Instructions on Defiance, from Salman Rushdie

“The myriad deities of money and power, of convention and custom,” Salman Rushdie told 247 Bard students on a Saturday in May, “will seek to limit and control your thoughts and lives.”

The students hadn’t known who their commencement speaker would be. Over at Southampton University, it was Kermit the Frog. Maybe Bard would have some political bigwig or foreign dignitary? That could explain all the security-looking men with dark glasses.

Then Mr. Rushdie walked onstage. It was 1996, and he was a wanted man. Eight years after his publishing of The Satanic Verses, Iran’s Ayatollah still had a bounty on the author’s head. Hence the security-looking men.

But about those myriad deities, Mr. Rushdie had two words for the students: “Defy them.” Because as the Greek myths tell us, he continued, “it is by defying the gods that human beings have best expressed their humanity.”

Despite the bounty, Mr. Rushdie had continued to write. He came out with Haroun and the Sea of Stories, another novel, an essay collection.

After all, “the message of the myths,” the author told the graduates, “is not the one the gods would have us learn – that we should behave ourselves and know our place – but its exact opposite.”

And so Mr. Rushdie concluded to the 247 students of 1996:

“Do not bow your heads. Do not know your place. Defy the gods.”

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