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A good read - shame about the hypocrisy
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.