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?
The Salman Rushdie affair (which Cohen rightly calls “The Dreyfus Case” of our time) has ensured that no singer, or artist of any kind, will ever attempt to portray the Prophet of Islam in a less that flattering light. The fatwah on the brilliant Muslim-born novelist exposed the terrible truth: more than 50 years after the “Lady Chatterley trial”, taboos remain about what we can write – in verse and prose, online and for broadcast.
Religion, libel laws, money and the Internet prevent us as effectively as Glavlit, the Soviet Censorship Office, from speaking our mind. Incensed on our behalf, Cohen rails against Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, chiropractors, the press, and British judges who would gag truth-sayers.
Cohen boasts three tremendous gifts, all in evidence in this book: he’s brave, incapable of writing a boring sentence and can sniff an injustice buried in the most innocuous-seeming places – from the British Council to tourist attractions in a London church. He’s a ferret, and a fighter, a conviction journalist who shakes us out of wishful thinking.
He wages war against the liberal intelligentsia for its complacency in the face of Islamism. Its attitude to date has been a dangerous and “disastrous mixture of authoritarianism and appeasement. On the one hand, they passed anti-terrorist laws that conflicted with basic liberties, banned burqas and imposed new immigration control. On the other they complemented their anti-terror strategy with a policy of “engaging” with Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood variety, who were extreme but not violent. They hoped that by co-opting religious zealots they could reduce the pool of potential terrorists.”
Cohen is magnificent in his furious attack on the draconian libel laws that intimidate people and the press in this country. Here is an “under-explored form of censorship” that raises the rich – no matter what they’ve done – beyond reach; and threatens the rest with bankruptcy. This disgraceful state of affairs has kept philandering footballers from public shame; and corrupt financiers and politicians in business.
Cohen is equally impressive when he tackles the omerta of the City. If only bankers, when they realized the financial world was a Potemkin village, had blown the whistle; millions could have been spared unemployment, homelessness and humiliation. Instead, the money men realized that if they squealed, chances of a job in the industry would be zilch. So they zipped their lips and faked confidence in the status quo.
As for the Internet, championed for giving universal free access to information of all kind, Cohen exposes it as the means of extra-terrestrial censorship. In China, he shows, state surveillance is turning bloggers into martyrs for free speech; what’s worse, it does so with the complicity of western internet companies (Google has been the honourable exception).
His hostility to religion inspires some of Cohen’s most passionate denunciations, but sometimes trips him up. He won’t countenance, for instance, that for millennia, religion has not censored women, but rather given them a lifeline, in terms of education and status: the abbesses of medieval times, Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife and boss, and saints such as Joan of Arc and Catherine of Siena drew their inspiration from their faith. Yes, men can manipulate religion to subjugate women; but women can find in religion a path to freedom — from men, families and ignorance.
He fails to see that Muslim-bashers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali deliberately blur the boundaries between ordinary Muslim believers and Islamist extremists, in order to raise the temperature of the culture war to their advantage: they can only appear heroic if their enemy is omnipotent and ubiquitous.
He worries about the censorship of gays, Muslim women, and Chinese dissidents, but won’t acknowledge that Christians are banned from wearing a cross to work or pray for their patients in hospital.
Yet even when he is wrong Cohen is compelling. His fury is genuine, his honesty transparent. Despite the dead-hand of censorship, you still can read this book– in fact, you must.