Bob Kerrey on the McCain Commencement Flap
Former Senator Bob Kerrey, president of The New School, offers his perspective on the rude treatment suffered this weekend by invited commencement speaker John McCain. After a few paragraphs explaining why McCain was such a good choice and defending the decision to not disinvite him after many students expressed their displeasure, Kerrey goes on:
That said, I now speak in defense of the behavior of my students — the minority who protested and the majority who did not. On the surface, some of the tactics of the protest were rude, noisy, and disrespectful. Less obvious, however, was the self-restraint that prevented the protestors from behaving in a fashion that would have shut down the commencement or made it impossible for Senator McCain or me to continue. Though many in the audience — including Senator McCain and I — were offended by the heckling, at no time were we in danger of not being able to proceed. By the end of the program, we had awarded five honorary degrees and graduated 2,630 students in The New School’s 70th Commencement ceremony.
So, we’re to applaud rudeness because it stopped short of criminal rioting? That’s a rather low standard. Further, that it was a minority protesting rather reinforces the point that their conduct infringed on the rights of the majority who were there to enjoy the solemnity of a major life milestone, not listen to the petulant whinings of brats.
More importantly — and also lost in the charges and counter-charges — is this fact: student protests are a necessary and essential part of democratic free expression. Did we not love the brave and disrespectful students at Tiananmen? Did we not applaud the determination of the student led movements that helped bring down the dictators that ruled Eastern Europe in 1991? Have we forgotten the critical difference students made in reversing an unlawful election in Ukraine or in driving the Syrians from Lebanon or who still seethe in discontent under the religious law of Iran’s mullahs?
I’m not a big fan of John McCain but comparison of him with the butchers of Tiananmen, Iranian mullahs, and other despots is specious. For one thing, the students would have been perfectly free to protest McCain outside the building or pretty much any other time and place without being accused of bad behavior. We live in a free society; those who stood up to tyranny in Kerrey’s example do not. Surely, too, it takes a mite more courage to stand up to government tanks than to hold up signs in the company of fellow travelers.
Thus, when some of the critics of The New School students suggest they should have behaved with more discipline, as did the students at Liberty University, I strongly disagree.
Really? So, lack of discipline is good?
Our students were moved by idealism, not arrogance. I may not agree with their conclusions, but I do not begin with the presumption that my age gives me a privileged view of the truth. Quite the contrary — I believe that those of us who are older should keep our ears and hearts open to the possibility that our age may have cost us the most important of human characteristics: the hope for a better, fairer, and more just world.
That your wisdom and training gives you a huge intellectual advantage over your students is the raison detre of a university. If you honestly think your perspective is no more valuable than theirs, you should resign forthwith.