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85 of 93 people found the following review helpful
on 25 January 2012
`Do you believe in free speech? Are you sure?' So asks Nick Cohen in this important and timely book. Through a combination of righteous indignation, mordant wit and searing polemic, he shows how the ideals of Milton, Mill and the Enlightenment - those of freedom of expression, conscience and the free, enquiring mind - are being undermined, indeed, deliberately attacked, by a derisory and intellectually inadequate group of religious fundamentalists, oppressive corporations, quack scientists, timid politicians and self-satisfied academics.

Cohen effortlessly takes us through some of the defining freedom of speech issues of our time: the Salman Rushdie and Danish cartoon affairs; the impressive figure of Ayaan Hirsi Ali throwing off the chains of obnoxious religious chauvinism only to encounter the gently ruminating herd of cloistered academia; the near-dictatorial conditions employees face the moment they step into the workplace, and the dangers faced by whistle-blowers in the face of managerial and bureaucratic incompetence; the absurd entity that is Britain's chiropractor lobby; and the vicious counter-attack against the liberating forces of the Internet, reminding us that oppressive nations are perfectly capable of utilising the net as well as its citizens.

Along every step of the way, as Cohen shows, there is seemingly always a constituency just waiting to be offended into action. Readers will already be familiar with perennially grumpy and stony-faced theocrats like the Ayatollah Khomeini, calling as he did for the assassination of a private citizen in a sovereign country for publishing a work of fiction which he had not read, and probably could not have read. Perhaps more surprising for some will be a certain kind of bien pensant figure, one who is never more at ease and exquisitely complacent when seeking to delegitimise the champions of free thought and expression.

The notion of tolerance has been twisted into meaning we should avoid offending others at all cost. Being offended is now one of the chief addictions of our culture, giving rise to and sustaining the truly totalitarian idea of pre-censorship. Cohen's articulate and lively distillation of this worrying tendency, why it all matters, and what we can do about it, is a fine reproach to the demagogues, the theocrats, the useful idiots, the closed minds and the impregnably humourless of our time.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 1 August 2013
This book is about freedom of speech.

The simplistic notion of "freedom" in liberal capitalist countries is a notion that has (quite properly) been contested over the years but (while acknowledging such debates) Nick Cohen argues persuasively that there really is a crucially important issue at stake here - whatever your other views on social justice.

But even those 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"[Often mis-attributed to Voltaire], still need to read this 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 Cohen 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 Cohen 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.

YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Nick Cohen is the author of "Pretty Straight Guys" and "What's Left?: How the Left Lost its Way: How Liberals Lost Their Way."

His latest work, "You cannot read this book" is a chilling account of how Western civilisation has, largely through a failure to stand up to those who are willing to kill or threaten anyone who writes or publishes something they strongly disgree with, allowed it to become extremely difficult to publish certain types of idea, and that we voluntarily censor what we will write or allow others to write about certain subjects.

He also looks at the workings of the legal system in respect of libel cases and argues that the practice of using expensive libel actions to try to suppress the truth by claiming it is lies, of which the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell was the most notorious practitioner, is still far too easy and far too common.

He begins the book with a ruthlessly candid account of the controversy over Salman Rushdie's book, "The Satanic Verses" which concludes by suggesting it is very unlikely that any author of equivalent status to Rushdie would dare try to bring out a similar novel today, and that if someone did, it would be extremely difficult for them to find a publisher.

From Rushdie onwards, Cohen points out a horrifying number of cases where somone who was trying to publish a work of fiction or art which should never have offended a reasonable person, or express an opinion which ought not to have been controversial to those who believe in basic human rights, came under threat or the actuality of violence. And what is worse in almost every one of these cases, is that people in the West who should have been willing to stand up and defend the freedom of speech of the people concerned have instead attacked the victims for "provoking" the threatened or actual violence.

Initially the main culprits were Islamist extremists but Cohen shows how other religious or racist fanatics were quick to copy what the Islamists achieved and use a warped idea of tolerance as a weapon to suppress legitimate criticism and perpetuate oppression, particularly but not exclusively of women.

My worldview differs from Nick Cohen's in a great many ways. I'm sure he would find it as ridiculous if I suggested that he should stop being a left-wing atheist because dreadful crimes, including the murder of millions of innocent people, have been committed by left-wing atheist regimes such as those of the former Soviet Union and communist China, as I find it his view expressed in this book that religious people should abandon their faith and become atheists because some adherents of some religious faiths have committed terrible crimes in the name of those religions.

Another example is that Cohen thinks "The Satanic Verses" is a great book and I thought it was dreadful, although for that very reason I found it all the more important to resist the idea that anyone had the right to incite the assassination of the book's author.

But Nick Cohen's arguments in the central message of this book about the need for those who believe in democracy to stand up more effectively for free speech were extremely powerful.

Before I read this book, I would have said that the real test of your commitment to freedom of speech within the law is not your willingness to stand up for the right of people to publish books you like, but your willingness to defend the right to publish things you detest.

What really frightened me about "You cannot read this book" was that Cohen demonstrates convincingly that far too many people in the West not merely failed to stand up for the right to publish things they didn't like, but wouldn't even stand up to defend the right to publish things they should, if they were constent in their views, have been quick to support.

I don't go all the way with Nick about the British legal system, but the fact that we still get libel tourism is a warning sign that we still have a problem with a libel law designed to protect against lies but all too often used against the truth.

He cites the example of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing, which after failing to get a retraction of a critical article in the Danish magazine Ekstra Bladet through the Danish courts, pursued the magazine through the London courts instead. The spiralling costs of defending the action in London - legal costs wre close to a million pounds before the case even came to court - forced Ekstra Bladet to withdraw, pay damages and apologise for printing what was proved a few weeks later to have been the truth: Kaupthing collapsed shortly after winning the court case and their depositors lost billions.

You may think that in the internet age suppressing ideas would be out of the question. This book demonstrates that for those who are determined to do so, making it very difficult to express ideas you don't like is far too possible.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 27 July 2013
While in general the book did not tell me what I already knew,it did confirm my concern about self-censorship in particular. I find it disturbing that, for example, liberal leaders within the church have taken it upon themselves to remove Israel Today magazine from their reading resources. Why? Lest it offends any muslims. Did any muslim complain about the display of the magazine? No. It was removed IN CASE they were offended. Pathetic. It is this kind of 'you can't read this' self - censorship that disturbs me especially since it is carried out by those who profess to be liberal. This behaviour is at the pedestrian level of censorship if you like. Nick Cohen draws upon higher level examples in order to convey the top down drip drip effect of censorship that has now embedded itself in public discourse across all levels. In particular any challenge to Islam, global warming and immigration (though he does not go into this latter topic mores the pity because it is a highly sensitive subject at present and will be for a long time to come). As a post - graduate social science student I'd commend any student to obtain this book amongst others too numerous to list as an antidote to the Marxist/feminist/postmodernist drivel that is conveyed by the university text books.
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49 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on 24 March 2012
To say that this is an important book is to vastly underestimate it. To say that it is a well-written book is to do it scant justice. It is a work that stands out as a masterpiece of literature, political discourse and enlightenment that should be required reading in every high school and in every home.

We have had a global counter-revolution in the past thirty years and no one seems to have noticed. The clock has been turned both forward and back at the same time. Despite all the technology bringing previously unimaginable access to resources and information, we have slipped into a new age of fear and tongue-biting. These are the best of times and the worst of times; the freest and the most restricted. Nick Cohen examines how the terrible mental slavery of religion, and especially Islam, has been coddled and protected and been not only allowed but encouraged to get away with murder; how money can buy anything and how censorship is alive and powerful in the shape of Britain's libel laws, and how the supposed liberal democracies have had their liberalism and democracy subverted.

As I turned its pages I found myself constantly urged to email my friends or post a comment on one or more of my favourite blogs, quoting from the book. It was an impossible task because I didn't know where to start or where to end. I would have to quote the whole thing, cover to cover.

I live in a country which is not free, where there are draconian anti-pornography, anti-blasphemy, anti-libel and anti-press laws which are enforced to protect the powerful and subjugate the weak. There is a charade of democracy, a charade of tolerance and a charade of freedom. It is badly needed here in the local language, not only in the language of the English speaking elite. This book must be translated into all the major languages of the world. It is a beacon of light in a world where we do not realise that we are in darkness.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 30 January 2012
Nick Cohen has done it again - identifying the issue we dare not name. A worthy addition to the growing "telling the truth even though no one wants to admit there's a problem" genre.

Having recommended "What's Left" to everyone I know -the bar for his new book was set high but he has cleared it, with room to spare, with his attack on society's increasing cowardice towards freedom of expression and thought. You Can't Read This Book is entertaining and terrifying in its honesty and caustic approach and no one gets a free ride - not the famous, the infamous, the academic, the religious, ideological or promiscuous. He defies us to see that values aren't valuable if we aren't prepared to fight for them

Confronting the danger posed by self-censorship, and the blatant chutzpah of those who would defend it as a way to dissuade all debate and critical thought, can not be overstated. We can only hope that a discussion will finally start about the right of everyone to offend everyone equally especially when that means speaking unpopular truth. Threats of violence and threats of deeper pockets should never make us waiver from taking on the bullies.

As George Washington said - If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter..
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 20 December 2012
This book must confirm Nick Cohen as one of the greatest left wing writers currently writing in the English language. Not only is the book's core theme absolutely central to a host of contemporary debates, but his writing style is witty, intellegent and engageing.

Cohen casts a wide net in his analysis of modern censorship, tackling the extremist religious right, quack therapists, high finance, the law and much else. Despite this varied and lively discussion the book never strays into digression or navel gazing, instead keeping a tight focus on the very serious practical consequences of prohibiting speech and infantalising free citizens. Cohen is fair minded, and acknowledges the often good intentions behind some calls for speech restrictions, in the name of social harmony and anti-discrimination, however he concludes that the truth is too important to sacrifice at the alter of 'respect'. Moreover, by refusing to engage with our opponents we actually do them a dissevice, by treating them like petulant children who cannot handle an adult argument, as well as denying them alternative viewpoints which they may actually appreciate. He also examines the darker, violent and coercive side of censorship and is magnificently scathing about the parochial cowards in the media and entertainment who, while posing as speakers of truth to power, are never in any real danger, and refuse to speak truth to anybody who might be in a position to actually put them in harms way.

Also of note is his dissection of English libel law, the operation of which is nothing short of a national embarrassment.

The book is the most powerful modern argument in favour of free speech that I have read, containing chilling examples of supression and intimidation but also a spiriting call for free inquiry, adult debate and resistence to tyrants great and small who think that they know what you should think. An essential read.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
In this lucid, urgent and well-argued book Nick Cohen starkly shows how we are living with new forms of censorship - 'political correctness' which stifles genuine debate about religion and creates a climate of fear; UK libel laws and corporate culture which massively favour the rich; and misguided Techno-Utopianism which ignores the Net's ability to create a culture of surveillance and, in its indiscriminate freeing up of data, to expose dissidents to the secret police in dictatorships. A must-read for anyone who cares about freedom of expression in contemporary society and wants to do something to bring it back.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 19 January 2012
Nick Cohen's You Can't Read This Book is a must read for those who still believe we have freedom of expression in the UK. He entertainingly lays bare the control the rich elite have over writers, magazines and newspapers. Your story might be absolutely true, but if the person you are writing about has deep pockets and a fearsome reputation, you are unlikely to get the story of financial - or any - wrongdoing published. In this magnificent book, the message is clear: you'd be downright naive to believe that the truth will protect you from claims of libel here in Britain, whose defamation laws are the most Draconian in the Western world.
A case in point is how Nick Cohen expertly tackles the workings of the late unlamented Robert "Captain Bob" Maxwell, who took his company for a ride and no one could report on it contemporaneously.
Cohen quotes the tycoon's unofficial biographer Tom Bower: "His purpose was to make it impossible for any editor of a newspaper or book to consider writing about him critically without considering the enormous cost both financially and in time wasted that would entail. He would come down on them with the force of a bulldozer." The truth didn't matter, the fear of cost did. And Captain Bob had very deep pockets, stuffed full of his employees' money.
Cohen has done a wonderful job here of exposing the lie that we live in a free country. More power to his elbow.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 18 February 2012
Nick Cohen gives an ascerbic revelation of the ways that the rich, the powerful, the despotic and the theocrats use their wealth, influence, authority the threat of violence or murder to suppress and diminish free speech and limit the political and life options of those who dare to speak out or resist.
Contains powerful examples of the cynical and ruthless actions of the above but also the hypocrisy and cowardice of those who contend they are leftists or liberals but in reality are anything but and who have sold out the ideals and values hard won to overcome misogyny, homophobia and other liberal issues.
Buy the book, read it and then tell as many people as you can about it.
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