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on 31 December 2012
I can't whole-heartedly recommend this book, even if Nick Cohen is a fairly clever man and definitely capable of writing very readable prose. It's hard to imagine that any reasonable person, or any person, at least, with an ambition to be considered reasonable, would openly disagree with the basic thrust of Cohen's argument, i.e. that censorship is a Bad Thing. He rightly attacks the spineless way in which governments in Europe, North America, Australia and Britain have permitted self-selecting muslim fanatics to set themselves as the judges of what constitutes islam and have acquiesced in the establishment of de facto regimes of censorship, in which islam receives a level of protection from criticism which is not shared by any other religion. One has no need to look further than the website of the BBC for evidence of this; at a time when most terrorist attacks worldwide are carried out in the name of islam, the BBC can produce entire articles about such atrocities which fail to refer to the religious aspect even once.

Likewise, those of us not in a position to secure anonymity via a "super-injunction", courtesy of the indulgent judiciary of England and Wales, cannot, surely, be in sympathy with the censorship which such injunctions represent. Cohen isn't always ideally clear about this point, but the fundamental fact is that these injunctions are designed not to protect the innocent, but to hide the truth. In that respect, they are a giant's stride even beyond England's deplorably flexible libel laws, themselves notorious worldwide. The late Robert Maxwell demonstrated repeatedly how legitimate allegations might be suppressed with recourse to expensive lawyers, the idea being to intimidate cash-strapped editors and publishers into drawing back from contesting libel actions. Cohen is pretty good on Maxwell, but fails to mention an equally blatant and more recent use of the same tactic by the Blair government. When shareholders in Railtrack disputed the legality of the setting up of Network Rail (which entailed the winding up of Railtrack), the first response of the government was to appoint a very expensive QC and then to seek to prove in court that the plaintiffs would not be able to pay the government's legal costs, in the event of a defeat, meaning that their case should be dismissed without a hearing. If the government had lost, of course, then its costs would have been met by the taxpayer. This is an attitude to the taxpayers' money which is frequently in evidence, both at local and national level, when disputes reach the courts. Cohen has nothing to say about that, possibly because he shares the collectivist ideology according to which the state may confiscate as much as it likes of private wealth and then expect pathetic gratitude for what its rapacity leaves behind.

Cohen's left-wing background is certainly a problem here, because it forces him into ideological cartwheels, when the worst offenders in the censorship game do tend to turn out to be his fellow lefties. Throughout this book, there is the sense that "liberal", "progress" and anything with "left-" in front of it are essentially favourable terms. It's not that he doesn't admit the failings of people on the left, more that he always treats them as aberrations, rather than admitting that illiberal attitudes, in reality, tend to come very naturally to those who style themselves "liberal". One can almost feel Nick Cohen squirm with embarrassment, when he has to admit that commentators on the political right are closer to his own views on censorship than his natural allies on the left. He'd do well to ditch the left/right concept altogether. As well as being a very unsatisfactory way in which to visualise politics, it is completely useless, as applied here. Islamists, for Nick Cohen, are always of the right. Why? Search me. Wasn't the Shah of Iran a right-winger? Didn't islamists seize power after his overthrow? "Progress", for Cohen, implies constant improvement, which would have been news to a Ukrainian of any denomination during the Thirties.

Where I absolutely part company with Cohen, though, is over his spectacular failure to spot the pachyderm in his immediate vicinity, in the form of the subversion of the scientific method, something on which he does, rather uselessly (and, I have to say, in the circumstances, hypocritically) expend ink. There has been a major controversy raging for the past two decades and more, concerning the effects which mankind's industries and transport, even our eating habits, supposedly have on the world's climate. I'm not going to beat around the bush: I think that the "global warming" theory is utter nonsense. Whether or not I am right about that, though, is not the point here. There is a mountain of solid evidence which shows that supporters of the theory of global warming have attempted very frequently to stifle debate on this subject, often claiming that the "science is settled". In other words, they have practised censorship, on a vast scale. Cohen explicitly refers to the scientific method as a counterweight to censorship:

"The scientific method is opposed to secrecy, and has no respect for status. It says that all relevant information must be open to scrutiny. The ideal it preaches - not always successfully, I grant you - is that men and women must put their pride to one side and admit mistakes."

Well, yes, Nick, but when have you ever applied those standards to the climate crowd? On both sides of the Atlantic, climate "scientists" have obdurately refused to share their raw data (that would be "relevant information"), which supposedly underpins their claims, even to the extent of going to court, with abundant threats of costs and damages (remind you of anything?). The BBC decided to treat man-made global warming as a proven scientific fact, on the basis of a seminar attended by green activists and BBC insiders; again, the public broadcaster spent large amounts of our money in court, seeking to keep the details secret. They came to light, anyway, thanks to a resourceful investigative journalist, whose name wasn't Nick Cohen. That particular event occurred too late for Cohen's book, but I haven't noticed any attempt by him to cover the story in any other context since.

The keepers of the sacred flame of global warming are very resourceful, when it comes to blotting out the voices of those who disagree with them. Scientists with decades of relevant research discover that they can't find any publisher for their articles, possibly because the global warming priesthood have succeeded before now in getting editors dismissed for accepting such heretical texts. Disbelievers in the alarmist theory of man-made global warming are often accused, in the absence of any evidence, of being bribed by the large oil companies, or of disputing the connection between smoking and cancers; they are likened to people who insist that the moon-landings never took place, even to deniers of the Holocaust. All of this is censorship, pure and simple, designed to present the supporters of the global warming fantasy with an excuse to avoid any discussion of the evidence, or even to produce any evidence in the first place. This censorship is just as outrageous as the islamist variety and, in its way, just as dangerous, so it should have pride of place in Cohen's book, but it's not there at all, because Nick Cohen plainly turns a blind eye to censorship, when he approves of the cause.

All in all, I really can't recommend this. Some of what Nick Cohen says is plainly right, but also blindingly obvious. His omissions show that he can censor with the worst of them, if doing so suits his ideology.

UPDATE: And doesn't Cohen (rather unexpectedly) have a lot of friends? More people have disapproved of my review than have ever bothered to plough their way through his hypocritical book.
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on 17 July 2012
As a strong believer in the right to free expression I picked up this book and read it. I was sceptical at first due to it's author. Nick Cohen is an apologist for the Iraq war, a zionist (by which I mean a supporter of Israel, not a jew) so given his support for bad causes I was sceptical about this book.

Cohen's book is about censorship. When we think of censorship we think of North Korea, Iran and other dictatorships. Cohen's book is about censorship in free societies, particulary his native England.

He sets out the threat to our freedom from religion, those with money and lastly the state. He rightly attacks the UK's notoriously oppressive libel laws which are notoriously restrictive of free speech. "In England money buys silence". He discusses restrictions on free speech we can all relate to, the restrictions placed on us by our employers!

Cohen makes good points about the internet. It has been hailed by optimists as a tool which will make censorship impossible and will free humanity from censorship. Cohen rightly points out that the internet is a double-edged sword. It can have liberating potential but can also be used by those that want to suppress free speech For example in Iran they post pictures of protesters on the net and ask supporters of the regime to identify them.

Cohen the author of a previous book attacking the left, continues in that vain. He rightly attacks the left for not standing up for brave women like Ayaan hirsi Ali who have taken on Islam and it's misogyny. They had fallen into the dangerous belief that looking down on other cultures as inferior was racists. Some cultures just are superior to others!

Now to Cohen's hypocrisy! He has written a book about free-expression and yet doesn't believe in that when it comes to the Israel-palestine conflict! At one point in the book he states that when people use the term zionist, they really mean jew. It follows that anti-zionism is therefore anti-semitism. Anti-zionism means opposition to the colonialism of a state (Israel in this case)not an ethnic group. He accuses the left of anti-semitism later in the book as well. He also took part in a documentary by Richard Littlejohn accusing israel's critics of fighting a war against britains jews. He's not to keen on free speech when it comes to Israel!

This is a very well-written, informative and lucid book. It is recommended for everyone who believes in free speech. Shame it is written by a hypocrite!!
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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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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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VINE VOICEon 5 June 2012
Don't get me wrong; the rant is a perfectly acceptable genre, and has its place. The reason why I only give this book three stars, is that it seems to be a general rant about several of Nick Cohen's pet hates, of which censorship is just one. So if you are in favour of freedom of speech but are also, for example, a religious person who takes the occasional homeopathic remedy, then this book could be extremely annoying. I suspect that those who have given it five stars were already on Cohen's side. I am too, but I think he risks alienating many of his neutral, uncommitted readers by not sticking to the point, so the value of this book to the cause of freedom of expression is sadly limited. Having said that, Cohen does make some very good points and the book is very readable. I wish I'd bought a 'proper' copy rather than the kindle edition, as it is the sort of book I may wish to refer back to, and I find this easier with paper books. I thought about giving it four stars, but no, three is enough.
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on 22 November 2012
We all know about Nick Cohen's unfortunate lurch to the right and support of the Iraq war, this book continues in that vein. Dumb, lazy Communist-bashing and neo-conservative warmongering disguised as liberalism fills most pages. This is a waste of money and a bad read.
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on 20 August 2012
Nick Cohen's title is strangely prophetic: it took me four months and five attempts to read You Can't Read This Book! The odd thing is, I should have loved it, I'm intellectually and politically sympathetic to Cohen's position, but sadly the author botches what should be a straightforward treatise on censorship in the modern era.

Cohen opens with an attack on the British judiciary, arguing that there is some unspoken conspiracy to pervert the law in order to suppress information that is in the public interest. As an example of this nefarious behaviour, Cohen cites Ryan Giggs' attempts to prevent a minor celebrity spilling the beans on his prowess in the bedroom. The problem with this argument is that it doesn't stand any meaningful scrutiny: there is no public interest (in the purest sense of the expression) in the sexual liaisons of consenting adults where no coercion or abuse of position has taken place. What Cohen is really arguing for is the right to put a photograph of a passingly attractive girl (usually wearing little more than a smile) on the front page of a newspaper in order to generate revenue. As important as it may be, commercial expediency is not the same as public interest and, without any hint of irony, Cohen acknowledges as much at the end of the book (p.299). The real problem is not that the courts are acting as state censors, but that privacy is denied to the masses through the prohibitive costs of legal action; something the author doesn't seem to have grasped.

The issue of special (religious) pleading is addressed with a little more success but Cohen's problem is that dealing with religious objections is like herding cats. Consequently, he over-generalises and focusses on the extremes rather than the corrosive effect of religious imposition on society. Frankly, Cohen's predecessors (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al) have explored this issue more successfully and I recommend turning to them for authority on the matter.

Cohen's final argument is that ultimately technology won't liberate the masses. It seems to me to be a strange position to adopt given his acknowledgement of the Arab Spring and the (aforementioned) Giggs affair. Sadly, he may have a point here: most of us embrace technology for our entertainment and not for our betterment - perhaps that is why the rich and powerful increase their wealth and influence and the rest of us remain intellectually impoverished. Nonetheless, it's worth remembering that printing presses educated the majority and facilitated the industrial revolution: perhaps there is hope after all!

This might be a good book for reinforcing existing prejudices, but as an introductory text on the some very important issues facing society, it is poorly argued and deeply disappointing.
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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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 May 2015
Freedom of speech explored, from many angles. It shouldn't be taken for granted. Salman Rushdie's book 'Satanic verses' is discussed, and the appalling treatment at the hands of Islamist threats and the coercion by those in the West, when bookshops across the West withdrew copies because of those threats. Censorship by religious fanaticism. Khomeini's fatwa amounted to a head of state ordering the execution of a private citizen in a foreign country for writing and publishing a work of fiction; when put like that it sounds absurd and because it's absurd it should have been ignored, but it wasn't. Blasphemy laws are discussed: 'Confusing ethnicity - which no one can change - with religions or political ideologies - which are systems of ideas that men and women ought to be free to accept or reject.' 'The Rushdie affair was not a 'clash of civilisations' but a struggle for civilisation'. He adds that if another writer today came along with a book similar to The Satanic Verses no-one would dare publish it, and he states that 'free societies are not free because their citizens are fighting for their freedom, they are free because previous generations of citizens have fought for their freedom.' 'censorship is at its most effective when its victims pretend it does not exist', as in the Rushdie affair. All credit to British artist Grayson Perry for admitting then that ' I have not gone all out attacking Islamism in my art because I feel the real fear that someone will
slit my throat.'
There are some words about the wealthy: 'Extreme wealth is creating societies in which it is harder to hold economic power to account' and 'they are unshakeable in their belief that they are entitled to their wealth, and have every moral right to resist attempts to reduce it.' Some interesting words about the modern workplace: 'Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship' - how very true!
'Anyone who has worked in a hierarchical organisation must have noticed that bravery is rarely on display when a superior enters the room'.
The internet has opened up the entire world to an element of freedom not seen before, but the author adds this warning: 'Authoritarian regimes and organisations do not just censor the Net - they mine it for information. On a scale greater than any other communications technology, the Net offers states the power to spy and entrap.' 'The main targets of oppressive regimes are not always psychopaths or potential revolutionary leaders, however. Ordinary citizens concern them as much.' 'The knowledge the state is watching you, or might be watching you, is a powerful deterrent against activism.'
This is an excellent book to read if you are concerned about threats to freedom and free speech. We shouldn't be complacent about it, it can be taken from us. We must recognise the signs and stop it before it starts.
Jonathan Nicholas
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 March 2014
At the time of writing this, the Turkish leader Erdogan is clamping down on access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, modern "apples of knowledge" which he presumably fears are undermining his authority. Yet, if you regard the UK as a bastion of free expression, Nick Cohen will undermine your complacency.

Organising his material under the main heading of "God", "Money" and "State", Cohen moves from the ayatollah-supported death threats against Salman Rushdie, who dared to use fiction as a tool to satirise certain aspects of Islam, through the suppression of whistle-blowers who would have forewarned us of the recent Icelandic banking collapse foreshadowing those in the US and Britain, to the illusion that the web will sound the death knell of censorship in repressive regimes - the latter may become yet more successful by using technology to track down and crush opposition.

The author's subjective and polemical style often seems more suited to disillusioned-with-the-left-and-liberals popular journalism than a book in which one hopes to find balanced analysis. For instance, he describes British judges as being drawn from "the pseudo-liberal upper-middle class who have no instinctive respect for freedom of speech or gut understanding of its importance". Then there is his repeated attack on Western radicals who "either dismiss crimes committed by anti-Western forces as the inventions of Western propagandists or excuse them as the inevitable if regrettably blood-spattered consequences of Western provocation. The narcissism behind their reasoning is too glaring to waste time on". But Nick Cohen has found time to expand on the crimes of Charles Manson and Roman Polanski, salacious digressions from his main point, in this case to expose the excessive protection offered by British courts to those, often foreigners, rich enough to buy protection from criticism by exploiting libel laws and hiding behind super-injunctions.

Cohen seems particularly exercised by the Western liberals who appear to him to have put more emphasis on respecting Islam than on protecting the rights of individuals like Rushdie to freedom of expression. Although I tend to agree with Cohen's views, I was disappointed that he did not show more understanding over people's very understandable fear of losing their lives, or those of their loved ones, if they dare to take a stand. I was also troubled by his apparently somewhat partisan attitude to the rights of Israel, and lack of an at least even-handed examination of the role of Wikileaks overall.

This book covers important themes, it provides telling examples for those too young to have read about them in the press, but I had hoped for a more objective style together with a more systematic and synthesized approach to defining and discussing censorship, made all the more necessary by the inevitable "dating" of this kind of book, which, for instance, misses out on the potential debate over the role of Edward Snowden.

Quotations from some of the pioneers of tolerant thought make some of the best points, like Jefferson who wrote in 1776 with timeless clarity: "no man shall be compelled to support any religious worship.. nor suffer on account of his beliefs....but ...all men shall be free by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of Religion."

Yet, of course, apart from the lack of specific reference to women, at the time, Jefferson still owned slaves........
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