Thursday, November 19, 2015

Allen Ginsberg's Harsh Words for Islam and Muhammad (Strong Language)




Yes, that Allen Ginsberg.

He was a flawed human being, like the rest of us. But I won't be speaking of his flaws here. One day, he defended another human being.

I don't think he was a great poet, but he also wasn't a hack. Parts of Howl are brilliant, whatever you may think of the message.

In 1971 Ginsberg wrote a poem called September on Jessore Road, which had a fair amount of impact in drawing attention to the state-sponsored genocide of Bengalis--Hindus, Muslims and others--by the Pakistan army and allied Islamist militias in Bangladesh. Estimates of those killed vary widely but a million or more deaths is reasonable. It is one of the largest recorded massacres of innocents by Muslim soldiers, militia and terrorist groups in history, and it was a liberal cause celebre for a few years. But it is now almost forgotten.

Ginsberg was a leftist. But though he often equated the "violence" of both communism and capitalism, he wasn't afraid to denounce the policies of communist states. And this got him into a bit of trouble. Wikipedia has a neat summary:
Ginsberg travelled to several communist countries to promote free speech. He claimed that communist countries, such as China, welcomed him because they thought he was an enemy of capitalism, but often turned against him when they saw him as a trouble maker. For example, in 1965 Ginsberg was deported from Cuba for publicly protesting at the persecution of homosexuals and referring to Che Guevara as "cute". The Cubans sent him to Czechoslovakia, where one week after being named the Král majálesu ("King of May" – a students' festivity, celebrating spring and student life), Ginsberg was labelled an "immoral menace" by the Czechoslovak government because of his free expression of radical ideas, and was then deported on May 7, 1965 by order of the state security agency. Václav Havel points to Ginsberg as an important inspiration in striving for freedom.
Deported from Cuba for calling Che Guevara "cute". I love it.

Cuba, by the way, would soon begin deporting homosexuals to concentration camps (following the Catholics), while most of the Western left still salivated over the revolution.

By all accounts, Ginsberg was friendly and charitable in his personal relations. As far as I can tell, most people that met him liked him and that included his cultural or political "opponents".

Here's a nifty clip from Firing Line where Ginsberg surprises William F. Buckley with a poem (that he proudly confesses was composed on LSD). Buckley blurts out "I kind of like that," and both men seem to be richly enjoying themselves.

The anecdote of the title comes from a 2010 piece in Reason Magazine by Mark Goldblatt. Read the whole article if you can, but here's the most relevant excerpt. I in turn was alerted to it by Kathy Shaidle:
I got to know the poet Allen Ginsberg towards the end of his life. Not very well, just a nodding acquaintance, but after he died I attended a memorial in his honor at the City University Graduate School. At that service, his personal assistant related a story about Ginsberg’s reaction to the death sentence pronounced on the novelist Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Rushdie’s “crime,” you’ll recall, was writing a provocative, perhaps even blasphemous novel inspired by the life of Muhammad called The Satanic Verses. 
Though I might be screwing up a few details, the gist of the story was as follows: Soon after news of the fatwa broke, Ginsberg and his assistant climbed into the back seat of a taxi in Manhattan. After a glance at the cab driver’s name, Ginsberg politely inquired if he was a Muslim. When the cabbie replied that he was, Ginsberg asked him what he thought about the death sentence on Rushdie. The cabbie answered that he thought that Rushdie’s book was disrespectful of Islam, and that the Ayatollah had every right to do what he had done. At this point, according to his assistant, Ginsberg, one of the gentlest men ever to walk the planet, flew into a rage, screaming at the cabbie as he continued to drive, “Then I shit on your religion! Do you hear me? I shit on Islam! I shit on Muhammad! Do you hear? I shit on Muhammad!” Ginsberg demanded that the cabbie pull over. The cabbie complied, and, without paying the fare, Ginsberg and his assistant climbed out. He was still screaming at the cabbie as the car drove off.
My own interpretation is that Ginsberg knew or cared little about Islam per se. But he knew what had happened to Rushdie (whether they were personally acquainted, I have no idea), and was sticking up for a comrade. How could anyone do this? How could any religion do this? How could anyone not aggressively oppose it?


  1. He most likely knew a lot about Islam due to the fact that he was Jewish. I believe his parents were immigrants.

  2. Very interesting take on the old drug-addled Commie Beatnik Homo. I like what you posted.
    I appreciate some of his rants, especially "Television Was A Baby Crawling Toward That Death-chamber" and parts of "Howl"

    It's funny that you found the same interview with W.F. Buckley that I posted with my Ginsberg poem back in April - but I posted the psychedelic version:

    1. Excellent! Have you seen his cameo in Subterranean Homesick Blues?