“What is my single life worth? Despair whispers in my ear: ‘Not a lot.’ But I refuse to give in to despair because I know that many people do care, and are appalled by the upside-down logic of the post-fatwa world, in which a novelist can be accused of having savaged or ‘mugged’ a whole community, becoming its tormentor (instead of its victim) and the scapegoat for its discontents. (What minority is smaller and weaker than a minority of one?)
I refuse to give in to despair even though, for a thousand days and more, I’ve been put through a degree course in worthlessness, my own personal and specific worthlessness. My first teachers were the mobs marching down distant boulevards, baying for my blood, and finding, soon enough, their echoes on English streets…
‘Our lives teach us who we are.’ I have learned the hard way that when you permit anyone else’s description of reality to supplant your own — and such descriptions have been raining down on me, from security advisers, governments, journalists, Archbishops, friends, enemies, mullahs — then you might as well be dead. Obviously, a rigid, blinkered, absolutist world view is the easiest to keep hold of, whereas the fluid, uncertain, metamorphic picture I’ve always carried about is rather more vulnerable. Yet I must cling with all my might to my own soul; must hold on to its mischievous, iconoclastic, out-of-step clown-instincts, no matter how great the storm. And if that plunges me into contradiction and paradox, so be it; I’ve lived in that messy ocean all my life. I’ve fished in it for my art. This turbulent sea was the sea outside my bedroom window in Bombay. It is the sea by which I was born, and which I carry within me wherever I go.
‘Free speech is a non-starter,’ says one of my Islamic extremist opponents. No, sir, it is not. Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.”
Excerpts from a speech by Salman Rushdie which was given at Columbia University on December 11th, 1991, and later adapted into his essay “One Thousand Days in a Balloon”. You’ll find the essay in his perfectly titled collection of nonfiction Step Across This Line.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been in touch with the folks at the Danish Free Press Society, who recently hosted the free speech conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the Jyllands-Posten “Cartoon Controversy”. The process is moving slowly — the result of busy schedules, different time zones, and a language barrier — but I’m working to grow their support network into these United States. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, I point you to three speeches from the event. The first two are from Douglas Murray and Mark Steyn, two of the feistier bulldogs on this issue. Then there’s Henryk Broder, an imposing Teuton whose vision of the future of continental Europe (summarized in his 20-minute talk) is compelling and scary.
It’s more than symbolic that the three speakers, who addressed an audience of about one hundred, had to convene in the Danish parliament: it’s the only building in Denmark with enough fortification to guarantee some level of security for attendees. (If you think that’s hyperbole, listen to this bone-chilling recording.) We can’t fault the Danes on this one, however, since they can boast that six of their newspapers ran the highly relevant and globally newsworthy cartoons, while only two tiny papers in all of North America had the guts to show the public what all the fuss was about. As a result, we not only conceded to the murderers’ blackmail, but also failed to show the public just how trivial these cartoons were which precipitated the murder of over 200 people around the globe.
This isn’t a joke. The cartoons may’ve been funny, if also crude and rude, but the fact the civilized world now lives under a shoddy, mutant, violently imposed blasphemy law is alarming.
Among the near-endless blessings of the right to free speech, there is perhaps none greater than its individuating power. It’s a freedom that accentuates the identity and dignity of the individual — to challenge popular consensus, think openly, argue candidly; to demarcate her mind against mob opinion and coercion; and to come to accept or reject certain ideas by herself, for herself, and without fear. Rushdie’s opening sentences above are a sure nod to this fact as well as the ways it is chipped away as freedoms disappear.