By Suzanne Moore
You Can’t Read This Book is published today. Available here and in book shops
“The futility of much of this is actually a block on real debates about free speech. Nick Cohen’s magnificent new book You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom reminds us that pre-publication self-censorship “is the most suffocating form there is”. This self-censorship is all around us: people are afraid to call Mossad killings murder for fear of being called antisemitic or still talk of the horrific murder of women as “honour killings” for fear of being Islamophobic.
Cohen takes us back to what I call the big bang of cultural relativism: Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses. People were killed by zealots who had never even read this book. The boundaries of the free world were remapped. Suddenly “respect” for religions meant some got far more respect than others. We know that a cartoon of the Prophet can cause death, but the ridiculing of Christianity is everyday. Cohen quotes the inimitable creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who said: “It’s really open season on Jesus. We can do whatever we want to Jesus and we have.”
Actually, though, this current climate of outrage is depoliticised in its democratic “anyone, anytime, anywhere can be offended” mode. What Cohen does so refreshingly is to insist on the primacy of the political. A real culture war, as opposed to these Twitter scuffles, means understanding that the political is as much a part of our identity as the religious. We can feel “the offence as deeply as any believer who has had his God or prophet questioned”. This means not bowing down to the religious right, be it Muslim or Christian or Hindu. It means questioning the kind of self-censorship that went on in corporate financial structures before the banking collapse.”