Rushdie to Judgment

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Over at Superfluities, George Hunka has an interesting post about playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, who has gone into hiding after receiving death threats from Sikhs offended by her latest offering at the Birmingham Repertory Theater in England. (Bhatti is herself a Sikh.) Hunka notes that the police, who suggested she go into hiding, were willing to protect the theater if it chose to continue the run of the play. He concludes:

The threat to speech rights comes less from the state than from extra-governmental forces like the aforementioned "mob" and the demands of business, marketing or corporate organizations. This means that when the late Bill Hicks' final performance is cut from the David Letterman show on a television network which is privately owned, the network is within their rights. If they desire not to disseminate Mr. Hicks' monologue, that's fine, so long as the government hasn't had any influence on the network's decision….

If you're contemporary, as Lenny Bruce would have put it, you're cool with this. The market determines commercial dissemination of speech based on speech that has a guaranteed dollar value. Unfortunately, this system is just about as moronic as any other. A nation's laws obliquely reflect a communal notion of right and wrong, of morality; the legal is Good, the illegal Not. A materialist nation's morality is based in what sells: the profitable is Good, the unprofitable Bad.

Whole thing here.

I agree with Hunka that at least in liberal market democracies in the West, restrictions on expression (with the possible and always-stunning exception of political speech during actual elections) primarily comes from non-state actors, whether mobs or entertainment companies. I also agree that the marketplace often, maybe even typically, values things in ways that I personally find puzzling, surprising, regrettable (why didn't Strangers with Candy become a hit?). I think he's wrong in suggesting that people equate the profitable with the Good and the unprofitable with the Bad–however you want to define those terms, whether aesthetically, philosophically, or whatever. The real question is whether a market system tends to create more outlets–including specifically non-commercial outlets–than other systems. I think it's pretty clear that it does, in ways the confound mobs and markets alike.

And there remains a world of difference between threatening a writer–or any individual–with death and not running Bill Hicks' appearance on Letterman. This is not a small point and the two should not be conflated: One person is threatened with death; the other, despite being dead, has a new collection out and a steady, perhaps even growing cult.

NEXT: Whose Success? Whose Catastrophe?

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  1. I certainly didn’t mean to compare NBC’s rejection of Bill Hicks’ monologue with death threats against Ms. Bhatti. That indeed would have been inappropriate, not to mention offensive itself. I only wanted to point out the different ways in which market considerations determine not only content but the avenues through which that content is disseminated. Obviously, NBC, fearing advertiser and perhaps viewership disapproval, pulled the plug on the Hicks monologue following a quick, abstract cost/benefit analysis, weighing the airing of the monologue against its potential cost to the network in advertiser dollars or ratings; similarly, I suppose, it is cheaper for Ms. Bhatti to go into hiding than for the local constabulary to stand a line of officers outside a small theater.

    While there are certainly alternative, non-commercial outfits that will disseminate this work, they obviously don’t have the reach of NBC or even smaller cable networks, which are similarly engaged in a battle to draw viewers to their channels, not drive them away.

    Finally, an obscure black-box theater in Birmingham is about as non-commercial as you can get. And that’s where the right to free speech finally failed in this instance.

  2. Nick,

    They’re making a SWC movie–our tastes must not be all that wrong!

  3. I’d like to note that Letterman has also failed to air MY monologue, obviously the result of some CBS conspiracy to supress my views on belly button lint.

  4. I can’t be the only person who thinks Bill Hicks was an overrated hack.

  5. Bill Hicks was comic genius. Strangers with Candy I’m not so sure about…

  6. Did you hear that Rushdie has announced that he is working on a new novel?

    It will be entitled, “Buddha, Ya Fat Bastard”…

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