Durham News: Opinion

May 23, 2014

Bob Wilson: The dumbing down of commencement addresses

A funny thing happened to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on his way to deliver the 2014 Commencement Address at Duke University: Nothing.

A funny thing happened to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on his way to deliver the 2014 Commencement Address at Duke University: Nothing.

No demonstrators chanting “war criminal,” no demands that the Duke administration find a politically correct replacement, the postmodern academy’s version of drumming a soldier out of the ranks.

Martin likely smoothed the occasion by giving Duke’s 2,500 graduates a pitter-patter speech – make your life matter, the stuff of instantly forgettable commencement addresses – and avoiding weighty issues of the day.

In that, Martin was keeping between the ditches. The implications of avoiding controversial topics because somebody in the audience might be discomfited remain a palpable force in America’s graduation seasons.

But while Martin and most other commencement speakers did their duty for 15 minutes, others wilted in the steaming climate of intolerance that has settled over the nation’s universities and colleges.

It’s called disinvitation.

The most shameful disinvitation came from Brandeis University, which declared Somalia-born feminist and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali persona non grata when it learned that her commencement speech would be a critique of Islam.

That, Brandeis said, would be a breach of the university’s “core values.” No matter that as a child Hirsi Ali suffered genital mutilation in the name of Islam. No matter that the bedrock of radical Islam is the destruction of Israel. No matter that speaking against evil is a moral obligation for the civilized mind.

Hirsi Ali’s offense against Brandeis’ tender sensibilities? A former Muslim, she has denounced Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”

Then there was the curious case of Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of UC Berkeley, a citadel of political correctness. He was disinvited at Haverford College for his firm handling of Occupy protests in 2011.

However, since Haverford is a peace-loving Quaker school, it was willing to give Birgeneau a pass if he apologized for his sins and met other demeaning demands. He rightly rejected speaking in shackles.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Replacement speaker William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, gave Haverford’s grads a stern talking-to on the importance of listening to opposing viewpoints. So far, so good – until Bowen himself nicked Birgeneau for refusing to go forward with his speech.

Some days a guy just can’t win.

And in the interests of gender equity, neither can a woman.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got disinvited after Rutgers University radicals denounced her as a war criminal. She served in the Bush administration during the second Iraq war.

Smith College disinvited Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, after campus activists accused her of being part of a “corrupt system” that exploits third-world women.

In other words, for – oh, the horror! – supporting capitalism.

To be fair, none of 2014’s commencement suspects was formally disinvited. They withdrew, saying they didn’t want controversy to overshadow a joyous occasion.

Even First Lady Michelle Obama fell into maelstrom. Five Topeka, Kan., high schools scheduled a joint commencement to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Alas, upon learning they could invite no more than six guests, the seniors asked the school board to break it up.

The school board did so. Ms. Obama dutifully gave her speech at “Senior Recognition Day.”

Coming to a college or university near you in 2015: More dumbed-down commencement speeches – if the invitees don’t get disinvited. Or whatever.

Bob Wilson is a longtime journalist who lives in southwest Durham.

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