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The Silencing of Dissent on Graduation Day

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Chris Hedges talks about the Rockford College graduation address that got him booed off stage.
 
 
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Transcript of May 21, 2003 interview on the national listener-sponsored radio and television show "Democracy Now!"

"Speaker disrupts RC graduation" -- this is the headline in the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. The article describes how commencement speaker Chris Hedges was booed off the stage for making an anti-war speech at the Rockford College graduation on Saturday. The paper reports that two days later, graduates and family members are "still reeling." They had envisioned a "go out and make your mark send-off." Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and veteran war correspondent who has reported from war-torn countries for 15 years. He is also the author of the acclaimed "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning."

But Rockford College officials pulled the plug on his microphone three minutes after he began to speak. The college president told Hedges to wrap it up, and he resumed his speech to the sound of boos and foghorns. Some graduates and audience members turned their backs to Hedges. Others rushed up the aisle to protest the remarks; one student tossed his cap and gown to the stage before leaving.

Chris Hedges joined Democracy Now! in our studio on May 21, 2003 to speak with host Amy Goodman about what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Just tell us what happened this weekend. Why did you go to Rockford College in Illinois?

CHRIS HEDGES: I was invited to give the commencement address. Given that the book is an explication of war and the poison that war is and what it does to individuals and societies and that since the book came out I have spoken extensively about that, that is, of course, what I was prepared to speak about when I got to Rockford. What I was not prepared for was the response. I have certainly spoken at events where people disagreed -- that is to be expected. But to be silenced and to have people clamber onto the platform with the threat of physical violence was something new, and frightening.

Did the police actually have to take you off?

People had to be escorted. I was trying to read the speech so I wasn't sort of watching what was going around me but I believe about three students managed to get on the platform, they had to be escorted off. And then as the diplomas were being handed out, campus security took me off campus. I left before the graduation ceremony was concluded.

And what was the response of other officials on the stage?

I think all of us were surprised at how vociferous the reaction was and how angry people were. It began almost before I said anything and I think you'll hear that in the tape. I really didn't manage to get much out before significant sectors of the crowd began to drown me out and made it very hard for anyone, I think, in the audience to hear what I was saying. So I really didn't have much of a chance to say anything.

You decided to continue the speech though, from beginning to end.

The speech was longer than it was, it should have been a little longer, it was cut short. But I was determined not to let them determine when I would finish speaking and I think the college president felt the same way. At the same time he didn't want it to go on for another hour. But he didn't want to let the crowd determine that it was over, but I didn't finish, no.

The mic was pulled twice? Was cut off?

Right.

Who cut it?

I don't know. I don't know who cut it. It was probably cut at the source because I didn't see any activity around the podium.

We're talking to Chris Hedges, we're going to go to break. When we come back we'll hear the address that he gave at the graduation of Rockford College students this past weekend.

BROADCAST OF CHRIS HEDGES SPEECH...

I'm Amy Goodman with Chris Hedges, the commencement speaker at the Rockford College graduation this past Saturday in Illinois. I'm looking at the Rockford Register Star, the latest report out of there, as it says: "The Rockford College family debated what went wrong at its Spring graduation ceremony that featured New York Times reporter and anti-war advocate Chris Hedges. When do people listen to ideas? When do people think critically and disagree? When do people sit respectfully and is there a time for civility to be lost? These and more questions discussed at a meeting on the campus, the Alma Mater of Jane Addams. Students, faculty and staff didn't reach a consensus, but college President Paul Pribbenow maintains students should be challenged by commencement speakers. He said, 'commencement is one of the last moments you have with students. I want commencement to be more than just a pop speech.' Well, Chris Hedges, you went to Jane Addams' school, to Rockford College. Who was Jane Addams?

Well, she was one of the great moral and intellectual figures of the 20th Century. She founded Hull House, which was for immigrants -- this was sort of before the state got involved in social welfare and she did amazing things like gather immigrants at Hull House -- they produced the first production of Sophocles' Ajax. She was just a remarkable figure, a remarkable intellect and a pacifist who won the Nobel Prize for Peace and spoke out against World War I, against American entry into the war and she was booed off the stage, for instance, at Carnegie Hall. So all I knew about Rockford College was this titanic figure in American intellectual thought and one of the great sort of, moral leaders of our country. So, to be shouted down at her Alma Mater -- there's a very sad kind of irony to that, of course.

So you were taken off by security?

Well yeah. I think what was so disturbing was that the crowd wasn't just angry, but there was that undercurrent or possibility of violence. The fact that people actually stormed up past those to get onto the podium and there was a feeling that it was better to have me removed from the ceremony before the conclusion, before the awarding of the diplomas. So the campus security sort of hustled me out as they were handing out the diplomas.

I wonder if Jane Addams was treated in the same way when she was booed off the stage. Jane Addams who, in addition to be the founder of Hull House in Chicago, was the first international President of WILPF, the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yeah, she was a great figure and if I take any comfort it's that she would have not only understood but I believe probably applauded.

And so, let's talk about the conclusions you've arrived at that you've shared with the students. Did anyone come up to you afterwards to talk about why they had responded and did you have a sense that it was a majority or just a vocal minority?

I don't think it was a majority, but it was a significant minority, I mean, large enough that they disrupted the commencement exercises. No, no one could really ... a few people or two, I believe it was all sort of a rush, as I was escorted to leave I think two students just came up to me to say thank you. But I wasn't really able to talk to students afterwards.

Which you had originally planned to do?

Yes. I certainly didn't plan to leave immediately.

You are the author of "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning." You have reported from many war zones, you've been in Guatemala, you've been in El Salvador, you've been in Bosnia, you were in the Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, you were held by Iraqi Republican Guard. Can you talk about some of those experiences?

You know, as I looked out on the crowd, that is exactly what my book is about. It is about the suspension of individual conscience, and probably consciousness, for the contagion of the crowd for that euphoria that comes with patriotism. The tragedy is that -- and I've seen it in conflict after conflict or society after society that plunges into war -- with that kind of rabid nationalism comes racism and intolerance and a dehumanization of the other. And it's an emotional response. People find a kind of ecstasy, a kind of belonging, a kind of obliteration of their alienation in that patriotic fervor that always does come in war time.

As I gave my talk and I looked out on the crowd, I was essentially witnessing things that I had witnessed in the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina or in squares in Belgrade or anywhere else. Crowds, especially crowds that become hunting packs are very frightening. People chanted the kind of cliches and aphorisms and jingoes that are handed to you by the state. "God Bless America" or people were chanting "send him to France" -- this kind of stuff and that kind of contagion leads ultimately to tyranny, it's very dangerous and it has to be stopped.

I've seen it in effect and take over countries. But of course, it breaks my heart when I see it in my country. That's essentially what I was looking at was in some ways a mirror of what I was trying to speak about. And I think I managed to touch upon it somewhat when I talked upon this notion of comradeship as a suppression of self awareness and self-possession to sort of follow along, locked in the embrace of a nation, or of a group, or of a national group unthinkingly, blindly. And there is a kind of undeniable euphoria in that. And that's what I was looking at.

I mean this was a visceral and an emotional reaction. Nobody really spent much time, or I didn't have much time to begin to explain the thoughts that I was getting across. And, of course, it was interpreted as anti-military which it is not. I mean, what I write about in the book and what I speak about is about war: how war is used as an instrument, the danger of war, why war should always be a last resort. What happens when we wage war without justifiable cause. What happens to ourselves? What happens to others? I mean this is the currency of the book and something I'm sort of ringing the alarm bells against. And there was a kind of symbiotic relationship between everything that I've experienced and everything that was happening in that crowd.

What has been the response of your newspaper, The New York Times?

Well, they're looking into whether I breached the protocol in terms of my very pointed statements about the Iraqi War. I mean, that's something that makes them uncomfortable. I don't think they have a problem with the book, because the book talks more generically about what war does to societies although it certainly does mention what it has done to us since 9/11. So that's something that they're looking at.

What pressures do you face? The New York Times, in their reporting of the invasion, like many other papers you don't have to single them out, including television news, are very much beating the drums for war. You take a very different stance.

Well up until now, I haven't faced any pressure at all and I have spoken before. But because of the anger that this talk elicited, I think there's been more attention to the kinds of things that I've said. So one of the pressures I face is the proliferation of hate phone calls and hate emails. Which I had had periodically, but of course now I have daily.

We'll continue to follow what happens in this. The right-wing media has certainly picked this up.

Right.

What's happening? Are you getting a lot of calls?

Yeah, well I don't do trash talk radio. I didn't before and I'm not going to start now. And since I don't own a television I'm sort of spared being inflicted with this stuff.

And you've written a new book?

Yes I have. It's called "What Every Person Should Know About War." It's really in some ways geared towards those 17- and 18-year-old kids who believe the myth of war. I think both books are an attempt to demythologize war and explain war as it is. The army has studies at length what war does to individuals, how to create more efficient killers and it goes through and answers a lot of those questions, that if they get asked, often don't get answered.

The text of Chris Hedges' commencement address can be found at the Rockford Register.