Graduation speakers from hell
June 8, 2003
A couple of weeks ago I criticized a New York Times foreign correspondent who gave a bitter anti-military, anti-war speech at a college commencement ceremony in Illinois. The Times’ Chris Hedges hates President Bush, and it shows. So how can he go back out and cover world news fairly and objectively for America’s “newspaper of record?”
The Hedges incident got me to thinking about how some colleges choose their commencement speakers. Apparently, many schools maintain a list of politically correct speakers. For example, Smith College, of Northampton, Mass., has a record of inviting graduation speakers from the far left fringe of the American political spectrum — people like Lani Guinier, Toni Morrison, Judy Chicago, Marian Wright Edelman, Anna Quindlen, and Gloria Steinem (twice). And if you don’t know who these folks are, just ask Vince Coyle or Susan Paslov. And if you don’t know who Coyle and Ms. Paslov are, I can’t help you.
Anyway, the aforementioned representatives of the Looney Tunes Wing of the Democratic Party have donned caps and gowns to offer advice to Smith College graduates in recent years. Ms. Edelman, for example, is the longtime mentor to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Need I say more? But that’s not the worst of it.
This year, the prestigious women’s college invited a controversial woman whom many Smith students blamed for “human rights atrocities around the world,” and who had allegedly supported “major U.S. interventions that led to millions of innocent deaths.” Not only that, Smith’s graduation speaker was accused of “crimes against humanity.”
According to Jonathan V. Last of the conservative Weekly Standard, dissident students passed out leaflets encouraging audience members to protest against the speaker by wearing red armbands, withholding applause and keeping their heads bowed during the commencement address.
“When the speaker took the podium,” Last wrote, “a handful of graduates walked out. Others turned their folding chairs around and sat with their backs to the stage for the entire address. So did a number of parents and guests.” And as soon as the distinguished guest began her speech, “A chorus of shouts and boos came from the back of the assemblage. The heckling continued until almost the seven-minute mark in the speech, when the speaker finally addressed the protesters and promised to meet with them afterwards if they would quiet down,” as they eventually did.
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So who is this terrible person who received such rude treatment at an elite East Coast university? Was it Iraq’s infamous Mrs. Anthrax or a notorious serial killer? No, she’s none other than Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright — the first female Secretary of State in our nation’s history, by the way. Which just goes to show you what left-wing political extremists are up to these days, and how they’ve managed to shout down free speech on college campuses.
Right-wingers showed their own bad manners when they unplugged the New York Times’ Chris Hedges’ microphone before booing him off the stage at Rockford College in Illinois last month. But for some inexplicable reason, left-wing extremists predominate on campus. Perhaps it’s easier to condemn “the establishment” before hiring-on with a multinational corporation, as so many graduates do these days.
After the Hedges incident, U.S. News & World Report columnist John Leo wrote that “controversial speakers are fine but there are rules — they have to be graceful and non-incendiary, and remember that they are a minor act on a program about student success.”
“If we want to avoid the conventional graduation day blather (today is the first day of the rest of your life etc.),” Leo continued, “it’s best to invite a speaker who stands for something and carries the message that conviction is important.”
Hedges stands for something, of course, but he never once mentioned the Rockford grads, offered no jokes or pleasantries, and failed to acknowledge dissenting views about President Bush or the war in Iraq. So, as we say in the language of diplomacy, he was hoist upon his own petard.
And at Ithaca College in New York, conservative students started a “Bomb France” chant to irritate the left-wing fans of that school’s distinguished commencement speakers, Ben and Jerry, who make politically correct ice cream in Vermont.
The University of Nevada seems to avoid controversial graduation speakers. When my son earned his MA in social work last spring, all I remember about the ceremony is that UNR President John Lilley put everyone to sleep with his somnolent delivery.
I hope John Leo is right about controversial speakers when he draws the following conclusion: “My guess is that the booing of commencement speakers will become a routine reaction to pomposity, gassy ideology (of the left or right) … or the failure to comprehend that the day is about the students. Good!” I couldn’t agree more.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.