I’m usually put off by leftist academic discourse, but this is pretty fucking good:
If the university once (understood itself to have) functioned as the place where humans left their self-incurred immaturity, as Kant might put it, if it once served as the place where students prepared themselves to participate in public life, the Dads of higher ed are now insisting with the primness of a period-piece dowager that students should be seen and not heard. Literally. Bowen recalls a commencement protest over the grant of an honorary degree to a Nixonite in the 70s. (You can hear the daddishness: “back in my day…”) Happily, the “protestors were respectful (mostly), and chose to express their displeasure, by simply standing and turning their backs when the Secretary was recognized.” If ed gurus today salivate over tech-leveraged “disruption,” what Bowen admires about these human swivels is their decision “to express their opinion in a non-disruptive fashion.” No noise, just image, and the spectacle went on, with Princeton investing a Nixonite with an honorary degree.
I’ve been insisting on the term spectacle because, as everyone knows, the operative fiction of Carter’s letter and Bowen’s sermon is bullshit. Not even your liberalist liberal, your deliberativest deliberative democrat, could in good faith claim that commencement speeches are scenes of open debate. They are, rather, capstone moments where the university takes on a body, incorporates itself, and seeks to establish the conditions of its corporate reproducibility. A lovely experience validating 240k in cash or debt, a spectacle for parents and future donors—but hardly a scene of debate or discussion! Just a droning message, some platitudes, and the implicit promise that the fundraising office will soon track you down….
And so the bankrupt cynicism of claims that students immaturely, impulsively, undemocratically violated the norms of democratic publicness. To think that fostering a culture of public debate is a university pedagogical ideal is by turns hilarious and desperately sad when we consider the story that put Bowen on Haverford’s stage and the story he told while up there. Bowen spoke because Haverford students didn’t want Birgeneau, the former chancellor of UC Berkeley who let his cops baton student Occupiers in 2011, to speak. Bowen’s good-ole-days memory, meanwhile, recalls the chill in campus activism in the 70s—in the wake, that is, of Kent State. (The dignified, “non-disruptive” protest of turning one’s back is also one that won’t get you shot or beat.) The campus public has been structured dismantled; when it threatens to reappear, it is hyper-policed….
But I’m more just angry, pissed off, that my colleagues in higher education are so committed to maintaining their dad-power that they write off those students most committed to opening a democratic horizon as democracy’s greatest traitors. The idea persists that any student with an idea is actually a kid with a tantrum; that student protesting is super chic and just a blast; that responding to administration power is a kind of oedipal thing that silly kids do, because they must, to feel (but not actually be; no, not yet) like adults.
What Carter and Bowen refuse to acknowledge are the doubtless long hours students spent in self-organized meetings, arguing, drafting and re-drafting statements, figuring out what it was they in fact wanted. What they can’t feel, and don’t care to feel, is the scorn reserved for student activists on campus. But the scorn isn’t as bad as the indifference, an indifference experienced in more long hours trying to hand fliers to people who will probably trash them immediately, in conversations with unreceptive classmates and student groups and, yes, most professors and administrators. An indifference induced by the discourse that students are just consumers, and primarily consumers of booze and sex—a discourse of the dads that pretends to lament what it secretly hopes to reproduce.
To be clear, I find many things about student activism counterproductive, callow, ridiculous, and otherwise foolish. That said, the official suppression of and censorious whining about student activism by university administrators, socially climbing faculty like Stephen Carter (whose off-campus influence is largely controlled by mainstream media), and other organizational lackeys is clearly far worse. The proper response to substantive student protests is either to civilly present substantive counterarguments or else to hold one’s peace. Just on the basis of his recent official conduct as a university chancellor, in particular his failure to do all in his power both publicly and privately to hound Lt. John Pike off the UC police force for assaulting peaceable student protestors under color of authority, Robert Birgeneau was flat-out morally unfit to deliver a commencement address. Hiring him for such a gig is a bit like inviting Hirohito to give a Memorial Day talk on peace at the Arlington National Cemetery. In turn, William Bowen’s use of the bully pulpit as Haverford’s backup speaker to insult the new graduates of his host institution by way of defending Birgeneau was like Neville Chamberlain chiding a USO delegation for being so insolent to such a well-meaning but misunderstood head of state: “For God’s sake, he’s just a gentleman-ichthyologist who was forced to take up the family business, and your country really ought to thank his for all the nice trees.”
Of all the people the Haverford administration could have chosen as a graduation speaker, they chose a university chancellor currently involved in harboring the single most notoriously brutal campus police officer in the United States at the time. Even the most equivocal and pained assent to retaining such a bad cop calls into question a university administrator’s fitness to deliver a commencement address. The kind of leadership needed to properly deal with bad cops like Pike is a lot bolder than Birgeneau was willing to risk. Proven, egregious police brutality cases like Pike’s demand chancellors and presidents ballsy enough to fire bad cops or, if union or civil service contracts interfere with their termination, to publicly state that they will give absolutely no quarter to bad cops and will hound them into retirement. Preferably without a pension; a decent society at the very least ensures that Robert Acosta gets his first.
Even the Philadelphia Inquirer’s typically mediocre story about Bowen’s speech shows that it was a backhanded screed. Consider this gem: “I think that Birgeneau, in turn, responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors.” In other words, he wasn’t insightful enough to recognize that he was dealing with children and to address the tykes accordingly, with proper condescension. Keep in mind that the student protestors in question had been set off by what they considered Birgeneau’s failure to deal effectively with a campus police officer who had systematically pepper-sprayed seated, nonviolent student protestors at point-blank range. The real offense wasn’t videotaped police brutality straddling the line between felony assault and mayhem; the real offense was students being rude to the university chancellor on whose watch this police brutality had taken place and making him feel unwelcome at their school, that they had refused to welcome this candy-ass Pontius Pilate into a “discourse” consisting of his berating them with a monologue full of life advice on their graduation day.
In Bowen’s perverted sense of etiquette, this due deference extends to government officials who did their level best to kill a whole generation of young American men in an ill-advised foreign war against jungle guerrillas on behalf of a succession of intractably corrupt client governments:
“The protestors were respectful (mostly), and chose to express their displeasure, by simply standing and turning their backs when the Secretary was recognized,” he said. “Secretary Shultz, in turn, understood that the protestors had every right to express their opinion in a non-disruptive fashion, and he displayed the courage to come and accept his degree, knowing that many of the faculty and staff (a strong majority, I would guess, this person included) thought that the Nixon conduct of the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake.
“Princeton emerged from this mini-controversy more committed than ever to honoring both the right to protest in proper ways and the accomplishments of someone with whose views on some issues many disagreed.”
Good fucking God. Courage? George Shultz was a man of courage for agreeing to be honored by an Ivy League university (and paid an honorarium, I assume) in the face of criticism from students and faculty who believed that he had blood on his hands? Where, pray tell, was the Secretary’s courage while he was a member of a cabinet that was getting 58,000 Americans killed, thousands more wounded, maimed or captured, and a still unaccounted-for number of POW’s abandoned to permanent enemy custody after the war?
If this prissy horseshit is what passes for courage in the academy, it explains a lot. I can think of only one person I’ve known in academia who indisputably showed genuine moral courage: Dickinson College Public Safety Lt. Joe Fazio. I can assure you that Bill Durden doesn’t have a fucking lick of the stuff; when shit hits the fan he covers his own ass first. (If you are or were enlisted, you’ll be entertained to know that Durden is an Army ROTC alumnus. God bless the officer corps.) Fazio risked his own career in service to the truth, the law, and to the Dickinson community, and was fired for several months as a consequence. It’s probably not a coincidence that he’s staff, not faculty. Here’s a fellow who has both Secret Service-grade discretion in normal circumstances and the courage to blow the whistle in serious ones, and he spent over a decade under the ultimate command of a fraudulent blowhard pitchman in a bow tie who quotes himself in speeches.
If you think about it, it’s a neat little encapsulation of American society and government. The fractal is no prettier in its smaller iterations. Self-important academic charlatans dressing up cowardice in the face of the National Guard (or, to get really pathetic, wealthy donors) as an abiding sense of decorum and civil discourse: these are our rulers. These are also the people who presume to be our thinkers. One of the people Bill Durden allowed to deliver a commencement address was Ed Rendell, the sleazy partisan mediocrity who governed Pennsylvania at the time. (Finally, a chap whose shoulders Bill Durden was truly fit to invest with the hood and the mandamus and such-like.) When I graduated the speaker was John Jones, the federal judge (and Dickinson alumnus) who had recently ruled in the Jesus-on-a-dinosaur evolution derp case arising in Dover (although I always thought of that kind of bullshit as much more of a Red Lion thing). Jones was an honorable enough speaker (and certainly a much more polite one than Bowen), but I had the bad feeling that he was chosen on the basis of his affiliation with Dickinson, so that our dear school might itself bask in his reflected glory.
As a rule of thumb, the real purpose of these addresses isn’t to seed a discourse or make anyone think about anything really worthwhile; it’s to find someone reasonably famous and prestigious whose comments will be anodyne enough not to upset anyone’s dyspeptic older relatives or the school’s extortionate and easily butthurt donors. But it’s the students’ graduation. They have no reason to be any more deferential to a dishonorable speaker chosen to talk down to them than a Westminster backbencher had to be deferential to Harold Macmillan. (“Rubbish!” “I’ll get to your special interest in a minute, sir.”) Why shouldn’t they boo off the stage chickenhawks who got thousands of their peers killed and thousands more ruined in unwinnable foreign wars? The grads deserve better than that.
Schools need to start hiring Rod Blagojevich for these gigs. No, not the Honorable Rod R. Blagojevich, practitioner of Chicago simony and connoisseur of all things fucking golden. I mean Rod Blagojevich 40892-424, noted Front Range dishwasher, librarian, “mayor,” and adjunct humanities instructor. There’s a waiting list for his Shakespeare class, and you don’t get that way in the federal clink by being a condescending asshole to the other guys.