Blocl activism

You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom

By Nick Cohen

Even when brave men and women speak out, the chilling effect of the punishments their opponents inflict on them silences others. Those who might have added weight to their arguments and built a campaign for change look at the political or religious violence, or at the threat of dismissal from work, or at the penalties overbearing judges impose, and walk away.

The struggle for freedom of speech is at root a political struggle, not least because the powerful can use new technologies as effectively as the weak – often more effectively.

Humans are social primates, and socialising with the rest of our species requires a fair amount of routine self-censorship and outright lying, which we dignify with names such as ‘tact’, ‘courtesy’ and ‘politeness’. *

As well as a provision for freedom of speech, most guarantees of basic liberties have a right to privacy sitting uneasily alongside them. It recognises that the full truth about an individual’s life cannot be made public without crushing his or her autonomy.

‘If you’ve nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,’ say authoritarians. But everyone has something to hide, and if there isn't a dirty secret, there is always something that your enemies can twist to make you look dirty.

When Catholic reactionaries accuse opponents of papal doctrine on contraception and abortion of ‘anti-Catholicism’, and when believers in a greater Israel accuse opponents of Israeli expansion into the West Bank of anti-Semitism, they too are palming a card from the bottom of the deck. They are trying to pass off rational morality as an irrational hatred.

The attack on The Satanic Verses appalled liberals. The fight to defend it exhausted them. Knowing what they now knew, few wanted to put themselves through what Rushdie and Penguin had been through. Unlike the Western campaigns against apartheid, Franco, the Greek colonels and the Soviet Empire, a campaign for free speech would involve them running a slight risk of becoming the target of violence themselves. They soon found high-minded reasons to avoid it, and redefined their failure to take on militant religion as a virtuous act.

Censorship is at its most effective when its victims pretend it does not exist. If intellectuals had stated that they were too scared to cover subjects of public concern, then at least they would have possessed the courage to admit that they were afraid.

It is time to extend our solidarity to all the rebels of the Islamic world, non-believers, atheist libertines, dissenters, sentinels of liberty, as we supported Eastern European dissidents in former times. Europe should encourage these diverse voices and give them financial, moral and political support. Today there is no cause more sacred, more serious, or more pressing for the harmony of future generations. Yet our continent kneels before God’s madmen, muzzling and libelling free-thinkers with suicidal heedlessness. (PASCAL BRUCKNER, 2007)

The proposition that ‘Europeans believe defending Muslim women from mutilation and abuse constitutes a racist attack on Muslims’ is an oxymoron that is so morally and logically contemptible it demolishes itself.

Pascal Bruckner, heir to the best traditions of the French Enlightenment, said that as well as living in fear, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has had ‘to endure the ridicule of the high-minded’. In the eyes of the ‘genteel professors’ she had ‘committed an unpardonable offence: she has taken democratic principles seriously’. For that they called her a ‘fundamentalist’, and could not see that ‘the difference between her and Muhammad Bouyeri is that she never advocated murder to further her ideas’.

With equal insincerity, the nominally left-of-centre and perennially two-faced Labour Party instructed the Foreign Office to appease Islamist sentiment at home and abroad. It embraced the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, and declared that they were ‘reformist groups’ with a ‘moderate’ and ‘progressive’ ideology. Britain’s ‘progressives’, nitpickingly politically correct in all other matters, stayed silent as they did it. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was not the only dissident they left behind. *

In the summer of 2011, a British literary festival cancelled an event featuring an Islamist speaker after the English Defence League threatened to disrupt the meeting. Maybe I should not make too much of an isolated event, but the white extreme right could not have failed to have noticed that the habit of agreeing to the demands of menacing men had become ingrained in cultural bureaucrats. Religious radicals could dictate who spoke and wrote, so why shouldn't they do the same?

The first principle of liberalism, a principle that predates the Enlightenment, was freedom of conscience. No man should have the power to force others to accept his religion. Europe had hundreds of politicians, activists, intellectuals, writers, artists and exiles who found that freedom denied to them as they tried to criticise religious beliefs. Beyond Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali were many others whose cases rarely made the papers. They had come to Europe because they wanted freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. When they tried to exercise those rights, they were threatened, attacked or forced to go into hiding.

The English unleashed the contemporary idea of freedom of speech in the 1640s. Ever since, the English establishment has being trying to rein it in. John Milton’s Areopagitica was the first critique of religious censorship to push ideas about freedom of conscience into the modern age. His words ring down the centuries, providing arguments and inspiration to all who must take on secular and religious tyranny.

When Milton said that he could not praise a ‘fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary’, he meant that religious truth could not be imposed from above by a king, priest, minister, rabbi, guru, ayatollah, ‘community leader’, judge or bureaucrat. The individual had to find it for himself in the heat of argument. The sentence all readers remember – ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’ – is an assertion that authority is no guarantee of truth, if authority is not tested.

Today’s supporters of religious censorship claim that they are different. They say they are not advocating censorship because they believe we must bow down before Church and state, but because we must respect different cultures and say nothing that might offend them.

The faster you strip cultures down, the more you find contrariness and disputation, rather than a solid core, until eventually you reach the individual, a mammal shaped by evolution, material needs, cognitive biases and historical circumstances no doubt, but still a creature with a better right to state his opinions than kings and clerics have to silence them.

In 2003, I was trying to find a way of dramatising the widening gap between the broad mass of society and the emerging plutocracy. I hit on the idea of comparing the money the British public raised on Red Nose Day with the wealth of the super-rich.

Twelve thousand telecom workers gave up their spare time to man phone lines, while a million or so schoolchildren wore red clown noses and extorted money from their parents.The appeal raised £35,174,798 in total.

Red Nose Day’s takings were dwarfed by the £157.7 million pocketed in 2002 by one man: Sir Philip Green, a retail tycoon the British Labour Party knighted even though he vested ownership of chain stores in the name of his wife, a resident of Monaco, so the family could avoid the taxes Labour imposed on the common people it once claimed to represent. The income of one tycoon made the charitable efforts of a large slice of the British public seem pathetic.

In 1997, the year Labour came to power promising to govern for ‘the many, not the few’, the collective wealth of the richest thousand people in stod at £98.99 billion. By the time the tribunes of the masses were preparing to leave office in 2009, it stood at £335.5 billion.

The collapse of Marxism was one of the most beneficial revolutions in history. In China alone, the end of Mao’s terror and the replacement of his command economy with a limited market economy lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.

America and Britain have a parasitic version of financial capitalism that exploits the taxpayer to cover the failings of wealthy and dangerous citizens.

I can think of few more important subjects for democratic citizens than the influence of the rich over politics, the damage business can do to the atmosphere and the environment, and the risks high finance brings to economic stability. Yet extreme wealth is creating societies in which it is harder to hold economic power to account.

Beyond the intermingling of their finances and interests, the Western rich and the oligarchic rich share an ideological affinity that is worth worrying about too: they are unshakeable in their belief that they are entitled to their wealth, and have every moral right to resist attempts to reduce it.

Speaking out in the public interest guarantees financial loss and unemployment. The primary concern of employees, public and private, is to avoid a confrontation. They work in hierarchies organised like armies. The managing director or CEO is the general, and a princely salary bolsters his or her status and pride. Beneath him or her are the staff officers, whose first duty is to show mindless obedience; and beneath them are the grunts, who are expected to take orders without question and not to answer back. *

Nearly all of us work in hierarchies. Nearly all of us bite our tongues when we should speak freely. Yet few of the classic or modern texts on freedom of speech discuss freedom of speech at work, even though, as the crash of 2008 showed, self-censorship in the workplace can be as great a threat to national security as foreign enemies are.

The greatest crash in the financial markets since 1929 did not come without warning. In the wake of the catastrophic loss of the jobs and homes of millions of workers, whose employers had never paid them a bonus in their lives, the previously somnolent media belatedly paid tribute to those who had tried to raise the alarm.

Within three years of the taxpayer bailing out RBS, two hundred of its staff were receiving million-pound bonuses. The recession, unemployment, higher taxes, reduced public services fell hard on everyone except the originators of the banking crash.

The most unjustly rewarded executives in the world had wrecked Western economies and shown no willingness to change their ways. Yet it never occurred to the supposedly liberal-left governments of Barack Obama and Gordon Brown to provide incentives to allow employees to speak up and speak truthfully, or to impose penalties on those who stayed silent.

I will ask you whether you believe in freedom of speech. If you say that you do, you are in a distinct minority. In most cultures for most of history, speech has not been free. Criticise the state, and the state punished you. Break with the religion or defy the taboos of the tribe, and the tribe punished you. The powerful cannot afford to lose face, because as soon as they do, the authority of the state and the tribe begins to drain away.

I believe that posterity will look back on our treatment of animals, and the insouciance with which we have presided over the * sixth mass extinction of species in the earth’s history, and shudder. Even if I am wrong, I can be certain that, for ill as well as good, the ideas that some small and derided groups of men and women are discussing now will one day be in the mainstream.

The ability of citizens to live as autonomous adults depend on the right to criticise and accept criticism.

Employers, like kings, dictators, politicians, bishops, rabbis, imams, priests, civil servants, judges and censors, can urge their fellow citizens to shut up and forget for fear of the consequences. No one should be surprised at the lack of demand for free speech in the workplace. Seeing the arrogant brought down is very satisfying, but when the exposure of your boss entails the loss of your job, the pleasure soon wanes.

Given the political, cultural, psychological and economic forces ranged against freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the wonder of free societies is not that they are rare, but that they exist at all.

The law’s readiness to censor writers and order their publishers to pulp books and pay costs and fines weakens conservative claims that England and the rest of Europe are afflicted with an over-mighty ‘liberal judiciary’. The judges are not true liberals, but the successors to the aristocratic Whigs of pre-democratic Britain.

On 21 July 2008, the United Nations declared that the practical application of English libel law ‘has served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work’. England’s authoritarianism was not a local concern, but created the global danger that one country’s ‘unduly restrictive libel law will affect freedom of expression worldwide on matters of valid public interest’.

I still recall the shame I felt when the legal director of Human Rights Watch in New York told me she spent more time worrying about legal action from England than from any other democratic country when she signed off reports on torture, political persecution and tyranny. *

Censorship is not always about hiding secrets. Sometimes it is just an assertion of raw power.

Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not only to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.’

From Stalin in his show trials to oligarchs suing investigative journalists, censors want recantations as well as exemplary punishments. I have seen billionaires, including convicted criminals, extract admissions of guilt from British newspapers too poor or too frightened to fight, and use them to convince journalists and politicians around the world that legitimate criticisms of their actions were groundless.

Reporters, editors and artists in Britain, America and most of Europe are not afraid of politicians. They are frightened of Islamists, and do not run cartoons that might offend them. They are frightened of oligarchs and CEOs, and worry about libel and the ability of the wealthy to bend the ear of their proprietors. But they are not frightened about leaking the secrets or criticising the actions of elected governments.

The public woke up to discover that their banking system was about to collapse, without their media forewarning them.

The Net, like all previous revolutions in communications technology, will change the world. But, like all previous revolutions in communications technology, it will give advantages to those who already enjoy power and wealth.

As well as empowering the citizens of democracies and dissidents in dictatorships, it empowers elected governments, dictatorial regimes, police forces, spies, employers, blackmailers, frauds, fanatics and terrorists.

As in the Europe of the absolute monarchs, most modern dictatorships effectively license publishers, broadcasters and Internet service providers. They tell them they can make money as long as they protect the interests of the regime. Material from dissidents circulates, but its authors and publishers must live with continual harassment.

The elite wants a safe and profitable autocracy, and will tolerate dissent as long as its effects are limited.

Meanwhile, politically active Westerners can find that the Web seduces them away from the public they need to influence.

The Web has made it easier for them to write than ever before – and easier still to be ignored. Potentially, anyone writing on the Web can reach a global audience. In practice, hardly anyone ever does.

As with all other advances in communications technology, the Net adds to the influence of those who already possess it.

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 to entrap.

The knowledge that the state is watching you, or might be watching you, is a powerful deterrent against activism.

Western companies that have supplied China with technology that can track dissidents justify themselves by saying that they sell the same technology to Western governments and organisations. Their implication that the power of the new surveillance technologies knows no borders is correct.

All new forms of technology change societies, but how they change them depends on the limits the politics of those societies set.

Because Western radicals are most concerned about abuses of power in their own countries, they assume that democratic abuses are the major or only abuses of power worth protesting about. Their parochial reasoning leads to the most characteristic of left-wing betrayals. Radicals 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.

Democracy’s advantage over other systems is that it allows countries to replace rulers without violence. But electorates cannot ‘throw the scoundrels out’ if censorship prevents them from learning that the scoundrels are scoundrels in the first place.

The Net cannot set you free Only politics can do that.