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‘So to Speak’ podcast transcript: Assassin’s veto comes for Rushdie

Salman Rushdie speaks at FIRE's 20th anniversary gala

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Greetings, and welcome back to another exciting edition of “So to Speak,” the free speech podcast, where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am your host, as always, Nico Perrino, and if that greeting sounded familiar to you, it’s because you probably recognize our guest today, Michael Moynihan, co-host of “The Fifth Column” podcast, the popular “Fifth Column” podcast, and correspondent, right, Michael? VICE News?

Michael Moynihan: I am a correspondent for VICE News, yes.

Nico: “VICE News Tonight.” So, welcome to the show. This is your first time here.

Michael: It is, and thanks for having me, and what an intro that was. I will point out that I am not the one, those dulcet tones at the beginning of “The Fifth Column” podcast, that’s Kmele Foster.

Nico: Who’s on the board of directors.

Michael: Who is on your board of directors, so there is some overlap. It’s like those shows in the ‘80s where they would like bring them together, “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Facts of Life” or something. We are coming together as two very important organizations. Yours slightly more than ours. Slightly.

Nico: I’m not sure about that. You guys have “The Fifth Column” podcast, for those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a – what does Kmele say? It’s like a semi-regular, almost regular weekly assault on the news cycle and the people who make it?

Michael: And occasionally ourselves, yes. Very occasionally because we’re mostly right, and the people we review are mostly wrong. So, but you know, we like to pretend that we’re ecumenical, and we attack ourselves, so –

Nico: Well, repping “The Fifth Column” with that T-shirt now, now that you guys are working.

Michael: I am, yes, so you can, if you come over and subscribe to the podcast over at Substack, I’ll send you one. Come on, just send me a note, I’ll send you one. But yes, no, and we do so much of this stuff, the overlap in all seriousness is, the free speech stuff is something that I think kind of brought Kmele and Matt Welch from Reason and I together in a lot of ways. I mean, that’s the one thing that I would say that we all agree on without any kind of little schismatic things that you get in Libertarian politics.

I mean, I’m not really a Libertarian. I mean, that’s kind of the funny thing. Kmele is not really a Libertarian either. We’re kind of on the fringes of that, which is maybe sometimes a little too fringe for us.

But yes, no, the free speech issue has been something that’s motivated me for a very, very long time. It’s been the one kind of dominant issue in my life.

Nico: Well, you guys were talking with, I think it was Lara Bazelon you had on the podcast a couple of months ago.

Michael: Yes. And we’re going to have her on again I think this week. We recorded something with her in San Francisco.

Nico: Oh, nice.

Michael: We were out there doing an event at Substack, and Lara is based in San Francisco, so we had her on, and our politics couldn’t be more different, but we absolutely 100 percent agree on the speech issue, and she’s phenomenal. I love her.

Nico: Yes. She wrote a critique of the ACLU which I think prompted you guys to have her on your podcast.

Michael: Yes, that’s right, that’s right.

Nico: And there was a moment there in that podcast where Matt Welch said something to the effect of, “Well, if the ACLU is dropping the ball, what organization should take over for their free speech work, and why is it FIRE?” And I’m like, this is like a week before we announced our expansion, and I’m like, “What does Matt Welch know that we don’t know?”

Michael: Yes, I love those kind of loaded Soviet questions. “And why is enter FIRE? So, please enter FIRE.” Yes, we were strong proponents of FIRE taking on the cases that the ACLU not only drops, but refuses to even acknowledge or take on these days. I mean, look, if you want to have an organization that has an incredible storied 50-plus, I think, year history, and you want to change focus, fine, but make sure that there’s somebody else to pick up that stuff.

And so before we started recording, I said, “I’m very happy that you guys have done that. That’s great.”

Nico: Yes, and Lara actually spoke at our – we have an annual summer student conference. She spoke there along with David Latt, so, and she was fantastic. I was not able to attend because I was in London or traveling to London or something like that, but I heard she got like a standing ovation and was absolutely fantastic.

Michael: Yes, and as I say to her all the time, and I said to her –

Nico: I should say she’s a professor out in California, for those who don’t know who we’re talking about.

Michael: Yes, University of San Francisco Law School. Yes, yes.

Nico: I think so, yes.

Michael: And of the Bazelon family, her sister Emily Bazelon got a lot of crap for writing something in the New York Times about the trans issue in a very kind of balanced, interesting way. And her grandfather – and this is really interesting because speaking of speech issues, I mean, it’s in the blood of the Bazelon family, apparently – is that I came across a case that I think is mentioned in Jamie Kirchick’s new book on the history of gay Washington.

But somebody from NASA who was run out of NASA for an arrest for solicitation or something like that, basically for being gay, and was somebody incredibly brave in I think the mid-1960s who decided to challenge it. And said, “I don’t care. You’re not going to sort of blackmail me into silence,” and it ruined his life, and he challenged it. And the judge that ruled in his favor was Lara Bazelon’s grandfather.

So, it is an amazing history of this family who has been fighting for civil liberties for a very long time.

Nico: Well, I think it was her sister Emily who wrote a book about bullying, maybe back in like 2010, 2011, 2012, and we had some engagement with her, I think directly but also on paper, about – because it’s hard to forget, it’s hard to remember at this point, like because the free speech story has taken so many twists and turns in the last decade. But in the early part of the 2010s, bullying was kind of the way in which – the Trojan horse, I guess, in which speech codes would get smuggled into all sorts of different environments.

Michael: That’s right, that’s right.

Nico: Mostly schools, and Emily had written I think one of the best books on that topic, taking into all consideration. So, when I first heard Lara, I hadn’t been familiar with her work. I thought of Emily for some reason. But yes, she’s fantastic.

Anyway, that’s not why we’re here today, Michael.

Michael: No, but it does feed directly into this issue, particularly when – not to steal your hosting, today we’re talking about Salman Rushdie – but you know, I have been – you know, when you asked me to do this, it’s not as if I had to redirect my reading or anything because I’m always kind of reading about this, and I’ve known Salman for probably 15 years or something, and keeping up with people who are there with him in Buffalo and his condition and the rest of it.

And it has forced me to go back and look at a lot of this stuff, and I would advise your listeners if they can find this, and I’m pretty sure it’s on YouTube, is that Kenan Malik, who wrote a book called From Fatwa to Jihad, he is a British Muslim, I think he’s from a Muslim background, and wrote a fantastic book about this.

But BBC very wisely had him on “Newsnight,” their kind of flagship news program, last week, and it’s funny because he actually gave voice to, with a lot more authority and gravitas than I could, what I was thinking about the kind of year-on-year effect that this kind of thing and the fatwa, starting with the fatwa really in 1989, has had on free speech.

And he said that he was talking to a friend, and somebody who was a friend of Salman Rushdie’s and who is a novelist too, and said, “Could this novel be published, The Satanic Verses, could it be published today?” And not only was his answer no, it was it wouldn’t be written today because it wouldn’t get to that process through sensitivity readers.

I literally was with an author, a very funny guy who – and I was with him, and his husband is someone in the fashion industry, and he is writing a book about a musician, and he said that there was a word in it that all – he had four sensitivity readers that came back and said, “We object to this word.”

And he’s, you know, an older gay man. Understands language and it can be hurtful and offensive and the rest of it, but he’s not one of those people that says, “Let’s censor this stuff.” But he looked at me and he’s like, “Four people.” And he’s written half a dozen books. He said, “This is entirely new to me.”

So, in the publishing industry now, I think Kenan Malik had actually pointed something out that is being overlooked because it is kind of a hypothetical, but let’s play it out. Do you believe that Satanic Verses could be published today? And I think the answer is I agree with him, is absolutely not.

And we see this in the past, and it reminded me of this book that was published in I think 2008. Random House canceled it, and I believe it was called – and this is the top of my head here, so forgive me – I think it was called The Jewel of Medina. It was a novel, and it was canceled by Random House because it was soon after the Mohammed Khartoum affair, so everyone was very sensitive to this stuff.

And then it was published by an independent publisher in the UK who’s very much a free speech advocate, and their headquarters – totally forgotten about, by the way. No one, I guarantee you that none of your listeners will remember this, and I’m sure all of them are very smart on this issue. In 2008, their headquarters were firebombed in the UK.

And you know, and look, and I wrote something, I will just say, I won’t mention the people, but I will say there was something that I had written and was involved in, and the person I was writing it for said, “No, we don’t want to publish this, not because we’re afraid of giving offense, but” – and this is what happened in the initial Rushdie affair in 1989, was they were afraid for employees. “We don’t want to put our employees” –

And that’s, you know, how it goes. It’s like you guys at FIRE know this very well. When there is somebody who’s going to potentially give an incendiary speech on campus, it is banned not on free speech grounds. No, no, no, no. It’s because of safety, and that was – I had something kind of pulled for that.

And then I mentioned on the podcast that we put up two days ago, which was for subscribers only, so you should subscribe, people – in which I said I am going to publish something on our Substack that I came across about Salman Rushdie that I wrote in 2012 because the Daily Beast wouldn’t publish it because it came with some video of a film that was made about Salman Rushdie in Pakistan, and it was a very deeply hideous and offensive film about how you should kill Salman Rushdie.

Now, what they were afraid of was just anything. Let’s just be safe and like not do this and not publish it. And the point of the piece that I wrote, and not to be incredibly discursive about all this stuff and go from one place to another, but there’s a lot to be said, is that Salman is heroic in a million ways. You can disagree with his politics, as I do in a lot of cases.

Nico: I don’t even know what his politics are. I mean, I also really don’t care, but yes.

Michael: Yes. I don’t care either. He’s a pretty left-wing guy. I think he’s right about a lot of stuff and wrong about a lot of stuff, but who cares. You can not love magical realism, you can not like his novels, it doesn’t make a difference.

Nico: Yes, I don’t. I tried reading Midnight Children and I was like – I also don’t like Wes Anderson because it’s sort of surreal and magical, and I was like – and when I started reading Midnight Children, I was like, this is like the Wes Anderson written form. So, I couldn’t do it.

Michael: Yes. I mean, I read like Saul Bellow novels. I mean, so slightly different speed, you know? But Rushdie, when this thing came out, and I mentioned on the podcast the other day, it was a film called International Guerillas, and it was a three-hour dramatic film in which the evil character is Salman Rushdie, and this band of international people get together to kill him. And they succeed.

Nico: Was this the thing he – so, Salman spoke at our 20th anniversary gala. Was this the movie that he was talking about then? Do you remember his speech at all?

Michael: I was there, actually, and I do, and I don’t remember if he mentioned this. Probably. But the British authorities banned it because they have a very heavy hand on censorships, and they famously banned Reservoir Dogs and things like that.

Nico: Although they like to say that they don’t, but yes, they do.

Michael: They like to say that they don’t, but they do. I mean, it’s not only like you can just get arrested for tweets, it’s like they will ban films. And someone stepped in to say this film should be aired and shown, and that was Salman Rushdie. And Salman Rushdie was the man who was the subject of the film, and the heroic end of the film is when Salman Rushdie is murdered. And he stepped in and said, “You can’t ban this film.”

And of course it flopped. We have this joke on the podcast, it’s like, “I mean, what was the expectation? That this was gonna be like Jurassic Park?” But it was very popular in Pakistan.

Nico: Well, you would’ve gotten the Streisand effect, right? So, it probably would’ve flopped either way, but more people saw it, probably, because the British authorities had banned it. But what does that say about – I mean, what does that say about someone’s courage and sense of a free society, that there’s an actual movie calling for their execution, and the British authorities, who had paid for nine years to have him protected, try and ban it, is almost like doing a service to him.

Michael: Yes, no, I mean, he’s a man of –

Nico: But then he says no. No.

Michael: Yes, he’s a man of unparalleled courage, and somebody who really, really believes – I mean, when Zafar Hassan said from his hospital room, I think he was interviewed by somebody, and I don’t think anyone pointed out that he was paraphrasing his father. And he said, you know, “Free speech is the whole thing.” Which I’ve always loved the kind of concise nature of that sentence because you know what he means.

Nico: “It’s the whole ball game,” I think he said in a Columbia speech.

Michael: It’s the whole ball game. Yes. And like if that’s it, there’s nothing else if not that. And so Salman has always believed that, and he’s lived like that, and I had asked him a long time ago the sensitive question – and I mentioned this the other day, that we were having dinner, and he left. My friend and I were having dinner with him and we stayed on and had drinks. And he was getting an Uber, and I said, “Do you ever worry about that, in the sense that it’s not being stereotypical? It’s not being racist, it’s not being – but most of the Uber drivers are non-white.”

You’d be very surprised when you find a white Uber driver in New York, and a lot of them are Muslim. And you can tell that not even from conversation with people. There’s always a lot of like Muslim adornments on the car and the rest of it, and then when you have conversations with people. “Is that ever an issue?” I mean, you’re picking up, it says on your app now. You know, he could do a double take and say, “Is that the guy?” It says, you know, “You’re driving towards picking up Salman,” and he gets in your car.

And he said, “No, it doesn’t.” He effectively said it’s over. It’s still a thing, but I don’t have protection. And you know, he gets – and I remember there was one person who interviewed him not long ago, and he mentioned it, and he said, “You know what? That old shit, I don’t want to talk about that. It’s fine. I’m good.”

And then however many years later, upstate New York, some psychopathic Islamist from New Jersey, who I don’t even believe was alive when The Satanic Verses came out, lunges for him.

Nico: Yes, 24 years old.

Michael: Twenty-four years old and stabs him between 10 and 15 times.

Nico: I thought he would die. I mean, when you hear that someone’s getting stabbed in the neck and that they’re repeatedly stabbed, and it took a few moments for someone to come and help him, I thought – we were kinda game planning what we were doing, we were writing, and it’s like, how much do we write when we’re just gonna have to turn around and rework it if he actually does pass? So it’s, I mean, extraordinary.

Michael: We have many, many mutual friends and people within his universe, family, orbit, whatever, and there was the conversation right after was one person in particular, who knew more than I did, too, and who was in communication with people at the hospital, and said, “Do you think he’s gonna die?” And it was one of those questions that knowing that I didn’t have any knowledge of it was just kind of this searching question of like, “Do you think he’s going to die? What happens now?”

And somebody who had survived for so long, and then you let your guard down for a while or for a minute, and this happens. And you know, it’s funny, the I guess statement, I guess maybe it was Andrew Wiley, his agent, who said, “These are life-altering injuries.” And I think that the kind of parenthetical was “If he survives.” And now it seems we know that he’s going to,
which is –

Nico: Well, Andrew Wiley’s statement, he said, you know, “The situation is grim. He’s got a severed nerve in his arm, liver damage, he was stabbed in the neck, he’s non-vocal.” Although it sounds like he’s vocal now.

Michael: He is now, yes. Yes.

Nico: And I have to admit, when I heard that and he said, “These are serious injuries,” I actually had a sense of relief because it came through in his statement that he wasn’t gonna die.

Michael: Yes, that’s right. That’s right.

Nico: And I was like, “Oh, well, at least he has life.” So, it was –

Michael: Yes, no, I got the message from him, was forwarded to me soon after it came, and the first two sentences were awful, and I have it in front of me here because it said, “Dear friends, the news is not good. Salman will likely lose one eye. The nerves in his arm were severed and his liver was stabbed and damaged.” And still nobody has any real clarity on –

Nico: Well, what’s gonna happen now? I mean, so, right, after the fatwa was issued in, what was it, 1989, Margaret Thatcher and the British government gave him state-sponsored protection. Does the United States do that now? I mean, is that something we do in the United States?

Michael: It isn’t, really, you know? I mean, you think of it like when Ayaan Hirsi Ali had state protection from the Netherlands. She moved to American when she took her little sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute, and I met her soon after that, and she was surrounded by people that were privately – you know, the people that would donate money to FIRE were donating money for her security. So, that was – the United States was not – I mean, she obviously was not a US citizen at the time. I believe she is now. And it’s not their responsibility.

But yes, I don’t know what will happen, and I certainly know that those of us who love and respect Salman and think he’s done more for the cause of free speech than anybody of his generation, or that I can think of. I mean, just personally, not even like somebody – there’s people that fight legal battles and do stuff like that, all the very, very important stuff, but personally. You know, being that person that’s storming the ramparts and saying, “I’ll take this. Let me have this.”

Nico: Well, unequivocally and unapologetically, here’s the reason I like Salman Rushdie. Because it’s fashionable today, and Graham Wood had a great piece about this in The Atlantic.

Michael: He did. In The Atlantic. That was the only piece in The Atlantic on the home page for the – from the week after, there’s only one about Salman Rushdie. I mean, I know Jeff Goldberg knows Salman Rushdie. I know he’s friends with him. I’ve seen Jeff Goldberg multiple years in a row at the Hitchens Award and this year in New York, and I just thought it would get a little more attention from them.

And that actually distressed me, that it really hasn’t gotten a ton of attention. It has gotten – that’s wrong. I will say this. I think it should’ve gotten more attention.

Nico: Well, at least in the Atlantic, right?

Michael: Yes, yes, yes.

Nico: A magazine of ideas. I would say when it happened, it was headline news in the New York Times. I was actually using them for – they did one of their real-time updates things.

Michael: Yes, yes, yes, exactly.

Nico: So, I could just fresh it and see what was going on. But getting back to why I like Salman Rushdie, and Graham Wood’s piece kind of explains this. He says there’s a big crowd right now where it’s fashionable to say, “I believe in free speech, to be sure, but.” And Salman Rushdie talks about this all the time in his speeches.

Michael: The But Brigade.

Nico: Yes. It’s the But Brigade. You know, we like to call it “But-heads” here at FIRE. It’s like, “I believe in free speech, but” – but it’s fashionable, and this was one of the reasons that FIRE never provides commentary on the speech that we’re defending, except to say this is protected and here is why.

Michael: Yes.

Nico: Like, we don’t say this is offensive, or this is important. It doesn’t matter if you’re a free speech organization.

Michael: And it could very well be both offensive and important, but it needs to be protected.

Nico: It very well could. Yes, of course. But right now there’s a lot of throat clearing among free speech advocates before you actually get to the defense of free speech, and that’s one of the ways we’re branding our expansion. Say, “We’re not gonna do any of that. We’re unapologetic. Free speech is a human right. It allows for progress, peace, scientific advances, it allows us to be who we are and to speak our minds.”

And Salman Rushdie has always understood that. When Pan America was gonna give, or did give an award to Charlie Hebdo, and there was that cohort of cowards who criticized that, he called them pussies, right?

Michael: Yes, yes.

Nico: He didn’t mince words.

Michael: I was in contact with him during that because I wrote a piece, and it was probably a piece that I wrote for the Daily Beast that had – you know, as a writer, you don’t expect your pieces, especially now when there’s so much out there, of having any impact, and that had a little bit of impact, and there was actually somebody who signed that letter against Charlie Hebdo who I think said in the Guardian that they had read my piece and then taken their name off of it. And said, “Actually, I think I misunderstood it.”

And I had been talking to him and a former president of Pan about this in real-time, and talking to him about losing friends anew. It didn’t happen as much in the past because if you want to look at The Atlantic, here’s a good thing to look up. In 1989 or ’90, it might’ve been even ’90. I think it was ’89. But I found it on their website, and there’s a PDF of it, if you want to find it, that the international – it was the International Rushdie Defense Committee, I think it was called, took out an ad in a bunch of literary journals, newspapers, etcetera, and in that ad, they just had a bunch of people sign their names. Say like, “We support Salman’s right to free speech.”

The list of people is amazingly impressive. I mean, left, right, center. I mean, good God, Noam Chomsky is on it. John Pilger. No, not John Pilger. He’s terrible. I was thinking of –

Nico: I don’t even know who that is.

Michael: So, yes, well, he’s just – you don’t want to know who he is. What’s his name, Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter’s wife. Antonin Frasier. Everybody under the sun signed that thing, and I’m thinking about what would happen today, and then in light of what happened, the signing of a letter when it came to the Charlie Hebdo stuff was people opposing it.

Nico: I know.

Michael: And not only the people opposing, “Oh, these guys shouldn’t get it because” – the staff had just been murdered during an editorial meeting. I mean, is there any more kind of salient time to come out and support people in their free speech and their right to offend and not be murdered than to say, “Well, actually, you know, they were doing X and Y.”

And that is the victory of 1989 and the fatwa. We’ve internalized the fatwa in a way that that idea – look, the book wasn’t banned in Iran. You could find copies of the book in Iran. The book was reviewed in Iranian state newspapers, right? The fatwa came from the Ayatollah and was continued and continued for a number of years since.

It was only in places like the UK, where WHSmith, if anyone’s been to England they know WHSmith, which is like, you know, you get off the plane and that’s where you buy the copy of the Guardian, the Telegraph, and everything – they refused to carry the book because of course they were afraid of what was gonna happen to their employees. This is right soon thereafter.

Indian Penguin, which had just opened in India, Penguin had just opened an outpost in India, refused to publish the book, period. And Salman Rushdie was informed of that during an interview with somebody from the Indian press, and they said, “Oh, by the way, how do you feel about Penguin, your publisher, refusing to publish your book in India?”

Now, keeping in mind, in India this was a very political thing. There was a moment, there was an election coming up, it was two months out, and a sort of Islamist inflected party wanted to make an issue, and they did a very good job of it. You know, there was conversations about whether or not they would publish the paperback copy of it.

I mean, this is like – it wasn’t as if Salman stood athwart violence, yelling “Fuck you,” and that was it up until last week. No, no. Everybody around crumbled. Everybody around the Mohammed Khartoum crisis crumbled. Who published them in America? Almost nobody. The New York Sun, I believe, was one.

Nico: Was the Philadelphia Inquirer the opinion page one?

Michael: Yes, they did, but they didn’t publish the quote-unquote “offensive” ones. So, there were ones that were actually submitted to Jyllands-Posten and Flemming Rose that were making fun of Flemming Rose. There was like, you know, a cartoon of him sort of like saying, “Oh, look it, we’re being challenging.”

And look, you know, in fairness to Flemming, they published those, too, right? They would publish anything.

Nico: Yes.

Michael: So, in the actual Mohammed bomb in the turban that was drawn by a very famous Danish cartoonish named Kurt Westergaard, who died fairly recently. And remember, by the way, this is how important the free speech struggle is. Westergaard died a natural death because he was in his late 80s, but he was almost murdered in his own house and had to run into a panic room, which the Danish PET, the special secret police or the security police, had installed. Press a button.

And there’s a man, I think he’s a Somali immigrant or something, was a man wielding a sword, and guess what was outside in the living room while he was stuck in there? His grandson was sitting on the couch watching cartoons, and the Danish police were there immediately. The guy came outside and they shot him. I think he survived.

But Kurt Westergaard, you know, was another guy in Denmark who defended – a bit of a crazy person, but who cares? Defended the right of the publication of those cartoons, and a mailman came to his door in the Danish sort of mailman’s outfit, rang the doorbell, and he opened the door, and he got shot. It was not a mailman, obviously.

I mean, these are things that are totally forgotten about.

Nico: Yes. I mean, the body count on offensive Islam is high. I mean, all you have to do is look at Charlie Hebdo. The Japanese trans –

Michael: Yes. The Japanese translator, the Italian, the Norwegian –

Nico: Yes. The Satanic Verses. I mean, the body count is unfortunately high. In Turkey there was a riot, right, surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses. And I have to admit, I haven’t actually read The Satanic Verses. As I said, Rushdie’s writing isn’t for me.

Michael: It isn’t your style.

Nico: Yes. It’s not really for me. I don’t actually know what in it offended people. I think it was the treatment of the prophet Mohammed. It was seen as divisive. I don’t really care.

Michael: Speaking of the Streisand effect, amazingly, probably one of the best-selling books that was the least read book after it was purchased, I’m sure.

Nico: And definitely not read by the people who –

Michael: Yes. They admitted that, yes, yes. The people –


Nico: But I think it was at the top of the Amazon charts or somewhere close to it.

Michael: This week.

Nico: Yes, after the attempt on Salman’s life. But I will say, coming back to the Mohammed cartoons, Yale University Press published a book on the history of that controversy, and in publishing that book, refused to actually print the cartoons.

Michael: Yes. It was Karsten Yustakam. Karsten Yusta, something like that. Yes, they refused to publish the cartoons, and there was also another book that I think that they wouldn’t publish or shied away from. And I think that actually happened to Flemming, too, Flemming Rose. In his memoir –

Nico: Journey of Silence.

Michael: It’s amazing.

Nico: Oh, it’s a fantastic book.

Michael: Fantastic book.

Nico: There are a couple of books in the past three decades that really add something new to the free speech conversation, and actually, Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors, which was written –

Michael: One of the best, yes.

Nico: In response to the Salman Rushdie affair I think is probably the best –

Michael: Brilliant book, yes.

Nico: Philosophical defense of freedom of speech written in the past half century, and then there is of course Tyranny of Silence, and Jacob Mchangama wrote I think the definitive history of free speech.

Michael: Another Dane.

Nico: Yes, another Dane. There’s something going on there.

Michael: Yes. Some of these Alexander Flemings, yes. And I met Jacob in Denmark years ago when I was living in Sweden, and I used to see him in Denmark, and this group of people that were always standing out there defending free speech, and Jacob being one of them. And you know, I mean, Flemming’s book, which was published by Cato’s press. You would think that such a world-altering event – and that’s not an understatement – people would want to publish his account of it, and he was in conversation with those people, but he did actually say that the cartoons have to be published as a part of it.

And you know, they were published I think in the Cato book, I’m pretty sure, and nothing happened because no one ever pays attention to these things until there is somebody – you know, look, I’ll tell you a very quick story. This is somebody that I think is a real hero, and completely ignored, and nobody knows anything about him. He started out from the opposite of a hero, being a repugnant person who was a kind of self-appointed imam in Denmark. And he and another imam decided to create the entire cartoon affair.

It had a little bit, a little bit of news in Denmark, and they took these cartoons and then added cartoons that were not in the paper. One that was Mohammed as a pig, which actually was not – it was an image that was taken from like some sort of bacon festival or something in France of a guy with a pig nose on. And they printed these out and they brought them on this tour of the Middle East.

By the end of this tour, there were riots. There were enormous numbers of deaths. I mean, keep this in mind. I mean, the deaths that – I think it’s in a way quite racist that we don’t pay attention to the deaths of the people in these countries that are rioting and are being killed by the police.

I mean, five people were killed in the first week, I think, or second week after the Satanic Verses affair in Pakistan because there was riots in Pakistan while people were marching, very ironically, weirdly, because it’s just our instinct to march to the American cultural center. Like, he’s British, it’s published in the UK, and it’s, eh, close enough, they’re all fucking infidels. And five people were killed by the security police there. This happened in Africa and various places in response to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons.

But this one guy had been a part of this, and he came back to Denmark, and the security police in Denmark, PET, said, “You know, you’re really hated here. If I were you, I’d be careful.” And they’re not being this in a nasty way. They’re actually – they protect everybody, and they say, “You didn’t break a law, I would be very careful.”

So, what he does is he goes to Greenland, and he goes to Greenland, which is a Danish kind of protectorate, and ends up living there in isolation and kind of fear. And while he’s there, he does something which is – by the way, this guy’s name is Ahmad Akkari – and he’s there in a car. He goes to the library. There’s nothing to do, and he’s not even a nook. You know, the town the size of God knows, some tiny place in Long Island or something. He’s in the middle of nowhere.

And he goes to the library, and he starts reading, and this is really an amazing, amazing story because it shows you that good ideas can defeat bad ones. And he starts reading and seeing like, man, this stuff is amazing.

I called him at a certain point during this. I was tipped off to him, I read a piece about it ages ago. And he’s saying, “Michael, have you heard of this guy and this guy?” And I’m like, “Yes, no, I heard about that stuff when I was in high school.” “Have you heard about this and that?” I’m like, “Yes, no, that was in college.”

And he came back to Denmark, and he went to the house. This was arranged, obviously, beforehand, to Kurt Westergaard, who drew the Mohammed the Bomber, the cartoon. Publicly hugged him. Apologized to him. Apologized to the country of Denmark and said, “I’m going to devote my life to exactly the opposite of what I devoted it to before, which is free speech and realizing that I was the problem, and I’m sorry.”

And it is remarkable. Abu Laban was the other imam. He died and never had a change of heart, of course. But Ahmad Akkari is a great example of somebody who was an instigator of this sort of stuff, and then because of his interactions with the psychopaths who wanted everybody dead, you know, I mean, the number of people who were shot and stabbed and etcetera, you know, Lars Vilks, all these people in Denmark and Sweden and stuff.

And he said, “This is madness. This is madness.” And then, you know, when I was talking to him, the final point on this, but it is an important story, actually.

Nico: Is he still – he’s still alive?

Michael: He’s still alive, yes. A friend of mine ghost wrote his memoir, wrote it with him when I say ghost write it. But he was a friend of Jacob’s, actually. They’re all in this small country, they’re all in the same circle.

Nico: Jacob is now a fellow at FIRE as well. He wrote a piece on Salman that was published in New York Daily News, too.

Michael: Yes, I saw it, and people should read that. I mean, Jacob’s one of the smartest men on this subject on God’s green earth. You know, so he comes back and does all this stuff, and I’m talking to him, and I said, “You understand, you realize,” and I think he’d just heard about it – a video had come from Syria. A lot of Danish Islamists had gone and fought in Syria, a lot of people in Europe. This is full kind of 2000, I guess, what? I don’t know, ’13, ’14.

Nico: Are you talking about The Innocence of Muslims?

Michael: No.

Nico: Okay.

Michael: This is after this. And so there’s a Danish division in Syria, and they’re speaking to camera. You know, they’re releasing all these videos all the time. But they’re speaking to camera, and speaking in this very heavily accented Danish, and they say, you know, “Allah punishes the nonbelievers” and all this nonsense. And they turn around, they swing around, and they all have their Kalashnikovs, and they open fire. They started shooting. And there are pictures on a berm, and they’re shooting these photographs, and one of them is Ahmad Akkari.

And these are the people that are going to be killed. You know, Flemming Rose is one of them. A couple other people. Ahmad Akkari is in there. I said, “You know, Ahmad, you just chose a very different path in your life, and it’s going to be rather different.” And I imagine people like Ahmad now who have had a period of relative calm after the initial tumult are probably rethinking that now after what happened to Salman.

Nico: Yes.

Michael: And they would be right to. Because these people don’t forget.

Nico: No, they don’t, and I remember going to an event with Flemming Rose, I think this was 2015, it was Wellesley College, and he still had security. I remember like these two tall –

Michael: I was there.

Nico: Were you there? Yes, you were there.

Michael: Yes. That’s so funny. Yes. That’s so funny because I met him that evening in Wellesley at a – I think Jacob was there too – at a Thai restaurant, and there was nobody in the Thai restaurant. We sat in the back, way in the back, nobody there except for two people up at the front that looked like they were in fucking MMA fighters, and they were these two Danish guys, and he’s like, “That’s my security.” I was like, “Do you guys want anything?” And they’re like, they just looked at me and they said, “No.” They just don’t talk to you.

Nico: But Salman, he didn’t have security.

Michael: No, he did not.

Nico: I mean, when he came to our event, he not only didn’t have security, he said he didn’t want it. He had very much lived his life saying, “I can’t have this shadow around me anymore.” But now –

Michael: That’s what his memoir is a lot about that. I mean, Joseph Anton, which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal when it came out, which is a great book. A lot of it is about –
Nico: I’m not sure it’s in print anymore. I mean, I’m sure they’re changing that. I hadn’t read it, I have to admit, and I feel bad saying I haven’t read Satanic Verses or Joseph Anton, which is –

Michael: This one is definitely more your speed, yes.

Nico: Yes. So, I downloaded it on Audible and Kindle, but I tried to get it in print because I wanted to do a podcast about it, and it’s always helpful to highlight while I’m – but I couldn’t find it unless you wanted to buy it secondhand, so that needs to change, obviously.

Michael: Really? That’s amazing.

Nico: And I could be wrong. This is just Amazon, right?

Michael: Yes, I’m sure you can find a used copy, but the point being that, yes, one would imagine it would still be in print because –

Nico: Most of his other works are.

Michael: You know, it is a great book. Yes, yes, no kidding, yes.

Nico: But I do want to say this about publishing, right? It’s a First Amendment protected activity. Like news journalism, you would think that the people who work in there would take free speech seriously. And you would probably know this better than I would, Michael, but I recall hearing that after the fatwa was issues, and there was concerns about publishing the book, concerns for staff, right? Like do you want to get your security guard and your secretary fire bombed? I can understand those calculations.

Michael: Yes, I do too.

Nico: But my understanding is that the publishers banded together and dispersed the publishing of the book so the responsibility would lie on a bunch of different publishers and not just one.

Michael: Yes, the I Am Spartacus way of doing it, yes.

Nico: Yes, the I Am Spartacus way of doing it. And you know, the sensitivity readers is a new phenomenon that I don’t think many of us have experienced before, and it just goes to show, and it says something about the publishing industry that they do that today, right? If they wouldn’t publish Satanic Verses, as the argument goes, because they couldn’t get past sensitivity readers, or Salman wouldn’t even write it, would they go that extra step of putting their staff at risk to publish a work of art?

Michael: It is the unfortunate way I think people look at this is a black-and-white way. Because what they do is they say things like, “Well, they wouldn’t publish it, but somebody would.” Which is not a huge consolation, to me, because it ignores the fact that this stuff has had an effect, like had a very significant effect. I mean, sensitivity readers, like who cares? They’re not being censored, they’re just making suggestions.

Well, first of all, it’s like the suggestion of the Mafia. You know, the Mafia comes and says, “I suggest that you pay protection money,” you better pay it. It’s not something that you kind of voluntarily do.

But when you allow that stuff to happen for so long, you basically set the kind of intellectual framework, and I think that that’s ultimately the problem, is that the intellectual framework now, especially amongst young people, and I talk to younger people about this all the time, this is definitely not an ideological thing. I mean, the number of people on the left that support free speech and support Salman and would support publishing that book who are over the age of like 45 I think is very, very different than the ones under the age of 45. It’s definitely generational more than it is ideological.

But when you have that change in culture, when you say like, “Oh, our parents used to believe X,” that used to be totally normal. You know, you drove kids without seatbelts and things like this. It is like the times change. The ideas and the sensitivities and the kind of direction of the kind of intellectual debate changes. And when you do that incrementally, I think it does actually change in huge ways, right?

I mean, so you have these things like, “What’s the big deal about X or Y? People aren’t being prevented from publishing. There’s all sorts of opportunities out there.” But when major mainstream publishing companies – and there’s a consolidation of those, that Bertelsmann owning almost everything now, and these new – I mean, what is it, Random House or Harper Collins – I think it was Random House that –

Nico: Yes, when the Big Fives merged, right?

Michael: I think it’s coming down to like the Big Three. And when those people actually control what gets published and what is acceptable to publish – because then you get to the thing, like WHSmith, then you get to the thing about are you going to stock it? Are you going to have the paperback?

I mean, look, the hero, all these little small tiny heroes of the Rushdie affair, one was a guy who owned a bookstore in Berkeley who refused to buckle to this stuff and had Salman come and speak when people were not doing so. I think it was in 1990. And it was I think firebombed, too, and he said, “Screw you. No. I’m not taking it out of stock. If people don’t want to work here, that’s fine. I respect it. But this is our job. We sell books.”

It is important when you sell books to be bought into the whole enterprise. You can’t just say, “Well, if you blow some stuff up, just tell me which books you want me to sell.” That’s not a world that you want to live in, and we live in a sort of version of that now which is you take South Park out of circulation. So, South Park did a thing a long time ago where they had, during the Mohammed cartoon things, where they had a representation of Mohammed, but here’s the joke about it, was that nobody wanted to show it. So, it was Mohammed in a bear suit, so it was actually not – it just looks like a bear, right? And he’s like, “I’m Mohammed,” right?

Nico: They’re fantastic, those guys.

Michael: They do not have that on the Comedy Central archives, and I think it’s also on maybe HBO Max or something now. I have to look. I think it might be HBO Max. But you can’t find that. That’s one of the ones that, like, why? Because it’s blasphemous? To who? I’m not a fucking Muslim. I mean, even if I was religious – I’m not – any religion that I was, I mean, why is that dictating your policy of what you show? “Well, it offends some people.” Well, everything offends some people. Where is the line that you draw?

Well, the line that they draw is quite obvious. It’s not about sensitivity. They knew nothing about the theology of Islam. They know about violence. They know about the fear of violence, which I understand. Not everybody has to be a hero here.

But when you are setting those precedents, and there’s all these little ones here, there, and everywhere, they add up to something of a culture of both fear, which then kind of transmutes into the culture that we have now, which is a culture of quote-unquote “sensitivity,” which is itself a manifestation of a culture of fear.

Nico: And that’s why I loved Christopher Hitchens’ defense of Rushdie throughout the ‘90s. He described this in grandiose terms as a culture war for freedom. And this is one of the things that my bosses, Greg Lukianoff and Robert Shibley, wrote in the Daily Beast immediately after Salman was stabbed, it was published that evening, about the distinction between speech and violence and how that is essentially our cultural distinction that allows for freedom to work, allows for democracy to work, allows for liberalism to work.

It was Sigmund Freud who once said that civilization began the day man cast a word instead of a stone, and that is what civilization means. It means we leave our guns at the door and we don’t, as my colleague Sarah McLaughlin recently wrote, we don’t bring knives to a word fight. We solve our differences through word fights.

Michael: When you do bring a knife to a word fight, you shouldn’t win.

Nico: No.

Michael: I mean, there should be people that disarm you pretty quickly and take that knife out of your hand. Unfortunately, we’re allowing those people to win now, and we’re allowing them to win because of fear that we’re now smuggling through this kind of idea of offense. And I think Kenan Malik, who I’ve mentioned a few times, and I think he is underrated in the US – I think people know him more in the UK, and you should check him out.

Nico: I don’t know him. I don’t know anything.

Michael: Very, very sensible, calm, even-keeled, wonderful kind of historian of the Rushdie affair, From Fatwa to Jihad. But I think that the subtitle of that book is something, and I’m just quoting from memory here, is something like, Multiculturalism and its Discontents, or something like that.

Because what he argues is that where all of this gets screwed up these days is the fact that multiculturalism and the idea of multiculturalism – and unfortunately, that was a word which has a very clear meaning that then became very muddy. I mean, who could object to multiculturalism? I mean, I love living in America because of just this kind of car crash of cultures, which are brilliant and what makes this country so great.

But the ideology of it is obviously something quite different, and his argument is that in this battle for Rushdie and Satanic Verses and many years after that, the shift became about freedom of speech and one towards multicultural society, and the multicultural idea says we have to live in this society together and we can’t upset the people who don’t kind of have the ideas of the dominant culture. And that’s not something that is sustainable.

Nico: And that’s just a bullshit understanding of multiculturalism, too.

Michael: It absolutely is, yes.

Nico: I mean, multiculturalism is understanding that people have different points of view and letting them have different points of view.

Michael: Yes, absolutely.

Nico: You within your private life can believe whatever you want about the Prophet Mohammed, and so can Salman Rushdie, right?

Michael: Yes.

Nico: That is what multiculturalism is. That is what it means to live in a pluralistic society where people think different things. You cease to live in a multicultural society when you say that one culture gets to dictate, by violence, what other people must believe and how other people must act, and what art other people can create.

And this is, I think, one of the things that really infuriates me about the debate surrounding free speech, is that you have the acts of violence. You have fire bombs at Berkeley when Milo Yiannopoulis is set to speak. You have Charles Murray attacked at Middlebury. You have Salman Rushdie stabbed in the neck when he’s about to give a speech in New York State.

But you also have a Frederic Bastiat problem, right? You have the seen and the unseen. Most people aren’t seeing all of the books that aren’t getting written because writers know that they can’t get them through the sensitivity readers.

Michael: It’s a very good point, yes.

Nico: You don’t see all the jokes that aren’t getting told because they know that if Andrew Schulz, for example, wants to tell a joke about abortion, the streaming provider isn’t gonna –

So, you have a cowardice on the part of the publishers who depend on the existence of the First Amendment to do what they do, and they do have the First Amendment right to decide what they want and what they don’t want to publish. And we made the argument that yes, you have that First Amendment right, and this is in the context of First Avenue, which is like Prince’s go-to in Minneapolis, when they de-plaque –

Michael: Yes, yes. That’s how I know this, from Prince, yes.

Nico: Yes. You know, a big proponent of artistic freedom. I think the Parents’ Music Resource Center started it after Tipper Gore listened to a Prince album, or said she listened to a Prince album.

Michael: Yes, yes. “Darling Nikki” I think was the song, yes. Uncomfortable.

Nico: Yes. But they’re having a Dave Chappelle stand-up event, and then the day it’s scheduled to happen because there are some protests over his jokes, they cancel it. And yes, they have the First Amendment right –

Michael: Of like 20 people, by the way. That was the protest.

Nico: Yes. And they cancel it, and we took flak because we said, “They have the right to do it, but is this a net positive for free expression in America and for artistic freedom that this venue claims to uphold?” The answer is no, and I think that’s the direction that we’re headed, and we’re gonna end up having an “emperor has no clothes” problem, right?

I just looked this morning. “Organization Populace,” Axios wrote this up, about the differences between public and private opinions in the United States of America.

Michael: It’s amazing, yes.

Nico: “CEOs should take a stand on controversial social issues.” Twenty-eight percent of people publicly agree with that. Fourteen privately agree. “Public schools focus too much on racism in the United States.” Forty-three percent publicly agree with that. Thirty-three percent privately agree with that. “Mask wearing was effective to stop COVID-19.” Fifty-nine percent publicly agree with that. Forty-seven percent privately agree with that.

We’re having an “emperor has no clothes” problem because the gatekeepers are only letting certain opinions out, and it’s their right to do that.

Michael: That’s exactly right, yes.

Nico: That’s their right to do that. But what they are doing is they are creating silent polarization in America and skewing in an artificial way what Americans actually believe, what opinions Americans actually want to engage with. And as a result, you get extreme politics.

Michael: It’s an enormous version of the Bradley effect, right? I mean, what people say publicly and privately. I mean, if you want to not – if you’re not a pollster and don’t have the money to create a poll or pay somebody to do so, just come to The Fifth Column because I talk a lot about this.

Nico: Yes, right.

Michael: Because what we get is enormous numbers of emails, private messages. We have defaulted for a long time – because we read a lot of listener mail on the paid, on the subscriber version, and we never, ever, ever, ever mention somebody’s last name. Why? I mean, it’s crazy. Like you would never default, if you’re the editor of even Playboy magazine in the ‘60s, when it was considered like, “Oh, you bought Playboy.” You never take the person’s last name and their, like, “Joe Schmoe, Alexandria, Virginia” or something. You wouldn’t do that.

We do it by default because so many people – I mean, it’s funny, somebody did like a poll on their subReddit or something, and it was like, “What is your political ideology?” And the majority were left of center, which is hilarious because people would think that that’s not the case.

And you know, the number of people that send emails that are like literally Hollywood people, news people, I mean, like substantial numbers of people that you would have heard of who are musicians. I had one this morning with blurred pictures, look at it again, who is a professional golfer. No joke, a PGA person. And like “I love the podcast,” and like “Don’t mention my name if you read this.”

Nico: We get that all the time. Faculty members who want to stand up for other faculty member but don’t want to compromise their career.

Michael: Yes. Especially faculties, I mean, the number of people who say like, “Oh, I’m getting” – you know, every time we have a version of that –

Nico: This is the tyranny of silence that Flemming Rose talked about. This is what’s happening.

Michael: Yes, exactly. I mean, the number of times that we have had somebody on who’s a professor going through some kind of crap on campus, I say, “Are people supporting you?” And they say, “Well, they privately do.” Or, “They send me something.” Or somebody gets canceled for – you know, whether it’s like Mike Pesca or something from Slate, brilliant guy. I think we asked him that and he’s like, “Yes, people send me messages privately. They don’t say so publicly.”

And I’m sure all these people that have had these problems in the past, but I think one of the things that I always find really interesting, and think about this for a second. We talk about Salman Rushdie and Satanic Verses and the things that one can and cannot say. We don’t want to live in a society where there are special carve-outs for ideologies, religions, national background, whatever it might be. Sexuality.

Any identity, we don’t want special carve-outs. I want to live in a society where everything is sort of equal in the sense that we can make fun of them, we can criticize them, but we are prepared to deal with the backlash. And the backlash, of course, should not be that you’re no longer employable, that sort of thing.

So, I always said this funny thing, is that I grew up in the Northeast. I am not a religious person. Never was a religious person. I mean, Hitchens was a hero of mine before he became a friend of mine, and part of that was like we never talked about religion. But that was a thing that was never an issue for me because he’s like the sort of devil for all of these people.

Nico: He’s one of the Four Horsemen, right?

Michael: Yes, the Four Horsemen. You know, Daniel Dennett and these guys.

So, I would always go and be in public places, be in dinner parties, whatever, and you can do this. This is a test. This is a very easy test. Try this in Manhattan now. And you would say, “Fucking you know what I hate about Catholics? The Catholic Church is so fucking stupid, and Christianity, and these wild, stupid ideas that Christians hold.” And people nod their heads furiously because that’s the sort of being pensant opinion.

Do that with Islam. Just try it at a party. I would just love to see what happens. If you say, “You know what I don’t like about Islam? You know what Muslims believe? They’re so fucking stupid.” Like, do I believe this myself? Not really. I don’t really have opinions about that because I’m not a sort of religion scholar. I don’t follow the ins and outs of Islam. I haven’t read the Koran. I don’t know the hadiths. So, it’s not something I would say.

But if I were to say it, it would be met with just absolute stunned silence, and it’s like, well, no, it’s a series of beliefs. I’m not talking about the people.

Nico: Ask it about Christianity at a dinner party, though, and especially in New York, you would probably get a lot of responses, right? “Here’s some problems I have with this.”

Michael: Oh, I think I’d be getting a lot of responses of people agreeing, of people saying “Yes, no.” I mean, because what they do is they associate it with people who vote for Donald Trump, people who live in Mississippi, that kind of stuff.

Nico: Yes, yes, of course.

Michael: And they’re like, “Those are our enemies. They’re our enemies.” But if you’re gonna have that simple view – and I disagree with that, too, by the way. I don’t think it’s a wise thing, and I think that it’s always important to remember that there was very narrow focus on Rushdie in places like Bradford in the UK and then Pakistan, Indian subcontinent. But Muslims across the world, most of them couldn’t have given a shit. They had bigger problems than Salman Rushdie’s novel.

But you know, that is the thing. Like, I don’t think that people should treat Christianity that way because it’s a much more complex and interesting group of ideas. The same thing, I think the same thing is true about Islam, but I think there’s all of a sudden – I remember having a first feeling when The Nation magazine after 9/11, probably about five or six years, when I read something defending Islam and just these ideas of Islam. People misunderstand Islam, whatever.

And I just never thought I would see in like the kind of left-wing magazine in America a defense of religion, a defense of a bunch of religious ideas which was now because, to Kenan Malik’s ideas that multiculturalism and religion had been kind of comingled, and that these are people who are the victims of oppression, they’re non-white, etcetera.

So they we have to look at these with a totally different lens, which I disagree with. I just don’t think that’s right. I think that religious views that Salman challenges in The Satanic Verses was a thing people considered blasphemous. And if you look at the – and also, you know, Mohammed’s wives, which is part of Salman’s book, and the kind of bordello of these women who were Mohammed’s wives. And names are changed, Mohammed’s name is changed to Mahoud, I think.

But all this stuff, they’re just ideas. They’re sort of religious ideas that are debatable. There are people, I mean, Salman was somebody that’s saying we can debate the existence of Mohammed or Mohammed’s ideas or whatever it might be. What is wrong with that? Especially in the West, in a pluralist actual multicultural society, that should be allowed. It’s baffling that people in our own world would think otherwise.

Nico: Yes. I mean, it’s the first question, right? How did we get here?

Michael: Yes, exactly.

Nico: And religion seeks to answer that.

Michael: Yes, yes.

Nico: And so the fact that we wouldn’t be able to have that debate of how we got here is worrying.

Well, Michael, I’ve kept you longer than I promised I would keep you, so –

Michael: Oh, no, it’s fine, I love talking about this stuff.

Nico: Yes.

Michael: I mean, I absolutely love FIRE, and if I sometime stumble upon a huge pile of money, I’ll probably give half of it to FIRE because no one does a better job. And then the other half I’d give to myself because I am a selfish, selfish person.

Nico: You’re not getting a huge pile of money from all those Patreon subscribers there, Michael?

Michael: Well, at the end of the day, when you have to split it with two other bozos and then pay all the bills and keep the lights on, we desperately want more.

Nico: Well, you’re not on Patreon, right? You’re on Substack now, right?

Michael: No, we’re on Substack, and you know, it’s funny on the free speech thing, we had not had a problem with Patreon, but we had a problem with listeners in the sense that we had a number of people that said, “We refuse to subscribe because of Patreon because Patreon has kicked a lot of people off the platform for having views that they didn’t like.” And they’re probably views that I don’t like, either, but it doesn’t matter to me.

And the people over at Substack, Hamish, the guy who’s the CEO and the founder of Substack, one of the two, I think, founders of Substack, was himself a journalist. I think he wrote a book on Elon Musk. Really great, smart guy and a real principled defender of speech, and the thing that we’ll post I think in the next day or so was we talked to Hamish, and I said, “People have this misunderstanding of Substack as being sort of right leading.” And my argument to him was like, “Look” – and I know that they’re not. I mean, good Lord, I mean, Salman has a Substack, a very successful one, too.

Nico: We had Lulu there, I think she’s leaving as their VP of comms, she was our last guest on this podcast we talked to.

Michael: Oh, great. Yes, I mean, they do everything. And I said to – this was at the Substack headquarters, but my assumption was that it changes over time, but at the moment, the people kind of that are nominally on the right or are getting a harder time finding platforms, especially in the wake of Donald Trump and weirdos that I don’t have a lot of overlap with, but you know, when they come to Substack and have success there, I think it makes people think that Substack has a political orientation when it absolutely does not.

Nico: No, what they’re not doing is the sensitivity readers, of kicking off their platform, so you’re getting a fuller sense of America and the varied perspectives that exist in it, right?

Michael: Yes, and we ask him on the show, and again, it’s gonna be published in the next day or so, if there are limits? What are the lines? And he has a pretty interesting answer. But the thing is that if you’re within the bounds of ordinary speech and you’re not inciting people or doxing people, I think is their actually big thing, if you’re going around like harassment, they don’t want that in their platform.

But yes, I mean, it’s a great place to be. They’ve been incredibly generous to us, and come on over to join the fun.

Nico: Can I admit that I’m not a Substack subscriber?

Michael: I know, Nico.

Nico: Here’s the thing. This comes down to my frustration with having to subscribe to so many different channels.

Michael: Yes. No. I know.

Nico: I love my Amazon TV, right, because you can have the apps for all of them and it’s easily accessed, and that’s how I watch shows. I use my Apple app to listen to podcasts. Now, there might be a way to, for Apple’s app, to determine how, if whether I’m a subscriber, you can tell me that or not.

Michael: There is. There is. Yes.

Nico: There is? So, I wouldn’t have to go through any extra effort to listen to your guys’ podcast if I’m a subscriber, besides subscribing, of course?

Michael: No, you wouldn’t. We just give you, there’s like a link that you copy. But you know what, because of the great work that you do and because of your generosity and having me on this podcast and being able to pontificate to your listeners –

Nico: If you’re about to give me a free subscription, I don’t need that. I will handle it.

Michael: I am literally – you can see me on my computer, and I am going to give you a free subscription right now.

Nico: Well, I appreciate it.

Michael: At the end of this podcast, you will have – and if you do not know how to figure it out, just tell me and hopefully I can –

Nico: Well, now you’re goading me into figuring it out, which I will, and I listen to pretty much every episode that you guys put out. Since I’ve had my child, I listen to far fewer podcasts, but yours is one I spend a lot of time listening.

Michael: Well, I’ll tell you what. As a father myself, you –

Nico: Are you gonna give my son a free subscription, too?

Michael: No, he has to pay. Come on. This isn’t a charity.

Nico: He’s 1 years old. He’s a big fan.

Michael: You now have a subscription to “The Fifth Column.” It would be in your inbox right now.

Nico: So, listeners, all you need to do to get a free subscription to “The Fifth Column” podcast is invite Michael onto your podcast.

Michael: We always make fun of Sam Harris because he’s like, “If you can’t afford this, just send me an email.” And I’m like, “Man, if you sent me an email, I’m blocking you.” But you’ve given so much to us, and Kmele now is on your board, so we’re all in the same family, so you’re allowed a freebie.

Nico: Well, there we go, Michael.

Michael: He’s got it now.

Nico: Well, I’ll let you go because I think I got another meeting here in 16 minutes, so I’m sure you’ve got plenty to go on, including taking care of, it sounds like your landscapers who are –

Michael: No, they’re digging an enormous hole in the back of my yard. I have to go see if they’ve hit gold yet.

Nico: There you go. Well, I appreciate you coming on. Let’s try and do it again sometime soon, and hopefully we don’t have to have another one of these morbid conversations like this, very soon.

Michael: Yes. Happier next time. Thank you, Nico.

Nico: Yes sir. That’s Michael Moynihan. He is a co-host of “The Fifth Column” podcast. He is also a correspondent with “VICE News Tonight.” This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by my colleague Erin Reese. You can learn more about “So to Speak” by subscribing to our YouTube channel, which is linked in the show notes.

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