On Bounties For Authors: Salman Rushdie and Beyond

[Speech delivered at Portage Public Library, February 7, 1990]

Every few years lemmings — those rat-like creatures of fairy tale fame — gather in huge packs and pitch themselves en masse into the sea. Most of us know about such things only second-hand. Perhaps it is just a great charade, that having made their leaps, the creatures swim jauntily to shore, say farewells to distant cousins, and return home until the next gathering of the clan.

I’ve never seen lemmings jump before, so I can’t say for certain what the facts are, but it seems likely that the lemmings’ leap is their last, their destination oblivion and an afterlife that begins with a brief stint as fish food.

There’s no way to know what individual lemmings think about this. Probably nothing. At lemming school they are probably all taught that they are living solely for that glorious group moment when they can pitch themselves off some rocky promontory, and die knowing they’d lived up to the highest standards of lemmingdom.

Naturally there are likely to be naysayers among them. “Naw, not this year, pop, I gotta date. Maybe  next time, but you and mom have a crashing good time.”

When you’re in a big crowd and that crowd moves, you move with it. This is one of life’s immutable laws. Which in a nutshell is the basis of my concerns about censorship. That is, that crowd or big part of a crowd trying to herd us to somewhere we’ve neither chosen nor wish to go to.

Lest this be misconstrued, let me say for the record that I’m relatively happy living in a society where the majority rather than the biggest fist rules. Majority rule reflects a process of an electorate choosing people to hold elected offices; majority rule is not a social force dictating how we think or express ourselves.

Our society is supposed to be one where the majority’s interests cannot exclude or override the rights of individuals — each person being the ultimate minority, the so-called least common denominator.

What I hope to do this morning is to talk — somewhat passionately, if not lucidly — about an issue that should be of concern to each of us ultimate minorities.

In a 1983 article in the Wilson Library Bulletin I read something I want to share with you. “The issue (in censorship) is the right of the people in a democracy to have access to the widest possible variety of choices and freely to choose for themselves on the basis of their own judgment.” Notice the proviso: For Themselves. Not for Everybody Else.

The central issue in the subject of censorship is whether or not another person or persons will make your choices for you.

Often by force — or the threat of it.

At age 70 Galileo Galilei was called to Rome by the Church to answer for his views that earth revolved around the sun. The Chursh however believed, for theological reasons that the universe, including the sun, revolved around earth.  But Galileo had studied the heliocentric theories of Copernicus and decided they were correct, based on his  own observations of heavenly bodies by telescope.

Because of his position for Copernicus and in direct oppostion to the church, Galileo in 1616 was accused of heresy and ordered to Rome to face the Inquisition (then judicial arm of the Church ). Heresy was punishable in some cases by death, but Galileo was cleared of charges and told that he should never again publicly state his belief that the earth revolved around the sun.

The story is told that at this time he was made to get down on his knees and recant the heresy, which he did, saying, “I swear that I will never again in words or writing spread this damnable heresy.” But as he struggled back to his feet he was heard to mumble. “Nevertheless, it does move.”

In 1632 in violation of his promise to the Church  he published a book strongly supporting geocentricity. This time the Inquisition found him guilty and he was  excommunicated and sentenced to life in prison. Because of his poor health he was allowed to serve the sentence in his home.

Here’s the irony: In 1989 the Church reinstated Galileo, not by saying he’d been right, but by stating he had not been wrong! Here’s my question: What possible  restitution can be made to his soul, which presumably had suffered in great agony for more that 350 years? Censorship is somebody making your choices for you, or limiting the choices you have.

We’ll call this censorship by theological exclusion. If you don’t believe what I believe, you’re wrong and look out for the consequences.

For example: In 1549 Englishman William Thomas wrote The History of Italie. His sovereign Queen Mary took umbrage because she felt the author had criticized the Italian clergy. Result: Mr. Thomas was hung and quartered. Maybe there even was a trial, but history’s not clear on this point. Hung and quartered is what we know, and not a word said about disposition of his royalties.

This would be censorship by opinion, not to mention absolutely royal power — a dangerous combination.

Last week I saw on evening TV news an interview with the mayor of Pulaski, Tennessee, which is the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. The Pulaski City Council apparently passed a series of ordinances aimed at stopping modern-day pointy heads in white sheets from staging rallies in the outfit’s hometown. The court overturned these ordinances and told the town leaders that the pointy-heads had the constitutional right to wear their silly costumes and spout their venom of racial hatred, these rights being guaranteed under the First Amendment.

It’s not that the court agreed with the pointy-heads; all it was doing was reaffirming that this group, loathsome as it may be, is constitutionally guaranteed the right to freely and openly espouse its views.

What the city council had intended, of course, was to abridge that freedom on the grounds that what the pointy-heads would say would be offensive. In some ways I think we all side immediately with the city council, but in doing so we are siding with a precedent that could threaten us all.

The problem is that it’s too easy to say that stopping the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis is perfectly all right. That’s because the views of most of us coincide with the city council, and herein we see the insidious dynamics of censorship at work. One group wants to apply its values to another group or individual. It’s only when we are in the group to be limited that we get our dander up, yet if  we support the principle of free speech we must also support the rights of others to express ideas, even when we find them insidious or disgusting.

In a letter to a lady friend Voltaire wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Free speech is not about what we like or agree with. It’s about principle: the right of every person in our society to unfettered self expression, which means that to preserve our own rights, we have to wholeheartedly defend the rights of those with whom we disagree. Voltaire had this right.

But it’s much easier said than done.

Last year the Supreme Court ruled that under the right of free speech it is not illegal to burn an American flag. Intellectually I understand and applaud the ruling, but as a veteran it makes my stomach turn.

Censorship comes in all forms and disguises.

Let’s turn now to the infamous Salman Rusdie affair. Mr. Rushdie was born in Bombay, India, and educated in the U.K. He wrote a novel called The Satanic Verses. The publication of this novel sparked the equivalent of a minor holy war in the Islamic world, a conflict which also touched us in the U.S.

When the book was published, the late Ayatollah Khomeini (Iran) put a bounty on Rushdie’s life, saying the author’s work was blasphemous and had insulted all Muslims and their religious beliefs.


Anti-Rushdie demonstrations ensued. Book stores were fire-bombed and Rushdie went into hiding and remains hunkered down in parts unknown . An estimated seven percent of U.S. booksellers refused to carry the book on grounds that doing so might represent a threat to their employees. Many stores also carried the novel, but under the counter — like condoms years ago.

I call this censorship by terrorism.

Did this Ayatollah’s fatwah work? Depends on your definition of success, I guess.

The Satanic Verses jumped to Number One on The New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for a long time. This led to increased sales in other countries. I bought a copy for no other reasons than to see what the fuss was about, and to show my support for Rushdie and his right to creative expression. But I couldn’t plow through the book. It was turbid, confusing, boring. By my artistic standards it was a lousy book and not my sort of thing.

Had the dear old Ayatollah simply ignored the book I suspect it would have passed largely unnoticed. Instead, it became a cause celebre and was widely read and discussed. This is the rebound effect we sometimes see with attempts to censor.  (Scientists also call this the Law of Unintended Consequences.) The human condition is surely one of curiosity and the surest way to pique curiosity is to tell people something is off limits.

Do me a favor. Someone ban my books. Please!

As an aside, I wondered if Rushdie committed suicide, could his estate claim the Ayahtollah’s bounty?

Did Khomeini’s effort succeed? One wonders and given this sad episode I wonder how many agents and editors will quietly pass on manuscripts they suspect will be too controversial to handle? And worse, Rushdie may yet be murdered by some zealot.

It would be easy enough to ignore events like this, but the principle of free speech must be held inviolate, otherwise there may come a day when you are under another person’s or group’s microscope, or worse at the far end of a telescopic lens attached to an assassin’s rifle, an assassin about to kill you because you have been judged unworthy of living by another’s standards or values.

Censorship goes on all the time. As with the Pulaski Tennessee example cited earlier, censorship is often invoked as a means to ends that seem on the surface to be  good and high-minded.

In 1988 the University of Michigan enacted a policy that broadly barred the expression of thoughts deemed offensive to any person or group on the basis of and I quote: ” RACE,ETHNICITY, RELGION, SEX,SEXUAL ORIENTATION, CREED,NATIONAL ORIGIN, ANCESTRY, AGE, MARITAL , HANDICAP, AND VIETNAM-ERA VETERAN STATUS.”

Pretty complete list. The policy forbade “thoughts” which of course we infer to mean the verbalization of said thoughts, but the policy says only  “thoughts,” which suggests to me the essence of censorship. That is, if you disallow certain categories of discussion, and remove certain categories of writings, eventually people won’t be thinking or talking about such things.

In the U of M’s case, the administration was trying to eliminate various forms of harassment of people belonging to groups or categories outside the majority. There’s nothing wrong with the goal, but the means were wrong-headed.

What behaviors would have been punished?

* The girls on a dormitory floor have a party and don’t invite a certain girl because they think she might be a lesbian.

* A student organization sponsors a comedian who slurs Hispanics.

* You laugh at a joke about someone in your class who stutters.

These are actual examples published with the policy and remember U of M is one of our more prestigious universities, not the Twinkie School of Junk Food Confectionaries in Sweethtooth, Wisconsin.

How would you enforce this? And given this country’s  propensity for litigation, how do you prove such things in a court of law?

The ACLU challenged this in court and the U of M policy was ruled unconstitutional.

One of the dangers of political correctness is that it is a form of censorship.

Our universities are supposed to be places where minds are opened and exercised, a place for growth and making mistakes, a time for learning, not a place where allpeople are supposed to think alike or be ruled by thought police of whatever flavor. But then formal education has rarely been able to abide people who color outside the lines, so I guess we shouldn’t be so surprised.

In 1917, the Soviet Union moved quickly and violently from a tyranny of the people under czars to tyranny of the people under the Communist Party. The party’s officials then began to live in the same way and places the royalists did and the rest of the public continued to live as they always had, keeping a low profile. The Soviets and their minions have no experience with democracy or the concept of individual freedom, yet watch TV and read your papers and magazines. The Iron Curtain tore apart a year ago and a revolution is under way throughout Eastern Europe, and so much for the effectiveness of thought police.

You can’t force others to think the way you think. For awhile, perhaps. Forever, I think not.

The French government in its Gallic sincerity decided…to prevent misuse, overuse and abuse of prescription drugs and to do so  enacted a law to lower the public  media profile of all drugs. That law forbade the French media from naming a drug unless the story was about a problem, or a danger, in which case the name had to be used. Result: The only stories the French people read about drugs were negative.

The effect in individual terms? Pierre the Perfumier learns from his doctor that his nine-year-old daughter  X needs drug Y or disease Z.

Says Pierre: “But this is the drug about which I’ve read all the horror stories, n’est pas? Why would you want my daughter to be exposed to this?”

Oui,” the doctor says. “This is the same drug, but the media have made something more of the problem than it is and in any event, the use about which they write is not the problem your daughter has.”

Non,”Pierre says. “I cannot allow it. She is my only daughter.”

Result: Pierre’s daughter X dies from disease Z for want of drug Y due to concerns and fears created by the media. Censorships always exacts a price and the price is not always immediate or obvious.

Perceptions are dangerous things, yet perceptions are often the only “truths” we can know because they reflect how we each think we see and understand things. And, of course, our perceptions are influenced and shaped by forces often so subtle that we often don’t recognize them.

Last summer and fall in our congress — that very congress we elected under the constitution guaranteeing our free speech, passed a bill forbidding the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to finance works that endowment officials believe, quote, “may be considered obscene.”

According to the October 8 Kalamazoo Gazette, the bill “specifically precludes subsidies for arts depicting sadomasochism, homoeroticism, child exploitation, or sex acts between people.” There is no mention of sexual congress between other species, or other species and humans, but we can probably safely assume these are verboten as well.

Constitutional experts say that this law may be the first restriction on federal art assistance based on artistic content.

Question: How did congress get into this quagmire?

Answer: Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Last summer the NEA sponsored a photographic exposition that the senator found offensive and he reacted by tacking an amendment onto the 1990 allocation bill for the NEA. The amendment would have outlawed all federal funds for indecent materials, which he defined in his amendment as, “those which denigrate the objects or beliefs of a particular religion or non-religion.”

Non-religion? The honorable senator from the Tar Heel state has flung us into the tarbaby and mists  of ambiguity.

I recently read about a man who founded his own religious group on the premise that God told him to no longer pay taxes.There were several adherents in this group and since the call came directly from God, we’d have to call this a religion. While the IRS and courts rejected this man’s theology as nonsensical, it seems to my that by Mr. Helms’s definition the anti-IRS theology would qualify as a group to be protected from denigration from NEA-financed works.

What may be one person’s nonsense may be another person’s theology and this is the basic contour of the minefield of censorship and its slippery relativity.

We know that there are religious sects in Michigan who believe that handling and kissing poisonous reptiles is a test of faith.

The Roman Catholic Church forbids the elevation of females to the priesthood.

Some religious groups and cults  practice polygamy in violation of secular laws.

People still practice voodoo in New Orleans, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

And we’ve had all sorts of talk about devil worship in southern Michigan over the past couple of years. In California there are established, legal Satanic cults, some even with tax exempt status.

How would Mr. Helms sort out all of this? I would suggest that if separation of church and state is the law of the land, Mr. Helms has moved the state at least tangentially back into church business. Under his amendment NEA  officials would have to sort out what might be offensive to various religious and non-religious groups.

Excuse me, but this is nonsense. It is not possible to determine what is theoretically objectionable to particular religious groups in America. And if it were, a work of art that might be objectionable in concept — based on how the artist describes how they will execute the work — might be highly objectionable once the paint is on the canvas, so to speak.

If making judgments for particular religions is fraught with problems, what the heck is a non-religion, an exquisitely murky concept, which brings to mind the KKK, NRA, Brownies, Monday Night Football, Mickey Mouse Club, Elks, Moose, Rotary, Kiwanis, American Legion and the VFW!

Mr. Helms, I suspect, saw something that made him gag and because he is in a position of power, he sought to impose his values on others.

Abuse of power? Perhaps. Exercise of raw power? Absolutely.

A truly free society can’t be genuinely free unless it tolerates free thought and art ,which are expression of unfettered creativity.  We don’t have to like it or buy it or celebrate it, but we have to allow it to come to life. It is, after all, the competition of ideas that helps society advance. If one restricts free speech and free artistic expression, one invites an effect similar to that which occurs when children are bred among close blood relatives. (Do I hear banjos out there?)

Having taken a look a the U of M I don’t want this morning to pass without a word about my alma mater, Michigan State. During my undergraduate days, a campus organization arranged for some communists to speak. The furor over this was unreal. In the end the administration  — the same one which allow the recruiting and training of CIA officers on campus, the same administration paying lip service to the pursuit of truth and the free arena of ideas —  banned the communists, saying it would be “inappropriate” for them to speak on state property.  (The administrtion did not explain what was inappropriate) Censorship is pure and simple the action of one group to control what another can see or hear. Possibly the administration viewed communism as obscene? Certainly Jesse Helms does.

The sponsoring  group countered by convincing an off-campus fraternity to host the event, and they did.

The crowd that afternoon was substantial. Nearly 30 years later I remember only two things about the day.

First, several Hungarian students were there, Hungarians who had been in Budapest when Russian tanks came in 1956 to crush the so-called democratic uprising, which had been encouraged by the US, which of course immediately abandoned the trouble-makers as soon as the tanks showed up.

These Hungarian expatriates heckled the red speakers relentlessly, not so much with catcalls and profanity, but by challenging the tenets of communism with facts and alternate perspectives on presumed or proclaimed facts.

Second, I remember thinking that these communists were prone to simplistic sloganeering and blind ideological statements. They objected to anyone or any thought that seemed to run counter to theirs. They seemed uneducated, ignorant, ill equipped to express themselves, and uncompelling in logic. I left the gathering thinking if these people were representative of communists everywhere, this was an ideology doomed to failure, not because of its inherent evil, but because it had no meat or bones and no tissue connecting it to actual human life. Eventually I told myself, communism would melt in the sun.

The MSU administration blew it on that one.

Boron, California is a small town of four thousand people near Edwards AFB . Last August a small group of people led by a woman who had never read J.D. Salinger’s,  The Catcher in the Rye (and said she never would read it) demonstrated to have the book banned from the high school’s supplementary reading list.

The school board buckled and pulled the book, but the town librarian reported afterwards that she had a waiting list for a book that had not been checked out in years.

The objection to the book was profanity, especially the use of three “god damns on page 32. When the woman who led the effort learned about the profanity, what did she do? She called the school board and asked, “How the HELL did a teacher get this book?” The protesters said they were trying to protect their children by preserving their innocence.

I would suggest that the elemental goal of learning and education is to convert strangeness to familiarity. By banning and censoring information we maintain strangeness and prevent, or delay learning.

Censorship can never be equated to education. It is the the opposite of eduction because is hides rather than exposes.

If John Steinbeck was trying today to obtain an NEA grant to allow him to complete Grapes of Wrath, I doubt he would pass muster.

It might be useful to point out that when standards of the few command the many, things like the Bible get banned. And burned. As do its readers.

In the wake of the French Revolution the French National Assembly declared that “free communication of thought and opinion is one of man’s most precious rights.” A single statement in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen erased centuries of French censorship by the monarchy and its agents. Not surprisingly, those who had prospered most under the monarchy complained that controls over publishing be continued because “free expression was a degenerate liberty that needed to be tempered.”

Argued the Paris Book Guild, who formerly held royal monopolies on printing: if anyone can print what he wants, France will soon be infected by bad books. Not to mention disagreeable ideas.

This is censorship in defense of  the cash drawer. Those with the publishing monopoly suddenly had it no more and wanted it back.

American novelist Martin Cruz Smith wrote a best seller in 1985 that featured a Soviet police detective, a good and moral man who questioned the system and saw it for its faults. Smith’s Gorky Park was not published until 1989 in the USSR primarily because the book dealt with crime in the Soviet Union, which was a problem  — because the Soviets had insisted to the world  for decades that there was no crime in their society.

Art — our art — good and bad, enriches us. It also may sicken us as William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice surely did.

The more artists we have engaged in their arts, the greater the output. The greater the output the better the chance of something being created that will be timeless, meaningful, and beautiful. What we need to look for in our society are ways of stimulating the production of art, not ways of making it conform to arbitrary standards.

Of the 85 thousand projects funded by the NEA since its founding in 1965, approximately 20 have created controversies.

One of those twenty was the Vietnam War Memorial. Detractors said they didn’t like the starkness of the memorial and you will probably remember the furor that ensued. Vietnam was reality, friends. Stark, brutal reality. What better than a memorial  that reflects the stark, simple truths that every combat soldier learns: People die ugly deaths on all sides.War is neither heroic nor romantic. War is the greatest of all human tragedies. The wall contains the names of all those Americans killed in Vietnam and if seeing it doesn’t give you pause, you are living on anothe planet.

In our society we cannot allow others to set standards for us. We can exercise choice and it is the exercise of such choice that is at the heart of our freedoms. We don’t need censors and laws to limit our choices.

If you don’t like a certain film, don’t watch it.

A TV program offends, turn off the TV or switch channels.

A book sticks in your craw? Close it.  Or don’t buy it or take it from the library in the first place.

Censors are like seeing-eye dogs trying to keep us out of the patch of dangers only they can see or perceive. For my part, I’d rather run the risks on my own. I call this freedom of choice.

 Thank you.

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