Today’s Guardian reports on an exchange of letters between Salman Rushdie and John le Carre, from 1997, in which they disagree vehemently about the limits of free speech. At this point in his career Rushdie was in hiding from Islamic fundamentalists, and le Carre was in trouble for criticizing Israel – which of course put him in line for claims of anti-semitism, about which he was most outraged. Unfortunately, 10 years earlier he had apparently claimed that “Nobody has a god-given right to insult a great religion,” and Rushdie was apparently incensed that le Carre should suddenly be demanding victim status after the religious “thought police” turned on him.

The subsequent exchange – which the Guardian now reports both sides have declared they regret – is a hilarious example of how debates on freedom of expression were conducted before the existence of blogs. Apparently, they are conducted viciously through the medium of newspapers. But the letters themselves read like something straight out of a modern blog flame war – further proof, if any were needed, that the medium has not really changed the message or its tone.

Some of these exchanges are quite pretty, though. le Carre goes in heavy with his concerns about the girl in the mail room getting her hands blown off, and demands a less colonialist approach to the topic of freedom of expression (though thankfully he doesn’t apply this to Rushdie himself, just his admirers). Less colonialist? Since when is it colonialist to criticize the Iranian regime for putting a price on a writer’s head? Rushdie may be a self-canoniser, but a threat to the Iranian regime he is not. Were he some lunatic militarist with actual political power, pushing for the reoccupation or isolation of Iran, le Carre might have a point – but a religious critic?

In reply, Rushdie thanks le Carre for “refreshing our memories as to what a pompous ass he is” and adds that “‘ignorant’ and ‘semi-literate’ are dunces’ caps he has skilfully fitted on his own head.” Isn’t it just like reading an exchange on one of the better major bloggers’ sites, when they have one of their blog wars? Only all of it in the Guardian letter’s page.

I haven’t read Rushdie’s work, but I find it hard not to take his side on the matter. I’ve no doubt that le Carre’s experience of drawing the ire of the Jewish “thought police,” as Rushdie describes them, was much less frightening than Rushdie’s, but one would have hoped it would have given him a hint as to how hard it might be to be in the firing line, whether figuratively or literally. Whether you think his attack on Islam was warranted or not, and whether you think it deserves the ire of Muslims, the fatwa was an outrageous response and even if purely symbolic is still a Very Bad Thing. I would have thought one could have a nuanced debate about colonialism, revolutionary defensiveness, and the responsibilities of western authors, without ignoring the egregious nature of the response, or belittling Rushdie’s genuine difficulties after the fatwa was declared. And if I were Rushdie, I’d certainly be mighty wrathful with writers who failed to defend my rights.

All of which makes for some entertaining reading, 15 years after the fact, and reminds us that modern blogwars do not necessarily have a lower tone than public debate showed before the invention of this anonymous medium. I guess it just significantly increases the amount that gets said (and thus, by application of basic theorems, the number of debates that get Godwinned). In the case of your average blogger, this is probably not a net positive for the world – but had Rushdie and le Carre been blogging between 1985 and 2000, it would have been quite fascinating, I’m sure.

If only the internet had been invented sooner, we could have been given the pleasure of blogposts by such luminaries as Orwell, Rushdie, Abbie Hoffman … imagine the colour and light such blogs would bring to the medium. Imagine if Steinbeck had a blog during the Great Depression, or Dr. Seuss in the lead up to world war 2. I doubt it would have changed anything, but it would certainly have been great reading…

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