EMINA MELONIC: Salman Rushdie delivered a clarion call for artistic freedom; can we live up to it?

Last Wednesday, the American Academy of Sciences and Letters held its investiture gala during which 10 individuals were honored for their academic work, highlighting the importance of free speech, dialogic discourse, and authentic pursuit of knowledge. Academics and writers honored included Robert P. George, Candance Vogler, and Jonathan Haidt, among others.

The highlight of the evening was a presentation of the inaugural Robert J. Zimmer Medal for Intellectual Freedom given to British novelist Sir Salman Rushdie. The medal is named for the former president of the University of Chicago, late Robert J. Zimmer, who exemplified complete authenticity in not merely academic work and academic freedom, but in constant pursuit of what is true, good, and beautiful.

Rushdie has always spoken in support of freedom of speech, and this has made him a target—first in 1988 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie and demanded he be murdered for the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses, and secondly, when Rushdie was attacked and wounded last year during a talk he was giving at the Chautauqua Institution. At the hospital, Rushdie fought for his life and luckily survived.

As reported by Reason, during the gala, Rushdie was interviewed by a Princeton professor, Bernard Haykel, and spoke about the nature of free speech and the role art, specifically literature, plays in our lives.

“In the free speech field, you find yourself constantly defending stuff that you really don’t like,” said Rushdie in the interview. “You defend it not as itself but for its right to be.”

Rushdie's right; difficult though people find this to accept in today's society, free speech must be defended whether we agree with someone or not. It doesn’t matter what “camp” one belongs to or what they actually think. The need to silence the other in every possible way is not just a threat against free speech but also against the existential integrity of every individual.

This approach to silencing, encapsulated in the oft-used phrase “free speech for me but not for thee,” erodes and destroys any shred of trust people may have left for each other. When your neighbor must lie to avoid punishment, how can you trust him not to lie to you? In his speech, Rushdie also made an excellent point that most people who were vocal against his novel, The Satanic Verses, actually never read it, which sounds depressingly familiar. Almost all of the discourse and so-called journalism we witness today is one example after another of people not having read or seen the very thing they so vociferously criticize. 

Yet despite the attacks, Rushdie continues to write, as any true writer would. As he himself put it, “The only reason to write is because you cannot avoid doing so because the book feels so necessary to you—not to the world, to you—that you have to. Those are the books to write…It takes a long time to write a book, and a very short time for it to be dismissed.” In some way, Rushdie is saying that a writer lives in a space and time that does not depend on the unfolding of the chronological events but simply on a vision that must be expressed and shown to the world. Sometimes, the very process of writing is far too mysterious and possibly even mystical for a writer to fully comprehend.

In addition, Rushdie made an interesting comparison between a writer and literature. “Literature is powerful, writers are fragile,” said Rushdie. “Of course, we need to defend literature itself. But we actually need to defend the writers because they are more vulnerable.” This obviously applies to him —he was literally rendered vulnerable to a physical attack -- but there is more to his statement: art cannot exist without humanity to produce it, and yet humanity without art barely deserves to be called humanity. Thus, if we cannot accept the fragility of a writer as a human being, we can feel no gratitude for their work, nor appreciation of their courage, both of which we desperately need more of in today's society. And anything we need, we should protect. 

Particularly, we must protect it against the incipient totalitarian ideologies that seek to devour and destroy our freedoms: ideologies that mix an infantile understanding of politics with the fanaticism of religion (and yet which possesses no grace, and nothing of the sublime toward which religion aspires).  We have seen this in the past. One need only look at the censorship, persecution, and mass executions of those who dared to speak the truth under Communism to know that. But Communism's attacks on freedom were blunt and obvious, unlike the insidious concept creep that prevails today. Yet like communism, the subtle totalitarianism of our time makes people stay silent when modern day Rushdies are attacked; it makes us stand by as our fragile and precious creativity is devastated, and our freedom with it. Thank God that there still exist those who praise the courage of such people, and even if one doesn't agree with Salman Rushdie, one must acknowledge the existential stakes of his fight for freedom -- not just his freedom, but ours.

Image: Title: Rushdie
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