Emory University’s relationship with the author Sir Salman Rushdie began 11 years ago when he came to its campus to give a series of lectures on modern literature named after Richard Ellmann, the famed biographer of James Joyce and other 20th century writers.
Emory’s president, James Wagner, hosted Sir Salman at a dinner following the lecture series and tried to capture his attention so he could make some formal remarks.
While Dr. Wagner captured everyone else’s attention at the dinner, Sir Salman and the graduate students at a separate table failed to discontinue their animated conversation.
Finally having gotten his attention, Dr. Wagner asked him — given his obvious relish in engaging with students –“Have you ever taught at a university?” Sir Salman replied that he hadn’t, but would consider doing so if asked.
The relationship blossomed with Sir Salman’s appointments as distinguished writer in residence and as a distinguished professor at the College of Arts and Sciences.
The relationship deepened further when in 2006 his archives including manuscripts, drawings, journals, letters and photographs as well as several computers and their contents on which he wrote during the early 1990s were placed in Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.
Sir Salman was back on campus Feb. 15 for a lecture to a packed house at the Glenn Memorial Auditorium marking what was to be his final public event as a distinguished professor at the university.
But in his introduction, Robin Forman, the college’s dean, announced that Sir Salman’s lecture would not be his final on-campus responsibility since he is to be awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree at the university’s 170th commencement ceremony in May.
Dr. Forman also announced that he has accepted to present the keynote address at the commencement.
During his lecture titled “The Liberty Instinct” Sir Salman defended freedom of expression, a commitment that he has espoused courageously and without interruption even in the face of death threats following the publication of his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses.”
He went so far as to acknowledge a Pakistani film in which he is killed by lightning bolts emitted from twirling, vengeance-seeking Qurans.
Just the day before, a gunman in Denmark attacked a free speech forum featuring a controversial cartoonist and then fired shots near a synagogue before he was shot down by police. The previous month the cartoonists at the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo were among those killed in Paris by terrorists.
“If you look around the world, you see the ideas of freedom — freedom which contains the sense of carefree-ness — seen everywhere in retreat, hounded by guns and bombs,” he said
Of course, he was outraged by the killings, but also disturbing, he said, was the abuse directed at the cartoonists themselves for being alleged racists, not politically correct or religiously tolerant.
As satirists, he said, it was their responsibility to provoke and ridicule established interests, taking on everything which they did with abandon including not only Muslims, but the Pope, rabbis, and people of all colors.
He cited John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela as allies to his view. “Both John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela use the same three-word phrase which in my mind says it all, which is ‘Freedom is Indivisible,” he said. “You can’t slice it up, otherwise it ceases to be freedom.”
Dr. Forman praised Sir Salman’s role at Emory. “We are better because of this relationship,” he said. “Salman has consistently inspired us, provoked us and encouraged us to be our best selves.”
While obviously grateful for his role at Emory, Sir Salman was less effusively positive about the state of university campuses, saying that modern attacks on free speech have been met by “a new kind of timidness.”
As an illustration of how this timidness emerges when facing a freedom of speech issue, he cited a recent decision at Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s school in South Hadley, Mass., to cancel a performance of Eve Ensler’s feminist play “The Vagina Monologues” because “by defining women a people with vaginas, the play discriminates against transgender people who do not.”
He acknowledge the benefits of “good manners,” but in his opinion when faced with questions of free speech, its defense begins with what offends you. “That’s not the boundary, that’s the starting point,” he said. “It’s really easy to defend the right to speak of people that you obviously agree with or to whom you are indifferent.”
He went on to poke fun at those whom he termed belonging to “the but-brigade, those who defend free speech but with certain qualifications.”
Even if free speech is accepted as an “inalienable right,” he said there remains the option to turn away. “If you don’t like the book, close the book,” he said. “If you don’t like the movie, don’t go to see the movie. You are free as the makers. They have the right to speak and you have the right not to listen if you fear it will upset you.”
He also said that he felt it was healthier for a society to let freedom of expression reign in broad daylight than have limitations on free speech resulting in the spread of dissension out of sight.
According to Sir Salman, the ideals of the Enlightenment upon which Western culture is founded and were considered self-evident when he was a student in the 1960s, are now under threat.
Acknowledging that Voltaire was an anti-Semite and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, he added that “flawed men gave voice to great ideas.”
Queen Elisabeth II formally knighted Sir Salman in 2008.