The distant thunder.

I’m not an unqualified Christopher Hitchens fan, but I found myself nodding along with his column in the current Vanity Fair, pegged to the 20-year anniversary of the ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” His nut sentence is this:

I thought then, and I think now, that this was not just a warning of what was to come. It was the warning. The civil war in the Muslim world, between those who believed in jihad and Shari’a and those who did not, was coming to our streets and cities.

It’s an interesting piece, and stirs a lot of memories; I haven’t given Rushdie much thought since he emerged from hiding a while back. I haven’t read him, and so my mixed salad of known-facts about the guy is mostly from Page Six — his apparently bottomless thirst for hot babes, plastic surgery on his droopy lids and, of course, what I remember from 1989. Pat Buchanan was one of the sneering conservatives who said, essentially, big deal, calling him a “trendy leftist” who would, “if the ayatollah has his way,” hear “the swish of a scimitar” before departing for eternity. The rest of the column was padded out with finger-wagging at a writer who dared to criticize a religion. Hitchens recalls that was a common reaction on the right, while on the left was mainly fear, until Susan Sontag wrangled PEN to his defense — and it took some wrangling. Arthur Miller is named by Hitchens as one of those who preferred to remain silent until shamed into speaking up.

I recall damp, tedious, writer-ly sort of protests, public readings of the book and one of those “I am Spartacus” displays for the cameras in New York City. I remember Lance Mannion, then my friend in Fort Wayne, said Bush the Elder should proclaim that any move on Rushdie would lead to us bombing Qom. (Lance, I confess: I was taken aback.) Mostly I remember being bewildered by any religion that could lead to those angry, screeching protests we saw around the globe at the time. Well, I guess we learned, didn’t we?

The most depressing thing about Hitchens’ column is how effective the fatwa was. Rushdie lives, to be sure, but others connected to the book were killed by Muslim lunatics, and even today, the mere threat of similar violence can loosen the sphincters of every editor and executive producer in earshot. I was writing my Big Long Essay About Newspapers at the time of the Danish cartoon blow-up. My ex-editor in chief was quoted by her editorial-page editor explaining her refusal to print the cartoons or let the ed-page editor link to them on his blog: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Oh, snap! Somewhere Ben Bradlee is jealous.

Well, anyway — a good read.

Sorry for the late arrival today. It was a sleep-deficit catchup morning, which means I’m already behind. While we’re on the subject of the media, however: I had to force myself to read this blog entry about a certain blonde huckster with a very large Adam’s apple and her battle with a quote-news-unquote department, but I’m glad I did, even though it’s a Department of the Obvious sort of thing. (The headline is “grow a backbone” instead of “grow a pair” because it’s from Conde Nast and some pottymouth blogger.)

Now, off to shovel snow. Lance Mannion, stop by to help! We’ll discuss Rushdie!

Posted at 12:03 pm in Current events, Media |

32 responses to “The distant thunder.”

  1. brian stouder said on January 8, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I remember – years and years ago – seeing noted defense expert and insurance salesman Tom Clancy on a TV show where he expressed the opinion that we should TELL the Iranians (or whoever we were upset with at the time) that if they didn’t release the hostages (or stop turning sea mines lose in the gulf – or whatever) that we would vaporize “the Holy City of Qom”

    It was an obscure enough reference that it made him sound authoritative, a real smarty-pants…and this was before easy-Google, when one had to go to the old encyclopedias, and if you tripped over the spelling of whatever you were looking up, too bad!

    In the many years since, we have all come to learn that the Middle East is filthy with Holy Cities and Historic Birthplace Cities and Allah Slept Here cities…and extremists are constantly blowing things up in many of them.

    Just sayin’

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  2. Peter said on January 8, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Speaking of fatwahs, yesterday the cable channel had Persepolis on, and I was really impressed by the film. I forgot what a whackjob place Iran was back then, although I have a cousin who occasionally works in Iran and he tells me it’s not much different now.

    Didn’t James Wolcott call Ann Coulter the Toxic Toothpick? Are news organizations so desperate to fill air time they need to deal with her? I’d rather get a lecture from some leading Iranian than to listen to her; at least I’d have to think a bit before I’d laugh.

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  3. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 8, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Ann Coulter is too silly for National Review to print a word of hers on the deadtree or online editions, and they won’t even link to her. That ought to appeal to both sides of the aisle as a reasonable response to her schtick — ignore it.

    Hey, let’s just make some summer vacation plans!

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  4. jeff borden said on January 8, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Ann Coulter is to political commentary as professional wrestling is to real sport. As Jeff TMMO notes, the real way to describe her is “silly.” And she’s so 90’s. My Lord, isn’t there another rightwing lunatic who can replace her?

    Apparently, she skewers single mothers in her new book, saying they are raising future strippers and criminals. How a well-born, childless, 47-year-old career woman who has never been married is qualified to opine on those women who are working their butts off to support and raise a child (or children) is beyond me.

    The only logical reaction to her is laughter.

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  5. nancy said on January 8, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Strippers, criminals, Lance Armstrong, Clarence Thomas, Scout Finch, Bambi…

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  6. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 8, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Um, did anyone else follow this link from the VF page with the Hitchens piece —

    Wow. Wow. I don’t see what i’m not seeing here, except this sounds like GM & Chrysler, and i don’t see where they get out of it. Do they own that new bldg? Can they sell it?


    Update — apparently they own part of the building, but not all of it.

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  7. jeff borden said on January 8, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    The New York Times is already or is considering a leaseback of their fancy quarters, Jeff.

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  8. nancy said on January 8, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Someone at Poynter did. Or rather, followed the original Atlantic piece. And disagrees with the analysis.

    I read the Atlantic piece and declined to comment, because it made me crosseyed with fury. Spare me yet another new-media triumphalist saying a Times implosion would be OK, “in time,” because it would lead to a new media landscape, blah blah. That’s like saying a nuclear holocaust is no big deal because everything would blow over in 70,000 years. That’s kind of my baseline for informed comment: Can I do so without drooling? If not, I take a pass.

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  9. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 8, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    I’m gonna straddle again, although Rick Edmunds sure looks like the kind of guy who probably checks the bar tab twice before paying (that’s a compliment, actually). If they have two revolving lines of credit, and have “only” drawn 400 mil from two 400 mil lines, and can borrow from the 2011 one to pay of this spring’s 400 mil, and they’ve *already* borrowed almost $250 mil off the building’s value, it certainly looks like they’ll be alive past May, contra Mr. Atlantic’s slaverings, but i don’t see how they avoid selling off and, as JeffB says, leaseback their office space.

    That’s not the end of the world, and no, a repo man won’t come for the keys on May 1, but the numbers do seem to paint them into a worse corner than Poynter’s guy concedes. I absolutely don’t think it’s “fine” for the NYT to go under (how will i read Mark Bittman each week?), but for their biz model to be that sick is just really, really puzzling. But they’re still hammering away on the cable news channels the same ads they’ve had since, what, 1998? So maybe they’re just being badly run these days.

    And i may be in love too much with my hypothesis number one, which is that too many owner/managers are still chasing a huge profit expectation from print media (let alone broadcast) and are trying to gin up those revenues by cutting expenditures on generating the content that made them attractive to advertisers and subscribers alike, leading to the appearance of decline while investors are still pocketing decent returns.

    The picture at the Times even by advocates of the Old Grey Lady doesn’t help my assumptions at all; it makes it sound like there really is a huge hole in the bottom we haven’t hit yet, and when we do, we still have to go into the drain and see where the heck we come out of the trip through the pipes.

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  10. Nancy P. said on January 8, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Rushdie is living in a dorm over at Emory (I hope it’s not the un-air-conditioned one I was in as a freshman), and twice I’ve seen him eating breakfast in Decatur. Life is strange.

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  11. LA Mary said on January 8, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    “…Strippers, criminals, Lance Armstrong, Clarence Thomas, Scout Finch, Bambi…”

    Barack Obama, Bill Clinton…

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  12. coozledad said on January 8, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    i have an ugly, deep seated prejudice against Hitchens which was triggered by something he said to a caller on an NPR program during the network’s profound contribution to the intellectual cover for the Bush war effort. He said he was unwilling to gamble his house (in the US) on UNSCOM’s assessment of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capabilities.
    It reminded me of a certain percentage of my British expat friends, who during the eighties consistently bemoaned the lack of decent food, beverages, music, culture and architecture here, and then suddenly found themselves with remunerative work in the belly of the beast. They didn’t save up and go home, they stayed here. They purchased time shares at Disney world and bought SUV’s and McMansions, and became living ugly American cartoons.
    If I haven’t said this a hundred times already, I’ll get there soon enough. Inside every other Marxist Brit, there’s an Ozzie Mosely struggling to get out and buy a Rolex.

    Maybe I need a nap.

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  13. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Well, Hitchens was a Trotskyite if that helps. I like the Brownshorts image.

    Oh, and just in from Congress — Obama wins!

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  14. nancy said on January 8, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    That’s the basis of my problems with Hitchens, too. His cheerleading for the war was awful.

    Nancy P.: Walk up behind him and shriek, “Allahu Akbar!” a d tell us what he does.

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  15. Gasman said on January 8, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Hitchens can go straight to hell as far as I’m concerned. I have a deep and abiding contempt for any and all supporters of this con job of a war. That includes – maybe especially – those liberals who could not bring themselves to oppose a war that was clearly wrong. Because it was popular at the time, they created out of whole cloth the unconstitutional “authorization of force” nonsense. Kerry and Hillary Clinton figure right at the top of my list. If more prominent Dems had the strength of character to speak up maybe we would have had a real debate instead of a national lynch mob.

    Kucinich was vilified as coward and a crank for his stance on the war, but his assessments were 100% accurate as far as I can tell.

    Interestingly, Olbermann and Co. speculated that the reason Sens. Rockefeller and Feinstein were not consulted about the Panetta CIA appointment was a conscious snub by Obama for their at least tacit support of Bush’s programs of torture and illegal wiretapping. I hope that Obama has enough of a spine to deliver smack downs to those on both sides of the aisle when they deserve it. A good dope slap now and then might keep some people a bit more focused on what is really important.

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  16. ROgirl said on January 8, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    From Trotskyite to getting makeovers on Vanity Fair’s tab. And being British, he got his teeth fixed too.

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  17. brian stouder said on January 8, 2009 at 3:21 pm


    It hasn’t hit the wires yet, but I just got an e-mail from a customer and friend in Costa Rica, who says they just got jolted by a 6.2 earthquake…

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  18. brian stouder said on January 8, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    And another oddity

    Our history is never very far below the surface, eh?

    (I think this ties somewhat to Nance’s ongoing [and correct!]rejection of the cultural nihilism that some glory in, with regard to cheering the downfall of irreplaceable institutions. At every damned bloody mess of a revolution, there’s a class of smirking people who think “just so”)

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  19. MichaelG said on January 8, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I’m not worried about the NYT at the moment. I’m worried about the State of California. If the dolts under the dome don’t get their act together in the next very few days the State is going off the cliff. Employees will not be paid, vendors, contractors – nobody gets paid. Mega bucks construction projects have already been halted in mid work. This is serious as a heart attack. We are in a fix far beyond anything ever contemplated and the elected dipshits are still posturing. We may still avoid catastrophe but it would require the folks in the State Senate and State Assembly to actually negotiate and to actually compromise. I’m hopeful but not overly optimistic. We shall see.

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  20. jeff borden said on January 8, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    We’re in a similar situation in Illinois. While our filthy dirty governor preens for the cameras and our General Assembly moves at a glacial pace on impeachment, vendors are not being paid because the state is out of money. The Sun-Times has run a couple of pieces about small businesses facing a shutdown because they are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars by the state but cannot get their money.

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  21. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 8, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Ditto Ohio, and we’ve got a squeaky clean governator (even if we had to flush an attorney gen’l who was working on his Blago Jr. imitation from his first day in office). We’re going to be asking vendors to give money back that they’ve already been paid for services they were contracted to deliver, here in a few weeks, and i can’t quite imagine what that will look like (i’m thinkin’ — lawsuits).

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  22. jeff borden said on January 8, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    What’s scary is what some states and cities are doing to raise cash now. Here in Chicago, the mayor has rammed through deals to lease the Chicago Skyway and Midway Airport for billions over the length of the lease. With almost no debate, he leased all our parking meters to a private firm, which is planning to double, triple and quadruple rates in the Loop and other busy neighborhoods.

    I wonder about the efficacy of turning over critical municipal and state assets built with taxpayer dollars to private corporations. I’m generally a free market advocate, but I wonder if we’re going too far with these kinds of transactions. What’s next? We’ll hire Blackwater as cops?

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  23. nancy said on January 8, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Privatizing public assets is about the only way municipalities can survive now. I talked to a lawyer a couple years ago who specialized in these deals, and she said they were looking for (an incomplete list) state lotteries, airport parking lots, airports themselves, bridges, toll roads, pretty much anything that could be cut from the herd and monetized. Indiana sold a long-term lease on its toll road and is using the funds for road improvements elsewhere in the state.

    MichaelG, I’m thinking about you. I keep thinking of that gorgeous Gothic light fixture hanging over the main gate at…San Quentin? Folsom? A remnant of a time when “public” didn’t necessarily equal “ugly.” I bet that would fetch a few bucks on eBay.

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  24. jeff borden said on January 8, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    I know it’s a growing movement and I understand the hard economic sense behind it, but as noted, this is still turning over assets bought and paid for with taxpayer money to for-profit companies. Each of these transactions is generally followed by a steep increase in the fees we citizens pay to use the assets we built. It makes economic sense, I suppose, but I don’t like the trend.

    At this rate, Chicago will sell Grant Park and there’ll be admission charged to walk on the grass and look at the flowers.

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  25. joodyb said on January 8, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Gives a whole new meaning to “public trust.”

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  26. MichaelG said on January 8, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    That’s the gate to Old Folsom. There are two joints on the same property. Folsom State Prison from the 1880’s and California State Prison, Sacramento from the 1980’s.

    Oh yeah, and they’re going to send out IOUs instead of tax refunds. That’ll definitely get folks attention.

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  27. Jim said on January 8, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    And speaking of things falling apart (sort of), you can follow this link from Gawker to what remains of the old soundstage where “The Wire” was shot. The old sets remain, but the whole thing is about to be torn down. Probably Clay Davis’ real life counterpart has a piece of this somehow.

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  28. Lance Mannion said on January 8, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    I said that????? And I was sober?

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  29. nancy said on January 8, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Well, it was over dinner, so maybe you’d had your fill.

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  30. Lance Mannion said on January 8, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    Hmmm. What did we have for dinner?

    What I remember about the fatwa is that the type of neocons who now rage loudest about the Islamofascist threat had no sympathy for Rushdie at all and seemed to look forward to his getting what they seemed to think he deserved.

    I also remember not liking The Satanic Verses very much.

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  31. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 9, 2009 at 8:51 am

    This is the third exchange between a reporter, not a religious person, for the Globe and Mail and Jean Vanier, who is a regular short-lister for the Nobel Peace Prize, and a real pathfinder in working with persons with developmental disabilities. I’m trying to see if only the original article ran in the paper, or if these exchanges did as well.

    Either way, it’s the kind of dialogue i’d love to see more of whether in newsprint or websites — is the Globe and Mail doing well, or are they in the same dumper as newspapers south of the border?

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  32. coozledad said on January 9, 2009 at 9:04 am

    I think Rushdie and Amis and Hitchens and Barnes have genuine talent, but their clubbish days and subsequent falling out make them all look like a cattier, more literate version of Spinal Tap.
    During their heyday, they got way too much attention, and it made them suck.
    It also directed attention away from the really fine British writers of the same period, who were mostly women.

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