The recent and well-documented wave of attempts by the religious right to ban books—not the moral panic over “cancel culture” or “multitude of words are violence”—is the right context for understanding the ways in which The United States could fail to protect current and future writers, as it failed to protect Rushdie last Friday. Americans aren’t really so deluded as to think that there is no difference between a claim that speech is offensive or causing harm and a brave author facing an attempt on his life for his speech. We have not lost sight of authoritarian efforts, backed by state power and the credible threat of physical violence, toof what we say. The prohibition of books is not a figurative matter in contemporary America. It is not I like it the censorship of another time, place or regime; is the censorship that we actually have.
For these reasons, efforts to explain the attack on Rushdie in the relatively trivial terms of culture wars are at best biased and at worst a damaging distraction from the real threat. Once the state creates an unlimited and shifting category of books it deems blasphemous, obscene, or seditious, and codifies such views into law, the state is creating the conditions for violent responses to speech. The fatwa against Rushdie is a de facto book ban, imposed by an authoritarian regime based on the feeling that Rushdie’s novel, and novels like it, are blasphemous and punishable by death; its goal is to intimidate both people and educational and cultural institutions—schools, libraries, bookstores, printing presses—from having any connection to the book. Fortunately, at present, we’re missing the “deadly” part of the equation, though the organizers of Drag Queen Story Hour have come under fire from violent right-wing agitators like the Proud Boys.
The US political climate is now extremely volatile, withbetween conservative religious propagandists to justify banning books by presenting discussion of banned content as a form of sexual perversion, and the authors of banned books, and the teachers who teach them, as “trainers” or pedophiles. The goal in doing so is to frame a class of people, and associated ideas, as outside the bounds and protections of humanity, or as worthy of contempt or loathing. Book ban legislation formally sanctions such a worldview, endangering teachers, and now the Justice Department threats of violence against teachers and school staff. Being a vigilant and bona fide defender of free speech means, among other things, putting into perspective the decline of the culture war when real, not figurative, authoritarianism is at stake.