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You Can't Read This Book [Paperback]

Nick Cohen
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Book Description

Feb. 17 2012

Winner of Polemic of the Year at the 2013 Political Book Awards.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism, and the advent of the Web which allowed for even the smallest voice to be heard, everywhere you turned you were told that we were living in an age of unparalleled freedom.
You Can't Read This Book argues that this view is dangerously naive. From the revolution in Iran that wasn't, to the Great Firewall of China and the imposition of super-injunctions from the filthy rich protecting their privacy, the traditional opponents of freedom of speech - religious fanaticism, plutocratic power and dictatorial states - are thriving, and in many respects finding the world a more comfortable place in the early 21st century than they did in the late 20th.

This is not an account of interesting but trivial disputes about freedom of speech: the rights and wrongs of shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre, of playing heavy metal at 3 am in a built-up area or articulating extremist ideas in a school or university. Rather, this is a story that starts with the cataclysmic reaction of the Left and Right to the publication and denunciation of the Satanic Verses in 1988 that saw them jump into bed with radical extremists. It ends at the juncture where even in the transgressive, liberated West, where so much blood had been spilt for Freedom, where rebellion is the conformist style and playing the dissenter the smart career move in the arts and media, you can write a book and end up destroyed or dead.

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‘Cohen is perhaps the most insightful, thought-provoking and entertaining political writer in Britain today, and comes from the honest tradition of English liberal thought that threads from John Milton to John Stuart Mill and George Orwell’ Telegraph, Ed West

‘Nick Cohen’s books are like the best Smiths songs; however depressing the content, the execution is so shimmering, so incandescent with indignation that the overall effect is transcendently uplifting’ Julie Burchill, Prospect

‘It is useful to have all this material in one place, particularly for the benefit of young people, who must be taught about previous disputes over free expression’ Hanif Kureishi, Independent

‘You can read this book, and you probably should’ Hugo Rifkind, The Spectator

‘Into the space vacated by the controversialist Christopher Hitchens we might recruit the sardonic, sceptical columnist Nick Cohen’ Iain Finlayson, The Times

‘Nick Cohen’s new book is a corrective to the tendency of internet utopians to think that the web has ushered in an “age of transparency” New Statesman

‘Writing with passion, wit and erudition, Cohen draws upon the spirit of Orwell and Milton in his call for a fightback against the onslaught on free speech’ Metro, 4 stars

‘You Can’t Read This Book. You can, OF COURSE. And you should. Cohen is right about everything that matters.’ Standpoint, Anthony Julius

About the Author

Nick Cohen is a journalist and commentator for the Observer and Evening Standard. He is also the author of ‘What’s Left’? – the most important and provocative commentaries on how the Left lost its way.

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0 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Fun to read but... Sept. 9 2012
I was attracted to it because of this, "In Britain, they are shamefully abetted by libel laws that have made the country an international byword for the judicialsuppression of inconvenient truths. Here, one of the wittiest and most excoriating journalists at work today passionately and persuasively describes how those in the liberated West find themselves in a situation in which one can write a novel, criticize an alternative therapy, or "offend" a religion by drawing a cartoon, and risk ending up financially ruined, or even dead."

Then I was reading a review by Stuart. The whole review is worth reading but I want to bring attention to this by Stuart: "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!!"

I thought there is a good chance there is a perspective in this book that would be some food for thought.. a consideration of an idea that would influence my activism and help ground me a bit.. I came away from this book believing this was written for the neo-cons.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.9 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fair criticism needs protection Feb. 7 2012
By David Wasley - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
We believe that we can say, read and hear whatever we want. The author shows that governments, courts, the rich, religious leaders, even some muddle-headed libertarians, often aim or condone the suppression of criticism. A key theme is that criticism that may offend someone, is not the same as that which harms, and is often needed. This book is not a dusty treatise on freedom of speech as its themes are well supported by recent and disturbing case studies.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best non-fiction of 2012? Oct. 30 2012
By Hugh Young - Published on
I commend Nick Cohen's "You Can't Read This Book" as perhaps the most important non-fiction book of 2012. It's about censorship today - all too often, self-censorship, and hence censorship that goes unprotested, unrecorded and unnoticed.

He begins with Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and how shamefully liberals have failed to defend them. (He points out that nobody has dared to publish anything like The Satanic Verses since, and even a sycophantic book, The Jewel of Medina, got suppressed for fear of quite unwarranted Islamist reprisals. This book prompted me to start reading The Satanic Verses, and it is the closest thing we will see in our lifetimes to an Islamic Life of Brian, much more playful than blasphemous. The fatwa against Rushdie should have been laughed off the face of the earth, instead of being cowtowed to by the likes of Roald Dahl and the then Archbishop of Canterbury.)

He draws a sharp distinction between tolerance for religion and respect for religious beliefs.

He covers how terrorists manufacture offence and terrorise randomly; the English libel laws and how the rich and powerful have misused them to silence the powerless, almost without trying; how the obscene "earnings" of money managers contributed to the recent economic collapses and how whistleblowing was suppressed; and how the freedom of the Internet is a double-edged sword. (Julian Assange was not promoting freedom when Wikileaks published a list of informants to the Americans in Afghanistan, for the Taliban to use to compile a death-list.)

The chapter headings give a good idea of its scope:

1 'Kill the Blasphemer'
Rules for Censors (1): Demand a Respect You Don't Deserve

2 A Clash of Civilisations?
Rules for Censors (2): A Little Fear Goes a Long, Long Way

3 Manufacturing Offence
Rules for Censors (3): Go Postal! [i.e. Terrorise randomly]

4 The Racism of the Anti - Racists
Rules for Censors (4): Say that it is Bigoted to Oppose Bigotry

How to Fight Back: John Milton and the Absurdity of Identity Politics


5 The Cult of the Supreme Manager
Rules for Censors (5): People Don't Want to Know

6 A Town Called Sue
Rules for Censors (6): Money Makes You a Member of a Master Race

How to Fight Back: John Stuart Mill and the Struggle to Speak Your Mind


7 The Internet and the Revolution
Rules for Censors (7): Look to the Past/Think of the Future

8 The Internet and the Counter-Revolution

How to Fight Back: Advice for Free-Speaking Citizens
The first two headings directly, and I now think, rightly contradict one of the shibboleths of 1980s feminism:

1 The political is not personal
[we self-censor all the time in private, but religious and political ideas "are too important to protect with polite deceits" in public.]
2 The personal is not political
[Demands for a right to privacy are justifiable. They will grow as the Net replaces the anonymity of the twentieth century city with a global village]

3 Respect is the enemy of tolerance
4 If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say so

If Nick Cohen is a Zionist, it doesn't show in this book. That's not hypocrisy, it's impartiality. To attack his book for his personal political views is the fallacy of argument ad hominem, attacking the person. I only found one example of self-censorhip (but then, I wouldn't find them, would I?), and that - about a famous film star's well-known sexual orientation - so obvious I think it was meant to be recognised for what it is.

I like having my ideas shaken up. This book did.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Re to review by Stuart Aug. 28 2012
By Terry R. - Published on
This is a reply to the review by Stuart. Stuart in his review misrepresents the views of the author. Apart from that, I think you should read both books of Nick Cohen, What's Left and You cant read this book. So, to respond to Stuart's review:

First, the term 'hypocrite' is not applied correctly in his review. In a book about free speech it would be hypocritical to deny people like anti-zionist or antisemites their right of free speech. Well, Cohen of course doesn't, he criticizes their view. Calling someone a hypocrite because you do not share his opinion makes free exchange of opinions impossible.

Second, the argument Stuart refers to is not in this book, but in the previous "What's left".

Third, it's not even in this book, because Stuart apparently didn't understand Cohen's argument and instead of correctly describing the author's argument, he - by simply calling him a 'zionist' - he implies that Cohen is uncritical of Israel and thinks people criticizing Israel are not only anti-Zionists, but real Anti-semites. Well, he doesn't. He even explicitly says so. Instead he simply criticizes the view, that the establishment of Israel is the 'root cause' of ALL the problems in the Middle East, including the rise of Islamism. To quote him from What's left, Chapter 12, p. 352 (emphasis mine):

"All of these echoes of fascism passed without comment from the majority of the liberal-left. I'm NOT saying their anti-Zionism was the same as classic antisemitism because with a few dishonourable exceptions the Jewish obsession of most people on the Left didn't degenerate into a visceral loathing of all Jews. Rather, they behaved AS IF they were antisemites. When they designated Israel the world's only pariah state and the 'root cause' of terrorism and war, they once again described to Jews the supernatural power to bring chaos."

So, go on and read both of Cohen's books.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Censorship in the age of Freedom ? Sept. 23 2013
By Mr Pasquale Di Rago - Published on
This is possibly one of the most important books I have ever read. And it goes without saying that if you read one book, then read, "You can't read this book", by Nick Cohen (no pun intended). It represents a serious wake up call to all those who voice an opinion, write a blog, upload a picture or even tell a joke, believing they are free to do so. Nick Cohen asks us to consider whether or not we believe in free speech, but more importantly, whether or not we have the courage to practice it. The book is a detailed, informative and a devastating critique, not only for Religion, Politics and Money, but also to the timidity that results when appeasement feeds the beast it seeks to tame. And points out quite rightly that "Censorship is most effective when its victims pretend it does not exist".

There are the usual villains and victims, and some new ones I've never heard of before. Two new key areas that stand out most for me is the level of Self-imposed Censorship in the Work Place, which is seldom ever written about, and the bizarre Legal System that exists in England that allows Litigation for anyone with the wealth and power to silence critics ignoring national boarders. Also of note are the sobering words towards the end of the book for those who think the Internet and Social Media will bring about effective change.

It is pretty clear that the Powers that be are usually one step ahead of us, and don't think for one minute that they don't know who you are or where you live, or even what you think, yes the thought police are looking over your shoulder AKA 1984, and George Orwell. But in all seriousness, Fear is the driving factor of their agenda, and with the Edward Snowden affair hot in the headlines (Which incidentally is not covered, given, that "You can't read this book", was published last year), only makes Censorship even more important.

The key message I think appears on page 171 of my copy, where Nick says "To be Happy means to be free and to be free means to be Brave". So if you care about things like the First amendment, or John Stuart Mill's Harm principle, then Read this Book. I'll finish with a quote, from Benjamin Franklin, which pretty much sums up what is at stake: "Any Society that would give up a little Liberty, to gain a little Security, will deserve neither and lose both"
5.0 out of 5 stars Never mind the labels Sept. 14 2014
By Hande Z - Published on
As one reads through this book, he is likely to forget whatever label he might have stuck on others or on himself. This book was written with a force of persuasion through the indignities inflicted by man on each other ('man' here includes women - both as oppressor and victim). Cohen tells the story of Hirsi Ali and her long journey from childhood to adulthood in Somalia and Europe, finding deep prejudice against her for her gender and her religion. The same goes with the story of one of India's most talented artists, Maqbool Fida Husain, who at age 94, finally renounced his citizenship because Hindu politicians made use of his art and his name to create political opportunities for themselves.

Cohen wonders how British law courts would ignore John Stuart Mill's declaration that no one had a right to restrain another except to prevent harm, and blithely rule against defendants who were said to have defamed another even though no harm was proved by the defamation.

This book provides numerous instances in which humans oppress others for no justifiable cause. Do we believe in freedom? That is the question he wants us to answer in our hearts. How do we justify limits to freedom without giving up our own space? We have to think about that.
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