As the academic term concludes, graduating classes everywhere sit listening to wealthy and famous recipients of honorary degrees regale them with advice on how to succeed in this grave new world of ours. Parents and friends join with graduates to celebrate the payoff for four or five years of hard work and partying. In Canada, with principals and presidents hard-pressed to pay the bills, recipients of honoraria causa degrees are expected to drop a little extra in the kitty.
The same unwritten rule holds true in the United States, a country now involved in the most bizarre war in its history--an open-ended conflict against terrorism, however defined--with assertions galore about the other side's potential to wreak havoc with weapons of mass destruction. As the university year ended, about the same time as the war with Iraq, George W. Bush and his cronies reassured everyone that the Coalition of the Willing would find weapons of mass destruction, a mantra reiterated so often so as to transform the newest American cabinet position into a Department of Homeland Insecurity.
The president is presently riding a sharp wave of popularity--victory in war will do that--but his republic, and all that for which it stands, seems to have embraced a benign fascism. So much American corporate interest exists in rebuilding Iraq as to beggar the reality of what American troops accomplished there. Bush, and his Vice President Dick ("Harvey") Cheney, have plans for Iraqi oil, and for the recreation of that benighted country's infrastructure. Numerous American corporations will participate in this extension of liberty and freedom, and those weapons of mass destruction that we call fast food.
Or so they tell us. Thus far, many scholars conclude, the Iraq War created not a "new" but an old Iraq--a fertile field for anti-Americanism, greater instability, and, yes, more terrorism. The misery in the cradle of civilization, like that in Afghanistan, reflects the outcome of a military campaign based not on what is to come, merely the need to topple Saddam Hussein. Within a month after war's end, there is more than enough cynicism about the outcome to go around. Man's baser instincts come to the fore in war, and the weak suffer. Law and order, Iraq style, seems an oxymoron.
Whether Hussein and Osama bin Laden have moved on to the next world remains moot. But the pillage of Baghdad--which included the looting of everything from treasures of antiquity to nuclear waste--illustrates an unwillingness of the United States to hang in for the long haul. Americans have never been good at that. Late to enter, early to leave, and then left to wonder, why others dislike them.
Let's ponder that question from north of the 49th parallel, a wonderful venue despite SARS, mad cows, West Nile, and Mel Lastman. Two years ago, Time Magazine ran a cover story noting the virtual disappearance of the border between the U.S. and Canada and how much alike we had become. How quickly things change. Now, apparently, we scare hell out of Washington--as well we should. We still have our wits about us, a sense of balance and proportion, and an understanding of the constraints imposed by history and membership in a world community.
There, that's my commencement speech. You might not agree with its sentiments, but at least you took the time to read it. At Rockford College a week ago, journalist Chris Hedges of the New York Times addressed graduates with a similar antiwar text. Rockford, Illinois, is known best as the haunt of James Garner, star of the once-popular TV drama, "The Rockford Files". I got a flat in Rockford while driving a U-Haul truck from St. Paul to Queen's in 1969. The area is not on the Merle Haggard, redneck map. Indeed, the college prides itself on representing the spirit of reformer Jane Addams for the 21st century.
Addams, a radical activist in the early twentieth century best known for her work among urban immigrants in the American Midwest, was also passionately antiwar and no doubt would have approved Hedges' challenge to the Rockford graduates to think critically about U.S. defense and foreign policy. Hedges shares a Pulitzer Prize with other Times journalists, and he earned a master's of divinity from Harvard. He was also captured and held as a POW by Iraq's Republican Guard during the First Gulf War. Hedges began his speech by stating that "I want to speak to you today about war and empire…Killing, or at least the worst of it, is over in Iraq. Although blood will continue to spell--theirs and ours--be prepared for this. For we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige."
Bronx cheers greeted this statement, and as Hedges continued, his microphone was turned off, then on, then off again. Foghorns came out, and grads turned their backsides to the podium. One graduate threw his cap and gown at the stage in disgust. Hedges continued as best he could for 18 minutes, until college President Paul Prebbenow suggested that he'd better end his talk.
Shouting speakers down is nothing new in American history. Berkeley --the home of campus free speech -- stands ironically as the best-known site in a long American narrative of denying controversial campus speakers -- especially conservatives -- their right to speak. Conflict engendered by the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio recently exerted similar impact at York and Concordia Universities, where defenders of Israeli viewpoints were denied a podium.
But this episode was different, chilling in its implications for dissent in a free society. For the response of the citizenry in Rockford suggested that unquestioning obedience to the Bush administration now stands as a test of loyalty. "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror," the president said on 5 November 2001.
That Hedges represented the New York Times constitutes another reason for the hostile response accorded him. "Speaker Disrupts RC Graduation," the local paper headlined. The paper's reporter, meanwhile, transformed two of Hedges' sentences into more incendiary language, attributing to him words that he did not say.
In the best Bushese, the Rockford reporter stated that Hedges "began his speech comparing United States policy in Iraq to piranhas and a tyranny over the weak." Yet Hedges' text said nothing about flesh-eating fish, instead warning that the U.S. risked becoming global pariahs. Similarly, "tyranny over the weak" became Illinois shorthand for "the weak will perceive us as tyrannical."
No matter. Letters heavily favoured the audience. The patriots echoed the martial triumverate of CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC. The Times symbolized the intrusion of the devil in the heart of the homeland. Hedges was part of a dangerous coven of big city liberals.
Rather than protest from below, against the wealthy and powerful, in Rockford we beheld protest from above, against the rabble. Hedges' journalistic pedigree and Jane Addams' spirit notwithstanding, citizens in northwest Illinois chose not to hear, let alone think about the questions he sought to raise. This is dangerous stuff.
Makes one wonder about the ends of higher education and the subversion by power of our major defense--language.