Posts Tagged ‘Freedom of Speech’

Rushdie, Charlie Hebdo, and Me

January 9, 2015

je suis deloquix

 

I’ve been reading peoples’ reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Affair in the media and on Facebook. There is a lot of soul searching going on about what is the appropriate response to the horrendous act and what is the proper way for people to express solidarity and outrage. For me, this is of more than a casual interest. As many of you know, my bookstore was bombed in 1989, presumably because  we were carrying Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. As best as I can tell, we were the first victim of Islamic terrorism in the United States. No one was killed, because the pipe bomb that was thrown through the window didn’t go off. But had it not been defective, it would have killed everyone in the store.

 

Much of the public pronouncements that were being made then  are being made again now in the international conversation about Charlie Hebdo. How do we respond to threats against freedom of speech? How can we best express our solidarity? How should government protect the people against terrorists in general and Islamic terrorists and Jihadists, in particular? What is the responsibility of the broader Islamic community and the Islamic religion in permitting these acts to occur? How much, if at all, should we be profiling Moslems as potentially dangerous? What should mainstream Moslem leaders do about  denouncing these acts? Is Islam a uniquely violent religion that is the true source of Jihadism?

 

Of course, the comments of right wingers, conservative politicians, and Fox News pundits are pretty much what we would expect. For them, this is an opportunity to wage a holy war against Islam. It also vindicates their contempt of the cowardly French and allows them to fulminate against liberals, Obama, Al Sharpton, and the United Nations. We need not waste time commenting on this.

 

Alan Dershowitz gave a particularly tasteless interview asserting that France was reaping what it had sown, and went on to view the entire affair from the prism of  what it all means for Israel.

 

A lot of people along the entire political spectrum are arguing that  it’s the responsibility of  all  Islamic people to denounce this act and it is particularly the responsibility of Islamic leaders to denounce it in language sufficiently strong to satisfy…..something and someone.

 

During the Rushdie Affair,  people in the literary world made eloquent pronouncements about how they  would risk their lives for freedom of speech. Most of these people didn’t have much skin in the game and were not likely to have an opportunity to risk much of anything. It was quite different for those of us at Cody’s. After the bomb squad detonated the bomb, we all met in the store and took a vote about whether we should keep carrying the book. The staff voted unanimously to continue selling it.

 

But the media and many public voices wanted more than that.  The media was looking for sound bites. Every newsperson I spoke with challenged me to put the book in the window. (I didn’t, and I didn’t put it on the front table either). Most of them wanted me to make grandiloquent public pronouncements about how we were willing to be martyrs for freedom of speech. (“Ayatollah Khomeini, read…my…lips”). I didn’t do that either. I decided that under the circumstances, discretion was the better part of valor. No interviews to the media, no manifestoes about freedom of speech in the front window. We just quietly kept selling the book.

 

I have no problem telling you today that I had no intention of being a martyr, that I was not willing to die for The First Amendment, and I certainly wasn’t willing to put my employees in harm’s way to make  a public point. People treated us like heroes for selling the book, and they still do. But honestly, if as a result of our selling it, my employees were killed. I would not be proud of our decision  at all. I would have thought it was reckless, not heroic.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Islamic leaders and clerics and what they should be doing.  I think it’s fine if they want to denounce the act, if they want to point out that almost all of the 1.6 billion followers of Islam are not Jihadists. Even if they want to apologize. That’s their choice but not their responsibility. What I would like to see them do is to engage potential future Jihadists in a way that would get them to calm down. But doing so would require considerable discretion.

 

For me then and I imagine for them now, the decisions just aren’t that easy. And we should be respectful of that fact.

 

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Remembering the Rushdie Affair

November 18, 2009

On February 28, 1989, Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me that a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store putting out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM. I waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We assumed that the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although it was never learned exactly who was responsible for the incident. But I assumed that it probably wasn’t a disgruntled ex-girlfriend of mine.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Moslem history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a Fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Moslem world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!”. Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!”.

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains: B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating about people’s willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From the vantage point of street level, this was not such an easy decision.

I had made a second career out of attacking the chain stores in any manner I could find. But when they became the underdog in this melodrama, for the first and last time in my career I took their side. It was a very contrarian position that won me few friends. I’m sure that had Cody’s not been bombed the following week, and had I not become the martyr de jour, I would have taken some heat for this.

I articulated the reasons for this and the reasons that my own feelings had become quite conflicted in a letter I wrote to Susan Sontag on February 19, 10 days before the Cody’s bombing. I’ll quote the letter at some length here.

“I was distressed to read a quote by you in the media… in which you seemed to draw an analogy between the behavior of members of the literary community to the silence of Germans during the 30’s….

“The events of the past week have forced me to make difficult decisions; decisions in which I have had to choose between my most valued ideals of freedom of expression and the need to protect the lives and safety of my employees. Both of these values are absolute and yet, in this case, inconsistent. We are on the horns of a dilemma. To aggressively affirm our commitment to freedom of speech, we risk inflaming further the anger of fanatics. At best we compromise and find a middle ground. We agonize endlessly over whether we should carry the book at all; if so, do we sell it under the counter or display it; if we display it, do we feature it prominently or discretely.…..

“And so we make our decisions without any assurance of their wisdom. Our actions will be judged either cowardly or prudent only in hindsight and only as a result of consequences which are out of our control….

“… Although I personally disagree with the chains’ actions, I find it difficult to pass judgment on them in this instance. Booksellers are the front line shock troops in this struggle as in most censorship issues….We can’t go into hiding, and so we are uniquely vulnerable….It may be that in some situations, caution is required. If, as a result of such caution, lives are saved; then a store’s actions could be deemed not cowardly but prudent. If, as a result of another store’s decision to carry the book, people are harmed; then such actions could be deemed not courageous but foolhardy….”

Susan Sontag never responded to this letter.

The following week,  Cody’s was bombed. I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to move. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking that this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this.   It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. It was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians and movie stars. We were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know some people get statues, —-and others get holes.”