Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Of Witches and Terrorists
I know I told you I was taking a break from blogging, but I couldn’t resist one last post. I hope you’ll see why.
A week ago today, my wife and I, along with thousands of others, were sitting on folding chairs in the 90-degree, muggy New York heat, watching our oldest son (and about 14,500 other students) graduate from Columbia University. After working five years, Matt had gone back to school to earn a master’s degree from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).
For someone whose only commencement experience includes his own high school graduation, the graduation of four children from Timpanogos High in Orem, and, thus far, six BYU graduations (two for me and one each for my wife and our three oldest children), I found that the Columbia graduation exercises represented a fascinating contrast. First, this was the only commencement I have attended that took place outside. The mostly grassy area between the old Low Library and the newer Butler Library was packed with humanity. And New York City, after a stretch of cool, rainy weather, decided to swelter under a heat wave for the almost three days we were there. Wednesday was 90 degrees. Thursday, the day of the SIPA graduation, was 92. But at least the university put up some large canopies on Thursday for the smaller gathering.
The second contrast was simply the tradition. Whereas BYU boasts a history of 142 years (if you count all the years BYA was nothing more than a glorified high school), Columbia turned 263 this year. It was founded in 1754.
The biggest contrast, though, was in the exercises themselves, particularly the speeches. I am used to BYU commencements, where they start with prayer and then proceed with several speakers who are carefully apolitical, usually weaving overt but general religious themes into their remarks. Of course I didn’t expect this at Columbia, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how political and how pointedly relevant to the present moment the speeches were, particularly because Columbia prides itself in its international focus, and the country we now inhabit took a decidedly nationalist turn during the last election cycle.
The processional began at 9:30 with plenty of “Pomp and Circumstance,” because it took more than a full hour for the graduates to file in. This is because even though Columbia has about 2,000 fewer students than BYU, most of them are graduate students, the majority of whom are in two-year master’s programs. So, where BYU has about 6,000 graduates at its spring commencement, Columbia has about 14,500. After everyone was finally seated, the program began with the national anthem and a few “Opening Words” by the university chaplain. Following these opening words, the university president, Lee C. Bollinger, gave the commencement address, the only address on Wednesday, and it was worth the price of admission (slowly simmering in the heat).
After a few introductory and humorous comments, Bollinger began his real message: “Because a graduation signifies such an important moment of achievement and transition in life, it leaves a deep impression on our minds. We also tend to remember vividly the events that were occurring in the world at the time. It is common to hear people say, ‘I graduated when such and such happened.’ Sometimes, what is recounted is fairly momentous; usually, less so. For those of us here today, I doubt that we will ever have trouble remembering what is happening in the world now, or the seriousness of the events coalescing in 2017.
“Just how significant a turning point in world history this will be remains to be seen. But there appears little reason to doubt that this nation and much of the broader world is at an historic juncture. Some see ominous horizons, while others see reason for hope.
“We read and hear daily (here and abroad) about the rise of populist movements, all rooted in nationalist impulses resistant to the continuation of globalization and multilateralism in its many forms—economic (e.g., trade pacts and treaties), political (e.g., the European Union), communications (e.g., the Internet), movements of people (e.g., refugees), and so on. Often this results in the embrace of authoritarian political figures. For many, this represents a foreboding reality. For others, it carries the promise of bringing discipline to growing disorder and awakening stagnant political and social systems desperately in need of fresh ways of thinking.
“I believe passionately that we need new and better ways to address the myriad challenges facing our country and the world, but, for what it’s worth, I share the first perspective—viewing these developments with profound concern.”1
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I share his concern. Bollinger mentioned several difficult issues facing the world, but also identified what he called “the emergence of, and stoking of, a state of anger and fear surrounding them.” He then touched upon what I see as a central concern: “Now, I know it is too much to expect of political discourse that it mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy; but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.” If anything characterizes the political campaign of Donald Trump, it is those two words. And his insensitivity and meanness have only increased with his ascension to the highest office in the land.
Bollinger addressed the frightening result of allowing fear to dictate our public discourse: “In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind of fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. ‘It is the function of (free) speech,’ he said, ‘to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.’ ‘Men feared witches,’ Brandeis continued, ‘and burned women.’ Today, our ‘witches’ are terrorists and Brandeis’s metaphorical ‘women’ include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners, whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.” Fear, he said, prevents us from engaging the world and dealing productively with its challenges. It often demonizes and punishes the innocent, the suffering.
“Columbia University,” he continued, “by our history, our location, and through our active and ongoing efforts, has embraced the responsibility to be an American university with an international scope—at home not just in a great, global city, but in the world.”
It occurred to me that Mormons, of all people, should share President Bollinger’s concerns. Especially since the Church has taken an official stand on the refugee crisis and is nothing if not an international entity. But too many of us are succumbing to ungrounded fears and partisan rhetoric. And in so doing, we contribute to the suffering of the innocent.
Bollinger continued his remarks by addressing “the First Amendment principles of liberty of thought and expression” and how these principles are under assault on some college campuses. “All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of what we are and do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. . . . But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses were to come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.”
Bollinger concluded by challenging the class of 2017 to “rehabilitate public discourse—a discourse that is being profoundly threatened by fear and intolerance”—by “rejecting that fear, and engaging with the world with all its complexity.”
From this point, the heat took over and pretty well numbed my brain. After numerous awards and honorary degrees were handed out, the chair of the Columbia Alumni Association welcomed the 14,500 new alumni into the ranks. Then came the “Conferring of Degrees in Course,” which meant that each of the 18 deans or presidents of the various colleges or schools came to the podium, bragged about their students, and recommended that the university president grant them their respective degrees. These little discourses would have been more entertaining in 70-degree weather, but the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism scooped the other 17 with the best one-liner of the day, claiming that his students were “the alternative to alternative facts.” In the end, more than two and a half hours after the processional started, they sang “Alma Mater,” and the chaplain offered a handful of “Closing Words.”
Then came the recessional, which provided a fun surprise. At Columbia, they don’t recess to the somber and majestic “Pomp and Circumstance.” No, they do it to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” which came off as both cheeky and splendidly appropriate. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Of course, nothing similar is even thinkable in Provo.
On Thursday, the 750 graduates of the School of International and Public Affairs held their affair, in the shade, thank goodness. The speaker for that graduation ceremony was David Milibrand, a former member of Parliament who is now president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, an organization devoted to rescuing refugees. I’ll spare you the details,2 but of course he blew giant holes in the paranoia that surrounds the refugee crisis. He also pointed out that among the 750 SIPA graduates were representatives of 78 countries, including, significantly, four of the six countries on Trump’s infamous travel ban list, even one from Syria.
All in all, it was a memorable experience. The Big Apple always is. This trip we took it a bit more leisurely, hanging out one evening in Bryant Park, catching a performance of Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre, walking the entire length of Central Park while a crazed driver plowed into crowds in Times Square, taking a tour of the impressive New York Public Library, and dropping by Wall Street and Federal Hall. All that in two and a half days, and it did actually feel leisurely, compared to our previous visits. New York City is one of my favorite cities, and having a son there gave us a good excuse to drop in three times in the last two years.
Whether we make it back probably depends on where he finds work. He’s still looking, so if any of you out there want to hire a particularly bright SIPA graduate with an emphasis in economic policy, you know where to reach me . . .
1. Lee C. Bollinger, “2017 Commencement Address: Bollinger Calls for a Public Discourse Based on Tolerance Rather than Fear,” available at https://www.facebook.com/notes/columbia-university-in-the-city-of-new-york/2017-commencement-address-bollinger-calls-for-a-public-discourse-based-on-tolera/10155071742565269/.
2. You can read them, if you want, at https://www.rescue.org/press-release/commencement-address-rt-hon-david-miliband-president-and-ceo-international-rescue.