve.
From that, the picture gets darker and murkier (if things could get any darker than the Rushdie affair), as Hindu nationalists pick up the same trick and persecute MF Husain, India’s greatest modern artist, and Muslim reprisals and fear of reprisals squash freedom of speech from the important (the work of Ayaan Hirsi Ali), to the banal (“The Jewel of Medina”), to the ridiculous (the Danish cartoons furore and the Charlie Hebdo firebombing sticking out here). Cohen also notes, which I am grateful for, the other problem with the liberal-left’s leaving of the field on this issue – which is the ammunition it has provided to racist, or nativist political movements. This cannot be emphasised enough – in refusing to stand up for the rights of freedom of speech for anyone, in any shape or form, they have often left the field clear to a rag-bag of sectarians and racists. There have been informed conservative critiques on the issue, so this isn’t a blanket attack on the right, but the main thrust of western reaction to the assault of a tiny minority of aggreived fundamentalists has been racist. The left has walked away from the fight – scared, one could say, of seeming, or being racist (which, to be fair, is a reasonable *fear*, but the problem is, their inaction has had the double effect of both *being* racist – in that it assumes that anyone of a certain skin colour is part of a monolithic mass which must be protected, appeased, humoured, for the threat a small and vocal minority holds – and leaving the fight *to* the racists, with a result that, when quite obvious racists such as the English Defence League emerge, a proportion of the populace hears only an element of their complaints – an alleged assault on “our” way of life – and not the substance, and just as importantly, subtext of these complaints – “it’s the fault of the brown people”).
Consider the trajectory of Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a feminist, who wanted, more than anything, to stand up for the rights of abused refugee women, after fleeing religious oppression herself. When the Dutch liberal-left refused to take up the fight, she looked for allies rightwards, not through (at that point) conviction, but because the only people who would stand with her were generally there. When her collaborator, the film-maker and provocateur, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered in the street, the Dutch took the example of the British establishment with Rushdie, closed ranks against her, and then magnified it ten-fold.
“In Amsterdam, the city of Spinoza and Anne Frank, anti-semites had murdered a director for making a feminist film, and forced a black liberal into hiding. Hirsi Ali had good reasons to criticise European liberals, but she might have expected they stood with her as she faced down murderous enemies. She was to learn a hard lesson. The response to Van Gogh’s murder could not have been more different from the response to the attempts to assassinate Salman Rushdie. Instead of defending the victims of armed reaction, liberal opinion turned on them” (p.108)
And, of course, since that point, the nativists, the racists, are the ones who have gained ground, and the only others to have gained have been their mirror image in the fundamentalist world.
One is reminded, of the words of Christopher Hitchens (who the book is dedicated to),whenever we hear the appeals to respect religion:-
“Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong, and were making an offer people could not refuse”
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the end of the road that starts with “respect” is the land where religion is strong, and making an offer people cannot refuse. In addition to this, one must also note the incredible adaptive power of religious propaganda. Once one religion has success with the “aggrieved” trope, another picks it up, Hindu follows Muslim, Sikh follows Hindu, and on the horizon, one can see the massed ranks of the 3 members of Christian Voice beginning to get irate about someone saying “Jesus” on the tellybox. Similarly, when one religion plays the victim card, another picks up the meme, to the extent that a professor who just wanted to be left alone to teach evolution is now seen as being as much of a bigot as the Khomeinis, Paisleys et al. This is the road we travel, when we succumb to the “respect” concept – denial of basic scientific scientific fact, the gifts of the enlightenment being squandered and ignored, the shutting down of debate, hiding abuse of women, children.
I’m surely not alone in thinking that shouting me down, and offering death threats, when I venture an opinion doesn’t equate to something worthy of respect.
The urgency of the writing in this section, and the seriousness of the issue it addresses make it the true heart of the book, and this is where my previous criticism comes in.
Moving on to “Money”, Cohen assembles a series of events, and shows how business culture and libel laws serve to muzzle us. I’ve already pointed out the lunacy of the libel laws (the Americans, in contrast to the UK, have a convention – not covered in the book, sadly – which is known colloquially as the “tiny penis precedent” or somesuch, which allows fictional representation of someone as long as you can prove that said fictional representation is purposefully *inaccurate* – thus, portraying some virile young blogger as a dog strangling purse thief would be fine, as long as said character also had a tiny penis, which you could then argue “ah, but, your honour, Mr Virile Young Blogger *doesn’t have a tiny penis*, so it can’t possibly be him”, or the like), but he also examines the world of work, and how, when we enter work, “you leave a democracy, and enter a dictatorship” (P.149). He goes on to address how bad this culture of top-down management, and secrecy, and muzzling of freedom of speech is. How people are constrained by their workplace into not telling the truth on issues, and how this can have toxic effects – see 2008’s crash as a pertinent example, but I’m sure a list could be made stretching back to year dot – on the world around us.
The Janus-Faced technology which trapped Paul Chambers, the defendant in the Twitter joke trial, is now at the fingertips of every manager on earth. Want to see your potential new employee’s opinion on anything? Why, just search for him on the social network. And look, here’s a picture of him drunk. Maybe he’s not our sort.
And that’s just the barest outline of the problem.
“All employment contracts include confidentiality clauses stating that the employee cannot release information about the organisation and its clients under any circumstances. Many now contain an additional catch-all clause stating that the employee must take no action that could bring the organisation into disrepute. Britain is a country where a council can sack a school dinner lady for bringing her ‘school into disrepute’ for telling parents their daughter was being bullied in the playground. Workers here do not speak their minds if they suspect their employers may find out. Even medics, who have a professional duty to protect the interests of patients, are exposed. The Nursing and Midwifery Council struck off a nurse who revealed the neglect of elderly patients by taking a camera crew into her hospital. The British Medical Journal said that when a doctor raised concerns about unsafe heart surgery in his hospital, ‘his career stalled’ and he moved to Australia to find work” (P.150/151)
Meanwhile, the boss class, empowered and emboldened, have the most illiberal libel laws in the Western world to work with. Have an affair with an employee whilst your bank is going down the tubes, yet don’t want anyone to find out about it? No problem, there’s a couple of judges out there who will happily give you a super-injunction, a legal device so extreme that you aren’t even allowed to say that one has been issued.
Some reviewers of the book – Dominic Lawson springs to mind – have tried to make the point that to deal with the legal and financial censorship after the high drama of the clerical censorship is somehow risible, that Cohen is comparing a hard-bitten hack who has been banned from reporting on trousers off shenanigans with someone in fear of their life. And whilst the high-minded reader may find it difficult to say the least to defend the bawdy-house of the English popular press, by focusing on the shagging and gossip does slightly miss the point with the super-injunction. Which is, the extraordinary scope of these injunctions, and what they did cover – only mention the name Trafigura to get the point.
But of course, therein lies another issue with the western world’s problems with censorship – the blindness that it can’t happen here. Of course, we are the west, freedom of speech is sacrosanct, isn’t it? Well, it is, unless it challenges what religion finds sacrosanct, or the idea that business is sacrosanct, or the many other hypocrisies our current body politic is guilty of. Then, it becomes very much under threat. As the often buffoonish, often prescient Ice-T put it, in an album reflecting on his and other rappers long running battle with the PRMC:
“Freedom of Speech?
Ah yeah, but just watch what you say”
The final segment, “State”, shows that in comparison to the clerical and financial constraints, the state power to censor has shrunk in the West, to such an extent that we welcome an irresponsible narcissist gadfly like Julian Assange, who then proceeds to tell us, well, mainly, many many things we could have guessed or already knew anyway. Shocking things like, diplomats in certain countries talk to opposition figures as well as the government. That they have opinions on the countries they are posted to. That governmental motivation is not always sweet and innocent, but often a complex mix of power politics, economics, ideology and pragmatism.
Nobody has to be completely compliant or accepting of any of the above. Indeed, whistleblowing is to be encouraged. However, the messiah status accorded to a border-line sociopath such as Assange, who – if not purposefully (but it’s easy to suspect), then at least through the sin of “not giving a shit about the consequences of his actions” – publishes lists of opposition contacts in dictatorships, or people who work with the security forces in Afghanistan, knowing full well he’s marked them down for at the very least harassment and most possibly death, is risible. Risible, and shows how far the role of government – and our respect for government – has retreated (despite, it must be noted, the constant victimology of the right with regards to Political Correctness – ignoring the fact that most of the examples ever quoted are usually managerialism, and of a piece with anything in the “Money” section – the simple fact of the matter is that the “they” our right wing friends mutter about – for example – who “don’t let us have a proper debate about immigration, because of PC” haven’t much stopped most of our press and saloon bores talking about, errr, well, immigration, for most of the past 20 years. Noisily).
Again, we could welcome this fact (whilst noting many parts of the world are nowhere near as pleasant), if it wasn’t for the apparatus and ideology being constructed, like most of the British Constitution since time immemorial, completely haphazardly and with no overarching plan. This ideology says “don’t cause a ruckus”, and this apparatus, with it’s sporadic, random libel/super-injunction rulings, are – if not the tools for dictatorship the shallow, hard-left would have us believe – certainly capable of returning us to a less free age in relation to the government. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Conservative led Coalition is making noises about religion being let into the public sphere more (as if it had ever left), whilst encouraging a mindless boosterism for vapid Royalty based patriotism, and closing down any economic argument with a variant of their same old tune, “there is no alternative”. It’s no great leap to imagine that while the forces of government are in retreat, they won’t always be. A final word on that subject goes to Saul Bellow, quoted in the book:
“”Everybody knows there is no finesse or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining”
World-wide, the story is different, and other nations have State to fear as well as God and Money. Cohen lists the examples of a few, but we could possibly start listing them today and continue for weeks. And should I say anything objectionable about the occupation of Tibet, you can bet your bottom yuan that isn’t going to be read behind the Great Fire-Wall of China.
The State section is perhaps the weakest in the book, not due to any weakness in Mr Cohen’s arguments or writing, but due to the fact that it – like the Money section – deserved more length. Similar issues, of government control, how it’s currently wavering in the West but that’s not the story world-wide, were addressed in John Kampfner’s “Freedom for Sale”, which, to be fair, struck me as a little more paranoid than Mr Cohen’s work. I would have liked more of this, therefore. However, I would assume the constraints of the publishing industry probably stopped a 700 page long opus being published, and nobody can fault the arguments put in it, which – aside from a modest set of proposals as to how we can remedy the current state of affairs, and ensure that our tradition of free speech is safeguarded and enhanced – end the book. It’s a rallying cry which should be repeated:
“all the enemies of liberalism are essentially the same. Opposing them requires not just a naive faith in technology, but a political commitment to expand the rights we possess to meet changing circumstances, and a determination to extend them to the billions of people, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe who do not enjoy our good fortune.” (P.298)