Left-wing New York gathered at the Society for Ethical Culture at 64th Street and Central Park West on Monday night. They came to hear dark prophecies, to hear insults hurled at Cheney and Bush, and to hear it done with a fervor equal to the sick loathing that has gripped them in the last six years. Hundreds filled the nontheistic pews to capacity.
Seymour Hersh and Scott Ritter did not disappoint. Mr. Ritter is a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq in the 1990’s who turned against the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War. His new book, Target Iran, uses the foreign press and Mr. Ritter’s undisclosed intelligence contacts to describe American and Israeli preparations for war with that country. He continually roused himself to a fury and drew volleys of cathartic applause.
“There will be war with Iran,” he declared. “If we start bombing Iran, I’ll tell you right now, it’s not going to work …. What will happen is that the Iranians will respond and we will feel the pain instantaneously, which will cause the Bush administration to go to Phase 2, which will be boots on the ground.
“And those troops could end up trapped in Iraq.” His voice swelled. “And there is no reserve to pull them out! And my concern at that point is that we might resort to the use of nuclear weapons to try to break the backbone of Iranian resistance.”
He concluded: “If we do, the genie ain’t going back into the bottle until at least one American city is taken out. So tell me—which one do you want gone? Seattle? Los Angeles? Boston? New York? Pick one, because at least one is going.”
Mr. Hersh, the New Yorker writer, delivered, as he often does, a tidbit that probably won’t make it into print. He described a long private e-mail written by someone who works with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to its generals. It explained the dangers of striking Iran and ended with a facetious prescription for the way forward in Iraq.
“We should say we’re really, really, really sorry, and we really, really, really are,” Mr. Hersh began. “Let’s get Saddam Hussein, put him in a prayer meeting with President Bush, tell Halliburton it can do reconstruction—let’s take a mulligan and get the hell out of there.”
Left-wing New York had gathered at the Society for Ethical Culture the Wednesday before as well. That night it was Salman Rushdie, the proverbial canary in the mineshaft of the great political tsuris threatening to engulf the 21st century. The people were there to hear religion calumniated by a puckish wit who had seen its darkest edge pressed against his throat. The people that were out to get him are out to get the rest of us, too.
These people, Mr. Rushdie argued, ought to be called “Islamic terrorists.” “If the terrorists themselves are saying they are doing what they are doing in the name of Islam, then I see no reason why we shouldn’t put those two words together to describe the world as it is,” he said.
Liberal German Jews who thought even Reform Judaism was too godly for them started Ethical Culture in the 1870’s. The rows of wooden benches that you would, in a different setting, call “pews” are presided over by nontheistic sculptures of a woman in a flowing gown holding a baby.
“They should put a sign around that baby’s neck,” said the man seated behind me, “that reads, ‘I AM NOT THE BABY JESUS.’” The bearded fellow, a tax attorney on business from California, was in good spirits. “It’s the closest I’ve ever been,” he noted, “to an atheistic church.”
Ethical Culture is, in other words, le plus bien of all the bien pensant milieus in this city, and Mr. Rushdie had come to explain to these people an error that he thinks they and others like them had made. Out of friendliness to Third World movements that deploy the rhetoric of liberation, Mr. Rushdie said, many liberals and progressives had failed to see them with the proper clarity.
He sprang to his own defense over a stray comment that recently hit the press. He had said that the veil wasn’t an icon of identity, but something that Muslim men bullied young women to wear. In a word, that it “sucked.”
“Islamic radicalism—whether it’s Al Qaeda, Wahhabism or whatever—is not interested in creating greater social justice,” he said later. “It’s interested in what the Taliban did. It’s interested in a new religious, fascist rule over the planet.”
Karl Marx is often quoted calling religion the opiate of the people. They often leave out the sentence that precedes it: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” An unstated subtext of the evening’s triumphant secularism was that religion and identity are the refuges of people with little else going for them.
“Flood them with iPods and let MTV save the world!” Mr. Rushdie declared, half-facetiously, about the means to the end of Islamic theocracy in Iran. It is the liberal dream, glibly stated, and it seemed to indicate the place where Mr. Rushdie’s fine, educated, cosmopolitan sensibility met its limit.
For a pensive moment toward the evening’s end, he no longer seemed to be pronouncing or delivering his tightly honed aperçus. Maybe, he said, if the world’s wealth were more evenly distributed, fewer would be inclined to wage war against it. “Marxism is so out of fashion these days,” he noted. But.
He seemed a bit wistful and tentative at this moment, and though it’s hard to know what an audience thinks, others seemed to share in the mood.
All these fortunate people, most had less than Mr. Rushdie, but most had, by any absolute standard, a very great deal.
They could imagine how hard it might be to grow up poor and despised in some backward corner of the earth, and could maybe even see how you might end up being cross with the world. All of their deepest convictions had been directed toward the amelioration of just these conditions—but not enough had been done, and a terrible storm seemed about to be unleashed upon them. And despite Mr. Rushdie’s rousing peroration, in which he called on us to defend our liberties against those who would take them from us (not through war, but through renewed commitment), it was by no means clear that we could get ourselves on the right side of what we sensed was coming.