Mr. Keller, in “The Satanic Video,” ‘splains what Salman Rushdie can tell us about America’s Muslim problem and the future of the Arab Spring. Prof. Krugman, in “The Optimism Cure,” says that Mitt Romney reveals that his real economic plan relies on magic. Here’s Mr. Keller:
The alchemy of modern media works with amazing speed. Start with a cheesy anti-Muslim video that resembles a bad trailer for a Sacha Baron Cohen comedy. It becomes YouTube fuel for protest across the Islamic world and a pretext for killing American diplomats. That angry spasm begets an inflammatory Newsweek cover, “MUSLIM RAGE,” which in turn inspires a Twitter hashtag that reduces the whole episode to a running joke:
“There’s no prayer room in this nightclub. #MuslimRage.”
“You lose your nephew at the airport but you can’t yell his name because it’s JIHAD. #MuslimRage.”
From provocation to trauma to lampoon in a few short news cycles. It’s over in a week, forgotten in two. Now back to Snooki and Honey Boo Boo.
Except, of course, it’s far from over. It moves temporarily off-screen, and then it is back: the Pakistani retailer accused last week of “blasphemy” because he refused to close his shops during a protest against the video; France locking down diplomatic outposts in about 20 countries because a Paris satirical newspaper has published new caricatures of the prophet.
It’s not really over for Salman Rushdie, whose new memoir recounts a decade under a clerical death sentence for the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses.” That fatwa, if not precisely the starting point in our modern confrontation with Islamic extremism, was a major landmark. The fatwa was dropped in 1998 and Rushdie is out of hiding, but he is still careful. His book tour for “Joseph Anton” (entitled for the pseudonym he used in his clandestine life) won’t be taking him to Islamabad or Cairo.
Rushdie grew up in a secular Muslim family, the son of an Islam scholar. His relationship to Islam was academic, then literary, before it became excruciatingly personal. His memoir is not a handbook on how America should deal with the Muslim world. But he brings to that subject a certain moral authority and the wisdom of an unusually motivated thinker. I invited him to help me draw some lessons from the stormy Arab Summer.
The first and most important thing Rushdie will tell you is, it’s not about religion. Not then, not now.
When the founding zealot of revolutionary Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued his Rushdie death warrant in 1989, the imam was not defending the faith; he was trying to regenerate enthusiasm for his regime, sapped by eight years of unsuccessful war with Iraq. Likewise, Muslim clerics in London saw the fatwa against a British Indian novelist as an opportunity to arouse British Muslims, who until that point were largely unstirred by sectarian politics. “This case was a way for the mosque to assert a kind of primacy over the community,” the novelist said the other day. “I think something similar is going on now.”
It’s pretty clear that the protests against that inane video were not spontaneous. Antisecular and anti-American zealots, beginning with a Cairo TV personality whose station is financed by Saudi fundamentalists, seized on the video as a way to mobilize pressure on the start-up governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The new governments condemned the violence and called in police to protect American diplomatic outposts, but not before a good bit of nervous wobbling.
(One of the principal goals of the extremists, I was reminded by experts at Human Rights First, who follow the region vigilantly, is to pressure these transitional governments to enact and enforce strict laws against blasphemy. These laws can then be used to purge secularists and moderates.)
Like the fanatics in the Middle East and North Africa, our homegrown hatemongers have an interest in making this out to be a great clash of faiths. The Islamophobes — the fringe demagogues behind the Koran-burning parties and that tawdry video, the more numerous (mainly right-wing Republican) defenders against the imaginary encroachment of Islamic law on our domestic freedom — are easily debunked. But this is the closest thing we have to a socially acceptable form of bigotry. And their rants feed the anti-American opportunists.
Rushdie acknowledges that there are characteristics of Islamic culture that make it tinder for the inciters: an emphasis on honor and shame, and in recent decades a paranoiac sense of the world conspiring against them. We can argue who is more culpable — the hostile West, the sponsors, the appeasers, the fanatics themselves — but Islam has been particularly susceptible to the rise of identity politics, Rushdie says. “You define yourself by what offends you. You define yourself by what outrages you.”
But blaming Islamic culture dismisses the Muslim majorities who are not enraged, let alone violent, and it leads to a kind of surrender: Oh, it’s just the Muslims, nothing to be done. I detect a whiff of this cultural fatalism in Mitt Romney’s patronizing remarks about the superiority of Israeli culture and the backwardness of Palestinian culture. That would explain his assertion, on that other notorious video, that an accommodation with the Palestinians is “almost unthinkable.” That’s a strangely defeatist line of thought for a man who professes to be an optimist and a problem-solver.
Romney and Rushdie are a little more in tune when it comes to mollifying the tender feelings of irate Muslims.
In his new book, Rushdie recounts being urged by the British authorities who were protecting him to “lower the temperature” by issuing a statement that could be taken for an apology. He does so. It fills him almost immediately with regret, and the attacks on him are unabated. He “had taken the weak position and was therefore treated as a weakling,” he writes.
Of the current confrontation, he says, “I think it’s very important that we hold our ground. It’s very important to say, ‘We live like this.’ ” Rushdie made his post-fatwa life in America in part because he reveres the freedoms, including the freedom, not so protected in other Western democracies, to say hateful, racist, blasphemous things.
“Terrible ideas, reprehensible ideas, do not disappear if you ban them,” he told me. “They go underground. They acquire a kind of glamour of taboo. In the harsh light of day, they are out there and, like vampires, they die in the sunlight.”
And so he would have liked a more robust White House defense of the rights that made the noxious video possible.
“It’s not for the American government to regret what American citizens do. They should just say, ‘This is not our affair and the [violent] response is completely inappropriate.’ ”
I would cut the diplomats a little more slack when they are trying to defuse an explosive situation. But I agree that the administration pushed up against the line that separates prudence from weakness. And the White House request that Google consider taking down the anti-Muslim video, however gentle the nudge, was a mistake.
By far the bigger mistake, though, would be to write off the aftermath of the Arab Spring as a lost cause.
It is fairly astounding to hear conservatives who were once eager to invade Iraq — ostensibly to plant freedom in the region — now giving up so quickly on fledgling democracies that might actually be won over without 10 bloody years of occupation. Or lamenting our abandonment of that great stabilizing autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Or insisting that we bully and blackmail the new governments to conform to our expectations.
These transition governments present an opportunity. Fortifying the democratic elements in the post-Arab Spring nation-building, without discrediting them as American stooges, is a delicate business. The best argument we have is not our aid money, though that plays a part. It is the choice between two futures, between building or failing to build a rule of law, an infrastructure of rights, and an atmosphere of tolerance. One future looks something like Turkey, prospering, essentially secular and influential. The other future looks a lot like Pakistan, a land of fear and woe.
We can’t shape the Islamic world to our specifications. But if we throw up our hands, if we pull back, we now have a more vivid picture of what will fill the void.
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Mitt Romney is optimistic about optimism. In fact, it’s pretty much all he’s got. And that fact should make you very pessimistic about his chances of leading an economic recovery.
As many people have noticed, Mr. Romney’s five-point “economic plan” is very nearly substance-free. It vaguely suggests that he will pursue the same goals Republicans always pursue — weaker environmental protection, lower taxes on the wealthy. But it offers neither specifics nor any indication why returning to George W. Bush’s policies would cure a slump that began on Mr. Bush’s watch.
In his Boca Raton meeting with donors, however, Mr. Romney revealed his real plan, which is to rely on magic. “My own view is,” he declared, “if we win on November 6, there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We’ll see capital come back, and we’ll see — without actually doing anything — we’ll actually get a boost in the economy.”
Are you feeling reassured?
In fairness to Mr. Romney, his assertion that electing him would spontaneously spark an economic boom is consistent with his party’s current economic dogma. Republican leaders have long insisted that the main thing holding the economy back is the “uncertainty” created by President Obama’s statements — roughly speaking, that businesspeople aren’t investing because Mr. Obama has hurt their feelings. If you believe that, it makes sense to argue that changing presidents would, all by itself, cause an economic revival.
There is, however, no evidence supporting this dogma. Our protracted economic weakness isn’t a mystery; it’s what normally happens after a major financial crisis. Furthermore, business investment has actually recovered fairly strongly since the official recession ended. What’s holding us back is mainly the continued weakness of housing combined with a vast overhang of household debt, the legacy of the Bush-era housing bubble.
By the way, in saying that our prolonged slump was predictable, I’m not saying that it was necessary. We could and should have greatly reduced the pain by combining aggressive fiscal and monetary policies with effective relief for highly indebted homeowners; the fact that we didn’t reflects a combination of timidity on the part of both the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve, and scorched-earth opposition on the part of the G.O.P.
But Mr. Romney, as I said, isn’t offering anything substantive to fight the slump, just a reprise of the usual slogans. And he has denounced the Fed’s belated effort to step up to the plate.
Back to the optimism thing: It’s true that some studies suggest a secondary role for uncertainty in depressing the economy — and conservatives have seized on these studies, claiming vindication. But if you actually look at the measures of uncertainty involved, they’ve been driven not by fear of Mr. Obama but by events like the euro crisis and the standoff over the debt ceiling. (O.K., I guess you could argue that electing Mr. Romney might encourage businesses by promising an end to Republican economic sabotage.)
You should also know that efforts to base policy on speculations about business psychology have a track record — and it’s not a good one.
Back in 2010, as European nations began implementing savage austerity programs to placate bond markets, it was common for policy makers to deny that these programs would have a depressing effect. “The idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect,” insisted Jean-Claude Trichet, then the president of the European Central Bank. Why? Because these measures would “increase the confidence of households, firms and investors.”
At the time I ridiculed such claims as belief in the “confidence fairy.” And sure enough, austerity programs actually led to Depression-level economic downturns across much of Europe.
Yet here comes Mitt Romney, declaring, in effect, “I am the confidence fairy!”
Is he? As it happens, Mr. Romney offered a testable proposition in his Boca remarks: “If it looks like I’m going to win, the markets will be happy. If it looks like the president’s going to win, the markets should not be terribly happy.” How’s that going? Not very well. Over the past month conventional wisdom has shifted from the view that the election could easily go either way to the view that Mr. Romney is very likely to lose; yet markets are up, not down, with major stock indexes hitting their highest levels since the economic downturn began.
It’s all kind of sad. Yet the truth is that it all fits together. Mr. Romney’s whole campaign has been based on the premise that he can become president simply by not being Barack Obama. Why shouldn’t he believe that he can fix the economy the same way?
But will he get a chance to put that theory to the test? At the moment, I’m not optimistic.