Censorship in an Age of Freedom
Nick Cohen

Fourth Estate

Now in paperback
One of the nice things about being a humble blogger rather than a proper journalist is that you can ignore all the usual conventions of review (or any other genre of) writing. So I’m going to. Let me say, at the outset (and in case you read no further than this) that you should buy (and read) this book …. but I do have more to say.

All bloggers (and writers of any description) have their own biases and axes to grind. I like to grind my axes in public and upfront:

I have ambivalent feelings about Nick Cohen.

On the one hand ……

Nick has been an indispensable (virtual) comrade as I have retreated from the (imaginary) barricades of my youth – burning bridges, sacrificing sacred cows, and mixing metaphors as I went along. He is a shining example of how we on “the left” can examine and rethink our political outlook in the light of experience without abandoning every value we once held dear.

Nick also recognizes the malign influence of religion in the world today and. quite correctly in my view, suggests that we should have no more truck with anti-democratic Islamic fanatics than we have with similar right-wing Christian evangelists in the USA or Catholic collaborators with fascist governments (to take just two other examples). The fact that Muslims are disproportionately on the receiving end of discrimination and military force in today’s world, really does not imply that we should make any apologies for religiously-motivated misogyny, homophobia, violence, and intolerance whenever and wherever these occur.

On the other hand ……

One of my problems with Nick has been his support for the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq. Jeremy Clarkson [sic} had it exactly right when he remarked that it was as though the USA had, following Pearl Harbour, decided to invade China. This may, of course, be the only truly intelligent thing Jeremy Clarkson has ever said (though he, like Nick, and, whatever you think of his views, is actually a very good writer) but, in my opinion, it is exactly right. When I read Nick’s latest article on the subject: Ten years on, the case for invading Iraq is still valid my overwhelming impressions was that Nick was, at some level, trying to convince himself. I’m afraid he didn’t convince me.

But I, like Nick, (and unlike Iraq’s invaders) never supported Saddam and am glad to see the back of him. My problems with some of Nick’s other writings go deeper still (ok the next paragraph is probably a slightly unfair caricature of Nick’s position, but it makes a point which I feel needs making).

Over many years, Nick has been one of those who stands up and cries “anti-Semitism” whenever anyone criticizes the state of Israel or its supporters,. The world, it seems, is full of people like Mel Gibson (who really is an raving anti-Semite) or Basil Fawlty (though in his case it was Germans) who struggle to contain their true feelings and, from time to time, allow their prejudices to come bursting out. But these closet anti-Semites almost always turn out to be swivel-eyed Trotsky worshiping leftists (who somehow manage to overlook the ethnicity of their hero) or even more swivel-eyed Islamists who are quite open and forthright about their hatred of Jewish people. Moreover, the “anti-Semitism” of the swivel-eyed lefties almost always seems to boil down to: 1) criticism of Israel, 2) having had something or other to do with a swivel-eyed Islamist (usually on a “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” basis), or 3) making some kind of badly worded generalization concerning “Jews”, “Zionists”, or “Israelis” (none of which are entirely uncontested categories at the best of times).

There is, sadly, no shortage of perfectly unambiguous anti-Semitism in the world, but to suggest that anyone who makes an ill-judged comment about the plight of the Arab inhabitants of the area of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is motivated by racial hatred of “Semites” is clearly incoherent.

I wanted to make this point, not just to give vent to my opinions but because it is (albeit indirectly) relevant to Nick’s thesis in this book - which is not about Israel or Iraq and contains only one (implied) accusation of anti-Semitism and one which is probably justified.

So to come, finally, to the point:

Nick’s book is about freedom of speech.

The notions of “free” speech in liberal capitalist countries was something I grew up thinking of as an almost entirely nebulous bourgeois construct. (I won’t bore you with why I thought this since Nick explains and critiques leftist attitudes towards freedom of expression in his book.) In later life I have come to realize that there really is a crucially important issue at stake here. Nick’s book has removed any hesitations I might still have had.

But even those of you who might have always subscribed to Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"[1], still need to read Nick’s book. YOU CAN’T READ THIS BOOK is not just some kind of woolly defence of liberal principles, it is a forensic (though highly readable) examination of an eclectic range of contemporary threats to our liberties. I had actually heard of nearly every case presented in this book, but I had no idea of the details and would have never thought to join these cases together in the single thread which Nick spins. His book was a real eye-opener – even for people like me who try to walk around with their eyes fully open. There are moments when you find yourself thinking “what’s he on about now”, but in every case he succeeds expertly in tying the stories he presents back to his main thesis.

What is particularly illuminating, is the way Nick ties together different kinds of de jure and de facto constraints on free expression - from the behaviour of autocratic governments and religious zealots to that of private companies.

Where one or two of the theses of the book do have an oblique connection to the Israel/anti-Semitism issues I discussed earlier is in illustrating how uncritical support for the Soviet Union poisoned debate on the left over many past decades and how discussion of religion in general, and Islam in particular, is stifled, or silenced altogether, by people who walk around with their offence detectors turned up to number eleven. I don’t need to spell out the parallels with what I said earlier.

There is, however, one passage actually in the book with which I totally disagree:
To reject communism, you do not need to know why Marx’s beliefs […] were wrong, you just need to look at the vast crimes the communist committed, and resolve to have nothing to do with the ideology behind them. Similarly, to reject religion you do not need to understand the scientific and philosophical arguments […]. Knowledge of the vast crimes committed in the name of religions is once again sufficient.

This cannot be right; and lest it be thought that I am acting as an apologist for Marxism or religion here I shall illustrate my point with an argument for the “opposite side” (which is currently rather topical):

What Margaret Thatcher admired in the Chilean dictator General Pinochet in Chile was not so much his extraordinary brutality (which you can read about here) but his Hayekian economic policies – which were imposed on the Chileans (against their democratically expressed wishes) with extraordinary brutality (see above) and on the UK with a great deal less brutality and with our democratically expressed[2] assent.

As it happens I do reject Hayek’s ideas, but to say that such rejection is necessitated by the crimes committed in Hayek’s name by the Chilean Junta is manifestly a non sequitur.

Everything else in Nick Cohen’s book is exactly right – though you should form your own opinions of course ;-).


[1] Often mis-attributed to Voltaire - since it was intended as a summary of Voltaire's position.
[2] Albeit by a minority of the electorate.

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