A 'Test Of Our Institutions': Author Salman Rushdie Talks Civility, Free Speech In Lexington

Mar 27, 2019

Famed author Sir Salman Rushdie told a Lexington audience Wednesday that Western institutions are being tested by unsettling developments on both ends of the political spectrum.

Author and social commentator Salman Rushdie laughs as he recalls his childhood in India as he highlights his own start as a writer during the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson, Miss., Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018.
Credit AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The award-winning writer of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses lingered only briefly on the infamous 1989 fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for his assassination, instead joking that "30 years later, one of us is dead." 

But Zoé Strecker, director the school’s Creative Intelligence series, says the incident and Rushdie’s high-profile advocacy for free speech made the author an ideal choice to wrestle with the current campus theme.

"We've been addressing the question of civility — when it's worthwhile, when it's something to be pushed aside, what it means to us at this time of more division than we've seen in a long time," she explained. "I thought that he would be a perfect voice at ths moment to address that topic." 

In his remarks, which were not available for broadcast, Rushdie sounded the alarm on what he described as increasingly authoritarian tendencies resurfacing on the right and troubling calls for censorship coming from the left. Both of which, the social commentator said, are compounded by online echo chambers. 

"We're in danger of surrendering our rational thought to the social media lynch mobs," Rushdie warned. 

Well-versed in the ongoing "argument" that is democracy, the author took several minutes to train his fire on the current occupant of the Oval Office, running down a list of presidential tweets, remarks, and actions he repeated are "not normal." 

"History shows us that the standard first step toward tyranny is to prey on or magnify the people's suspicion that they're not being told the truth," Rushdie said. "And an attack on the integrity of the press is an essential part of that." 

Stressing that many modern trends in global politics are nothing new, the novelist nevertheless took on an urgency when describing the current moment. 

"We are in the midst of a destruction test of our institutions," he announced. 

Concluding, the writer urged the audience to "grow a thicker skin" when it comes to attacks and criticism, “defeat bigots at the ballot box,” and embrace a more nuanced view of human nature.  

During his visit, the special guest met with 14 students for a spirited Q&A ahead of his public appearance.

Rushdie did not request any extra security at the event.