Roald Dahl Failed On free Speech And Threw Salman Rushdie To The Mob


September 13th marks the birthday of the late and great children’s author Roald Dahl. In celebration of his prolific storytelling, the day has also been dubbed ‘Roald Dahl Day’.

Dahl’s exceptional storytelling was a huge part of my childhood. I adored his hilarious tales which were perfectly complemented by the illustrations of Quentin Blake. That’s what makes my loss of respect for him as an adult all that more regrettable. If you want to keep your rosy, Dahl infused childhood in tact, you may wish to go away now.

You may remember, or at least know of the fallout that continues to pursue Salman Rushdie to this day after he published a work of fiction in 1988 titled ‘The Satanic Verses’.

The book dealt partly with the life of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad. This didn’t go down well in the Muslim world, leading to then supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issuing a Fatwa for Rushdie’s death.

Rushdie requires police protection and had to live for 8 years in a safe house. Fortunately, he has avoided harm so far. Others haven’t been so lucky, namely a number of people attempting to translate his book into their native language.

History will look back at those who threw Salman Rushdie under the bus during this time rather unfavourably. Indeed, if Charlie Hebdo reminded us of one thing, it’s that the moral confusion of the left has remained alive and well since the Rushdie Affair. For some reason, it seems an even more egregious transgression when coming from those that write for a living themselves.

Unfortunately, Roald Dahl was quite vocal in his belief that Rushdie’s writing was the problem, rather than the fascist mob who wished him dead for a work of fiction.

‘In a letter to The Times of London, Dahl called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist,” saying he “must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise. This kind of sensationalism does indeed get an indifferent book on to the top of the best-seller list, — but to my mind it is a cheap way of doing it.” The author of dark children’s books and stories for adults (who himself once had police protection after getting death threats) also advocated self-censorship. It “puts a severe strain on the very power principle that the writer has an absolute right to say what he likes,” he wrote. “In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.”

And for a childhood destroying bonus round, a ‘dash’ of anti-Semitism from Dahl:

‘There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity; maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.

Of course, the work of Dahl should be celebrated and judged on its own merits, but I also think it’s important to remind people which side of the argument he was on during this vital test of principles.

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.


  • ‘Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason’ – how on earth was Dahl allowed to get away with saying something like this? Some people have lost their entire career for saying a lot less.

    • He said it in an interview in 1983. No internet, therefore no internet hate-mob possible. First of all, you’d have to actually buy the New Statesman and read the article to care. Them, if you wanted to express your opinion, you were forced to sit down, write a letter to the relevant editor, buy a stamp and post the thing. The tendency toward screeching hatemobs seeking the fleeting atisfaction ruining people’s careers or entire lives for saying something unpleasant wasn’t developed in the same way it is today due to the fact you had to pout some actual effort into complaining. The internet – needing nothing more than a couple of typing fingers and a sense of one’s own impotance to be heard, facilitates giant knee-jerk mobs feeding off each others’ fleeting sense of outrage and sense of mob justice for entertainment in a way that didn’t exist in earlier times.

      • You describe a time I am familiar with & probably when outrage was heartfelt & genuine. It took effort as you say, to express disgust. Imagine someone saying what Dahl said today though?

  • While his racist views may be unfcomfortable, and are indeed his, is he not free to espouse them? Hypocritical yes, to laud Rushdie for his own volition of free speech – obviously, while somehow contrary to his own view. And, regarding criticism generally, who can claim to be perfect in this regard? The readers comments regarding maintaining rage are more insightful than the article itself. I for one, care little for the commentary of someone who wrote children’s books – although be it very entertaining and grotesque ones. After all, is not the bible a grotesque children’s book also?

    • Stephen Knight

      Who said he wasn’t free to espouse anything he wanted to?

      People often make the mistake of thinking free speech means not being disagreed with, or having what you ‘espouse’ criticized.

      Dahl was free to say whatever he liked. Just as I’m free to draw attention to the sinister nature of it here

  • A spellchecker, whether godless or otherwise, will not help one who can not distinguish between compliment and complement.

  • The first statement is an opinion which seems fair to me,nothing to get shrill about. The second ,you trash a mans career for one quote . I am sure I have said something over the past 40yrs that was offensive. Luckily no tape machines.

    • Stephen Knight

      I think it is worth getting ‘shrill’ about and I disagree that it’s ‘fair’ for reasons I’ve explained clearly.

      Where did I ‘trash a man’s career’? Precisely the opposite is true. Did you read it?

    • It is an opinion, and a valid one, that Rushdie might have deliberately brought a shitstorm on himself to sell books. But when one side is writing words on paper and the other side is threatening murder, you have to pick a side. And if you side with the would-be murderers, you can fuck off.

      • Right on! It is entirely possible that Dahl is correct about Rushdie’s motivation for writing The Satanic Verses, but Dahl is tragically wrong about the appropriate response, as are today’s “The Charlie Hebdo massacre was a horrific crime but they were asking for it.” crowd.

  • “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity; maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

    As anti-semitic as this sounds (and probably is), the idea behind it is not completely baseless. Don’t misunderstand,I’m not apologizing for it, but Sam Harris has made similar observations in the past. Is there room in today’s discourse for such a sentiment? It seems to me one of those uncomfortable fact which is in bad taste to bring up, and usually the plaything of racists, but not necessarily racist in nature. Harris does it carefully, as it is a tightrope balancing act that demands caution. The “why would you say that” phenomenon. Please admonish me if I’m out of line here?

    • It’s the whole “there’s a grain of truth in every stereotype” bit, something that’s probably not too disagreeable in fact, but is highly disagreeable in politics.

    • Really? OK, how about if he had said: “There is a trait in the Black character that does provoke enslavement; maybe it’s a kind of lack of leadership potential. I mean there is always a reason why people become slaves; blacks weren’t enslaved for no reason.” Do you think that would have been OK?

    • There used to be a lot of soft antisemitism in older generation Brits, especially the English, who considered themselves up to mid 20th Century as superior people to others – including other Europeans, just as leading European nations considered themselves a superior “race” to the others. The Americans had Eugenics in the first half to the 20th Century. Regarding Hitler he had no reason to fear the jews – they were highly assimilated and contributed a good deal to the economy – perhaps there was envy there. Many of the Jews had actually fought for the Germans (and Austrians) in WW1. Its implying genocide had a level of justification “I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

      This was still the era of ferocious inter European competition for empire – the germans didn’t have much of an empire, and they had to rely on other parts of Europe for their coal and steel which they critically relied on because they were very highly industrialised and economically powerful in Europe. They also had a large population
      The Germans always also wanted Leibenstraum – living space on the lands of expelled or killed Slavs, and they had long despised Slavs, and killed many more of them than Jews during the WW2. The Jews are just in the way. Sometimes people are resented for no reason.

      • The presence of a significant minority of Jews meant that Germany could not even pretend to be the fictional pure “Aryan” race of heroes destined to rule an empire on the Eurasian continent and abroad for 1000 years.

    • ” but Sam Harris has made similar observations in the past. ” Citation needed. I’ve read all of Sam’s books and most of his blogs and have never run into anything remotely comparable to Dahl’s quote about the “something in the Jewish Character”. In fact, based on what I’ve read and heard (on his Waking Up podcast) from Sam Harris, he correctly denies the existence of specific ethnic “characters” but instead focuses on the horrific effects of indoctrination in fundamentalist, fascist religions.

  • During the ten years I spent living in Israel (mostly), I saw all possible variations of the Jewish character. And I also heard their own stereotype for themselves many times – Sabra. It’s the fruit of the Prickly pear cactus; brutally rough on the outside, soft and sweet inside. More than once I discovered there that you can stop an unknown Israeli on the street and ask for help and, certainly in my case, get that help in ‘spades’. Try that on the streets of London, New York or Cairo and you’re likely to get rolled over for your last dollar and dumped in the gutter.

  • Interesting; I appreciate the push-back. Of course I disagree with the sentiment, tone and implication (as I do in the Jewish example). But isn’t the deeper question of “why were blacks, specifically, enslaved?” legitimate and worth exploring? I don’t think the “lack of leadership potential” is comparable to the “insular kosher community” example. Nor was the claim made that Jews are genetically, or even always so (it’s a cultural observation). But I don’t think the topic of why blacks were enslaved, or why they didn’t explore and colonize, should be a taboo topic.

    • I agree, the evolution of cultural differences is a perfectly valid field of study, but talk of a “Jewish Character” (or black, or asian, etc…) feeds racist attitudes and implies a genetic association with character flaws that are all too common in all humans of all cultures. I do agree, also, that the remedy for something like Dahl’s comments is to call them out, not try to suppress them or use them as a reason to burn his books.

  • One of the most important lessons we learn is never to idolise anyone, regardless of their work. Human beings are deeply flawed and prejudice is rife. Of course, I disagree strongly with Dahl here, but I think it is important to see his views in their stark reality.

What do you think? Leave some comments!