Monday, September 11, 2006

Courageous Women in America


The closest we can come to Tom Paine in the twentieth century is through two women who often appear to be channeling his spirit: Hersi Ali, about whom I’ve written before, and Oriana Fallaci, an Italian woman whose brilliant temperament – if you can believe it – is a little off-putting, even for the Italians. Very soon, Ali will grace Harvard with her presence. To tell the truth, placid Harvard, may not be ready for her. Fallaci’s candle is flickering out. Both have been orphaned by our mealy-mouthed century; both belong in spirit to the 18th century Enlightenment period; and both have arrived as outcasts on our shores. May we be worthy of them.

Fallaci recently sat down for an hour’s interview with Tunku Varadarajan, the Features editor of the Wall Street Journal. Her cancer permits her to take only liquids, so the two sipped champagne together out of fluted glasses during their talk.

An atheist, Fallaci has been indicted by an Italian judge under provisions of the Italian Penal Code that proscribe the "vilipendio," or "vilification," of any religion admitted by the state
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"In her case," Varadarajan wrote, "the religion deemed vilified is Islam, and the vilification was perpetrated, apparently, in a book she wrote last year--and which has sold many more than a million copies all over Europe--called 'The Force of Reason.' Its astringent thesis is that the Old Continent is on the verge of becoming a dominion of Islam, and that the people of the West have surrendered themselves fecklessly to the "sons of Allah." So in a nutshell, Oriana Fallaci faces up to two years' imprisonment for her beliefs--which is one reason why she has chosen to stay put in New York. Let us give thanks for the First Amendment.

"It is a shame, in so many ways, that 'vilipend,' the latinate word that is the pinpoint equivalent in English of the Italian offense in question, is scarcely ever used in the Anglo-American lexicon; for it captures beautifully the pomposity, as well as the anachronistic outlandishness, of the law in question. A "vilification," by contrast, sounds so sordid, so tabloid--hardly fitting for a grande dame.

"'When I was given the news,' Ms. Fallaci says of her recent indictment, 'I laughed. Bitterly, of course, but I laughed. No amusement, no surprise, because the trial is nothing else but a demonstration that everything I've written is true.' An activist judge in Bergamo, in northern Italy, took it upon himself to admit a complaint against Ms. Fallaci that even the local prosecutors would not touch. The complainant, one Adel Smith--who, despite his name, is Muslim, and an incendiary public provocateur to boot--has a history of anti-Fallaci crankiness, and is widely believed to be behind the publication of a pamphlet, 'Islam Punishes Oriana Fallaci,' which exhorts Muslims to eliminate her. (Ironically, Mr. Smith, too, faces the peculiar charge of vilipendio against religion--Roman Catholicism in his case--after he described the Catholic Church as 'a criminal organization' on television. Two years ago, he made news in Italy by filing suit for the removal of crucifixes from the walls of all public-school classrooms, and also, allegedly, for flinging a crucifix out of the window of a hospital room where his mother was being treated. 'My mother will not die in a room where there is a crucifix,' he said, according to hospital officials.)

"Ms. Fallaci speaks in a passionate growl: 'Europe is no longer Europe, it is "Eurabia," a colony of Islam, where the Islamic invasion does not proceed only in a physical sense, but also in a mental and cultural sense. Servility to the invaders has poisoned democracy, with obvious consequences for the freedom of thought, and for the concept itself of liberty.' Such words--"invaders," "invasion," "colony," "Eurabia"--are deeply, immensely, Politically Incorrect; and one is tempted to believe that it is her tone, her vocabulary, and not necessarily her substance or basic message, that has attracted the ire of the judge in Bergamo (and has made her so radioactive in the eyes of Europe's cultural elites).

"'Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,' the historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, and these words could certainly be Ms. Fallaci's. She is in a black gloom about Europe and its future: 'The increased presence of Muslims in Italy, and in Europe, is directly proportional to our loss of freedom.' There is about her a touch of Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher and prophet of decline, as well as a flavor of Samuel Huntington and his clash of civilizations. But above all there is pessimism, pure and unashamed. When I ask her what "solution" there might be to prevent the European collapse of which she speaks, Ms. Fallaci flares up like a lit match. 'How do you dare to ask me for a solution? It's like asking Seneca for a solution. You remember what he did?' She then says 'Phwah, phwah,' and gestures at slashing her wrists. 'He committed suicide!' Seneca was accused of being involved in a plot to murder the emperor Nero. Without a trial, he was ordered by Nero to kill himself. One senses that Ms. Fallaci sees in Islam the shadow of Nero. 'What could Seneca do?' she asks, with a discernible shudder. 'He knew it would end that way--with the fall of the Roman Empire. But he could do nothing.'

"The impending Fall of the West, as she sees it, now torments Ms. Fallaci. And as much as that Fall, what torments her is the blithe way in which the West is marching toward its precipice of choice. 'Look at the school system of the West today. Students do not know history! They don't, for Christ's sake. They don't know who Churchill was! In Italy, they don't even know who Cavour was!'--a reference to Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the conservative father, with the radical Garibaldi, of Modern Italy. Ms. Fallaci, rarely reverent, pauses here to reflect on the man, and on the question of where all the conservatives have gone in Europe. 'In the beginning, I was dismayed, and I asked, how is it possible that we do not have Cavour . . . just one Cavour, uno? He was a revolutionary, and yes, he was not of the left. Italy needs a Cavour--Europe needs a Cavour.' Ms. Fallaci describes herself, too, as 'a revolutionary -- because I do what conservatives in Europe don't do, which is that I don't accept to be treated like a delinquent.' She professes to 'cry, sometimes, because I'm not 20 years younger, and I'm not healthy. But if I were, I would even sacrifice my writing to enter politics somehow.'

"Here she pauses to light a slim black cigarillo, and then to take a sip of champagne. Its chill makes her grimace, but fortified, she returns to vehement speech, more clearly evocative of Oswald Spengler than at any time in our interview. 'You cannot survive if you do not know the past. We know why all the other civilizations have collapsed--from an excess of welfare, of richness, and from lack of morality, of spirituality.' (She uses "welfare" here in the sense of well-being, so she is talking, really, of decadence.) 'The moment you give up your principles, and your values . . . the moment you laugh at those principles, and those values, you are dead, your culture is dead, your civilization is dead. Period.' The force with which she utters the word "dead" here is startling. I reach for my flute of champagne, as if for a crutch.

"'I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger.' I had asked Ms. Fallaci whether there was any contemporary leader she admired, and Pope Benedict XVI was evidently a man in whom she reposed some trust. 'I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true. It's that simple! There must be some human truth here that is beyond religion.'

"Ms. Fallaci, who made her name by interviewing numerous statesmen (and not a few tyrants), believes that ours is 'an age without leaders. We stopped having leaders at the end of the 20th century.' Of George Bush, she will concede only that he has 'vigor,' and that he is 'obstinate' (in her book a compliment) and 'gutsy. . . . Nobody obliged him to do anything about Terri Schiavo, or to take a stand on stem cells. But he did.'

"But it is 'Ratzinger' (as she insists on calling the pope) who is her soulmate. John Paul II--'Wojtyla'--was a 'warrior, who did more to end the Soviet Union than even America,' but she will not forgive him for his 'weakness toward the Islamic world. Why, why was he so weak?'

"The scant hopes that she has for the West she rests on his successor. As a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI wrote frequently on the European (and the Western) condition. Last year, he wrote an essay titled 'If Europe Hates Itself,' from which Ms. Fallaci reads this to me: 'The West reveals . . . a hatred of itself, which is strange and can only be considered pathological; the West . . . no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure.'

"'Ecco!' she says. A man after her own heart. 'Ecco!' But I cannot be certain whether I see triumph in her eyes, or pain.


"As for the vilipendio against Islam, she refuses to attend the trial in Bergamo, set for June 2006. 'I don't even know if I will be around next year. My cancers are so bad that I think I've arrived at the end of the road. What a pity. I would like to live not only because I love life so much, but because I'd like to see the result of the trial. I do think I will be found guilty.'

"At this point she laughs. Bitterly, of course, but she laughs."
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