- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

Freedom of speech is like a plate of red beans and rice. Some people prefer ham hocks in the beans, and some people don’t.

Chris Hedges, a colossal jerk who is a reporter at the New York Times (naturally), was booed off the stage when he ruined the commencement at Rockford College in Illinois with a rant against his country.

The reaction to his rant naturally set off an explosion of pieties from the sophisticates whose delicate palates can’t accommodate ham hocks. Alarms were raised about freedom of speech, the right to be heard, the decline of civility, the rupture of good manners, the assault on academic freedom and all the other good stuff that makes America the land of the free and the home of the terminally indulgent.

Mr. Hedges, who apparently “went native” during his tenure as the New York Times correspondent in Cairo, used his commencement speech (for which he was paid $5,000) to denounce America, George W. Bush, the war in Iraq, and just about everybody in the West. Except, of course, himself, whom he admires extravagantly.

America, he told the graduates and their families, is about tyranny and empire, and the men and women who cheerfully lay down their lives for their country are merely saps. “War, in the end,” he said, “is always about betrayal. Betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, and idealists by cynics.”

He loves our soldiers, of course, but hates them for winning the war in Iraq, and besides, they’re all just farm boys “from Mississippi and Alabama and Texas” who took up their country’s colors only because they couldn’t get jobs anywhere else.

Paul Pribbenow, the president of the college, should have been proud of the feisty response from his students and their eagerness to speak their piece. Instead he got himself worked up over the affront to academic freedom. “It’s important to go on the record that it’s inappropriate behavior.”

Nobody defended the rights of the robust folk who like their beans with ham hocks. Booing, catcalling and even the blowing of air horns, after all, is one of the great American traditions. Nobody punched anybody in the nose, however deserving someone may have been. Why are boos and catcalls at the ballpark, at a political rally or even at a meeting of the City Council perfectly all right but not on a college campus? Are the professors and the speakers they invite to campus men, or mice?

Why is it “inappropriate” to jeer at a pompous and arrogant airhead who ruins the biggest day in the lives of the graduates and their families, many of whom scrimped and sacrificed to pay the monstrous costs of educating their sons and daughters, but not “inappropriate” to spoil a once-in-a-lifetime occasion?

President Pribbenow said what you would expect the college president to say, that the school takes no political stance, and the job of the college is to demonstrate its commitment to learning by listening to “other viewpoints.”

He doesn’t mean a word of it, of course. He would never invite the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan or the Exalted Screwball of the Skinheads of America to speak to the students. If he did, the jeers would (we can all hope) rattle windows in Chicago.

Chris Hedges, for his part, is hardly the straight-shooting war correspondent he pretends to be. What he is is an apologist for Palestinian terrorists, with a long paper trail of disinformation, misinformation and misrepresentation. Jayson Blair is not the only reporter at the New York Times guilty of dereliction of duty.

Mr. Hedges, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School (which tells an inquiring mind a lot) first went native in language school, learning Arabic, before his first posting to Jerusalem. “My teacher, an Egyptian,” he writes, “used to write on the board phrases such as ‘the Arabs are good. The Jews are bad.’ … Arabic is a delicate and beautiful construct. The language is poetic, magical ….”

He’s entitled to look for poetry and magic where he pleases, and Rockford College is entitled to pay him to harangue its students with his bigotries. But this season in particular has been tough on commencement speakers. Phil Donahue was booed. So was George W. Bush. Two Roman Catholic bishops, citing faithfulness to their church’s teachings against abortion, refused to appear at Holy Cross College if the college insisted on inviting Chris Matthews, a Catholic who advocates a right to abortion (and is mildly famous for shouting down his “Hardball” guests).

Rude, but fair enough. There’s nothing in the Constitution, not even a stray penumbra, to guarantee a speaker that his audience will like what he says or prevent the audience from rewarding him with the boo of the month. That’s “the delicate and beautiful construct” of life on the fruited plain. Long live its purple-mounted majesties — one of which is the Bronx cheer.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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