Salman Rushdie, Donald Trump, and Democracy's Box-Seats
The following was originally published as an Op-ed in The Daily Progress on January 22, 2017.
Last September, inside the Paramount Theater, Salman Rushdie served up several enthralling stories as part of a dialogue called “Being Human in a Global Age.” The conversation with Rushdie was part of a litany of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In the shadow of Thomas Jefferson and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he recounted the fresh experience of becoming a US citizen. He reveled in that peculiar sensation of being American, of clinging wide-eyed to the First Amendment.
Almost in the next breath Rushdie told a short story involving—who else?—Donald Trump. Some years ago, he remembered running into Trump at the US Open tennis tournament in New York City. On cue, and on caricature, Trump proceeded to tout his particular box-seats as “the best box” in Arthur Ashe Stadium, eventually offering the seats to Rushdie. Rushdie declined.
For me, these two stories symbolically converge at the intersection where our liberty and humanity meet.
As Trump becomes America’s First Citizen and takes America’s most powerful box-seat—the one inside the Oval Office—I suppose, for all its glaring weaknesses, democracy is in no position to decline. On the other hand, presidential leadership in a free society is no mere sport. And we the people are not simply passive spectators watching “the game” for the sake of amusement.
Last week, President Obama implored the nation during his farewell address, “It falls to us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.” “America is no fragile thing,” he asserted. “But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”
The vision of democracy as an ever-present journey, and an arduous one at that, reminded me of a story I came across recently. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos profiled a mostly unknown “class traitor” in Communist China in the 1950s. Initially a member of the Communist Party, Xu Hongci’s changing views landed him in one of Mao’s labor camps in 1958. In 1972, after trying and failing three times, he escaped successfully—this time reaching Mongolia, and this time staying free.
By introducing us to Xu’s story, Osnos was offering free societies what appeared to be a serious admonition: “[Tyranny] rarely happens in an instant. It arrives like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust.” He went on to say that tyranny does not begin with violence. “It begins with the first gesture of collaboration.”
Rushdie, I thought, is surely a testament to non-collaboration with the forces of tyranny.
Long before becoming American, he spent the better part of a decade underground—the result of a death-sentence fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini after the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988. He was accused of blasphemy against Islam and Muhammad. There were calls to ban the book, or to burn it. Bookstores were bombed. The book’s Japanese translator was murdered in 1991.
Upon the 25th anniversary of the Rushdie Affair, The New Republic’s Paul Berman called it “the most consequential political event in the history of the novel.” Although still in the early part of the twenty-first century, even this grandiose assessment hardly feels like an exaggeration.
For example, in 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally killed on a street in Amsterdam by a young Muslim radical. It was a public act of retaliation for van Gogh’s film, Submission, which critiqued Islam and Muslim communities over the treatment of women.
The following year, in Denmark, Muslim furor erupted over political cartoons negatively depicting Muhammad. The cartoons prompted violent responses by some Muslims in the Middle East and in South Asia.
In France, a decade later, Muslim extremists attacked the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Poetically and painfully, pen versus sword had morphed into keyboard versus Kalashnikov.
While “Islam” versus “the West” is a titillating narrative, I believe it is overly simplistic and too reductive. And, more important, it distracts us from the more substantial clash between fundamentalism—including, but not limited to, the Islamist type—and freedom.
David Livermore has described fundamentalism, sociologically, as “strict adherence to one’s view of the world as the only right way.” “It is,” he says, “essentially a refusal to live in tension” in a multicultural, globalized world.
In point of fact, the Rushdie Affair was actually a cultural harbinger for a type of ideological clash pitting all forms of tyranny against liberty, and, ultimately, our humanity. Yes, the tyranny that would diminish our humanity often wears religious belief. But it also comes clothed in ideologies of race or ethno-nationalism, both of which appear to be trending.
Here, perhaps we could imagine Rushdie freefalling from a plane like a Bollywood actor—a la the protagonist in his controversial novel. He lands in the Paramount Theater, and he begins to speak quite candidly.
Tyranny—even “soft” tyranny—is no fantasy. Trust me: it will take your liberty because it desires your humanity. Democracies must strongly resist if individuals are to keep both.
As Trump climbs into his new box-seat this weekend, there is no need to get hysterical (yet) about his evidenced authoritarian impulses and tendencies. However, we the people must be vigilant and courageous in watching for the twilight. God forbid if we let our eyes adjust.
Recently, I read Jonathan Rauch's article for The Atlantic. He writes, "It's tempting to think of Trump as a fluke, and to believe that at the end of his administration everything will return to normal." I tend to agree with him: we must not be tempted by wishful thinking; some things may not return to normal.
Rauch marshals Yascha Mounk, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-founder of After Trump, a new watchdog group, who urges Americans:
Most people are thinking about Trump as a policy problem: how he will lead to the deportation of undocumented immigrants or lead the U.S. to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. But I think Trump is also potentially an authoritarian threat to the survival of liberal democracy.
There is serious hope, however, in the subtitle of the article by Rauch: "He may well try to govern as an authoritarian. Whether he succeeds depends less on what he does than on how civil society responds."
In other words...
Keep Calm and Carry On, Civil Society.