August 15, 2022

A USEFUL ACCOUNTING: How We Gave Up On Salman Rushdie: Britain saw his fatwa and internalised it. “But the finest words of all, demonstrating how morbid it all was, came from a man dead for 10 years. In the first rounds of the fatwa, Christopher Hitchens had tirelessly stumped for Rushdie. Now, in this latest, unexpected round, Hitchens was summoned from his grave. All weekend, videos of him defending Rushdie were shared, videos where Hitchens spoke with an unimaginable frankness, videos where he spoke with more force, more intelligence, and more authority than anybody alive today.”

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In Joseph Anton, Rushdie writes that even his own defences of free speech had started to sound “stale in his own ears”. Something curdled in the 2010s. While he has escaped with his life long enough to become truly, especially bored of the fatwa, he begins to realise that the cause he is fighting for, the principle he embodies, is in decay. “Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know.” What was happening? A simple, popular idea: if the collective felt upset, it had the right to silence the individual. This is what countless controversies, from Charlie Hebdo to The Lady of Heaven, scratching away in the background, proved. Authors like Peter Carey, who defended Rushdie in the Nineties, would not defend Charlie Hebdo in 2015, not weeks after the cartoonists had been slaughtered in their offices.

The world had turned. The idea had been internalised. It had spread far and wide, beyond religion, beyond anything Khomeini could have imagined, freakishly stretching and reaching into every cultural nook. The principle had a language: “It isn’t worth the fuss; it’s not a good look; it won’t play well.” . . . “Good men would give in to fear and call it respect,” Rushdie predicted in Joseph Anton. “Good men would commit intellectual suicide and call it peace.” He was right.

Garbage people can always find reasons to be cowards, or simply to side with the bullies. And God knows, they do.

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