Re-evaluating Rushdie

It wasn’t until this past Commencement, when Salman Rushdie was escorted by an armored vehicle with armed cohort, that I finally understood why the man won’t go anywhere without an entourage. I marveled from the School of Theology as they shuffled the sour-faced, ribbon-decked scholar into an SUV, his distrustful eyes narrowed at me behind black lenses. As they disappeared in a cloud of exhaust it clicked. His provocative words still echoing in my ears, I suddenly realized why someone might hate Rushdie enough to want to take his life.

Like many of my Emory colleagues, I maintained a vague appreciation for the former University Distinguished Professor. I read a short story of his in a freshman English course, had some nebulous understanding that he was a heralded hero, and even had the opportunity of participating in a roundtable discussion with him on his fiction. Still unable to grasp why Rushdie might merit this level of attention on campus, but nevertheless in the grips of an infectious awe that I’d contracted from my fellow students, I approached him after that discussion for an autograph.

My opinion of him has somewhat crystallized since then. Really, I feel he just needs to learn some manners.

They say that it is proper etiquette never to discuss two things: politics and religion. Rushdie, in his not so tact talk this past May, brushed vigorously on both.

University President James. W. Wagner introduced the fellow as an “author, professor, defender of humanity,” showering the smug, disinterested Rushdie with praise.

Rushdie started his keynote address puttering self-consciously, laughing nervously at his own jokes. Then came the premise: “The world in which you have grown up,” he said, “is unusually full of crap.” His solution, referencing Ernest Hemingway: “You need to have and refine and hone … a really good shit detector.”

The thrust of Rushdie’s was simple enough: Go forth, gain discernment, let go of the past, make the world a better place. Which is why I’m baffled that he should choose to bash religion in addition to veganism, yoga, political correctness and conspiracy theorists. Now, those things may or may not have something in common, but his blunt dismissal begs another question: just what, Sir Rushdie, is your conception of a better world?

Rushdie seems to imagine, like John Lennon, a world without religion, violence or misinformation as if the three were inveterate companions. The path to such a world, he posits, is skepticism and creativity: “…question everything, take nothing for granted, argue with all received ideas, don’t respect what doesn’t deserve respect, speak your mind, don’t censor yourselves, use your imagination and express what it tells you to express.”

Let us, for just a moment, consider the resulting incoherence of not just taking Rushdie’s plan “for granted” but questioning it, arguing with the received idea and perhaps disrespecting it enough to speak our uncensored minds against it. If we do what he asks we ought immediately to receive skeptically his call for skepticism, questioning it, arguing with it. Well, that it is what I’m doing. The words you read are the direct result of his advice.

And so, Rushdie, who are you to ask us to move past religion, as if there were something better beyond it? Who who are you to say that Ayn Rand is trash? What if there is something to yoga? What if there is something to veganism? Why should we blindly accept your derisive opinion?

You offer only an old man’s personal ire and condescension towards people of faith and those vegan/yoga people. You do not call us to question or to argue your points; we are to take it for granted after all, you’re the smart guy giving the important speech. Smart men giving important speeches and writing smart things know what they’re talking about. Google Adolf Hitler if you’re not convinced. Or Emory’s very own President Wagner.

So yes, Rushdie, you weren’t shy about what was setting off your own shit detector. But of course, and I think you would agree, it is not so much the detection of shit that’s important; it’s how capable you are of cleaning it up. Unfortunately, you only seemed interested in smearing the stuff around. You never offered substantiated claims on how we ought to live and act, but self-contradictory and offensive babble. If Emory’s really “been good to [you],” then why leave that taste in our mouths? Why offend and provoke in such an unconstructive manner?

Jonathan Warkentine is a College senior from Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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