It says a lot about these intellectually malnourished times that the most effective literary publicist of the twentieth century was the Ayatollah Khomeini. A trend-spotter in many respects, but not least because he didn’t bother to read the book he helped make famous, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran sentenced the Indian novelist Salman Rushdie to death in 1989 over Rushdie’s fictional satire on the controversial aspect of the Islamic tradition that Satan might have dictated parts of the Koran, particularly those parts which compromised the singularity of God. The Khomeinist fatwa on Rushdie led a rush of fanaticism and apologetics that prefigured the twenty-first-century struggle against totalitarianism. Rather than act as absolute defenders of free speech and free inquiry, many intellectuals on the left and right behaved as if they were newly appointed members of a Committee of Public Safety—happy, if not eager, to second death for a writer who caused “offense” to the pious. Hugh Trevor-Roper delighted in what he thought was the irony of a left-wing novelist from the colonies being assailed by other natives: “I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them,” the historian said, not bothering to expand on the manners of the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses who was mortally stabbed in the face or of the Norwegian publisher who was shot three times and left for dead outside his home near Oslo. John Le Carré defended the ayatollah, claiming that there was “no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity” (the First Amendment predates MI6).

This sinister rationalization led Christopher Hitchens—Rushdie’s great friend and a Galahad among his defenders—to say of Le Carré that he had comported himself as “a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head.” As for the ranking clerics of England, from the Chief Rabbi to the Archbishop of Canterbury, all acted as though they were recent inductees into what Nick Cohen wonderfully calls the “trade unionism of the faithful,” a phrase reminiscent of the late Hitchens to whom this important and brilliantly argued polemic is dedicated. And why not? Both men began their careers as independent-minded socialists and have had their own late dust-ups with the left: Cohen’s second book was all about his failure to recognize the principles he signed up for in today’s apostles of “anti-imperialism.” That he should devote himself to proving Orwell’s insight that “so much left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot” is no doubt good for the left, but even better for the rest of us. You Can’t Read This Book1 offers a brisk history of free expression and how it has been undermined by secular and confessional tyrannies, political correctness, and the willful culture of consensus that ruled high finance and wrecked a global economy.

If the Rushdie affair now seems familiar, that’s because we have had our share of dismal encores. Most of them are recounted here with the telling journalistic detail that exposes not only la trahison des clercs but also the cynical posturing of the clerics. Cohen helpfully reminds us that it was Theo van Gogh’s murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri, who first coined the term “infidel fundamentalist” to describe his next wished-for victim, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was later assailed as the “Enlightenment” variety by Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash. The makers of the Danish cartoon scandal, which ended with the deaths of 139 people worldwide and several embassies aflame, neglected the fact that there were caricatures not just of Mohammed and suicide bombers but also of the cartoonists and commissioning editors themselves, rendered as “reactionary provocateurs.” What’s a little self-effacing publicity to dictators who’ll take any excuse to exploit righteous indignation against the West? A photo of a French Pyreneane pig imitator that had nothing to do with the original Jyllands-Posten pictorials was included in the final packet that the Arab League and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is now murdering Muslims by the truckload, used to do their own reactionary provoking throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Cohen destroys similar cant about The Jewel of Medina, a romance novel that featured Mohammed and his child-bride Aisha and was written by an almost enviably innocent admirer of both historical figures who relied on hagiographic scholarship to embellish her caftan-ripping chick-lit. No matter. A handful of American academics found Sherry Jones’ book “very ugly,” “stupid,” and, in a strange Orientalist endorsement of terror alert levels, a danger to “national security.” It’s always the way with postmodern interpreters of pre-modern opinion that context is either everything or nothing at all. They warned of violence against Jones and Random House should it publish The Jewel. It didn’t, but the only threats that either received were mildly angry letters objecting to the book’s blasphemous content. While it is true that the smaller English publisher that did turn out the novel had its office firebombed, the assailant needed no incitement to resort to jihad. He was already a follower of the extremist group al-Muhajiroun; in 2006, he was photographed alongside his infant daughter outside the Danish embassy in London. She was dressed in an “I [heart] Al-Qaeda” hat.

As for Rushdie, he’s now not only out of hiding, he’s on Facebook and Twitter. True, the occasional threat still looms. In January, he was forced to cancel an appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival after he was warned of assassination threats should he turn up. However, Rushdie went ahead and attended a different cultural festival in India just the other week where he openly mocked the religious commissars, much to the delight of his audience. This seems nothing so much as confirmation of what the liberal Danish Muslim Naser Khader told Cohen about the assorted psychopaths and rage-boys—their oxygen is our willingness to live on their own terms. “They take a minority in a minority to represent everyone. When the minority in the minority demands the right to oppress the majority within the minority, they give it to them.”

This is a “multicultural” phenomenon, too. Cohen describes the plight of the Anglo-Indian painter M. F. Husain, who was hounded out of his ancestral Bombay by Hindu fundamentalists who didn’t like the supposedly prurient manner in which he’d sketched Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Of course, when he had originally made the black-and-white line drawing of a topless deity submerged in water, there was no bother. It was only decades on, when the picture was produced in a book, that the philistines noticed anything amiss. Saraswati by Husain is not more liable to stir subcontinental loins any more than the Kama Sutra or latest Bollywood belly-jiggles, though the fact that Husain is a Muslim certainly made his art constitutionally criminal.

Self-censorship is, in many ways, Cohen’s real thesis, which makes me wonder if his title wouldn’t have been better as You Don’t Want to Read This Book. His chapters on the credit market implosion and the Hobson’s choice faced by institutional whistleblowers are among the finest in this book because they examine both antiquated and self-defeating
statutes as much as ingrained human psychology. Conservatives can appreciate Cohen’s description of contemporary corporate culture as a kind of velvet dictatorship where thunderous egos reign in the boardroom and underlings are too terrified to say that the boss is talking utter nonsense, lest they should first lose their jobs, then be reputationally boxed out of their industries altogether. Whatever kind of enterprise this is, it is not “free.”

Cohen and I share a friend in Gita Sahgal, an extraordinary Indian feminist who has the rare honor of appearing in two sections of this book: first for her defense of Rushdie in 1989, when white neo-Nazis teamed up with Islamists to attacked her group, Women Against Fundamentalism, at a demonstration at Parliament Square; then again for her exposure of how Amnesty International, which had employed her to head its gender affairs unit, partnered with a confessed al-Qaeda trainee, Moazzam Begg, simply because the latter had been in Guantanamo Bay and was therefore a convenient foil for Amnesty’s real enemy: George W. Bush. Sahgal has since had to found her own non-governmental organization since no pre-existing one would hire her after she went public against Amnesty, something she only did when she discovered that registering her protests internally failed to get the human rights group to abandon its shoddy alliance, which it maintains to this day. Begg, meanwhile, was recently awarded millions of pounds by David Cameron’s government in a preemptive settlement with Britain’s War on Terror “victims.” Any hack who has tried writing about Begg deals not just with an editor but with a team of legal analysts because he is not afraid to use those millions to sue for defamation. This is especially the case when what defames him is the truth.

American readers who puzzle at the chapters on England’s notorious libel laws should be thankful that recent U.S. legislation has barred the possibility of their becoming better acquainted with those laws in an English court. Still the first refuge of Saudi sheikhs, billionaire Russian oligarchs, philandering politicians, and soccer players, libel is yet another way in which medievalism impends on modernity. Edward I’s scandalum magnatum and Charles I’s Star Chamber decree birthed an entire industrial complex of muzzling muckrakers because England defines a man’s reputation as his personal property (it doesn’t have to be damaged or “stolen,” it can simply be trespassed upon in some way for that man to strip the trespasser of his life savings).

Though for all his trespassing over the low points of English history, Cohen also has little regard for the future, at least as it’s been imagined by the utopians of cyberspace. If chutzpah was, as the Yiddishist Leo Rosten put it, embodied in man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan, then Julian Assange is the Platonic ideal of the concept. The self-heralded pioneer of total transparency—or the Bakunin of bullshit, as I prefer to think of him—threatens to lawyer-up against journalists who are either unimpressed with his treatment of female companions or who have had the misfortune of working with him and say so. Assange has hired a Holocaust-questioning anti-Semite to help manage his WikiLeaks campaign in Russia and, according to Belarusian state media, fed dossiers on dissidents to that post-Soviet republic’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Assange published the tranches of U.S. State Department cables without redacting the names of anti-Taliban and anti-Mugabe oppositionists in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe; he called the Afghans “informants” who “deserve” to get killed, according to the journalists who tried to persuade him to keep their identities confidential. When the English satirical weekly Private Eye wrote an unflattering piece about Assange, he rang up their London office and accused the editor of being part of an international “Jewish” conspiracy against him that, as all such conspiracies do, consisted of a few non-Jews.

Like every breakthrough technology before it including the printing press, the Internet has the power to enslave as much as it does the power to emancipate. For every Syrian activist who goes online, there’s a Mukhabarat agent monitoring his Skype conversations and emails. Advertisements for the End of History coincided with the death sentence from Tehran. So while some see the coaxial as the coming End of Censorship, Cohen is smart enough to grasp that, for born authoritarians and thugs, it’s simply their chance to get warmed up.

1 You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, by Nick Cohen; Fourth Estate, 224 pages, 19.95.