We’re still arguing about Salman Rushie? Really?
This news is a few days old, but for those who haven’t heard, Rushdie is scheduled to speak at Nova Southeastern University and some students are upset because Rushdie “blasphemes” Islam in The Satanic Verses. Now, I can certainly understand being more than a little sensitive to all the anti-Muslim nonsense going on right now; I can understand being upset about the crap that regularly appears on conservative websites, about racist cartoons, and even about what Rushdie wrote. However, the fact remains that Rushdie is one of the greatest writers alive (and yes, I’m probably a little biased because I really enjoy his work). He’s been at the center of one of the biggest free speech conflicts of the past quarter century. He’s a man of great intelligence and integrity, not to mention incredible talent. Universities should be — and I’d imagine are — chomping at the bit to have him come and speak.
Should every student get in line and go see Rushdie if they can’t stand him and think he’s personally insulting? No. They certainly don’t have to attend graduation if they find him so abhorrent. But suggesting that he’s an inappropriate choice is just silly. Universities should, and usually do, pick speakers who reflect their values and the character of their community. It would, for example, probably be a poor choice for a school like NYU to invite someone like John Ashcroft to speak at graduation, because he’s so far out of line with NYU’s instititutional values. It would not be such a poor choice for them to invite EL Doctorow, or Toni Morrison, or even Al Gore. Is Salman Rushdie the kind of person whose reputation runs counter to all the things that institutions of higher learning should hold dear? No. He represents what higher education seeks to achieve — skillful writing, expression of inborn talent, and personal courage. So it saddens me to see students at NSU speaking out against him for the least courageous reasons:
“Who is to say there is not someone willing to try and kill him while inflicting harm to everyone else at the ceremony?” said NSU student Randy Rodriguez-Torres in an editorial published in this week’s NSU student newspaper.
I can understand being offended. If, for example, John Ashcroft was the speaker at my graduation, I might consider not attending. I support and respect any individual student’s choice not to go to their own graduation because they disagree with what the speaker stands for. But I’m not sure that there’s a good argument to be made that Rushie is an inappropriate choice, or that a graduation speaker must be someone who pleases everyone in the audience. I can see a better argument against selecting controversial political figures, since those people tend to be inherently polarizing. But agitating against the selection of one of the most well-regarded literary figures alive? Give me a break.