Honoring Rushdie… Sort of: The NYT Tries to Show Courage

The Times editorial page tries its hand at “Honoring Rushdie.” You be the judge of just how much they understand (or are willing to acknowledge). Emphasis added.

Honoring Rushdie

Published: June 26, 2007
Salman Rushdie’s knighthood is causing a furor — especially in Pakistan and Iran — among Islamic extremists, who see it as an official state endorsement of a writer who has been anathema to them ever since the publication of The Satanic Verses. And it has caused a few ripples of conscience in the West, too, a part of the world where writers are not routinely threatened with death but where we do try, often perplexedly, to respect the validity and the intensity of other people’s feelings.

Mr. Rushdie’s new honor raises the same question now that his work raised when Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwah against him in 1989. Do we choose to live in a world that honors writers or in a world that kills them?

It is tempting to say that this is too simple a way to look at it. It’s possible to argue that our desire to protect free speech — and, in effect, do away with the very notion of literary heresy — is as much an acculturation as the desire to enforce religious orthodoxy. But the problem Mr. Rushdie raises is not about the origins of human belief. It is about the consequences of human belief and, specifically, the consequences of religious tyranny.

The imaginative range of his work, its complexity and its ability to test the limits of what we know and believe entitle him to the respect and the honors he has earned. Yet in some parts of the world it would earn him assassination. You cannot judge a society only by the way it treats writers. But you can be certain that if a society treats writers badly, it treats ordinary people no better.

Too short. Too wishy washy even as it tries to be decisive. The real problem is whether we’re willing to fight for freedom. This kind of sideways, on the one hand… but really… is hardly the kind of stuff to inspire a willingness to fight. We need a real critique of the nonsense that appears here as the “one could argue… but…” position. We need a ringing defense of literary heresy, especially since it is only with the freedom to criticize and be criticized that civil society exists.

In polite society, you don’t say certain things lest there be violence.

In civil society, you can say what you need to, and there won’t be violence.

Let’s stop being so damned polite to the wrong people.

12 Responses to Honoring Rushdie… Sort of: The NYT Tries to Show Courage

  1. n00man says:

    You should check out Hitchens’s article in today’s Slate about the consequences of overblown media hysteria about “Muslim rage”.

    JN

  2. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    alas, the west is scared shitless of “rage boy” and will sell its soul for “peace”. and fear is exactly what emboldens “rage boys”.

    those who want peace and stability at all cost will get neither.

  3. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    i am willing to bet that this very attitude was expressed by the british MSM prior to Chamberlin’s Munich. If so, a comparison would be interesting.

  4. Richard Landes says:

    thanks n00man, i just posted on it.

  5. Richard Landes says:

    to fp: it would be an interesting comparison, especially since we normally think of our current “cultural sensitivity” as a product of post-modernism, it’d be interesting to see how much it was already at work.

  6. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    as an academic do you have access to this?

    http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0013-8266(197404)89%3A351%3C467%3ATBPAG1%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Q

  7. Eliyahu says:

    fp, according to Orwell, much of the UK press before Munich did in fact cry out for “peace” [with Hitler of course]. In France, you had the notorious Marcel De’at ask: Mourir pour Dantzig? That is, who wants to die for Danzig? It’s only a little place. Why don’t we let Herr Hitler take it over, if that’ll bring peace, despite the Versailles treaty, which was anyhow unfair to the great nation of Germany. And then the Volk of Danzig are ethnic Germans and they are enthusiastic about once again becoming part of the Reich. So, considering all that, why not choose peace and self-determination both at the same time?

    Note that the democratic argument about self-determination, as well as the anti-imperialist argument about how the great imperialist powers of France and Britain were unfair to poor Germany were both used in favor of concessions to Hitler in the pre-Munich and post-Munich periods. See link:

    http://www.netanyahu.org/peacmovthena.html

  8. Eliyahu says:

    It’s funny how history repeats itself. And sometimes with the same or nearly the same actors.

    More than 200 years ago, the French playwright Beaumarchais, wrote his Marriage of Figaro. Already then, he wrote of how a Western govt, Spain, Figaro’s homeland, censored a play by his character Figaro and put him in jail because the play [within the play] had insulted Muhammad. In the Rushdie case, Britain did not exactly bend to Muslim demands, but the UK press avoided publishing the Danish Muhammad cartoons last year, which were really pretty mild, in my view. The Muslim “protestors” demanding: Behead those who insult Islam, were not punished for their seditious exhortations. See link to relevant passages of the Marriage of Figaro in English and French.

    http://ziontruth.blogspot.com/2006/10/figaro-mocks-muhammad-were-back-in.html

  9. Cleanthes says:

    Richard,

    Your analysis is – of course – correct at its core.

    I have one quibble with your final lines though:

    “In polite society, you don’t say certain things lest there be violence.

    In civil society, you can say what you need to, and there won’t be violence.”

    It’s not polite society – it’s the honour-shame thing. you can’t have a polite society that is not already civil.

    So…
    In honour/shame societies, you don’t say certain things lest there be violence.

    In civil society, you can say what you need to, and there won’t be violence.

    In polite society, you have no need to say certain things – or in certain ways – because you know that there won’t be violence.

    In effect, there is no need deliberately to cause offence because you know a) that your target will not use violence, b) gratuitous offence will reflect badly on you and your argument and c) you can rely on the force of reason.

    Our problem is that we are using the polite/”beyond civil” society methods – avoiding causing offence – when conditions a) and c) in particular do not hold.

  10. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    eliyahu,

    that was my guess.

    those who don’t remember the past are doomed to relive it.

    and the west is increasingly ignorant of the past because there is no longer any significant teaching of history, of the classics, logic, philosophy, etc.

    without a learning curve, we keep starting from scratch. and i don’t think the islamists will let us.

  11. QQQ

    "In polite society, you don’t say certain things lest there be violence. In civil society, you can say what you need to, and there won’t be violence. Let’s stop being so damned polite to the wrong people."Augean Stables, in a piece on t…

  12. Richard Landes says:

    response to cleanthes

    Your analysis is – of course – correct at its core.

    I have one quibble with your final lines though:

    “In polite society, you don’t say certain things lest there be violence.

    In civil society, you can say what you need to, and there won’t be violence.”

    It’s not polite society – it’s the honour-shame thing. you can’t have a polite society that is not already civil.

    i wd say, we’re being (way too) polite to the palestinians/arabs/muslims. we need to rebuke them, and not fall silent when they say, “oh yeah, well you do the same thing…” the moral chasm is enormous btw prime divider and civil societies (no matter how imperfect the civil society, and certainly when the prime divider one is as vicious as current arab political culture).

    So…
    In honour/shame societies, you don’t say certain things lest there be violence.

    In civil society, you can say what you need to, and there won’t be violence.

    In polite society, you have no need to say certain things – or in certain ways – because you know that there won’t be violence.

    i don’t follow you here. civil is the best we’ll do because a) people will always be tempted to cut corners, b) that’s often the beginning of a slippery slope, and c) therefore, we will always need rebuke. so you need a culture of dispute, you need people who can speak truth to others and people who can consider the possibility that these things might be true no matter how painful.

    your “polite society” strikes me as perfectionist. life is always messy. to us to make it better, not perfect.

    In effect, there is no need deliberately to cause offence because you know a) that your target will not use violence, b) gratuitous offence will reflect badly on you and your argument and c) you can rely on the force of reason.

    reason is of limited use when people want to believe. it’s so easy to deny, dismiss, favor, evidence that to count even primarily on reason is a mistake.

    and if i get you right, your reason is based on freedom to make judgments and not get smashed for disagreeing with consensus, but submitting it to everyone’s fair judgment. an intellectual is someone who’s mind can be changed by the evidence, and who can then reason about it.

    ultimately this is a matter of making fair judgments — in moral and empirical matters. and right now, the average westerner, is doing a disastrously bad job.

    Our problem is that we are using the polite/”beyond civil” society methods – avoiding causing offence – when conditions a) and c) in particular do not hold.

    c) holds for moral europe and the “progressive left” who can then turn on israel and say you’re a relic of the 19th century, grow up like us; and to america and say, “oh you cowboy, don’t you know we’ve gone beyond warfare.” and then we turn to people who’s political culture assumes warfare is the norm, and treat them politely when they accuse us of violating their human rights.

    now that’s downright idiotic, no?

    Comment by Cleanthes —

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>