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Salman Rushdie and Moral Courage

Salman Rushdie had quite the megaphone this weekend: the New York Times Sunday Review op-ed section and its 1,200-word space from which to preach. And Rushdie used that space to make quite the pronouncement: the world–the West included–was sliding back into dangerous territory, in which patience for the wisdom of dissidents was running low, and our willingness to let those men and women dissent running low along with it.

It must be said that Rushdie, as the famous target of the Islamic world’s fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses, knows firsthand about the danger to artists and intellectuals who cross those willing to do violence. And it can also be said that politicians who found Rushdie to be an insufferable troublemaker didn’t give him all the support he might have deserved. But Rushdie’s column in the Times shows that while he survived the fatwa on his head thus far, his judgment did not.

Rushdie seems incapable of distinguishing between true dissidents and useful idiots or puffed-up rabble-rousers. Everyone who crosses the government is speaking truth to power, to Rushdie. And his column is useful not for its intellectual value but because this mindset has so infected the world of the arts and academia that its roster is unable or unwilling to realize that the problem is not how we treat genuine dissidents but that the global left has diluted the meaning and the cause by calling clownish poseurs by that name.

Rushdie’s column is titled “Whither Moral Courage?” But that question should be asked of Rushdie, as it should of anyone who writes the following:

America isn’t immune from this trend. The young activists of the Occupy movement have been much maligned (though, after their highly effective relief work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, those criticisms have become a little muted). Out-of-step intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and the deceased Edward Said have often been dismissed as crazy extremists, “anti-American,” and in Mr. Said’s case even, absurdly, as apologists for Palestinian “terrorism.” (One may disagree with Mr. Chomsky’s critiques of America but it ought still to be possible to recognize the courage it takes to stand up and bellow them into the face of American power. One may not be pro-Palestinian, but one should be able to see that Mr. Said stood up against Yasir Arafat as eloquently as he criticized the United States.)

There is much to unpack here. When he says America isn’t immune from this trend, he means the trend of suffocating dissent, and puts the United States in a category that, by his own description in the essay, includes the Soviet Union and modern Pakistan. Rushdie may think he is being provocative, but such nonsense deserves to be laughed out of the room.

Yet Rushdie continues the thread. If America is Soviet Russia or Islamist Pakistan, his brave dissidents here are akin to Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi, Salman Taseer. And who are these heroes? First, there is the Occupy Wall Street movement, who not only weren’t oppressed by the government but left alone to squat on land in downtown Manhattan. Women in these camps were shocked at the lengths to which Occupy leaders would go to protect rapists who prowled the camps, because they were worried not for the safety of innocent women but for their own reputations. The camps were responsible for harming local small businesses, and the Occupiers’ simmering resentment targeted Jews and other supposed symbols of Western society hated by these pseudo-anarchist mobs. If Rushdie is worried about intellectuals, he need not shed a tear for the fate of Occupy Wall Street; roving rape camps are not incubators of high intellectual pursuit.

As for Chomsky, Rushdie must be kidding when praises the “courage” it takes to shout Khmer Rouge propaganda in the face of American anti-Communists. And is Chomsky sitting in Guantanamo or a gulag? Of course not. Chomsky’s vile stupidity only discredits his supporters; his opponents have nothing to fear from him. It would have been nice of Rushdie to at least include a reference to the dissidents of the despicable Cambodian regime to balance out Chomsky, but that would have made plain the irrationality of his argument.

And what of Said? Rushdie says it’s absurd to accuse him of being an apologist for Palestinian terrorism. (Sorry–“terrorism.” Rushdie’s moral relativism requires him to dismiss reality as open to interpretation. Magical realism is not realism, after all. One wonders if that same Islamic violence that threatened Rushdie’s life and hounded him for decades deserves scare quotes, or only that violence which is launched against others.)

But of course that’s exactly what Said did. Here he is, for example, during the Second Intifada claiming that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza “is the source of violence.” He goes on to make clear his opposition to Arafat was where he felt Arafat was too willing to engage in the Oslo peace process, and he says that every time a Palestinian official is asked about the conflict he should say that “Occupation with tanks, soldiers, checkpoints and settlements is violence, and it is much greater than anything Palestinians have done by way of resistance.” That was Edward Said, in his own words, claiming that the mere existence of a Jewish village is “much greater” than horrific bombing campaigns directed at innocent men, women, and children. That’s not moral courage, and it’s to our credit as a society that we reject it.


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