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Conservative Commencement Speakers Not Welcome.--

At the New School, some students, faculty, and staff are angry that John McCain will be the commencement speaker. As an excellent article at Inside Higher Ed. recounts, McCain was invited by university president and former Senator Bob Kerrey:

Kerrey said the senator’s acceptance “is a big honor for our graduates and their families.”

But hundreds of students, staff and faculty members at the institution of about 9,000 students have signed paper and online petitions that seek to revoke the invitation.

Several students and faculty members pointed out that McCain has supported banning gay marriage in Arizona, and that, three days before his visit to the New School, McCain will be speaking at Liberty University, whose founder and chancellor, Rev. Jerry Falwell, has openly expressed his opposition to homosexuality.

“Up until a few months ago, I was happy he was coming,” said Anthony Szczurek, a New School freshman. “I think the thing that bothers me the most is him speaking at Jerry Falwell’s school.” Szczurek said that he thinks it’s not appropriate to have a speaker that is hostile to the gay community speak on a day of celebration at an institution with a vibrant gay community.

Harper Keenan, a sophomore, has helped organize the dissent. “In all of our classes we’re taught the value of inclusion of all people,” he said, “and we’re taught to question our leaders.”

The University Student Senate wrote a letter to Kerrey saying that the commencement speaker “commands a higher profile than an ordinary lecturer, and may be assumed to have the implicit endorsement of the university community.”

McCain, who will receive an honorary degree from the New School, pointed out on the Fox News Network that the New School is a “somewhat liberal institution,” and some students and faculty members at the university think that McCain is just using his visit to balance out the Liberty stop and seem more moderate than he is.

“John McCain is a conservative politician who supports South Dakota’s ban on abortion, and he’s avidly pro-Iraq War,” said Gregory Tewksbury, a part time faculty member at the New School. “People feel like [the invitation to McCain] made commencement into a political platform.”

Tewksbury added that this isn’t a free speech issue, and that he had no problem with Paul Wolfowitz, President Bush’s former deputy secretary of defense, having given a speech at the New School in 2003. “There was give a[nd] take,” he said, whereas at commencement, “there will be no chance to engage any of his views.”

Students at the New School aren’t the only ones revolting against politically charged graduation speakers. Hundreds of students and faculty members at Boston College have voiced their opposition to having Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, appear at graduation and receive an honorary degree. . . .

McCain will also be speaking at . . . Columbia University for the undergraduate college’s Class Day, the first of two days of graduation ceremonies.

At Columbia, Laura Cordetti, a senior, has organized opposition to McCain. When Cordetti heard McCain would be speaking, she started a Facebook group — “John McCain Does Not Speak For Us” — that quickly started attracting other students. As at the New School, much of the opposition is in light of McCain’s stop at Liberty. Inviting someone “who has directly been hurting gay people in a legislative way to come here on a day which is supposed to be about celebrating what we stand for is insulting.”

Cordetti, who is graduating, likely won’t have champagne for McCain after his talk. She said that she isn’t trying to trample on free speech, but that having McCain for graduation is like inviting someone you don’t like to your party.

Kerrey said that McCain is “clearly within the mainstream of American political thinking today.”

The New School petition, which is short and clearly written is here. It currently has 409 signatures.

The idea of diversity is to listen to people who are saying different things that you might not have thought of or agree with, not just to listen to your friends and people like your friends. As Randy Barnett once said, "People want different voices so long as they are all saying the same thing." Indeed, Columbia's Laura Cordetti thinks "that having McCain for graduation is like inviting someone you don’t like to your party"--in other words, having to listen to people with whom one differs is a bad thing.

A similar lack of perspective is suggested in the comments of New School part-time professor Gregory Tewksbury, who "had no problem with Paul Wolfowitz . . . having given a speech at the New School in 2003" because “There was give a[nd] take.” Of course, it's generally better in an academic setting to have a give-and-take, but (as Tewksbury notes) that's not realistic at graduation. Unfortunately, if McCain says anything partisan or offensive, Tewksbury will just have to suffer in silence, like many students hearing partisan speeches have had to do at so many graduations.

Note that in an otherwise superb story David Epstein at Inside Higher Ed. writes: "Students at the New School aren’t the only ones revolting against politically charged graduation speakers." True — but the implication here is that the reaction is to "politically charged graduation speakers," rather than just to the politicians on the right discussed in the article.

As Bob Kerrey notes, McCain is "clearly within the mainstream of American political thinking today.” Indeed, it is likely that, on a range of issues, McCain is closer to the political center than those protesting his speeches. One would expect that universities would be more open to the views of the political mainstream, whether correct or wrong.

I will have more on politics and convention speakers in another post.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Did Ted Sorenson Ghostwrite Profiles in Courage?--
  2. Political Commencement Addresses.--
  3. Conservative Commencement Speakers Not Welcome.--
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Political Commencement Addresses.--

The current flaps over John McCain speaking at the New School and Columbia graduations and Condi Rice speaking at Boston College induced me to look a bit closer at whom schools invite to speak.

The recent New School Commencement speakers have been Justice Stephen Breyer (2005), Ted Sorenson (2004), John Hollander (2003), and Bernard Lewis (2002). Both Breyer and Lewis gave essentially nonpartisan talks, Lewis's being the dullest of the four commencement addresses that I read on the New School's website. Of course, a speech is meant to be heard, not read, so judging from the text may be misleading.

Hollander gave perhaps the most nuanced and profound talk, which certainly wasn't devoid of political content (nor should it be: politics is important). Excerpt:

These days I am guarded in my use of the word "loyalty", particularly when I speak of anything like a patria. For in these days I'm reminded more and more of Samuel Johnson’s celebrated claim that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. I had grown up feeling myself to be quite patriotic , yet at the same time distrusting people who loudly asserted such patriotic feelings of their own. For me these two notions walked hand in hand, and not in opposition. Chauvinism felt like an affront–and certainly an embarrassment to–what I felt was my relation to my native land. So that in high school and first encountering Johnson’s remark, I took it as sufficiently naughty to be true, and sufficiently true to be more than merely naughty. In any case, it seemed to vindicate my feelings. But also, like most people, I misunderstood it by not reading it carefully enough. In saying that scoundrels would appeal to their own or their listeners' patriotism when all other claims or arguments failed them, Dr. Johnson was not saying that only scoundrels were patriots or vice versa; but he was observing that if you walked through the door of the sacred house of patriotism, you'd certainly find a lot of scoundrels there among the other virtuous residents. This didn't mean that patriotism was itself a bad idea or institution. It did point out one of patriotism’s particular defects, namely that it attracts the most desperate, coarse and sleazy seekers after justification. But patriotism has to be protected from scoundrels, and though this will never be taught in schools, it remains one of the many conclusions toward which education in and for a free society must lead.

On the surface, Hollander seems to be attacking the right (and probably mostly he is), but he is doing so much more--making a profound point about both the dangers of patriotism and the need for it. Hollander also advanced the idea (enshrined in the University of Chicago's Kalven Report) that universities should not, as a collective, take political positions. I would have loved to have heard this brilliant address.

The address by Ted Sorenson, former speechwriter for JFK and Ted Kennedy, is (as he puts it) "not a speech," but rather "a cry from the heart." Excerpt:

This is not a speech. Two weeks ago I set aside the speech I prepared. This is a cry from the heart, a lamentation for the loss of this country’s goodness and therefore its greatness.

Future historians studying the decline and fall of America will mark this as the time the tide began to turn – toward a mean-spirited mediocrity in place of a noble beacon.

For me the final blow was American guards laughing over the naked, helpless bodies of abused prisoners in Iraq. "There is a time to laugh," the Bible tells us, "and a time to weep." Today I weep for the country I love, the country I proudly served, the country to which my four grandparents sailed over a century ago with hopes for a new land of peace and freedom. I cannot remain silent when that country is in the deepest trouble of my lifetime.

I am not talking only about the prison abuse scandal–that stench will someday subside. Nor am I referring only to the Iraq war—that too will pass—nor to any one political leader or party. This is no time for politics as usual, in which no one responsible admits responsibility, no one genuinely apologizes, no one resigns and everyone else is blamed.

The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict upon us.

The stain on our credibility, our reputation for decency and integrity, will not quickly wash away.

This is extraordinarily eloquent, but (despite Sorenson's protestations to the contrary) it is strongly partisan. This, of course, does not make anything he said wrong, or even necessarily inappropriate for a commencement address, where if you say something partisan, you should pull back from the brink (as Sorenson does) of pointing fingers, even though everyone knows what you are saying. I would have enjoyed hearing that speech, as I would have enjoyed a similarly partisan one from the other side the following year, if (hypothetically) such a speech were to be given by an eloquent Republican speechwriter such as Peggy Noonan.

(To read about whom Harvard, Penn, and the Northwestern Law School have had as commencement speakers, click on "Show Hidden Text" and continue reading below the fold.)

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Did Ted Sorenson Ghostwrite Profiles in Courage?--

In the course of mulling over Ted Sorenson's eloquent 2004 Commencement Address to graduating students at the New School, I began to think that it was a a bit odd that Sorenson should speak so eloquently about integrity, since I did't think that he had ever delineated the nature of his contributions to the writing of JFK's Profiles in Courage.

For those interested in the question, Cecil Adams in The Straight Dope reports what historian and JFK biographer Herbert Parmet determined when he went through JFK's papers:

The most thorough analysis of who did what has come from historian Herbert Parmet in Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980). Parmet interviewed the participants and reviewed a crateful of papers in the Kennedy Library. He found that Kennedy contributed some notes, mostly on John Quincy Adams, but little that made it into the finished product. "There is no evidence of a Kennedy draft for the overwhelming bulk of the book," Parmet writes. While "the choices, message, and tone of the volume are unmistakably Kennedy's," the actual work was "left to committee labor." The "literary craftsmanship [was] clearly Sorensen's, and he gave the book both the drama and flow that made for readability." Parmet, like everyone else, shrinks from saying Sorensen was the book's ghostwriter, but clearly he was.

Actually, it appears that JFK's contributions to the book were more substantial than I had thought. Apparently, at least the book was JFK's idea, and he was intimately involved in putting it together, even if he wrote very little of it.

And Adams says that Parmet "interviewed the participants," including presumably Sorenson, though from Adams's account Parmet's conclusion seems to be based more on the Kennedy papers than on the interviews.

Nonetheless, has Sorenson ever publicly admitted that he wrote almost all of the text?

Would readers who have Parmet's JFK biography (vol. 1) in their library check to see what he reports Sorenson as having said on the question of authorship (and post the results in the comments)?

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Did Ted Sorenson Ghostwrite Profiles in Courage?--
  2. Political Commencement Addresses.--
  3. Conservative Commencement Speakers Not Welcome.--
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