The Lesson of Salman Rushdie's Stabbing for an Increasingly Censorious U.S. | Opinion

The award-winning, world-renowned author Salman Rushdie is thankfully on the road to recovery after being stabbed 12 times by an armed assailant on Friday. Rushdie has lived for much of his life with a fatwa over his head calling for Muslims to kill him for blasphemy. It was issued by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, after the publication of Rushdie's 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie had to live in hiding for years, and was ironically speaking at an event celebrating America as a haven for persecuted writers when he was attacked and left in critical condition.

Many issued statements in support of Rushdie following the attack, expressing sentiments about freedom of speech and standing by one's ideals. President Biden was among them. "Salman Rushdie—with his insight into humanity, with his unmatched sense for story, with his refusal to be intimidated or silenced—stands for essential, universal ideals," wrote President Biden in a statement. "Truth. Courage. Resilience. The ability to share ideas without fear. These are the building blocks of any free and open society. And today, we reaffirm our commitment to those deeply American values in solidarity with Rushdie and all those who stand for freedom of expression."

It's great to hear that President Biden wishes to reaffirm his commitment to free expression. One can hardly say that the Biden administration has stood for "the ability to share ideas without fear." The very values Biden extolled in his statement about Rushdie—truth, courage, freedom of expression—have been under attack from the Biden administration itself, and Biden would do well to take his heartfelt wishes for Rushdie's recovery and use them to reexamine his approach to matters of free expression in the U.S.

Rushdie
British author Salman Rushdie speaks as he presents his book "Quichotte" at the Volkstheater in Vienna, Austria, on November 16, 2019. HERBERT NEUBAUER/APA/AFP via Getty Images

Consider the case of Julian Assange, who has been held in traumatic captivity for the last decade and is undergoing extradition to be punished in the United States—all for the crime of exposing civil rights abuses and government corruption. Assange's WikiLeaks released classified footage of U.S. military human rights abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, revealing information on the extent of civilian casualties that were previously unknown to the public. For this, he is considered a criminal.

Moreover, the Biden administration also has incredibly close ties to Saudi Arabia, despite the country's notoriously undemocratic regime, which ordered a targeted killing of a journalist critical of the Saudi ruling family. President Biden abandoned his 2020 campaign promise to "turn the Saudis into pariahs" in order to appease the regime and to make up for energy deficits in the face of hostilities with Russia.

It's true that America is still a far cry from Iran. And yet, comedian Dave Chappelle was also recently attacked on stage by a man armed with a makeshift knife-gun. Chappelle's crime? Telling jokes that the assailant felt were politically incorrect.

America's current landscape seems primed to produce extremists who are supported by a censorious cultural framework, the arrogance and negligence of vital human rights institutions and the zeal of those in power who feel they are morally justified in their dubious actions.

And just this week, author J.K. Rowling reported open death threats that were made against her to Twitter support—only to receive a robotic response that claimed she was raising false alarms.

And while no one where near as life-threatening as an Iranian fatwa, the marriage of Democratic politics and Big Tech has created a general aura of censoriousness coming out of the Biden White House that the President should reexamine.

The COVID-19 pandemic was used repeatedly by the administration as an excuse to tighten restrictions on freedom of expression. Just four months ago, the Biden administration announced its "Disinformation Governance Board," created for the sole purpose of policing what can and cannot be discussed on the internet. Due to an intense backlash, the Disinformation Governance Board was disbanded, but it was just one example of many ways in which the Biden administration has stood for censorship, not freedom.

Recall that last year, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki urged Spotify to censor Joe Rogan's podcast, citing "disinformation" as the reason. When asked about Spotify's decision to add content advisories to discussions of COVID-19 like those on Rogan's podcast, Psaki said, "This disclaimer, it's a positive step, but we want every platform to be doing more to be calling out mis- and dis-information, while also uplifting accurate information," Psaki said. "Ultimately, our view is that it is a positive step, but there is more that can be done."

Rushdie's tragic and heroic story is an emblem and cautionary tale about the consequences of cultures that embrace anti-intellectualism, censorship, social ostracism and violence in order to enforce conformity and deference. The tragic stabbing of Rushdie is the perfect opportunity for the Biden administration to reexamine its approach to free speech.

Angie Speaks is the cohost of the Low Society Podcast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.