Condi Rice and the Graduation Gag Order

Condi Rice and the Graduation Gag Order

By Carl M. Cannon - May 25, 2014

It’s unfair to the vast majority of U.S. college communities that held heartening graduation exercises this spring, but the 2014 graduation season will be remembered for the anti-intellectual thuggery that marred ceremonies at various Eastern schools.

Brandeis University began the ignominious parade by disinviting Somali feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam, to speak at its commencement after Muslim students complained. The administration also rescinded its honorary degree—an award Ali never requested—and then, to justify its capitulation, publicly denigrated her.

“What was initially intended as an honor,” she noted drily, “has now devolved into a moment of shaming.”

Emboldened, small factions of leftist students and professors at other schools threatened to disrupt their commencement ceremonies over speakers they found objectionable. The upshot was that scheduled talks by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Rutgers), International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde (Smith College), and former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau (Haverford) were canceled.

To cover up their cowardice, school administrators claimed these speakers withdrew on their own. This was only technically correct. The speakers had little choice after the protesters’ vowed to throw tantrums unless they got their way—by disrupting the ceremonies—and the school presidents meekly succumbed.

Haverford partially redeemed itself by inviting as a replacement former Princeton University President William G. Bowen. He had the gravitas—and the stones—to use his speech to call out the bullying students as “immature” and “arrogant” while characterizing Birgeneau’s withdrawal as a “defeat” for the Quaker college’s own ideals.

The goofiest cancellation came at Smith College. You might think that France’s first female finance minister—who oversees loans to Third World countries in need of capital investment—might be an inspiration to Smith’s graduating women. But apparently at elite U.S. colleges, the jury is still out on the debate between capitalism and Marxism.

The tackiest behavior was at Rutgers, where in their panic to replace Condi Rice, school administrators invited two replacement speakers—without telling the other one. Then again, Rutgers is the school that forced out its athletic director after the men’s basketball coach was videotaped abusing players and then hired a new athletic director accused of doing the same thing when she coached college volleyball. When confronted, this molder of young minds expressed her wish that New Jersey’s best newspaper, which uncovered the allegations, would fold—a neat summarization of Rutgers’ commitment to free expression.

The Rutgers protesters accused Rice of being a “war criminal.” This goes beyond intemperance, even beyond ugliness. War criminal is legal term, with a real meaning. It applies, for instance, to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has been credibly accused of torturing as many as 11,000 of his countrymen to death. The brief against Rice, delivered in half-sentences and slogans, is that she was part of the Bush administration foreign policy team when the U.S. invaded Iraq. This is worth parsing because more is at play here than left-wing totalitarianism and college administrator cravenness.

In 2001 and 2002, the administration concluded that the lesson of 9/11 was that the world had become too small to accommodate murderous dictators and rogue states that facilitate international terrorism capable of inflicting great harm on Americans. This seemed to many, myself included, as the wrong lesson and too grandiose an ideal. But the Iraq invasion did not come in a vacuum. Facilitating regime change in Baghdad had been official U.S. policy since 1998, when the Iraq Liberation Act was signed by President Clinton. It did not require a U.S. military operation, but it did set the stage for one.

And when George W. Bush went to Congress seeking authorization for the invasion, the 77 yea votes included Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Harry Reid. Should they, too, be barred from college campuses? Speaking of which, if right-wingers had bullied three prominent women in this fashion, all you’d hear from those four is how the conservatives “war on women” is proceeding apace.

Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that a Muslim feminist and torture victim, a famous female French economist, and arguably the most accomplished black woman in American history can be treated shabbily and few people find it sexist. I have a less sanguine view. I think this is partisanship masquerading as intolerance.

Remember when then-unknown Democratic activist Sandra Fluke was slandered by Rush Limbaugh, and how President Obama personally came to her defense? Our first African-American president also inserted himself into the slaying of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, the minor hassle black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates had with a white Cambridge policeman, and the racial rantings of NBA owner Donald Sterling and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

We’re still waiting for him to come to the defense of Condi Rice, and if he’d done it earlier, it might have mattered. The commencement bigots at Rutgers apparently were emboldened by their brethren at the University of Minnesota who signed an online petition objecting to Rice speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. This is a woman who grew up in the segregated South, whose childhood friend was killed in the notorious Birmingham church bombing, who went to college, learned Russian and classical piano, earned a PhD, became a professor and provost at Stanford, where she teaches today – not to mention that she became the first black woman to serve as secretary of state. Yeah, what does she know that any college senior could possibly want to hear? 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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