01 May 2008

Two Black Men, Two Honorary Degrees ~ Or, How Universities Compromise Their Principles (2)

"I think everyone recognizes that Colin Powell has had a remarkable,
really extraordinary career of service to the country for more
than four decades in Vietnam, from the White House, to the
State Department. The honorary degree today recognizes that
career of public service."
~ Larry Arbeiter, University of Rochester

“Commencement at Northwestern is a time of celebration of the accomplishments of Northwestern’s graduating students and their
families. In light of the controversy around Dr. Wright and to
ensure that the celebratory character of commencement not be affected, the university has withdrawn its invitation to Dr. Wright.”
~ Alan Cubbage, Northwestern University*

I have no particular commitment to Jeremiah Wright, to his church, nor, really, to Barack Obama, the member of his church who has caused Wright so much grief lately. But I saw Wright on Bill Moyers the other evening and he seemed like a lucid, reasonable man. I did not agree with everything he said. Nor was I offended by anything he said. Indeed, I have not been offended by any of the things he has said in the various clips or sound bites the media have been pre-occupied with lately. Yesterday, Obama insisted that much of what Wright recently has said, or been accused of saying, would "rightly offend all Americans." Obama is wrong. He needs some spine on this. You can disagree with someone without taking "offense" at what they think or say. The only folks who seemingly cannot do so are ideologues, mostly of the right. And, of course, political candidates afraid to take an independent stand in the face of media manipulation.

Well, Northwestern University has rescinded an offer to award an Honorary Degree to Jeremiah Wright. They are doing so, according to the University, not because of the content of his views but because of the anticipated controversy that his presence at commence would create. In other words what the NU administraiton is worried about is the media frenzy, the possible bad appearances and not the substance of what Wright says or whether what he says accurately captures reality. In the meantime the Northwestern University Law School has invited Jerry Springer to be its primary commencement speaker this year. I will not comment on that. Instead I will point out that the controversy here has to do solely with things Wright has said, or allegedly said. Moreover, it revolves around things that he has said (or allegedly said) as a private citizen. The President at Norhtwesern and his staff, like Obama, need some spine.

A comparison might help here. Last fall my own employer, The University of Rochester, granted an honorary degree to Colin Powell [*]. Talk about a man who has not just said but done truly offensive things! As a public official he lied repeatedly about the grounds we allegedly had for invading Iraq.** As a direct result, perhaps a hundred of thousand or more men and women and children have died. Jeremiah Wright, to the best of my knowledge, has never said anything that resulted in people dying. And of course the more recent news is that Powell was among the group of high-ranking administration officials who sat around designing the "harsh interrogation" of prisoners by American military and intelligence personnel.*** Powell, of course, did not himself directly torture anyone. Neither did he have the integrity to resign or to forthrightly and publicly condemn the conversations in which Condi and Don and Dick, et. al. decided how to torture specific individuals. His behavior was and is morally repugnant and, more importantly for current purposes, clearly complicit in the violation of U.S. and International Law. Of course, there is little or no controversy surrounding Colin Powell. So, the fact that as part of his official duties Powell actively took part in activities that are egregious and abhorrent should not be troublesome at all. Since there was no controversy, granting him an honorary degree did not interfere with the "celebratory character" of our alumni events last fall.

The point of the comparison is really quite simple. We ought to look at what people do and the consequences of what they do. We should be less reactionary, try to keep our "offense" in check, and at least try to listen to the views of those with whom we disagree. That is not easy. We should worry less about "controversy" and more about substance. And we should not honor those who have participated in the abhorrent. Neither the administration at NU nor that at UofR, albeit in different ways, seem to have mastered these lessons.
* Full disclosure: My first faculty position (1989-91) was at Northwestern.
** As documented by the Center for Public Integrity, find links here.
*** Find links here and here.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

Barak better start confronting and hurling the righteous indignation at those that are attacking him, instead of those who have supported him (and who have, in turn, said and done nothing wrong). If he plans on being on the defensive the whole campaign through, we might (god forgive me) be better served by Hillary.

02 May, 2008 22:50  

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