Books

A Tale of Three Writers

Michael Gove traces the split between flabby and muscular liberals back to the 1989 Fatwa on Salman Rushdie by reference to Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Christopher Hitchens:

During the 1980s there were two authors whose books under your arm signalled exactly the right sort of political correctness. Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan were the voices of complex, agonised, anti-Thatcherite, culturally plural Anglo-liberalism. They were the right sort of baggage for any student to have. More heavyweight, in every sense, than just a copy of The Guardian in your pocket. Although if you wanted the additional heft of a commentator to provide the perfect progressive take on every current controversy, you couldn’t do much better than to follow Christopher Hitchens.

And then came the collision — between the pen and the sword. In 1989 their liberalism came into conflict with a reality harsher than any conjured by their fictional imaginings.

At first liberalism rallied in the face of medieval obscurantism. The defence of free speech was a cause around which all liberals could unite. The disobliging references to the Anglo-Indian Rushdie from some voices on the Anglo-Saxon Right were, perversely, reassuring. Liberalism might need to be tougher, but its assumptions about where the enemy lay were still secure. Reaction at home, and abroad.

There were worrying signs, however. Some of those making excuses for book-burning came themselves from the book-writing, progressive, classes. A gulf was opening, one that became unbridgeable after 9/11

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