Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rushdie's People

Maybe that's who we are, as people of essentially liberal inclination but continuously steered away from that herd by awareness of its blind spots and reality's stones and thorns. Most jarringly by 9/11 but not in any sense exclusively on that day.

Having graduated from Cambridge in 1968, his politics were not untypical of his generation and class. There was an implied, and often explicit, criticism of western hegemony in his work. In The Satanic Verses, he writes of 'the Coca-Colonization of the planet' and refers to New York as the 'transatlantic New Rome with its Nazified architectural gigantism, which employed the oppressions of size to make its human occupants feel like worms'.

Rushdie still has his criticisms of America, where he lives for much of the time in the architectural gigantism of New York, but they are now moderated by a keener appreciation of the freedoms and advantages of western democracy. He remains a committed multiculturalist. 'I couldn't exist were it not for that transcultural movement. So obviously I'm biased. I do think, still think, there's a lot to celebrate about this mixture. If you live in a city like this or New York it's not possible to imagine it as monocultural. So in a sense it's clearly an enriching aspect of our daily lives.'

But he now has reservations about the direction that cultural diversity has taken. 'What I worry about and don't like,' he says, 'is the way in which the ideology of multiculturalism has declined into cultural relativism. I think that's very dangerous. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, for God's sake, says that you can't have one law for everybody ... that's stupid.'

Rushdie would argue, with some justification, that he was never a proponent of cultural relativism. Nevertheless the event that made him an outspoken opponent was the fatwa on his life issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine's Day in 1989. It was a defining moment in the cultural wars that have grown dramatically more political in recent years. Two hundred years after the Enlightenment, an author was under sentence of death for writing fiction. Suddenly all those beliefs, such as freedom of expression, that seemed so basic to literary and liberal life that no one bothered mentioning them were put to the ultimate life-and-death test.

And a number of writers, among them Germaine Greer, John Berger and John Le Carré, came down on the cultural relativist side of the argument. Their feeling was that, in not showing sufficient cultural sensitivity, Rushdie was the author of his troubles. Meanwhile Rushdie found himself in the strange position of having to rely on the support of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and agencies of the establishment - Special Branch and the intelligence services - of which he had been stern critic. Did this affect his feelings towards the establishment?

'Yes,' he says, 'sort of. I only met Margaret Thatcher twice. The thing that I thought about meeting her was how extraordinarily intelligent she was. You really had to be on your game otherwise she'd make mincemeat of you.'

He developed not just an admiration, but a fondness for many people he came to know within the security and intelligence services. 'I've met a lot of Special Branch officers both at the everyday and higher levels and, with one or two exceptions, I liked all of them. I still have, improbably, quite a lot of friends in the British Special Branch.'

The only unkind words he has are reserved for the Foreign Office, which he found untrustworthy. 'I've always been able to handle anything as long as people are straight with you,' he says. 'Deviousness I can't deal with. That's not to my taste.'


There was a brief reprise last year when Rushdie was awarded a knighthood. A few opportunists in Pakistan, and clowns like Lord Ahmed over here, tried to generate a firestorm of protest, but it came to nothing.

Though it did produce one golden vignette on Question Time, when Shirley Williams argued that the knighthood was 'not very clever' because Rushdie had 'deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way', and he had 'been protected by the British police for many years at great expense to the taxpayer'. The Liberal Democrat Baroness was then taken apart by Rushdie's friend, Christopher Hitchens.


Since 2001, he's been joined in the political arena by a number of fellow authors, some of whom have taken up a more prominent, and sometimes more controversial, position than Rushdie.

'I think, fair enough,' says Rushdie. 'It's a big subject that everybody's thinking about. I don't agree with all Christopher Hitchens's views but that doesn't stop him being my friend. And I don't agree with everything Martin [Amis] said, but he's entirely entitled to say it without being abused in the way that he was.'


The point for Rushdie, however, is that he and his friends remain on the progressive side of the argument. 'My instincts are completely liberal, but I do think we live in a very weird world and we do need to realise that the world has changed. And when Martin, Ian [McEwan] and I say that we get called conservative. But,' he emphatically adds, 'we're not conservative.'

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