Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Salman Rushdie on Ai Weiwei's Detention

In the New York Times:
It seems the regime, irritated by the outspokenness of its most celebrated art export, whose renown has protected him up to now, has decided to silence him in the most brutal fashion.
The disappearance is made worse by reports that Mr. Ai has started to “confess.” His release is a matter of extreme urgency and the governments of the free world have a clear duty in this matter.
…We can perhaps bet on art to win over tyrants. It is the world’s artists, particularly those courageous enough to stand up against authoritarianism, for whom we need to be concerned, and for whose safety we must fight.
Not all writers or artists seek or ably perform a public role, and those who do risk obloquy and derision, even in free societies. Susan Sontag, an outspoken commentator on the Bosnian conflict, was giggled at because she sometimes sounded as if she “owned” the subject of Sarajevo. Harold Pinter’s tirades against American foreign policy and his “Champagne socialism” were much derided. Günter Grass’s visibility as a public intellectual and scourge of Germany’s rulers led to a degree of schadenfreude when it came to light that he had concealed his brief service in the Waffen-SS as a conscript at the tail end of World War II. Gabriel García Márquez’s friendship with Fidel Castro, and Graham Greene’s chumminess with Panama’s Omar Torrijos, made them political targets.
When artists venture into politics the risks to reputation and integrity are ever-present. But outside the free world, where criticism of power is at best difficult and at worst all but impossible, creative figures like Mr. Ai and his colleagues are often the only ones with the courage to speak truth against the lies of tyrants. We needed the samizdat truth-tellers to reveal the ugliness of the Soviet Union. Today the government of China has become the world’s greatest threat to freedom of speech, and so we need Ai Weiwei, Liao Yiwu and Liu Xiaobo.
I recently read what is so commonly written: an apologetic for China's Orwellianism as something which is to be taken "in the context" of progress. That snakish phrase is, of course, one that we should cringe upon hearing when suppression of rights is the topic. It strikes me how many are willing to use "context" as the ocean in which to drown their guilt of silence. If anything, China's rising stardom requires more of us to be more critical, more loudly. A responsibility that I am guilty of failing.
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Somewhat relatedly, The Guardian summarizes Martin Amis on Prince Charles (h/t 3QD):
When he met the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip "appeared very surprised" at the bestselling author's profession. "Ah, you're a writer?" he said, according to Amis. Prince Charles, though, is "charming", with a "pretty extraordinary laugh, like the snore of a pig". Amis added that he recalled "one fairly memorable conversation with him on the subject of Salman Rushdie, just after the fatwa, in 1989. He was very anti-Rushdie. I asked him why. He told me: 'I'm sorry, but when someone insults the profound beliefs of a people ...'" Amis replied that a novel is not a stance. "It insults nobody. It asserts nothing. A novel is a game, a mind play," he told Charles.

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