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the wheels of the bus go round and round…

November 26, 2014

It was during the beginning of the Ferguson debacle that I had been given Salmon Rushdie’s Joseph Anton as a birthday present. This is Rushdie’s memoir of the infamous “Rushdie Affair”, when Ayatollah Khomeini put a fatwa death sentence and million dollar bounty on Rushdie’s head for writing The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah deemed it slanderous of Islam.

Rushdie’s Satanic Verses – a decent, but not exceptional work of fiction, was full of religious satire, humor, metaphor, and all the other literary devices one expects from an intelligent writer of Rushdie’s stature – and but for one crucial mistake the book would have been forgotten a year or two after publication.

Rushdie made the mistake of using satire against his own religion – Islam. And as we know – there are few believers who find humor in satirizing religion – most especially in contemporary Islam.

A fatwa was proclaimed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and for nearly a decade Rushdie had to go into protective custody and become, as he called it, an invisible man. His code name was Joseph Anton.

Joseph Anton (the book) is a rapid and breezy read through the whole sordid affair – the book burning rage of fundamentalists, the cowardly buffoonery of British government officials, the tabloid exploitation, the racism, the stress of living 24/7/365 with armed guards, moving from house to house – all the very real discomforts that dogged Rushdie and his family through all the years of the fatwa.

But what was most distressing for Rushdie was the discovery that who your real friends were, and of the many that you believed were your friends, but who – in a crisis – were not (and who acted like they never were). The many who, once out of the safe space of an intellectual setting, suddenly do not believe in freedom of speech, or defending one against being wrongfully accused.

Throughout Joseph Anton one senses Rushdie’s profound disappointment at not being defended by many of his fellow writers – who, only the day before, were congratulating him and patting him on the back for winning the Booker for his much acclaimed Midnight’s Children.

One never really knows who one’s friends are until a crisis reveals such people. To have fellow writers bale, to have them turn their backs on the sacredness of freedom of expression – willing to clamp the imagination – willing to sacrifice one of their own for their own personal gain – is always one of the great tragedies of the human spirit. A tragedy that is as old as Socrates and Jesus Christ.

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In many essential ways, Joseph Anton reads like Kundera’s 1967 novel The Joke, and his later Book of Laughter and Forgetting – which for me, was my first real look into the world of manipulating History, controlling storytelling, burning books, and why, and how easy it is to do.

I was a naïve 25-year-old man/boy when I first stumbled upon Milan Kundera – first with The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which was also a birthday present) and then a follow-up of his entire oeuvre while working a factory job as a summer student.

The opening chapters of Laughter and Forgetting struck me like a thunderbolt. That image of the revolutionary’s face – Clementis – being erased from all the official photographic records of Czech history has never left me.

I had already read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Kundera’s meditations on the Nietzschean idea of History endlessly repeating itself (yet juxtaposed against a life we only get to live once), the life lived in exile, who controls the story. Very real ideas that came from Kundera’s own lived experiences during the revolution in Czechoslovakia as a young man) The concepts nearly made my head explode.

In Immortality Kundera goes further to show that none of us control our history, especially once we are dead. That power only stays with the living. And we are dead a very long time.

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And now this week, my partner gave me Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, a brilliant examination of the price we pay to maintain Empire – and how we become worse than that which we fear. Waiting for the Barbarians is brutal in its honesty and in its simplicity.

Which brings me back to Ferguson and the shooting death of yet another unarmed black male. Ferguson is more than just this one incident – it is the 100’s – no the 1,000’s of unarmed black men who have been killed by the police in America.

The so-called protectors succumbing to behaviors worse than those that they fear. And the sad realization that the wheel of America’s race history continues to grind away on the backs of the black community like a cliche that no one wants to end.

Increasingly I am realizing that the human species is fundamentally divided into that small group who believes in human rights, equality, and creating vibrant nurturing communities; and that larger group that has not yet fully evolved – the nihilists, the torturers, the executioners. The book burners, the zealots, and the fundamentalists. The wife beaters and the rapists. Those who re-write History for their own power and glory, and exterminate entire peoples. Those who would pull us back into the quagmire of chaos and fear.

We bear witness to this History but we seem incapable of overcoming it. Nietzsche was right – history endlessly repeats itself.

We glimpse its moments on centre stage, but few of us ever seem to have the courage to stand up to it.

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