When E.L. Doctorow urged graduates at Hofstra University to question authority, he didn’t expect them to question his. The fiction writer accused George Bush of launching a fictitious war in Iraq and was heckled into silence. In a moment the liberal elite must regard as an alarming illustration of the Red-Blue divisions of America now even bleeding into academia, students and parents booed Doctorow while the liberal faculty stood to cheer at the end of his speech. Booing a speaker into silence wasn’t the vigorous free speech and activism Doctorow had in mind when he extolled agitation earlier in his speech. How dare the mob turn on its visionaries. Notice the suggestion (in the Newsday story about Doctorow’s speech) that peasants were responsible for the heckling — the booing “came mainly from the crowd in the stands.” This is reminiscent of self-appointed populist Michael Moore blaming boos at the Oscars two years ago on lowly stage hands and hooligans in the cheap seats.
The distinction between civility and incivility in the liberal mind is very fine indeed: If a liberal commencement speaker calls the president of the United States a liar, that’s civility; if the crowd boos the speaker calling their president a liar, that’s incivility.
Doctorow once helped Americans navigate these careful distinctions as a member of a “civility” commission in the 1990s after the troubling Republican takeover of Congress. Called the “Penn Commission on Society, Culture and Community,” it gathered at the University of Pennsylvania to address the “explosion of incivility” in American life. Such experts on civility as Paul Begala were asked to mull “the rising tide of rudeness and — if possible — how to stem it,” reported the press.
Doctorow had tried to keep the rudeness of the Reagan years at bay. But to no avail. The mob needed further conditioning. Reactionary parents, for example, shook their heads in dismay at a 1989 Brandeis University commencement address Doctorow delivered in which he accused Ronald Reagan of lying and nurturing a “gangsterdom of the spirit.”
“Mr. Reagan’s advocacy of self-reliance caused him to scorn or forget other truths of community,” Doctorow said in that address. “And so he was moved at various times in his Administration to take away school lunches from needy children and tuition loans from students, and to deny legal services to poor people and psychological counseling to Vietnam veterans, and Social Security payments to handicapped people…The philosophical conservative is someone willing to pay the price of other people’s suffering for his principles. And so we now have hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of our citizens lying around in the streets of our cities, sleeping in doorways, begging with styrofoam cups. We didn’t have a class of permanent beggars in this country — in the United States of America — fifteen or twenty years ago. We didn’t have kids selling crack in their grade schools, or businessmen magnifying their fortunes into megafortunes by stock manipulation and thievery — I don’t remember such epidemics of major corporate fraud. A decade ago you did not have college students scrawling racial epithets or anti-Semitic graffiti on the room doors of their fellow students. You did not have cops strangling teen-age boys to death or shooting elderly deranged women in their own homes. You did not have scientists falsifying the results of experiments, or preachers committing the sins against which they so thunderously preached. A generation or so back, you didn’t have every class of society, and every occupation, widely, ruggedly practicing its own characteristic form of crime.”
It must be maddening to Doctorow that conservatives see such talk as uncivil, deserving of jeers. Clearly his old civility commission needs to reconvene to teach Americans that conservative thought itself is “uncivil” and liberalism, even when its proponents are accusing conservatives of lying and killing, is civility’s most reliable friend. Don’t students know that civility is conformity to liberalism? Liberals aren’t supposed to be heckled at commencement ceremonies; they are supposed to do the heckling.(Just like they did to Jeane Kirkpatrick at U.C. Berkeley in 1983 when liberals routinely accused her of lying about the evil of communism, as they now accuse Bush of lying about Saddam Hussein’s ties to terrorists.)
Conservatives are supposed to be heckled, not contributors to the Nation magazine like Doctorow. Or newspaper publishers. Recall Janis Heaphy, publisher of the Sacramento Bee, who had her remarks about civil liberties drowned out at the 2001 commencement at Cal State Sacramento. John Ashcroft and George Bush were threatening their rights, she told them. “Specifically, to what degree are we willing to compromise our civil liberties in the name of security?” The graduates then exercised their civil liberties so loudly Heaphy had to sit down.
These are stories of campus radicalism that won’t make it into Doctorow’s radical novels, and examples of rudeness Doctorow likes to reserve to himself.