Step Across This Line: collected non-fiction 1992-2002 by Salman Rushdie

Travel has not broadened Rushdie's mind

By Ziauddin Sardar
Tuesday 21 January 2003 01:00

Salman Rushdie is dead. The Rushdie that you knew and loved is no more, judging by the quality and content of this anthology of non-fiction. In place of his usual brilliant prose and caustic criticism, we have anodyne thoughts on the obsessions of America and the workings of a globalised world.

Rushdie's writing is as arrogant as ever: his loathing for Islam, which he sees as a reactionary ideology and an irrelevant residue of a dead civilisation, is still much in evidence. Now, however, he champions the cause of America rather than the Third World, and is concerned about anti-Americanism rather than Western injustices.

We have errant musing on Gandhi, Arthur Miller and Jorg Haider, banal excursions into Fiji, reality TV and sleaze, and half-hearted compositions on U2 and abortion in India. We are told, with a sense of discovery, that reality TV is boring, the Taj Mahal is worth visiting and dams do, as Arundhati Roy suggests, benefit the rich and drown the poor. And, if you had any doubt, you should know that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is "a luminous work of art" and Andrew Lloyd Webber makes musical turkeys.

In his columns for The New York Times, Rushdie takes great pains to project America as a loving, caring imperial power. Anti-Americanism is so much "appalling rubbish" and anti-Americans – the whole lot – fools. America should fight terrorism at all costs, even if it leads to erosion of civil liberties: "We must send our shadow warriors against their shadow warriors".

There isn't even a slight hint that people around the world may have serious grounds for objecting to American hegemony. Or that there are rationally satisfying reasons for loathing the relentless American support for dictators, and the way that America has used brute power to tie up trade agreements. Rushdie, yesteryear's champion of doubt, has no such doubts.

The showpiece is a meandering two-part essay that gives the book its title. We are led through a series of hoops to the earth-shattering argument that America is a frontier state and the frontier is now the world. But nowhere does Rushdie acknowledge that the frontier is also the location where America forged its ideology of triumphalist, self-absorbed monoculture, founded on violence clothed in the imagery of innocence.

Corruption and incompetence is something that is to be found only in Pakistan, for which Rushdie has a deep loathing. What are we to make of his invective against the "boring", "barren" and "blinkered monoculture" of Karachi?

With dozens of ethnicities, each with their own language, only someone blind to diversity would see Karachi as monocultural. Anyone who has experienced its thrilling street-life knows the city is anything but boring.

Migrants, Rushdie tells us, are forced to face up to great questions of change and adaptation. A recent migrant to New York, Rushdie has adapted to change by dispensing with his left-wing views. When he was British, he despised the Subcontinent that he had left behind. And now that he is an American, he loathes the United Kingdom, the country that nursed and nourished him, and provided him with all the protection he needed. Let us welcome to a new Rushdie, shrink-wrapped in Americana.

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