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.

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