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You Can't Read This Book
You Can't Read This Book
Submitted by Francesca R
8th August 2016
You Can't Read This Book

NIck Cohen won a polemic award for this 2013 attack on censorship. Your reviewer found it to be dignified and salutory. One-sided for sure (you get what you buy), and narrower in focus than she expected in respect of the author's targets, which are principally the demands for silencing that come from zealous Islam, western corporations, and wealthy individuals. According to Mr Cohen the first of these three has cowed former proponents of liberalism into fear that masquerades as disingenuous group identity politics that betray the values liberals supposedly champion. The second exploits an anachronism of command-control that has lain far too unchallenged in the make-up of firms, even as the same has been extensively dismantled in public life. The third is the fault of tourism-inducing libel laws in England which reverse enough tenets of jurisprudence to make them look outrageous.

Liberal intellectuals and nominal free thinkers are not used to defending their principles if that puts their lives and property at risk, and this is tremendously understandable. This is why approximately nobody would write a modern Satanic Verses nor would any publsher carry it. Grayson Perry, a contemporary British artist, says he steers clear of attacking Islam (while going all-out with blasphemy against Catholicism and the Virgin Mary). And this is because he is both afraid of violence and because he does not know where the boundary of offence lies. Mr Cohen argues that almost everyone else in public and private spheres lies about what Mr Perry fesses up to, instead concocting internally inconsistent rationales about the right of a set of ideas not to be challenged, and a plethora of blame-the-victim, asking-for-it cop outs.

But--Cohen warns chillingly--censorship is most effective when it co-opts ostensible opponents as its unwitting allies, and when few will admit it is even there. This is what has happened in a supposedly liberal west where speaking out against the worst of Islamic practice makes you the enemy of almost everyone, formerly friend or foe--as Aayan Hirsi Ali discovered after fleeing to Holland, to her suprise loss of almost all establishment protection (and the murder of her colleague). The staff of Charlie Hebdo can receive an outpouring of sympathy (though many believe the magazine brought on its own fate), but they have precious few emulators. (If they had many, there might be safety in numbers).

After spending half of the book on Islam (Christianity and Judaism have had their cruelties already reined in rather more, to date, says the author), a second part deals with the inconsistency of the un-free corporate environment, censorship "so ubiquitous and accepted that we don't even call it [that]". The stakes are maybe not quite as high as inflaming the sensitivities of radical religious nutters, but whistle blowing happens almost never because the incentives are stacked so heavily against it. The mouse is supposed to go and speak to the cat first before she goes public with revelations of feline wrongdoing. And employers have much state-supported apparatus to make life difficult for dissidents. Paul Moore was fired and rendered unemployable after dispatching his duty as head risk manager to warn management of the risks being taken at HBOS (which subsequently collapsed into state rescue). Fred "The Shred" Goodwin was left free of underling criticism to thoroughly mess up RBS for years before it fell over and he walked with a payoff bounty.

The Coaseian rationale for firms' existence (internalising many transactions to make them costless) seems to have an unintended consequence, though a predictable one, which market interaction and associated checks and balances would remedy, were those transactions (such as between a trading entity and its risk control) happening at arms length between independent entities. The bottom line is that aligning more intra-firm interests produces more opposition between those interests and external (public) ones. Not that Mr Cohen gets into any of this (recall that it's a polemic). His remedy of employees on boards seems OK as far as it goes which is not very far. But he has a point that there is systemic overlooking of this downside of business incorporation and it jars with freedom to speak. Dambisa Moyo hit that nail more squarely as the neutered formerly healthy debt-equity relationship in a book which was otherwise uninteresting.

Kaupthing, one of the Icelandic banks that toppled in 2008 under wobbly balance sheets many times the size of the country's output, successfully gagged a Danish newspaper two years before its demise for publishing less-than-praiseworthy analysis. And the legal suit happened in London, the location of neither litigator nor defendant, yet in rather tragic irony in the country where a great many soon-to-be-impoverished savers would have been tremendously grateful to learn some facts. The culprit is multiple oddities within England's defamation laws which (pre-reform in 2013 by the Conservative-LibDem coalition) handed startling and unique power to complainants with bruisable feelings (or even slightly vulnerable financial interests--though who doesn't have those). Power that could generally be availed in proportion to financial muscle, and power which was staggeringly far-reaching (Boris Berezovsky versus Forbes magazine being a farcical example). Nick Cohen doesn't think the reforms against libel tourism were enough.

In common with all the strands of censorship he rails against, the deterrent effect is much more insidious than the efficacy of whether it obliterates or hides information: the books that don't get written and the criticisms that do not get made and the arguments that are never advanced, because so few want to take the risk. Surely government and law and society should lower such hurdles not raise them?

All three hundred pages of text are very good. But this reviewer found herself wanting to award the most virtual high-fives in respect of the scorn Mr Cohen steadily pours onto cyber-utopians towards the end--the group, significant in size, that believes that crowd-sourced, cloud-powered internet can eradicate illiberal and censor-minded behaviour wherever it may arise. This viewpoint holds that China could not today pull off another Tiananmen crackdown, third world despots' days would be numbered into the not-many, America's State Department couldn't again suppress any wrongdoing, and any skullduggery from a future Maxwell or Murdoch would be instantly exposed. All it would take today is for a few witnesses to alert humanity via youtube and twitter and such badnesses would tumble and fall, and indeed fail to get started at all the next time around. One difficulty with this is that the regimes in Iran (2009) and Belarus (2010) hardly seemed inhibited by people with iphones. Indeed Recep Erdogan of Turkey (not the most liberal leader in Europe/Asia) used social media to his advantage in putting down a coup against him in July 2016 and emerging more victoriously authoritarian than before, underscoring the truism that tech does not work exclusively for those on the side of freedom and liberty.

Moreover, as your reviewer noted in covering Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody in 2011, although the miracle of the web is that anyone can potentially reach a global audience, the anti-miracle is that hardly anyone ever does. Particularly not anonymous writers. The virality of crowd campaigns such as that which helped Dr Simon Singh triumph against chiropractic kookery (when the establishment would very likely have brought Dr Singh and the truth down) is rare enough that it makes the news, and is no danger of becoming routine, alas. Furthermore, Mr Cohen (talking up his trade, naturally, but probably correct) points out that the disruption of old mass-media business models in printed press and TV by Web 2.0, neuters their ability to publish and broadcast in opposition to illiberalism too. The net does not set anyone freer than movable type did five hundred years before, and books didn't stop wars and oppression though supposed Gutenberg-utopians might have predicted they would. But, you can buy Nick Cohen's book. And read it. This reviewer is glad she did.
Nick Cohen
By Giz on 10th August 2016, 10:22 AM
Nice review. Nick Cohen is rather good at polemics (I also enjoyed/was informed by his "What's Left", written prior to "You Can't Read This Book").
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