Rushdie's critics lost the battle but won the war. They never prevented the publication of his novel. But the argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case - that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures - is now widely accepted.
Malik is right to be dismayed, but the conclusion is more pessimistic than necessary: 'widely accepted' doesn't mean that the argument has won the day. Similarly, when he says 'Western liberals have come to agree' that what Rushdie publishes about Islam is everyone's business (with the implication, presumably, that others have some right of control over what Rushdie publishes), this is true of some, but by no means of all, Western liberals. The fight is ongoing and to declare it lost is not the best way of waging it.
The liberal principle that we may interfere with the actions of another (only) to prevent harm to others does have its difficulties since, like many other conceptual boundaries, the boundaries of the concept of harm are fuzzy. But the principle, if it is one, that freedom of speech must be curbed to avoid offending people, is manifestly a qualification of the right of free speech that all but destroys the usefulness of the right. For there are no boundaries on what people can be offended by. Liberals favouring that particular qualification of the right should be put upon their mettle to say in what their liberalism consists.
Offending people is sometimes wrong; but no one has a right against being offended and everyone has the right, accordingly, to give offence. (See also this column by Jo Glanville.)
Rub your child on some carbon paper. Then cut up the paper and stick the pieces to the child's body. Question the child as an original. Question the child as a copy. Question the carbon paper as a construction.
If your child accuses you of incomprehensibility, then accuse it of logical positivism.
Each time the child shows signs of perceiving something in the world as a category, lock yourself in the bathroom and switch off the light, so nothing is visible. Place your child in a military academy to demonstrate the consequences of absolute concepts.
Julia Williams grew up in North London, one of eight children, including an identical twin sister. She studied English at Liverpool University, where she met her husband, Dave, a dentist. She spent 10 years working in publishing, mainly in children's books, which remain a great love. After the birth of her second child, Julia decided to devote herself to freelance editing and writing. Her first novel, Pastures New, came out last December, and her second, Strictly Love, is published this month. She is proud to be a member of the Romantic Novelist's Association, which has always supported her. In this post Julia writes about Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
Julia Williams on To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Although like most writers, no doubt, I have a list of favourite books which changes with the passing of the seasons, there is one book that I always put at the top of my list. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was fourteen. It was a set text for O-level, which might have been the kiss of death, but for a particularly gifted English teacher. Thanks to his enthusiasm, though, I soon fell in love.
I wasn't long out of childhood myself when I read the book for the first time, and I immediately identified with the summers Scout spends with Dill playing make believe stories, running away from the local bogeyman, Boo Radley, and the autumns walking to school and finding presents in the tree from an unknown benefactor. Lee immediately draws you into Scout's world and the confinements and rules she frequently chafes against. This is a brilliantly realized view of childhood, making you remember the injustice, the passion, the joy of being young.
I loved Scout for her feistiness, her loyalty and her inability to take anything lying down. But I was also drawn to Jem, whose quiet stoicism and burning sense of justice make him an appealing character.
And besides all that, I fell in love with the 'tired old town of Maycomb', where women took tea in the afternoons and wilted in the heat of a Southern summer, which seemed so very alien to my own world.
If you read the first half of the novel on its own, you could be forgiven for thinking this is simply a wonderful depiction of childhood, and a world long since lost to us. But To Kill a Mockingbird is far, far more than that.
As the book progresses, a gradual sense of unease builds up as we realize that all is not quite right in Maycomb and that the children's lawyer father, Atticus, is setting himself against his community by taking on a case he cannot win. But courage, as he tells Jem, is 'when you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what'.
Atticus is the character at the centre of the book: the lawyer with integrity and a conscience. Atticus stands up for what is right, whatever the personal cost, by defending black Tom Robinson, who is alleged to have raped Mayella Ewell, the white-trash daughter of the town drunk, Bob Ewell. Tom is innocent, but this is the southern states of America, way before the Civil Rights Movement, and he doesn't stand a chance. To the townsfolk of Maycomb, a black man's word counts for nothing, even against that of a man everyone knows to be a liar.
The trial is the dark heart of this novel, and the first time I read it I shared Jem's utter disbelief at the way it progressed. As his innocence is stripped away - 'I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that's what they seemed like,' he says to Miss Maudie after Tom Robinson is jailed - so was mine. I was shocked to the core. Such things couldn't really happen, could they? Of course, I now know that prejudice and bigotry can lead even the most decent people into questionably moral decisions, but it was an eye-opening moment for me, and I don't think I've ever looked at the world in the same way again.
By modern standards, though this is a book with a strong anti-racist message, it can be read as being itself racist. The black characters often seem stereotyped - Calpurnia the cook is a bit of a Mammy-type figure - and our glimpses into their world are short and often superficial. But on the other hand, context is all, and Harper Lee is recording the world as she knew it, growing up. The attitudes of many of the white characters may be abhorrent to us now, but they were prevalent at the time the book is set. And despite any stereotyping, I always felt Calpurnia was one of the most morally superior characters in the book, frequently 'shaming' Scout and making her see the consequences of her actions.
To Kill a Mockingbird, though, isn't just a book with a strong anti-racist message. It is also about standing up for what is right, about having the courage of your convictions, about staring people in the eye and holding your head up high even when the world despises you. And, above all, it is immensely compassionate, making us care equally about the unlikeable Mrs Dubose's struggles to free herself from morphine addiction, and no-nonsense Miss Maudie's hearbreakingly stoical response to the fire which destroys her home. We even end up feeling sorry for Mayella Ewell, though her lies have condemned Tom Robinson.
But the character treated with the most compassion is that of Boo Radley. He is the bogyman the children fear at the start of the book, but we gradually come to realize that it is Boo Radley who is leaving things for them in the tree (before his brother Nathan blocks up the hole), it is Boo Radley who has looked out for them their whole lives, and it is Boo Radley who ultimately saves them.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a humane and wise book about the best and worst of human nature. It was and remains a seminal influence.
'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,' Atticus tells Scout at one point. Until I re-read that line I didn't realize how much I try to live by that code in my own life. Atticus and Scout taught me that at fourteen. It's not a lesson I'll ever forget.
[All the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, are listed here, here, here and here.]
There were enough ingredients to make me physically sick.
That's Arsène Wenger after his team's defeat by Hull. I'm surprised at him. He's the manager. You can't go showing you're a softie like that.
Mind you, it does remind me of something that happened to me some years ago and that I am unable to explain to this day. Manchester United were at home to Liverpool and it was nil-nil late in the game. Then Liverpool scored - I think it was Danny Murphy's goal - and there probably wasn't enough time for United to come back. We didn't. Calm and unemotional as I have learned, in the maturity of my years, to be in sporting defeat, I ambled off home. Later that day, however, I discovered what I can only call a small wound on my right shin. It was as if I had grazed it somewhere, except that the abrasion was so symmetrical in shape and I couldn't have grazed it because my shin had been covered throughout by my jeans. A burn would have done it. But how could that have happened without my feeling it (which I hadn't)? It's a mystery. Bloody Liverpool.
An adjunct professor at Metro State College in Denver set his students the task of doing a piece of work critical of Sarah Palin. He asked them 'to write an essay to contradict what he called the "fairy tale image of Palin" presented at the Republican National Convention.' A student complained and this has led to an investigation by the college.
In itself, there's nothing wrong with the assignment. Asking students to undertake such a critical exercise about any politician might just be a way of testing their linguistic and analytical powers. It all depends on what other assignments they are given. That is, are they asked to do this sort of thing about other politicians as well? Was it conceived as a critical exercise only, or as a way of promoting the teacher's own political preferences? That the assignment was later revised to allow students to write on any of the candidates suggests that he and/or the college didn't feel that all was well as things stood.
Three theories of humour here: Hobbesian, Freudian and Kantian. If the classification is exhaustive, then this one would have to be a Kantian joke, I suppose - not how I'd previously thought of it. There must be scope, though, for further theories, and therefore Hegelian jokes, Rawlsian jokes...
In a change as far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet Union, an entire model of government and the economy has collapsed.
I think that is slightly overstated, for a reason Gray himself goes on to mention: 'this is far from being the end of capitalism'. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, what happened was precisely the end of a whole politico-economic formation. Gray, in fact, is talking about something else: a shift in the balance of global power away from the US. Even on this score, my guess is that he exaggerates.
[This post is part of a series by Sam running at normblog on Mondays for the next couple of months. The first post of the series is here.]
4. Religious Claims
Two weeks ago, I ended my post with the question, 'Whose land is it anyway?' Before getting to that question, I wanted to clear away some of the prejudices that cloud discussion of the whole conflict: last week, therefore, I talked about racism and anti-Semitism. It's time now to get back to the question about ownership of the land. We'll start with two unsatisfactory styles of argument on this topic - one this week and one next week - used by partisans on both sides. It'll be a while before we see good arguments on the 'whose land' question: they are not as straightforward as the bad ones.
a) 'In the Bible, God gave the land of Israel to the Jews.'
b) 'God punished the Jews for their rejection of Christ by removing their right to the land.'
c) 'Territories, like Palestine, that have come under the sway of Islam - parts of the Dar al-Islam - must always remain Muslim.'
In the West, at least, we hear a) much more often than b) or c), but the latter have also played a role in polemics on the Palestinian side. Demonstrators against Zionism in the 1920s carried placards asking 'Shall we give back the country to a people who crucified our Lord Jesus?' A speaker at the beginning of the 1936 Arab Revolt urged his listeners to 'fight your enemies, the enemies of religion, who wish to destroy your mosques', and many Palestinians today seek a single, Muslim state in the land, not just an Arab one.
Since a) is more commonly heard than b) and c), however, and since what I have to say about it carries over pretty readily to the other two claims as well, I will focus this post on that version of the religious arguments for ownership of Palestine.
Many Jews, religious and non-religious, cite the Bible as the basis of the Jewish claim to Palestine; many Christians do as well. A lot of people seem to think it is a strong, even obvious, argument on the Jewish side. I think it is the weakest argument the Jews have, and should be retired permanently from debates over this issue. Three reasons why:
a) The interpretation of sacred texts is a tricky business, especially if one wants to apply them to modern politics, and it is by no means obvious that the Bible does depict God as giving the land of Israel/Palestine unconditionally to the Jews. Some passages in the Bible do seem to say that (chapters 15 and 28 of Genesis, for instance), but others make God's grant of the land to the Jews dependent on their keeping certain commitments. For instance:
And the land was defiled - therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants. Ye therefore shall keep My statutes and Mine ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations;... that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Lev 18:25-28)
And, in later books of the Bible, the Israelites do commit 'abominations' that would seem to void their right to the land. Moreover, God is represented as Himself the agent of the destruction that comes upon Israel and Judea (see Jeremiah 21, for instance). So even if one is a deeply religious Jew or Christian, and believes that the Hebrew Bible is literally the word of God, one need not think that God wants Jews to live in the land now. That's precisely why many religious Jews were initially opposed to Zionism (and a few still are). They felt, in line with a central strand of Jewish tradition, that exile was a divine punishment for Jewish sin that could only be lifted by the coming of the Messiah: a new, miraculous divine intervention in history. To try to set up a modern Jewish state without a direct sign from God, on this view, is a sacrilege and a project doomed to failure (like the attempt of the Israelites to enter the land, after God had withdrawn permission for them to do that, in Numbers 28:40-45).
b) The vast majority of Israelis are secular, and want to live in a secular liberal democracy. Using the Bible to legitimate their whole political project therefore opens up difficult questions for them. Whenever I hear secular or even just non-Orthodox Jews saying that the land of Israel/Palestine is Jewish because God said so in the Bible, I want to ask: 'Does that mean you are now going to cease all work on the sabbath, which the Biblical God commands rather more explicitly? How about eating only kosher food? How about observing the prohibition on sexual intercourse during menstruation?' It's very unlikely that most Israelis, or pro-Israel Jews, would commit themselves to these aspects of the Bible, and unimaginable that they would want Israeli law or policy to be based on them (even most Orthodox Jews don't want that). But then it looks hypocritical, or confused, to cite the Bible in defence of the Jewish right to the land.
c) Here's the most important point. The Bible is not a deed to property, or a recognized political constitution, or a document that has or should have any other sort of standing in international law and politics. Imagine what would happen if the sacred Scriptures of any religion were considered a legitimate basis for political claims. Muslims might claim a right for an Islamic state to be established over the entire world; Muslims and Christians alike could claim that Jews are now disfavoured by God and should live permanently under their rule; Hindus could claim that practically all of India rightly belongs under their control. Of course, it would take somewhat tendentious readings of these religious traditions to reach such conclusions, but - as we've seen - it takes a somewhat tendentious reading of the Jewish Scriptures to reach the conclusion that God, now, wants Jews to rule over Israel/Palestine, and there are, notoriously, millions of believers who do read Islam, Christianity and Hinduism in just the way I have suggested. The modern political order, to the extent that it has achieved any international peace and justice, is based on the setting aside of religious claims in the foundation of states. It has its origins in the decision of Catholic and Protestant regimes in Europe, after over a hundred years of war, to put religion aside in their future relations. And that makes very good sense. Why, after all, should a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, or of course an atheist, take seriously what the Bible says when it comes to who owns a particular piece of land? It would make as much sense for a Jew or Christian to give up their claims on some land because of a passage in the Quran. Because we don't all agree on which religion, if any, is the right one, we will have constant war, and certainly not achieve anything we could agree was justice, if we allow religious texts to ground political positions.
A good way to think about the use of religious traditions to ground states will also be helpful when we look at other principles on which Jews and Palestinians base their claim to Israel/Palestine: How would we feel about this principle being made into a general rule for the apportioning of land throughout the modern political order? Imagine if every group in the modern world was seen as having a right to land that their religion led them to think was theirs. Muslims could lay claim to Spain; Hindus might claim much of Pakistan and all of Sri Lanka; some Christians would claim a right to rule the whole world. This is a recipe, of course, for chaos and huge injustice if we look to the ordinary, secular ways in which we think about property-ownership and political rule. (Could it possibly be just for the modern inhabitants of Spain to have to submit to Muslim rule?) It is no wonder, therefore, that religious teachings have no weight in modern international politics.
More briefly, now, to the religious claims made by the Palestinian side. One important reason why Palestinians, and Muslims throughout the world, resist a Jewish state in Palestine is the principle in Islamic law that territories conquered by Islam belong from that point on permanently to the Muslim umma and should never again be ruled by non-Muslims. And some Palestinian Christians, in the early days of Zionism, objected to Jewish acquisition of land in Palestine on the grounds that the Jews (they believed) killed Christ. Both of these claims have of course exactly the same status as the Jewish claim to the land on the basis of the Bible, and both should be similarly dismissed in international politics. Perhaps the dangers of Muslim and Christian religious bases for politics can help Jews see what is wrong with a religiously Jewish basis for politics, and vice versa. Certainly, the two sides cannot expect to convince each other - or to reach, therefore, a sincere peace - if they rely on religious arguments. (Sam Fleischacker)
[The next post in the series is here. Responses may be sent to Sam at this email address: sfleisch (AT) uic (DOT) edu]
Stephen Fry has made a documentary series about America for BBC2.
I have often felt a hot flare of shame inside me when I listen to my fellow Britons casually jeering at the perceived depth of American ignorance, American crassness, American isolationism, American materialism, American lack of irony and American vulgarity. Aside from the sheer rudeness of such open and unapologetic mockery, it seems to me to reveal very little about America and a great deal about the rather feeble need of some Britons to feel superior. All right, they seem to be saying, we no longer have an empire, power, prestige or respect in the world, but we do have "taste" and "subtlety" and "broad general knowledge", unlike those poor Yanks.
He explains here why he wanted to do the series. (Thanks: RB.)