Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hitchens and Chomsky on Rushdie

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the Ayatollah's "valentine" to Salman Rushdie, I thought I'd note down two reflections on that affair that have given me pause.

The first is Noam Chomsky's very sharp comparison of the Rushdie affair to the trial of Ernst Zündel in Canada in 1988. He points out that while "everyone started screaming" when the fatwah was issued against Rushdie, no one said anything when a holocaust denier was sentenced to 15 months in prison by their own state for speaking his mind. (More precisely, Chomsky compares Zündel's sentence to the actions of that same state in holding The Satanic Verses back "for a couple of weeks" in customs.) Here's my favourite part of Chomsky's remarks on this:

You didn't have Susan Sontag getting up in public saying "I am Ernst Zundel," all this kind of thing. The point is, you defend freedom of speech when it's speech you like, and when you're sure there's a half-billion Western Europeans out there between you and the Ayatollah Khomeini so you can be courageous. (Understanding Power, p. 271-2)

The vaguely flarfy effort I posted on Sunday was of course inpired by this remark. It's important to notice that Chomsky is not in any way trivializing the fatwah itself or Rushdie's predicament. He's ridiculing a particular display of intellectual "courage".

And it is also the reaction of intellectuals that Christopher Hitchens, my second example, is interested in, this time the reaction on the other side of the affair. "Here was an open incitement to murder," writes Hitchens of the fatwah, "accompanied by the offer of a bounty and directed at a writer of fiction who wasn't even a citizen of the theocracy [that issued it]." But while Chomsky is a bit bemused about the eagerness of intellectuals to "courageously" rush to Rushdie's side, what struck Hitchens was the reticence of some intellectuals to defend Rushdie. Maybe, they argued, Rushdie really had done something to offend the Ayatollah? (I.e., maybe the Ayatollah had a point?)

In public debates with those who worried about the blashphemous or profane element in the novel, or who said that they did, I would always begin by saying, look, let's get one thing out of the way. May I assume that you are opposed without reservation to the suborning of the murder, for pay, of a literary figure? It was educational to see how often this assurance would be withheld, or offered in a qualified form. In those cases, I would refuse to debate any further. (Letters to a Young Contrarian, p. 48)

I generally like Hitchens on the issue of free speech, where he holds a position very much like Chomsky's. In fact, Hitchens defended David Irving when he found himself in almost precisely Ernst Zundel's position, and I think rightly so. It's a rightly principled stance. But I'm often less impressed with his debating posture, which often includes this sort of "refusal to debate any further" with people who won't denounce particular outrages worded in particular ways (by Hitchens himself of course. I mean "suborning of murder"? Really. I think I'd mutter something under my breath too before granting the obvious truth he is proposing.)

The thing that strikes me about Hitchens's remarks here is that he wants unqualified assent ("without reservations") to a position that is, if you look closely, already put in a strangely "qualified form". Does Hitchens really mean that "a literary figure" should be more free from threats of assassination than other people? In fact, notice that he qualified his description of the fatwah by pointing out that Rushdie "wasn't even a citizen of [Iran]." Are the fatwahs that are in fact carried out against Iranian apostates less problematic?

As far as I can tell, Rushdie's state protected him (as it would probably have protected any figure, literary or not, if a $6 million bounty had been publicly put on his or her head). I think the interesting issues here do not turn on the fatwah itself, but on the reactions of intellectuals, and the lack of reactions to comparable actions of their own states.


Kirby Olson said...

I hadn't heard of Ernst Zundel before this post. But Zundel is arguing for the murder of Jews. So why would anybody defend that?

He is allowed to say those things in America, but you can't say them in most countries, because they constitute a hate crime.

Rushdie on the other hand isn't arguing that we should kill members of any given minority, he's just making fun of the religion into which he was born. That makes him guilty of apostasy. But in the west, we no longer have apostasy (the Catholics used to have it, but I don't know when they dropped it).

It's one thing to just simply say funny things, but it's another to actually argue that people should be killed. On his Wikipedia page, Zundel does tease particular Jewish people, including a Holocaust survivor, saying to him, We'll get you yet.

I think this constitutes making a threat. Even in America, that's not legal. The threat is kind of non-specific in this instance -- as if he's saying -- once we get into political control, we'll use the resources of the army and the police to get you. He doesn't really indicate he'll do this on his own.

But it's quite different from what Rushdie was doing -- which was writing a novel.

At least in the west, we make this difference.


Kirby Olson said...

It was also interesting to see on the Wikipedia page about Zundel that one of his German lawyers used to be a red and with Baader-Meinhof, and was now a neo-Nazi. It's always been my thinking that members of far-right and far-left groups are kind of easily interchangeable. They scapegoat some other group, and then become all rabid about it, but it doesn't really matter where they sit on the so-called spectrum.

They're all fruit loops.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Well the Canadian verdict had nothing to do with any threats he may have made. He was sentenced to jail for publishing "false news" (as defined by the Canadian state).

But, yeah, that's the issue, Kirby. Zundel is saying something that we don't agree with. So "why would we defend him"? Chomsky and Hitchens (and I) agree on this point. You defend him because you don't want to give the state (any state) the power to punish people for what they happen to say.

This isn't communist Russia after all!

Kirby Olson said...

Canada is odd in that respect, and seems to not have constitutional protections for free speech. They also passed a law that forbids ugly representations of women. This law was partially written by McKinnon and Dworkin. The same laws were ruled unconstitutional in America.

I'm with you on the free speech issue.

We do have a few cases where speech isn't free: libel, slander, yelling fire in a crowded building, and a few others.

Oddly, colleges have been among the worst in shutting down free speech in America. This is pretty much my entire beef with colleges.

An organization called Fire.org is constantly fighting constitutional infringements by colleges.

I don't want my own students to say the n., f., b., or other words in my classes. I ask them if they do to please not do that.

But they do have the right to be Nazis, I guess.

I sometimes get jokers who take extreme positions of various kinds in essays, and if they pull it off, and make an extreme position sensible, I still give them As.

freedom of speech has to be one of our great liberties, and now I see what you're saying. Without that, what else is there?