Few speakers aggravate a crowd as quickly as Hedges did in his 18-minute speech. Some in the audience turned their backs on him. Others booed, screamed at Hedges or blew foghorns. A few rushed up the aisle to protest, and one new graduate threw his cap and gown onto the stage. Twice somebody in the audience pulled the plug on his microphone. The mike was replugged, but Hedges never finished the speech. The tumult was too great, and the college president told him to "wrap it up."
Booing is something I approve of. Pulling the plug was wrong. So was not letting Hedges finish. What is the lesson of this fiasco? Is it (a) that colleges should not impose controversial speakers on a captive audience? Or is it (b) that controversial speakers are fine, but there are rules -- they have to be graceful, non-incendiary, and remember that they are a minor act on a program about student success.
I vote for (b). If we want to avoid the conventional graduation day blather (climb every mountain, you are the future), it is best to invite a speaker who stands for something and carries the message that conviction is important. But Hedges violated all the civility rules of (b). He hectored the audience, almost bludgeoning the listeners with America-is-evil rhetoric. (To hear an audio track of the speech, go to the Internet site of the Rockford Register Star, www.rrstar.com.)
James Lileks, the Internet blogger (www.lileks.com), nailed the civility issue perfectly. There's nothing wrong with an anti-war commencement speech, he wrote. "But such a speech needs to PERSUADE. It needs to draw the audience close, make eye contact. Crack a joke, wax colloquial, opine a bit, then bring it back to the grads."
Right. But Hedges never once mentioned the grads or the college, offered no jokes, no pleasantries. He just launched his talk by saying, "I want to speak to you today about war and empire." Instead of trying to persuade, he issued thunderous pronouncements: America is a violent international pariah; the real war of liberation in Iraq is an attempt by Iraqis to liberate themselves from U.S. occupation. America's defeat in Vietnam, he thought, was a positive event, because it gave us a chance to ask questions about our behavior and become a better nation.
A Williams College student wrote this to an Internet site: "I listened to that 18-minute, stale, anti-intellectual heap of contradictory crap. If part of MY tuition had gone to pay for that smarmy SOB to irrationally rant about the country I love at MY commencement, without a word about the fact that I was, er, graduating, I would have considered it a duty to drown him out with insults."
Statements like this are reminders that the booing of commencement speakers often has a lot to do with arrogance and tone. But it is also true that for students who have had to endure so much PC indoctrination for four years, one last dose of ideological claptrap during a graduation ceremony can seem like the last straw.
At Ithaca College's graduation, some students and parents booed anti-war commencement speakers Ben and Jerry, the foreign policy experts and ice-cream makers. Ben was predictably obnoxious. The students didn't mount a major rebellion; a few new graduates walked out. There were six or seven heated confrontations that never quite developed into fights, and several students started a "Bomb France" chant to irritate the leftist ice-creamers.
Students today, trained at Internet speed, are inclined to react quickly to provocations. My guess is that the booing of commencement speakers will become a routine reaction to pomposity, gassy ideology (call it Hedgesism), or the failure to comprehend that the day is about students. Good.