Commencement ceremonies tend to be boring and only worth their tedium when finally over. Fortunately, for The New School’s class of 2006, this year’s commencement is one charged with controversy and ripe with protest potential –how exciting. Admittedly, inviting conservative Senator John McCain to be keynote speaker and recipient of an honorary degree from this “liberal institution” has had much in provoking the peaked interest.
Of course, perhaps all this concern is for good reason? After all, the criticisms stacked up against Senator McCain certainly seem to outweigh any “personal legacy of integrity.” Accordingly, a significant number of students, faculty, and alumni (close to 600 according to an online petition) believe John McCain is an inappropriate choice as a commencement speaker because he doesn’t represent “The New School’s progressive tradition.” What then is it about the Senator’s record that makes him such a worthy target for the consistent barbs of liberally educated progressives? Obviously, McCain’s unabashed support for the ruinous war in Iraq, his illogical pro-life stance, and out-right bigoted rejection of same-sex marriage have done much in igniting the long burning embers of social activism of this “University in Exile.”
Thankfully, students and faculty are not being as hospitable to this unwanted guest as members from the school’s administration may prefer. Two weeks ago, three-dozen protesters stood outside of The New School’s building on Fifth Avenue in hopes of drawing attention to their cause. Responding to this protest, an online petition, and various letters from concerned students and alumni; New School President (and former Senator) Bob Kerrey stood firm with his decision to have Senator McCain as speaker. Kerrey believes, “McCain is one of the greatest and most influential moral and political figures of our age.” Agreed, but does McCain’s “moral” votes in the senate truly speak to the ideals of The New School? Kerrey thinks so; he argues, McCain’s “public service accomplishments are not only entirely consistent with [The New School’s] best traditions, but [that they] far out-weigh any disagreements we may have with his views on particular issues.”
Such disagreements will (assuming he sticks to the stump speech he has already delivered to Liberty and Columbia Universities) be brought up in McCain’s address. In fact, McCain acknowledges “we contend regularly and enthusiastically over many [such] questions.” Making friendly with his critics, McCain encourages his contesters to speak up and argues, “It is necessary that even in times of crisis, especially in times of crisis, we fight among ourselves for the things we believe in. It is not just our right, but our civic and moral obligation.”
Undoubtedly, John McCain will (hopefully) face a fair share of hecklers at today’s commencement, especially when reaffirming his decision for war in Iraq. Of course, he will at the same time acknowledge “war is an awful business.” Of course, such rhetoric is expected; after all, John McCain often presents himself as not-as-bad-as other conservatives. In fact, this could be one of the main reasons Senator McCain agreed to speak at Jerry Falwell’s highly conservative Liberty University one week ahead of his appearance at The New School. McCain, like many 2008 presidential contenders, presents himself as a moderate centrist (or in his case a “maverick”). Admittedly, McCain has done commendable work; however (war supporter aside), when considering his conservative voting record, McCain fails as a “maverick” when compared alongside his fiscally conservative / socially liberal, republican colleagues (i.e. Senator Olympia Snow of Maine).
In the end, The New School vs. McCain clash is about more than the war (not that those who supported the decision shouldn’t be held accountable) but does concern—as Brooklyn Rail editor, Theodore Hamm, recently wrote—“a school trying to preserve its identity, in a city that needs to do the same.” This identity Hamm is so concerned about protecting is the social and secular values associated with a tolerant and progressive New York. McCain can try to be a “maverick”, but no amount of smoke-and-mirrors will ever hide his conservatism, which is completely at odds with the education and values students at The New School have spent a lot of time and money to acquire.
I wonder if David Harowitz is paying any attention to this debate? After all, could this be an example of a liberal bias regarding academic freedoms or just plain democracy in action? In many respects, this is less about McCain being the unwanted guest than it is about Bob Kerrey’s lack of connection with the students he, presumably, represents. Bill Clinton once described John McCain and Bob Kerrey as men who have “nothing to hide or prove.” This will not be the case for their joint appearance addressing The New School’s graduating class. Whereas Mr. Kerrey will need to somehow allay the concerns of his student body, faculty, and administration; John McCain will attempt to prove he is, apparently, not as bad as all those “other” fundamentalists.
Who knows what will happen? After all, commencement is still a couple hours away. Nevertheless, there is one thing we can be sure of; this conservative “maverick” Senator will receive “an honorary degree from The New School” and the only thing the graduating class can do about it is at least find some comfort in knowing John McCain comes from the old school and that his archaic beliefs and irrational policy decisions are going the same way as the dinosaur –soon to be extinct. Admittedly, this will be a great photo-op for McCain ’08 advertising purposes. Fortunately, there will be a New School audience there as well, who can either choose to sit there and take it, or have something to say back. I say, speak up class of 2006! You’ve earned it; the time for change is now!