I was in a Barnes & Noble over the lunch hour buying a book (Sharpe’s Fortress) and noticed a table with a “Banned Books” sign on it. The books on the table included a few old chestnuts–Ulysses!–and a number that I’m pretty sure were never actually banned anywhere. (Nowadays, “banned” usually means that a high school decided not to stock the book in its library.) To the store’s credit, there were copies of both the Bible and the Talmud on the table. But the most notable contemporary example of an actually banned book was missing. So I scouted around, found a couple of copies of The Satanic Verses, and put them on the table.
The internet is buzzing today about Comedy Central’s wuss-out on the Mohammed cartoons. I’ve never seen South Park, and I don’t watch enough television to have any credentials as a critic. As I understand it, Comedy Central has also knuckled under to pressure from the Scientologists, so it apparently doesn’t take much to scare them. And last night’s show reportedly included a scene of Jesus defecating on President Bush, so the cartoons evidently weren’t deleted out of any delicate sensibility.
It may be that we’re all overly sensitized to these issues right now. But in 1989, when a fatwa was issued against The Satanic Verses and its author, book stores showed quite a bit of courage. I remember reading about stores that took a vote of their staffs on whether to stock the book or not; ultimately, I believe all the major chains and many independent stores did carry it. It was not foolish to think there could be a risk, either. Hitoshi Igarashi, who translated the book into Japanese, was stabbed to death in 1991, and Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was attacked and seriously injured at about the same time. Aziz Nesin published extracts of The Satanic Verses in a Turkish newspaper; he was attacked by a mob in 1993. They set a hotel on fire, killing 37 people, but Nesin escaped. And William Nygaard, who published the book in Norway, was shot four times by an intruder in his home.
Are the world’s literary and cultural institutions showing the same courage today? It doesn’t seem that way.