Free Speech

Yesterday, my college had the honor of hosting Salman Rushdie, who held a private Q&A session with a small number of students and faculty (myself among them), before giving a public lecture. It was utterly fascinating in many respects; I will restrict this post to one issue in particular that he brought up.

In the public lecture, Mr. Rushdie said that the defense of free speech is most important when it is speech that disgusts you. He then related the story of a movie which was made after Khomeini had issued the fatwa against him. This movie, called International Guerrillas or something similar, told the story of a group of "guerrillas" (i.e. terrorists) who were determined to hunt down Mr. Rushdie and kill him. Rushdie was portrayed as living a debauched life in a palace in the Philippines, protected by the Israeli secret services. After several acts of cruelty against the guerrillas (not least, reading to them from the Satanic Verses), Rushdie is finally struck down by Allah himself, and thus justice is served.

A copy of this movie was brought over to Britain, and was submitted for certification. The certifying board was advised by their lawyers that this film was inflammatory, and that if Rushdie was attacked as a result of it, he could sue the board. They therefore were set to declare the film banned. Rushdie was placed in the unusual situation of protesting on behalf of a movie that advocated his murder, to ensure that it would stand or fall on its own merits, and not become a "hot item" simply because of the public opposition. (Cf. The Passion.) In the end, the movie opened to empty houses even in the predominantly Muslim areas, because it was a lousy movie.

I found this interesting most of all in light of a comment he had made in the private session about quiesence in the face of extremism. Speaking of the many protests in Britain where public figures called for his murder, Rushdie said with some agitation, "Not one of them was ever arrested."

Apparently, if you make a public statement calling for the death of another, you should be arrested. But if you make a work of art (or something approximating art) calling for the death of another, that art is legitimate and should be allowed.

I am not sure how to respond to this. One could argue this position on practical grounds, i.e. that a banned movie becomes much more powerful because it can remain underground, while public speech is in any event public speech. But I wonder how much of this comes from a poorly-justified elevation of "art" over simple speech. Conceptually, there is very little difference between the two, as far as incitement to murder goes. As an aspiring writer, I can understand why artists and intellectuals would want to secure a special status for their work. But I am skeptical that such a status should automatically exempt art from the "crowded theater" rule.

But I remain undecided on this point.

In other news, David Carr of Samizdata reports in his incomparable style:

Reports from Paris indicate that there has been a marked improvement in the condition of Yasser Arafat.

He's dead.

No comments: