From now on, anyone planning a college commencement will have to consider the Chris Hedges problem. Hedges is an antiwar activist and New York Times reporter who gave an unusually grating antiwar speech May 17 at the Rockford College commencement in Illinois. Few speakers aggravate a crowd as quickly as Hedges did in his 18-minute speech. Some in the audience turned their backs on him. Others booed, screamed at Hedges, or blew foghorns. A few rushed up the aisle to protest, and one new graduate threw his cap and gown onto the stage. Twice, somebody in the audience pulled the plug on his microphone. The mike was replugged, but Hedges never finished his speech. The tumult was too great, and the college president told him to "wrap it up." Booing is something I approve of. Pulling the plug was wrong. So was not letting Hedges finish. But the whole event was a fiasco.
What is the lesson here? Is it (a) that colleges should not impose controversial speakers on a captive audience? Or is it (b) that controversial speakers are fine, but there are rules--they have to be graceful and nonincendiary, and remember that they are a minor act on a program about student success.
I vote for (b). If we want to avoid the conventional graduation day blather (climb every mountain and today is the first day of the rest of your life), it is best to invite a speaker who stands for something and carries the message that conviction is important. But Hedges violated all the civility rules of (b). He hectored the audience, almost bludgeoning the listeners with America-is-evil rhetoric. The speech sounded like a weary and overbearing parent lecturing a backward child. (To hear an audio track of the speech, go to the Internet site of the Rockford Register Star. )
Remember the grads. James Lileks, the Internet blogger who writes at www.lileks.com, nailed the civility issue perfectly. There's nothing wrong with an antiwar commencement speech, he wrote, "but such a speech needs to PERSUADE. It needs to draw the audience close, make eye contact. Crack a joke, wax colloquial, opine a bit, then bring it all back to the grads."
Right. But Hedges never once mentioned the grads or the college, offered no jokes, no pleasantries, no acknowledgment that parents and students of goodwill might have room to disagree with his speech. His opening line was "I want to speak to you today about war and empire." Instead of trying to persuade, he issued thunderous pronouncements: America is a violent international pariah; the real war of liberation in Iraq is an attempt by Iraqis to liberate themselves from U.S. occupation. America's defeat in Vietnam, he thought, was a positive event, because it gave us a chance to ask questions about our behavior and become a better nation.
A Williams College student wrote this to an Internet site: "I listened to that 18-minute, stale, anti-intellectual heap of contradictory crap. If part of MY tuition had gone to pay for that smarmy S.O.B. to irrationally rant about the country I love at MY commencement, without a word about the fact that I was, er, graduating, I would have considered it a duty to drown him out with insults."
Statements like this are reminders that the booing of commencement speakers often has a lot to do with arrogance and tone. But it's also true that students of the center and the right are less likely to remain silent and docile about life on the leftist-dominated campus. These students have endured so much PC indoctrination for four years that a speech filled with ideological drivel on the last day is the last straw.
My daughter held a phone to my ear the other day. All I heard was a lot of booing, which turned out to be a reaction of some Ithaca College students and parents to commencement speakers Ben and Jerry, the foreign policy experts and ice cream makers. Ben attacked war in general (he seemed to notice that the war in Iraq was over) and called for less military spending. The students didn't mount a major rebellion. A few new graduates walked out. There were six or seven heated confrontations that never developed into fights, and several students started a "Bomb France" chant to irritate the leftist ice creamers.
Phil Donahue got some boos for urging graduates at North Carolina State to "bring America back to basic constitutional values" and to stress civility rather than a "trend to the sword." No big deal, just an indicator that students today, trained at Internet speed, are inclined to react quickly to provocations, large and small. My guess is that the booing of commencement speakers will become a routine reaction to pomposity, gassy ideology (call it Hedgesism), or the failure to comprehend that the day is about students. Good.
This story appears in the June 2, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.