Monday, May 27, 2013

Exquisitely Sensitive Students

Writing Saturday in Salon, Jonathan Bernstein argues "It’s time to call out a major Republican theme of how politics should be practiced in a democracy: the supposed right to be free from criticism. It may sell wonderfully inside the conservative closed-information loop, but it’s a nasty idea that sorts exceptionally badly with democratic politics."

One example, he notes, is

Mitch McConnell’s epic op-ed this week, in which McConnell claimed the First Amendment was imperiled by “explicit attacks on groups and other private citizens” by Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. Those attacks did, in fact, happen; McConnell linked to an Obama campaign page which publicized opposition research on big Mitt Romney donors. Again, there’s no claim that the research was incorrect or that anything beyond that criticism took place (nothing about harassment by federal government agencies, for example). It’s just the criticism alone that is, for McConnell, beyond the pale. For McConnell, the whole thing is “the left-wing playbook: Expose your opponents to public view, release the liberal thugs and hope the public pressure or unwanted attention scares them from supporting causes you oppose.”

Bernstein observes "The First Amendment and political speech are indeed very close to the core of democracy. The Republican delusion that it includes the right to be free from criticism is, therefore, quite destructive." To those who would, he concludes, "disagree with me? They are free to say so."

There are individuals who find repugnant Bernstein's notion that disagreement is protected speech in the American system.  Some of them, remarkably, are ensconced in the institution- the university- in which free exchange of ideas and the search for truth traditionally have been mainstays.    And some of them are students at the Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania.  Will Marble of The Daily Pennsylvanian reported

Comments that Vice President Joe Biden made about China during last week’s commencement address has drawn ire from “disappointed” international students.

“Imagine you study abroad — say in England — and then you’ve worked very hard for four years, spent so much sweat, toil to get that degree and you wake up in the morning in your academic regalia,” recent Wharton graduate and former Chinese international student Tianpu Zhang said, “and suddenly there’s this old guy standing on the podium saying, ‘You guys suck.’”

Zhang wrote a post on Renren — the Chinese version of Facebook — condemning what he saw as an “inappropriate” use of the commencement address. The post went viral, picking up considerable media attention.

"There's this old guy..."  So much- at least in this case- with the vaunted Chinese reverence for age which, according to one source, has faded.  Reeking with a sense of entitlement, Zhang demands his feelings not be hurt.

“The general agreement is that the content is somewhat inappropriate and shouldn’t have been delivered to the faces of thousands of Chinese students,” Zhang said in a petition calling on the V.P. to apologize. With "a thousand Chinese students and their families there listening to his speech, commencement is, he contended, "not the time for such politically-charged rhetoric."

This  wasn't Johnny Depp, Celine Dion, or some other famous celebrity, or even a famed director or writer who was invited to give a speech.  It was the Vice-President of the United States: and nary a word was uttered about the obstructionism of congressional Republicans, Crossroads GPS, or even terrorism committed by Islamic extremists.  

Biden was positive in a similar manner to that of the classic commencement address. We read 

“I love to hear people tell me — now to use the vernacular — ‘China’s going to eat our lunch,’” Biden said in his speech. Echoing Steve Jobs’ advice to “think different,” he went on to say, “You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free. You cannot think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy."

Zhang demonstrates, further, the defining characteristic of political correctness from both the right and the left: facts are optional.  "Even if there is truth in your comments about China," he wrote, "commencement is not the time for such politically charged rhetoric. Instead of encouraging international cooperation and progress, you portrayed us as obstacles that our American classmates have to overcome."  Even if there is truth in your comments about China, he contends, as if truth is optional, an insignificant annoyance.

Approximately 5 percent of the total undergraduate and graduate student population at the University are Chinese.  The 350 students who as of last Wednesday afternoon had signed the petition clearly do not understand the value of challenging orthodoxy.  Responding to an anti-Biden post in a blog called "Beijing Cream," an individual recognized the offended students "are pretty lucky to be able to criticize and demand an apology from the Vice President. When they get back here, let them try that with Wen Jiabao and see how far they get." 

Marble noted 

Zhang said the organizers had two goals. “One is the ultimate goal to make Biden apologize, but we know that’s very hard to reach because our voice is pretty small and he has so many other [things] to care about,” she said. “The second goal is to make the school pay more attention to international students.” They also sent a letter to the offices of Penn President Amy Gutmann and Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel asking them to forward the petition to Biden’s office.

In its statement, the university noted it “does not review or approve the remarks delivered by speakers at its annual commencement ceremony. Vice President Biden’s comments are entirely his own and should not be construed to reflect the views or policies of the University.”   Well, of course it does not review or approve a speaker's remarks: neither  fealty to administrators' views nor strict adherence to orthodoxy is required in academic institutions in the U.S.A.

Despite the best efforts of Mitch McConnell, Tianpu Zhang, and some others, this is still a democratic republic (unlike mainland China), and one can still criticize its leaders, even the nation itself, without risk of arrest, deportation, or execution.  Insensitivity to one's feelings is not a capital crime, not in this nation, not yet and- hopefully- never. 

The students who have signed the petition may be demonstrating proficiency in their area of study: engineering, business, science, or whatever it may be.  But in the area of free inquiry, neither the University of Pennsylvania nor the Vice-President of the United States, sadly, has made an impression on these individuals impaired by growing up in a totalitarian state.

                                                 HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY

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