Sunday, 22 April 2012

You Can't Read This Book, Nick Cohen

Why would anyone write a book about censorship these days?  The Berlin Wall is down and the internet is up.  Liberal democracy is the "end of history", and mobs in Cairo and Tripoli have brought down decades-old dictatorships using nothing more than Blackberries and Twitter.

Cohen's thesis is that this is rubbish and that censorship is a very contemporary global problem.  He is dismissive of techno-utopians like John Perry Barlow (he of the silly "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace").  The internet is no more going to change the distribution of global power than the printing press prevented the era of absolute monarchy and the wars of religion.  Social media did catch the Mubarak and Gadaffi regimes off guard, but this is a mistake that the world's dictators and secret policemen are unlikely to repeat.  As for WikiLeaks, it's not going to bring down the West, but, in Cohen's words, it might just put "better and braver men than [Julian] Assange" in mortal danger.

Private citizens can now reach an international audience - if they can avoid national firewalls - but having a malcontent post some bad stuff on a blog somewhere is a problem that the world's rich and powerful can mostly live with.  In any case, the web is just a tool, and it can be used against as well as by dissidents.  People sometimes forget that the CIA, the FSB and the Chinese Ministry of State Security have internet connections too.  Cohen highlights the underreported nation of Belarus, where the powers that be are using the internet to crack down on dissidents and don't seem too bothered that protestors can film them on their iPhones.

Most of Cohen's book, however, is taken up with discussions of more traditional forms of censorship.  He begins with the issue of restrictions on free speech based on religious sensitivities.  This story begins with the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses in 1988.  One of the many ironies of the Satanic Verses affair was that the book, while scarcely the work of a pious Muslim, simply wasn't what the Islamists thought it was.  Few of them had even bothered to read it.  It was a work of fiction in the genre of magical realism which used themes from Islamic history to explore the identity conflicts of Asian migrants in postcolonial Britain.  Condemning such a book as blasphemous wasn't just intolerant, it was plain ignorant.

This didn't cut much ice with the ayatollahs, of course.  The controversy made for some strange bedfellows.  Penguin Books joined forces with its commercial rivals to bring out a joint paperback edition of the book.  Rushdie was famously criticised by his fellow left-wing novelist John le Carré.  The Chief Rabbi came out on the side of the virulently anti-Semitic Khomeinists.  Hugh Trevor Roper, a man who had spent his career writing about the horrors of fascism, published a reprehensible piece in which he opined with tedious Oxbridgian bitchiness that Rushdie deserved to be beaten up by Muslim thugs in order to "improve his manners".  With perhaps a little more justification, political conservatives also pointed out the irony of Rushdie having his life and limb protected by the same British police force which he had previously excoriated for its racism and brutality.

In the years after the Rushdie affair, progressive opinion internalised the fatwa.  Extremist Muslims learned that they could intimidate writers and artists.  When she criticised Islam, the neocon atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali got shouted down by liberals.  Her collaborator Theo van Gogh got gunned down by an Islamist.  No-one has yet dared to write or publish another book like Rushdie's.  Take the case of Sherry Jones' first novel The Jewel of Medina.  This was no Satanic Verses - it was a piece of romantic fiction which, if anything, portrayed Muhammad in a rather generous light.  When Jones sold the book to Random House, a white secular academic told them not to publish it.  When another publisher took it up, a jihadi tried to incinerate his home.

Needless to say, Cohen also touches on the Danish cartoons controversy, which appears to have been manufactured by a combination of hardline Danish imams who were unpopular even in their own community and Muslim governments who found it politically useful to whip up hatred against the West.  It's not just extremist Muslims who do this sort of thing, of course.  Hardline Hindu nationalists attacked the art of M.F.Husain - who, like countless other Indian artists throughout history, painted nudes - for being pornographic.  However, there is no doubt that self-censorship is strongest where Islam is an issue.  Grayson Perry, an artist who is happy to play with imagery of the Virgin Mary, said bluntly: "The reason I have not gone all out attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel the real fear that someone will slit my throat".

Not enough good people are unhappy about all this.  When Cohen attended a demonstration put on by the small moderate Muslim organisation British Muslims for Secular Democracy, he ended up being repelled by EDL thugs who had turned up for their own counter-event.

Cohen goes on to take aim at the global super-rich, who have expanded greatly in power over the last couple of decades.  Cohen's thesis is that these people can mostly look after themselves, but English law gives them an unwarranted advantage over their critics in the form of the libel laws.

The English courts claim a sweepingly wide jurisdiction over international speech, and the burden of proof lies on the defendant in a libel suit to prove that what s/he wrote or published was true.  The libel laws have been a reliable weapon for the privileged to protect themselves from scrutiny and exposure from the days of Robert Maxwell to the more recent adventures of shady Russian businessmen and the collapsed Kaupthing Bank.  The judges even allowed Roman Polanski, a self-confessed child sex offender, to testify by video link from his self-imposed exile in France in a libel action that he brought against Vanity Fair.  Even where writs don't actually get issued, in-house lawyers at media firms exercise a strong self-censorship over what gets published or broadcast.  Libel actions in England cost orders of magnitude more than they do in other countries, and the risk of losing is often too great to make it worth having one's day in court.

There are some victories.  Cohen recounts Simon Singh's famous victory in his libel fight with the British Chiropractic Association.  The American courts have used the First Amendment to gut the English libel laws which they inherited.  The white establishment in the southern states of the US tried to use the libel laws to stop the civil rights movement - they looked as if they might succeed, but the Supreme Court stepped in with its landmark judgment in New York Times v Sullivan in 1964.  There has also been a significant weakening of that strange and unpleasant creation, the super-injunction - a gagging order so secret that its own very existence cannot be publicised.  Super-injunctions are sometimes benign, being granted to children or to nobodies whose personal lives have no conceivable public interest.  But not always.  The super-injunction seems to have been invented by the commodities company Trafigura, under somewhat controversial circumstances, and the device was famously used to protect the privacy of Ryan Giggs and Fred Goodwin.  They have now been undermined by the practice of MPs naming their subjects in Parliament (the libel laws don't bite on parliamentary debates).  All the main parties have now accepted that the libel laws need to be reformed, but it remains to be seen how Parliament will legislate on the issue.