In 1988, The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s courageous book critical of the life of Islam’s prophet Mohammed, won both public acclaim and multiple literary awards in the United Kingdom, including the prestigious Whitebread Award for novel of the year. It was also a finalist for the Booker Prize, the UK’s equivalent of America’s Pulitzer.
Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, however, had a far less enthusiastic response to The Satanic Verses than Britain’s literati. Rising in righteous outrage, he denounced the book in the most vitriolic of terms for blaspheming Mohammed and mocking the Islamic faith. One year later, the Ayatollah announced a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, which resulted in several failed assassination attempts on the author, who was first placed under police protection by the UK government, and later, went into hiding.
Their thirst for Rushdie’s blood thwarted by these measures, terrorists galvanized by Khomeini’s stridency began to strike out at random individuals “connected” to Rushdie, eventually murdering the translator of his book, Hitoshi Igarashi. Those Americans who were riveted by Rushdie’s story – and left reeling by the horrific events spawned by the publication of his book – consoled themselves that both freedom of speech and freedom of the press were veritable hallmarks of our great nation, and that nothing remotely similar to the Rushdie specter could ever occur here.
In 2004, Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, who was collaborating on a film with anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the oppression of women in Muslim countries, was shot and stabbed on a street in Amsterdam while bicycling to work one morning. Rather than immediately flee the crime scene, Van Gogh’s attacker, Mohammed Bouyeri, took the time to leave a note containing death threats to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Westerners in general and Jews in particular. The egregiousness of the act left the Dutch people in a state of panic and shock, dazed that their openness to Arab immigration had resulted in such a heinous crime.
Americans who were following these developments were stunned by this brazen attempt to suppress free speech in a Western country, but again looked at the efflorescence of the free press in their own land, concluding, in vast relief, that nothing similar to the Van Gogh episode could ever occur here. They blessed this great country for its immunity to tyranny, a country which zealously safeguarded basic principles of free speech and free press.
The rein of terror descending upon parts of Western Europe with ever-increasing regularity seemed unequivocally linked to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The January 2015 invasion of the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, located in Paris, reinforced this rew reality . Armed with rifles and other weapons, gunmen from Al-Qaeda killed 12 people and injured 11 others, incensed that the paper had published cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed (this was the same terroris group responsible for the siege of the Hypercacher kosher supermarket, where four Jews were cut down in cold blood). And once again, Americans were appalled by the changing landscape in Western Europe, where measures to protect the basic principles of freedom of speech now invoked fear and trembling.
As an established institution of our democratic values, freedom of the press has been a bulwark of the American Way. Truly only something of apocalyptic proportions could ever possibly shake its strong and hallowed foundations upon which our liberty stands. And thankfully, nothing close to the extent of what occurred in the UK and Holland has ever happened here. We Americans have reveled in our privileges of both freedom of speech and freedom of press. And may we always be blessed to sip from these nectars, which we generally take for granted. Until now.
If you work in or are connected to the publishing world, you probably have already heard of the uproar that has convulsed the industry in recent weeks. The scenario that has caused furor and tumult is exceedingly far removed from the ones I just described occurring in the UK and Holland. Thank G-d, there has been no violence of any kind, and no harm has befallen any individual connected to the narrative. In other countries, the current brouhaha would probably be viewed as nothing more than a minor hiccup. But here in the United States, where we so carefully safeguard our right to free speech, the imbroglio that everyone in publishing is talking about may very well end up being a bellwether and a legitimate cause for concern.
Two years ago, ten publishing houses participated in an intense bidding war for rights to a new book that had created tremendous buzz – American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, the excruciating story of the arduous journey of Mexican migrants to the American border, seeking asylum from uninhabitable countries that were either war-torn or under the control of violent drug cartels. This book (which I read in two days, it was so riveting) puts a human face on the nameless statistics which have deluged us ceaselessly and to which some of us may have already grown inured.
Ultimately, Flatiron Press won the bidding war, and the well-oiled marketing machine was set into motion. Oprah Winfrey, who has resurrected her “Book Club” on Apple TV – returning to her immense power as a book influencer – was an avid early reader of the book , and designated American Dirt as her book club choice for early 2020.
In anticipation of the extraordinary number of readers the company anticipated in the wake of Oprah’s imprimatur, the first printing was 500,000, highly unusual in today’s depressed book market. A 50-city book tour was arranged. Everyone was poised for a rollercoaster ride of epic poroportions. And then the PC police came out and shook the rafters, hijacking the book’s trajectory.
Everyone knows that the PC activists have taken control of our college campuses, for example, where Palestinians and Anti-Semites are regularly feted at events and deliver unimpeded lectures, in stark contrast to pro-Zionist and Jewish speakers, who are almost always given the boot, sometimes literally.
Today, people in leadership positions are careful to tiptoe around potential PC land mines, using genderless pronouns (he/she is now popularly referred to as “they”) and making sure to worship at the shrine of multiculturalism. But since author Jeanine Cummins is half-Latina herself, and American Dirt is a novel, not a work of non-fiction, no one assumed that the book would come under attack. But it did. In a serious way.
Almost as soon as the book debuted a few weeks ago, Latina authors began to crucify American Dirt in loud and strident numbers. Facilitated by social media, a shivaree of dissident and angry voices hurled their condemnations at Flatiron Press for printing the book, Oprah Winfrey for endorsing it, and Jeanine Cummins for writing it. This censure, however, barely resembled what we would call polite discourse. It was tinged by malevolence and threats; it was fueled by unshackled fury. It was intimidating and harrassing. The instigators of the offensive wanted nothing less than the book’s annihilation.
And why did this book inspire such unmitigated rage? “Because nobody except for a Mexican migrant has the right to depict the Mexican migrants’ experience.” “Because someone who does not come from a marginalized group, should not be allowed to approriate their experience. It’s our culture and it belongs to us exclusively.”
Mind you, we are not talking about a book that attempted to depict the Mexican migrants’ experience under the guise of non-fiction reportage. American Dirt is a novel. Utilizing the genre of novel writing enables the writer to write freely from a place of untethered imagination and creativity, although in the particular case of American Dirt, Cummins did state publicly that she invested five years into researching her topic before she penned a single word. Naysayers, however, didn’t care and burgeoned into a veritable lynch mob.
The PC police began to pressure Oprah to rescind her endorsement of the book, and zealots sent Flatiron Press and Cummins virtual death threats, forcing the publisher to cancel Cummins’s extensive 50-city book tour (citing “safety concerns”) and dial back their marketing operations.
Unpacified, Latina writers demanded to know why “real Latina writers” had been overlooked by mainstream publishers all these years when this subject was their story to tell, and why Jeanine Cummins had merited such a huge advance – $1 million. (The subject of money has come up several times in the litany of their complaints, leading some critics to wonder just what role outright jealousy played in this uproar.)
Meanwhile, Flatiron Press issued a formal apology to the Latina community for lacking sensitivity in its marketing and publicity campaigns (at a kick-off dinner, the floral centerpieces were enclosed by barbed-wire fence,which was indeed a little over-the-top, but hey that was the party planner’s faux pas, not Jeanine’s), stating that perhaps some mistakes had been made.
One of the accusations made by the movement to dethrone Jeanine Cummins is that “American Dirt is condescending towards Mexicans and stereotypes them unfairly.” As a former graduate student in literature and adjunct college lecturer in that same field, I have to say that personally I did not encounter any kind of prejudice or bias whatsoever in Cummins’s depictions of her characters. In fact, I found her portraitures to be exquisitely sensitive, compassionate, endearing, and poignant, and the horror that these migrants experienced on their pilgrimage to freedom seared my soul. I believe Cummins has been unfairly crucified for a tour de force that transcended identity politics.
In its apologetics and marketing campaign dial-back, Flatiron Press may have conceivably set a dangerous new precedent. In waving the flag of semi-surrender to the PC activists, Flatiron may have inadvertently invited or encouraged future incursions that will ultimately challenge our much cherished principles of freedom of press. If these PC activists can effectively bully and tyrannize Flatiron, an eminent publisher, who – and what subject – is next?
Even if censorship is not goverment-sanctioned but fomented by the PC police instead, the outcome of an American publisher cowering is not a pretty sight. Are we now going to be led to believe that no one has a right to compose a work of art if the subject matter isn’t within their specific domain? To what ridiculous proportions can this line of thinking lead us? Should John Steinbeck have been prohibited from writing about tenant farmers in The Grapes of Wrath because he wasn’t one himself? Should Harper Lee have restrained herself from penning To Kill a Mockingbird because she was a white woman, not a black man? These, among hundreds like them, had powerful impacts upon their respective societies and were probably responsible for changes (albeit slow) that came in their wake.
That works of fiction (and non-fiction as well, really, but the fact that American Dirt is a novel makes the histrionics that much more ridiculous) should be written only by people drawn from the subject’s identity group is downright bizarre, bordering on the Kafkaesque – and attempts to pacify tyrannical elements is a mistake. Should this sensibility prevail and establish a toehold in American publishing, we will be opening up a nightmarish Pandora’s box.
Because if the PC activists win this time, how far afield are they likely to go another time, once they’ve tasted the exhilarating flavor of triumph in oppressing free press? Ostracizing a novel about the Mexican experience because it was not written by a Mexican author is step one. Once oppression of American publishers becomes a viable reality, what possible scenario is next? Could it be a novel that portrays Israeli settlers in a positive light and Palestinian terrorists in a negative one? Can you imagine the outpouring of righteous wrath from the vocal left (that has been so forcefully safeguarding the rights of the Palestinians to be portrayed fairly, but never, ever the Jews) that would follow?
Meanwhile, the world is watching to see if Oprah will break from the intense pressure to which she is still being subjected. Even thought she has always been considered to be the ultimate megaphone for multiculturalism, she loved the book when she read it, and saw no flaws in its rendering. But now, as she finds herself increasingly being placed on the defensive, she has already caved in a little, promising “a deeper, more substantive discussion soon on who has the right tell what story.”
But the literary human rights organization, PEN, has not allowed American values to be co-opted. In a powerful statement it issued recently it said: “As defenders of freedom of expression, we categorically reject rigid rules about who has the right to tell which stories.”
This is not a small story. It may very well be a defining one for the publishing industry, and a test case with great reverberations for the future.
Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th century showman and circus owner, once famously said: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Despite the naysayers and the uproar surrounding the book, I am pleased to report that American Dirt has placed #1 on the New York Times bestseller two weeks in a row, and placed first on the Amazon charts as well. Maybe the American masses will join ranks, dig in, disregard the histrionics of the PC police, and uphold the twin pillars of democracy, which unlike Europe, has not been under siege until now. Now it has – in a very different way, of course (thank G-d, no bloodshed, no incursions, no physical trauma). But oppression can assume many forms and shapes, and physical violence is only one of them.