Stifling Expression

By Julie Burchill

Prospect 25 January 2012 Issue 191

Nick Cohen’s books are like the best Smiths songs; however depressing the content, the execution is so shimmering, so incandescent with indignation that the overall effect is transcendently uplifting. In 2007’s What’s Left, the last book which I felt compelled to order by the dozen and press upon whoever came to the door (a few Jehovah’s Witnesses went away with more than they bargained for) he examined the truly repulsive spectacle of “how the liberal left of the 20th century came to support the far right of the 21st.” That is, how the enemies of sexism, racism, homophobia and religious mania came to embrace all of those evils in their eagerness to suck up to the last beacon of anti-Americanism: political Islam.

Still, it wasn’t the first time that a strand of Islamism had found itself in bed with an unlikely playmate. In his new book You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate)—which deals with the rise of self-appointed censors from jihadis to judges — Cohen reminds us that the apartheid regime in South Africa banned The Satanic Verses, and that Salman Rushdie had to pull out of a trip to Johannesburg to discuss the censorship of opponents of white rule because of death threats from South African Islamists.

Closer to home, Cohen tells the story of a band of Asian women who ran hostels for battered wives under the banner of Women Against Fundamentalism finding themselves in the middle of warring Nation Front thugs and religious maniacs. “The women never forgot the experience of seeing apparent enemies unite against them.”

In the unseemly struggle to stifle expression, an unholy smorgasbord of the silly and the sinister (to paraphrase the book’s dedicatee Christopher Hitchens) have linked arms to keep free speech at bay. While we congratulate ourselves on our unparalleled freedom to “be ourselves” we have in fact seen a greater curtailment of real freedom – to write a book, to name a name – than in any other time in recent history. Cohen traces the strange shift of fears in the newsrooms and publishing houses of the west. Modern writers in democratic countries, he argues, are not frightened of attacking politicians. The old deference has gone, and no editor stops journalists or comedians mocking their country’s leaders in the most vicious terms. But artists and reporters who boast of their willingness to “speak truth to power” quietly step back from offending religious fanatics who might kill them and, he adds, the super-rich, who might sue them.

Cohen really hits stride in the chapter The Racism of the Anti-Racists, a remix of the best bits of What’s Left? Once again that peculiar sort of modern white leftist is robustly fingered: the type of half wit, who had he come across his own poor grey-haired old mum being ravished by the late Osama bin Laden and the late Saddam Hussain, would have accused the hapless pensioner of being an agent provocateur of the American Zionist war machine. As it was, he had to make do with calling Ayaan Hirsi Ali a neo-con for daring to speak up for women’s rights. Such people go beyond chutzpah – the first bigots to ever accuse their own critics of bigotry when their own bigotry is highlighted.

Cohen also fast forwards to the brave swordsmen of today – Mosley, Goodwin, Marr, Clarkson, the footballers – and their fearless crusade to obstruct the press. The silly and the sinister join forces once more over super-injunctions to silence others – particularly women.

For years certain lefties have appeared to put more faith in unelected judges than elected politicians to make laws – no doubt something to do with not having to answer to the baying hoi polloi of the electorate. Cohen flays this theory with all the enthusiasm of Miss Whiplash dishing out an Old Bailey Lunchtime Special, fingering British justice as “a legal system that strained its sinews and besmirched its country’s good name to help rich men who thought they could get away with anything”. I remember once on a tour of Pompeii being told that prostitutes of the time were not allowed to speak to civilian, but were generously permitted to howl like dogs after dark to advertise themselves. Whoever would have dreamed that in the 21st century so many people – men and women – could have their voices literally taken from them once more.

You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom is available on Amazon and in bookshops

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24 Responses to “Stifling Expression”

  1. “As it was, he had to make do with calling Ayaan Hirsi Ali a neo-con for daring to speak up for women’s rights.”

    people call AHA a neocon because she works for a neocon think tank, praises neocon politicians, is currently going out with a neocon, and espouses neocon ideas.

  2. “how the liberal left of the 20th century came to support the far right of the 21st.” That is, how the enemies of sexism, racism, homophobia and religious mania came to embrace all of those evils in their eagerness to suck up to the last beacon of anti-Americanism: political Islam.

    Given that the “left” was born in an age of sexism, racism, homophobia and religious mania I find it hard to believe it was not to some degree invested with the above mentioned afflictions,. Sucking up to “political” islam merely shows the left has no problem trading in one set of ideals for another as long as it makes “political” sense. Opportunistic is a word that comes to mind, and I am being generous.
    Were I less generous, I might put forward that the “left” does not have a set of ideals, but more of a juvenile “philosophy” of being against anything which does not suit it; like a teenager angry with its parents, because he/she feels he/she isn’t getting the amount of pocketmoney it is deserving of.

  3. The interesting thing about msiaocs is that it reminds you that some people find that content objectionable. A penis doesn’t have a mosaic over it because that way you won’t realise it’s a penis, that of course is stupid. It’s there to remind you that whatever you’re watching/looking at isn’t necessarily acceptable to society at large, and frankly that’s probably a good thing to remind people. Over exposure to that sort of thing probably results in a desensitation, and a sense that whatever you’re watching represents normalacy, which it doesn’t.Personally, I don’t like the idea of censorship at all, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognise its utility.

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