Saturday, February 07, 2009

Fat man denounces fatwa

In the new issue of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens writes about the "cultural fatwa" that the West has been put under – has put itself under, through self-censorship and preemptive fear – in its dealings with Islamic fundamentalism.
So there is now a hidden partner in our cultural and academic and publishing and broadcasting world: a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table. He never speaks. He doesn’t have to. But he is very well understood. The late playwright Simon Gray was alluding to him when he said that Nicholas Hytner, the head of London’s National Theatre, might put on a play mocking Christianity but never one that questioned Islam. I brushed up against the unacknowledged censor myself when I went on CNN to defend the Danish cartoons and found that, though the network would show the relevant page of the newspaper, it had pixelated the cartoons themselves. And this in an age when the image is everything. The lady anchor did not blush to tell me that the network was obliterating its very stock-in-trade (newsworthy pictures) out of sheer fear.
There's nothing particularly wrong here, and it's hard to go wrong kicking back against the forces of tyranny and the suppression of ideas and art through means both violent and non-. The only real problem is that these expressions of despair of our unwillingness to confront Islamic radicalism head-on must necessarily float on a kind of ahistorical plane where the only thing the West has ever offered the world is the olive branch of free expression, only to have it repeatedly slapped out of our hands and stamped into the dirt by crazed religionists.

Must we always turn the other cheek so? Hitchens asks. The end of his essay is pretty revealing, actually:
But the culture that sustains [Rushdie], and that he helps sustain, has twisted itself into a posture of prior restraint and self-censorship in which the grim, mad edict of a dead theocrat still exerts its chilling force. And, by the way, the next time that Khomeini’s lovely children want to make themselves felt, they will be armed not just with fatwas but with nuclear weapons.
Ah, see? All our timidity and Christ-like notions of cheek-turning and such will only leave us vulnerable to nuclear annihilation at the hands of the ayatollahs!

So what is the answer? Buy war bonds and Rushdie novels? Hitchens makes an implicit connection – pretty explicit, actually – between a war of competing ideologies and a larger geopoltical one. And this is where that complete lack of context gets tricky. After all, all our mushy, relativist ideas of tolerance and accomodation has led to the simultaneous occupation two Muslim countries and the propping up of a dozen utterly corrupt, tyrranical, and not-at-all nice regimes around the Islamic world, some of which will eventually fall, leading to even more tyrranical and not-nice Islamic fundamentalist regimes. I'm not sure the Islamic world can handle any more niceness from us.

Art and ideas is always getting enlisted in this or that ideological or political struggle, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse. The point that Hitchens is intentionally eliding is that those who feel the Iranian nuclear threat is an existential one do so for reasons other than a desire for greater literary freedom. In fact, for many of them, shutting writers up and blocking ideas is part of their plan, too.

But then, this isn't the first time Hitchens has gotten in bed with people who represent the very forces he claims to deplore. And once again, just like a fundamentalist, he will justify this in the face of objective reality, and will do so based on the fatal misreading of a book – in his case, George Orwell's Collected Essays.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

None of your points contradicts Christopher Hitchens's opinion that "the culture that sustains [Rushdie], and that he helps sustain, has twisted itself into a posture of prior restraint and self-censorship...." On the other hand, if you want to write about how badly you think the Americans have behaved, it seems pointless to involve these comments by Hitchens.