Salman Rushdie and the Decline of Western Civilization

Published August 14, 2022

National Review Online

Salman Rushdie is just off a ventilator, likely to lose an eye, body pierced, and still struggling with serious injuries. His alleged assailant is reportedly “sympathetic to the Iranian government” and to “Shia extremism more broadly.” On the one hand, the Iranian connection makes this attack seem like a foreign intrusion into America’s bastion of freedom. After all, the topic of the talk Rushdie was about to deliver when he was assaulted was “the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers.” On the other hand, the attack on Rushdie cannot help but raise questions about the crisis of free speech in America — that is to say, about our own retreat from liberty. The connection is profound.

My thoughts go back 33 years to a panel discussion on the furor over Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, held at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That 1989 event was the first time I had ever experienced a security check (package inspection and likely metal detectors as well). With security screening now commonplace, it’s hard to imagine a time when such a thing was both unprecedented and shocking. That first weapons screening lent a real sense of danger to the event, making attendance seem all the more necessary. (To be clear, Rushdie himself was not on the panel. Violence was feared nonetheless.)

When the Rushdie affair took off in early 1989, America’s campus culture wars had only just begun. Although I was riveted by both controversies, I would not have connected them at the time. What was then called political correctness (now called “woke”) seemed to be something of a different order than the command of a religious ruler to execute a literary figure in the name of the Muslim faith.

Yet the professors who kicked off the campus culture wars did see a link. They argued that globalization requires us to demote or abolish the Western civilization narrative. Eurocentrism must go, they said, since the sensitivities of ethnically non-Western students were on the line.

To put it differently, the same globalization that turns an Iranian Ayatollah’s death sentence into a proximate threat to Americans at a speaking event in Cambridge requires us to abandon our focus on the story of Western civilization — a story, as traditionally taught, of the rise of classical liberalism and the rights it nurtures and secures. The professors may not have put it in precisely that way, yet that is what their position amounted to. They could have responded differently to globalization, of course. Assimilating immigrants from across the globe by reaffirming the Western civilization narrative was the road not taken.

When I returned to Cambridge to teach in the mid-1990s, a disturbing incident took me back to that panel on the Rushdie affair. I was at a table in the Café Algiers, a coffeehouse in the same building complex as the Brattle Theater, when a café employee opened a cleaning closet. That open door exposed a large poster of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who had issued the fatwa against Rushdie. It was a chilling sight, and my thoughts immediately returned to that first security screening. Just a few years later, a follower of the man who had sentenced Rushdie to death was working in the building complex where the Rushdie event had taken place.

In those days, there was plenty of academic controversy around Samuel P. Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations. Probably no book has more successfully predicted the war on terror that soon followed, or the rise of China that preoccupies us today. Yet academics uniformly slammed Huntington’s book for the sin of “essentialism.” Huntington was supposedly guilty of overplaying cultural difference, while underplaying the extent to which cultural borders overlap, interpenetrate, and blend. In other words, the same academics who treated cultural difference as real and significant — especially when criticizing the West — could turn around and “deconstruct” the supposed illusion of culture when the issue was non-Western intolerance. For academics, Huntington’s book became one more reason to shun the teaching of Western civilization, and indeed to abandon the word “civilization” itself.

Nearly a generation later, writing for National Review Online, I noted an uptick in anti-free speech sentiment on campus. The culmination came in 2015, when a conference on free speech at Yale run by conservative students was disrupted by students on the left. An open attack on a conference about freedom of speech was shocking at the time. Nowadays, of course, we wouldn’t even blink. I realized in 2015, however, that merely exposing shameful violations of free speech would no longer suffice. That’s when I offered my first proposal for state-level legislation on campus free speech. I’ve been working on model legislation ever since.

Surveys now show that up to two-thirds of students approve of shouting down campus speakers, while almost a quarter believe that violence can be used to cancel a speech. These are the views of the generation that grew up without required courses in Western civilization, a course the core theme of which was the long, bloody, and difficult path by which our freedoms were conceived and established. Those courses nurtured a sense of reverence around our liberties, and a sense of shame in those violating the liberties of others. We have lost both the reverence and the shame.

The upshot is that globalization has made us more vulnerable to foreign threats, while our misguided response to globalization has damaged our greatest weapon against those very threats: our regard for our own tradition of liberty, and the principles that lay behind it. Our horror at the assault on Rushdie is a sign that there is life in our tradition still. The culturally alien nature of the attack reminds us that our tradition of freedom is real, distinctive, and worth preserving. Yet our continuing reluctance to affirm our own history and principles — especially in our schools — means that time is running short. Freedom, so to speak, is on a ventilator. We cannot remain a “safe haven for exiled writers” if we are not a safe haven for ourselves.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. On a wide range of issues, from K-12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

Image from ActuaLitté via Creative Commons

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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