Salman Rushdie and “The Innocence of Muslims”: Art vs. Propaganda

I clicked over to Hot Air this morning in spite of my current level of frustration with all things political, mostly because I couldn’t think of anything to blog about that wasn’t somehow related to pregnancy. Lucky for me, Hot Air obliged me by providing one of my favorite political bloggers, Allahpundit, waxing eloquent on the hypocrisy of Salman Rushdie in regards to the now-notorious film “The Innocence of Muslims.” I hope you’ll forgive my pregnancy-and-illness-muddled brain for trying to piece together a coherent post on current events for the first time in a while.


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(The rest of this post will probably make more sense if you watch the video before you read the following excerpt from the HotAir post)

That’s what Rushdie had to say about the video and the protests. This is what Allahpundit had to say about Rushdie:

Rushdie also naturally mentions how awful the movie is, which is par for the course in any “thoughtful” public comment on it. Says Nick Gillespie:

Rushdie has said “The Innocence of Muslims” is an “idiotic…piece of garbage” but called the protests against it “an ugly reaction that needs to be named as such.”

I do not quite understand the need to pass aesthetic judgment on a work before making a free speech argument, but that seems to be a minority opinion. Does anyone else find it puzzling, though? It’s almost as if Theo van Gogh, murdered by an Islamist nut job in the streets of Amsterdam in 2004, would have deserved his stabbing death if the production values of “Submission” had been a bit lower.

Yeah, I don’t understand that either, but it makes perfect sense if you follow Rushdie’s two-tiered approach to sympathy for mob persecution aimed at low art vs. High Art. The film is cheesy and provocative, but so what? How is that germane, unless you agree with the original Cairo embassy statement in rejecting “the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others”? If hurting the religious beliefs of others is an “abuse” of free speech then let’s go the rest of the way and criminalize blasphemy, just like our “moderate” friend, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey, is now suggesting that we do. If anything, you’d think that a serious threat of violence against a speaker would get people to lay off criticizing his work for awhile lest anything they say be taken as encouragement by the mob. Instead, people are falling all over themselves to denounce his movie as some sort of atrocity. Including a guy who knows what it’s like to be hunted like a rat by lunatics.

(Read the rest here)

You know, I read this article the other day about how conservatives destroyed the liberal arts. In general I think that’s a bunch of BS, mostly because the only people I know who genuinely value the liberal arts and who still believe that only the liberal arts can free a person’s mind in order to see the world clearly are also conservative (like my husband). But then I watch a video like this, and read this commentary on it, and I wonder.

There is nothing that Salman Rushdie said in that video that I disagreed with. In fact, I found myself agreeing heartily with every word…including the words at the end, where he said that he has “no sympathy” for the maker of this little “film”. And then I also found myself scratching my head and returning to Allahpundit’s post, where it seemed to me that he’s missing a crucial distinction.

“Not having sympathy for someone” is not the same thing as “wishing death and imprisonment upon them for abusing the freedom of speech.” Nowhere in the interview did Rushdie say that this filmmaker had abused the freedom of speech, or that freedom of speech shouldn’t apply to him. In fact, he explicitly said, “One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.” Conflating Rushdie’s lack of sympathy with his beliefs on free speech is, at best, lazy thinking.

As it happens, I thought that what Rushdie said in this interview was one of the most coherent things I’ve heard about the whole mess. More to the point, though, Rushdie’s opinions seemed directly in line with the opinions I usually find on HotAir. Consider this: “Clearly the video was a flashpoint, and I mean, from what I can see it was a kind of outrageous, sort of disgraceful little malevolent thing, but by now, I think that the reaction we’re seeing is really the release of a much larger outrage. We sort of live in an age of outrage, and people seem to be defining themselves by their outrage, and seem to feel that it justifies itself.” Isn’t this exactly what the conservative websites and bloggers have been saying? That the point isn’t the video, that’s not what the anger is really about? The mob of protestors in Libya and Egypt are clearly angry about much more than a stupid YouTube video. The video was the occasion, the means to an end. A convenient excuse, maybe, or maybe just the last spark on a heap of dry tinder. Either way, this isn’t about the video, a point that Allahpundit has been making for days now.

So it’s frustrating to read a post where Rushdie is blasted for saying essentially the same thing that this conservative website has been saying, because he happened to add that he doesn’t have sympathy for the filmmaker. Look, who really does have sympathy for this guy? Rushdie is exactly right that “he set out to create a response, and he got it in spades.” Does that mean he should be jailed or murdered or have his tongue torn out for daring to speak against the Capitol? No. But what’s wrong with pointing out that the guy is reaping what he’s sown?

And then on the other hand we have Salman Rushdie. Personally, if I were Rushdie, I would have been a whole lot more pissed at the insistence that the two situations (Rushdie’s fatwa over The Satanic Verses and the protests over “The Innocence of Muslims”) were oh-so-similar. I probably would have let out a string of expletives at the interviewer. I certainly wouldn’t have been as calm and gracious as Rushdie was, because there is a huge difference between art and propoganda. It’s an important difference. It’s much, much more important than people allow. It’s the difference on which regimes rise and fall, the difference between a free people and an enslaved people, and the fact that Allahpundit dismissively says, “The film is cheesy and provocative, but so what?” quite frankly scares the hell out of me.

The difference between “The Innocence of Muslims” and The Satanic Verses is like the difference between the Nazi propaganda of the 30′s and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. “The Innocence of Muslims” was designed to whip up hatred against Muslims. The fact that it backfired just shows how poor the craftmanship was. The horrible Nazi films of the 30′s that interposed images of masses of rats with images of masses of Jews were just as disgusting but much more effective. The Satanic Verses and The Metamorphosis are both true works of art that struggle to express and come to grips with the alienation of an entire people. Propaganda seeks to obscure truth, to blind and hypnotize the masses. Art seeks to shed light, to bring clarity and catharsis. Taking art in the one hand and propaganda in the other and elevating them as equals on the basis of “freedom of speech” is reprehensible and dangerous. No one, least of all Salman Rushdie, is saying that the man who made this film shouldn’t have the fundamental right of the freedom of speech. But neither should we feel sympathy for someone when their poorly-made propaganda is recognized for what it is.

This is about much, much more than “the need to pass aesthetic judgment”. What it comes down to, in the end, is whether we as a people, as a culture, have free minds. Have we so lost all the goodness and wisdom that is given to us with the liberal arts that we cannot see the difference between art and propaganda, or is it worse than that? Do we no longer care? Have we become so blind to truth, goodness and beauty that the litmus test we offer before deciding whether or not something should be said is whether or not it falls under “freedom of speech?” Because if that’s the case, then no matter who’s responsible, conservatives or liberals, the liberal arts have been well and truly destroyed. And that frightens me more than any other crisis facing our country.

This is by no means an exhaustive post on the subjects I brought up. There is a crisis of education facing our country, and there are real dangers in the responses coming from both conservatives and liberals. This is merely my first attempt to dive into those issues that I hope to look at more extensively in the future.

  • Jenny

    I agree mostly with what Salman Rushdie said except for when he said he had no sympathy for the filmaker. The distinction in my mind is the question that Lauer asked was when you saw him being hauled in for questioning, did you have any sympathy for him? The fact that he was hauled in by our government in the dead of night for questioning in the noncrime of posting a YouTube video should absolutely generate sympathy. The question was not whether he thought it was art or propaganda or whether he deserved blowback.

    When Rushdie published his book, his government protected him. When this new guy posted his movie, his government publicly named him and brought him in for questioning. The sympathy Rushdie should feel is that he could have easily been treated in the same manner. What makes Rushdie a hypocrite is that he thinks *he* deserved protection because he made art, but the filmmaker does not deserve protection because he made propaganda.

    It is not for the government to decide what is art, thus deserving protection, and what is propaganda, thus deserving prosecution for thoughtcrime. I do not have sympathy for the general publicity the filmmaker is getting, but I do have sympathy for how he is being treated by our government that supposedly protects free speech.

    • Theresa

      Just a thought- given the extensive backlash and international violence the video has sparked, I think the questioning would have more to do with investigating whether this guy had set out to cause such violence. He has free speech, but did he set out in his actions to cause dangerous situations for Americans and others across the globe? I think that’s worth investigating. The reality is that if he set out to make Americans and our embassies and consulates targets, he’d essentially be guilty of treason as well as a host of other unsavory felonies. I think it’s a fine line to walk on protecting free speech, but I also think in the face of so much violence, questioning the maker of the film seems prudent to me.

  • http://www.grace-filled.net jen

    Interesting…

  • Ted Seeber

    The producer wasn’t jailed for his violation of free speech. He was jailed for his violation of his probation, which included a *specific* restriction on his speech not being posted on the Internet in response to a conviction for fraud and meth production a few years back.

    Here’s the reason why though people mention his production quality first: Because _The Innocence of Muslims_ is about as watchable as _Manos The Hand of Fate_. It is a cinch that none of the rioters have seen more than the trailer- because the actual film is so bad that nobody can sit through more than a few minutes of it. To call this film propaganda gives propaganda a bad name. It is actually WORSE than the “Movie Stars Like Donald Duck are Sleeping with Your Wife” propaganda put out by the Chinese for our troops during the Korean War.

    NOBODY can possibly take the cartoonish, clumsy, badly shot, and horridly overdubed Mohammed to be anything more than a buffoonish character. Certainly NOT historically accurate.

    And thus, rioting over this mess, is the most ridiculous thing ever. If anybody is insulting Islam, it’s the rioters.

  • http://saintsinprogress.blogspot.com Nicole

    I haven’t watched any of the videos in question, so I’m just arguing from a skimpy set of principles here. It seems that you are arguing about the aesthetic and moral differences between art and propaganda, and the commentaries with which you take issue are talking in more legal (and maybe political) terms. They are not “equals on the basis of ‘freedom of speech,’” but in terms of legal status, they are equal–equally protected by freedom of speech, or should be. Same as “all men are created equal”–no, they’re not, except in their God-given dignity as human beings, and (we would like to think) in the eyes of constitutional law.

    No one really seems to be trying to say otherwise, from you to Rushdie to Allahpundit et al. Where I would expect Rushdie to have some sympathy is basically what your first combox visitor, Jenny, also said. It doesn’t need to be taken any further but still that’s some basic sympathy. You said, “neither should we feel sympathy for someone when their poorly-made propaganda is recognized for what it is.” As if all the guy is going through is just a manifestation of this “recognition.” As if the poor quality and nature of his speech disqualify him from protection and human feeling. I don’t think you mean that. I don’t feel sympathy for the guy because of his unmasked propaganda, but because of his trampled rights.

    I think your last paragraph is a little backwards, too. It seems to me that there has always been a tension, in applying and preserving freedom of speech, to refrain from applying the litmus test of goodness, beauty, and (to a point) truth in order to qualify speech as protected. The whole point is that in order to protect the good, you have to allow the bad, too. (Obvious exceptions are things like libel and defamation, and perhaps one can make an argument on those specifics.) We can see the difference between art and propaganda but we also have to see that the speakers of both deserve equal protection–and to some extent, sympathy.

    Maybe all you’re saying is “Yes, he had a right to make the film, but he SHOULDN’T have done!” and we are just ultimately quibbling over what sympathy is.

  • metrygirl

    In answer to your question, I have sympathy for this guy. He’s an American citizen who broke no laws. I’m not going to comment on the quality or content of the film because it is irrelevent. Unless the film made a direct threat against, libeled or defamed a living person, he was perfectly within his rights. And anyone is within their rights to criticize his aesthetics and motives. The government, in contrast, should not. The government is supposed to protect our constitutional rights. I find it disturbing that he has been questioned about violating his probation, which could be percieved as the government using it’s only legal means to harass him. It’s also problematic that the state department contacted google, questioning if this film met their content standards. This was buried in a story in the L.A. Times, and oddly enough has not come up in the mainstream media. Again, this could be government intimidation, and I applaud Google & Youtube for keeping the video up. I find Salmon Rushdie’s comment that he has no sympathy, and that the film-maker brought this on himself the height of hypocrisy. The price was put on Rushdie’s head not because he created “Art”, but because he expressed ideas that some find repulsive. Keep in mind, the protestors/murderers have never commented on the quality of the work, but the content of the ideas. The difference between these two “works of art” really are just aesthetics. As free citizens we can debate the quality and meaning of art as much as we’d like. We will be less free if the government judges which speech is acceptable.

  • Rich Horton

    “Propaganda seeks to obscure truth, to blind and hypnotize the masses. Art seeks to shed light, to bring clarity and catharsis.”

    This is almost entirely wrong. This posits an understanding in which “art” is deemed closer to truth than “propaganda.” In reality there is no hard and fast distinction between the two, and truth never, EVER, enters into the picture. Take Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” Where does the “art” end and the “propaganda” begin? Who can determine that with certainty? No one. They simply are not seperable. And, what is the truth of it? That is something which only becomes known in the fullness of history and, as a result, this means truth is something which lays forever outside the context of the film. However, that isn’t the way those who believe in the romanticism of art want to view things. To stay in the World War II context, take Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”. There are those that wish to make the film a prophetic vision of “truth” and light ringing out in a moment of deceit and darkness. While the film was certainly on the right side of history in its identification of Hitler as a villain, it certainly did not present the truth. In the film, Adanoid Hynkel’s antipathy towards Jews was presented as being nothing but a cynical political ploy, while in Hitler the hate was real and in deadly earnest. Both “The Great Dictator” and “Triumph of the Will” can rightfully be called proagandistic art or artistic propaganda. Truth lies in neither of them.

    It saddens me that so few have bothered to ask what the situation of Egyptian Copts must be to have someone in their community produce such a film. (And if a German Jewish film-maker had produced just such a film against the Nazis in 1935 would the world have been right to dismiss it as mere propaganda?) I’ll agree with anyone who says the truth does not lie within this film (or trailer or whatever it actually is). And if the extremists get their way and the threatened gencide against the Copts is carried out, how then would we view this whole episode?

    • cowalker

      Your point about “The Great Dictator is extremely important. What about humor? It may not be “art” as recognized by critics, but what about movies such as Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” or “The Meaning of Life” ? They may only be intended to get laughs. Shouldn’t they be protected speech? Are the creators somehow less worthy of sympathy when threatened with death than Mr. Rushdie?

      I read a quote in the New York Times from a Muslim protestor who expressed anger that even though Muslims did not disrespect Jesus or Moses or other “prophets,” “Americans” still demonstrate disrespect for Mohammed. The demonstrator appeared to be completely unaware that Jesus and Mohammed have no protection from disrespect in Western countries, or that Jesus makes regular appearances, along with other “Super Friends” like Buddha and Krishna in the very disrespectful cartoon “South Park.” It is this extremely parochial mindset that terrorists like Al Qaeda and the Taliban exploit to gain support for their murderous agendas.

      The answer is not to placate the offended with expressions of sympathy. We cannot and will not curb free expression in the Western world to accomodate the limited perspective of people who have not learned the lessons we learned in hundreds of years of religious wars in Europe. Muslims must somehow gain self-confidence so that they do not need their dignity to be propped up by non-Muslims aping a respect they do not feel for religious icons of any kind. All I can say is “I’m sorry you’re so thin-skinned. I hope you get better.” I understand that diplomacy requires our statesmen to protest the equivalent of “Your wife is beautiful and your children are smart” no matter what they think, but trying to guilt people out over free speech is wrong.

  • kel

    in ref. to free speech, let me say this, I am responsible for what I say, If I call another woman the b word, she might get mad and probably pull my hair and want to beat me, so yes, I am responsible for my actions, however, I can then sue her for assault and she can probably sue me for defamation. But if she gets really pissed off and really thin skinned, and beats me to death, than that might have a manslaughter. If now she feels because of me calling her the b-word and now wants to blow up say a building she saw me walk into, now that to me is a terrorist attack, the whole building and everyone else in it, has nothing to do with me calling her the b-word. Point is really, which one is the more punishable offense, the scale gets worse and worse depending on how she reacts. She could’ve controlled herself when I called her the b-word and prob. just sued me for defamation and I would have been the one at fault there, but if she lets it get worse, the tables turn and now she’s at bigger fault.

  • http://dontalkdo.blogspot.com Andre J Smith

    Rushdie’s words and ‘lack of sympathy’ for the maker of the latest Mo Movie echo what is in my opinion the only really solid reaction to this situation by anyone who is really living in the 21st Century and is privileged enough to understand and enjoy the benefits of democracy and a tradition of liberal ideas. There is a significant difference between a ‘creative’ act of malevolence and one which is done in order to comment on an issue, no matter how sensitive. the Mo movie, even if it had been made well (which is a contradiction as then maybe it would have shifted into the meta or commentative) remains a confrontational act of aggression. There are few amongst us (except maybe for Mahatma Gandiesque folk) who will remain calm and emotionless in the face of a focused barrage of deliberate insults toward our person or what we hold dear, as were made in this film. I write as a secular scientist who has serious reservations about all religion and superstitious beliefs yet cherishes the value of treating others with respect.

  • Mick Tremolo

    Yes I have to say I also dissent with your strange “art-o-meter” guaging of the sympathetic dignity of a given bit of film. Truth is what’s important not some degree of artiness. Can we distinguish a finely calibrated scale in which one work is ever so slightly more worthy of our designation of art and hence of protection?

    More importantly, you compare this poorly produced polemic on Islam’s history and doctrine with the anti-semitism of the Nazis. Forgive me for actually discussing the content of the thing, but I think you massively beg the question by this comparison. Is it wrong to suggest that Islam, in both its ethnogenetic narrative and its hermeneutically sealed scripture, has internalized a perverse view of sexual relations and human freedom? The video is crass in the way it points this out, but I think we can forgive a copt or two a certain stridency when they are being slaughtered with their (and our own)government’s tacit approval. So yeah, I don’t think it is an idication of thoughtful commentary to condemn the video in stentorian terms without some reference to its claims and the teachings of Islam. That is, however, a conversation that must never ever happen.


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