I learned of the attack on Salman Rushdie while reading On Liberty by J. S. Mill. There is nothing surprising about the coincidence. I have a strong interest in the subject of liberty of expression and few have ever made a better argument for it than Mill. I prefer America’s Walter Lippmann though, and always keep close at hand a copy of his century-old collection of essays Liberty and the News. One of these that is appropriate for today is titled What Modern Liberty Means * and I shall quote from it in honor of Mr. Rushdie.
At a time when the world needs above all other things the activity of generous imaginations and the creative leadership of planning and inventive minds, our thinking is shriveled with panic. Time and energy that should go to building and restoring are instead consumed in warding off the pin-pricks of prejudice and fighting a guerilla war against misunderstanding and intolerance. For suppression is felt, not simply by the scattered individuals who are actually suppressed. It reaches back into the steadiest minds, creating tension everywhere; and the tension of fear produces sterility. Men cease to say what they think; and when they cease to say it, they soon cease to think it. They think in reference to their critics and not in reference to the facts. For when thought becomes socially hazardous, men spend more time wondering about the hazard than they do in cultivating their thought.
America is a refuge for free thinkers. It is no surprise that the world would rather invest in our nation than in Russia, China, or Iran. We are not a refuge for those who are sterile, but for those who are active and bold enough to speak out. They are democratizing in every regard. Yet, few people will ever face the hazards confronting Mr. Rushdie. Fewer still will spend less time wondering about that threat than in cultivating the richness of their thought.
Never did I anticipate reading Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, but my copy will arrive in a few weeks. As Lippmann wrote, “the traditional core of liberty, namely, the notion of indifference, is too feeble and unreal a doctrine to protect the purpose of liberty, which is the furnishing of a healthy environment in which human judgment and inquiry can most successfully organize human life.”
Thank you for not being indifferent Mr. Rushdie.
* Lippmann, Walter. (1920) 2018. Liberty and the News. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe.