You can’t read this book: censorship in an age of freedom

Past President Zach Cole reviews a modern polemic.

A book by Nick Cohen

Published in Great Britain by Fourth Estate (2012)




If I had been browsing the same well known bookshop off Piccadilly Circus, as I was when I picked up Nick Cohen’s newest polemic, 20 years ago there would have been a real threat of harm to my person.  For a period of time, bookshops – not skyscrapers, parliaments or popular tourist attractions – were the target of Islamic extremists.  Why? Because of a fatwa imposed on any institution or person connected to the publishing of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

The Satanic Verses is a classic piece of literature, but a controversial one.  And the story of how it caused both the left and right of the United Kingdom to openly oppose freedom of speech and censor a free thinking intellectual in favour of radical extremists, forms the basis of Cohen’s critical, engaging and often eye-opening exposé on ‘censorship in an age of freedom’.

Cohen pulls no punches. From religion, to corporate irresponsibility and whistle blowing, and oligarchs and English super injunctions, It is an eye-opener.  An attack on the left and right and their failure to protect the little guy.  A thrilling account of why a whistleblower must decide between feeding his children and the moral high ground.

Dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, it is no surprise that Cohen begins with a prosaic discussion about how the intelligentsia sides with religious extremists, rather than free-thinking and publishing authors.  He thoughtfully examines why the intelligentsia deride an author who receives a death threat after criticising religion rather than attacking the extremists that encourage individuals to kill another.  He forces the reader to ask the question: why should anything be off limit to discussion? Sex, religion, politics – you name it.

In an age of corporate bashing, Cohen’s articulate discussion on how the UK is a haven for criminal oligarchs and corporate renegades, seeking the protection of English libel law, provides a simple remedy to increasing information and transparency in the corporate sector; protect the whistleblower.

It is a book for all.  Provocative, witty and easy to read.  Enough detail for philosophical and political buffs with a passion for Milton, Voltaire and Mill. Light enough for your mum, your dad, your siblings, grandparents, neighbours and friends, even if they have no interest in freedom of speech. And most importantly, a book for anyone with the view that the right to free speech should be curtailed by anything more than strict defamation law. It is engaging, thrilling and moving.


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