I’ve sat through many commencement speeches – my own prep school and three university graduations, not to mention those of my children and friends. I can’t remember the theme of a single speech. I can’t even remember the speakers.
Commencement speeches are that way: forgettable, boringly predictable, cliché-riddled, oratory designed to assure the audience of students and families that the past years’ sacrifices of time and money will prove a worthy investment.
So what’s going on with commencement speakers lately? Nine high-profile commencement invitees thus far in the 2014 graduation season have irked students and professors enough to get four of them “disinvited” by four high-profile universities, and if prior years are an indication, there will be more. Last year 16 speakers scheduled to wax eloquent got student and faculty PC hackles up so much that three speakers withdrew. In 2012, 11 managed to twist the panties of enough over-sensitive students and profs to cause one speaker’s honorary degree to be rescinded and another speaker to be disinvited. And in 2011 six speakers torqued the passions of their intended audience so tightly that two became persona non grata.
Wow! Commencement speaking is becoming a full contact sport.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – aptly called FIRE – a nonprofit nonpartisan advocate for free speech, has been tracking the growing intolerance of the collegiate community. The cancelation of unacceptable speakers is one of its proxies. Robert Shibley, a spokesman for FIRE says, “Colleges and universities are teaching students to think like censors. Yet colleges are the very institutions that are supposed to be teaching students to think critically and consider all sides of an argument.”
The research done by FIRE discovered that there have been at least 145 instances in which speakers have withdrawn their names or been disinvited or faced protest demonstrations during school years since 1987, 100 of which have occurred in the last five years. Isn’t that interesting? These are “learning” institutions. Or are they indoctrination institutions?
Seems to me that if two people agree on every issue, one of them is unnecessary if beliefs are to be challenged. Do students have all “the right answers” after only four years so that no challenges to their beliefs are needed? One of the many rights protected under the First Amendment is the right to offend. Weren’t universities designed to make a hue and cry for tolerance of offensive ideas? Who knows but that new learning may be lurking there. Instead, “higher” learning seems to have become bastions of Kafkaesque tolerance – tolerance of all views except those opposed to their view. That isn’t the way the lifelong search for truth worked for me. When I was a university prof I told students my job wasn’t to give them answers. It was to tell them how to find answers – temporarily.
Take the case of Condoleezza Rice as an example of a university’s tolerance for contrary views.
By most standards, Ms. Rice is a truly remarkable woman. Born the year of Brown v. Board of Education in Jim Crow Birmingham, she experienced many things a small child shouldn’t have to experience – notably that her skin color was more important than who she was and what she was trying to become in life. She couldn’t attend the circus, amusement park, she couldn’t change in department store dressing rooms to try on clothes (she used a storage closet), she couldn’t use public toilets except those designated for “coloreds.” One of her schoolmates was killed in the bombing of a Baptist church by white supremacists.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. Rice isn’t the only person who has suffered from discrimination. Life itself is discriminatory. That’s not all bad. Experience is what we get from life and innocence is what we trade for it. Rice traded well. She earned a Ph.D. in International Studies at age 27. She was on the Stanford University faculty for 30 years during which she became the first woman and first black person to serve as provost. She was the second woman to hold the office of Secretary of State and the second black person. She is a concert quality pianist and is fluent in several languages.
Yet the worthies of the Rutgers University faculty and graduating intellectuals decided that Rice was undeserving of their commencement attention because she had been associated with the evil Bush regime. In that capacity she had
… mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the existence of links between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime … the lies thus promoted led to the second Iraq war, which caused the death of over 100,000 men, women and children, and the displacement of millions of others [and] … at the very least, condoned the Bush administration’s policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, and its attempt to present such techniques as legal …
Some accused her of being a war criminal. Without benefit of trial, witnesses, cross-examination, due process, presumption of innocence, and other constitutional superfluities, they concluded her guilt, and in their self-righteousness, demanded the Rutgers “Board of Governors to rescind its misguided decision to invite former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to deliver the keynote address.”
Being far more a class act than the Nine Nazgûl apparently in charge of Rutgers, Rice withdrew her name without being uninvited, saying, “As a professor for thirty years at Stanford University and as (its) former Provost and Chief academic officer, I understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way.”
Next comes the un-inviting of former University of California-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. I can confidently say that about the only thing Birgeneau and I could likely agree on is today’s date, and I’d probably double-check that. But despite our polar opposition, he has a right to advance his views and I’d listen to his arguments. He advocates the right of illegal aliens to receive taxpayer-funded in-state tuition, he is pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-LGBT preferences, and pro-racial quotas. He demonized the supporters of California’s Prop 8 traditional marriage ballot initiative, and he connected Gabby Gifford’s shooting to Arizona’s border enforcement. If anyone should escape the disinvitation guillotine, I would have thought he would.
Well, I obviously miscalculated the high-minded faculty and graduating leading lights of Haverford College, a Quaker institution in Pennsylvania. They would have been “deeply disturbed” were he present on the dais for their ceremony. His sin? Birgeneau oversaw the 2011 forceful removal by the Berkeley police and the arrest of Occupy protesters in Sproul Plaza.
The 72-year old physicist therefore received a letter from 16 graduating seniors stating that “we are extremely uncomfortable honoring you” and insisting that he agree to nine conditions in return for the privilege of speaking to them. In addition he must agree to make reparations to the “victims” of Berkley’s Occupy demonstration. “If you choose not to confront the issues before you, we will have no other option than to call for the college to withdraw its invitation,” they warned.
In effect, Birgeneau told his inquisitioners they could put their demands where the sun don’t shine. It may have taken him ten seconds to write the two sentences of his response: “First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands. Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.” A letter from him to the Haverford dons canceled his acceptance of their invitation to speak.
In his stead, William Bowen, former Princeton University president spoke. After his remarks he properly scolded the graduates, parents, and faculty for their impudence,
I regard this outcome as a defeat pure and simple for Haverford, no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect. I’m disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkley, as they had every right to do, chose to send him such an intemperate list of demands. In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a serious discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter arguments.
He got a standing ovation.
Christine Lagarde who heads the International Monetary Fund was disinvited by the prissy pots at Smith College, a liberal arts women’s college. Lagarde canceled her appearance after the good ladies of Smith circulated a petition calling the IMF chief to account for the organization’s “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Well, if she’d be allowed to speak, Lagarde might have addressed those concerns but I’m sure IMF policies were in place long before she arrived less than three years ago. Let’s noose the right neck, ladies.
After Condi Rice gave up her seat on the commencement podium, the hapless Rutgers illuminati extended an invitation to Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers football player who was paralyzed in a kickoff tackle in 2010. He has given wheelchair-bound motivational speeches to over a million people. But before he could begin work on his speech, the offer was withdrawn. “All fame is fleeting” a slave would whisper in the ear of Roman conquerors. So it is with football players. Too few remembered LeGrand’s playing days.
First Lady Obama was scheduled to speak to the combined classes of five high schools in Topeka celebrating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education. However, each student was allowed only six tickets igniting a grouse campaign among the students’ families. LeGrand was canceled because he wasn’t famous enough. Michelle was canceled because she was too famous.
Then there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia anti-Islam activist invited to be the Brandeis graduation speaker. Her family fled Somalia’s enlightened practice of pre-pubescent marriage, clitoridectomy, and female genital mutilation. Somalia is not an equal opportunity mutilator, however, since male genitals do not suffer the razor blades applied to 5-year old girls without benefit of anesthesia lest they should later become promiscuous.
Hirsi Ali’s father was opposed to female mutilation, forced marriage to pedophiles, and other quaint Somalia customs. But for getting in the face of the Somalia government one time too many, he was imprisoned. While there, grandma disregarded her son’s wishes and had his 5-year old Hirsi Ali genitally scarred for life. Thanks, Grandma.
When she was eight and dad was out of prison, the family fled the country, ultimately settling in Kenya. In time she landed in the Netherlands asking for political asylum under questionable circumstances. Those interested can read of her peregrinations in Wikipedia, but of her journey she says
I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and forced marriage, for the world of reason and sexual emancipation. After making this voyage I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values.
For speaking out against Islam and its various practices of female subjugation and for renouncing Islam to become an atheist, Hirsi Ali was the recipient of a fatwah of death. Calling Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” didn’t help her case. Then after collaborating with Theo van Gogh on the screenplay for Submission, which was critical of the Islamic treatment of women, he too received a death threat.
Van Gogh was assassinated by Islamic radicals on an Amsterdam street in 2004. The murder weapon, a knife, pinned a note to van Gogh’s chest addressed to Hirsi Ali, which read in part, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you will break yourself to pieces on Islam.” Hmm. The religion of peace?
Eventually Hirsi Ali left the Netherlands for America where she works for the American Enterprise Institute. She married a British historian and they have a son born in 2011. Of Islam she has said,
Once [Islam] is defeated it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.
Hirsi Ali was invited to speak at the commencement of Brandeis University and receive an honorary degree. Apparently the right and left hands in these laughably high-minded schools don’t communicate with each other until after the fact. The right hand invited. The left hand, unfazed by the practices of female genital mutilation, forced marriage, polygamous marriage, the kidnap, selling, and enslavement of girls, female subjugation by males with intact genitals, honor killing of women, educational deprivation of females, and forcing them to dress as if they were going to a Halloween party as Casper the Ghost, that left hand ignored all of these pre-historic practices to voice its concern that Islamic students might be a tad bit too uncomfortable with someone as outspoken against Islam as Ayaan Hirsi Ali puttin’ on airs and acting equal to men – which would get her killed in most of the Middle East. Well, phooey! I sure wouldn’t want to make a Middle Easterner – a guest of my country with privileged access to a first rate university – feel uneasy!
The Council on American-Islamic Relations contacted Brandeis with concerns about inviting “a notorious Islamaphobe” who would offend the decorum of its commencement – a commencement which was the launch pad for the senior class to enter the real world of ideas where people don’t give a hoot in a high hat about the delicate sensibilities of Brandeis graduates.
Predictably the left hand prevailed and the honorary degree and invitation to Hirsi Ali to speak was withdrawn. This same left hand had no problem in awarding an honorary degree to Tony Kushner who said that the very act of creating the state of Israel was a mistake.
It’s hard to believe that free-thinking Albert Einstein was one of the co-founders of Brandeis, a non-sectarian Jewish university dedicated to overcoming post World War II anti-Semitic bigotry. Einstein turned down a proposal that the school be named for him and therefore it became the namesake of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Associate Justice.
If you Google its website, you’ll find that the Brandeis motto is the Hebrew word Emet. It translates “truth even unto its innermost parts.”
Perhaps the Brandeis worthies should consider changing it to “We shall not tolerate opposing thought.”