Monday, May 22, 2006
This Woman Kicks Ass: Jean Rohe on her Commencement Address.
When I was selected as a student speaker for the New School commencement about two months ago I had no idea that I'd end up on CNN and in Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times, among other places, when it was all over. One day after the big event I'm still reeling from all the media attention and emails from professors, students, and other supporters from all over the country, so forgive me if my writing is a little scattered.
In my speech yesterday I had hoped to talk about social responsibility in a time of war, but in much more oblique terms. I wanted to speak about communication, and how I have found that one of my strongest and most enjoyable methods of communication is music. I wanted to talk about the New York City public school preschoolers with whom I work each week and how they've been empowered through music, how they've been able to learn linguistic and social skills by singing together. I wanted to talk about my grandfather, who, despite the fact that he has Alzheimer's disease and cannot remember even my name, still knows all the songs he sang in his youth. I wanted to talk about music as a powerful tool for peace. I wanted to encourage everyone to identify his or her talents and to always use them for the greater good.
Unfortunately, a certain not-so-dynamic duo of "centrist" politicians foiled my standard graduation speech and forced me to act. Until just the day before commencement I really hadn't understood the gravity of the situation. I suppose I should tell the story.
On Thursday I attended two graduation ceremonies for my two degrees, one at the New School Jazz Program and one at Eugene Lang College at the New School. The Lang graduation was a pretty raucous affair, owing mostly to the dissenting voices of Elijah Miller, a student award recipient, and Mark Larrimore, a religious studies professor and our keynote speaker. Through the cheers at that event I got a sense of just how widespread the student outrage was. Forgive me now if I seem out of touch with my student body, but as a double degree student who had spent the last month in hibernation working on her recital and her thesis, in addition to working with the preschoolers, I hadn't done anything else for weeks. At some point that day I was introduced to Irene, a student who was involved in organizing pins and armbands for students to wear during commencement the next day. We figured out a way to get me and the other student speaker armbands before the event. This same day all of us in the platform party got an email from the event organizer letting us know that certain media representatives would be in attendance, among them Fox news and National Public Radio. The situation seemed pretty serious.
When I got home Thursday night after a rehearsal, I decided I needed to at least insert a line in my speech about the armbands. And I would've left it there, had the other student speaker, Christina Antonakis-Wallace, not reminded me in a telephone conversation that night that I should read John McCain's speech from his other two speaking engagements which was conveniently posted on his website. Of course! I had to do my research. I checked the schedule for the ceremony and realized that I would be speaking just before the senator got his award. And that's when the idea for a preemptive strike began to brew in my little stressed-out brain. What if I tore McCain's speech apart before he even opened his mouth? After reading his speech a couple of times I picked out a few particularly loathsome sections--and believe it or not, none of these actually came from the extensive section where he defends his position on the war in Iraq--and I began planning an attack against him using his own words.
At two in the morning when my boyfriend came home I hadn't even started writing yet. I was in a terrible state of anxiety. What if it didn't work? Didn't my earlier speech make my position clear enough? I told him my new idea. "Jean, you have to do it. You'll kick yourself later if you don't." "But it's two in the morning. There's no way it's going to be any good." "Jean, do it. You'll have nothing to regret."
So in the wee hours of the morning I set out to revise my speech, re-saving it as "mccain speech subversive.doc". And at three o'clock in the morning I woke up my other roommate as I practiced reading it in our living room. She wasn't upset. "Sounds like you're running for president," she told me. We all agreed that I had no choice. It was the only thing I could do at the commencement. And so, tingling with nerves, I tried to go to sleep.
The morning of the event I shared my speech over the phone with my mother who predictably enough, cried. She gave me her words of encouragement. And moments later, in the driving rain, I set off alone for Madison Square Garden.
The entire afternoon leading up to my speech I imagined that everyone who saw me knew what I was up to. I felt like an infiltrator. I wanted to go home and I was sick to my stomach. But when I heard an organizer on her walkie-talkie speaking nervously with another coordinator about the students outside who had leaflets and armbands, I knew that I would have my supporters. Later, John McCain arrived in the green room, and with the encouragement of Laurie Anderson, another honoree, Christina and I introduced ourselves to him. I almost wanted to warn the guy that I was about to make him look like an idiot so that he would at least have a fighting chance and an extra moment to change his speech to save himself. But he didn't even make eye contact when we shook hands, so I figured I didn't owe him anything.
The rest is a blur. I didn't have a high school graduation, so I was kind of looking forward to the whole ceremony of it, but all I remember is suddenly being in a robe, walking down the aisle of the MSG Theater to the cheers of my friends (who, incidentally, had no idea what to expect) and then I was on stage staring out at thousands of people and trying not to vomit. Eventually I spoke, and everyone loved it. And McCain spoke and we all had a bit of déjà vu. Then some other people spoke and I tried to pay attention but I couldn't stop gawking at the protesters in the audience. And just before the end of the ceremony Bob Kerrey asked if I wanted to walk out with McCain. I said that would be OK. Kerrey led me over to him as the recessional music began, and I took McCain's arm. "I'm sorry, man," I told him, "I just had to do it." He mumbled something about it being alright, but I think he probably would've rather not had me there. It really wasn't his fault that he got invited into a pit of very well-educated vipers, and it really wasn't my fault that I did what I had to do in the situation. Had he been speaking at something other than our graduation, or had he spoken about almost anything other than his life and his position on the Iraq War and Darfur it might have been OK. But what did he expect? Campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination at the New School is like trying to catch fish in a swimming pool. It was just totally out of place. Many thanks go to the people in the audience who managed to capture with a few yelled and widely-quoted phrases, just exactly what was going on there.
I suppose I've written enough already, none of which has been particularly journalistic. But I do feel that I need to respond to a couple of things that have been floating around in the news. It's been noted in several columns that anti-McCain sentiment coming from the left may actually help him to garner support from the conservatives by giving him the opportunity to paint us as extremist liberals, so we should all keep our mouths shut. I say we need some "extremist liberals" if we're ever going to get our democracy back. Others have said that he's a moderate at heart and that we should let him continue pandering to the religious right so he can get the vote. Once he gets into office he'll show his true colors and be the centrist he always was. I don't buy that. People who truly care about human beings don't vote for an unjust war, among other things, simply as a political maneuver. Enough said.
More importantly, I feel obligated to respond to one thing that McCain told the New York Times. "I feel sorry for people living in a dull world where they can't listen to the views of others," he said. This is just preposterous. Yes, McCain was undoubtedly shouted-out and heckled by people who were not politely absorbing his words so as to consider them fully from every angle. But what did he expect? We could've all printed out his speech and chanted it with him in chorus. Did he think that no one knew exactly what he was about to say? And it was precisely because we listen to the views of others, and because, as I said in my speech, we don't fear them, that we as a school were able to mount such a thorough and intelligent opposition to his presence. Ignorant, closed-minded people would not have been able to do what we did. We chose to be in New York for our years of higher education for the very reason that we would be challenged to listen to opposing viewpoints each and every day and to deal with that challenge in a nonviolent manner. We've gotten very good at listening to the views of others and learning how to also make our views heard, even when we don't have the power of national political office and the media on our side.
I think we must remember that as big as this moment may seem to me today and perhaps to other supporters who are reading this article, this is a very small victory in a time when democracy is swiftly eroding under the pressure of the right wing in this country. We all have much work to do, and for the most part the media do not represent us, the small people who don't hold any special titles but who feel the weight of our government's actions on our backs each and every day. I never expected to get the opportunity to speak the way I did yesterday, but I'm so glad that I did. I hope that other people found strength in my act of protest and will one day find themselves in my position, drawing out their own bravery to speak truth.
Here's my commencement speech:
If all the world were peaceful now and forever more,
Peaceful at the surface and peaceful at the core,
All the joy within my heart would be so free to soar,
And we're living on a living planet, circling a living star.
Don't know where we're going but I know we're going far.
We can change the universe by being who we are,
And we're living on a living planet, circling a living star.
Welcome everyone on this beautiful afternoon to the commencement ceremony for the New School class of 2006. That was an excerpt of a song I learned as a child called "Living Planet" by Jay Mankita. I chose to begin my address this way because, as always, but especially now, we are living in a time of violence, of war, of injustice. I am thinking of our brothers and sisters in Iraq, in Darfur, in Sri Lanka, in Mogadishu, in Israel/Palestine, right here in the U.S., and many, many other places around the world. And my deepest wish on this day--on all days--is for peace, justice, and true freedom for all people. The song says, "We can change the universe by being who we are," and I believe that it really is just that simple.
Right now, I'm going to be who I am and digress from my previously prepared remarks. I am disappointed that I have to abandon the things I had wanted to speak about, but I feel that it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge the fact that this ceremony has become something other than the celebratory gathering that it was intended to be due to all the media attention surrounding John Mc Cain's presence here today, and the student and faculty outrage generated by his invitation to speak here. The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded. Not only this, but his invitation was a top-down decision that did not take into account the desires and interests of the student body on an occasion that is supposed to honor us above all, and to commemorate our achievements.
What is interesting and bizarre about this whole situation is that Senator Mc Cain has stated that he will be giving the same speech at all three universities where he has been invited to speak recently, of which ours is the last; those being Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, Columbia University, and finally here at the New School. For this reason I have unusual foresight concerning the themes of his address today. Based on the speech he gave at the other institutions, Senator Mc Cain will tell us today that dissent and disagreement are our "civic and moral obligation" in times of crisis. I consider this a time of crisis and I feel obligated to speak. Senator Mc Cain will also tell us about his cocky self-assuredness in his youth, which prevented him from hearing the ideas of others. In so doing, he will imply that those of us who are young are too naïve to have valid opinions and open ears. I am young, and although I don't profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that preemptive war is dangerous and wrong, that George Bush's agenda in Iraq is not worth the many lives lost. And I know that despite all the havoc that my country has wrought overseas in my name, Osama bin Laden still has not been found, nor have those weapons of mass destruction.
Finally, Senator Mc Cain will tell us that we, those of us who are Americans, "have nothing to fear from each other." I agree strongly with this, but I take it one step further. We have nothing to fear from anyone on this living planet. Fear is the greatest impediment to the achievement of peace. We have nothing to fear from people who are different from us, from people who live in other countries, even from the people who run our government--and this we should have learned from our educations here. We can speak truth to power, we can allow our humanity always to come before our nationality, we can refuse to let fear invade our lives and to goad us on to destroy the lives of others. These words I speak do not reflect the arrogance of a young strong-headed woman, but belong to a line of great progressive thought, a history in which the founders of this institution play an important part. I speak today, even through my nervousness, out of a need to honor those voices that came before me, and I hope that we graduates can all strive to do the same.