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Cosy Moments Cannot be Muzzled: Censorship in an Age of Freedom

By Max Dunbar.


You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, Nick Cohen, Fourth Estate 2012

Do you believe in freedom of speech?
Are you sure?

Terry Pratchett mapped out the fantasy Discworld planet through his hapless protagonist Rincewind, a magician who cannot master even the most basic spell yet who nevertheless feels the need to write ‘WIZZARD’ on his hat. Pratchett describes the Disc as ‘a world, and a mirror of worlds’. In the novel Interesting Times he reflected on totalitarianism and revolution by dispatching his reluctant adventurer to the Agatean Empire, a hellish hybrid of Maoist/Taiping China and the Kims’ North Korea. The entire country is under the control of a vicious autocracy, which tells its impoverished citizens that the rest of the planet consists of wastelands that teem with evil vampire ghosts.

On arrival Rincewind notices roads and fields of toiling slaves, but no overseers. Where are the whips? he asks a barbarian friend. The Empire has something worse than whips, his friend replies. In his travels around this servile and unhappy country, much of it at great flight, Rincewind realises the truth of this: the Empire has something worse than whips, it has whips in the soul.

We know about thought control in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and the real-life North Korea. But how to define and fight censorship in free societies and the digital age? The impression you get from Nick Cohen’s powerful new book is that censorship is random. There is not a policeman who points at a line in chalk and says: ‘Thou shalt not cross.’ The bar is not set low. There is no bar.

Cohen is a campaigning journalist, who has been involved in a fair few free speech battles in his time. No one could write a serious book on the subject without taking The Satanic Verses as their starting point. In a landmark case, the novelist Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for some years after he wrote a work of fiction that touched on the life of Mohammed and the Islamic assault on women (the title comes from the mythical ‘satanic verses’; parts of the Koran dictated to Mohammed by the devil, posing as Allah).

Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini took exception to the novel, and urged believers to ‘execute’ Rushdie and his publishers ‘wherever they may find them, so that no one will dare insult Islam again.’ Khomeini made it clear that Rushdie’s killers would be regarded as martyrs, with the posthumous delights that implied, and if paradise wasn’t enough, there was also a cool $3 million for whoever stepped up. Rushdie, in effect, had what gangsters call an ‘open bounty’ on his head. Worldwide.

People who offend the religious tend to be viewed as one-trick provocateurs – talentless concept-artists, pissing on a Bible for cheap laughs. The Thatcher government and much of the literary establishment at the time saw Rushdie as a prancing dilettante, who had set out to deliberately hurt simpler and nobler folk. In fact, Rushdie was simply trying to write a story. He told the Paris Review in 2005 that, “the most extended thing I’ve ever written about England is The Satanic Verses, which no one thinks of as a novel about England, but is actually, in large part, a novel about London. It’s about the life of immigrants in Thatcherite London.”

Here is Cohen on Rushdie’s fiction:

The Satanic Verses is not just ‘about’ religion and the rights of women. It is a circus of magical realism, with sub-plots, dream sequences, fantasies, pastiches, sudden interruptions by the author, a bewildering number of characters, and a confusion of references to myths and to the news stories of the day.

Rushdie’s fundamentalist enemies caused riots, murders, attempt-murders and ceremonial book burning in many different countries. Rushdie is a freethinker writer with a critical attitude to faith. Easy to see why the fanatics want him dead. Compare this with the case of Sherry Jones, who wrote a fictional treatment of the Prophet’s marriage to a nine-year-old girl.

Jones, by the way, is not Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She thought that ‘god is love,’ that Islam had been ‘demonised’, and that Mohammed had been ‘fairly egalitarian in his attitudes to women’. She was a romantic, and another desperate liberal on the neverending quest to reconcile the law of God with feminism and basic human rights. (Cohen is not unsympathetic to Jones as a novelist: ‘she is a warm woman, with a heart throbbing to the passionate rhythms of sentimental fiction, and a soul brimming over with love for humankind.’)

Jones’ novel The Jewel of Medina dramatised the life of Aisha and Mohammed while sidestepping the tricky questions of child rape, paedophilia, capacity to consent etc., etc., that preoccupy vulgar Western materialists. Random House picked up the book – then dropped it like a hot stone after a US academic, approached for a quote, warned the Islamic blogosphere that the novel ‘made fun of Muslims and their history’. A professor of Islamic history, Denise Spellberg justified her actions this way: ‘I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some Muslims.’

In the Rushdie case at least you could say that people were offended. In the Jones case we were talking offence in potentiae. Potential offence could mean potential violence. The Danish cartoon furore showed that clerics could manufacture outrage over the slightest little thing. Best just not to go there. Cohen asks: ‘Do you believe in freedom of speech?’ Then: ‘Are you sure?’

Another way censorship operates in free societies is through money and work. Cohen: ‘Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship.’ He highlights a fascinating analysis from the economist Chris Dillow. Dillow points out that, while the idea of a command economy has become a joke, free market advocates still believe that large complex organisations can be run by a single powerful CEO, supported by acolytes and nodding dogs. It is undoubtedly the culture of high managerialism in British capitalism, and the promotion of overconfidence and self-belief over talent and creativity, that led to the great crash of 2008.

City people are not stupid, some of the brightest people work in finance, they knew, they saw it coming. But the law provides minimal protection for those who speak out. Cohen says that ‘every whistleblower I have known has ended up on the dole.’ Why take the risk, particularly when compliant governments will simply bail out the banks, and keep the champagne pyramids flowing in the Square Mile bars?

Everyday corporate censorship is subtle and discreet and insidious. England is the laughing stock of the free world thanks to its libel laws, which allow every quack, fraud, oligarch, shakedown artist and pederast to silence criticism for big payouts. Cohen’s chapter on libel is a sorry parade of wealthy and respectable scumbags: the Icelandic bank Kaupthing sued a Danish newspaper for its investigations into the bank’s links between Russian oligarchs and tax havens; Saudi banker Sheihk Khalid bin Mafouz sued American writer Rachel Ehrenfeld, who linked him with Islamist terror; fugitive director Roman Polanski sued Vanity Fair in England (he had to appear by videolink to avoid being picked up and extradited for child rape).

Many of the cases had little connection to the UK. Rachel Ehrenfeld’s book Funding Evil sold twenty-three copies here, through Amazon. But England has the most litigant-friendly libel laws – it places the burden of proof on the defendant. Rich litigants with multinational business interests will contrive a UK connection to win the right to a hearing, and judges are happy to oblige. Win or lose, a libel case can bankrupt most defendants. Most people will retract and apologise rather than take up a great struggle and even greater risks.

What is important is not so much censorship as pre-censorship – whips in the soul. Cohen argues that ‘with censorship in all its forms’:

[…] you should not just think about the rejected books, newspaper articles, TV scripts and plays, but remember the far larger class of works that authors begin then decide to abandon. The words that were never written, the arguments that were never made.

Do you believe in freedom of speech? Are you sure? You’re a talented writer, a good professional, you have something to say, a story to tell, a warning to give, a truth to expose. But are you sure you want to risk your life, your job, your home, your relationships? Are you sure you want to go through all of that just to write?

The threat is of the random example rather than the boot upon the neck. Consider the case of the unfortunate Paul Chambers, who tried to catch a flight to Belfast from the East Midlands in 2010. On the day of the flight, Chambers learned that the cold weather had closed the airport. His jokey tweet – ‘Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!’ – resulted in an arrest, an anti-terror conviction, the loss of two jobs and a £1,000 fine.

It is the same with religious censorship. You never know what might set the fundamentalists off – so best not to talk about faith at all, except in the most reverent and prescribed tones. We are seeing the slow transfer of rights from individuals – living, breathing individuals, with cares and needs, and hopes and dreams – to the ideology, the belief system, the concept, the community and the group.

It is thought that only Islam is subject to this new taboo. But censors of other faiths have listened and learned, as the campaigns of victimhood and offence-taking by the Christian Legal Centre showed. We’re not there yet, but there will come a point where critical speech of any and all monotheisms will be covered by what John Stuart Mill called ‘a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.’

Time and again Cohen hammers against the argument that the internet will make everything all right. Social media was a great mobilisation and communication tool in the Arab revolutions. But the secret police have broadband connections too. Regimes can display faces of demonstrators with incitements to hunt and kill. Libel lawyers have Google alerts for their client’s names so that they can keep track of bloggers who ask hard questions.

Cohen describes the new technologies as ‘Janus-faced’: they can do good but they can also help people find interesting new ways to be evil. The internet has helped people discover rages and sadisms inside themselves they never knew they possessed. Wikileaks passed information about the Belarus opposition to the Lukashenko dictatorship, and dumped the names of Afghan democrats online for the Taliban to draw up its hit lists.

Just into the new millennium and it’s astonishing how many of the old demons are still hanging around. I wonder how many of Cohen’s draft expository passages started with ‘look, it’s really embarrassing that I have to be explaining this in the twenty-first century, but here’s the deal…’ English libel law takes its principle from the Duke of Brunswick, ‘a corpulent and despised German princeling, whom the good people of Brunswick had had the sense to throw out in the revolutions of 1830’ who sent his manservant to the offices of the Weekly Dispatch, where there was an unflattering article about the Duke of Brunswick, carried in a back copy seventeen years old. There was a six-year time limit on actions, but as ever the judiciary was generous, and decided that ‘because his manservant had been able to buy a back copy of a seventeen-year-old newspaper, the publishers had repeated the original libel, even though the duke himself had instigated the repetition of that libel by sending his manservant to buy the back copy in the first place.’ The Duke of Brunswick’s Rule says that ‘every republication of an offending statement is actionable.’ Think on that, in the digital age.

In the conclusion to his writing on Salman Rushdie, Cohen concluded that freethinkers had won the battle but lost the war. ‘Western culture changed, and not for the better.’

The change can fit into a sentence. No young artist of Rushdie’s range and gifts would dare write a modern version of The Satanic Verses today, and if he or she did, no editor would dare publish it.

Cohen is a friendly and engaging writer, who combines the solitary scholar’s extraordinary range of reference with a bon-vivant wit and warmth. A lover of contemporary fiction, his polemics read like novels. He finishes his book with a list of ways to fight back. He doesn’t advocate solidarity, maybe because the lesson is so obvious, or should be. The nature of censorship in the free world is its capriciousness, its indiscipline, its rages and oversensitivity. If you know someone who is being silenced, support them, reblog their words, try to donate to any legal fund. For writers solidarity is also self-interest. To paraphrase the old lottery ads: next time, it could be you.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 19th, 2012.