Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hampshire College Commencement: Texts and Subtexts, Diplomas and the Dreyfus Affair

Commencement this year was a somewhat strange affair: in some ways, one of the best and most gratifying; in others, one of the stranger, though not quite as actively contentious as some of its predecessors.

Ironically, the date was the anniversary of the occasion on which, in 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner senseless in the chambers of the United States Capitol. More on that in a moment, but back to the present.

Upon arriving on campus, the first thing I did was to check the flags. You may be surprised. My reader will recall, however, my curiosity last May. On festive occasions, we place the flags of the United Nations around the perimeter of the grassy circle at the center of campus, with the UN flag itself front-and-center, facing the main drive. Last year, the flags of the United States and Israel flew next to it.

Commencement 2009

I wondered whether that was some sort of political message in response to mendacious reports that the College had divested itself of investments in or associated with Israel (1, 2, 3).  This year, the latter two banners were nowhere near the front.

Commencement 2010

Was this significant? Who knows? It was different, and I think that confirms my suspicions of last May. Still, without at least further circumstantial evidence, the historian must rest content with judicious speculation rather than leap to definitive conclusions. In any case, it’s what went on beneath the big tent beyond the flags that had everyone speculating this year.

In his Presidential address, Ralph Hexter touched on numerous issues of social justice and political engagement, from the financial meltdown to Iranian student protests and health care, and ended with the Dreyfus Affair. One could not avoid the feeling that he wanted to say much more than he could express under the circumstances and in the time allotted. Some listeners expressed puzzlement afterwards, and they may be forgiven for not having followed everything.

To begin with, there was, as always in his wide-ranging speeches, a lot to keep track of. Above all, though, those of us who work here could not help but wonder about possible subtexts. Smoldering tensions between administration and faculty had flared up in the course of the past year. Just a few weeks ago, a new brushfire—sparked by the ineptitude of the administration but opportunistically fanned by various parties—broke out.  The tone of conversation has become unrelentingly confrontational.  (1, 2, 3, 4 )  It's not my task to go into all this here, but suffice it to say:  Above and beyond disagreements over concrete policies, this is really a struggle over power and a clash of cultures or values, exacerbated by dysfunctional communication patterns on all sides. The real tragedy is the absence of mutual understanding and resultant breakdown of trust. In addition, the resentments arising from past conflicts such as last year’s failed anti-Israel divestment campaign remained, like the BP oil plume, toxic and submerged, but slowly spreading a contamination that eventually works its way to the surface. (1, 2, 3)  Only in this context, I think, can we attempt to make full sense of the President's remarks.

When he began with the understated observation, “This year has had its challenges,” we here could not help but think of the ongoing campus tensions as well as the larger financial crisis that had exacerbated them, one in which, as he put it, big corporations are “made whole” while ordinary people struggle to survive. Citing additional crisis moments around the world, he noted that “peace and quiet” is not the same as “peace and justice,” which we are duty-bound to pursue (some student murmurs).  Referring to the enduring and visceral opposition to President Obama and his policies—among the panoply of antagonists from racists to “Nirthers” and “Teabaggers” (though he didn’t call them that)—he condemned above all “the politics of no,” whose dogmatism and reliance on false assumptions, distortions, innuendo, and lies make both agreement and civil disagreement impossible.

The solution? “I often turn to history. No, I’m not going to go back to the Classics or go medieval on you,” he assured his audience. “My talk is long, time is short (what else is new?).” But, he continued, he would urge students likewise to turn to history: specifically, the notorious Dreyfus Affair, in which the unfounded accusations of treason against a Jewish staff officer in late 19th-century France unleashed both political scandal and a wave of antisemitism, and split the nation. In the concluding, most avuncular portion of his talk, he enumerated some key features of the Affair and their continuing relevance: “Once the narrative had been launched, it took on a life of its own: Prejudices were only confirmed.” Study the partisanship and corruption of that era, and “You’ll find yourself unsurprised by anything occurring on our political stage today.” Holding up writer Emile Zola and socialist leader Jean Jaurès as role models (actually, it took Jaurès 4 years to convince himself of Dreyfus's innocence; though he later became a passionate advocate), he declared, “Political and judicial reform starts from the revelations of injustice,” and praised students who “vigorously champion the cause of those who are downtrodden” (at which point a student help up a protest sign; no good deed goes unpunished). His closing point was a call to pursue principle while preserving civility and group loyalty: “Remember that we are all, despite moments of disagreement, even passionate disagreement, one community.” As most of the audience applauded a final commendation of the graduates, a group of students held up protest signs calling for more democracy on campus.

It was in many ways a strange moment: a potentially profound call to conscience that was perhaps not fully articulated and in many cases would anyway have fallen on deaf ears. Even many faculty expressed puzzlement: “What was he trying to say?” “Does he think he’s Dreyfus?” Well, of course not (and neither is Obama), or at any rate, it’s not that simple. A good lecture means what it says and is in addition capable of bearing multiple deeper or other meanings; it’s not a question of either/or. Although some of the links between topics and allusions could have been clarified, the meaning was not mysterious to me: The theme was the dual responsibility of intellectuals (and citizens): the need to pursue the call of one’s conscience without rupturing the bonds of decency and community.  It makes no sense for left-wingers to criticize the Tea Party movement if they apply the same destructive politics and tactics in the name of the cause they hold dear. In fact, the address largely echoed President Obama's call (I think they call that an "hommage") for both social engagement and civility, at the University of Michigan Commencement a few weeks earlier.

Seen in that light, the addition of the Dreyfus Affair is all the more significant.  Given today’s historical anniversary, Ralph  could easily have chosen the example of Charles Sumner to make his point about political courage and the degradation of political discourse. After all, the example is closer to us and would have tied in to his comments about racial prejudice directed against President Obama. As the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities tells us: 1856, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, viciously attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate. Three days earlier, in a passionate anti-slavery speech, Sumner had used language southerners found deeply offensive. Rather than challenge Sumner to a duel, as he would have a gentleman, Brooks beat him with a cane. It was three-and-a-half years before Charles Sumner was well enough to return to the Senate. Although he never fully recovered from the assault, he served another 15 years. An abolitionist who not only opposed slavery but advocated equal rights for African Americans, Charles Sumner was remembered as a man who marched "ahead of his followers when they were afraid to follow."
To be sure, the Dreyfus case is the more famous, and it has a lot to do with and say to intellectuals. Indeed, “the Affair” arguably marked the point at which intellectuals as a class established their claim to a leading role in modern European political discourse. Still I think there was another reason for that choice: It was, after all, about antisemitism. President Hexter quoted an opponent of Dreyfus to the effect that “the pride and ignominy of his race” confirmed his guilt. Hexter likewise declared that “the most heartbreaking symbolic moment was the public degradation of Alfred Dreyfus,” when the former Captain was humiliatingly stripped of rank. (see the image at the top of the page) He called attention to the fact that “one of the great episodes of modern antisemitism” had practical consequences: “there were riots and pogroms, with Jews killed and injured.”

I think there’s still more. The Dreyfus Affair serves as a reminder that, as a left-wing colleague in vain attempted to explain to a hostile crowd of anti-Israel students at a recent event, antisemitism provided the template for all other modern European racisms. There are lessons for everyone here. Still, we should not allow the universal to erase the particular. One cannot dismiss antisemitism as now somehow less important than other forms of hatred, much less, a figment of the paranoid imagination or tool of “Zionism.” Some recent episodes here have made it clear that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate anti-Israel attitudes and antisemitism on this campus as on others, and the administration has taken note. (I’ll leave it at that for now.) To choose the Dreyfus Affair as the epitome of the dangers of bigotry and dishonesty was therefore to send a salutary warning to the campus community about not just the evils of prejudice and the power of conscience, but also the poison of incivility and the danger of intolerance masquerading as iconoclasm and populism.

The only puzzling thing about the student address by Daniel Scheer (06F) was that it garnered extensive applause. Because the content touches more directly on issues especially germane to the concerns of this blog, I’ll address it in a separate post (to follow shortly). In a nutshell, though: As if inadvertently to confirm Hexter’s point, Scheer’s talk was a rather heavy-handed, moralistic, and self-righteous summation of his “love-hate’ relationship to the College, which he described as “white, wealthy, and apolitcal” and a “hotbed of institutionalized racism” with a “corporate and two-faced” administration. The culmination was an encomium of the unsuccessful efforts by Students for Justice in Palestine to divest from the Israeli “occupation of Palestine” last year. (Have they finally admitted failure?!)

Fortunately, the keynote address by alumnus Peter Cole (77F), acclaimed poet, translator, and MacArthur Prize recipient, returned the proceedings to a more elevated plane in every sense. Rather than attempt to summarize, I’ll let you read it for yourselves. In essence, however, this talk on the theme of “Radical Convention” was, like Hexter’s address, a call to acknowledge complexity. Riffing on the word, “weird,” which, as he pointed out, traditionally had to do with the notion of destiny rather than strangeness, he meditated on what fate had brought him to an experimenting college in the first place and its commencement today. The message had to do with true nature of radicalism and convention. As he pointed out, to accept conventions is not to resign oneself to being conventional. We all operate within conventions—in our social interactions, in work, in art. They’re a fact of life, but, at their best, they provide a framework or container within which to experiment:
Do not despise these small things, says Zechariah (chapter 4, verse 10). Recognize them, respect them and the need for them, but most important, re-imagine and re-conceive them—incessantly—and keep your altering eye on the altering prize: not the trappings of innovation and identity, not the posture of a certain politics, and not the experimental manner, but its abiding ethos, which calls for approaching the unknown with courage and rigor, and a compassion born of a deep-seated sense and perception of relation.
The concluding portion of his talk begins with his translation of a poem by one of the great Hebrew poets of Muslim-ruled Spain, Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-c. 1058):

It was one of the richest, most profound, and most satisfying commencement talks I have heard here—not that, truth be told, there were many competitors. (And, admittedly, it’s a pretty miserable genre in any case, whether at Hampshire or Harvard.) Talks by “activists,” whether nonentities or celebrities, have tended to fall flat: hectoring, or banal, or both. Can’t remember most others. It was refreshing to hear a talk of some weight by a man of letters who assumes that his listeners have an intellect, and who therefore wants to challenge rather than merely coddle and flatter them. You’d think that would be the norm rather than the exception in academic life. (You’d be wrong.)

Ironically, one of the best other commencement talks here was by someone far removed from academe (not to mention, medieval poetry): comedian Jane Curtin, who over two decades ago spoke right after the death of her close friend, Gilda Radner: the appropriate rhetorical humility, a little humor, a little wisdom, a lot of humanity—in short, the epitome of what one needs in both education and life.

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Updates since I wrote this:

• On May 24, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times posted his thoughts on "The Best Commencement Speeches Ever"
• Hampshire College has now posted the full video of Peter Cole's talk and the text of President Hexter's remarks


Richard said...

Thank you Jim for this incredibly evocative description of the proceedings and all the issues swirling around them. On of the things I miss most about college is despite the often hothouse environment, the stimulating sense that history is alive in our contemporary issues and struggles, the ability to see the direct line from Charles Sumner or the Dreyfus Affair to the quarrels of today.

Richard said...

And despite the issues with the student speaker's remarks, which you so rightly and aptly detail, rather inspiring to hear a cheer go up when he mentions Hannah Arendt. Does she have a big cult following these days? Out here in LA, dont get to too many gatherings where the arendt name would produce anything more than blank stares...

And may I also recommend the following piece by the great Stephen Fry on civility in politics.