October 13, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

After Rushdie’s attack, is America still a refuge for writers in exile?

We seem to be dodging the question.

SAlmon

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Two months have now passed since Salman Rushdie was attacked at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York (not far from where one of us grew up). Assailant Hadi Matar, who has pleaded not guilty, ran onstage and stabbed the novelist multiple times. The author of Satanic Verses sustained serious injuries, including to an eye.

Fortunately, Rushdie was taken off a ventilator shortly after being hospitalized. (A friend said he even cracked jokes.) Unfortunately, nearly all public debate has focused on Matar’s motive in what prosecutors called a “targeted, unprovoked, preplanned attack.” 

Remember that we’re talking about a globally acclaimed author who spent years of his life in hiding after Iran’s former political and religious leader put a price on his head for writing Satanic Verses

But we haven’t seen any commentary addressing the assumption that underscored his appearance. According to Bloomberg, it was “the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.” 

How do we explain why state legislatures that are censoring speech and regulating ideas are dominated by Republicans who are said to be censoring speech and regulating ideas for the purpose of protecting “a free and open society” from “howling mobs”?

To be sure, the punditariat recounted Rushdie’s history and speculated on whether Matar was motivated by religious animus. But we seem to be dodging the question: Is the United States still a refuge for writers and other artists in exile? Are we the safe haven that those of who grew up in the Cold War years believed us to be? 

Salman Rushdie wasn’t stabbed after emerging in the 2000s from nearly a decade of hiding in London. He wasn’t stabbed afterward while living in Manhattan. He was stabbed in 2022. Joe Biden said, after the attack, that Rushdie stood for “essential, universal ideas. Truth. Courage. Resilience. The ability to share ideas without fear. 

“These are the building blocks of any free and open society.”

That’s true, but is that true of America?

If critics of “cancel culture” are to be believed, the answer is no. The “woke mob” makes it impossible to speak freely.

After the attack, The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood said “over the past two decades … we have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding.” 

Commentator Bari Weiss, regarding Rushdie’s attack, said “we live in a culture in which many of the most celebrated people occupying the highest perches believe that words are violence. In this, they have much in common with Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.”

Wood and Weiss might sound persuasive except for the fact that ideas (as well as the truth) are the first victims of rightwing politics. 


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The criminal former president frequently accused the press corps of being the enemy of the people. He led an attempted paramilitary takeover of the United States government. Rightwing gangs regularly intimidate teachers with threats of injury and death for the alleged indoctrination of their children. A Republican office holder in Nevada literally murdered a reporter. Even more serious is the trend among red-state governments toward censoring speech and banning books.

“Writers in exile” used to be something that happened in places like Stalinist Russia, Maoist China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Their governments jailed, disappeared or beheaded poets and writers. Comparatively, the United States was a refuge. Ideas flourished here.

But now? 

There’s reason for doubt.

According to the PEN America Banned Book Index, there have been 1,586 decisions to ban books between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022. This includes decisions to ban books in school classrooms, school libraries, both or decisions that are still pending investigation. 

Top banned titles: Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (30 districts); All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson (21 districts); Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison (16 districts); Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez (16 districts); The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (12 districts); Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin (11 districts). 

According to the PEN Center, of the books banned:

  • 41 percent have a Black protagonist or a protagonist of color. 
  • 22 percent address race or racism. 
  • 18 have a Jewish or Muslim protagonist. 
  • ⅓ have explicit LGBT-plus characters.
  • 21 percent of address sexual or health subjects, including abortion, teen pregnancy, sexual assault and puberty.

The Tennessee school district banned Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman. The 10-member McMinn County School Board voted unanimously to remove the book from its 8th-grade curriculum. They were supposedly concerned about “rough” language and a drawing of a naked woman in a few panels. 

These are not books that the left would howl about. If anything, the left would howl about them not being included in school curricula.

Only the right gets to howl. 

Only the right gets to enshrine their howling in law.


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Anti-CRT bills (anti-critical race theory) might not specifically ban books, but they are attacks on education and classroom censorship. Since January 2021, 42 states have introduced bills or taken significant steps to restrict teaching about racism, sexism and what they call critical race theory (not actual critical race theory). 

The bills limit discussions that teachers can have by restricting the teaching of “divisive concepts.” Oklahoma’s board of education punished two schools by downgrading their accreditation for violating a state law banning critical race theory in schools.

This year, Florida passed the “Stop WOKE Act.” The law “prohibits lessons or trainings that teach that individuals are inherently racist or sexist because of their race or sex, that people are privileged or oppressed due to their race or sex, and other related concepts.”

Students must be allowed to access reading material on all kinds of subjects without the knowledge or control of their parents. They should be able to learn about their bodies, explore their sexuality or gender, or even seek out information about sexual assault.

Students are, of course, the future of any free and open society.

Let’s say that “cancel culture” really is a thing. How do we explain, then, why state governments that are banning books – “the building blocks of any free and open society” – are run by Republicans?

How do we explain why state legislatures that are censoring speech and regulating ideas are dominated by Republicans who are said to be censoring speech and regulating ideas for the purpose of protecting “a free and open society” from “howling mobs”?

We can’t. 

These are books targeted by rightwing governments that aim to stop make-believe enemies from influencing their state’s schoolkids. 

Book bans are part of the larger rightwing project of closing society and oppressing undesirables. Books carry ideas. Ideas carry political risks. In order to minimize risk, or get rid of it, they ban books.

The left’s go-to is counterspeech followed by political compromise. The right’s go-to is violence followed by the force of law. Is the United States still a refuge for writers and other artists in exile?

Maybe. 

There’s reason for doubt.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. Mia Brett is the Editorial Board's legal historian.

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