Review of You Can’t Read This Book
Cohen has indeed produced a page turner of epic proportions and thus is finally the political read I’ve been waiting for.
Journalism from London.
Democracies have many faults. Their leaders can blunder as badly as dictators. Their citizens can be just as foolish as anyone else. A cursory knowledge of history will teach you that there is nothing inherent in the natures of the Americans, British and Danes, say, that makes them superior to the Iranians, Chinese and Zimbabweans. They are just as likely to follow disastrous policies; just as susceptible to manias.
After they have blundered however, the benefits of living in an open society should assert themselves. Democracies face the truth of what they have done, and see their faults clearly. They hold the guilty to account. They find new ways to ensure that they do not repeat old mistakes.
In short, they reform, and show that not only are democracies freer countries than dictatorships, but that they carry within them a self-correcting mechanism.
That is the theory in any event. The practice is another matter
Anyone looking for the reforms the great crash of 2007/8 produced will squint until their sight goes. True, the regulators tightened the Basel rules on what capital banks must hold to help them through panics, and President Obama enforced the “Volcker Rule” to limit big banks’ speculative proprietary-trading activities. That’s about it, however. Even if you do not wish to diminish these modest changes, and I accept they are important in limited ways, you have to admit that the roaring financial crisis has produced a legislative mouse.
The banks that were too big to fail, have not been broken up into separate retail and casino businesses. They can still leverage deposits and call on the taxpayers to bail them out when the gambles fail. Bankers are still carrying on collecting bonuses whenever they can, even when the taxpayers have bailed them out. No one can say with confidence that the system has reformed itself.
The greatest failure to my mind does not lie in the loss of nerve that has produced such timid banking reforms, but in the refusal to challenge the secretive, hierarchical culture that imposed such calamitous costs on society. (And will do so again) The omission should surprise no one. Managerial censorship is so pervasive and so accepted that most people do not think of it as censorship at all. It seems as natural and as impossible to challenge as the weather. For all that, it is the only form of censorship you are likely to experience.
I have been meaning to put up a review of Nick Cohen’s polemic on free speech, You Can’t Read This Book, for some time. First, the book is readable. If I were still teaching the modules on political thought that I used to deliver as part of our part-time degree programmes at Hull, it would be a set text. There is a premium to be placed on accessibility for getting people thinking about abstract political ideas and Cohen delivers. Secondly, he has no illusions that there is a technological fix for free speech. The Internet is just as potent a weapon for surveillance as it is for free expression. Cohen argues for the supremacy of politics over technology. Third, he includes the workplace as well as the public sphere, using the memorable phrase, “Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship.” The damaging impact of managerialism is a worthy target of his scorn. But the final strength is down to his decision to avoid a conservative trap, political correctnes
Review of You Can’t Read This Book
British Journalism Review
By Cristina Odone
Vaclav Havel once said that he believed in “the power of words to change history”. The former Czech president, dissident and playwright lived at a time and in a place when even the “Frank Zappa Songbook” of 1966 was deemed so subversive, citizens who bought it risked arrest.
Communism has collapsed, but don’t be lulled into thinking censorship is over, warns Nick Cohen. Supposedly liberal democracies are almost as terrified of words as their Communist enemies were. Zappa’s lyrics about “Catholic Girls” — “Catholic girls
Do you know how they go?
All the way
That’s the way they go
And none of their mamas ever seem to know”
would still be published today; but what if they referred to the daughters of China’s Communist party elite? or if Zappa had poked fun at Mohammed in one of his songs?
Cohen, in this book goes some way to reclaiming our right to be offended: by bigotry, misogyny, small-mindedness, institutionalised mediocrity, and Hitchens’s concept of the “literal mind”. Cohen may be a “fundamentalist” for free expression, but he makes a compelling argument that free speech and open debate are, in the final sum, for the benefit of all. In an atmosphere where cries of “free speech” are too often caveated with that fatal “but”.
“It’s one thing to half-remember newspaper reports of censorship and harassment over the course of several years, where the impact is serial and diluted by time; it is quite another to have these incidents assembled into a powerful and far-reaching critique of the watery intellectualism of much of western policy-making in the past couple of decades.”