Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman deserves every accolade it has received, and it’s only one of the magnificent plays he’s written. The Road, The Lion and the Jewel, The Trials of Brother Jero, A Dance of the Forests, The Strong Breed, Kongi’s Harvest, Madmen and Specialists… I can’t decide which ones not to include in my list of masterpieces. And books like Aké absolutely remain classics of the literature produced by human beings in this century. I regard those works as miracles, as expressions of grace: they are events in the existence of this species that didn’t have to occur, and we are blessed that they did. This is not hyperbole. But this is why his Naipaulish turn of the last decade is so frustrating and infuriating; Naipaul has mostly always been a racist and mostly always been pretty overrated, but while some of Naipaul’s novels are, at the most, quite fine, Soyinka has been the real deal, the kind of singular writer for which there is literally no comparison. There are other Naipaul-ish writers; there is only one Soyinka. So watching him chip away at the legacy he created in the 1970’s isn’t just sad, it’s positively enraging. The kind of magnificent dramatic tension he created between irresolvable contradictions in his literary works has become the kind of embarrassing pride-in-its-own stupidity that he was spouting in the Daily Beast:
“We should assemble all those who are pure and cannot abide other faiths, put them all in rockets, and fire them into space.”
“[Soyinka] offered—almost apologetically—a more prosaic solution: “Education. And rigorous punishment for those who feel, not ‘I’m right, you’re wrong,’ but ‘I’m right, you’re dead.'”
No. That’s incredibly stupid. You don’t advocate rounding up and killing people based on your own personal ability to tell the sheep from the goats — even as a joke — and then, a second later, make the criterion for your hilarious little space-genocide the very arrogance you have just displayed, the very exact same presumption that the wrongness of someone’s political opinions, which you get to determine, necessitates their “rigorous punishment.” And you don’t explicitly argue that all Islamic institutions are “indoctrination schools” — incubators for the “virus” of apocalyptic violence — and then propose that “education” is the magic solution, as if secular schools aren‘t just a different kind of indoctrination. Don’t get me wrong; I prefer secular brainwashing to religious. But that’s not a meaningful criterion. Soyinka wants to argue that his kind of school is liberation while theirs is indoctrination, something he has in common with them. And his brainstorm that the school uniforms of his youth are the solution to all of our social woes is just willfully uncreative. Really Wole? The solution to religious extremism is… missionary schools and a project of mass social engineering?
In another turn of depressing stupidity, Soyinka then decides to assert the Nation of Islam as the American model for dealing with the OMGTHEMUSLIMSARECOMING!!!!1111!!!!:
“I doubt you can have the kind of indoctrination schools in America as you do in the U.K. Besides, there’s a large body of American Muslims in the U.S.—the Nation of Islam—which has created a kind of mainstream Muslim institution. The Muslims there are open Muslims, whereas in Europe they tend to go into ghetto schools. The Nation of Islam provides an antidote in the United States to fundamentalist Islam—which is why individuals from America have to go abroad to find radical teachings.”
What. The. Fuck. Are you talking about, Wole? I don’t want to do what Wole is doing and present my ignorance about a group I know only a little about as if it were knowledge — since I don’t know a lot about the Nation of Islam — but I’ll just observe that it surprises me to hear him call an organization “mainstream” that demands tax-emption, separate schools, and a separate state for black people. And since most Muslims regard Nation of Islam the way most Christians regard Christian Science, to assert that Nation of Islam can somehow be an antidote to whatever paranoid fantasy he has about Islam is, well, almost as strange as the notion that white people were created by a demented black scientist and that there is a African UFO orbiting the planet, waiting to lead the children of Elijah Mohammed to paradise or something. Don’t get me wrong; I like my George Clinton as much as the next guy, and, of course, I’m not even sure that Louis Farrakhan really did claim to have been inspired to lead the million man march after a ride on a rocket ship; it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the Nation of Islam has in recent years (like all religions) put a lid on all its craziest stuff and settled down to the business of being a religion. But Wole is saying silly things here when he pretends that the Nation of Islam (20,000 to 60,00 adherents, regarded as a cult by many actual Muslims) is even a blip on the radar to the humble millions of American Muslims who are in danger of falling under the siren song of extremism or whatever. He’s using the credit he developed as an intellectual and the Nobel he earned (back when he was an intellectual and back when he deserved it) to give credence to what are really just the rambling musings of ignorance, bordering on bigotry.
After all, Soyinka’s claim that England is “the breeding ground of fundamentalist Muslims” because they have freedom of speech? Really? Putting aside the ease by which he pretends “apocalyptic violence” is something only Muslims do — there are no Christian apocalyptic advocates of violence, of course, no — as well as being something all Muslims do — because the fact that most Muslims want as little to do with Osama Bin Laden as possible would be inconvenient for the broad strokes he wants to draw — we should consider that maybe, just maybe, freedom of speech isn’t anything close to being the problem. But the more seriously I try to take the things he says — the more seriously I try to deal with the talk I saw him deliver at Berkeley a few days ago (where he went on abut school uniforms) — the more I find myself running up against points and arguments that simply fall apart the closer I look at them. This, for example (still from the Daily Beast article):
…the origins of the current phase of the world’s religious strife—including all of the bloodshed in Nigeria—lie with Ayatollah Khomeini and his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, in 1989. “It all began when he assumed the power of life and death over the life of a writer. This was a watershed between doctrinaire aggression and physical aggression. There was an escalation…Al Qaeda is the descendent of this phenomenon. The proselytization of Islam became vigorous after this. People went to Saudi Arabia. Madrassas were established everywhere.”
Freedom of speech is the problem, as are “Madrassas” (which in the secret tricksy language those Muslims speak means “school”), and also the fact that a powerful person assumes the power of life and death over writers? Really? And Wole, you’ve decided that the solution to this problem is schools (and school uniforms), curtailing dangerous freedoms of speech, and firing off the people we don’t like in rockets to space? Really? What happened to you?