Ah, May, when flowers are blooming, allergens are wafting and aggrieved college students are mewling about commencement speakers whose politics don’t sufficiently hew to the ultra-liberal standards set by the campuses’ most outspoken activists.
This year some of the loudest cries are coming from Los Angeles’ own backyard. Scripps, the all-women liberal arts college in Claremont, Calif., has secured former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as its commencement speaker on Saturday. From a practical perspective, the booking is quite a coup, considering that Scripps pays next to nothing and the wrangling is done not by the administration but by the students. Nevertheless, members of the Scripps community responded as if Joseph Goebbels had been raised from the dead and charged with the task of inspiring the class of 2016 to follow its dreams.
According to some students, Albright, who served under President Bill Clinton and was the nation’s first female secretary of state, is a war criminal because of decisions she was involved in regarding Iraq sanctions and the genocide in Rwanda. Many haven’t gotten over Albright’s now notorious statement, made during the whipped-up frenzy of a Hillary Clinton campaign stop and widely attacked as an outrage by Bernie Sanders’ female fans, that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Albright published a New York Times op-ed not only apologizing for that remark but also contextualizing it in a way that underscored her clear commitment to gender equality.
This either failed to impress or escaped the notice of an op-ed writer in the March 4 Scripps student newspaper, who boiled Albright’s legacy down to “repeated genocide enabler” and a few similar social-media talking points.
“I admit,” the student wrote, “I didn’t know much about Secretary Albright until she told the world there’s a ‘special place in hell’ for women who aren’t voting for Hillary Clinton and the whispers of her being our commencement speaker erupted all over Facebook. It did not take me long to decide that this was not the person I want to listen to on my graduation day, and she is certainly not the person I want any of my classmates — or, God forbid, my little sister — to model their lives after.”
Is there a speaker alive that every member of a graduating class (plus their little sisters) will want to model their lives after? Certainly no one in politics or business, where compromise and even collateral damage come with the territory, would fit the bill. Most creative types would fail the test, too, because no artistic expression worth its salt pleases everyone.
When you’re 22 years old, it can be all too easy to attempt to divide the world neatly into categories: heroes versus adversaries, the virtuous versus the problematic (to use the self-righteous set’s word du jour). Adults, on the other hand, should understand human complexity. That’s why the real enablers here are the Scripps faculty members who’ve joined in the pile-on.
In an open letter published April 8 in the same student paper, 28 professors pledged to boycott the graduation ceremony, citing Albright’s hell comment and her support of “several policies that led to the deaths of millions of people.” Albright’s selection as a women’s role model, they said, “evacuates feminism of its anti-racist, anti-paternalistic and anti-imperialist potential to address those lives that are systematically made vulnerable to illness and death.”
Lately, not a day goes by without the media pouncing on some example of campus outrage masquerading as social justice activism — remember the culturally insensitive Halloween costumes at Yale and the racist undertones of inexpertly prepared sushi at Oberlin College? Most often, the adults implicated in the foolishness are the parents whose coddling created a generation of thin-skinned kids.
But what about the adults right there on campus? What about the ones who are paid to explain what F. Scott Fitzgerald was talking about when he said “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Recognizing that a commencement speaker can be less than perfect and still have something to say seems like a pretty basic example of such functioning. But if professors are just as impaired on this front as their students, that’s not just “problematic” — it’s an actual problem. As President Barack Obama said last weekend in a commencement speech at Howard University that came down hard on identity politics, “Change requires more than just speaking out … it requires listening to those with whom you disagree.”
That’s because a world where students don’t learn how to hold opposing views will be its own special hell. Albeit with a lively Facebook feed.
Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may email her at email@example.com.