Friday, May 08, 2015

The Rushdie affair

To some extent, today's libertarians are yesterday's liberals. (By that I mean, there used to be an overlap. Of course, liberals were always enamored with big gov't.)

The liberals I grew up with in the 60-70s generally viewed themselves as patriotic defenders of the Bill of Rights. Anthony Lewis (of the NYT), Henry Steele Commager. the American Library Association, and the old ACLU, &c. But we've seen a sea-change in liberalism. 

Now, there were always cracks in the liberal dam. You had far leftists who defended totalitarian regimes so long as these were communist. But in general, many liberals prided themselves on championing free speech and 4th amendment protections.

But in some measure this came into tension with the civil rights movement, because it was politically easier to do an end-run around the democratic/legislative process by going to the courts. That was the corrupting temptation. Cut out the electorate. Have judges decide. 

There was another crack in old-fashioned liberalism. They were always conflicted about the Bill of Rights. They loved the 4th and 14th amendments. They always disliked the 2nd amendment.

They were conflicted about the 1st amendment. They loved right to free speech. They reinterpreted the establishment clause. Turned it on its head to make it into a disestablishment clause. They merely tolerated the free exercise clause. 

But the real wedge issue was freedom of association. They couldn't accept that because it collided with segregation. 

Mind you, from what I've read, a lot of businesses resented Jim Crow because it was bad for business. It's not as if businesses were spoiling to discriminate against customers. I'm sure some were, but the very existence of Jim Crow laws testifies to the fear that, without them, businesses would, in fact, cater to blacks:

And, of course, hate crimes laws are antithetical to equal protection under the law, so they jettisoned the equal protection clause. 

I'm old enough to vividly recall the Rushdie affair. It's striking to contrast how he was defended with the abject capitulation that's now so routine:


Salman Rushdie is remembering Margaret Thatcher with the same complicated feelings he had for her while she was alive: disagreement with her politics, but gratitude for her support when he was forced into hiding in 1989 after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini called for his death.

"She had a great life, and offered protection for me when I needed it," said Rushdie, interviewed Monday morning during a promotional tour for the film adaptation of his Booker Prize-winning novel "Midnight's Children."

Politically, he was far to the left of Thatcher and mocked her before 1989, naming one character "Mrs. Torture" in his novel "The Satanic Verses" and at times using unprintable language when referring to her. But when "The Satanic Verses" led to accusations of anti-Muslim blasphemy and to the Ayatollah's decree, Thatcher's government gave Rushdie round-the-clock supervision.
Rushdie, 65, said he met Thatcher just once, at an annual Scotland Yard gathering held for those being protected.

"She was very considerate, and, surprisingly, touchy-feely," Rushdie said. "She would tap you on the arm and say, `Everything OK?' I hadn't expected that touch of tenderness."

 It is true that during the early years of the fatwa, the British government was not entirely valiant in its defense of Rushdie. Margaret Thatcher, who had been depicted in The Satanic Verses as “Mrs. Torture,” was not a Rushdie fan, and members of her cabinet made it clear in their public pronouncements that they considered him a disagreeable and inconvenient fellow. Nevertheless, they recognized their duty to protect the free speech of a British citizen—even one they did not like—against the death threats of a foreign cleric. And this, by and large, indicates something rather heartening about those times. Certainly, it presents a more reassuring situation than one in which a citizen’s safety depends upon a monarch’s arbitration of his literary talent.

Peter Sissons 
Presenter, Channel 4 News, 1982-89
There was absolute outrage in the Channel 4 newsroom when the Ayatollah Khomeini declared his fatwa: we had a very motivated group of journalists, who couldn't believe that someone could effectively be sentenced to death for something he'd written. I was dispatched to do an interview with the Iranian chargé d'affaires, Mr Akhondzadeh Basti, at the embassy in Kensington.
I was as shocked as anyone by the reaction of the ayatollah and I did let my feelings show in the interview. I think the question that really got to the regime was, "Do you understand that we don't regard it as civilised to kill people for their opinions? Do you understand that people in this country fought a world war to protect themselves and others from being murdered for their beliefs and what they believe to be right?" So it was a pretty combative interview, and Mr Basti was very defensive, but quite polite. He replied that the command to kill Rushdie was based on the purely religious opinion of a religious head. It was very unfortunate, he said, that it was going to be interpreted politically. I think what got up my nose was that he said the British people also had their fanatics. When I asked who they were, he said "football hooligans". We ran 12 minutes of the interview on  Channel 4 News that evening. I felt I'd asked the tough questions and given him a tough time, but afterwards I thought nothing more of it.

David told me that I was going to have 24-hour personal protection for me and my family until further notice – the arrangements had already been made. My new best friends, the men who were to be my family's constant companions for the next few months, were already waiting to look after me.

Clearly ex-soldiers, probably ex-SAS, these two guys lived in our attic for almost two months, and I was chauffeured to work every day. I got to know what it was like to be someone under threat. God knows how people live with it for years. If you go out for a meal they are at the next table, and if you want to go to the toilet, they go in first to make sure it's safe. Eventually I said, I just can't go on like this. They gave me a thorough briefing on how to look after myself, I had a hotline to the local police station, and was trained to look under my car and to vary my route to work every morning.
During that time I had to interview Margaret Thatcher. After the interview she took me to one side and said she was aware of the threat to me and that they would do all they could to protect me. She was very maternal. I thought: gosh, I really do have to take this seriously.

No comments:

Post a Comment