Replying to a question from the audience at the India Today conclave about what he thinks of article 153 of the Indian Constitution, Salman Rushdie said he is not in favour of laws that curb hate speech. Laws like this, he felt, share the same vein as the rationale with which the bullies work – of hurt religious/cultural sentiments. Every other day some book or work of art be it paintings or sculpting or cinema or theatre, is attacked on the pretext of hurt sentiments and citing a potential law and order problem, however tenuous, the Indian State clamps down on the freedom to express and write books. And Rushdie points at his own brush with the vendors of political Islam on the eve of the Jaipur Literature Festival and the hounding out of painter M F Husain as proof of this abuse of the “hurt sentiments” principle.
Instead, he says, he prefers the American model; which through its First Constitutional Amendment defends free speech at all costs, and defends it so strongly that it allows hate speech. The abundance of free speech, he believes as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is the best defence against the un-freedom of blocked speech – whether by bigots and fanatics (according to him embodied by the ayatollahs and mullahs) or by an authoritarian regime (according to him embodied by the Soviet Union). A “simple yet grand” idea, as Rushdie labels it, that two competing ideas fight it out in a fair competition with an end that reads “may the best idea win”.
“Either with liberals or with bigots”
The underlying assumption, or perhaps statement, in Rushdie’s position is his that the competition is fair; that the two contesting ideas are posited with equal visibility by its beholders who in turn match up in strength. This assumption, in our times – the age of unbridled disparity of opportunity – is a fallacy.
Rushdie adorns the Statue of Liberty with an elaborate metaphor calling it the “bronze goddess who holds up a torch of enlightenment for us [world citizens] all. While we ignore the factual inaccuracy of the “strength of the First Amendment” in ensuring freedom of speech for American citizens, despite the overwhelming evidence of the intrusive and hostile nature of the American State nor can we ignore the ample failure of the liberal doctrine that freedom of the market trickles down to freedom for all in all walks of life.
America saw the number of imprisoned citizens go from under 500,000 in 1980 to over 2000,000 in 2001 (a 300% jump), i.e. the same two decades when American free market evangelists propounded the wonders of globalisation and liberalisation (and this while America’ population grew by only 1.24%). We cannot take cue from fine liberal conclaves where ideas, pure and untouched by the dirt of reality, savagely slug it out, and persist in examining freedom of speech in isolation of the realities of our neo-liberal world.
The simple yet “staggeringly threatening” question that undoes Rushdie’s fine proposition is how do we even begin to ensure that the two debating parties are on an equal footing?
For example, can the millions of impoverished Afghans, liberated from “evil” Islam by being bombed to smithereens, ever match up to the debating, or perhaps broadcasting, might of the imperial powers? Can marginalised identities across the world afford to match up to the bottomless pockets of media moguls and their political lackeys’ allies and lay bare the truth that neo-liberal economics and religious fanaticism work in unison at exploiting the masses?
Rushdie mocks Imran Khan’s resemblance to Gaddafi – both of face and adherence to Islamist theocracy – but doesn’t draw the parallel about how both had wonderful relations with the liberal glitterati of US-Europe and it’s only a later clash of interests that soured the bonhomie. Can there be space to say that the excesses of capitalism and consumerism, such as destruction of indigenous cultures and religions in the mad pursuit of oil and minerals, form the very reasons around which a lot of theocracies build themselves up?
Both, stones under the orders of mullahs and bombs under the orders of NATO, their difference in cultural content notwithstanding, when rained down upon people, kill them. So to be seen clearly on the side of freedom the liberal person needs to be above board on both accounts.
In his speech Rushdie laments the apathy of the larger public in India and Pakistan towards the violations of artistic freedom of the liberal artists. True, India and Pakistan have shown little concern about the violation of the freedom of speech. But even a cursory glance at India will show that those aggrieved by hunger today in India – a direct fallout of West led neo-liberalism – far outnumber liberals aggrieved of censorship.
Firstly, a nation of sick and hungry would find it difficult to have an opinion about a book’s merits. It is in the interest of writers and artists to speak on behalf of emancipation and economic empowerment. Secondly, being sick and hungry is far more distressing than being denied the opportunity to attend chic lit fests. And yet, the apathy of well-heeled liberals towards the harsh realities of the impoverished masses remains more or less undented and few speak out against the vileness of the current world order.
The other, somewhat hidden, side of the story is that the symbols of liberal values (pubs, malls, expensive lit fests et al) are placed in milieus seething with abject poverty. Whether the physical location of swanky pubs, Worli Gaon for example or malls in Mumbai mills, or the metaphorical placement of expensive lit fests in poor countries, these become an ethical eyesore.
For the masses to be responsive to the liberals’ woes it is only right that in their rich arts and colourful letters they speak of the woes of the masses and talk about their hunger, their sickness and their poverty and concretely engage with the reasons for their hunger and sickness and poverty. The well-heeled liberals are more often than not standing on the side of the imperial powers. While in all fairness it must be noted how Rushdie lent support to the Occupy Wall Street movement – it must not be forgotten how Christopher Hitchens (a name Rushdie refers to quite a few times in his speech) stood unabashedly in favour of the devastating war on Iraq and Afghanistan; or for example the many well-heeled liberals who rushed to defend the British government in the face of “rioters” sparing little or no thought to look at the other sides of the story. Given their undying hatred for all things Soviet – they shun the legacy of Soviet literature that celebrated the poor.
Clearly it is inane to expect the masses to come out in support of the liberals when they are clearly on the other side of the class war.
Freedom and Economics
How then can we ever seek to be liberated or discuss the path to liberation if we discuss in isolation from the most glaring and constant aspect of subjugation – economic subjugation?
When he talks of the diminishing freedoms in India, Rushdie will go nowhere if he refuses to acknowledge the simultaneous reversal of socialistic governance in India. The sharp dismantling of social welfare schemes like public distribution of food and domestic fuel, public healthcare, publicly owned industries and banks and the steep rise in intolerance is surely not a coincidence. Similarly when he mocks Pakistan as being a nation where “everything that’s bad in India is worse”, he can go no further than mockery if he does not acknowledge how India took steps, even if far less than needed, and worked at dismantling feudal exploitation and bonded labour while the founding father of Pakistan completely acceded to zamindari.
It’s not just that the two streams are related – the latter (economic exploitation) is the source of the former (fascist intolerance). Consumerist and neo-liberal excesses provide the moral basis on which the mullahs and the pundits base their call to cultural intolerance. They also provide the material conditions that generate the necessary social tensions and groups of frustrated people willing to take up violence under the pretext of morality. Freedom of expression is irreversibly and critically dependent on the freedom of the human who wishes to express herself. The quality and ideology of his speech is directly connected to his physical and intellectual health. Without the real and working freedom to be free of sickness, hunger, poverty, under-education and under-employment, freedom of expression is not a real possibility. In short there is no building a free speech utopia in economic dystopia.
So clearly the logic of free speech is all fine and good with apparently nothing that can be opposed – at least for those who find themselves on the side of democracy and freedom and opposed to bigots – until we are faced with a different form of bigotry vended by a different set of bigots – pro-market bigotry. Opposed as they are, in public view, to both the Ayatollahs and the Soviet Unions for being worshipful of an unquestionable authority, the market bigots instead offer their prayers to the fundamental sanctity of the market.
In trying to stand up for this freedom of expression he claims to espouse, Rushdie would do well to actually go back to the philosopher he calls “discredited by history” – Karl Marx. For it is only then he, as Engels explained, would know the simple fact “hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.”