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Opinion: Salman Rushdie — an example of the freedom we must defend

Salman Rushdie is recovering from a stab wound after being attacked in New York. What does history tell us about defending free speech?

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Salman Rushdie stands in front of shelves of books at a book signing in London.

Author Salman Rushdie poses for photographers at a book signing in London, Tuesday, June 6, 2017. Rushdie was stabbed on Aug. 12, 2022, before he was set to speak at Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York.

Grant Pollard, Invision via Associated Press

Thankfully, Salman Rushdie survived the vicious knife attack in New York. The severely wounded author faces long recuperation and may lose an eye.

Many years ago, Rushdie became a target of the fundamentalist killers who run Iran. In 1988, his book “Satanic Verses” offended Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who then publicly ordered to kill the author.

There followed threats and violence directed not only against Rushdie but also stores selling the book. In craven cowardice, Waldenbooks removed “Satanic Verses” from shelves, followed by B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble. Facing severe backlash, the companies abandoned that course.

Decades ago, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, my employer, attracted intense organized pressure to cancel an event featuring an official of the controversial Palestine Liberation Organization. We did not do so. Council chairman John D. Gray, head of Hart, Schaffner & Marx, provided crucial courageous support.

Over time, efforts to suppress speakers came from representatives in Chicago of a wide range of foreign governments, and people across and beyond the political spectrum.

When a telephoned bomb threat disrupted a lecture by Congressman Paul Findley, critic of Israel, we continued the presentation in a stairwell. When followers of radical Lyndon LaRouche, who exploited youth, tried to break up a meeting, we removed them. As an organization, we successfully resisted intimidation.

Winston Churchill evolved over the decades into a genius at collecting all sorts of information and people. One of the most pivotal of the latter proved to be Frederick Lindemann, a brilliant Oxford don in physics and philosophy.

Despite the scholar’s impressive intellectual success, he remained a social outcast. No doubt antisemitism was one factor in 1930s Britain.

Lindemann’s primary problem, however, was himself, a relentless know-it-all and generally obnoxious. Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys politely described him as “anti-social.”

Even Churchill’s endlessly patient, tolerant wife, Clementine, resisted having the Oxford don as a weekend houseguest, but Winston insisted. He clearly regarded his friend as not only worthwhile company, but possessed of special talent.

When Churchill returned to government as head of the Admiralty at the start of World War II in Europe, he immediately recruited Lindemann and gave him freedom in selecting his staff and generally in choosing his myriad projects. The scholar, who was particularly talented at statistical analysis, had one mission: to undermine the conventional wisdom of the Navy and related government projects.

Churchill became prime minister with the fall of France, and Lindemann’s role expanded to general strategic oversight, but his basic task in the midst of the enormously complex war remained continuous. He was to analyze and criticize proposals by the officials of the government: the admirals and generals, civil servants and politicians, and members of the Cabinet — especially the prime minister.

Churchill possessed a sizable ego, but also enough long, hard experience to be well aware of his own fallibility. He assumed Lindemann would enjoy his role but also expected him to excel, and he did.

That war could have turned out differently. Imagination, and the ability to do the unexpected, was crucial to Allied success. Reliability of information was another factor. Lindemann was important in driving these dimensions.

Meanwhile, the Third Reich and partners pursued self-reinforcing spirals of ever more brutal censorship and conformity.

Defend freedom of expression, especially against violence. By so doing, you ultimately will protect yourself and others, and honor the legacies of Churchill, Lindemann and associates.

Learn more and honor courageous Salman Rushdie: Buy his books.

Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War.” Contact acyr@carthage.edu