In light of recently breaking news about Iranian media organizations raising large sums of money to suborn the assassination of author Salman Rushdie, now seems like a good time to revisit the seventeenth chapter of Christopher Hitchens memoir, oddly entitled Hitch-22 (the chapter is denominated quite simply as “Salman”). Here follows a representative sample, from pages 268-270:
When the Washington Post telephoned me at home on Valentine’s Day 1989 to ask my opinion about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah, I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defence of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship – though I like to think that my reaction would have been the same if I hadn’t known Salman at all. To re-state the premise of the argument again: the theocratic head of a foreign despotism offers money in his own name in order to suborn the murder of a civilian citizen of another country, for the offense of writing a work of fiction. No more root-and-branch challenge to the values of the Enlightenment (on the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille) or to the First Amendment to the Constitution, could be imagined. President George H.W. Bush, when asked to comment, could only say grudgingly that, as far as he could see, no American interests were involved…
To the contrary, said Susan Sontag, Americans had a general interest in defending free expression from barbarism, and also in defending free citizens from state- supported threats of murder accompanied by sordid offers of bounty. It was providential that she was that year’s president of PEN, because it quickly became evident that by no means everybody saw the question in this light. There were those who thought that Salman in one way or another deserved his punishment, or had at any rate brought it on himself, and there were those who were quite simply scared to death and believed that the Ayatollah’s death squads could roam and kill at will. (Rushdie himself disappeared inside a black bubble of “total” security, and as time went on his Japanese translator was to be murdered, his Italian translator stabbed, and his Norwegian publisher shot three times and left for dead.)
Of those who tended to gloat over Salman’s fate, a surprising number were on the Right. I say “surprising” because the conservatives had lamented the fall of the Shah and had been appalled by the rise of Khomeini, and were generally the most inclined to lay emphasis on the term “terrorism” when confronted by violent challenges from the Third World. But in America the whole phalanx of neoconservatives, from Norman Podhoretz to A.M. Rosenthal and Charles Krauthammer, turned their ire on Salman and not on Khomeini, and appeared to relish the fact that this radical Indian friend of Nicaragua and the Palestinians had become a victim of “terrorism” in his turn. They preferred to forget how their hero Ronald Reagan had used the profit of illegal arms dealing with the Ayatollah to finance the homicidal contras in Nicaragua: but they did not forgive Salman for having written The Jaguar Smile.
In Britain, writers and figures of a more specifically Tory type, like Hugh Trevor- Roper, Lord Shawcross, Auberon Waugh, and Paul Johnson, openly vented their distaste for the uppity wog in their midst and also accused him of deliberately provoking a fight with a great religion. (Meanwhile, in an unattractive example of what I have nicknamed “reverse ecumenism”, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Vatican, and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel all issued statements to the effect that the main problem was not the offer of pay for the murder of a writer, but the offense of blasphemy. The British Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobowitz, aiming for a higher synthesis of fatuity, intoned that “both Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech.”) This sort of stuff was at least partly to be expected. Rushdie was a bit of a Leftie; he had contrived to disturb the status quo: he could and should expect conservative disapproval.
More worrying to me were those on the Left who took almost exactly the same tone. Germaine Greer, always reliably terrible about such matters, again came to the fore, noisily defending the rights of bookburners. “The Rushdie affair,” wrote the Marxist critic John Berger within a few days of the fatwah, “has already cost several human lives and threatens to cost many, many more.” And “the Rushdie affair,” wrote Professor Michael Dummett of All Souls, “has done untold damage. It has intensified the alienation of Muslims here… Racist hostility towards them has been inflamed.” Here we saw the introduction – and by a former promoter of “Michael X”, do not forget – of a wilful, crass confusion between religious faith, which is voluntary, and ethnicity, which is not. All the deaths and inquiries–all of them–from the mob scenes in Pakistan to the activities of the Iranian assassination squads, were directly caused by Rushdie’s enemies. None of the deaths or injuries–none of them–were caused by him, or by his friends or defenders. Yet you will notice the displacement tactic used by Berger and Dummett and the multi-culti Left, which blamed the mayhem on an abstract construct – “the Rushdie affair”. I dimly understood at the time that this kind of postmodern “Left”, somehow in league with political Islam, was something new, if not exactly New Left.
Notice here that Hitchens has clearly identified what would sometime later come to be called the “Regressive Left,” that is, a collection of those nominally progressive persons who are more than willing to abandon liberal values for the sake of a certain variety of multiculturalism which goes beyond mere tolerance into the realm of postmodernist moral nihilism; these are people who seem willing to use any means necessary to shame their opponents into submission and silence. I often wonder what he would have thought of those within movement atheism who eventually adopted this approach.