Public ideas

Rushdie and freedom of expression

Joe Walker, in his Jolly Swagman site, has drawn our attention to Christopher Hitchens’ response in 1989 when he heard about Ayatolla Khomeni’s fatwa against Salmon Rushdie:

It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression.

Vijay Mishra, of Murdoch University, writing in The Conversation, describes Rushdie as “an outspoken defender of writers’ freedom of expression”: How Salman Rushdie has been a scapegoat for complex historical differences.

He goes on to write “The fatwa dramatically turned him into something more than a writer: in fact, into a cultural icon representing the importance of a writer’s freedom of expression”.

He carefully defines a writer’s freedom of expression as something that is on a higher plane than the general libertarian idea that no utterance should be off-limits. Rather, “it is a freedom earned through labour and artistic excellence”.

Also writing in The Conversation Myriam Renaud, of DePaul University, Chicago, explains Why Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ remains so controversial decades after its publication. She provides a short summary of The Satanic Verses, suggesting that it can be interpreted in many ways – as artistic experimentation, as pure fiction, or as a claim that the Prophet Muhammed was a fake.

Coincidentally, before the assault on Rushdie, a reader sent a link to an article in the London Review of Booksby the British-Israel architect Eyal Weizman, simply titled In Kassel. Its theme is centered on an exhibit by the Indonesian art collective, Taring Padi, at Kassel’s regular Documenta festival of contemporary art. Germany is perhaps the world’s most self-conscious nation when it comes to racism and freedom of expression, but this exhibit caused great distress to the Germans, because among the hundreds of undesirable characters it depicts are two Jews, one a monopolistic businessperson, the other an Israeli soldier.

Fortunately Chancellor Olaf Scholz did not issue a fatwa against the artists, but they had to yield to pressure to make a grovelling apology.

Surely it’s an impoverished world where we cannot question religious texts, and have to pretend that every member of a persecuted minority can do no wrong.

Is the refrigerator the last invention to have improved our lives?

Another contribution by Joe Walker is an article on The Scholar’s Stage website with the provocative title Has technological progress stalled?. The article is Tanner Greer’s review of a book by Vaclev Smil Creating the twentieth century: technological innovations of 1867-1914 and their lasting impact.

As the title suggests, the technologies that have had the greatest impact in our lives were developed in the late nineteenth century. Smil lists “steam turbines, internal combustion engines, electric motors, alternators, transformers and rectifiers, incandescent light, electromagnetic waves, recorded sound, linotype machines, sulfate pulp, photographic film, aluminum smelting, dephosphorised steel and steel alloys, reinforced concrete, nitroglycerin, and synthesized ammonia”.

Greer notes the omission of information technologies from this list, even though the telegraph and telephone were established in the nineteenth century. Information technologies may not involve the physical transformations of earlier inventions, but as Greer points out they are having a tremendous effect on the way our lives are organized.

One could also add the comment that medical technologies are absent from the list. The twenty-year increase in life expectancy since 1914 is quite a transformation.

Smil’s arguments and Greer’s response bring into question the general hype about our living in an age of unparalleled technological progress. The basic information technology of our day, the transistor, dates to 1947: from then on it’s all been incremental. Those who studied engineering in the 1960s were able to predict fairly accurately how those technologies would progress. Moore’s Law (the doubling of semiconductor density every year) dates to the mid 1960s. Even undergraduates were able to see technologies like the GPS, the Internet, virtually free video communication, and real-time analysis of large data sets, over a not-too-distant horizon. But they couldn’t have imagined the changed social arrangements, such as social media.

In the 1920s the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff developed the idea of long waves of economic progress, each wave of 60 years or so developing in response to technological developments, and many believe we are now in the late stages of an IT Kondratieff cycle. You can see a short YouTube description of Kondratieff’s theories, or a longer Wikipedia description.

Kondratieff accurately predicted the Great Depression of the 1930s, but he didn’t live to see his theories tested (and generally confirmed) in later years, because like most bully bosses who cannot stand the presence of subordinates who are cleverer than they are, Stalin had him shot in 1938.