The New Censorship: Editors Are No Longer Frightened of Politicians but of Islamist Violence, Oligarchs, and CEO’s
The grand posture of writers in liberal democracies is that they are the moral equivalents of dissidents in repressive regimes. Loud-mouthed newspaper columnists claim to ‘speak truth to power’. Novelists, artists, playwrights and comedians announce their willingness to transgress boundaries. Their publishers look for controversy like boozers look for brawls because they know that few marketing strategies beat the claim that a courageous iconoclast is challenging establishments and shattering taboos.
To maintain the illusion that they are part of some kind of radical underground, intellectuals must practise a deceit. They can never admit to their audience that fear of violent reprisals, ostracism or crippling financial penalties keeps them away from subjects that ought to concern them - and their fellow citizens.
Although it is impossible to count the books authors have abandoned, radical Islam is probably the greatest cause of self-censorship in the West today. When Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, censorship took the form of outright bans. Frightened publishers would not touch David Caute’s novel satirising the Islamist reaction to The Satanic Verses, for instance. They ran away from histories and plays about the crisis as well because they did not want a repeat of the terror Rushdie and his publishers at Penguin had experienced.
Such overt censorship continues. In 2008, Random House in New York pulled The Jewel of Medina - a slightly syrupy and wholly inoffensive historical romance about Muhammad’s child bride Aisha - after a neurotic professor claimed that it was ‘explosive stuff … a national security issue’. Most of the censorship religious violence inspires, however, is self-censorship. Writers put down their pens and turn to other subjects rather than risk a confrontation. So thoroughgoing is the evasion that when Grayson Perry, who produced what Catholics would consider to be blasphemous images of the Virgin Mary, said what everyone knew to be true in 2007, the media treated his candour as news. ‘The reason I have not gone all out attacking Islamism in my art,’ said Perry, ‘is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat.’
We flatter ourselves into believing that we are more liberated than our stuffy ancestors. A sobering corrective to modern self-satisfaction is to realise that an ex-Muslim novelist would never now dare do what Salman Rushdie did with The Satanic Verses and write a book that said the life of Muhammad was less than exemplary. Even if he or she did, no one would dare publish it.
Challenging writing about economic crises is as rare. Diligent readers have every right to ask why so few financial writers warned them that the greatest crash since 1929 was on the way. As no less a personage than Her Majesty the Queen said to the academics at the London School of Economics, ‘Did nobody notice?’