Rushdie 1, Fish 0

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Random House recently cancelled publication of Sherry Jones' novel The Jewel of Medina, about Muhammad's child bride Aisha, for fear of violent reaction by Muslims like that engendered by Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. In a whine entitled Crying Censor in the New York Times, Stanley Fish takes Rushdie to task for describing this as "censorship" on the grounds that it is only censorship when governments forbid absolutely the publication of a work.

According to Fish, what Rushdie wrote in the email he sent to the Associated Press was:

I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have canceled another author’s novel because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals. This is censorship and its sets a very bad precedent indeed.

which does make it sound like Rushdie intended the term censorship to apply to the action of Random House. Even so, those of us who are capable of perceiving less favored readings of ambiguous sentences will notice an alternative interpretation, one in which Rushdie's "this" refers not to the action of Random House but to the threat of Islamic reprisals. As it turns out, this is unquestionably the correct interpretation.

We know this because what Rushdie actually said is not ambiguous:

I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have canceled another author's novel, apparently because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals. This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.

The phrase that I have highlighted, "by fear", which Fish omits, makes it clear that Rushdie is referring to the threat of Muslim reprisals as censorship, not Random House's decision to give in to this threat. This is a perfectly correct use of the term.

Whereas Fish wishes to restrict the term "censorship" to government action in "philosophical and legal contexts", the term is in fact used more broadly, not merely by the hoi polloi but by lawyers and other educated people concerned with civil liberties and civil society. The National Coalition Against Censorship, for example, gives the following definition:

Censorship happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their political or moral values on others by suppressing words, images, or ideas that they find offensive.

I have not found any definition of censorship that restricts it to government action.

Fish's dig at Rushdie reveals a poor understanding not only of the definition of the term "censorship" but of the Enlightenment tradition of freedom of expression. Fish writes:

It is also true, however, that Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction.

While it is true that Random House's decision not to publish is not censorship, it is ridiculous to say that its decision in this case "has nothing whatsoever to do" with freedom of speech. By its own statement, Random House was not exercising its own judgment as to the literary or commercial value of The Jewel of Medina. Rather, Random House chose to give in to the threat of reprisal by Muslims. The Enlightenment value of freedom of expression does not lead only to restrictions on the powers of government: it requires that all of us tolerate expression that we may find offensive. A free society cannot permit anyone, government, corporation, church, or individual, to decide what may and what may not be published. That a publisher should cancel publication of a novel out of fear of violence by religious fanatics has everything to do with the Western tradition of free speech. It is a disturbing reminder that this tradition is not universal and that it is at present subject to very real threats.

Salman Rushdie is not, as Fish would have it, a "self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment", but a writer who has courageously endured the threat of death for his own work and who recognizes the threat to the lives and freedom of others posed by religious bigots. When he warns of censorship, he knows exactly what he is talking about.

P.S. Fish says that Random House reports that its consultants warned that publication "could incite racial conflict". If I were a publisher, I would be concerned about the quality of the advice profferred by people so foolish as to think that Muslims are a race. It appears, however, that neither Random House nor its consultants used the term "racial" and that in spite of the quotation marks, the phrase in question was manufactured by Fish. The statement on the Random House web site does not use the term "racial conflict" at all. It says:

After sending out advance editions of the novel THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, we received in response, from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.

The Associated Press article accurately quotes the Random House statement and mentions nothing "racial".

Update: The omitted words "by fear" have now been restored in Stanley Fish's post.


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