“I think that Birgeneau, in turn, responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.”
—— William G. Bowen, former Princeton President and last-minute substitute 2014 Commencement speaker at Haverford College. Bowen’s predecessor as Haverford’s designated graduation VIP, former Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, had withdrawn in response to Haverford student protests that he had been too tough on the Occupy Berkeley protesters.
Yes, bravo. Many pundits have commented on the epidemic of anti-free expression attitudes on campus, as various groups on campuses across the country have effectively vetoed speakers at Commencements and other forums that threatened to disturb their unshakeable belief in the infallibility of their judgment and analysis of the world before their 22n’t birthday. Yes, students are arrogant, immature, intolerant, easily misled and often ridiculous; we knew that. Thus it is up to the adults to set them straight and teach them some useful life lessons. One such lesson should be to refuse to back down in the face of criticism and opposition just because it will require character, fortitude and courage to do what you have every right to do.
Birgeneau, who withdrew as Haverford’s speaker after Haverford students insisted that he issue a prisoner of war-style admission of wrongful acts before he spoke, was a weenie. He is not alone. Condoleezza Rice refused to face down Rutgers protesters who objected to her involvement in the Iraq war, so she withdrew as that school’s speaker. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde did the same at Smith, in response to stereotypical student petition protesting the IMF’s “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”
Bowen is not a weenie. Taking the role of dispenser of wisdom to the newly minted Haverford grads, he told them off:
“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of demands. In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments….I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford — no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”
Speech policing, censorship, punishing thought-crimes and political correctness bullying and the stifling of dissent are becoming common and accepted tools of ideological domination by, of all people, liberals. These un-American tactics can only be opposed effectively by men, women and organizations possessing character and courage. We have recently seen little of either of these qualities, especially from the worst offenders, corporations that instantly jettison any high-visibility employee who dares to upset an activist mob with unfashionable political or social views.
Birgeneua, an educator, had an opportunity to teach; instead, he ran. That response teaches too: in one respect, it teaches capitulation and conflict avoidance as the path of least pain and resistance, a false lesson that our current leadership in Washington appears to have embraced completely. On the other hand, it teaches those who despise a free exchange of ideas, and who deride not just non-conforming positions but the virtue of all who hold them, that coercion works.
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