Salman Rushdie and the sacred right to irreverence | Big Indy News
Connect with us


Salman Rushdie and the sacred right to irreverence



Is nothing sacred? Yes, the right to irreverence. The health of a free, democratic society can be measured by its protection of disrespect, so long as the right to offensiveness does not extend to the threat, much less the enactment, of physical harm.

My friend Salman Rushdie has long been one of the modern world’s freest writers: his imaginative expression supercharged; the weighty things his books invite us to ponder defying gravity by the tumbling acrobatics of his wordplay. You read Salman and, as you think, you laugh. But then mockery, sometimes gentle, sometimes not, was the oxygen of creativity in the culture in which many of us came to be writers. As indeed it was in the time of Swift and Sterne, our long-lost Age of Reason. As well as other things, Byron was an ironist; Dickens a comic turn even when he was most polemical about grievous social wrong; Twain a stinging stalker of pompous lies and empty vanities.

Disrespect for the sheer pleasure of it was never the main thing; but the right to it, we naively supposed, could be taken for granted when despotism was elsewhere. The irony is that the grim theocrats who made Rushdie a marked man, who incited the murder of his Japanese translator and the assault on his Norwegian publisher, and are now rejoicing at his atrocious wounding while blaming the victim and his supporters for his mutilation, have been outraged by a book driven not by blasphemous mission but which had a purely fictional character commit theological mischief.

Salman Rushdie, surrounded by security guards, speaks at Columbia University in 1991 — his first public appearance outside the UK following the 1989 fatwa © Mark Lennihan/AP

Authoritarian repression is, of course, a backhanded compliment to the power of unchained writing. For all their suffocating triumphalism, the enemies of the liberated word rightly fear that however many they incarcerate, torture or kill, none of those brutalities can permanently entomb critical thought. Almost always, the achievement of artists outlives the squalid cruelty of tyrants.

But state terror is not a trivial oppression. It buys time for itself by muffling public utterance, criminalising scepticism and making writing hazardous, and when it rewards malevolent informers it can turn even private reading into a perilous risk. So even the most monstrous cases of judicial overkill for acts judged sacrilegious could take a long time to reverse.

It took 30-odd years and the French Revolution to exonerate François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre, who in 1766 had been sentenced to having his tongue cut out and the rest of him beheaded and burnt for acts of sacrilege allegedly committed in the Picardy town of Abbeville, including singing “impious, execrable and blasphemous songs . . . profaning the sign of the cross”, refusing to show “signs of respect” to a religious procession and profaning “the mystery of the consecration of wine”.

An engraving of a young man climbing a ladder to a platform in a town square, with guards standing nearby
François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre facing execution for sacrilege in 1766, his alleged crimes including owning a copy of Voltaire’s ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’ © Bridgeman Images

The uproar in Abbeville had begun the previous year, when a crucifix was discovered to have been vandalised, the only sacrilegious offence for which, for want of any evidence whatsoever, the 19-year-old de la Barre was not charged. In view of his youth, the Bishop of Amiens pleaded for leniency, but as it turned out the teenager’s most unforgivable offence was to have had a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique in his lodgings, along with three pornographic books, including one inevitably featuring naughty nuns.

Though Voltaire’s book, which included attacks on the Church, the cult of miracles and sundry “superstitions” at the heart of Christian theology, had been published anonymously in 1764, its authorship was an open secret. In the Parlement of Paris (a judicial not legislative body), a counsellor, Denis-Louis Pasquier, argued that de la Barre was a cautionary example of how anticlerical writers were viciously corrupting youth, and that burning books was all very well but God would be better satisfied by the immolation of their authors and readers. On July 1 1766, de la Barre was subjected to torture, the tongue-cutting represented by symbolic gesture, a gratuitous concession to mercy since it was immediately followed by decapitation and burning at the stake. Incinerated with de la Barre, as per the sentence, was Voltaire’s Dictionnaire, the ashy remains of the boy and the book then scattered to the winds.

The judicial atrocity did not extinguish the flames of anticlerical polemics; if anything it kindled them. Voltaire came out with an immediate (and in many respects fanciful) narrative of the case. His hatred of “superstition” grew ever more ardent, his contempt for biblical heroes more withering. Écrasez l’infâme — “crush infamy” — the phrase he had coined in 1759, became his war cry, used over and again, occasionally as his signature. On what possible grounds could the Church enforce obedience to a preposterous bundle of fables and manias — the Virgin Birth, the working of miracles, the sacrificial cult of penance and absolution? The state had no business enforcing reverence to fairy tales.

Voltaire died in 1778, more than a decade before the revolutionary disestablishment of the Church, but he was optimistically convinced that he was witnessing the beginning of the victory of reason. He would have been disagreeably surprised to discover that during the Restoration, in 1825, King Charles X (a younger brother of Louis XVI) restored sacrilege as a crime with a sentence of hard labour for life in the case of profaning holy vessels, and in some circumstances meriting the death penalty. Mercifully, it was never carried out before the Bourbon monarchy and with it the sacrilege laws were overthrown by the revolution of 1830.

The debate about the relationship between church and state never went away in France. In 1906, a year after separation was finally legislated, a statue of de la Barre martyred at the stake was erected close to the Montmartre church Sacré-Coeur, itself built in atonement for the sins of France that moralists said had brought about its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. In 1926, the statue was moved to a more distant location and in 1941 melted down by Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government. Another statue of de la Barre returned to Montmartre in 2002, but with the sacrilegious martyr replaced by an innocuous sculpture of a generically breezy 18th-century youth. The monument to de la Barre, featuring a bronze relief plaque showing his torture, has been serially vandalised; the last time in 2015 when it was defaced by crosses and a heart, the emblems of Civitas, a far right Catholic traditionalist movement.

Modernity, it turns out, has been less hospitable to secular humanism than Voltaire might have hoped. If anything, the space for irreverence or even confessional pluralism has been shrinking and the punitive criminalisation of disrespect has become more draconian. Ashraf Fayadh, the Palestinian poet who was born in and lives in Saudi Arabia, was charged in 2014 with apostasy, “questioning religion” and “spreading atheist thought” for passages in his beautiful meditative poems, making use, as his translator Mona Kareem tells us, of Koranic language. He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and 800 lashes. The following year, the sentence was changed to death; in 2016 it was changed again to eight years in prison, along with the rain of lashes.

A Pew Research Center survey in 2019 found that 79 countries — or 40 per cent of the 198 studied, including 18 in the Middle East and north Africa alone — have blasphemy laws on their books prosecuting anything thought to slight religion. Sometimes those laws have had murderous consequences. In 2009 in Pakistan, a young Catholic woman called Aasiya Noreen (often known as Asia Bibi) was accused of blasphemy and in the following year sentenced to death by hanging for the alleged crime. It was said that her initial sin had been to offer a cup of water from which she had previously drunk to Muslim villagers, who took offence at her violation of caste and religious taboos. But it was her effrontery in arguing back in favour of Jesus rather than Mohammed that triggered the blasphemy accusation. In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minority affairs, were both assassinated for defending her; and the final overturning of the sentence by the Pakistan supreme court in 2018 was met with three days of violent rioting. Noreen now lives in relative safety in Canada but is never free from threat.

The populist discovery of the low boiling point of crowds, easy to stoke into verbal or actual violence by the demonisation of anyone thought to disrespect the homeland, has not helped the defence of scepticism. This started a long time ago: in 1817, at the Wartburg Festival in Thuringia, when the books of those thought by the students who organised it insufficiently patriotic were burnt, including those of Saul Ascher, the Jewish writer who had ridiculed “German-mania”. Four years later, Heinrich Heine, in a play set during the last year of Muslim Granada, 1492, with Christians burning the Koran, issued his famous warning that “those who burn books will end by burning people”. 

Young men throw books on to a bonfire
Students at the Wartburg Festival in Thuringia, Germany, in 1817 burn books they deem insufficiently patriotic © Alamy Stock Photo

Lately, the nation has become the church, the obligation of praise a new catechism, and anything resembling critical history, patriotic blasphemy. Article 301 of the Turkish penal code punishes anyone disrespecting or insulting “Turkishness”. Orhan Pamuk is still under investigation for offending in his recent novel Nights of Plague. In Russia, anyone daring to voice dissent at Putin’s holy war to recover what he believes is the Kievan cradle of Christian motherland gets quickly disappeared.

But it is in the US that the streams of piety and patriotism have flowed into each other with such populist force that Christianity and American history are taken on the Trumpian right of politics to be indistinguishable, and any vocal scepticism about one or the other becomes tantamount to treason. All six of the current justices of the Supreme Court that ended Roe vs Wade and permitted a high-school football coach to conduct public prayers after games had a Catholic education, and made decisions that were surely informed by the convictions of their faith.

The First Amendment to the Constitution enjoins Congress to “make no law respecting the establishment of religion” but it also forbids anything that could restrain its free exercise. Increasingly, that second clause has been taken as an invitation to erode the separation of church and state. Lauren Boebert, a gun-toting Trumpian Colorado congresswoman, has announced that she is “tired of this separation of church and state junk”, based, she says, “on one stinking letter”.

That reeking note was, however, one of the foundational documents of American democracy, written by president-elect Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists. In it, he declared that “believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

He was not alone among the founding fathers in his aversion to state-sponsored religiosity. In 1825, his predecessor in the presidency, John Adams, wrote to Jefferson complaining about blasphemy laws still on the Massachusetts law books that could prosecute anyone daring to question the divinely revealed authority of the scriptures. Such anachronisms were, the indisputably Christian Adams wrote, a “great obstruction to the improvement of the human mind”. 

But then Jefferson was a deist, and the book he wrote on The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was constructed by literally pasting sections from the New Testament with razor and glue. Anything Jefferson thought an affront to reason and a distraction from Jesus’s proper standing as ethical teacher was sliced away. Snip went the Virgin Birth, any mention of Jesus’s divinity, miracles, the resurrection and the doctrine of the Trinity. What was left was essentially Jesus as good egg, morally upstanding and righteously compassionate. Amazingly, a copy of what has been called “The Jefferson Bible” was presented to members of Congress from 1904 until well into the 1950s. These days, should anyone actually read it, the book would likely bring down on its author’s head a Christian fatwa from the holiest rollers of the Republican right.

All this is no light matter. At stake is the whole relationship of American citizenship to institutionalised religion. For the one side, national salvation depends on them being brought together; for the other, the integrity of democracy presupposes keeping them strictly apart.

A large group of people sit on white benches under an awning in an outdoor space
A vigil is held for Rushdie in Chautauqua, New York, following the attack on him there on August 12 © Joshua Goodman/AP

And then there is the writer in the Pennsylvania hospital, horribly wounded and maimed at the hands of an unhinged would-be murderer. Though no motive has been declared, the assailant must surely have been driven by fatwa fanaticism. When Rushdie is recovered, as he will be, it would be entirely understandable if he retreated into protective cover. But he may not so choose. When he returned to an almost normal literary life many years ago, it was not just to his own phenomenal work but eventually as president of Pen American Center: the upholder of the freedom of writing; the scourge of the jailers of free conscience.

Something tells me that even if he needs renewed security, as is certainly the case, Salman will neither be silent nor invisible. And if that is his choice, the least he can ask of us who owe much to his resolute bravery, not to mention the life-enhancing brilliance of his prose, is that we fight his corner, which, after all, as long as we cherish uninhibited expression, must surely be ours too.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

Find out about our latest stories first — follow @ftweekend on Twitter

Read the full article here


Sister Patricia Daly, 66, Dies; Took On Corporate Giants on Social Justice



For years, Sister Pat and other environmentalists had urged ExxonMobil to take significant steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from its operations and products. In 2007, she proposed a resolution that called on that energy giant to set a firm date to report on its progress.

“We’re the most profitable company in the history of the planet,” she told Rex Tillerson, then the company’s chief executive (and later secretary of state in the Trump administration), at the company’s annual meeting, “but what will be our long-term health when we are really faced with the regulatory and other challenges around global warming?”

She added: “We are now, this company and every single one of us, challenged by one of the most profound moral concerns. And we have the wherewithal to respond to that.”

The proposal won 31 percent of the ballots, or about 1.4 billion shares, the largest tally for an ExxonMobil climate-change resolution. If not an outright victory, it was a page in a decades-long narrative that led ExxonMobil to put a climate scientist on its board in 2017. Three executives who recognized the urgency to address climate change joined the company’s board in 2021, nominated by a tiny activist hedge fund, Engine No. 1.

“The arc of her work led us to those victories by working from the inside and the outside,” John Passacantando, the founder of Ozone Action, an anti-global warming group, and a former executive director of Greenpeace, said in a phone interview.

In 1999, Vanity Fair named her to its Hall of Fame, applauding her as one who “translates belief into commitment and never backs down from a fight.”

Mary Beth Gallagher, who replaced Sister Pat as executive director of the Tri-State Coalition in 2017, said Sister Pat had not become frustrated when her resolutions were routinely voted down.

“She lived in hope,” Ms. Gallagher said. “We never talked about winning or losing. It was about raising consciousness and educating. If we’re not asking these questions, who will?”

Read the full article here

Continue Reading


Families can make a tax-free rollover from 529 plans to Roth individual retirement accounts starting in 2024



Maskot | Maskot | Getty Images

Americans who save for college in 529 plans will soon have a way to rescue unused funds while keeping their tax benefits intact.

A $1.7 trillion government funding package has a provision that lets savers roll money from 529 plans to Roth individual retirement accounts free of income tax or tax penalties.

related investing news


The House passed the measure Friday and the Senate did so Thursday. The bill heads to President Biden, who’s expected to sign it into law.

More from Personal Finance:
10 ways to avoid the early withdrawal penalty for IRAs
Retirement savers with lower incomes may be getting a federal ‘match’
‘Best’ ways to maximize your tax deduction for charitable gifts

The rollover measure — which takes effect in 2024 — has some limitations. Among the largest: There’s a $35,000 lifetime cap on transfers.

“It’s a good provision for people who have [529 accounts] and the money hasn’t been used,” said Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and IRA expert based in Rockville Centre, New York.

That might happen if a beneficiary — such as a child or grandchild — doesn’t attend a college, university, vocational or private K-12 school, or other qualifying institution, for example. Or, a student may receive scholarships that mean some 529 funds are left over.

Millions of 529 accounts hold billions in savings

There were nearly 15 million 529 accounts at the end of last year, holding a total $480 billion, according to the Investment Company Institute. That’s an average of about $30,600 per account.

529 plans carry tax advantages for college savers. Namely, investment earnings on account contributions grow tax-free and aren’t taxable if used for qualifying education expenses like tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

Retirement plan changes in the omnibus spending bill

However, that investment growth is generally subject to income tax and a 10% tax penalty if used for an ineligible expense.

This is where rollovers to a Roth IRA can benefit savers with stranded 529 money. A transfer would skirt income tax and penalties; investments would keep growing tax-free in a Roth account, and future retirement withdrawals would also be tax-free.  

Some think it’s a handout for the rich

However, some critics think the rollover policy largely amounts to a tax handout to wealthier families.

“You’re giving savings incentives to those who can save and leaving behind those who cannot save,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

A 2012 analysis conducted by the Government Accountability Office found the typical American with a 529 account had “much more wealth” than someone without: $413,500 in total wealth for the median person, about 25 times the amount of a non-accountholder.

You’re giving savings incentives to those who can save and leaving behind those who cannot save.

Steve Rosenthal

senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

Further, the typical owner had a roughly $142,000 annual income versus $45,000 for other families, the GAO report said. Almost half, 47%, had incomes over $150,000.

The new 529-to-Roth IRA transfer provision doesn’t carry income limits.

Limitations on 529-to-IRA transfers

While the new tax break primarily benefits wealthier families, there are “pretty significant” limitations on the rollovers that reduce the financial benefit, Jeffrey Levine, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant based in St. Louis, said in a tweet.

The restrictions include:

  • A $35,000 lifetime cap on transfers.
  • Rollovers are subject to the annual Roth IRA contribution limit. (The limit is $6,500 in 2023.)
  • The rollover can only be made to the beneficiary’s Roth IRA — not that of the account owner. (In other words, a 529 owned by a parent with the child as beneficiary would need to be rolled into the child’s IRA, not the parent’s.)
  • The 529 account must have been open for at least 15 years. (It seems changing account beneficiaries may restart that 15-year clock, Levine said.)
  • Accountholders can’t roll over contributions, or earnings on those contributions, made in the last five years.

In a summary document, the Senate Finance Committee said current 529 tax rules have “led to hesitating, delaying, or declining to fund 529s to levels needed to pay for the rising costs of education.”

“Families who sacrifice and save in 529 accounts should not be punished with tax and penalty years later if the beneficiary has found an alternative way to pay for their education,” it said.

Are 529 plans already flexible enough?

Some education savings experts think 529 accounts have adequate flexibility so as not to deter families from using them.

For example, owners with leftover account funds can change beneficiaries to another qualifying family member — thereby helping avoid a tax penalty for non-qualified withdrawals. Aside from a kid or grandkid, that family member might be you; a spouse; a son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother-in-law; sibling or step-sibling; first cousin or their spouse; a niece, nephew or their spouse; or aunt and uncle, among others.

Owners can also keep funds in an account for a beneficiary’s graduate schooling or the education of a future grandchild, according to Funds can also be used to make up to $10,000 of student loan payments.

The tax penalty may also not be quite as bad as some think, according to education expert Mark Kantrowitz. For example, taxes are assessed at the beneficiary’s income-tax rate, which is generally lower than the parent’s tax rate by at least 10 percentage points.

In that case, the parent “is no worse off than they would have been had they saved in a taxable account,” depending on their tax rates on long-term capital gains, he said.

Read the full article here

Continue Reading


Goldman grumbling grows for banking giant to sack CEO David Solomon



The knives are out for Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, and this time the people brandishing them aren’t the usual suspects — his junior staffers annoyed that they have to work late or come into the office several times a week.

Solomon’s problems are more serious and existential, I am told, and how he handles what can best be described as a revolt in some quarters of Goldman’s middle and upper management ranks could determine how much longer he stays in his job.

Solomon, 60, took the job in 2018 and was always somewhat of an odd choice to run the white-shoe investment bank that usually cultivated its leaders from within. He cut his teeth at a decidedly un-Goldman-like venue: the scrappy investment bank Bear Stearns (ultimately one of the causalities of the 2008 financial crisis).

He joined Goldman in 1999, as a partner, no less, because his deal-making chops allowed him to skip layers of management.

In other words, Solomon is an outsider at a firm with a wickedly insular culture. He has a quirky side gig as a DJ in the summer Hamptons party circuit. He’s also not one for small talk, and doesn’t consult with a lot of people before handing down his edicts. 

“He doesn’t breed a lot of love,” said one former Goldman executive who knows Solomon well.

Lots of people at Goldman don’t like him, and they’re letting their views be heard both internally and with pals at rival firms.

Solomon as a DJ
Solomon is an outsider at a firm with a wickedly insular culture.
David Solomon/Instagram

For the record: I’ve met Solomon and like him for his no-BS style. And until pretty recently, the numbers show him doing a great job. Goldman was running on all cylinders in deals and trading. Even as the market corrects, shares are up about 60% since Solomon took over as CEO in 2018 compared to around a 44% rise in the S&P during that time.

Goldman is still the top M&A shop, even widening its market share over rivals in that important business line. Solomon was the first among his fellow CEOs to see the downturn and enact significant layoffs to cut costs.

Still, the grumbling about Solomon is spreading to the managing director and partner class. High-priced Wall Street talent don’t call all the shots at any firm, of course. But Goldman’s MDs and partners have historically been a powerful force when the board decides the fate of current management, which makes Solomon’s hold on his job increasingly precarious as more and more of them defect from his camp.

David Solomon as a DJ
Solomon was the first among his fellow CEOs to see the downturn and enact significant layoffs to cut costs.
David Solomon/Instagram

Here’s how they’re building a case against him: Goldman’s longtime archrival investment bank Morgan Stanley now easily dwarfs Goldman in market value, $144 billion to $116 billion, continuing a trend that predates Solomon. That comes amid a slowdown in banking deals, Goldman’s bread-and-butter business, and Solomon’s home turf.

Morgan’s CEO James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues. Solomon’s effort to diversify was an overindulgence in something called Marcus, a digital retail bank launched by his predecessor Lloyd Bankfein that Solomon made his baby. So far, it’s been a disaster, so much so that Solomon has been forced to scale back, possibly on the way to winding it down.

Goldman, meanwhile, has missed targets in its recent earnings announcements, and more downward surprises could be in store as markets continue to wobble. Bonuses are down, in some places cut in half, albeit from the nosebleed levels of 2021.

Goldman Sachs headquarters
The grumbling about Solomon is spreading to the managing director and partner class.
AFP via Getty Images

Traders did well in 2022 because Goldman’s are particularly adept in profiting off turbulence, but part of their pool is being diverted to bankers to keep them in-house until the deal slowdown ends.

Since Solomon is a banker, he’s also being accused of favoritism, which in truth is a pretty lame charge, since bankers often subsidize trader bonuses when the markets aren’t profitable. Still, the Goldman trading department is powerful and can spark management change, as it has done in the past.

There’s also a question about Solomon’s allegiance to Goldman’s stand-alone culture. In its 153-year existence, Goldman has operated on the assumption that it would be the acquirer in any major strategic acquisition. Solomon’s experience at Bear, then one of the most transactional places on Wall Street, means he could be looking for a deal and not one that keeps Goldman in charge.

Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues.
Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues.
AFP via Getty Images

At a time when most Goldman insiders believe he needs to do a “transformational deal,” i.e., something big that allows it to better compete against Morgan Stanley and super banks like JP Morgan, there is speculation that Solomon might allow Goldman to be swallowed whole by, say, a big asset manager or bank if the price was right.

As best I can tell, this grumbling, though real, doesn’t immediately threaten Solomon’s job. Then again, there is something to be said for keeping your producers happy.

Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, was a notorious screamer and demanding beyond belief. Yet Welch knew how to nurture his people.

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch
Jack Welch was a notorious screamer and demanding beyond belief. Yet Welch knew how to nurture his people.
Getty Images

“Jack could chew your ass, then put his arm around you and make you feel great,” one of his longtime executives, Bob Nardelli, once told me.

It’s why so many other talented execs chose to stay around under Welch, abuse and all, and left when his successor took over, watching GE implode from the outside.

Maybe it’s a good time for Solomon to take a page from Welch and start hugging it out.

Read the full article here

Continue Reading