Rushdie to Judgment


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.