You Can’t Read This Book
British publishing is now such a neurotic and hypocritical business there are stories it cannot cover. Nor should it try. When journalists, writers and artists can’t be honest with their audience, when they can’t even be honest with themselves, silence is preferable to the damage their double-standards bring.
Last month our media commemorated the imminent anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by trying and failing to report the threats to the life of Maajid Nawaz, the chief executive of Quilliam Foundation. In a vindication of Kipling’s “once you have paid him the Dane-geld/you never get rid of the Dane” fanatics are after Nawaz not because he satirised the founding myths of Islam, as Rushdie did, or projected sexist verses from the Koran on to a naked woman’s body, as Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali did, but because – brace yourselves – he tweeted a picture of Jesus saying “Hey” and Muhammad saying “How ya doin’?”
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.
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
You Can’t Read This Book by Nick Cohen won the Polemic of the Year Award at last night’s Political Book Awards. This is the second year of the awards, which celebrate and reward excellence across all areas of political publishing.
Video of a speech to Oxford Brookes University on freedom and its enemies based on my book on censorship You Can’t Read This Book.
You can watch it here