Rushdie in Michigan
This interview with Salman Rushdie is full of good observations. Packed with them.
I suppose I became more intellectually engaged in the subject of freedom. If you live in free countries you don’t have to spend all your life arguing about freedom because it is all around you. It seems redundant to make a lot of noise about something when, in fact, there it is. But if someone tries to remove it, it becomes important for you to formulate your own defenses of it.
It sure does. The more I hear of women not allowed to leave the house without a man’s permission – not allowed to live at all without being owned by a man – the more aware I become of my own freedom, and the more savage I feel at the thought of being any less so, and at the thought that most women in the world are a great deal less so.
Shikha Dalmia: Do you think freedom of speech is threatened by cultural relativism—by the idea that principles like free expression are not universal truths but simply local cultural constructs?
Rushdie: The idea of universal rights – the idea of rights that are universal to all people because they correspond to our natures as human beings, not to where we live or what our cultural background is – is an incredibly important one. This belief is being challenged by apostles of cultural relativism who refuse to accept that such rights exist. If you look at those who employ this idea, it turns out to be Robert Mugabe, the leaders of China, the leaders of Singapore, the Taliban, Ayatollah Khomeini.
Shikha Dalmia: Where does this leave us on the question of democratic reform in Islamic countries? Do you think that Islam lacks a crucial piece to build a foundation for freedom?
Rushdie: What it has is an extra piece that believes that religion can be the foundation for a state. It’s a question of removing that piece rather than adding something.
Brilliant. Apart from anything else – the accuracy, the explanatory power – it’s politically good, because the idea of lacking a crucial piece is obviously fairly pejorative, but having an extra piece is not.
I was very struck when Joe Lieberman was chosen as the vice-presidential candidate, and there was a certain amount of rubbish talked about whether Americans would vote for a Jewish candidate. I remember a big opinion poll taken by The New York Times in which people were asked whether they would accept as a presidential candidate a woman, a Jew, an African American, a homosexual, and an atheist. In four of those five measures, the result was resoundingly yes, by a gigantic majority, but for an atheist it was no better than 50-50. Somebody who overtly professes not to have religion can’t get elected dog catcher in this country. That’s a problem, because it creates a political discourse full of sanctimony.
There’s a lot more excellent stuff, read the whole thing if you haven’t already. I can’t quote the whole dang thing because it’s, you know, not mine – so read it.