Friday, 09 March 2012 18:22

You Can’t Read This Book

Written by 
Rate this item
(0 votes)
You Can’t Read This Book

Censorship in the Age of Freedom... Of course you can read this book if you want to. But, as the Observer journalist Nick Cohen argues with passion and wit, there are many important books you cannot read, not because they have been banned but because they have not been written. Their authors have been forced into self-censorship through fear of violence, financial ruin or death.

Pre-publication censorship is rare in today’s world. But there are many other ways of silencing writers. The most effective is fear. For all the advances of secularism, democracy and new technology, the forces of religion, wealth and the state continue to suppress ideas and information. In fact, as Cohen argues, censorship has become more powerful over the past 20 years, not less.


Since the Iranian fatwa against The Satanic Verses and the deaths that resulted when Salman Rushdie’s publishers, translators and booksellers were targeted, writers have learnt to avoid potentially inflammatory topics in Islam and other religions. Even romantic novelists have been the subject of threats, as Sherry Jones found to her cost when her sentimental treatment of Mohammed’s wife, Aisha, was rejected by Random House in the United States because an academic reader had described it as a “declaration of war” on the feelings of Muslims. After a brave independent publisher, Martin Rynja, took on the book in the UK he too was attacked – petrol was poured through the door of his family home by extremists, though their plot was foiled by the police. The book did not even oppose Muslim orthodoxy; Jones simply mixed Mohammed and romance in what was deemed to be an unholy cocktail.

Cohen blames this form of suppression on the Islamist threat – what Christopher Hitchens called “an ultra-reactionary mobocracy”. If he is angry about Islamism, Cohen is incandescent about the liberal fellow travellers who condoned this new and violent form of censorship. However, it is not always clear who these liberals are. Yes, there were intellectuals and writers who refused to give unqualified support to Rushdie during the fatwa – but John le Carré, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Roald Dahl could hardly be described as bleeding-heart liberals. Meanwhile, large numbers of more obviously liberal writers such as Harold Pinter, Homi Bhabha and Lisa Appignanesi stood shoulder to shoulder with Rushdie. They are not mentioned here. Cohen’s thesis – that the postcolonial or anti-American strain in contemporary liberal thinking blinded its adherents to the illiberalism of Islam – does not accommodate evidence to the contrary.

Similarly, on financial censorship, Cohen presents a lone voice, deploring English libel law as an “under-explored form of censorship”, despite the fact, as he has to acknowledge a few pages later, that a national campaign for libel reform has attracted huge public support and led to a Government Bill on the subject. Libel is a problem here not only because of the underlying law but also because of the cripplingly high costs of mounting a defence. Cohen attacks the “timidity” of campaigners (of whom I am one) for not advocating the American approach to libel, which exempts public figures from legal protection against damaging untruths. This element of American law is unique in the world, and there are good reasons for avoiding it (who is a public figure, anyway?) Meanwhile, Cohen ignores serious work being done inside and outside Government to reduce the chilling effect of libel costs.

Cohen is at his pugnacious best when he turns his firepower onto the digital revolution. The early prophets of internet freedom have let the public down, for the internet has actually given states far greater powers of surveillance and censorship than they could have dreamed of in the age of print. Moreover, the internet itself is an increasingly corporate space, where our privacy has become an asset of huge global companies whose commitment to free speech is only as strong as “local customs” permit – witness the complicity of Western internet companies, bar Google, with Chinese state surveillance.

So don’t let the title stop you reading this book, with all its fire cracking, eye-popping rage at the increasing power of censorship. Cohen is a powerful fighter against the forces of secrecy and hypocrisy. But he is not alone, and the book would be strengthened if he could engage seriously with the motivations of others, both those who campaign for and those who oppose free speech.  Source:

Read 2825 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 February 2015 12:54
Rich Wermske

My pedigree and bona fides are published elsewhere. That said, I respect that a few may wish to learn more about the private person behind the writing.  While I accept I am exceptionally introverted (tending toward the misanthropic), I do enjoy socializing and sharing time with like-minded individuals. I have a zeal for integrity, ethics, and the economics of both interpersonal and organizational behavior.

The product of multi-generational paternal dysfunction, I practice healthy recovery (sobriety date December 11, 2001).  I am endogamous in my close personal relationships and belong to a variety of tribes that shape my worldview (in no particular order):

☯ I participate in and enjoy most geek culture. ☯ I am a practicing Buddhist and a legally ordained minister. I like to believe that people of other spiritual/faith systems find me approachable.  I am a member of the GLBTQA community -- I married my long-time partner in a ceremony officiated by Jeralita "Jeri" Costa of Joyful Joinings on November 18, 2013, certificated in King County, Seattle WA. We celebrate an anniversary date of February 2, 2002.  I am a service-connected, disabled, American veteran (USAF).  I am a University of Houston alumnus (BBA/MIS) and currently studying as a post baccalaureate for an additional degree in Philosophy and Law, Values, & Policy.  I am a retired Bishop in the Church of Commerce and Capitalism; the story arch of my prosecuting and proselytizing the technological proletariat is now behind me.  I am a native Houstonian (and obviously Texan).  At 50 years old, I am a "child of the sixties" and consider the 80's to be my formative years.

As I still struggle with humility, I strive to make willingness, honesty, and open mindedness cornerstones in all my affairs. Fourteen years of sobriety has taught me that none of "this" means a thing if I'm unwilling, dishonest, or close minded.  Therefore I work hard on the things I believe in --

  • I believe we can always achieve more if we collaborate and compromise.
  • I believe that liberal(ism) is a good word/concept and something to be proud to support.  The modern, systematic corruption of liberal ideas is a living human tragedy.
  • I believe in a worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. The pragmatism of this site and my journey is rooted in both classical and social liberalism.
  • I believe in democratic elections and institutions including a media free of commercial and governmental bias.  Liberty and equality perish when a society becomes uneducated and/or ill-informed.
  • I believe in diversity of life and ideas.  Life and ideas can only flourish when the gene pool is vast and abundantly differentiated.
  • I believe in advancing balance in civil, social, and privacy rights such that all of humanity is continuously uplifted.
  • I believe in separation of church (spirituality) and state (governance) -- with neither in supremacy nor subjugation.
  • I believe in private (real or tangible) property explicitly excluding ideas, knowledge, and methods; such non-tangibles, by natural law, being free for all humanity and emancipated at conception.

While change and the uncertainty of the future may be uncomfortable, I do not fear the unknown; therefore:

    • I believe I must be willing to make difficult choices, that those choices may not be all that I desire, and that such may result in undesirable (or unintended) consequences;
    • I believe we must be willing to make mistakes or be wrong; and I am willing to change my mind if necessary.
I undertake to abide the five precepts of Buddhism; therefore:
  1. I believe it is wrong to kill or to knowingly allow others to kill.
  2. I believe it is wrong to steal or to knowingly allow others to steal.
  3. I believe in abstention from sexual misconduct.
  4. I believe it is wrong to lie or to knowingly allow others to lie.
  5. I believe in abstention from non-medicinal intoxicants as such clouds the mind.

Suicide, major depression, borderline personality, and alcoholism are feral monsters ever howling at my doorstep. However, despite my turbulent and tragic past, rare is the day where I have to rationalize, defend, or justify the actions of that person I see looking back at me in the mirror...

More in this category: Left and Right Wing Brains »
Network neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet. The Internet has operated according to this neutrality principle since its earliest days. It is this neutrality that has allowed the internet to innovate and grow. Without equal access the internet dies.