07 January 2013

The Mo Yan controversy and the moral responsibility of artists

The Chinese novelist Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize for Literature last fall. When I first heard the news, I suspected that the Nobel people were trying to make up for their infuriating award of the Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident the previous year. As far as I knew, however, there was no questioning Mo Yan's worthiness of the honor; the Literature prize has gone to many far more obscure writers. Lately, however, Salman Rushdie --a  sore loser, perhaps? -- has denounced Mo Yan as "a patsy for the [Chinese] regime" because he wouldn't sign a petition demanding the release of Liu Xiabo, the controversial Peace laureate. In effect, Rushdie implied that some moral cowardice disqualified Mo Yan from the global literary canon. Answering Rushdie, if not exactly in Mo Yan's defense, was Pankraj Mishra, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper, whom the pop historian Niall Ferguson recently threatened to sue for allegedly accusing Ferguson of racism. In his comments on the Mo Yan controversy, Mishra made clear that he did not exactly approve of Mo Yan's apparent complacency in the face of the Chinese government's excesses. He objected, however, to Rushdie's implication that this complacency made Mo Yan unworthy of recognition for his literary work. Mishra noted that few if any critics question the worthiness of American or European writers, even if they fail to criticize misdeeds by their own nations. Predictably, Rushdie rushed to accuse Mishra of "moral equivalence." Mishra, in his first of two pieces, had written that "violence and exploitation underpin all nation-states." Rushdie described this as a "satanic view of human society," as if Mishra had suggested that there were no moral distinctions to be drawn between tyrannies and free societies."[D]emocracies are not tyrannies," Rushdie wrote, "and responses to the two cannot be this simply equated." He then renewed his attack on Mo Yan, who had clumsily equated Chinese censorship with airport security measures. In doing so, Rushdie charged, the laureate "was making a moral equivalence between dissident literature and terrorism." Responding last Friday, Mishra reiterated his main point while escalating his reproach of Rushdie's own support for the invasion of Afghanistan. He underscored his own abhorrence of China, quoting an earlier piece in which he had written that future Chinese global hegemony might make the world feel nostalgic for American dominance. His main point remained, however, that none of this had to do with Mo Yan's merits as a writer, and to act as if it did while holding western writers to no similar standard is to hold a double standard.

Whether Rushdie will continue the exchange is unclear, but he could argue that he has already answered Mishra sufficiently. For him, it seems, there is a necessary double standard -- or else the single standard has nothing to do with what nations do and everything to do with what nations are. As a nation where political opposition is not tolerated , at least in forms Rushdie recognizes and respects, China is by definition a tyranny and by definition evil. When China imprisons dissidents -- or at least when Rushdie hears about it -- everyone, it seems, has a duty to denounce tyranny and demand the dissident's release. As far as I know, Rushdie could even argue that Mishra's point about double standards is irrelevant. I don't know if Rushdie has said plainly that Mo Yan should be stripped of the Nobel. If not, the only point up for debate is whether Mo Yan is a bad person. By Rushdie's standard the answer seems to be yes. However, I'm not sure whether this would entirely dismiss Mishra's criticism of Rushdie. Rushdie's implication is that the existence of tyranny imposes an obligation on everyone, or at least upon the suddenly famous, to denounce it. But is tyranny the only thing that could force such a moral obligation on everyone with influence? Mishra's point is that observers from another vantage, while still denouncing tyranny as such, might expect influential people to denounce other outrages against human decency, aggressive war (as Mishra, but not Rushdie, sees the invasion of Afghanistan) being an obvious example. It's important to remember, however, that while Mishra suggests that there's plenty for American or English writers to denounce in their own countries, he does not think that whether or not they take a stand determines their worth as artists. As a result, he argues from a more secure position, in effect saying that no one necessarily has to denounce anything, though it'd be nice if more people denounced more bad things, while those who insist that X must be denounced while recognizing no similar imperative to denounce Y or Z are in intellectual if not moral trouble. Mishra tellingly calls attention to a tendency among citizens of "democratic" countries to assume, not that their nations can do no wrong, but that the wrongs of democracies are never as bad as the wrongs of tyrannies -- as if the attitude of the perpetrators determines the quality of the offense. I may exaggerate the distinction between what nations do and what nations are -- you might well say that a tyranny is never simply an "is," but is a constantly perpetrated crime -- but what nations "are" does seem to cloud people's judgments. In Mo Yan, Salman Rushdie and Pankraj Mishra we have, apparently, three talented writers. Maybe one of them can work up that theme into a prizewinning book.


Anonymous said...

Was the prize for courage, morality or writing ability? Why should his political stance make a difference in the least?

Mr. Rushdie and the rest of the world need to stop this notion of "moral equivalence". An immoral act is an immoral act, independent of the perpetrator. Living in a "free society" should make no difference at all. Maybe Mr. Rushdie needs to be sent back to his home town to learn the difference.

And since the basis of power or authority of every nation state ultimately derives from it's "legitimate" monopoly on violence, can there said to exist a truly "free" society?

Samuel Wilson said...

Since Rushdie's home town is Mumbai, India, I'm not sure what enlightening result you'd expect from his deportation to that city.

As for what makes a "free society," the conventional test seems to be whether the ruling party is willing to surrender power or allow competition for it. By that standard China fails the test, but whether the standard is valid depends on how broadly one defines "ruling party" or "power."

Anonymous said...

In the United States, the elections are controlled by the two major political party, such that it is nearly impossible for a credible third party candidate to be included in debates, etc. not to mention the difficulty they may have just being included on the ballot. Does that make us twice as free as China since we have twice as many parties to hold power? There is no such thing as a "free" country in the way people seem to want there to be.

No one, anywhere, is free to act with impunity and expect no repercussions. Oddly enough, everyone is completely free to act. Or speak.