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Rushdie Lecture Should Have Been Publicized

Column by Vipul Bhushan
Night Editor

MIT head honchos, the local intelligentsia, the press, other priveleged folks "in the know," and a few lucky stragglers had the pleasure of listening to Salman Rushdie speak last Tuesday evening in 26-100. The widely publicized "evening with Susan Sontag" turned out to be a cover for a lecture by the Indian-born British author. But that's no longer a secret. What's troubling is that a week ago it was.

Bringing Rushdie to our campus to speak is certainly something to be applauded, but sneaking him into our midst, into the room of physics lectures and Lecture Series Committee movies under cover of another author, while keeping most MIT community members in the dark, is elitist and contrary to the Institute's mission of promoting the free exchange of ideas.

One would expect that Rushdie, more than many others, would appreciate such a concern and shun such a covert and exclusive speaking engagement. Institute personnel desiring a private audience with Rushdie could have tried making their own private arrangements instead of sneaking him to campus for a publicity blitz, all the while misleading the MIT community about what was going on.

Even after the lecture had begun, an official emerging from the room showed no qualms about lying, quickly and spontaneously, to those outside who inquired about the identity of the "visiting dignitary" rumored to be in attendance. "I'm not privy to that information," he answered. Instead, he could have declined to comment, which would still have been an unsatisfactory, though honorable, response.

Rushdie's visit to campus seemed more like a showcase for media consumption than an MIT event. The press was among those warned about his reading ahead of time. Those among us at The Tech who were around that day were advised to attend, though students working or attending classes were left in the dark. Most faculty members were similarly uninformed. To further compound the hypocrisy of the whole event, Rushdie was appointed our first honorary visiting professor, probably making him MIT's most inaccessible faculty member.

In all fairness, Rushdie does have exceptional worries about his safety. Religious zealots of his own faith have spared no venom in intimidating him and threatening him with death. Some of his associates have already fallen victim to the fanatics' violence in the name of God. (I have difficulty seeing God as being this vengeful, and would think He's capable of more refined techniques in disciplining a human unruly enough to have unholy thoughts.)

All this, however, does not excuse the underhanded way in which his visit was handled. If the safety of the President of the United States can be assured as he wades into crowds of people, it should certainly be possible to secure a lecture in a room with three doors holding a few hundred spectators at a distance.

The importance of protecting free speech in a situation such as this cannot be understated. Rushdie wrote things disturbing to some people. I also get disturbed by some of the things I read. Does that mean I get to kill the author? Clearly not.

Provocative and novel ideas crossing my path have often stirred me, enchanted me, or disturbed me. They have all sharpened my mind and refined my convictions. I may think many of their proponents sadly misguided, but I would hope to have the strength to defend their right to a fair hearing in the court of public opinion. I mean no disrespect toward anyone's sincerely held religious beliefs, and have to doubt that any faith that has survived many centuries can only be enriched by a free discussion of its tenets.

I am largely unfamiliar with Rushdie's work, but the furor he generates (witness the news reports of the past week) is a testament to the strong passions he stirs. I don't necessarily condone or condemn his views, but that is beside the point. We should all respect and defend the right to hold and express opinions which others find unpopular. It is those ideas on the fringe, the most dangerous, that are in greatest need of protection. We should jealously guard the right to keep and speak our opinions, lest one day it is our thoughts the majority, or even a vocal minority, seeks to suppress.