The Magazine

Left Luggage

From the June 2, 2003 issue: Jonathan V. Last, commencement spectator.

Jun 2, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 37 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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A DARK CLOUD sat low over Smith College on graduation Sunday. The venerable women's school had inexplicably decided to celebrate its 125th commencement by inviting a controversial ideologue to speak. Naturally, the campus and community shot into action.

As guests filed into the quad for the ceremony, they were handed, along with the fancy official program, a Xeroxed leaflet put together by a group of anonymous Smithies that asked people to "Please take a few moments to read the concerns of several students and the biography provided inside to consider the suggested actions."

The speaker's biography was troubling, all right. The controversial figure was "responsible for human rights atrocities around the world" and had supported "major U.S. interventions that led to millions of innocent deaths" and now stands "accused of crimes against humanity."

It came as no surprise, then, that the speaker is affiliated with "an institution designed to legitimate foreign elections manufactured and manipulated by the U.S. State Department for corporate and private interests." Predictably, this fiend is also "a member of the Trilateral Commission."

The handbill asked audience members to show their dissatisfaction by wearing red armbands, withholding applause, and keeping their heads bowed during the commencement address. "Our aim," it explained, "is to raise awareness about the policies [the speaker] endorsed while in public office and to encourage people to reflect on what qualities are important in an appropriate commencement speaker. We do not seek to transform this event into a disruptive political protest."

During the procession, scores of graduates wore red armbands or red ribbons (so did some audience members and even one of the undergraduate ushers working the stage)--by my unscientific count, between 15 and 25 percent of the 600 or so seniors. Some went further. A particularly dour girl had not only a red armband, but a long, tortured quotation from Virginia Woolf pinned to the back of her hood. Another displayed a "No War" button.

Others held signs aloft as they filed to their seats. The most coherent one read, "I honor learning but do not respect your relentless pursuit of global empire."

When the speaker took the podium, a handful of graduates walked out. Others turned their folding chairs around and sat with their backs to the stage for the entire address. So did a number of parents and guests.

And that's when things got lively. As soon as the speaker began, a chorus of shouts and boos came from the back of the assemblage. The heckling continued until almost the seven-minute mark in the speech, when the speaker finally addressed the protesters and promised to meet with them afterwards if they would quiet down.

Mercifully, they did. The speech went on for a few more minutes--nothing terribly controversial, the standard fare about reaching for your dreams and giving back to your community. Then, as the speaker mentioned the remarkable example of the passengers of Flight 93, a man rushed the stage carrying a sign proclaiming, "Another reason why they hate us."

Police officers quickly surrounded him and escorted him out. A few moments later, another protester made a break for the stage wearing a gigantic papier-mâché mask that someone told me looked like a caricature of the speaker featuring a giant hooknose. Five cops rushed to intercept the papier-mâché kid and wrangle him or her out of the quad.

By then the screams and catcalls had returned. One more protester was surrounded by police, after which it was relatively smooth sailing for the final few paragraphs of the speech.

In case you're wondering, the beleaguered speaker was Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.

In the end, it was perhaps unreasonable to expect Smithies to endure a merely mainstream liberal. They just aren't used to it. In recent years the college has chosen graduation speakers almost exclusively from the ranks of the far left--Lani Guinier, Toni Morrison, Judy Chicago, Marian Wright Edelman, Anna Quindlen. Gloria Steinem has received the honor twice. (Oh, to have been in Northampton when Elizabeth Dole came to campus in 1998!)

It should be said that most of those present were respectful of Albright. They applauded politely and paid as much attention as can be expected during a long ceremony involving hundreds of children who don't belong to you. And maybe it's a sign of my own provincialism that I didn't even realize that there was a serious--that is, impassioned--critique of Albright from the left.

Live and learn.

--Jonathan V. Last