Intolerance and Counter-Intolerance

Truly, martyrdom is in the eye of the beholder.

Lots of tsk-tsking about graduates protesting commencement speakers. Lots of punditing about “college is about listening to other viewpoints blah blah blah.” But we’re not talking about classwork; we’re talking about commencement. The “education” part of the program is over. This is a celebration for the graduates, not an extension of American History 304.

And I realized today I do not remember who spoke at my graduation from the University of Missouri, class of 304 BC. Not a clue. All I remember was that my parents were there and us J-School grads were cutting up through the whole ceremony. Great fun. I’m not even sure there was a speaker; I just assume there must have been. But, y’know, that’s how it ought to be. Once in a great while somebody gives a genuinely memorable commencement address. Most of the time the speech is just something you have to sit through so you feel properly commenced, and then you can get together with your family and go out to dinner.

But I understand not wanting to sit through a speech you find genuinely odious. If my commencement speaker had been Henry Kissinger, say, I’m sure I’d remember the day much less fondly.

So I am not the least bit bothered by the fact that Condi Rice isn’t the speaker at the Rutgers commencement this year. And whoever invited her was an idiot who ought to be reprimanded, if not fired.

I realize it’s probably difficult to find a speaker who won’t piss off somebody, but that doesn’t mean you might as well get someone broadly considered to be a disgrace to humanity; nay, vertebrae. If you can’t find somebody who has accomplished something praiseworthy, then get somebody entertaining. How hard is that?

If Rice had been invited to give a talk to some foreign policy graduate class, that might be different, especially if she agreed to answer questions. I assume anything she might say would be self-serving bullshit, but I could be wrong. And like her or not, she is a real historical figure whose work had real-world consequences. I also think it’s important for historians to study pro-slavery arguments of the antebellum South and the intellectual basis of the development of fascism in Europe, because we need to fully appreciate how bad stuff happens. If we could reanimate Jefferson Davis I’d certainly be interested in what he had to say for himself, even if I think it was morally repugnant. But in a class, not at a commencement.

Studying Condi Rice is one thing; honoring her is something else.

I also don’t blame Haverford students for protesting Robert J. Birgeneau, who as chancellor of UC Berkeley during the Occupy demonstrations chose to support the police instead of the students. On the other hand I’m not sure Christine Lagarde of the IMF deserves all the vitriol thrown at her by Smith students, and I’m not sure they are objecting to her as much as to the IMF. But I am heartened that students are questioning The Establishment, in all its many forms. That’s an important part of the college experience, too.

I’m disappointed in Timothy Egan for writing this:

In that sense, the lefty thought police at Smith, Haverford and Rutgers share one thing with the knuckle-dragging hard right in Oklahoma: They’re afraid of hearing something that might spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out.

If Rice, Birgeneau and Lagarde were outsiders who never had a chance to explain themselves in news media and books and many other venues, Egan might have an argument. But they aren’t. These are all people who are or have been in positions of power, and they have been heard plenty and have many ways at their disposal to being heard some more. They are not “silenced.” As Steve M says, “the fact is that millennials can’t silence people with whom they disagree. You may choose not to listen to warmongers in the federal government or policymakers at the IMF, but, even if you’re a millennial, you’ll have to live in the world they make.”

In other words, the graduates have their whole lives ahead of them to listen to powerful people spout self-serving bullshit, and most of the time they’re not going to have a choice about it or a means to answer back. I say whenever you do have a chance to tell them to bleep off, take it.