The only way I can explain Timothy Egan’s column yesterday is that he was pitching two or three different columns about the commencement speech issue that all the pundits are talking about this week, but they were all rejected and so he had to combine them all. Alas, none of the arguments is persuasive on its own either.
Egan starts out by citing a couple of unrepresentative examples of commencement speeches, by David Foster Wallace and Steve Jobs. Now, admittedly, if either of these gentlemen were to deliver a commencement address this year it would be compelling indeed, but otherwise I’m not sure how it’s relevant. But you can see where this is going:
This year, there’s the remarkable life story of the African-American scholar who grew up in the segregated South and rose to become secretary of state. Didn’t hear that one? Nobody did. Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to give the 248th anniversary commencement address at Rutgers University this coming Sunday. She canceled after a small knot of protesters pressured the university. It’s no contest who showed more class.
Leaving aside the fact that it’s enormously unlikely that any public figure like Rice would give a speech of the slightest interest, there’s a rather obvious problem here. What’s potentially objectionable about Rice isn’t her life story, but…I’ll let Egan explain:
Near as I can tell, the forces of intolerance objected to her role in the Iraq war. O.K. And by shutting her down, the point is … what? That extremism, whether in the climate-denial echo chamber of Republican Party elites or in the fragile zone of college faculty lounges, is the worst enemy of free speech.
The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush — two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States — was clearly a debacle. Contemporary assessments were not kind, and history will be brutal.
So, Rice played a major role in a war fought on false pretenses that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and 2 trillion dept-financed dollars. Her administration also arbitrarily tortured people. No major figure involved with this has faced the slightest punishment. And not only am I supposed to be upset that she decided not to give a commencement address for a large pile of money after some protest, but I’m supposed to believe that people who protested are comparable to climate troofers? Are you shitting me?
His other two examples, Robert Birgeneau and Christine Lagarde, are better as applied to this narrow point. I don’t particularly care who gives commencement addresses and don’t think there’s any real free speech issue involved. But like Isaac Chotiner, I’m inclined to think that focusing on targets like Birgeneau and especially Lagarde does tend to dilute the impact of protests against, say, war criminals and their enablers.
But rather than making this point, Egan wanders back into non-sequitur land:
But if every speaker has to pass a test for benign mediocrity and politically correct sensitivity, commencement stages will be home to nothing but milquetoasts. You want torture? Try listening to the Stanford speech of 2009, when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.
Give me a brisk, strong, witty defense of something I disagree with over a tired replay of platitudes. It matters little if the speaker is a convict or a seminarian, a statesman or a comedian.
Look, with very rare exceptions, if you want good speeches, avoid commencement addresses. Kennedy’s speech is very much the rule, not the exception. But more to the point, what possible basis could Egan have for thinking that the likes of Legarde or Birgeneau would deliver an interesting speech? The head of the I.M.F. is going to deliver a brisk, strong, witty speech on a controversial topic? Sure, and the Astros are going to win 120 games this year.
Neither of these points make any sense and the whole is even less than the sum of the weak parts. Protesting Condoleezza Rice being paid $35 grand plus an honorary degree isn’t “bigotry” and it’s not like climate denialism. And nor will it make commencement speeches worse (something that would be nearly impossible anyway.) One transparently silly contrarian provocation plus one non-sequitur does not equal a decent argument.
…phillsy in comments is excellent on this:
But the commencement speakers almost certainly aren’t going to get up there and do that, because, well, it’s a commencement speech. Choosing a commencemnt speaker isn’t about choosing someone with a controversial view so they can offer an intellectual defense of it, it’s about choosing someone to be honored for their accomplishments. The content of the speech isn’t the statement, the person giving it is, and it’s a statement being made by the university administration.
Making objections that the target chosen protest is fine–I don’t see what Legarde herself has done that would merit protesting her–but these purely process-based based objections are ridiculous. They’re another instance of the Charles G. Koch theory of free speech, which says that free speech is the rich and well-connected saying whatever they want, whenever they want, and the rest of us get to sit and listen respectfully.