RUSHDIE: EVEN LE CARRÉ NODS

I respect and admire John Le Carré as a writer of superlative fiction, not just an espionage genre writer but an incisive and revelatory examiner of our politics, international relationships and the human condition. I like most of what I have read of him as a man as well. There is one area however where I thought him naïve and his reaction so unlike him as to be unfathomable. As he is no longer around to explain, it may be unfair of me to expound on it. However I am so small a fry that even had he been with us, my views would not have crossed his radar let alone warranted a response, so I don’t feel it too unfair.

It’s about Salman Rushdie. Obviously not the unprovoked attack on him this weekend, as Le Carré was no longer with us to know about it. Rather it was his attitude to the reaction to the Fatwah issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie for his work ‘The Satanic Verses’. In 1989 Le Carré initially said he respected Rushdie’s stand and then said the longer he thought about it the less sympathy he had with Rushdie’s position. There was some suggestion at the time that this may have something to do with a review Rushdie wrote of Le Carré’s ‘Russia House’. In this Rushdie seemed to perpetuate the sneering that ‘literary’ authors have for ‘genre’ ones by saying, “Le Carré wants to be taken seriously … close – but this time anyway – no cigar.” As if the author of ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” needed Rushdie’s imprimatur of seriousness.

Whatever the cause, the bad feeling continued in low key until in 1997 there was an exchange of letters, with interpolation from Christopher Hitchens, never one to pour oil on trouble waters, which fanned the flames. It degenerated a little into a tone not dissimilar to the exchanges on Newman and Baddiel’s ‘History Today’ television sketches.

The key phrase which I felt was oddly out of kilter with Le Carré’s general writing was this one:

“ My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.”

There surely is a law of modern post Enlightenment culture that ensures just that? Adherents of ‘the great religions’ (who decides which are great by the way? Is it a numbers game? Oldest first? Or what? Do ‘small’ religions have to put it up with being insulted?) are surely aware that their omnipotent god is big enough and omnipotent enough to sort things out without their earthly intervention? Apparently not. He also wrote that: “My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers’ camp.”

Now Rushdie and Le Carré made up fifteen years or so later but Le Carré couldn’t just say sorry and move on. He added:” “I admire Salman for his work and his courage, and I respect his stand. Does that answer the larger debate which continues to this day?” And what was that larger debate in 2012?

“Should we be free to burn Korans, mock the passionately held religions of others? Maybe we should – but should we also be surprised when the believers we have offended respond in fury? I couldn’t answer that question at the time and, with all good will, I still can’t. But I am a little proud, in retrospect, that I spoke against the easy trend, reckoning with the wrath of outraged western intellectuals, and suffering it in all its righteous glory.”

An easy trend? I wonder after Charlie Hebdo, the persecution of the teachers in Batley last year and not least what happened to Rushdie himself this weekend whether Le Carré would still write: “The pain he has had to endure is appalling, but it doesn’t make a martyr of him, nor – much as he would like it to – does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall.”

I think I’ll leave the last word to Salman Rushdie:

“John le Carre is right to say that free speech isn’t an absolute,” he added. “We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don’t defend. I’d always thought George Smiley (le Carre’s most famous character) knew that. His creator appears to have forgotten.”

FREE EXPRESSION? NO PROBLEM! THAT’LL BE $8M PLEASE.

As writers we expect to be able to write about pretty much what we want without being harassed by the State or by secret police. This isn’t a realistic expectation everywhere, and I suppose those of us old enough to remember the Cold War think of the Soviet bloc first, closely followed by the continuing repressive regimes of places like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran amongst others. Write what you like there and there will be dire consequences.

We don’t normally think of the USA as being in the same stable as those sorts of ideological prisons. On the contrary, the US enshrines freedom of speech in her constitution – and a good thing too. I admire the USA in so many ways that it hurts when something like this case rears its head.

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave apparently isn’t so keen on freedom of speech when one of her brave boys, who made them proud, does the All American thing and makes some money out of his efforts.

As I said, I like Americans and the USA, and think that they and it stand for many great things. The way they treat their ordinary heroes can leave a lot to be desired though. Ira Hayes was a well known case in point, and if you don’t know about him you should: he was one of the US Marines in that iconic photograph of Old Glory being raised on Iwo Jima, but he didn’t do so well after the war. That was mainly down to neglect and casual racism, Hayes was a Pima Native American, but the US Government is also, it would seem, capable of deliberate vindictive pettiness towards America’s heroes.

Matt Bissonnette, under the pen name of Mark Owen, wrote ‘NO EASY DAY’, a first hand account of his experience with US Navy Seal Team Six that attacked and killed Osama Bin Laden. Writing this account was, apparently, a major crime which brought the full weight of the US state system to bear on him. His fault, supposedly, was breaching a ‘non-disclosure agreement’ with the US Government regarding his actions in the Navy.

That may be the position in strict fact, but the way the Government has reacted makes them look petty, vindictive and frankly elitist. When and if President Obama and/or his senior advisers and generals write about this incident, you can bet they won’t be hounded through the courts to bankruptcy.

The argument is that Bissonnette should have passed the manuscript to the Department of Defense for approval but he didn’t. The DoD and Navy argue that the book revealed things that were prejudicial to the security of the USA. Bissonnette refutes this accusation.  Faced with the threat of criminal proceedings, which he was unlikely to win given the self interest of the state in the proceedings, Bissonnette ‘negotiated’ a deal.

He won’t get put away for life if he hands over all current and future proceeds of the book to the state. He forfeits the rights to any film deals from the book and any money from talks he has given regarding his activities. I can see that there may be a case for making it plain that in future clearance should be sought directly of the US Government (he was advised by a lawyer that there was no need). However, to take the man’s means of making a living away from him in its entirety makes the US State look positively evil. The disclosures, if any, are still out there, but the main interest of the US State appears to be to ensure that it gets all the cash involved.

If this were Russia the US would be up in arms, Congressmen would be falling over themselves to castigate this massive injustice and state bullying.

It is a huge and vindictive attack on freedom of expression. We fought a Cold War, with the US on the side of the Good Guys, in part at least, to protect the individual from state oppression, to enable the little guy to write the truth, free from the oppressive power of the state.

What happened America?

Did the ‘End of History’ mean the end of humanity and justice? Here was a little guy, not an ordinary guy by any means, but not one of the power elites, who the USA asked, on its behalf, and the behalf of the Western democracies, to put himself in danger. He did it willingly and successfully. When he returned he exercised that freedom of speech he thought was part of the package of values he was fighting for. And it was snatched away from him. This is a travesty of western values. The administration and judicial system in the US should be ashamed of this one. I had hoped, and still hope, for better things from what I continue to think of as the bastion of western democratic freedom.