Young: A little campus outrage
May 21, 2014
The first thing that occurs to an observer is that this is a mismatch in weight classes. The big-gutted officers fit in the sumo category. The college students? They fit in the stringy category.
Stringy but strong-willed, they stand tall — even as they get riot-batoned in their torsos, cuffed and dragged away.
As troubling as the video is — YouTube it yourself — it is very encouraging, because this is not Berkeley in 1968. It's 2011.
The protest? In this case it is about budget cuts' effect on the university.
Every time students peacefully demonstrate out of civic concern, we should applaud it.
Every time students peacefully demonstrate out of civic concern, we should applaud it. Under then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, riot police and batons are how Cal-Berkeley handled it.
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Oddly, now it is Birgeneau's free-speech rights on which we are asked to focus.
Haverford College invited him to address its 2014 commencement. Some students and faculty strenuously brought up the 2011 treatment of the Cal students. Birgeneau withdrew as speaker.
Horrors, said those who denounced the "political correctness" behind such a blowback and that resulted in, among others, Condoleezza Rice's withdrawing from speaking at Rutgers' commencement.
Horrors? I say the horror is when students aren't paying attention.
After all, Rutgers' grads were mere gradeschoolers when Rice's "mushroom cloud" warnings helped frighten a nation into eviscerating Iraq.
Admittedly, these same students were entering college before our fighting forces finally left that shattered land. So, their memory is either short or long. Regardless, it's encouraging that they remember.
Not surprisingly, these unsettling discourtesies ("Ms. Rice is an international scholar and diplomat") are trotted out as political correctness run amok. Sorry, but whenever the term "PC" is employed, it is generally a lie.
For much of the previous decade, the true definition of political correctness was to click heels, wear flag pins and salute the "war on terror" (though Iraq had nothing to do with the terror that precipitated its invasion).
In Bloomberg News, Yale University's Stephen Carter writes that the pushback against these speakers is one against discourse itself. "Congratulations," he says to the offending graduates, "for bringing back the Middle Ages."
I'm wondering what country or century Carter thought this was when, with dissent as absent as any evidence of Condoleezza Rice's claims, we rolled our catapults into Iraq.
But back to free speech.
It's an odd rejoinder when someone like Rice or L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling takes enormous heat for public utterances. (Yes, we know Sterling first expressed his bigotry privately; then Anderson Cooper allowed him to make it globally via satellite.)
PC! Free speech! What about their rights?
Excuse me, but what are the Rutgers and Haverford students exercising? What are the NBA players and former Clippers sponsors exercising?
Yes, their free speech.
In a culture governed by the buck, it is as if free speech is only for people of privilege. In that environment, free speech really isn't free — say for skinny college students on an ivy-covered college campus. It's proprietary.
Commencement is a personal rite. Why shouldn't students be concerned about the person getting the last word on their education?
Yes, indeed, people like Rice, Birgeneau and Sterling should be able to speak. But in a society based on the discourse that Stephen Carter says has been compromised, those powerful should expect to hear protests when their names are summoned. If they don't, that means people weren't paying attention to what they did. If they don't hear protests, this isn't the Middle Ages; this is North Korea.
We should have saluted, not hit with riot weapons, the Cal-Berkeley students who cared enough about funding their school to put their hides on the line. Too many of their peers are lost in a smartphone haze of apathy and atrophy. The media that inform them do not inform. For too many, the values that matter are on the drive-thru menu.
Rather than bemoan displays of long-missing campus outrage, let me be among the first to welcome it back.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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