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The Horrors of Graduation

A New York Times reporter lets loose the clichés of war.

By 6.11.03

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"Speaker disrupts…graduation" read the improbable headline in the Rockford Register Star. And yet, that was pretty much how it went down. Invited to give the commencement address last month at Rockford College, in Rockford, Illinois, longtime New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges delivered an anti-war speech instead.

Without so much as a "Hi, thanks for coming out," Hedges launched into it. Though the hostilities in Iraq were done for now, he warned, "blood will continue to spill." He predicted occupation will be "as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power, and security." Americans would soon, rightly, be viewed as bullies -- isolated from the whole world by our, oh, I don't know, ignorance, hubris, arrogance, racism: Take your pick.

And so it went: Terrorists, usually desperate people from the "almost 50 percent of the planet [who] struggles on less than two dollars a day," will provoke over-reactions from the U.S. government, which will send in the troops, mostly poor kids from the South who joined the armed services because they couldn't land decent jobs or afford health insurance. America has formed a "troika" with Russia and Israel, nations which do not shrink "from carrying out…gratuitous and senseless acts of violence." Americans supported the war on terror, in part, because they want to recover the camaraderie that they felt immediately after September 11. Hedges spoke in a slow, deliberate schoolmarmish voice and peppered the address with allusions to Thucydides, Reinhold Niebuhr, and William Butler Yeats. The speech, in short, was one long New York Times editorial, with some arts coverage thrown in.

School officials were surprised by the visceral, negative reaction, but is it any wonder that many in the crowd booed, let off air horns, and turned their backs to the speaker? Several students weighed four years of hard work against having to listen to another minute of this ("Fear engenders cruelty; cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis. In the center of Dante's circle the damned remained motionless"), and split. One protester tossed his cap and gown onto the stage on the way out. An unknown saboteur twice cut Hedges' mike, and the school president appealed to the crowd to please keep it down. Police whisked Hedges away from the event when he was done speaking, for his own protection. (It was widely reported that the chanters were able to silence him. Hedges told the radio show Democracy Now that he trimmed it a bit but got the bulk of it out: "I was determined not let them determine when I was finished speaking.")

Civil libertarians were appalled at the image of a mob attempting to drown out a respected speaker, and yet, that may have been the image Hedges was shooting for. I'm a free speech absolutist and by no means a warmonger but after listening to the first five minutes of the address I wanted to throw a tomato at someone. It's almost as if Hedges, with his condescension, his stridency, his grating delivery, and his refusal to make any attempt to connect with the crowd as Americans or human beings, was trying to bait them into rioting.

Whatever Hedges' motivation, the upshot of the whole event was outrage in the press and a much wider distribution of his speech than would otherwise have occurred. This happened right before the release of his new book on the horrors of war (What Every Person Should Know About War; I'd have more to say about it but I reviewed for a forthcoming issue of the Weekly Standard). Now the book has the extra selling point of striking a blow for free speech against stifling small town conformity. It reminds me of the old cynical publishing insight that censorship in the U.S. can be berry, berry good for business.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.