Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Seventeen years ago: February 1989

In the spring of 1989, I was a second-semester graduate student. Once a week, I entered a locked courtyard and mounted the stairs to a tiny seminar room for my class in Anglo-Indian Narrative. Our professor—one of the greatest I’ve ever had—announced that she no longer taught the grab-bag “postcolonial” class. The specific conditions of colonization differed so vastly across and within the globe that a single course could not responsibly treat the Caribbean, Canada, Australia, South Asia, and Africa. Of course, she was right.

I remember a lot about that class. Of those early weeks of the term I remember two things. First, we were reading lots and lots and lots of Edmund Burke. I was reading Burke for another class at the time and, to be honest, that meant that twice a week I was humbled by how little of Burke I understood and (more shameful) how little I cared. I really tried, but Burke did not light my fire. Second, after Burke, after Kipling, after memoirs of “the Mutiny” a great, great treat awaited: a visit from Salman Rushdie. I tried to hang in there, eager to be one of the bright young grad students with a smart question when the great novelist visited our class.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, 1989, the fatwa against Rushdie was declared. (The Satanic Verses had been published in September of 1988; it was banned in India in October, weeks before Michiko Kakutani got around to reviewing it for the Times.) He went into hiding. He would most certainly not be coming to our class.

The protests—now deadly—that have erupted over a cartoon depicting Mohammed have put me in mind, again, of that troubled time. I find myself thinking, with weird nostalgia (is that the right word?), “Back in my day, the protests were over highbrow fictional blasphemy, not mere editorial cartoons…”

Ultimately, however, these culture clashes over representations of the sacred are really interesting. In the case of Rushdie, I think, he got tangled (to put it mildly) in the difference between his own perspective as a cosmopolitan Muslim and that of fundamentalist Muslims. The current protests, by contrast, revolve around depictions of Mohammed by a non-Muslim cartoonist: a much more common kind of offense, I think. But then, when the riots begin, these distinctions, these interesting conversations, have already ended. That's the sorry fact about violence.

You can find several smart posts on these sorry events over at Moorish Girl, of course. As Laila Lalami says: “’Leave the cartoonist alone! He has a right to his stupidity!’ And also, for the love of all that is holy, don't we have better things to do than to worry about a cartoon?”

Elsewhere, in more sorry literary events, J. T. Leroy’s identity has finally been unmasked by the writer’s partner (a man in search of a book deal) while, at the Times, one reader is shocked, shocked, to find some actual facts in a novel! What is this distinction between fact and fiction coming to? (Via Moorishgirl):
AFTER READING JOHN BANVILLE’S Man Booker prize-winning The Sea, a slim volume trumpeted as fiction, I was startled to discover, upon perusing my hefty atlas, that this supposedly fantastical place named Ireland was an actual island. While reading, I thought it sounded familiar, yet I let it slide, not wanting niggling particulars to ruin the experience.

Still elsewhere, and far more celebratory, the 8th Carnival of Feminists is up at Gender Geek. There’s a lot to peruse, admire, ponder, and love there. The next Carnival is being hosted by Mind the Gap, on February 22nd. Nominations should be sent to mindthegapcardiff AT yahoo DOT co DOT uk, to arrive no later than 19th February. Among other things, this Carnival ends with links celebrating the lives and work of Betty Friedan, Wendy Wasserstein, and Coretta Scott King as well as the work of Sandra Day O’Connor—lucky in her retirement, though we are hopelessly unlucky in her loss.


Michelle said...

Hi Anne,
I also posted about this issue on my site (see "That's all I have to say about that", "Men in Cartoons" and "Men in Cartoons, Part 2"). LitKicks also has an entry in response to Laila's, which is very good.

You're right in pointing out the distinctions between the Rushdie protests and the current controversy with the cartoons. It's a very interesting topic, the fine line between what is acceptable and what is profane. What will people tolerate? What will they not tolerate? I don't think you can really come up with a general classification of this; it seems to me that the establishment of this fine line is discovered through trial and error, by testing the boundaries. In this case, though, the Danish paper knew that the cartoons would be offensive (they published them on a 'dare' that no paper would print unflattering images of Mohammed). They knew where the boundary was and they knew they were crossing the line and they were aware of the potential consequences, and yet they still published the images. To me, that is inexcusable. And then to republish them under the guise of "freedom of speech" is, to me, an abuse of that freedom. I believe they had a right to publish the images, but just because you CAN publish them doesn't mean you SHOULD.

It's equally dangerous to shut off debate on this issue by dismissing the protestors as "crazy" and the cartoonists/newspapers as "stupid." Each have their reasons for what they did/are doing, and to dismiss them as crazy or stupid is to block off deeper analysis of these issues.

Michelle said...

Hi Anne, it's me again. Just wanted to add something else.

The question we should be asking ourselves is "Why all the uproar over the cartoons?", and not in a rhetorical sense, as most have been asking. Why now? Because, as you pointed out, this is not the first time Mohammed has been caricatured. I personally believe that part of the outrage can be explained by recent events (Iraq war, French gov't prohibiting Muslim girls from wearing head scarves--which, imo, is the state interfering with the church, and equally reprehensible as church interference in state) which have given many Muslims reason to feel that their way of life is being threatened. Some feel that Bush's war in Iraq was not a war against terrorism, but rather a war on Islam. I'm not affirming the veracity of that belief, but that is how many feel. This recent incident with the cartoons only serves to exacerbate these feelings.

Actually, I think this is a perfect case of political demonization. And demonizing rhetoric--from both sides--is not going to help us get to the bottom of the situation, nor will it help us work towards better understanding and a more mutually respectful society. In fact, calling one side "crazy" and the other side "stupid" prevents a discourse that could help us understand each other better from taking place. And if we worked harder to understand each other, rather than resort to demonization, it could prevent a fiasco like this from ever happening.

Unknown said...

Wow, Michelle. Yes. I'm glad I took the time to write this post of mine because your thoughts here--more thoughtful than my initial frustration--have helped me see a lot about the issue's complexity and, as you say, the ways in which its imbedded in the context of 2006. Thanks for taking the time here--I'm going to go to your own posts and learn more, but wanted, quickly, to thank you.

Michelle said...

Actually, I think my comments here were more thoughtful than what I put on my website...:) but you've inspired me. Apparently I haven't said all I needed to say on my site. I'll put up another entry soon based on what I've said here.

PS- I finally saw doubt a few weeks ago--it was excellent, so thanks for the recommendation!