[The following editor’s column by Dwight Murphey was published in the April 1989 issue of Universitas, the national publication of University Professors for Academic Order.] 


“Implications of the Salman Rushdie Fatwa” 

Dwight D. Murphey 


            To most Americans, the furor that the Ayatollah Khomeini has created over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses seems a little bit like a scene out of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.

            The hilarity is sobered considerably, however, by our awareness that Khomeini’s death threat is real—and that terror hangs over Rushdie, and potentially over everyone who will ever dare criticize fanatics of any sort.

            Perhaps this incident can serve a purpose if it causes us to reflect once again on just why it is that we adhere to an “open society”—and on why so much of mankind has not and does not.  It should cause us, too, to look at ourselves to see whether we are being faithful to the freedom our own society represents.

            The polarity between the open society of Athens and the insularity of Sparta has appeared again and again in history.  The reemergence of closed systems reflects the fact that the case is not entirely on the side of the open society.

            Closed cosmologies and closed cultures have a great appeal.  To the people encapsulated within them, they are thought to embrace Truth in a way that openness cannot; and such societies offer “meaning” and a cultural texture that is thought to offer a “truer” freedom to individuals than the pursuit of individual purposes can.

             At the other pole, those of us who favor an open society have all sorts of reasons for doing so.  One of them is our hope that personal freedom and the toleration of diverse views will provide the basis for the reconciliation of mankind, reducing the calamities that have colored so much of human existence.  Those who favor openness see history as in part a history of tyranny, with abuse following abuse in endless profusion.

            Freedom is seen, too, as a source of unbounded creativity as energies are allowed free play to pursue an infinity of ends.  In its economic aspect, freedom protects capital formation and encourages invention.  There is a human meaning to economic well-being that should not be lost sight of as we come to take for granted the “conveniences” of a developed economy.

            If these and the other advantages of an open society seem commonplace to us today, we would do well to look around us and see how greatly we ourselves are tolerating departures from openness.  Challenges exist right here among us, and the greatest danger comes from the fact that we must accept them.

            Take the Lee Atwater case.  After he accepted a seat on the Howard University Board of Trustees, a reported 2,000 students “peacefully” seized the university’s administration building, and howled for his resignation.

            As he resigned, Atwater said that “I would never forgive myself if someone was hurt in one of these episodes.”  No doubt that’s a humane sentiment, but we are blind if we don’t see that the ultimate victory went to those whose seizure of property and implicit threat of violence denied Atwater and Howard University their rights.  The totalitarians won.

            As this is written, Oliver North is on trial, and most Americans don’t seem greatly bothered.  Most people seem unable to see how greatly a major truth—that the Rule of Law should “follow its course”—is being abused in his case.  But if it is an iron rule that “the law should follow its course” in every case, why is there not a hue-and-cry, in Congress and elsewhere, for the criminal prosecution of the 2,000 who seized the Howard University administration building?  There is a federal statute (18 USC 241) that provides for up to ten years’ imprisonment “if two or more people conspire to… intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution….”

               Another example occurred recently with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  It was reported on March 9 that several state legislators in Michigan held up almost $1.3 million in state assistance, demanding that the orchestra hire more black musicians.

            As a consequence, the New York Times News Service reported, “the financially troubled orchestra recently waived its stringent audition requirement” and hired a bass player who until then had been qualified only as a substitute.

            Americans have become quite accepting toward coercive methods if they are used for egalitarian ends.  What we don’t understand is precisely that all totalitarians do what they do because they are convinced there is a good cause. 


[Note in 2007: The final sentence makes, in my present opinion, too broad a generalization.  Genuine belief in a good cause is no doubt important to the popular following within a totalitarian regime (enhanced by terror, which in many cases vitiates the genuineness of the belief).  But I have just finished reading Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story, which presents a convincing account of how some totalitarians are just plain thugs, dominating as gangsters do.]