Commencement Speeches and Their Discontents

It's almost Memorial Day, and you know what that means; the temperature is getting warmer, the terror alert level is getting higher, and graduation speakers are running into trouble, yet again. This year, with the exception of Sen. Rick Santorum's speech at St. Joseph's University, where an eighth of the graduating class walked out before his speech, it's critics of the Bush administration and the 'War on Terrorism' that are causing all the fuss. First it was talk show host Phil Donahue's remarks at N.C. State , where he drew a mix of cheers and boos when he criticized the Bush administration in his commencement speech. Chris Hedges, author of the book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, New York Times reporter, and veteran war correspondent, is the latest speaker to draw the ire of conservative talk show hosts and the pro-war crowd from his speech at Rockford College's graduation. While not a strict First Amendment issue, libertarians and others interested in defending freedom of speech should take interest in these recent events for a very important reason: Freedom of speech depends as much on a culture that tolerates and protects dissent as it does on any legal protections.

Whatever one thinks of politics in a forum like a commencement address, the response to speakers like Hedges should be alarming if only because of the vitriolic response from the usual crowd of La-Z-Boy bombardiers. The conservative commentators on Fox News and the armchair warmongers on talk radio are raising objections to the speeches, not simply on the grounds that politics should not be brought into a graduation speech, but for their supposed 'anti-American' content. In the case of Hedges, he dared -- dared! -- to warn of the soul-destroying effects that can be wrought by war and empire. 'For the instrument of empire is war and war is a poison,' said Hedges, 'a poison which at times we must ingest just as a cancer patient must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison of war -- if we do not understand how deadly that poison is ' it can kill us just as surely as the disease.' In these United States, it has become that pointing out the horrors of war and the pain and suffering which accompany it is now tantamount to 'hating America' in the popular eye.

The reaction to Hedges' speech from the Bush administration's lackeys was all too predictable. On his Fox News show, 'Hannity and Colmes,' Sean Hannity, who clearly never heard of Hedges, nor bothered to research anything about him before the show, immediately declared him a 'hack' and said 'he should be fired' from his job as a writer for the Metro section of The New York Times, ostensibly for expressing a political opinion ' something journalists are never supposed to do (unless, of course, they work for Fox News). Never mind the fact that Hedges was a war correspondent for 15 years, witnessing firsthand the brutalities of war of which neoconservatives like Hannity and his kin have only dreamt ' if one dares to criticize any aspect of the War on Terror, they must be incompetent and disconnected from reality.

On his May 21st broadcast, as well as on his website, talk show host and professional blowhard, Rush Limbaugh, declared Hedges to be just another 'ivory tower liberal,' as all critics of the war must be in his view. Throughout his program he attempted to misrepresent the contents of the speech, declaring: 'Hedges' entire speech was an insult, with condescending lines such as calling soldiers 'boys from such places as Mississippi and Arkansas, who join the military because there were no job opportunities.'' It should be clear to anyone who read the text of Hedges' speech that this was far from what he was trying to get across. What he really said was a far cry from 'making fun,' as Limbaugh put it on his show, of where the soldiers were from, as is evident from reading the passage in its entirety:

[W]hat saddens me most is that those who will by and large pay the highest price are poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the army because it was all we offered them. For war in the end is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, and of idealists by cynics.

It used to be that amongst conservatives, there were some of the staunchest opponents of interventionism and an American empire, but very few of these conservative critics can be found today. Not too long ago, mainstream conservatives like Rush Limbaugh were lambasting former President Clinton for his forays into nation-building in Bosnia , and his support of the terrorist Kosovo Liberation Army in Yugoslavia . When Phil Donahue said in his N.C. State commencement address: 'Only Congress can declare war, and not one man, the president,' the conservatives were in an uproar. 'How dare he question the president's right to defend this country in a time like this!' screamed the conservatives. Yet, wasn't it the conservatives who used to rely on constitutional objections to the Executive office assuming the right to bomb on a whim? Now that one of their own is in the White House, however, all critiques of American foreign policy are simply un-American. One can't help but wonder if these same conservatives viewed criticism of President Clinton's foreign policy in the same light.

While graduation speeches are usually typified by fluffy, feel-good platitudes, politics have repeatedly been present, particularly during, or on the eve of, war. In a 1936 commencement speech at Northwestern University , William Allen White, a journalist and editor, critiqued those who hold the view, 'that a passing majority, by reason of its being a ballot box majority at one or two elections, has an inherent right immediately to suppress and ruthlessly destroy an honest minority.' He also admonished those in attendance to avoid the pitfalls of nationalism 'that threatens Western civilization' and to militantly uphold and respect the rights of all men. While it isn't always pretty, and can often cause a disruption, the interjection of politics into commencement speech at least livens things up a bit, and saves the students from having to sit through another 'so go out and seize the day!' snooze-fest of a commencement speech.

When the famous French author and social critic Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the early 19th century, he observed that, despite constitutional protections to the contrary: 'I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America .' Nothing could be made more evident than that today. One need look no further than the reaction to Hedges' speech from some of the students themselves, who, incapable of listening to any expression of an opinion that might challenge their world view, ran up the aisles to 'vocally protest' the speech. The entire incident reads like something from George Orwell's 1984, with Hedges taking the place of Emmanuel Goldstein as the center of the two minute hate session, with the populace covering their ears and yelling as they are driven to uncontrollable hate by mere words. Yes, the shouting down of anti-war commencement speakers is not a First Amendment issue, but it should still be frightening to anyone who values freedom of speech, for liberty cannot flourish in a culture that reeks of authoritarianism.

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Charles Davis's picture
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Charles Davis is a journalist based in Washington, DC. More of his work may be found at his website.