Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The pitfalls of selective outrage

There's not much political news this morning -- aside from a report that Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut wants to run for president, thus making him roughly the 500th senator to look in the mirror and glimpse glory -- so let's take a moment to dwell on the weekend kerfuffle at the New School university in Manhattan. It seems that conservative pundits are outraged by the rough treatment (in the form of booing and heckling) that graduating students meted out to commencement speaker John McCain.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is ground zero for conservative punditry, blamed the rudeness on "the peculiar rage" and "mere Manhattan derangement" of "the angry left." Catcalls aside, the Journal was particularly incensed that a graduating senior speaker tossed aside her prepared text and said this, in the presence of the hawkish senator who supported the decision to launch a war with Iraq: "Osama bin Laden still has not been found, nor have those weapons of mass destruction." (To the Journal editorial page, that kind of observation qualifies as "derangement.")
And Rich Lowry at the National Review weighs in today, calling the rude students "spoiled brats...flagrantly tatooed and pierced left-wingers."

On a point of principle, I have no problem with the conservatives' complaint, because, as a First Amendment absolutist, I tend to think that all speakers of all persuasions should be free to enter the marketplace of ideas without being censored or shouted down. As a college student way back in the last century I saw students on the radical left assail and obstruct speakers who sought to defend the war in Vietnam. That kind of behavior seems undemocratic, no matter who is perpetrating it.

But here's the problem: The conservatives apparently have a double standard. They are outraged about how McCain was treated, but seem to have overlooked a similar incident last week, at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, involving conservative students who heckled their commencement speaker -- an antiwar Democratic congressman.

A conservative website recounted the incident without apology: Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay spent a few minutes talking about failures in Iraq, whereupon, according to eyewitness accounts provided to the website, "people began to boo and yell...(H)e had to stop three times during his talk because the boos from the crowd had drowned him out!...Lacy Clay needed security to escort him friom the building..."

I don't see the Journal talking about "the angry right," or Lowry reducing these students to a stereotype and dismissing them as, say, "flagrantly cornfed and applecheeked right-wingers." And the website that applauded the heckling of Clay has also been untroubled by similar treatment meted out to Democratic congressman and war critic John Murtha. Their basic defense of that kind of heckling is that the students were justifably provoked.

First Amendment lawyer and blogger Glenn Greenwald frames the double standard this way: "So, to re-cap the rules: (1) When a pro-war politician gives a pro-war speech as part of a graduation ceremony, and students in the audience heckle and boo him, that shows how Deranged the Angry Left is -- because they heckled a pro-war speech. (2) When an anti-war politician gives an anti-war speech as part of a graduation ceremony, and students in the audience heckle, walk out and even riot, that also shows how Angry the Left is -- because they 'provoked a near riot' by pro-war students."

There is an imperfect solution to these commencement contretempts: Maybe colleges should just stop inviting politicians -- of either party -- since they generally tend to use the occasion to stump for themselves anyway (as evidenced by the fact that their transcripted remarks all wind up as emails to people like me). It's not as if they don't have plenty of other outlets in the marketplace of ideas.

But since that isn't likely to happen, and since students in this politically polarized era won't sit silent, it might be best for the ideologues -- on either side -- to avoid the intellectually dishonest practice of selective outrage.