Holy Smoke

Fuck Censorship. Burn Book Burners for Great Justice.

Fri, 12 Aug 2022

Update for 13 Aug 2022: Rushdie is off his ventilator and talking, and a suspect is in custody and has been arraigned. I hope he gets a swift, fair, and public trial. And if he’s convicted, all he deserves is a blindfold and one last cigarette. However, the charges are currently attempted murder and assault, neither of which carry the death penalty – so I hope he ends up doing hard time.

I recently read an article about an attempt to murder the novelist Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses (1988) and other novels, and I am this close to straying past high dudgeon and into Homeric rage. According to the Associated Press:

An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man storm the stage at the Chautauqua Institution and begin punching or stabbing Rushdie as he was being introduced. The author was taken or fell to the floor, and the man was restrained.

It wouldn’t do to speculate on the attacker’s motives, but Rushdie has had a price on his head ever since 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a proclamation to the effect that his novel, The Satanic Verses was an unforgivable offense against Islam and must be punished by the author’s death. While the Iranian government has officially distanced themselves from the late theocrat’s decree, a private entity in Iran is still offering over $3 million to anybody who can assassinate Rushdie.

Frankly, this pisses me off. And it also reminds me of an song called “Holy Smoke” from Iron Maiden’s 1990 album, No Prayer for the Dying.

Jimmy Reptile and all his friends
Say they gonna be with you at the end
Burning records, burning books
Holy soldiers, Nazi looks

preview image for YouTube video ID xPV4jlOlWjA
Iron Maiden: “Holy Smoke” (official video) (click to view)

You might wonder why I’m comparing a would be assassin of authors to Nazis, and that’s not unreasonable. The thing is that the people who would burn books are happy to burn the authors as well given the opportunity.

I see no difference between the people who try to ban books like Gender Queer: a Memoir from school and public libraries, people who burn books, and people who try to silence authors through intimidation, harassment, legislation, or outright violence.

I know that many people will insist that it’s only censorship if the government does it, and that the First Amendment only applies to the government, but I think that’s the sort of loophole that can get people killed. Admittedly I’m writing out of self-interest since I’m an author myself, but I honestly don’t think book burning or attacks on authors is something a society worth preserving should tolerate.

Instead, we should burn the book burners. To quote Iron Maiden again:

Feed ’em in feet first
This is no joke
This is thirsty work,
Making holy smoke

I see no reason why we should tolerate self-righteous assholes who think it’s acceptable to police what other people read, watch, listen to, etc. Nor do I think we should feel obligated to tolerate people who think their ideals justify attempts to silence creators.

One might argue that burning would-be book burners and assassins of authors is as intolerant as burning books and assassinating authors, but I say, “so what?” If you’re so open-minded that your brain falls out and you end up tolerating intolerance, you’ll find yourself living under a totalitarian regime and wondering if the secret police are gonna kick down your door one fine night1. Karl Popper called this the “paradox of tolerance”.

preview image for YouTube video ID d_R9UjFTcWk
Philosophy Vibe: Karl Papper and the Paradox of Tolerance(click to view)

However, I prefer the Dead Kennedys’ approach: “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”.

preview image for YouTube video ID urAmtStlwfQ
Dead Kennedys: “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (live, 1984) (click to view)

Why bring up Nazis and the Dead Kennedys? Because time is a river and history repeats. Every time we think the debate over freedom of expression is settled, we get complacent and end up with a new infestation of cultural vigilantes, to borrow a phrase from Dead Kennedys vocalist Jello Biafra’s 1987 article in the Harvard Law Record. He has more to say on the matter:

Censorship is like that certain brand of potato chips. Nobody can stop with just one. Well-organized and financed pressure from the far right has already dealt a serious blow to what we see, read, hear - and ultimately think. People once viewed as dangerous right-wing extremists have succeeded in casting themselves as spokespeople of the American mainstream. In their world music and literature can be judged harmful, yet Star Wars is considered perfectly safe. And genocide squads like the Nicaraguan contras are “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers.”

Libraries and textbooks are under new attacks in schools. Many gifted artists now face possible blackballing. Urinalysis and lie detector tests at work are actively being promoted by the Reagan Administration under the continuing guise of a drug scare. Attorney General Edwin Meese has used a wildly-contrived “study” of “pornography” as the first step in a crusade to widen the crackdown on free speech. His commission threatens magazine retailers through extra-legal manuevers such as threat letters, while he strives to pack the federal court system with avowed enemies of Constitutional liberties.

A fresh PMRC media blitz again has them in the news, with new censorship via warning label proposals. Their tone is more concilitory now, with their more volatile edges temporarily masked. They compare the rock music they deem “objectionable” to the violence on television many of the rest of us have problems with, yet they still concentrate their attack on one form of music - rock - and barely address the issue of television at all. What about all the families bombrded every night by the violence seen on the six o’clock news?

History has shown us that any compromise with cultural vigilantes just encourages more of them to go further. The hysteria sparked by the PMRC husbands’ Senate hearings is what gave Jimmy Swaggart’s views front page respectibility in the first place.

The rationale behind freedom of speech has always been that truth emerges out of open debate. Democracy assumes a variety of voices, each trying to persuade the other. Dissent is healthy, even when presented in a a manner which may seem abhorrent or obscene to those who fear direct confrontation with the reality that surrounds us. Only an informed population can make responsible choices.

I thought Jello Biafra was right when I read a zine called “No More Censorship” in the early 1990s that featured his writings2. I still think it’s true.

If you give fascists and fundies an inch they’ll take a mile. The only space they deserve is a shallow grave. I won’t say there’s no such thing as a good authoritarian; you’ll probably find at least one in your local cemetery.

  1. Unfortunately, because of the War on (Some) Drugs and the existence of “no-knock” warrants, this is already a reality for entirely too many Americans.↩︎

  2. At least, that’s what I think the zine or pamphlet was called. Feel free to correct me.↩︎