In the May 23 edition of this newspaper, Lawrence Reichard wrote an opinion piece explaining why he protested former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Colby College’s commencement.
To wit: Blair was a willing enabler of George W. Bush’s determination to wage war on Iraq, using the pretext of weapons of mass destruction which were never found and for which there was no tangible evidence in the first place. The result was hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and almost 5,000 American combat dead.
When I opened the paper on May 24 and read the .COMments, they were uniformly critical of Reichard’s protest at the Colby venue. In other words, the wholesale slaughter of Iraqis and Americans aroused not a word of indignation, but the idea that someone would publicly decry one of the engineers of the catastrophe invoked outrage. Why? Because he had “interrupted” the commencement and was, in the words of the same writer, disrespectful and rude.
Get the picture? Unprovoked war is business as usual, but drawing public attention to one of its architects is an outrage.
Reichard was not out of line. He was reminding all of us that protest is part of education. A student who has failed is not the one who gets an F in biology but rather the one who has never been driven to feel strongly about the world around him. It is one of the sacred duties of a college or university to convey the message that every statement the professor makes should be regarded as a challenge, not holy writ.
At some point in the student’s academic career, he or she should be required to hit the pavement and scream to the high heavens about something, anything, be it tuition costs, health care, evolution, politics, or the price of fresh food. Just so he knows that he’s really alive and connected to an imperfect world that it is his duty to improve.
If there is cause for head-shaking here, it is not that Blair’s speech was interrupted and his carefully burnished image impugned. Rather, why weren’t the students themselves protesting? Why didn’t their professors lead the charge? Instead, the crowd preferred to breathe the common ether of amnesia. All that was missing was a group hug and a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”
A few years back, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was invited to speak at Columbia University. The din of dissent reached manic levels, with the students dividing themselves into pro- and anti- groups, some arguing that he had a right to speak, others that a man with his reputation and bellicose posture never should have been invited.
Good. That’s the way it should be. These controversial speakers know what they’re getting into, and they know how to handle themselves. Blair no doubt counted on there being protests, and he has long since grown adept at dealing with them. Instead, the crowd of graduates and their families gave him a free ride, the wink and nod of complicity in keeping things quiet and smoothing things over, lest junior’s “big day” be marred by healthy, honest, democratic and thoroughly American political protest.
When John F. Kennedy was in office, he assigned one staff member to be his devil’s advocate. It was his job to challenge the president, to tell him why his thinking on an issue might be wrong-headed and what the alternatives were. Kennedy felt that the tension of such principled opposition kept him honest and his head clear.
Such an approach was supplanted by the pleasant poetry of the late, canonized Ronald Reagan — a genial but unwitting man with a brilliant capacity for reducing complex issues to simplistic pabulum (Soviet Union = Evil Empire).
This is what we have grown to prefer, having forgotten that the Republic was forged in the fire of protest, not the swamp of acquiescence.
Robert Klose teaches at UMA-Bangor. He is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association’s award for commentary.