After an attack on Salman Rushdie, the Chautauqua Institution says its mission won’t change

29 July 2023

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. (AP) — For a single, unthinkable moment last summer, the Chautauqua Institution was a hostile place for the freedom of expression that has been its hallmark for 150 years: As Salman Rushdie was about to speak, an audience member leapt onto the stage and stabbed the celebrated author more than a dozen times.

By the next day, Chautauqua Institution President Michael Hill recently recounted, the decision had been made not only to resume programming, but to “double down on what Mr. Rushdie stands for, what our speakers and preachers and artists stand for — which is the free exchange of ideas and the belief that society is stronger when we do that.”

A year later, Rushdie, blinded in one eye by the assault, is recovering from the attack. The Chautauqua Institution is recovering, too.

Programming and revenue for the arts and intellectual retreat in the rural southwest corner of New York was disrupted for two seasons by COVID-19. Then the attack further shattered the return to normal that regular visitors had so craved.

With a new nine-week summer season now under way, well-tended gardens are in bloom and rocking chairs are back out on the porches of Victorian- and cottage-style homes.

Security has been strengthened, though the gated compound remains open to anyone who buys a pass to enter.

“We look at the work that we do under a different lens since” the stabbing, Hill said during an interview in his office, which overlooks Bestor Plaza, a lush expanse of greenery anchoring the 750-acre (303-hectare) grounds. “The attack was an attempt at silencing, which underscores the need for institutions like ours to not stay silent.”

As an institution, Chautauqua defies easy explanation.

“NPR camp for grown-ups” is the description preferred by Erica Higbie, who owns a house on the grounds.

Located on the shore of Chautauqua Lake, the institution is a self-contained community with lecture halls, houses of worship, cafes, shops, a library, post office and bookstore, along with private homes, rentals and the Athenaeum Hotel, which served as former President Bill Clinton’s executive mansion for a week in 1996 as he prepared for his debate with Republican challenger Bob Dole.

Aside from boating and golf, the 4,400-seat, open-air amphitheater is a main draw, with a summer entertainment lineup this year offering concerts by Diana Ross and Bonnie Raitt, ballet and theater productions and performances by the house Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

But for Higbie and many others, the primary appeal exists in the institution’s 19th Century beginnings as a summer educational experiment in which daily lectures are curated around weekly explorations of anything from politics to infrastructure and faith to friendship.

“I am a lecture junkie,” Higbie said from her porch as people navigated the grounds on foot, bikes and scooters. The speed limit for the rare vehicle traffic is 12 mph. The retired teacher takes in a daily morning lecture and may hear two more in the afternoon at the amphitheater and the Hall of Philosophy.

Through the decades, Susan B. Anthony advocated for women’s rights at the institution and President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his 1936 “I Hate War” speech in the amphitheater. Former Vice President Al Gore spoke about the climate crisis and Supreme Court Judges Robert H. Jackson and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are among countless others who have offered insights.

Rushdie’s appearance came during a week last year exploring home as “a place for human thriving.”

Henry Reese, co-founder of the City of Asylum Pittsburgh, was about to interview “The Satanic Verses” author about violence against writers when Rushdie was attacked as the men sat in armchairs on the amphitheater’s sunken stage.

Rushdie, the target of a decades-old fatwa by the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for his death, was stabbed in the neck, stomach, chest, hand and right eye. Reese suffered bruises and a gash to his forehead.

With alleged assailant Hadi Matar awaiting trial in a nearby courthouse, Reese is scheduled to return to the institution on the anniversary of the attack, Aug. 12. His appearance is expected to kick off a week exploring freedom of expression, imagination and the resilience of democracy. Republican strategist Karl Rove and Democratic strategist David Axelrod are among other invited guests.

It would have been out of character for the institution to do anything but pick up where it left off after the assault, regular guest lecturer Eboo Patel said.

“Not a single artist or speaker canceled,” Patel, founder of Interfaith America in Chicago, said by phone.

“Chautauqua recognizes that it has a responsibility to its own community, honestly to American civilization and the human spirit, and it’s back up in 24 to 48 hours. That’s stunning,” he said.

Property owners differed on how far the institution should go to ensure personal safety, said Higbie, the president of the Chautauqua Property Owners Association.

“Everybody was in shock for a long time,“ Higbie said.

Visitors say they notice more security and protocols at events. Amphitheater patrons can bring only clear bags inside, for example, and may be scanned or asked to walk through a weapons detector.

Even so, “I never hesitated for a minute” to return, said Michael Crawford of Washington, D.C., as he chatted with Mary Pat McFarland of Philadelphia. The two sat on one of the red benches placed around the grounds to invite discussion.

A handful of musicians with violins, guitars and a small harp played an impromptu jam session beneath a tree nearby.

Hill said he sees his role as “teeing up” issues for engagement, so shying away from difficult ones would be a disservice at a time when civic discourse is in short supply.

“It’s about bringing divergent viewpoints for people to digest,” Hill said. “For us to have made the decision to stop bringing speakers who may be controversial in any way would have been for us to stop doing our mission.”

“It would have been,” he said, “to literally stop the reason this place was created.”

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