A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Appeasing The Supreme Leader



When Sony Pictures caved in last week to North Korea's extortionate demands to yank "The Interview" from distribution, my thoughts turned to Salman Rushdie.
Twenty-five years ago Rushdie, a British author of Indian Muslim extraction, was condemned to death by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini for writing things that the Ayatollah deemed insulting to Islam in his new, critically acclaimed novel, "The Satanic Verses."
Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering any Muslim who encountered Rushdie to kill him on sight, forcing Rushdie to go into hiding for his life.
How did the publishing industry react? As you might expect, the major book chains, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble, chickened out like Sony and immediately stopped selling "The Satanic Verses."
But Cody's Books, an independent bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, in the heart of the student quarter, decided to stand up for freedom of speech and stocked the book.
In the early morning hours of May 4, 1989, Cody's owner, Andy Ross, was wakened by a phone call from the Berkeley Police. Somebody had thrown a firebomb through the store's front window.
After the firefighters put out the fire, Ross and his staff started cleaning up. He looked down and spotted a second device – an unexploded pipe bomb rolling on the floor next to the poetry section.
It was too dangerous to move, so he and his staff watched from across the street while the bomb squad blew it up. Though they packed it with sandbags first, it still made the whole building shake.
After it was all over they filed back inside, and Ross told his staff that it was up to them whether to continue stocking the book.
They took a vote. It was unanimous. The book stayed.
"That was Cody's finest moment," Ross said proudly.
A few months later, Rushdie briefly came out of hiding to make a surprise visit to Cody's. Ross showed him the hole in the ceiling from the second bomb. Next to it someone had written, "Salmon Rushdie Memorial Hole."
"Some authors get statues," Rushdie quipped. "Others get holes."
Other independents followed Cody's example, and the writers' community – led by Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer  - rallied around Rushdie with petitions, press conferences and full-page ads in the papers.
Compare that to the shameful behavior of the Hollywood community last week when George Clooney circulated a petition urging Sony to call the North Koreans' bluff. He couldn't get a single signature.
Some people are questioning whether it's worth taking even a remote risk for the sake of a dumb comedy like "The Interview."
But, as Clooney pointed out, "With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson. It’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid." We need to defend Seth Rogen's freedom of speech not for his sake, but for ours.
Epilogue: That one firebombing aside, the Ayatollah's threat turned out to be more bark than bite. He died in 1989, but Rushdie is still alive and well. So are Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
I wish I could say the same about Cody's Books. After years of struggling against the huge Internet giants, Ross reluctantly closed Cody's doors in 2006.
The space it used to occupy on Telegraph Avenue is still vacant.

3 comments:

CKule said...

Well, of course, these are free speech rights, protected by the First Amendment, the Amendment relating to a prohibition against government infringement. The principal idea is that government should protect citizenry against threats from any quarter, particularly those emanating from those who threaten others exercising their free speech right. This time North Korea went too far, but hey, it happens all the time. But not with impunity. Stay tuned.

Ed Fletcher said...

Nice piece. Thanks.

Ed Fletcher said...

Nice piece. Thanks.