The most cunning, odious and successful of Gore Vidal’s provocations was surely a mid-career contribution to a special issue of The Nation in 1986, marking the magazine’s one-hundred-twentieth anniversary. The essay was called “The Empire Lovers Strike Back” and is best read today in conjunction with a previous Nation essay from the same year, “The American Empire Ran Out of Gas,” and a clarifying subsequent commentary in The Sunday Telegraph in 1993 called “Race Against Time,” all of which he went on to reprint in his essay collections, perhaps under different titles.
There is something beautiful and breathtaking about watching a hero of human rights make a clean getaway. The hero may go on to other troubles, and the shadows may triumph in the end. But not yet! Meanwhile, you catch a glimpse of that fleeting thing, freedom, as it goes loping around the corner. And the soul exults. The classic text on this most up-to-date of themes was written by Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist, which he composed for The Atlantic Monthly in 1898 and 1899.
True story: I’m on the sunny sidewalk outside Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, and out of the theater saunters one of my fellow audience members, dressed in slacks and Islamic headscarf of a sort that is pretty conventional in south Brooklyn, and she doesn’t mind a casual exchange of views. “I have to tell you,” she says, “it was offensive to a lot of people.” She reflects a little more. “It was funny, though.” Her gaze falls on Court Street. “I laughed.” She laughs. “I loved it!”—and she breaks into a gloriously sheepish smile.
In the April 5 edition of The New Republic I published an essay called “The Thought Police” on Islamist campaigns to suppress independent thinking, as described in a Hudson Institute human rights report by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea. My essay listed a great number of reformers from Muslim backgrounds who have come under threat or have actually been attacked, with the names drawn largely from Marshall and Shea’s study. I mentioned in passing that Irshad Manji, a Muslim writer from Vancouver, Canada, had been threatened.
Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom WorldwideBy Paul Marshall and Nina Shea (Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $35) I. In spite of its slightly agitated title, this book is mostly a cool and even-tempered human rights report, and its findings go a long way toward explaining one of the mysteries of our time, namely, the ever-expanding success of political movements with overtly Islamic doctrines and radical programs.Some people may suppose that Islam itself, the ancient religion, mandates theocracy. Seen in this light, the vigor of theocratically tinged political movements right now ought to seem normal to us, and maybe even commendable—a fitting renaissance of cultural authenticity in places around the world that, having left behind the indignities of colonial domination and the awkwardness of the post-colonial era, have entered at last into the post-post-colonial age of the return to self. Movements that carry such labels as “Islamism” or “radical Islam” or “political Islam,” judged in this way, could perfectly well drop their suffixes and adjectives and simply adopt the name of Islam itself—an Islam that has exited the mosque in order to fulfill still more sacred obligations in the public square. But Paul Marshall and Nina Shea take a different view. And in order to confer an august authority upon their contrary estimation, they have padded their human-rights report, or perhaps armored it, with learned commentaries by three Islamic scholars, two of whom are recently deceased but all of whom are distinguished.
The Village Voice gives out theater awards called the Obies (for Off-Broadway), and during the 1980s the Voice’s theater department voted to bestow one of those prizes on the distinguished absurdist Václav Havel, who dwelled in the faraway absurdistan known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In their New York productions, Havel’s plays ran at the Public Theater, and everyone who kept up with the downtown scene knew them well. The plays were splendidly mordant.