Arguments That Nobody Asked For: Rushdie, Liberalism, & The Curious Case of Adam Gopnik

1. We’re not in Quebec anymore…

Once upon a time, dear children, the world was enchanted. In a distant and magical decade called “the 1980s,” it was possible for a writer from Montreal armed with a Bachelor’s degree in art history from McGill and a graduate degree from the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU to acquire—in a short period of time and with a relatively thin résumé, degrees from McGill and NYU notwithstanding—a staff writing position at the New Yorker magazine. This writer’s first piece was about baseball, but he quickly assumed a role as the magazine’s resident art critic…a suitable role, given his background as a student of art history. This was, after all, a world in which humanities degrees and a few good connections could lead a meagerly qualified but halfway talented writer to a comfortable position at a prestigious magazine in relatively short time. This was the time of Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe, a time when, wonder of wonders, the City of New York—nay, Manhattan itself—conferred all its blessings to (middle-class white) residents at affordable prices.

The magic of the 1980s eventually gave way to the wondrous Golden Age of Liberalism Victorious, otherwise known as the ’90s, when a New Yorker staff writer could uproot himself from America’s greatest city and move to Paris, dubbing himself the magazine’s Paris correspondent. On the basis of five years abroad, the writer could publish a well-reviewed book on his life in the City of Light. Such a writer could later edit essay anthologies about expats in Paris, anthologies with titles like Americans in Paris. He could, without much advanced study of French literature, write introductions to widely published editions of writers like Balzac and Proust.

Such were the powers of the editorialists during the magic times. Nowadays, one must be a rabid, Internet-famous, crypto-fascist professor with no knowledge of Russian in order to write introductions to new editions of major Russian authors. Such is the time we live in now, the Circus Times.

In the earlier times, it was possible for an editorialist to note the surprising-if-meaningless fact that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the very same day (a happenstance of chronology that, for some writers, had deep numerological significance). It was possible not only to draw some pretty steep conclusions from this accident of history but to write an entire book about Lincoln and Darwin without too much knowledge of either.

By now, the year was 2009. The magic times were still with us, if slightly darkened by wars abroad. This was the time of the Beloved Leader, who spoke in soaring terms about our greatest hopes and highest aspirations in words that were lovingly memorized by editorialists, words that sent chills up their legs, words that (I admit) inspired me. This was the time when our opponents were worthy; when our political enemies were noble-if-misguided; when ideas mattered; when the debates were fierce but full of meaning; and when the stakes of rhetoric seemed high, even if its effects were often invisible among those ordinary people whose standard of living decreased every year.

These were the magic times. This was liberalism.

2. Adam Gopnik’s Defense of Liberalism; or, Mr. Ravioli and me

I admit, as a sometime-academic with an advanced (if pretty much worthless) degree in literature, I get resentful when newspaper and magazine editorialists tackle big topics in broad strokes for the general public. I think the general public deserves better. I think the general public deserves experts who have spent decades researching a big topic and who write well about those topics in accessible prose with fine, careful strokes. Of course, experts and academics don’t tend to write for the general public or in accessible prose, so the fault is mostly theirs. They’ve created a vacuum that editorialists are happy to fill. Oh well.

I first encountered Adam Gopnik’s writings in 2011, during my time in an advanced studies program for talented students from public high schools in New Hampshire. My task was to prepare these students, most of whom were bound for small private colleges or elite universities, for the daunting task of writing that most challenging and least forgiving of genres: the college application essay. While I collected published essays to inspire my students, a colleague recommended that I check out Gopnik’s most well-known essay, “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli.” I immediately liked the title and took his recommendation.

The essay’s ostensible topic is very sweet: Gopnik’s young daughter Olivia has an imaginary friend named Mr. Ravioli, who inspires such attachment in Olivia that her parents become concerned about her relationship to reality. The essay’s actual topic is adults and their increasing reliance on new technologies. Gopnik worries about the effects that this reliance will inevitably have on younger generations, on their ability to connect with each other in a meaningful way. The essay was published in 2002, and its concerns turned out to be pretty salient, to say the least.

What bothered me about “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli,” however, was not the argument but the tone, the setting, and the characters: upwardly mobile New Yorkers, the “creative class” (as we called them back then), the sort of people who viewed themselves as staggeringly normal and representative of the average-if-well-read American everyman; who imagined their own lives and their own concerns in literary terms; whose idea of adulthood was shaped by Woody Allen’s great films of the 1980s, back when Allen was not yet a national pariah. Gopnik’s with his daughter’s imaginative development and its potential to stifle her entry into upper-middle-class respectability felt just a little…”privileged” (to use a term that was just beginning to percolate in the culture in 2011, a term that would no doubt drive Gopnik nuts today).

Of course, I needn’t relate to an essayist’s personal life in order to benefit from their insights. But the veneer of Manhattanite comfort that stretched over the surface of the entire essay left me feeling slightly (only slightly) disgusted. I didn’t want to encourage my students to imagine the world from Gopnik’s perspective; his perspective was already, in my view, too much of a cultural dominant. Consequently, I chose not to assign the essay.

After 2011, I became more aware of Gopnik’s presence in the culture, even if he existed mostly in my periphery. Then, in 2019, he published A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism. This was my first encounter with Gopnik during the Circus Times, after 2016, when the three most prominent candidates for president of these states united had been a corrupt liberal, a grumpy socialist, and a fascist clown. Observing this state of affairs, Gopnik concluded that one liberal candidate was too few. He also observed that his daughter (now a teenager) was, like many members of her generation and class, drifting toward a brand of socialism that harshly critiqued the failures of American liberalism (we called it “neoliberalism,” and we called our politics “democratic socialism,” which, in our ignorance, was sometimes difficult to distinguish from Euro-liberal “social democracy,” a fact that was lost on Gopnik).

Gopnik perceived, correctly, that liberalism was under attack in the late 2010s. This attack came on two fronts. One came from a reactionary cohort of his generation and their elders, mostly in the suburbs, who embraced the violent anti-liberalism of Donald Trump. The other came from middle-class youth, millennials, who embraced the more egalitarian, socialist anti-liberalism of Bernie Sanders.

Obviously the gravest threat to liberalism came from Trump, who won the presidency with an enormous segment of the vote, if not a majority, and whose party has since then spent all their energy dismantling the institutions of liberal democracy, such as they are. Sanders, meanwhile, represented a small constituency that would go on to lose two primaries, one to an avatar of neoliberalism, Hillary Clinton, and the second to a fossilized remnant of mid-century liberalism, Joe Biden. A seat or two in the House of Representatives notwithstanding, democratic socialism was clearly not ascendant when A Thousand Small Sanities appeared.

But, perhaps because his view of the nation was situated from his office in Manhattan and because his daughter was more likely to support Sanders than Trump, Gopnik wrote A Thousand Small Sanities as if both fronts in the war for liberalism were equally strong. Indeed, he directed most of the book’s energy against the so-called “illiberal Left.” He correctly perceived that much of the debate between socialism and liberalism, a debate between upper-middle-class white Boomers and their downwardly-mobile white children, was about vibes, was about “cool” and “uncool.” And rather than make liberalism seem “cool,” which would have been an unwise tactic, Gopnik sought to make it seem “good” and “effective.” In fact, he positively embraced its innate “uncoolness.” Liberalism was cringe, but cringe was okay. Cringe worked. It had, after all, been working just fine—expanding rights and freedoms—for at least two hundred years.

Throughout the book, Gopnik defended ideological inclusivity. He defended slow reforms. He defended taking one or two steps backward in order to take three or four steps forward. He defended pragmatism. He argued that the fight against modern fascism would be won not by direct confrontation and power politics, but rather by adopting a strategy straight out of The Shawshank Redemption: we ought to chip away at the fascist behemoth with a thousand tiny rock hammers, “a thousand small sanities.” The book was a brazen defense of the much-vaunted “high road.”

A Thousand Small Sanities received some good reviews from the liberal press, but by 2019 a large number of journalists, editorialists, and other commentators had detected that something wasn’t quite working within the liberal order. Peter Conrad of the Guardian wrote:

It’s a shame that the title of A Thousand Small Sanities, selected by the publisher, Gopnik admits, from “among many stray aphorisms”, recalls a phrase in the inaugural address delivered by the first President Bush, who purloined an image from CS Lewis’s Narnia and fuzzily imagined America as “a thousand points of light”. Gopnik praises “small acts” of liberal virtue and counsels patience: those flickery initiatives of goodwill may take “another century to systematise”. But do we have that long? The hope Gopnik expresses seems frail. With a maniacal ego installed in the White House and BoJo the clown bouncing toward No 10, we are actually living through the bonfire of the sanities.

In a scathing and humorous review for The New Republic, David Sessions attacked Gopnik for belonging to the “bohemian bourgeoisie,” for caricaturing both the historical Left and its present iteration without really knowing much about either, and for ignoring liberalism’s failure to address the crises of the twenty-first century (climate change leaps to mind). I encourage you to read Sessions’s full review. He concluded:

“There is a tragic rule of twenty-first century life, a rule of double amnesia,” [Gopnik] writes, gearing up for one of his dubious historical declarations. “The right tends to act as though the nineteenth century never happened, while the left tends to act as though the twentieth century never took place.” No century is Gopnik’s strong suit, but like most defenders of the status quo he has a particular difficulty seeing the twenty-first

David Bell, in his Nation review, wrote:

…the main problem here is that Gopnik is confusing a temperament [liberalism] with a concrete political program and assuming that even the most admirable temperament can act as the principal guide to effective political action. It can’t. Effective political action depends on an analysis of the actual historical conditions under which we find ourselves. In some times and places—the mid-20th century in Sweden, for instance—cautious, incremental reform may well have been the best strategy for moving society in a more tolerant and egalitarian direction. In others, like the United States in the 1930s or Britain after 1945, bolder policies were required, involving an expanded public role in the economy, expanded social services, and taxation measures aimed at reducing inequality and curbing oligarchic power. The United States in 2019 is another of these. To return to Gopnik’s metaphor: While the rhinoceros has indeed been “a completely successful animal,” today there are only about 30,000 left in the world, and the species stands on the edge of extinction.

The final point is damning. Yes, liberalism has been with us for centuries. Yes, it seems to have moved history along toward an expansion of liberty, freedom, and equality. So did medieval feudalism, despite its nasty reputation; just compare it to the slave societies of antiquity. Even fossil fuels have done more than any other technology to extend the human lifespan and combat systemic famine, but now they threaten our future on the planet. Every effective medicine has an expiration date.

So by 2019, Gopnik’s finger seemed further from the pulse of the American zeitgeist than ever before (perhaps things were different in Paris, who knows). But he would persist in his defense of liberalism against the American Left.

4. The Rushdie Affair

This previous weekend, Salman Rushdie was brutally, almost fatally stabbed while delivering a lecture in Chautauqua, New York. We don’t have all the facts yet, but many assume (with good reason) that the attack was motivated by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwā on Rushdie over the Satanic Verses controversy. This controversy is well known: Rushdie wrote a novel with some less-than-flattering content about Islam. The Ayatollah, who was suffering from low approval ratings after the disastrous Iran-Iraq war, seized an opportunity for some good press among his fundamentalist base by sentencing Rushdie to death. A Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was actually murdered as a result.

After a few years in hiding, Rushdie began to reappear in public. He attended seminars and gave lectures. He even showed up at a U2 concert in 1993. Rushdie, like most of us, assumed sometime around the turn of the millennium that the energy behind the threats on his life had dissipated, even as the Iranian government insisted that the fatwā remained in effect. By 2022, the whole affair seemed to be long over…until Saturday.

The day of the recent attack, Gopnik weighed in:

Efforts will be made, are bound to be made, to somehow equalize or level the acts of Rushdie and his tormentors and would-be executioners—to imply that though somehow the insult to Islam might have been misunderstood or overstated, still one has to see the insult from the point of view of the insulted. This is a doubly despicable viewpoint, not only because there was no actual insult offered but also because the right to be insulting about other people’s religions—or their absence of one—is a fundamental right, part of the inheritance of the human spirit. Without that right of open discourse, intellectual life devolves into mere cruelty and power seeking.

“The most rudimentary thing about literature—it is here that one’s study of it begins—is that words are not deeds.” Those were the words of the Soviet dissident author Andrei Sinyavsky as he tried to explain to his equally deaf judges just what a novel is, shortly before being sentenced to a labor camp. Literature exists in the realm of the hypothetical, the suppositional, the improbable, the imaginary. We relish books for their exploration of the implausible which sometimes defines a new possible for the rest of us. Our commitment to that belief—to what is quaintly called freedom of speech and liberty of expression—must be as close to absolute as humanly possible, because everything else that we value in life, including pluralism, progress, and compassion, depends on it. We don’t know what it is possible for us to feel until we are shown what it is possible for us to imagine.

The idea—which has sprung to dangerous new life in America as much on the progressive as on the theocratic side of the argument—that words are equal to actions reflects the most primitive form of word magic, and has the same relation to the actual philosophy of language that astrology has to astronomy. Sticks and stones really can break bones. Words can never hurt you, just challenge your mind and categories. (And yes, of course, some words are vile and can be rejected by our calling them so. No one wants to protect authors from bad reviews, even those by autocrats; it is threats from bullies that they need protection from.) Everyone has a right to be offended by whatever offends them, and everyone on earth has a right to articulate their offense. No one has a right to maim or kill someone because our words offend them. Blasphemy is not a mighty category demanding respect but a pitiful invention of those who cannot tolerate having their pet convictions criticized. It demands no respect from anyone; on the contrary, it requires solidarity among all decent people in opposing it. An insult to an ideology is not the same as a threat made to a people. It is the opposite of a threat made to a person. To assume the criticism of ideas as assaults on people is the end of the liberal civilization. The idea that we should be free to do our work and offer our views without extending a frightened veto to those who threaten to harm us isn’t just part of what we mean by free expression—it is close to the whole of what we mean by civilized life.

“Efforts will be made, are bound to be made, to somehow equalize or level the acts of Rushdie and his tormentors and would-be executioners—to imply that though somehow the insult to Islam might have been misunderstood or overstated, still one has to see the insult from the point of view of the insulted.” I found this statement from Gopnik simultaneously flabbergasting and unsurprising.

Let’s be clear about one thing: the media’s coverage of the brutal attack on Rushdie has entirely framed Rushdie as a victim, the perpetrator as a criminal. As journalists have engaged in reasonable speculation about the link between the attack and the 1989 fatwā, and as commentators and writers have poured in to offer their opinions on the attack, I have seen not one prominent (or, for that matter, minor) voice equivocate or stammer or otherwise fail to offer a full-throated condemnation of the attack. I’ve seen nothing in print that suggests that Rushdie is in any way at fault for the attack, that he somehow provoked the attack by insulting Islam and writing The Satanic Verses.

But Gopnik is not writing about Rushdie, really. He’s merely extending the attack on the American Left from A Thousand Small Sanities. He’s doing so in this moment, in relation to Rushdie, on the day of the attack…which is a little obscene, in part because the implicit argument he’s making—that the attack on Rushdie is bound to be linked to, and may have originated in, the current “woke” culture that treats language as violence—is patently untrue.

Let’s look at the reality of the situation. It wasn’t in the squishy, sensitive year of 2022 that people worried about the “lived experience” of Muslims who were somehow “attacked” or “subject to violence” by The Satanic Verses. That happened in 1989, during the magic times. Back then, as Christopher Hitchens recalled, John Berger and Norman Podhoretz (hardly advocates of wokeism) suggested that “Rushdie got what he deserved for insulting a great religion.” Arthur Miller refused to sign a statement condemning the fatwā on the grounds that he (Miller) was Jewish, and didn’t want to take sides between Rushdie and Islam…as though Islam itself, and not the Ayatollah personally, had declared the fatwā, as though a death sentence on a writer for writing a novel is an issue to which there are “two sides.”

Even presidents refused to back Rushdie. George H.W. Bush offered no comment on the fatwā, on the grounds that “no American interest was involved.” Although he condemned the fatwā, Jimmy Carter published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Rushdie’s Book Is An Insult.” He wrote:

A negative response among Christians resulted from Martin Scorsese’s film, ”The Last Temptation of Christ.” Although most of us were willing to honor First Amendment rights and let the fantasy be shown, the sacrilegious scenes were still distressing to me and many others who share my faith. There is little doubt that the movie producers and Scorsese, a professed Christian, anticipated adverse public reactions and capitalized on them.

”The Satanic Verses” goes much further in vilifying the Prophet Mohammed and defaming the Holy Koran. The author, a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world.

The death sentence proclaimed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, was an abhorrent response, surely surprising even to Rushdie. It is our duty to condemn the threat of murder, to protect the author’s life and to honor Western rights of publication and distribution. At the same time, we should be sensitive to the concern and anger that prevails even among the more moderate Moslems.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s offer of paradise to Rushdie’s assassin has caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights.

While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.

These were the terms of the debate in 1989, when liberalism reigned. The men and women who set these terms, who argued that we should consider Rushdie’s right to publish a potentially offensive novel alongside the views of people who would murder him because they took offense to that novel, were liberals. This is the actual history of the Rushdie affair.

But Gopnik, as usual, is not interested in parsing actual history. He is interested in his own relevance, and in 2022 in New Yorker magazine, relevance is obtained by stoking today’s culture wars. And as usual, liberals are more interested in attacking the American Left, who do not wish to tear down liberalism’s accomplishments but to advance them further, than in attacking the American Right, who are engaged in a project to assault and dismantle everything liberalism has accomplished. Gopnik’s argument in the Rushdie piece is disingenuous and self-serving. It is is an argument nobody asked for.

But such is life and publishing in the Circus Times.

This blog typically concerns Christianity, specifically my own Christianity, and I realize that, by making fun of Adam Gopnik, I have written an uncharitable, un-Christian post. I do not wish to attack Gopnik’s character, although that’s obviously what I’m doing here. I cannot help but view as inseparable his character, his class position, his argument in the Rushdie piece, and his writerly ethos. I’m not condemning him as a human being and would gladly buy him a drink, although he is in a better position to do the buying. But I find his attempt to use the 1989 fatwā and the recent attack against Rushdie to score points against Americans Leftists despicable. One has nothing to do with the other.

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