Monday, May 5, 2014

Rutting at Rutgers

I was a student for many, many years. In college and in grad school, I was proud of my status as student -- I thought it one of the highest callings of humanity -- and I took my role very seriously. My goal was to learn as much as I could from as many thoughtful people as I could find. It didn't matter to me who they were nor what their backgrounds; it mattered not at all whether I agreed with them or not. In fact, I rather sought out people with whom I disagreed, to test the validity of my ideas and take the risk of acquiring new ones that might change my point of view. This, to me, was what a student was and did. A learner.

Today I was both dismayed and disgusted by the news that Condoleezza Rice has been obliged to decline her invitation to speak at the commencement ceremony at Rutgers University. This, as a result of a protest by a minority of students whose voices were more active than their intellectual curiosity. It was, ostensibly, her role in shaping the U.S. invasion of Iraq that prompted the protests, and the craven response by the faculty and administration which enabled it. This is, or ought to be, viewed by anyone who values free speech, as a disgrace of the first order.

Through years of post-secondary education, both in this country and in France, I had been forced to listen to the ranting, often hysterical, of leftist professors, while I was simply trying to construct for myself the best education I could manage. I will state frankly that many of my professors in college and grad school were socialists, indeed, some even communists, but I endured their strident, irrelevant and occasionally insulting diatribes for the sake of learning what they might have to teach me that would be of value to me in my later life. I recall distinctly a professor of cinematography at the Paris Film Conservatory, a self-professed communist, who was in the habit of singling me out, as the only American at the school, for particular disparagement. I endured it all in silence, because he was a good film teacher, and I needed to learn from him how to calculate the hyper-focal distance of a lens, and how properly to roll up the cable of a 1000 watt light. These things he did teach me, but with a gratuitous condemnation of the Bill of Rights in between.

My favorite professor of all was a far-left socialist who taught Russian Literature. In his classes I was much more interested in his views on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky than I was in those on the Polish labor movement or American imperialism. I valued what he had to teach about War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, and not what he personally believed about American capitalism. I craved to learn from him about literature, and I ignored the political propaganda that came with it.

In my decades of education, I learned to filter out the politically-driven nonsense and focus on the pedagogic core. Much of what my professors said -- even those I most admired -- was nonsense-inspired ideology, but that did not mean I did not listen, and think, and debate, and absorb. Because that is what a student does -- that is what a student is. A learner, above and before all else. And it was for this principle -- the right to listen and debate and be exposed to every point of view, regardless of what those in authority believed -- that I, and many others in the student movement of the Sixties and Seventies, fought and sacrificed for, and strove to establish as a vital principle of academic freedom.

Now, in the twenty-first century, to hear that a student body refuses to listen to someone with whom they disagree is repugnant to me. Do they not understand that, during the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests, and the era of Watergate, we fought for the right of students to listen to opposing points of view? That some of us put our freedom, and even our lives, on the line so that others might be exposed to unpopular speech? Do they not understand that their intellectual and spiritual predecessors in protest fought for the right of free speech and discussion, even, as at Kent State, at the point of a bayonet and bullets?

These so-called students at Rutgers, who have said to Condoleezza Rice: We do not want to hear what you have to say, and we do not want anyone else to hear it either, are backtracking. They are undoing what we, in the generation of the students' rights movement, sought to create: the right to be heard no matter how much we, or our superiors, might disagree. These alleged students at Rutgers are not progressives -- they are fascists; they are not new millennials, they are Mussolini. They represent everything we in the Sixties and Seventies, whom they claim to admire, fought against. They are the enemy.

Condoleezza Rice is a woman of extraordinary accomplishments: a concert pianist who has performed with Yo-Yo Ma, a Phi Beta Kappa, a professor at Stanford, the first black woman Secretary of State, a personage admired around the world for her achievements. Whether or not you agree with her foreign policy decisions in the Bush administration, any intelligent person must bow to what she has achieved though her race, her gender and her politics were against her. I say to the so-called students at Rutgers: No matter what you think of her foreign policy decisions, this is a woman from whom you can learn -- this is a human being whom you, as students, ought to hear.

Now, on the question of who you would invite to your precious commencement (which you have already discredited), I would ask the following:

Franklin Roosevelt prepared, and Harry Truman carried out, the nuclear bombing of Japan. Would you allow them to speak?

John F. Kennedy got us involved in Vietnam, disgraced the presidency with his sexual profligacy, and brought us to the brink of World War III in Cuba. Would you allow him to speak?

Bill Clinton presided over a war in Yugoslavia, launched a cruise missile attack on a baby formula factory in Sudan, and had against him credible allegations of rape. Would you allow him to speak?

Of course you would. And that fact reveals the essential hypocrisy of your protest, and the naked cowardice of the professors and administrators who have allowed you to prevail: Condoleezza Rice has the temerity to be a black woman who is also a conservative. And it is for that you will not forgive her, and for that you will forbid her even to speak at your temple of learning. You are not students: in the words of Holden Caulfied, on whom you cut your cultural teeth, you are phonies.