COLUMN

Separating the man from the cause

BARBARA AMIEL March 13 1989
COLUMN

Separating the man from the cause

BARBARA AMIEL March 13 1989

In spite of the fact that he is in hiding, it is quite impossible to escape Salman Rushdie. Here in London, the chattering classes are obsessed with every nuance of his dilemma. There is a lot of spiteful gossip, as well. At a dinner party in London last week, some fellow authors speculated on the fragility of Rushdie’s marriage even before the awful event of the Ayatollah’s death sentence that sent his wife into hiding with him for her own safety. “Now that,” said one author to another, “is the real story. Can you imagine being under armed guard with the man you are going to divorce?”

It is necessary, of course, to separate the personal characteristics of Rushdie from the principled fight he represents. On the high plane of principle, Rushdie, of course, must be defended. It is a shame that people have to die in the streets over his frightful prose, but the right to an opinion—even when badly expressed—must be defended. It is a shame that we have given the Soviets an opening to Iran, but c’est la vie. We all feel particularly sympathetic toward those families with hostages in Iran, but it too must count for naught beside a writer’s freedom to express his views without a national leader putting a bloody bounty on his head.

Speaking for myself, I do believe that and support all the actions to defend Rushdie—and then some. The most unlikely people have often stood for noble causes. In American legal history, for one unrelated example, one thinks of the Miranda and Escobedo decisions that guaranteed the right to counsel and the right to silence. Both Ernesto Miranda and Danny Escobedo, who initially were denied these rights, became part of U.S. legal history as a result of trials involving rape and attempted murder. For some reason, noble causes are often founded on lesser people.

Of one thing, however, I am convinced— whatever Rushdie’s private charms may be, in his public persona he is a really ghastly character. Britain’s big-whiz literary award is the Booker Prize, which Rushdie won in 1981 for his novel Midnight’s Children. He was nominated again for it in 1983 with Shame, another of his incoherent, unreadable splurges illustrating the evils of life under white people, but that time he didn’t win. His behavior on that occasion is legendary. Enraged, Rushdie leapt up from his table to insult the judges and anyone who happened to be within range of his voice.

He grew up rich, relatively speaking, the son of Indian Moslems, and went to school at England’s posh Rugby (scene of Tom Brown’s school days). He claims to have been taunted there because of his race, but later admitted that it might have been because he didn’t play cricket or field hockey. That privileged education was followed by Cambridge, where he had one whale of a time. He moved through the advertising world, published a book or two with difficulty and then hit with Midnight’s Children. Not a bad life, one would think. Still, it never blinded his eyes to the essential horror of living in England. At a literary conference in Lisbon last summer, he spoke to the assembled writers of the evils of trying to exist in Thatcher’s England. At the time, he had just been assured something close to $925,000 for the English-language rights to his novel.

Now, while British taxpayers foot the bill for Rushdie’s round-the-clock protection, it is hard to forget his constant harping on how horrid we all are. “What is it like, this country to which the immigrants came, in which their children are growing up?” he wrote in the British weekly journal New Society. “This is not the England of fair play, tolerance, decency and equality—maybe that never existed anyway, except in fairy tales. In the streets of the new empire . . . black families are afraid to go out after dark, and human and animal excrement arrives through their letter boxes. The police offer threats instead of protection, and the courts offer small hope of redress. . . . We have a police force that harasses blacks every day of their lives.” It is lucky, I suppose, that the combination of Rushdie’s dreadful writing and the British policeman’s legendary resistance to reading anything besides our driving licences will have prevented his protectors from knowing what he really thinks of them.

It is clear why Margaret Thatcher must be feeling very virtuous about defending Rushdie, who has made a mini-career out of attacking her accomplishments. But it does stick a bit. What is most irritating, I feel, is the certain knowledge that neither Rushdie nor Harold Pinter, the left-wing British playwright who dashed out to protest the British government’s slowness in responding to the death threat, would ever go to the barricades for people like, well, me. Had a conservative white person written a book attacking Islam, he would have been hauled out to face the Race Relations Act. But Rushdie is a pet of the left-liberal intelligentsia, a certified member with his last attack on the government barely dry on his writing pad.

The problem facing members of Britain’s left-liberal intelligentsia, however, is intriguing. For years, they have been railing on about the need to encourage the indigenous culture of minority groups in England. Now, they are face-to-face with the consequences of that policy. In the case of Islam, it means total intolerance for criticism of Islam—not to mention a rather terminal sort of censorship. It also means markedly unprogressive views on the role of women and related issues such as education and morality.

The uncomfortable truth that the left-wing British intelligentsia is facing is that democracy and liberalism are incompatible with true multiculturalism—when your society is full of people who are in their values neither democrats nor liberals. (That, incidentally, is not a value judgment on the Moslems, only a description.) How they will handle the current dilemma may become one of the more interesting aspects of the Rushdie affair.

My own approach to this matter is, I suppose, too simplistic. Had I become a millionaire like Rushdie from attacking Islam and Western society, I think I might have responded to the Ayatollah’s threat by putting a million-dollar bounty on his head in return. That is called putting your money where your mouth is, and now and then it doesn’t hurt a writer to do just that.