After novelist Salman Rushdie was stabbed and seriously wounded during a public appearance in upstate New York last Friday, avid readers (like me) and free speech advocates (like me) ) was shocked – likely just because the words he wrote in front of the attackers were even born.
Rushdie went into hiding for a decade after his novel, The Satanic Verses, caused uproar in the Islamic world for its provocative depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini (who never bothered to read the book) called on loyal Muslims to kill Rashidi.
In the chaos that followed, more than 40 people were killed around the world. Rushdie not only survived, but continued to write and became a symbol of free expression, forever determined to “sing the truth and name the liar,” in his words.
The frenzy appeared to have died down until Friday’s attack. The exact motives of Rushdie’s 24-year-old attacker are unclear, but his social media accounts have expressed admiration for Iran’s toughest fanatics.
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Rushdie holds a special place in my heart because his novel The Midnight Child, a fantasy novel about the partition of India in 1947, was the first contemporary adult novel I read when I was about 13. I don’t know anything about the controversy surrounding its author. It just had a cool cover about a bunch of kids with super powers, so I was sold.
When I actually read it, Rushdie’s pyrotechnic prose almost made me giddy, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. The flashy text reminds me of James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, the magic realism reminds me of Gabriel García Márquez, which again reminds me of William Fog Kerner, and my personal library hasn’t stopped growing ever since.
I met Rushdie very briefly in 2012 while promoting “Joseph Anton,” his long-hidden memoir. After opening with some embarrassing fan-style of “Midnight’s Children,” I mentioned that I was a journalist, and he agreed, saying I was doing important work. I clarified that I was just a local reporter from a small town, and he looked at me and said, “It’s still important!”
There is no apparent security at the signature where we meet, and the idea that the author even needs security is absurd. Yet this seems to be where we are in our increasingly critical, condemning society.
Threats of violence are not the only way to attack free speech. So does the specter of “harmful speech”.
Trying to kill someone who says something offensive is orders of magnitude worse than professionally blackening someone who says something offensive, but they both stem from the insidious idea that X has no right to say things that make Y uncomfortable.
A book tour promoting Jenny Cummins’ 2020 novel “American Dirt” has been canceled after critics accused its author of cultural appropriation in depicting Mexican immigrants. To her credit, Oprah Winfrey refused to withdraw the book from her influential book club.
Also in 2020, The New York Times was heavily criticized and essentially apologized after Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas published a controversial op-ed. Meanwhile, an employee strike prompted Hachette Books to cancel the publication of a memoir by filmmaker Woody Allen.
This year, librarians and teachers in Missouri and Florida have spoken out against state restrictions on classroom speech and school libraries, smearing them as “beauticians.” Many school boards are under pressure to ban books that purportedly support critical racial theories or promote gender fluidity.
The culture wars have become so intense that many publishers now employ “sensitive readers” to sniff out passages that might offend readers — a form of preemptive self-censorship. It’s hard to imagine a novel like The Satanic Verses being published today.
This intolerance and fear is the antithesis of free expression. The obvious remedy for speech that people think is bad is more speech. It’s best to finish reading Satanic Verses or American Dirt before writing a negative review. Write a letter critical of Cotton. If you live in Arkansas, vote against him.
Respect the rights of others to make mistakes. criticize. But don’t be silent.
If you’re as disgusted by Rushdie’s attacks as I am, go out and see his work. Satanic Verses has returned to the bestseller list and is a great book, but the hilarious and passionate Midnight’s Children might be a better place to start.
For that matter, read Beloved, Lolita, Ulysses, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I Know Why Caged Birds Sing” or any other time-tested classic that has been censored or challenged.
As Rushdie put it: “What is freedom of speech? Without freedom of offense, it ceases to exist.”
You can contact Jesse Duarte at (707) 967-6803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.