10/17/2006 06:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Salman Rushdie Says Down with Politically Correct

No surprise here. Salman Rushdie has balls. The novelist, celebrity, intellectual, thinks we've gotten too politically correct. But in doing so, he's asking us to play with fire. Are we sophisticated enough to speak about these things without killing each other?

Last Wednesday, it was a rainy and disgusting night, but I managed to trek up to the Center for Inquiry and New York Society for Ethical Culture for AN EVENING WITH SALMAN RUSHDIE, who gave a talk on "Secular Values, Human Rights and Islamism".
That evening he agued the following:

1. That we, referring to folks living in the United States and the United Kingdom, are not equipped to deal with the big problems associated with the war on terror because we cannot dialogue accurately about what the problems are without the "intimidation" of being politically correct. We can't name our problems because we're too busy pussy-footing around the issues.

2. He criticized "the left", both in the US and in the UK, for its "cultural relativism", as in, for example, those of those of us who have excused the universally bad behavior of female circumcision or death-by-stoning.

3. He argued that a new "religious fascist" rule is upon us. And that we should be okay using the term "islamofascist", even as "the right" uses this term. I asked Rushdie, in the written q&a session after his talk, if he were worried that his ideas would be misconstrued, that George W Bush had, for example used the term "Islamofascist" referring to those troublesome terrorists, a neologism already embraced by those scrambling to make connections between fascists and the militant wings of Islam at work today. Does Rushdie embrace Bush's ideology? I asked. Rushdie responded by laughing, I am not sure if he was being dismissive or if he actually thinks it's funny that his ideas could become handy for right wingers.

4. He also argued against what he called "communalist descriptions", defining yourself by community, like religion for example, instead of by other characteristics that are more central to your identity, like being fat. As a black woman, I'd like to be defined as a married Episcopalian, but I don't think many people see that when they see me, do they? Aren't we defined by our struggles? Aren't we defined by what makes us - dare I say it? Minorities? What world is Rushdie living in?

5. And then interestingly, he stuck it to all of us, with the "absences and silences of contemporary peace-loving Islam", asking why there weren't any Million Man Marches of peace-loving Muslims who were decrying terrorist tactics, why there weren't Muslims around the world calling for the end of genocide in Darfur. Well, I'd like to know why Bono and not Beyonce is raising money for Africa, but that's a whole other bag of chips: I dunno if I should start with the demise of Pan-Africanism or the triumph of noblesse oblige . . .

I thought these were all subtle ideas, from a thoughtful, hurt, insightful individual and I suspected how they would be completely lost on the rest of us, how easily his ideas could be misunderstood. Have I even understood what he was saying? As I looked at this plump, middle-aged, Indian man, standing in front of the mostly white audience, we all might have been a bunch of communists, abolitionists, or atheists, the rain was still falling and the wind was blowing sadistically outside; the crowd was thoughtful, patient, calm - a circle of tolerance, even-mindedness and yet, I wondered, what are you doing Rushdie? I did enjoy this throwing caution to rain.

And yet it was frightening. Because at least in America, there is an undercurrent of violence - always - just waiting to come out, and that violence is invariably connected to race and money. Listen to that puffy CNN host, Lou Dobbs, champion of the middle class, his answer to the middle-class squeeze - criminalize immigrants in this country. Publisher's Weekly tempered its enthusiasm for Dobbs' new book, War on the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business, and Special Interest Groups Are Waging War on the American Dream and How to Fight Back (Viking), by noting "his jeremiad against the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in this country and his support for the vigilante Minuteman Project". Just this week, New York magazine is running a story on a Long Island teenager who took a chainsaw to the face of a latino boy because his poor white family is feeling the squeeze from the latinos taking their jobs. For goodness sakes, we are killing thousands of colored people overseas for oil.

I wondered if Rushdie would deliver this same talk at the University of Tehran, instead of the bunch of presumably rich upper west-siders, myself excluded (I live in Brooklyn and am not rich) in attendance last Wednesday evening. There is something escapist about tattling on your "own people" to outsiders. Hey white people - I am different, is the burden many of us colored folk have in mixed company, even as I write this, I count myself among them.

I do like Rushdie though, despite all this. Despite his wanting to be the honorary black person in a crowd of white folks, talking about how crazy the rest of the colored folks are. I like him because every once in a while, he throws out an idea, that's beautiful, but he'll throw it easy like a grenade. And then it hits you - easy, slow, bam: he said, for example, referring to a writer who inspired him, an idea, that if the divine were not in the image of man or woman, that if it were beyond all that is human, then so too is language. Language was made by people. So how then to interpret all this? Kinda puts sacred texts in a whole new light. How interesting: imagine LIGHT, or A BEE. There's a message!! You idiots!! It made me laugh. How right, how intuitive, that goodness should be beyond language. And in our interpretations of that divine thought, we've gotten "the word" wrong.

He said something else, his last novel - Shalimar the Clown (Random House September 2005) - a novel about a better time in Kashmir, where his family is from, and how the peace in this place was broken and then destroyed altogether. He let on to this idea, that in writing, we can re-create that which was destroyed, in the novel, he says he wanted to recreate his ancestral village before its destruction. But what Rushdie is implying is that we can re-make, we can re-god that which no longer exists. Further, he has compassionately suggested a creative process for rebuilding broken parts of ourselves.