Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
The book leads with a powerful quote from Christopher Hitchens:
There is an all-out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind: between every kind of commissar and inquisitor and bureaucrat and those who know that, whatever the role of social and political forces, idea and books have to be formulated and written by individuals.
Nick Cohen, columnist for The Observer, examines the strong limitations on freedom of speech in nominally free societies. You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom “covers the power of the wealthy to silence critics, the conflict between religion and freedom of thought, and the determination of dictators to persecute dissenters” (pg. 2).
Whilst we may drift in technological euphoria and global mass communication, Cohen demands we view past events with considerable care. The incredible tale of super-injunctions, which “censored the fact of censorship” (pg. 3), demonstrates the power of our courts to silence journalists. The novelist Salman Rushdie writes a fictional story concerning a struggle with religious identity; the charge of ‘blasphemy’ in other nations means no American or European publisher will print his works, fearing violent reprisal. For nothing more than producing a film, Theo van Gogh is stabbed and shot in broad daylight; the feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, van Gogh’s colleague on that film, is pursued by murderers, but is labelled “an Enlightenment fundamentalist” by fellow intellectuals. Libel law has flash-frozen journalistic and scientific investigations into Russian oligarchs and British chiropractors.
If offense is the new threshold for censorship, then offense will be manufactured. Cohen notes that both The Satanic Verses, which mocked religions as a fairy-tale, and The Jewels of Medina, which was reverential towards Muhammad, have both been called ‘offensive’ (pg. 76). The responses to books, films and cartoons are only united in their disproportionality. The fear of murder, by knife, gun and fire, against a person and their family, curdles and curtails speech and publication: no one knows where the line of acceptability will be drawn.
People may look to Twitter and the internet to secure freedom, Cohen sees that the internet can oppress too, as “elites fight to hold on to power” (pg. 284). Despite the depressing nature of the material, Cohen’s wit shines through (pg. 208):
The judge went on to tell the jury that ‘We are not a court of morals. We are not here to judge Mr Polanski’s personal lifestyle’ – even though others might have though the ‘lifestyle’ of a convicted sex offender had some bearing of the case.
Recalling passages from John Milton and John Stuart Mill, Cohen makes the potent case for freedom of speech, and its long and tumultuous struggle. We call ourselves free, and are undoubtedly freer that at any point in history, but there are still powerful forces of censorship. In his advice for free-thinking citizens, Cohen says: “If you have the chance to enact one law, make it the First Amendment”, rightly describing the First Amendment as the “best guarantor of freedom yet written” (pg. 301).