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'So to Speak' podcast transcript: The costs of offending religious sensitivities

The costs of offending religious sensitivities


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

Nico Perrino: You’re listening to So to Speak, the free speech podcast, brought to you by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. All right. Welcome back to 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, as always, your host, Nico Perrino. And today, we’re talking about four different stories, three of which involve blasphemy, blasphemy, blasphemy. We’re talking about, of course, the Hamline University situation in Minnesota which we’ll talk, I think, at the top of this podcast about, then pivot to the eighth anniversary of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. We’ll do some reflection on Salman Rushdie. And then at the end, we will close with some insights, discussions of the Twitter files. And joining me, of course, to do all that are repeat guests. We have Amna Khalid. She is a professor at Carleton College. Amna, welcome back to the show.

Amna Khalid: Thanks for having me.

Nico: And we have Michael Moynihan. He is a writer, reporter, and a cohost of the Fifth Column podcast. Welcome back, Michael. You are not sitting on the ground like you were the last time you were on the show. You are properly seated this go-round.

Michael Moynihan: Was I sitting on the ground? Oh, good gosh, Nico. I probably [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:01:20].

Nico: Yeah. You were like in the middle of your living room or something.

Michael: I presume there was some reason for it, and I wasn’t just hungover or something.

Nico: Yeah. Well, you know it’s –

Michael: Always possible.

Nico: It’s nice to now have you properly sitting next to – It looks like a bar full of liquor.

Michael: Oh, yeah. And that is not placed there for effect. It is actually there. I can move it if you’d like, but I didn’t roll it into the shot or anything.

Nico: And you both look very learned with the bookcases behind you [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:01:48].

Michael: No. I haven’t read any of them. I buy them by the yard to impress people.

Nico: I’m sitting in FIRE’s D.C. offices coming to you from Washington D.C. So, it’s great to have you both back here. There’s a story in higher education that has really captured the headlines. The New York Times just got on the record on it involving Hamline College or Hamline University. Excuse me. There’s an art history professor over there who was teaching a class on Islamic art. And prior to the class, she had put in her syllabus that some of the images depicted would include the prophet Muhammad which, in some interpretations of Islam, is seen as blasphemous. Again, the professor recognizes – I should say the adjunct instructor over at Hamline recognized this. And in addition to giving this trigger warning in the syllabus also gave a warning before this particular class and said, “We’re gonna be showing some of these images here. If you’re uncomfortable seeing them or will be offended by seeing them, you’re free to leave the class without any penalty.” Taught the lesson. Afterward, one student did come up to her to say they were offended. The student later said they were blindsided by this depiction. It’s hard to know how you’re blindsided when you’re given repeated notice that this sort of thing is going to happen. And the faculty member lost their job for doing this. It was described as Islamophobic. You had the president of Hamline University say that academic freedom should be subservient to religious offense. And Amna, you were one of the first people out there on this story writing in the chronicle of higher education. How’d you hear about it, and what’s the situation like in Minnesota? Hamline, of course, being, I think, about 45, 50 minutes away from where you teach in Carleton.

Amna: Yeah, actually. Thanks for having me on, and I have many, many thoughts on this. So, just by way of correcting a few things. The course was not actually on Islamic art history. It’s a global survey course on art history.

Nico: The class was, though, on – a specific class.

Amna: Yeah. The module was on Islamic art history. So, you’re right about that. And how I heard about this was, actually, I had been traveling and in transit for like 33 hours, and I came back home. And I got an email from a colleague of mine saying, “Have you heard of this controversy?” because I’ve been speaking out about academic freedom issues. And I said, “No.” And I literally was like in this haze, and I read it, and it incensed me no end. So, in that haze, I wrote a piece. And I thought this needs to be out there, and it needs to be said. So, there’re a number of problems that this case at Hamline presents: 1.) It is a blatant violation of academic freedom. There is no way that the administration can justify interfering in the curriculum of a professor in this fashion and firing them for showing artwork that was very germane to the conversation and is part of what was being discussed. So, that’s a first thing. Secondly – Oh, yes. And I do know that Hamline says, well, they haven’t fired, this technicality, because this was an adjunct professor. It only makes them look worse because this is targeting an adjunct professor whose academic freedom is already limited by our current climate. So, that doesn’t sound very well. They had an agreement for her to teach in springtime, which they subsequently withdrew. So, she was not allowed to teach. So, for all intents and purposes, she was let go of what was initially agreed upon. It may not have been a written agreement, but it was an understanding that they had. Hamline apparently only signs things [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:05:31]

Nico: And that’s a technicality that a lot of people like to trot forth in order to kind of undermine or dismiss the academic freedom concerns.

Amna: Precisely.

Nico: And we at FIRE always say when you’re on a contract basis or an adjunct faculty, the university or the college is under no requirement to renew you, but it can’t not renew you for a discriminatory reason or a reason that violates the university’s own policies. And we understand this in other contexts, of course, under nondiscrimination law, for example. But if the university has in its policy that it commits itself to academic freedom, and as soon as you exercise that freedom you receive adverse action for doing so, that’s a problem. Right? And it creates a chilling effect on campus, and you talk about that chilling effect in your piece.

Amna: Right. So, my concerns are about academic freedom, but then my second concern is also about what is says about what is allowed and not allowed within the Islamic tradition. I will grant that there are certain schools of thought that see any depiction of Mohammad, as far as I know, as not allowed – not blasphemous. I have not yet, myself, come across a tradition that labels these kinds of depictions blasphemous. Now, the reason for that is because this is a 14th century painting, the main one that we’re talking about. It’s painted by a Muslim. It was actually commissioned by a Sunni. So, it’s not only just a Shia tradition. There is a long history of depicting the prophet with reverence, and this is to celebrate him. This is not a derogatory image in any way, shape, or form. So, for Hamline to take a stance where they have declared the showing of this image as Islamophobic, they’re intervening in a conversation that, frankly, they’re not qualified to intervene in. They have no business intervening in that conversation, and they’re frankly misrepresenting the Islamic tradition. I will grant, once again, that there are schools of thought that think that this is not allowed, but there are as many schools of thought and a very strong tradition of depicting Mohammad which is Islamic in reverence. So, that’s the second part. And then the third part, I’m very, very taken aback by Hamline’s stance because, not only do they not understand the stance they’re taking on a religious position, but they don’t understand the very basics of history and the teaching of history. Not looking at primary sources is not an option. That is the bread and butter of what historians do. By saying that some primary source is off limits, that’s just ridiculous. Are you going to stop teaching – I don’t know – James Baldwin because he uses the N word.

Nico: Or Mark Twain. Right?

Amna: He can be seen as a primary source. Mark Twain. We’re going in the literature domain. But are you gonna stop teaching records of slaveholders because they were racist? No. We need to know that because that’s how we teach our students what the richness of the history is, both good and bad. So, censoring a primary source is not an option. So, I object to this as a professor, as a historian, and as a Muslim. I’m gonna put on all three hats.

Nico: So, what is the showing of one of these images? I used blasphemy at the top. You say this isn’t blasphemous under this interpretation of Islamic doctrine. It’s just offensive?

Amna: Well, to some, it is offensive. To other Muslims, it’s not even offensive. One of the problems with this discourse about diversity and how Hamline has crafted it – and it’s not just Hamline. Many universities are doing this, about how we’re going to treat sensitivities is to flatten the diversity within these communities and these groups. How many Muslims are there in the world, just think about it. And to say that we are all offended by this beautiful depiction of the prophet with is very much, as I said, celebrating him and paying respect to him, is not correct. It’s factually incorrect. So, it’s not blasphemy. There are those schools that say it's not allowed, but I have not, in my experience, come across a tradition that describes such depictions as blasphemous.

Nico: Gotcha.

Amna: That is a term that some may be using, but that is not a term that I have come across in Islamic traditions.

Nico: It seems to me like they’re laying down, or at least this one student who complained in the university, capitulated to that complaint. It seems like they’re laying down yet another rake to step on in academia. Because if you read the New York Times, it’s very clear that this image, this depiction and other depictions of the Islamic prophet Mohammad are pretty common in academia. They’re pretty regularly taught. And The New York Times says that this image itself, which we’ll put up on the screen, is housed at the University of Edinburgh. They’ve had similar paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A sculpture of the prophet is at the Supreme Court, and folks aren’t complaining about that. Right? But now that one student has, and that complaint has been given credence, it seems to me that we’re gonna start seeing other similar situations, much like we did with the teaching of, as you mentioned, books or other historical documents that mention racial epithets or use racial epithets within them. It’s now become kind of a trend in higher education where even quoting or teaching those documents without censoring those epithets is enough to get you fired. And I’m wary that that’s what’s gonna start happening in this situation because the precedent has been set, and the university didn’t stand firm.

Amna: Can I complicate the situation a little bit?

Nico: Sure.

Amna: So, one of the things that I think is in the background and needs to be said is that I believe – I don’t know, but I have heard that there have been other incidents of islamophobia on Hamline’s campus that students have been upset by. So, there is the broader context of that. And I think what the administration has done in this situation is they’ve found an easy scapegoat to make a point of solidarity with these students. So, they’ve really stepped into –

Nico: But that happens all the time. So, that happened with Nicholas Christakis at Yale.

Amna: Precisely.

Nico: There were other alleged incidents of racism on campus, and then Erika Christakis writes her letter about Halloween costumes. That’s accused to be racist, and then that becomes kind of the vehicle through which all these other concerns about racism on campus are channeled to the detriment of free speech and academic [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:11:55].

Amna: Precisely. And I just kind of wanted to lay that out as the context in which this conversation is taking place. So, there may well be other legitimate issues that these students may have, but this action by the administration in responding to this complaint is not right one. The other thing I want to say is that I’ve seen a number of media outlets vilify the student. Look, as a professor, my stance is: Students are students. They’re there to learn. They don’t know. I presume ignorance when they come, and I am going to presume ignorance and goodwill on the part of the students, too. But what is absolutely reprehensible is what the administration has done in response. So, we need to focus very clearly on the administration over here, because they’re the ones who have taken this step.

Nico: Yeah. I mean they responded by saying this was undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic. And then they hosted a forum on December 8th, according to The New York Times report, attended by several dozen students, faculty, and administrators, and the student who complained.

Michael: Why even bother having the forum? Because when you say something like that, you precede it with the word “undeniably.” As a person who is in the administration, you say it is not deniable that this is Islamophobic. And for those of us outside, thankfully, outside of the university system these days, the other jarring thing about that quote is it comes from somebody named Dr. David Everett. And his position is associate vice president of inclusive excellence, which sounds like a joke that someone’s kidding. Inclusive excellence, and he’s the associate vice president. Presumably, there’s other people in the office of inclusive excellence. And this is the kind of thing that you read, and you say, “Good lord. How distant are these people from what’s happening in the actual world?” And to point out the billions of Muslims and the flattening of it is one of the most offensive things. And as a non-Muslim, if I were a Muslim, I think that was the great thing. But the headline of your piece, I’d be offended by the presumption from a bunch of people who aren’t Muslims, who are policing on behalf of Muslims and saying, “Well, this interpretation,” and it could be a Wahhabist interpretation, “We’re gonna take the most extreme interpretation, because that’s the one that’s going to be pregnant with the most offense.” People are gonna be more likely to be offended in an environment of open learning if you adhere to the most extreme version of an ideology, of a religious belief. And so, when you kind of bend to that so quickly, and you say it’s undeniably Islamophobic – And of course, the person, I guess he was the head of the art department who objected. And by the way, let me just briefly say there is something from the perspective of FIRE and people like me who actually care about free speech issues, there is something heartening about this case. And the heartening thing is that there’s been a lot of really good responses to it. The New York Times wrote a very, very good piece about it. It was very evenhanded, but it saw that this was an important thing that was happening in Minnesota that a person, adjunct or not, is actually being fired for showing a 14th century work of art. And to the point that these are primary sources – both of you, and Nico, you talking about books – is that this has been really destressing to me. Because I go through my bookshelves, and I say when people walk into my house, I say, “God, I hope you don’t think I believe this stuff, but I have to know about this stuff.” And Germany which has, for a very long time until recently, had a very stupid prohibition on the publication of Mein Kampf. I believe the copyright is held by the Bundesländer of Bavaria. So, they decided to do it recently, and they put it out as an academic version of the book that has academic comment with it. I think that’s great. I think that’s a perfectly good thing to do, and I think it’s really useful, but you could always get these things in an academic context. How can you write about your country’s hideous recent history without going through these primary source documents that not only have this kind of antisemitism that is just laced through the entire thing, but it’s an eliminationist antisemitism, to borrow from Daniel Goldhagen, that it is this kind of call to genocide. It’s not just mean comments, but that stuff all exists. And you have to – I read an old piece recently. It was from The New York Times in the ’90s about these Nazi propaganda films that had been circulating on videocassette at the time, and they talked to two Jewish organizations, and they said, “No. We need these. You have to watch these. You have to understand the kind of etymology of some of this hatred.” And to ban this because it might inspire feelings from people who will probably be inspired by something else is absolute lunacy. But in this case, I think that I understand being a university professor, you don’t want to impugn the motives or the students at all, but I’m outside of that system. So, forgive me, but they’re adults. The comment that I read in The Times, which I noted down which really blew me away was the response from the student who complained, who said, “I’m like this can’t be real.” I don’t believe you for a second. I don’t believe you thought that. And when asked by The New York Times, “Why did you not take these trigger warnings at face value?” she didn’t respond. The reason she didn’t respond is she heard every one of them and was there for this purpose. That’s my guess. Now, this is pure speculation, but I want to guess that what happened, happened because this person had kind of planned it out. The next thing is as a Muslim and a black person, what does race have to do with this? What I see when I start seeing phrasing like this is somebody who’s following kind of a playbook of grievance. And I don’t mean to be overly ideological about this or use these phrases that sound like I’m bomb throwing, but when I see, “This can’t be real” – It’s a picture from the 14th century. It absolutely can be real, when you’re in an art history class, you would see a picture like this. And I suspect when I see things like that that people are really putting another rake for you to step on. They’re people who are angling for a fight. And of course, I do lay most of the blame on the administration. It reminded me of Evergreen, and I was at Evergreen two days after that whole debacle. And in the piece that I produced for the HBO show I was doing at the time, there was a brief section where I’m talking to George Bridges, who is the –

Nico: The president.

Michael: President of the college. I didn’t put a lot of the stuff in because it was a five-minute piece, and I wanted to make it as fair as possible. And if I put some of this other stuff in there it would have made it seem like I was beating up on him. I put a couple of them much later on my Instagram, just videos. But there was an amazing moment when I said to George Bridges, I said, “Look, I think that you’re wargaming this to figure out.” And he said, “I didn’t use that phrase. I don’t understand. What do you mean?” He said, “Well, that was your phrase, not mine.” And I said, “Okay,” and I just moved on, wargaming. And then he’s saying something else, and he was describing to me what Muhammad Ali did in the Rumble in the Jungle. He was rope-a-doping. He was absorbing all the punches to tire people out. I said, “Rope-a-dope?” And he said, “That’s your phrase, not mine,” very nervously. And I said, “Good god. What is happening here?” And then later, I realize that even the word “rope” had scared him. “War” scared him. And I was sitting in front of a person who was just absolutely terrified. The teacher was afraid of the pupils. And I think that’s a lot of these responses. I mean George Bridges is not a dumb guy, but he was jelly spined in the face of this student opposition, which I knew in his heart of hearts he understood was a mad mob, and he acceded the mob very quickly. And the reason he did so was he thought that was the best thing to do, and I suspect this is probably true of – and again, this is a lot of speculation here – but true of the administration.

Nico: Yeah. I mean this is something you see on other college campuses. Right? So, there’s a complaint that happens like this, and then the university has a playbook taken from other colleges for responding to it. They say they’re gonna host a forum. The forum ends up not being a forum for discussion and debate of the issues. It ends up becoming a therapy session, a grievance session, and you saw that in this case. They hosted the forum. They had students, faculty, administrators there. You had one member of CAIR Minnesota who said if somebody wants to teach some controversial stuff about Islam, go teach it at the local library. And then you had this one which is like –

Michael: Not the university?

Nico: Yeah. I guess not.

Michael: Find the local CVS.

Nico: And then you had this professor Mark Berkson, a religious professor at the university and asked this question. He said, “When you say trust Muslims on Islamophobia, what does one do when the Islamic community itself is divided on an issue?” Because there are many Muslim scholars and experts and art historians who do not believe this was Islamophobic. And during this exchange, the department head, Ms. Baker, and an administrator separately walk up to him, put their hands on his shoulders and say this was not the time to raise these concerns. So, it tells you what the purpose of the forum was. We talked about the administration previously making the statement that this was undeniably Islamophobic, and you see this in other contexts, too. I was reminded in reading this of an op ed by Robin Keller in the Wall Street Journal in November. She was a former retired equity partner at Hogan Lovells, which is a big law firm. And in the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, they held an organized online conference call or forum to discuss the decision for female employees. And Robin raised the question, “Well, what do you do when many jurists and commentators believe Roe had originally been wrongly decided?” And for that, she was marched before HR. Later that day, they suspended her contracts, cut off her contacts with clients, removed from email and document systems, the whole kit and caboodle. Right?

Michael: I believe held by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, by the way.

Nico: What was?

Michael: That Roe was wrongly decided initially. It was jurisprudence. Yeah.

Nico: Yeah. There’s a lot of people who argue that.

Michael: [Inaudible – crosstalk] [00:22:22].

Nico: Whatever you think of the outcome of the case, the reasoning for it was –

Michael: Yes. That was it, yeah, [inaudible – crosstalk].

Nico: Convoluted and wrong.

Michael: I think that’s what she said. Yeah.

Nico: But that’s what you see often in these cases. And you had a forum like this in Evergreen, too. It ended up turning into a struggle therapy session, whatever you want to call it, and it wasn’t actually a forum to debate. And you hear this all the time. We need to have these important, difficult conversations. But is that really what you’re looking for? Are you just looking for a way for people to let off some steam on one side of the issue while the rest of us remain quiet?

Michael: Can I ask a question to the both of you?

Nico: No, no, not allowed to.

Michael: Because it is rare that I have a situation where I get to ask somebody who is Muslim, a scholar, somebody in the academic universe. The president of Hamline college said that it was a, quote, “Image forbidden for Muslims to look upon, which was projected on a screen and left for many minutes” – I love the idea that it was burning them alive because it left for many minutes – “and that respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” The second part of that sentence is so self-evidently preposterous that we can ignore it. I wonder what you guys would say to what if it were offensive to Muslim students? And can you not teach it then? This person did what they were supposed to do in the sense of, “I gave you all the trigger warnings. I gave you on the syllabus, the day before class, during the class a two-minute warning,” as they called it. Even if it were that, should the ideas of a particular religious group supersede the learning about it in a particular way? Meaning we don’t – I can’t use the blasphemy. I understand that that’s not exactly what’s happening here. But for the sake of argument, let’s say, should your visions of blasphemy apply to me when I’m not a Muslim? And most of the people in the class are not. One person is. Even if it were offensive, is not okay to teach that either way? I mean that’s the point is to feel uncomfortable and have things that are offensive be thrown in your face in a way to debate them. I think that’s great, to me, but I’m [inaudible] [00:24:30].

Amna: I’ll weigh in here. I personally feel that you can’t say that any group of students as a whole is essentially going to be offended. Right?

Michael: Correct. Yeah, yeah.

Amna: Even if you put on a picture that most Muslims might consider – Offense is a very personal thing. So, the first thing is, we’re not beholden by a religion to take offense. We have different ways of reacting to it. And I loved what – There is a professor – and I might mangle her name. So, forgive me – Audrey Truschke, and she teaches Hinduism. And she had a fantastic thing on Twitter where she was like, “When my students get offended in class, I tell them to hold that offense, bracket it, and engage and learn. And that offense is actually a good moment for you to dive deeper into thinking about why you’re offended and querying it.” My view is, no, I do not think that there is anything that should be off limits in terms of teaching. So, everything should be there. I do think there is something to be said for contextualizing. It is our responsibility. It is. Just as we have academic freedom, we have academic responsibility. I wouldn’t spring something like that on students. I would contextualize it. I would frame it. I would even prepare students. And if it is truly something that I anticipate is going to offend students or certain students, I wouldn’t make them a block of Muslim students or Hindu students or anything. I’d just say, “Certain people might find this offensive.” I might give them an out, or I might flag it for them. And I cannot emphasize enough how appropriate the professor in this case was. Not only had she put warnings on the syllabus, this was not left on the screen for minutes. She had announced when it was gonna be shown. She told the students when they can black their screen, because this was an online class, and then she also announced when they can come back when that image is off. So, I think there is a little misrepresentation going on about how this image was itself shown. I myself cannot come up with a more sensitive way of showing this image. So, in my mind in my view, no, no image, no document, no text should a priori be banned or censored in a classroom. These are all moments of teaching. You can be teaching a really good thing by showing something that’s very offensive to make a really sophisticated point. That’s okay with me. However, I do think that framing is important. Having said that, it is interesting to me that despite all these trigger warnings and all this discourse we’ve had about how essential it is to give these warnings, clearly, they were totally ineffective. And this takes us into another debate which I have many opinions on. And there’s research on this to show that this actually is pointless But I want to agree with what Nico was saying in response to you, Michael, which is I think a lot of institutions do these. And they’re called community conversations. I love the [inaudible] [00:27:22].

Nico: Oh, sure, they are.

Amna: It’s very performative. It’s really just to check a box. And frankly, most of the people who are in it also know that it’s performative. I feel that most of the administration knows it. There are some people who believe it, but I don’t think that there is any reasonable person who thinks that any real conversation comes out of these kinds of community conversations that are staged by the administration.

Nico: I do have to ask, though – okay. So, in the academic context in the classroom, this faculty member had given a trigger warning on the syllabus, had given prior notice before showing the image, but a lot of the reporting about this, including your article in the Chronicle, the image is the featured image.

Michael: Including The New York Times. Yeah.

Nico: Yeah. This kind of 14th century masterpiece. No one’s getting any notice before they click on that article. Right?

Michael: It was in the print edition, too, by The Times.

Nico: Actually, seeing the image, I think, is important to understanding the story, and I appreciate that sort of courage in showing the image so that people can understand the story, courage that was missing in some prior controversies, thinking of the Charlie Hebdo and Mohammad cartoons controversy of 2005 and whatnot. So, what was the thinking there? Maybe you didn’t have a choice. It was chosen by the editor, but that was something that was notable.

Amna: Yeah. I don’t choose the image of the pieces that I write. Those are editorial choices, but I’m glad for it to be chosen. I think this was featured in the chronicle of higher education. We’re talking about education. We’re talking about a huge controversy. So, I was happy for the image to be shown. What are the rules that govern The New York Times or other media? I don’t know. I suspect most authors don’t have a choice in terms of the image that is shown, at least not when I’ve sent in stuff.

Nico: Or the title that is chosen.

Amna: Or the title that is chosen, yes. Often, I get a lot of pushback on the title. This title, however, was mine, and I was very grateful that they kept it, but I do get pushback for other titles, but this mine. So, I can take pushback for this one. In terms of, again, showing this image in a newspaper, you see a lot of images in the newspaper. There are a lot of images that are offensive. So, which community are you going to – I mean a newspaper is serving a wider community of readers. So, I think it’s okay to print it if you’re talking about a controversy. And I think if there are people who are so concerned about what they might look upon, then the onus is on them.

Michael: Kmele Foster, my cohost in the fifth column, one of my cohosts, pointed this out the other day. Particularly on racial controversies, because he writes, he talks, he does a lot surrounding those issues. And he pointed out something that is undeniably true. And I went back, and I was going through and testing this, how frequently these days when somebody says something, tweeted something maybe when they were in high school –There was an example of this recently when they were, I think, in middle school, and you can’t find the tweet. There’s no reference to it because it itself is a piece of dynamite. And so, therefore, we don’t want to have anybody get close to this. It might blow their hands off. So, you can’t even find what the offense is or what people are supposedly offended by. And you see that in a bigger sense in the past when Yale published that book about the Mohammad cartoon crisis in Denmark [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:30:51] cartoons with it.

Nico: Yeah. I was gonna bring that up.

Michael: So, they wouldn’t actually put the cartoons. And Flemming Rose, who ultimately, I think, published his book, which is actually fantastic book –

Nico: It’s one of the best books on freedom of expression out there, Tyranny of Silence. It’s so good.

Michael: It is really, really good. And I had dinner with him in New York when he was shopping that around, and he couldn’t find a publisher for it. Cato ultimately published it because they were fine with it, but mainstream publishers were, “Well, we don’t know.” And we tend to forget that this goes back to ’89, and that the controversy around The Satanic Verses was at first the publication, but not really. No one cared. And then when the fatwa happens, then the publisher is talking about this a little more. The controversy then becomes about: Should be publish it in paperback? That was actually an enormous discussion that happened. Should we publish it in paperback? Will certain places carry it in the U.K.? W.H. Smith’s wouldn’t carry it, et cetera. People tend to forget the bookstore in Berkeley that was bombed because they were carrying it, and I think Salman was going to speak there, too.

Nico: Can I ask you a quick question about –

Michael: Yeah, sure.

Nico: About the publishing of the paperback version? Because I recall I was told by some lawyers who were involved in it way back when that there was like a consortium of publishers that got together to publish it.

Michael: That’s correct.

Nico: So, it wasn’t under one publisher’s name, so that they couldn’t be attacked.

Michael: Yes. It was an, “I am Spartacus,” moment. Yeah. That, “You can’t get all of us,” sort of thing, which is something that doesn’t happen anymore. And I think this is a really interesting thing about this – and people tend to often forget about it – is these cultural changes that make a huge difference in how these stories are handled. At the time, there were very few people in the kind of intellectual world that didn’t come down on Salman Rushdie’s side. A few really stepped up, like Christopher Hitchens who gave him a place to stay at his apartment in D.C., et cetera. But you had a few, like John le Carré, who was horrible on this, absolutely despicable.

Nico: Who’s that? You gotta forgive me.

Michael: John le Carré, the spy novelist, the author, and who wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Nico: Oh, okay.

Michael: And Rushdie never forgave him. And of course, what’s his name, Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam, who said he should be hanged, said it out in public in television and then denied it. Then somebody resurfaced a clip a couple years ago, and Salman actually called Jon Stewart. I don’t know. He told me this. He called Jon Stewart after that thing that they had in D.C., the Rally for Sanity, which he had with Stephen Colbert. And he had Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam play. And he said, “If this is the rally for sanity, you should know that this man suborned my death at some point.” There was not a lot of it. Then you get up to the Charlie Hebdo stuff. You see the disgraceful response from so many people in PEN, and you can name 50 different examples. And you kind of have this kind of overlap, this collision now with this declining interest in free speech, particularly among students, too, and this culture of feelings and comfort in words being violence. And so, when that didn’t exist in 1989 or exist in the very sort of limited way, people were really interested in saying, “Hey. We’re arguing free speech all the time.” And that’s against rightwing lunatics who are attacking 2 Live Crew, who are attacking heavy metal bands for being, quote/unquote, “Satanic.” And then there’s a religious element of this here with Salman Rushdie. They stuck with it. And now, you have some of these people in universities who are the censors. They are the people that are effectively the same as the Christian conservatives were in the 1980s, and I find it really stunning. And one of the things that we didn’t mention – maybe you did mention it – was that the professor that you say who spoke during the forum, and these people came over and put their hands on them like it was a religious revival, putting it on his shoulders and saying, “Sir, please do not say this here.” That professor wrote a letter to the newspaper defending it, nothing offensive. Did he say you must include the photo; you must have the picture of Mohammad? No, nothing, just a letter, and they pulled it. One of the things that I thought was amazing about this: It’s a student newspaper pulling something they’ve already printed. One of the most amazing things about this is I realized how different it is being at university now, among certain people, but this is definitely a thing now that didn’t exist when I was younger. And this is the line from their editorial that was semi-coherent and semiliterate. It said, “One of our core tenets, to minimize harm.” I’m sorry. This is the newspaper’s core tenet is to minimize harm, not to spread information, not to enlighten people on things, but to minimize harm, “Exist for us to hold ourselves accountable for the way our news affects the lives of individual students.” Whatever the hell that means, it is, “We’re trying to protect students from the news,” which I found to be something so outrageous that I can’t believe it wasn’t in The New York Times article.

Nico: Did you read that line in there where they said, “In no way are any of us on the staff or on the editorial board experts about journalism or trauma.”

Amna: Yeah, clearly.

Michael: I said, “Obviously.”

Amna: I mean it’s Journalism 101. But I want to say, does it come as a surprise that that’s not one of their core tenets when the institution’s core tenet is they are willing to subordinate it to sensitivities. I mean I’m not surprised that – So, if their students are taking their leave from administrators at institutions like these, who needs the rightwing to come up with anti-CRT laws and laws about what can and cannot be taught when our educational leaders are doing it themselves? We have a grave problem on our campuses, which is that academic freedom is under attack. And I don’t say this as a professor. It’s not like I love to go into my classroom and say incendiary things and [inaudible] [00:36:31]. I’m not interested in any of that. I said this because it’s the learning of the next generation, and that is what is at stake over here. And the attacks are coming fast from the right and the left and the center. I don’t know. Everyone seems to be uninterested in academic freedom these days. But the losers eventually are going to be our students and our democracy, and I think that needs to be front and center over here. And I do want to say that this case has raised some very important questions about what the kind of dominant paradigm about DEI is on college campuses, and how that is – you know. In a way, this case is a gift because it throws into sharp relief what these tensions are and why these two ideas cannot be compatible in this fashion. I’m very pro diversity, inclusion, and equity. Who wouldn’t be in this day and age or any day and age? But not in the ways in which it’s been played out on college campuses. And the problem with the discourses, it is very condescending towards students. It assumes that they’ll get infected by ideas. They’ll immediately go with a particular flow of whatever they’re exposed to, and that’s what you see in the student newspapers, rationale for censoring. “Oh, we don’t want to harm anyone.” I’m really now addressing the students out there. You’re much stronger than that. You don’t just kind of get swayed by the wind. Come on. Ask for your right to be able to read and listen to things that are out there in the world.

Michael: Yeah. I think that’s one of the requirements now of being a professor and being on campus is to try to fight back against that stuff, the DEI stuff, the CRT stuff, the Chris Rufo stuff. I think all of that’s silly, but there’s a point there that some of this stuff is obviously not something I find conducive to good learning practices. But Nico, you read that line, and I knew there was that little extra bit when you said, “We’re not experts about journalism.” Do you know what the next two words were? “Or trauma.” And then, “However trauma, and lived experiences,” one of the great nonsense phrases of our time, “are not open to debate.” I don’t know if there’s non-lived experiences. But trauma and not open to debate, that, my friend, is not what you should be at university for. Everything is open to debate. And I’m probably an extremist on this one. I think Holocaust denial is open to debate because let me at them. You make short work of these people in 10 minutes and make them look like fools.

Nico: There used to be a whole type of class that you would see at colleges and universities, even high schools, where they’d bring in extremists from all sides. They’d bring in the Holocaust denier. They’d bring in the Klansperson. They’d bring in the Black Panther. And the purpose was to kind of expose students to it and to argue with these people.

Michael: Why do you know the name of the Nazis from this time? There’s a guy named Tom Metzger, who was a complete psychopath. And he would show up on television shows, and he was the wrestling villain. He’d be booed, and he’d be shown very quickly to be a very, very silly person who knew next to nothing. And people, their lived experience, they could compare it to the things this person was saying which is dystopian nightmare that didn’t exist. But the problem is, of course, that nobody still wants to say that, “I don’t like speech. I don’t like free speech,” but it’s much easier to say, “I don’t like violence.” And if speech is violence, you’re gonna say that you’re pro violence? I’m opposed to violence, my friend. I’m opposed to trauma being inflicted upon people. Who doesn’t like that? Like you said about DEI, who doesn’t like diversity, equity, and inclusion? Well, that Orwellian thing where you start defining things – In North Korea, who doesn’t like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Those are three words that precede Korea, all of which I think are pretty good. And then you do it in this way: Well, this is what this means. We haven’t, I don’t think, paid enough attention to – Greg, your boss who wrote a fantastic book about this with Jon Haidt has, but we haven’t paid enough attention to swatting down this idea that words are violence and harmful. And if we’re gonna talk about Twitter in a bit, I’ll tell you the Twitter thing is that there are people that I talk to now that can’t imagine. They’re like, “I saw this thing on Twitter the other day. I can’t believe they’re not even getting banned.” Well, no, my friend. Eight years ago, no one even thought that. There would just be crazy people. There’d be Alex Jones. And you would ignore them, or you’d make fun of them, and they would go away. But the actual exposure to these ideas is like being exposed to radiation. They think it’s just gonna get into your system, and you can’t [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:41:02]

Amna: Yeah. And the corollary to this is the idea that impact matters more than intention. This dogma of impact outweighing intention is becoming – In of the student statements, not the student, but I think another student made a statement in the student newspaper saying, “Our institution at Hamline, we are taught that impact matters more than intention.” I mean I’d like to give Hamline the benefit of the doubt, and my colleagues out there, to think that this is not what they’re teaching, but clearly students are hearing this message. And this very disturbing because you’ve kind of just – Then it’s no longer debatable, because then you will just have to trust someone for what the impact of something is, and you can’t even question them, and you can’t [inaudible].

Michael: But it allows you to say that Mark Twain is no different than the Turner Diaries because they both include words that are racial slurs and inappropriate. Context does matter.

Nico: Yeah. Well, it does. And folks are searching because you can now gain a sort of power or social cache by claiming offense or claiming victimhood. People are now searching for ways to become offended, and we saw this with the Stanford compendium of harmful language. And just as we were hopping onto this podcast, something came across my desk from the USC School of Social Work where they are now banning or removing the term “field” from their curriculum and practice and replacing with “practicum.” The idea –

Michael: I’m gonna guess that there’s a slavery idea there.

Nico: Yes.

Michael: Oh, my lord.

Nico: Quoting here, “This change supports antiracist social work practice by replacing the language that could be considered antiblack or anti-immigrant in favor of inclusive language. Language can be powerful. And phrases such as ‘going into the field,’ or ‘fieldwork’ may have connotations for descendants of slavery and immigrant workers.”

Michael: No one is thinking about these except for these obsessed people.

Nico: But now they do. It’s like you’re priming them to become offended by things that they weren’t offended by before. No one was offended when they went into the Supreme Court and saw the depiction of Mohammad, but now they’re gonna be primed to do that. And because trauma and safety and offense are now the language of power in our society –

Michael: Field is a stretch, guys.

Nico: I know. I know. But here, it’s a letter from January 9th to the practicum education department.

Michael: Speaking of which, I just said, “Field is a bit of a stretch, guys.” I was yelled at on the campus of Evergreen for saying “guys,” just a habit of speech since I was a kid. This is actually a true story. And they said, “We would prefer if you said ‘y’all.’” And me, being the complete idiot that I am, decided this is a wonderful time to make a joke and said that I don’t appreciate the appropriation of Southern culture. And it was like a pin drop. Nobody said anything. People just looked at me, and I was like, “Okay. It wasn’t the best joke, but you don’t have to say nothing.” But yeah, no. That’s the stuff. I mean the policing of language, which I’ve always found really interesting, one never starts by saying, “This is why one has to do it. Here are the benefits.” Usually, if you take a pill, if you go to this doctor who says, “You should do this every day.” “Why? Show me the evidence. What’s it going to do for me?” These little tweaks of language, there’s no evidence anywhere that this has any effect on people’s lives for good or ill. You’re raising – Maybe I’m wrong about this [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:44:28].

Amna: [Inaudible – crosstalk] [00:44:28]. There’s evidence to the contrary, I would say.

Michael: Contrary. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Amna: There is evidence to the contrary with trigger warnings that, actually, when you prime students to be offended, they are way more likely to be offended and be upset. And so, that ruins the learning experience to begin with. So, I’m very anti-trigger warnings, yet I am very pro context. I think that is a responsibility of an academic to give context, but trigger warnings like that I think mostly are just nonsense. But you’re completely right. There is no evidence for this, yet we find institutions of higher learning conforming to this baseless idea, and not only conforming to it but promoting it. I think about the Stanford list, and all I can keep thinking about is it’s a multiphase, multiyear project. I’m just wondering how much money is going into this.

Michael: Well, it’s the least academic thing I’ve ever seen, too, because it repeats about 1,000 myths in it of like, “This actually is from this.” And the etymology of these words, you go and look them up. You say, “That’s not true,” and it isn’t true. I mean it’s wild because it’s coming from one of the most prestigious universities in America. But this kind of stuff, you don’t have to do any real work, particularly when you’re talking about race. This is something that I find really offensive is that we have all these endless conversations amongst idiot university professors who live in lovely places like Ann Arbor and Berkeley and Cambridge. Whereas all around them in places like Chicago or in Boston or in San Francisco, there’s massive drug problems. There are gang violence problems that disproportionately affects black people in this case, if you’re talking about race, specifically about black and white racial issues. I hate saying people of color because it’s too confusing for a variety of different reasons. But if you sit there and nitpick at words, fantastic. If you go after a person for tweeting something when they were 12, and now they’re going to be in the NHL, we should probably prevent them from going into the NHL because of what they said when they 12 and didn’t really know anything, rather than doing something that we can’t do anything about, actually. We can’t solve the problems. I do this all the time, and we talk about it in the podcast quite frequently. I always just drop this in there. It’s always on a Monday or a Tuesday thing, “Do you know how many people were shot this week in Chicago? 50, 60.” It’s unbelievable. It’s like Chechnya in the ‘90s. No one fucking cares. The important thing on university campuses, though, is we just – death by 1,000 cuts of little offense, because, of course, intentionality makes no difference at all. They love to find the victim. You go back and read this stuff, and they’re not comparable in any significant way, but you look. And I’m obsessed with the Soviet Union, particularly in the late 1930s, the original trials in ’30, ’31, and then the purge trials happened. It’s the language of it. And you go and read Arthur Koestler’s book, Darkness at Noon, of this constant correction of language or saying the same thing wrong until you get them to admit that they did the wrong thing that they know that they didn’t do. And I was very impressed in this case in Hamline that the professor didn’t apologize. So many times, the professor – and they don’t believe it, but they’re trying to save themselves. I get it. I understand.

Nico: I know you were friends with Christopher Hitchens. This whole discussion kind of reminds me of a story that he would tell about Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer. He created his first dictionary, and he was waited upon by the upper-class women in London society. And they’d come to him and say, “Mr. Johnson, Dr. Johnson, we must commend you for not including any vulgar words in your dictionary.” And he responds, “Well, I must commend you for knowing where to look.” Right?

Michael: Exactly.

Nico: It just seems like we’re peeking over our neighbor’s fence in order to try to find offense, peeking over their fence to find offense.

Michael: Unintentional, but it worked.

Nico: There we go. Well, do you guys have 15 extra minutes?

Michael: Sure, sure.

Amna: Yes.

Nico: Because I have apparently spent 45 of this –

Michael: Yeah. Nico, I did get laid off. So, if you want do [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:48:29]

Nico: Do it [inaudible – crosstalk].

Michael: That’s like four hours and a half [inaudible – crosstalk].

Amna: I should say, Nico, are you trying to move on to a different topic?

Nico: I was gonna pivot slightly. Yeah. But before we go, then I’m happy to hear.

Amna: I just wanted to point out that CAIR National, while they haven’t commented on the Hamline situation, they do not consider the showing of these kinds of images from the 14th century as Islamophobic, and I think it’s important to say that. And I also think that it’s important to note that the Muslim Public Affairs Council made a statement yesterday which was a very good and strong statement saying that showing these images is not Islamophobic. It's not. It's part of the Muslim tradition, and they don’t see a problem with it.

Nico: And I should note, it’s the person who took the leading hand in drafting that statement credits you for inspiring the response, which was nice. Yeah. They credited it. Yeah.

Michael: Don’t you love it when something you write actually has an effect.

Amna: Yeah.

Michael: It’s so rare. Not you. It’s rare for me. I mean during the Charlie Hebdo thing, there was some woman who was interviewed or wrote something in The Guardian who said she had read the thing that I’d written in The Daily Beast and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize that it was also a newspaper that was deeply, deeply offensive to Catholics to about a 10-to-1 ratio because they hate the church in France.” I opened it up the other day on the website, and there was a bunch – An ex-pope just died. There was a bunch of images that, as a not really a Catholic, I thought were quite funny.

Nico: Well, I wanted to ask about Charlie.

Michael: If you’re a believing Catholic, don’t look at them [inaudible – crosstalk].

Nico: Well, I wanted to ask about Charlie Hebdo, right, because Michael Beck, during that attack which happened years ago on January –

Michael: January 2015.

Nico: Yeah. Twelve people were killed. Charlie Hebdo pulls no punches.

Michael: Quick, quick thing: Twelve people at Charlie Hebdo. A Muslim was killed immediately after, who was a police officer trying to stop these scumbags, and he was shot and killed. And I think the total death toll was closer to 15 or something with other people that weren’t at Charlie Hebdo. Yeah.

Nico: Yeah. I mean they’re publishing a special edition commemorating the 2015 attacks. I believe one of the images that they’re planning – It’s hard for me as a non-French speaker to kind of understand all of what they’re planning, but my understanding is that there is gonna be one cartoon mocking the Ayatollah Khomeini, one of Iran’s leaders. And the Iranian government responded by saying – and this is a translation – “This will not go without an effective and decisive response, and Iran will not allow the French government to go beyond its bounds,” which is kind of a failure of understanding of how French society works, unlike Iranian society perhaps. The government doesn’t get to say what people publish in a satirical magazine. But I wanted to bring up this conversation 1.) Because we have the anniversary, but 2.) Whereas the Hamline image, it was a image that was created by a Muslim kind of in reverence of the tradition, Charlie Hebdo is not in reverence. It’s mocking Islam.

Michael: [Inaudible – crosstalk] [00:51:52].

Nico: It does it of Catholicism. It does it all sorts of religion. It fits within this larger French secularist, satirical tradition that I think, Michael, you’ve done a great job commenting about.

Michael: A very leftwing tradition, too, from Charlie Hebdo.

Nico: Yeah. So, how do we think about that? Right?

Michael: Well, I’ll tell you what. The interesting thing is that the Iranian government very consistently misunderstands these things from the West. And when [inaudible] [00:52:19] post in Denmark did the Mohammad contest – By the way, they’re doing this contest again. It’s sent in your drawings about the mullahs. And that’s what they say, the mullahs. Iran responded at the time, and they had a Holocaust denial cartoon contest, which is a very convoluted thing, a Holocaust denial contest. They said, “Well, because there’s laws against this,” which I oppose, by the way, in Europe. And no one care. They were like, “Okay, great.” We have Front National in France. We have people who have – you know. The leader of one of these big parties once said the Holocaust is a quick detail of history. We’re fine with this. And yeah, it’s stupid, but do it. Go ahead. And in Charlie Hebdo’s case, it’s that they come from a very fine, very rich, French tradition of mocking people through editorial cartoons. You can find them throughout French history. And it kind of has a ‘60s kind of vibe to it, too, was when it was very offensive to people. If you wanted to get people’s attention, you attack the church. Right? And they did that very frequently, and people got mad. No one ever tried to shut them down. No one ever tried to haul them into jail for it. They just accepted it and fought back. Now, obviously, with France’s colonial history and the war in Algeria and the number of people, the terrorism that France was experiencing actually happened in the ‘90s. It was pre-9/11. People forget that there was something that existed before 9/11. So, this is part of the culture. Front National is become a very big thing, too, but Charlie Hebdo is – One of their biggest targets was the Le Pen family because they’re absolutely absurd people. And their attacks had never been – and they’re very clear about this – have never been on immigrants. They don’t attack people from Africa. They don’t attack – They attack an ideology that is held by a small segment of people from a particular class of immigrants. So, it’s immigrants, Muslim immigrants, Islamists within the Muslim immigrant community. It’s a very small kind of thing. And people misunderstood that, because I thought the response of people in America who had never looked at it – I’d been paying attention to the newspaper or magazine, whatever you want to call it, for many, many years and when I lived in Europe. And people were instant experts on this and said, “Oh, good lord. How Islamophobic is this?” Well, if it were, so what? That’s what you deal with. Right? You have a paper that’s Islamophobic. You have a paper that hates Catholics. You have people that don’t like Americans, that don’t like black – You don’t go and mow them down with AK-47s when they’re in an editorial meeting. Now, contextually, to explain to people that it’s not even like that does in fact make it worse, because they’re people you can actually identify with, people you can actually sympathize with. Their families, the people who wrote these editorials, wrote these cartoons – Charb, one of the guys that was murdered, they put out a little book of his after he died [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:55:16].

Nico: Yeah. I have that on my [inaudible – crosstalk].

Michael: Yeah. It’s quite good. And it was savaged here in saying, “Oh, it’s so Islamophobic and blah, blah, blah.” It’s a phrase now that’s so divorced from anything real. There’s are people that –

Nico: Wasn’t that book about freedom in art or something?

Michael: Yeah. It was about that. It was about freedom in art. But there are people in France – let’s be clear-eyed about this – that don’t believe Muslim immigration should be allowed at all. They’re effectively racists who don’t believe – They want white culture to survive in France. These people exist in Sweden. They exist in Germany, across Europe. But most of the people you talk to, who have a kind of arching eyebrow about immigration policy, are upset about certain things that have happened over the years in France, and they associate it with an immigrant population. Now, the job for people in the press in France and people in general is to explain that that’s not everybody, and I think most people are in that world, and definitely Charlie Hebdo. Definitely, Charlie Hebdo was not responsible for any of that kind of feeling, because what their ideas were, were specifically about the ideas of Islamists. They attacked them specifically, but people tend to conflate all this stuff. So, when the memorial issue came out of Charlie Hebdo right after the murder – I don’t know if you remember this, the green background.

Nico: Yeah. I’ve got it hanging on the wall.

Michael: And the guy saying – you know. I can’t remember what the caption was. It was something like, “You did this for me?” kind of thing, and has a turban on. Every English language publication said, “They did it again. They put Mohammad.” No one said it. This is not Mohammad. No one said this was Mohammad, but you have this. They say, “Well, it must be Mohammad. They’re trying to offend people.” No. It was a Muslim saying, “What the fuck are you guys doing? Why are you doing this on my behalf?” And the idea that they’re always – So, for instance, the cover of this week’s is really something else. I don’t know if you saw it, but good lord.

Nico: No. We can try and put it up. We can find it and try and put it up on the screen for –

Michael: If you can put it up – Here’s your trigger warning, people: There is a woman lying prostate on her back, legs spread open, naked. And I’m sorry, people. I have to describe this as it is, but there are a bunch of women, Muslim women, walking into the women lying – miniature women walking into –

Nico: Oh, I did see this. Yeah, I saw this.

Michael: The person’s vagina. And the mullah’s saying, “Go back to where you came from.” You can think it’s funny or not, but it’s a feminist idea: Go back to where you came from, from women. And you’re oppressing these women, and it’s about the hijab protests and everything. These are people that do satire with a sledgehammer. And if you don’t like it, fine. But when people said at PEN that were celebrating Islamophobes, that people were attaching the marginalized, I found that deeply offensive for a number of reasons. More than anything, I found it offensive because I know lots of people in France. I know some people who are Muslims in France who are fairly secular people, but they would identify as Muslims. They would not say that they were set upon by Charlie Hebdo because they’re not fucking Islamists. They don’t believe in a caliphate. They don’t believe [inaudible] [00:58:36] all the time around the time of ISIS, around the time of the war in Syria is going crazy. They don’t believe themselves to be targets of [inaudible – crosstalk].

Nico: Well, when PEN America gave its courage award to Charlie Hebdo after these sorts of attacks, it was famously attacked, verbally in this case.

Michael: For giving out an award to the survivors of the massacre.

Nico: For getting the award. And Salman Rushdie famously was critical of these folks.

Michael: Very much so, yeah.

Nico: Yeah.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Nico: Do you know why he was, Michael? I can speculate what, but I imagine this was personal for him.

Michael: It was personal for him, obviously, because there are –

Nico: And wasn’t he the president of PEN America?

Michael: Not at that time.

Nico: Not then, but previously.

Michael: It was just after Peter Godwin. I’m trying to remember who it was at the time. But thereby, for the grace of God, go I. What would they say if it happened to him? Because who is the person that has the scale of offense? Well, that’s not offensive enough for a murder, but this one is, because if you don’t remember what happened in 1989 and what started in Bradford in the U.K. and went across the world – I have a DVD of a film that was a hugely successful film called International Guerrillas. And the film, it was made in Pakistan, and the film is a two-and-a-half-hour epic in which this gang of guys try to find and murder Salman Rushdie. They’re the heroes of the film, by the way.

Nico: Oh, I remember he talked about this at FIRE’s gala in 2019.

Michael: Well, they banned it in the U.K., and he argued, “No. Do not ban this.” And they unbanned it, and no one went and saw it.

Nico: Did you know in the U.K. – I believe this is the case – in order to get your film distributed, it needs to go through the government to give it like a rating?

Michael: Yes, yeah. And they famously did it to Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs. They wouldn’t release it.

Nico: Really?

Michael: It didn’t get its certificate. So, they banned this anti-Rushdie film, and Salman was deeply offended. He was like, “No. This is the whole point. This is what I’m arguing. Allow these people to –” And look, he was feeling safe after many, many years of this. And it only takes one deranged lunatic, but you cannot prevent this stuff by preventing the distribution of his book in paperback or these movies about him or something. That’s not how it works.

Nico: Well, they did get Salman, this one deranged lunatic did, that is, in August. Fortunately, he survives, but my understanding is he lost sight in one eye. There was a nerve that was severed, stabbed multiple times. I do remember, Michael, that at the time of the attack, this was headline news. I think I got a push notification about it. It was like the lead story on my Apple news app. Everyone was reporting on it. Everyone cared about it. It was kind of like a five-alarm fire for us here at FIRE. But you recently, in a Fifth Column podcast, said you’ve been subsequently, not dismayed –

Michael: Depressed.

Nico: But saddened, depressed because it’s not –

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Nico: But I have to wonder, in our very fast news cycles, a story today often fades. What were you hoping to see out of Rushdie/

Michael: You know that’s a good question because I had to think about that a bit myself. We need more news to keep this, the hungry maw of this media machine going. You would imagine you would have a little bit more and people trying to – you know. The New York Post did an interview with the guy in prison, and his parents –

Nico: Oh, really? I haven’t seen that.

Michael: Yeah. It was very brief and right afterwards, right after he got arrested.

Nico: Amna, it sounds like you saw that.

Amna: I heard about it. I didn’t see it, but I heard about it.

Michael: Yeah. And his parents who are, I believe, are first-generation immigrants who were like, “We disown him. He’s a piece of trash.” So, also, really important to note that he was not forged in this crucible of hatred in his own family. I mean it’s often the case you see with radicals in the U.K., too. Their parents are normal and fantastic, and these people have grown up in the U.K. less so. I mean I’m just talking about the ones that leave and go join ISIS or become Islamists. But yeah, I don’t know what I was expecting. And it’s a very good question because I think the fact that it disappeared so quickly, and people weren’t checking in – The symbolism of a writer’s hand being severed, eye being kind of gouged out, the tools of his trade. People said that about Hitch when he got throat cancer. “You went around speaking against God, and look what happened to you.” And this kind of thing, one would expect – I don’t know why. Is it maybe because it’s been so common? And in 1989, when it happened, it was a complete shock. And Iran, to us, was such a hate figure in the mind of people in 1989. It’s been normalized in a way that people don’t think of Iran as this single evil entity in the world. People did that, actually, in America in the ‘80s after the hostage crisis. Iran and Libya were these two places like, “Ooh, Iran. It’s so crazy, this dark kind of place.” But after ’89, I think the fact that it became common enough that we knew of kind of lone wolf – Look, another thing that didn’t get attention: A white Christian kid who radicalized himself at 17, 18 years old, attacked a police officer with an ax in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and it’s barely been mentioned. And I think that there’s a bit of just – not exhaustion, but there’s gonna be a radical here and there that’s gonna do something bad. Yeah. I don’t know.

Nico: I work in media, you know. I work in media, and it’s very rare that a story has legs beyond a couple weeks. You get the original reporting on it, and then you get the think piece, and then the story goes away until you have a new development.

Michael: But he’s one of us. That’s what you think. Right? That’s typically what happens in journalism. It’s that if something happens in the media, and it affects somebody in the media, it gets a lot more play because we’re biased towards people who are writers, you know.

Nico: But you can’t keep writing the same story. Right? You need new information.

Michael: Of course, of course.

Nico: And I think Rushdie’s camp has been pretty tightlipped about how he’s doing. There’s been drips here and there.

Michael: You could find out if you wanted to. Yeah.

Nico: Yeah. I mean if you ask. I don’t know if it’s the –

Michael: If you ask the right people, they’ll tell you.

Nico: Yeah. They’ll tell you, I guess, but you kind of need the new story.

Michael: Yeah. No, I get that. That’s also true. It was kind of jarring to me that it happened. And because I’ve had a personal relationship, and he’s been in my universe for a while, and I disagree with him on almost everything. And I have an enormous amount of respect for everything he writes despite the fact that I don’t do magical realism in literature. And his politics are very different than mine, and I just love the guy and think he’s brilliant. So, it was a personal thing, I guess. I was like, “Really? No one cares?”

Nico: So, I don’t know if either of you have read The Satanic Verses. And Amna, you might have some insight into this from the doctrine. I’ve never quite understood exactly what got him in trouble in that. It’s my understanding The Satanic Verses –

Michael: Most people didn’t.

Nico: It’s that there’s these revelations to Mohammad that he, at one point, decided to recant or say they weren’t actual revelations. And he has a dreamlike sequence in The Satanic Verses. I can’t do magical realism. I tried to read his books. I just can’t do it. So, I don’t quite understand exactly what the cause of the offense was, or even if it’s offensive within the Muslim community, or if it’s something like the Hamline thing where it’s a point of contention.

Amna: I think it’s certain political entities that got offended for reasons which were not so much to do with religion as to do with how they read perhaps that they were being depicted in there. Rushdie does write about political figures. He’s done things on Indira Gandhi, on Zia. So, that book, it’s about a lot more, actually. The political dimension of it, I think, is more interesting than what it sadly became known for.

Nico: So, you think the impetus was political rather than religious, really, and religion was kind of a convenient excuse in a certain sense.

Amna: Arguably, yes.

Nico: Yeah. I think it’s probably safe to assume that most of the people who are most offended by the book have never actually read it, which is the case often in censorship controversies.

Michael: Very common, by the way, to be found, I’m told, in Iran, in Samizdat Farsi edition. So, there were people. It’s the Streisand effect. Right? People were like, “Who are these nut bags that are burning things in the middle of England? I’m interested. I want to see what this is all about.” And I think that most people are like, “Eh. So what?” I mean there’s always a political –I think Amna’s right that there was definitely a political purpose for this from the Iranian government for a lot of reasons. And this was something that came from a state. That’s not what happened in the case of Jyllands-Posten. There were two people that took those cartoons and shopped them around to try to create a Satanic Verses type thing to give themselves some notoriety. And it turned out that one of them was a hero. He turned out to be a hero. He started off as a real villain. And the two guys, one of them is dead, this guy named Abu Lahman who is Lebanese. I think he was either Palestinian-Danish or Lebanese-Danish, who was the first imam, and he passed away. And the other guy recanted everything, everything. And it’s one of the most fascinating stories that’s gotten almost no oxygen, and he did it by going to the library. You want to talk about the most inspiring story of somebody who – The Danish secret service, PET, I wrote about this for Newsweek a long time ago. They told him, “It’s not safe for you here,” when he came in 2013, ’14. And what’s the most isolated place you can go if you’re Danish? Greenland, which is a Danish protectorate. And he went to Greenland. And he was like, “Jesus, there is literally nothing to do here.” So, he ended up going to the library. Very, very close friend of mine ghostwrote his book, and I ended up talking to him. And when I started talking to him, he would send me these messages that were so – It was on these calls, actually. I can’t remember if this was message or calls. They were really – you know. They hurt your heart in a way to see somebody be led astray by such bad and toxic ideas when he would say things like, “Oh, my god. Have you read Thomas Jefferson?” this stuff that he had had just no interaction with. And he went back to Denmark, and he went to Kurt Westergaard’s house, the most famous, Mohammad with the bomb and the turban. By the way, Kurt Westergaard always said, “No one even asked me what I meant by those by the way,” which was people seeing – Islamists themselves seeing Mohammad as this person with the bomb as a way of furthering his ideas. And he apologized to him. He hugged him, Kurt Westergaard. Someone had tried to kill him recently, broken into his house where his grandchild was watching cartoons on the couch, and he ran into the panic room at 80 years old. And PET came and shot the guy who was there. They didn’t kill him, but he went to prison. And there was a video that came out of Syria. It’s just a small story just of somebody who went that really dark route and very bravely came back the other direction. And a Danish contingent of ISIS members put up a video speaking a very heavily accented Danish talking about the people that were the enemies of Islam. And then they were on their knees, and they swung towards a berm where there was a picture of this guy, and they raked it with machine gun fire saying, “Your time is short, my friend.” That’s what this guy walked into. The man who was instrumental, the person who create the Danish cartoon crisis, created the spread of this idea and including fake cartoons. They brought fake cartoons to Egypt and to various other places. “Mohammad is a pig,” which is not in there. And he acknowledged that they did that to try to get people angrier because the cartoons on their own weren’t that bad. And so, they put stuff in there that would really seal the deal and make the case.

Nico: Well, I’ve had Flemming Rose, who was the editor of Jyllands-Posten on the podcast before. I recommend his book Tyranny of Silence. But before we sign off here, just very quickly, five minutes because my listeners repeatedly ask about, “What are your thoughts on the latest Twitter files?” I wanted to address them. Amna has already provided her caveat that she doesn’t have any insightful new commentary that you can’t find anywhere else, but I do want to say that there’s two things that really stuck out to me here. One is how much some of these social media companies – in particular, Twitter, because that’s what these Twitter files focus on – twist themselves into a pretzel to reason backwards into justifying bans and actions that their policies themselves on their face do not justify. Right? Twitter blocked the story on the Hunter Biden laptop using its hacked materials policy. Listen, there are hack materials that get reported on all the time. Those stories have gotten shared, but they have not reported on the Pentagon papers. These are questions that have been raised in other contexts. And you find, through the Twitter files, that officials at Twitter recognize this, that their policies don’t justify it. So, they, again, try and twist themselves into pretzel to justify backwards. And the same thing happened with Donald Trump. You had the head of the legal policy and trust say, “This doesn’t look like incitement on its face. Nothing he said on the platform is incitement. I don’t think this reaches our policy.” But then you have people who are twisting themselves into pretzel, again, in order justify it on the policy. Whether you think the policies are good or bad or not, the policies don’t exist. So, they have to then rewrite their public figure policies which had created greater latitude for public figures to say things on the platform that maybe normal nonpolitical figures wouldn’t have the right to do. And then, of course, they are always exercised with double standards. Right? You’ve got Nicolás Maduro, who has a Facebook and Twitter account, has his own election issues, to say the least. Donald Trump was the first politician.

Michael: He may still be the only, though I’m not sure, and it’s probably not the case, to be permanently suspended when they did that on January 7th or 8th.

Nico: And then the other thing is the government’s really jawboning these companies. And that’s a question that we often have that we address and talk about in our morning meetings here at FIRE. When does government jawboning become state action? And if you look at the courts, there’s a very high bar. It needs to be, “If you don’t do this, this happens.” Right? And it’s not enough to just say, “If you don’t do this, we’re gonna haul you before Congress and ask you questions about it.” That’s a job of Congress. Right? That’s a job of these oversight committees. But when you have the White House press secretary say, “We’re deeply concerned about how hate speech and misinformation are spread on Twitter, and we’re gonna be watching this closely,” or when you have President Biden saying, “We need to look into Elon Musk’s connection with the Saudis.” Maybe they’re potential investors – I don’t know – in his Twitter buyout. It becomes a little bit concerning. And I think there is an appetite behind a lot of people who care about free speech issues to use the legal system to kind of address this government jawboning, but it’s not a great recourse because the standard is so high. And the government itself has the right to make its own arguments. It becomes illiberal. It becomes unsavory. It becomes concerning, in some cases, when they make those arguments, specifically when it happens privately behind the scenes without a lot of transparency, but it’s not always illegal. Now, there are lawsuits happening, particularly coming out of Missouri and other places, surrounding some of these, and it is a developing area of the law. But given existing precedent, it’s really hard to make a legal argument that unless there is a smoking gun, unless the government says, “If you do this, then this happens to you –” So, all you have left as a free speech advocate are the cultural arguments, the arguments towards what the norms should be in a liberal society for how the government should interact with private companies. We should call out the FBI, for example, when they are sending tweets to officials at Twitter asking them to exercise or use their terms of service to take them down when those tweets are clearly jokes, clearly satire. Right? And they’re getting no engagement on the platform, and they have like –

Michael: Not a great sense of humor over at the FBI, not surprising.

Nico: Yeah. And it’s an account with first name, bunch of numbers, and has about three followers. Right? So, that’s my quick hot take on the Twitter files. A lot of this, though – The new revelatory stuff for me are seeing the conversations internally in Twitter and about how to use their terms of service and community standards. And it’s very revelatory to see that they are, in fact, twisting themselves into pretzels then to justify the bans that they want because of their own personal ideological or political biases, but we’ve seen this set of evidence of government jawboning happening elsewhere. That’s not necessarily a new story. FIRE was reporting on that long before Elon Musk bought Twitter and revealed this. So, that’s my hot take. If you guys have any additional hot takes you want to provide on it before we close out –

Michael: Amna, do you have a sizzling hot take on this?

Amna: I do not have a hot take on it. I don’t feel qualified to talk about it. I’ve been following it roughly, but I was really out of the country and a little unplugged when all of this was going on. So, I’ll defer to you.

Michael: You are lucky, because the hardest thing in this whole thing was trying to read stories about Twitter on Twitter because I’m like, “Wait. What thread am I on, 7 of 800?” And I was like, “Good lord. Can’t you just write an article in the newspaper?”

Nico: Yeah. It’s a condition of reporting on it.

Amna: Highly recommend leaving the country for a month every now and then when you can totally unplug and come with fresh eyes.

Michael: Trust me. I’ll go to Greenland. And I’m not an Islamist, but I’m gonna go to Greenland and come back a smarter person. No. I think the thing about this is what’s concerning is usually just kind of ideologically. It’s concerning when small people, small accounts, people attacking all the conversations about Donald Trump. Donald Trump, it’s ridiculous to ban him for one reason. It’s that because is what happens is he goes to somewhere else, the Truth Social whatever. How many times when he writes something over there – I guess it’s truthing it. It’s not tweeting it. Do you use truthing? Which is really ironic. But these lies that he truths over there, people screenshot them and put them on Twitter. Do you get banned for that? No. It’s information that people are debating, and the entire conversation about limiting access to accounts is taken as, “Okay. This is a normal conversation. How is this conversation being constructed?” I’d actually like to go backwards a little more and just say I don’t think it’s actually a totally normal conversation. When people are saying stupid things. Like the Jay Bhattacharya was the thing that bothered me the most. I don’t know a ton about this. I don’t want to get into this debate, but he’s not – He’s an epidemiologist at Stanford. He’s not a guy in the corner who’s trying to sell you grapeseed oil to cure your cancer. This is not some crackpot.

Nico: Well, he did –

Michael: And he turned out to be right about a lot of this stuff, too.

Nico: Yeah. He did that declaration. I forget what it was called.

Michael: Yeah. The Great Barrington Declaration. We talked about this a lot on the show over time, and I wouldn’t like any platform to have taken us off when we were trying to figure these things out in real time when there was not a lot of information. I don’t blame the people who were hyper, way too vigilant because I get that you were concerned. We didn’t know a lot of stuff about this. And we tend to go backwards, this kind of ex-post-facto thing of saying, “Oh, you got it all wrong, and you’re horrible,” but no. I actually understand because we didn’t know much, and people were really erring on the side of caution, but there was a lot of really smart stuff that was being throttled for this reason. I just don’t know why these people think that they can control the discourse in this way in any meaningful way beyond making everybody a little more atomized and a little more kind of ideological about these issues. And it’s terrible. I don’t like it. It hasn’t concerned me that much in the sense that there’s been no terrifying smoking gun. And the final thing I’ll say is – I saw this this morning – is I don’t like sometimes the way that Elon Musk’s handled this. I saw that he just gave access to this stuff to Alex Berenson, who is a genuine crackpot as far as I can tell. And that’s just my own opinion. I know people will disagree with me on that. He was kicked off of Twitter. I don’t think he should have been. I believe he’s suing them or was suing them.

Nico: Yeah, he’s suing them. Yeah. We’ve learned some about how Twitter exercises its policies through discovery in that case, I believe.

Michael: Yeah. I think they’ve given access to the Twitter files to him in the past couple days, which I suspect he’s just googling himself [inaudible – crosstalk] [01:20:29].

Nico: Well, yeah. Presumably, if he’s still suing Twitter, he would get it through discovery anyway in that case.

Michael: Yeah, yeah. He would do it that way, too. Yeah, yeah. So, anyway.

Nico: Yeah. I think there’s gonna be continued reporting coming out of this. I haven’t seen any indication that it’s stopping. You might have to follow a couple of different threads from Matt Taibbi, although he did put together, very helpfully, which I used to prepare for this podcase, capsule summaries of all the Twitter threads today where he kind of summarizes –

Michael: You should get Matt on to satiate your listeners and get Taibbi on. He’s a very [inaudible – crosstalk] [01:20:59].

Nico: I asked him to. He said he would come back on, but he’s too busy right now, and he’s – you know. Anyway.

Michael: Sure.

Nico: As they say – The last two times Amna’s been on, she’s been on with Matt Taibbi.

Michael: Oh. Oh, yeah. Matt’s one of those guys that I disagree with on so much, but I find to be a really lovely person. And I think he’s a really straight shooter. I think he means it and doesn’t care, because he could just go the direction that he had been where people want, the direction they want him to go. And he could save himself a lot of grief because people give him a really hard time, and it’s not a nice place to be, I wouldn’t imagine.

Nico: No. I think I’m interviewing him this summer at Freedom Fest. I was asked to come in and inter – So, I’ll be asking him these questions at least in July. But anyway, guys, we’ve gotta wrap up. I gotta head to a meeting here. It was great having you both repeat guests. Hope to have you on again, and enjoy the rest of your weeks.

Amna: Thank you, Nico. Thank you, Michael. This was great fun.

Michael: Lovely to meet you, Amna.

Nico: This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, and recorded and edited by my colleague Erin Reese and Ellen Ross. To learn more about So to Speak, you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram, by searching for the handle freespeechtalk, or liking us on Facebook on We also post videos versions of these conversations which you can find on FIRE’s YouTube channel or the So to Speak channel. Have feedback? You can email us at sotospeak@thefire.corg. We also take reviews and appreciate them where you get your podcasts. Until next time, I thank you all again for listening.