by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
For many decades America’s most prestigious universities have invited outstanding personalities from diverse fields of public life including the arts, business, politics and scholarship to speak to their graduating classes at commencement exercises. None is more closely watched by American media than Harvard, and the speakers in the open-air Tercentenary Theatre of Harvard Yard on Wednesday, May 24 (Class Day) and on Thursday, May 25 (Harvard Alumni Association) did not disappoint. The appearances by former Vice President Joe Biden on the first day and by Facebook founder and largest shareholder Mark Zuckerberg on the second day have been widely reported. Both are readily available in video on youtube.com.
However, as an eyewitness, being present at both events in my capacity as member of the Class of 1967 Reunion, I gathered some impressions of their speeches, and especially of how there were received by the audience, that I will share at the start of this essay. Then I will proceed to the third featured speech of those two days, delivered by University President Drew Faust. I firmly believe that hers was a speech of national importance that should set the tone for discussion on the limits and practice of free speech, of our civil liberties, more broadly, and on the stultifying effect political correctness is having on America’s ability to think straight and respond to challenges at home and abroad. Sadly it has been ignored by major media. A full transcript is available on the Harvard website:: http://www.harvard.edu/president/speech/2017/2017-commencement-speech
The distinction between Class Day and Commencement Day speakers must be explained before we go any further. The Class Day speaker is chosen by the graduating class, whereas the Commencement Day speaker is selected by the University Administration.
Joe Biden is an accomplished public speaker and he used the opening minutes of his speech to call attention to who had invited him. In what was intended to be pure fun and to warm up the audience, he noted that the Class already knew Zuckerberg would be the University’s choice for Commencement and decided they “needed someone who is more in tune with your generation.” In fact, this offhand and counter-intuitive joke rang true: Biden enjoyed much better rapport with the audience and received far more applause than did Zuckerberg the next day. It is remarkable that this was so given the age discrepancies between the two.
In my Harvard of the 1960s, the University administration was already heavily committed to social engineering, to opening the gates of admission to an ever wider distribution of students from different geographic backgrounds, religious affiliation, race, financial status. That process has never stopped. Earlier in the week, President Faust had explained to our reunion participants during Q&A that the entering class of 2021 will be the first to have a majority of minorities, that is to say, WASPs will be in the minority of the class. And more than 60% of the students will be receiving financial aid that is granted solely on the basis of need to all students who have been admitted on the basis of merit. Yet, at the end of the day, this policy of progressive and unrelenting cooptation has yielded a political mood on campus that might be described as just to the left of center, firmly within the Democratic Party mainstream. That is precisely where my Class of 1967 stood. I would submit this is a splendid case of managed democracy.
One of the rules of successful speaking is to flatter your audience, and Joe Biden was unstinting in praising the graduating class of 2017. They are part of the best educated, best prepared generation America has ever seen. They can be proud of their Harvard diploma, which will open many doors for them in the years ahead, because they earned it. Moreover, they are part of a politically and socially engaged student body which gave notable support to the labor action of Harvard’s dining service workers, leading to their gaining important benefits.
And yet, a few minutes later in the same speech Biden remarked on the single digit support for making a career in the federal service among Harvard undergrads.
In the write-up of Joe Biden’s speech, the Harvard University Gazette has given it the heading “Apathy not an option.” In what was often a rambling talk drawing on stock segments from Biden’s public appearances everywhere and anywhere, combined with some carefully researched segments connecting with Harvard College students’ experiences over the past 4 years, Joe Biden contradicted himself more than once. We may nonetheless say that overall Biden sought to rouse the students from their shock and dismay over Donald Trump’s electoral victory last November. He reminded them that he and his generation had lived through worse setbacks, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The point was that one must soldier on and go beyond personal ambition to work for the common good through public service. There is more than a hint at JFK and “ask not what your country can do for you” in this message.
That was close, but certainly not identical with the vision that Mark Zuckerberg set out in his inspirational speech the next day. His byword was the flip side of apathy, namely purpose: he insisted that we all need to have a sense we are part of a cause greater than ourselves where, among other things, we can engage in charitable activities assisting our fellow mankind. Zuckerberg introduced into his speech many observations from his travels around the United States which have brought him to more than 30 states in the past year. The New York Times’ Friday article on his speech correctly identified this as the start of a political campaign. Yahoo.com financial news still more precisely identified it as a “stump speech,” which typically draws on personal vignettes such as Zuckerberg has been gathering in his travels and been documenting on his Facebook page. There could be little doubt that Zuckerberg will be aiming for the presidency once he passes the minimum age requirement in two years.
Like Donald Trump, Zuckerberg comes from the business world, he has ten times the personal wealth of Trump and he has a very big social media presence. In principle, all of this can be traded for votes. But Zuckerberg’s speech had few clear political markers. It is hard to place him on a Left – Right scale. He described his business as a facilitator in formation of communities, in knitting people together, in allowing them to find purpose. But these are all connections at the personal or social level, not at a political level. Government as such was mentioned specifically by Biden as something inseparable from public service. Government does not appear in Zuckerberg’s speaking vocabulary. This is not big government, it is not small government, it is no government.
A US-run global community is Implicit in Zuckerberg’s thinking, but he would surely object if directly challenged on this. He is the quintessential Davos Man, exponent of globalist Davos Culture, which is supra-national by definition. In that sense only can we say that Zuckerberg, like most everyone in the audience, is opposed to Donald Trump’s America First political movement.
The absence of political markers other than environmentalism and universal basic income left the audience confused and uncertain whether he is really one of them. Zuckerberg paused repeatedly in his speech waiting for applause. However, the only steady and enthusiastic applause came from behind him, from the Harvard University administrators seated on stage who had been waiting for this prodigal son to come home and hoping for generous financial contributions from his cash hoard. They are the ones who conferred on him his honorary doctor of laws degree that same morning. The audience did not buy in. Not yet….
Harvard President Drew Faust is an academic, an historian of the American Civil War whose latest work in that subject was the basis for a series of programs by Public Broadcasting that brought her wider national recognition. She has ex officio been a frequent visitor to Washington, D.C. in recent months, lobbying on behalf of foreign students facing restrictions under the new presidential orders and also working to defend federal spending on higher education.
But political speechmaking is not her stock in trade and the politically bold statements she made in her address to the Alumni Association immediately before the microphone was passed to Mark Zuckerberg are all the more striking in that context. She delivered an impassioned defense of free speech which deserves the full attention of her colleagues at Harvard and across the nation, since they are all in violation of the definition she set out. It is no accident that she was the only speaker of the two days who made reference to Veritas, the university’s motto, which otherwise provided the backdrop to the speakers’ stage. She spoke about the institution and its obligations as generator and protector of “truth” and knowledge arrived at by free debate and challenge of ideas.
This is not to say that there was perfect clarity in her message. As an effective speaker, she left us somewhat uncertain as to whose rights of free speech she was defending and against what sort of challenge. Given the political persuasion of students and faculty to which I alluded already, one might think she had in mind such causes célèbres as the ongoing verbal attacks against Linda Sarsour, a Muslim (Palestinian) graduation speaker at CUNY. Indeed, in her speech Drew Faust pointed to the more vulnerable members of the student body, those from minorities, those from among first generation college students who might be intimidated by hurtful speech directed against them.
However, I have no doubt that the main weight of her argument was directed elsewhere. Mainly, to the processes by which truth is arrived. She was defending the very notion of the appropriateness of sharp debate and airing of views one may dislike intensely on campus:
“Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established – established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.”
This is unheard of in American polite society. From my experience as an organizer of public events going back 5 years, I learned that the very word “debate” finds no defenders. Debate suggests conflict rather than consensus. The politically correct term for public discussions of even hot issues today is “round tables.” No sharp corners.
Instead we find Faust saying:
“Ensuring freedom of speech is not just about allowing speech. It is about actively creating a community where everyone can contribute and flourish, a community where argument is relisted, not feared. Freedom of speech is not just freedom from censorship; it is freedom to actively join the debate as a full participant. It is about creating a context in which genuine debate can happen.”
And why, one might ask, has President Faust come out with this vibrant defense of free speech precisely now, 10 years into her tenure at Harvard? The answer is the Donald Trump factor. She is very specific about this and her words deserve full citation:
“Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. From at least the time of Galileo, we can see how repressing seemingly heretical ideas has blinded societies and nations to the enhanced knowledge and understanding on which progress depend. Far more recently, we can see here at Harvard how our inattentiveness to the power and appeal of conservative voices left much of our community astonished – blindsided by the outcome of last fall’s election. We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them.”
With all due respect for this remarkable speech, I am obliged to say that Harvard University has long been a “bubble” in the area of policy research that interests me, and should interest you, the reader, if you plan to survive the present New Cold War: Russian studies. Over the past couple of years of growing confrontation between the U.S.A. and Russia, during a time of ever more scandalous vilification of the Russian President and the Russian people up to the present hysteria over “Russiagate,” colleagues with long-standing and widely acknowledged expertise in Russian affairs including Ambassador Jack Matlock and Professor Stephen Cohen have been repeatedly denied any possibility of participating in “round tables” dedicated to relations with Russia that might be organized at the Kennedy Center or at the Davis Center on the Harvard campus. These policy centers are strictly pulpits for expounding orthodoxy per the Washington consensus. Veritas is the big but not the only loser. The flaccid argumentation and complacency of U.S. foreign policy is aided and abetted by one of the universities, which, like Columbia, created the very discipline of Russian studies in 1949 and remains at the forefront of public attention.
No doubt there are other faculties at Harvard which also are desperately in need of renewal following President Drew Faust’s call for debate and free speech.
In closing, I would like to draw attention to another issue of political and social awareness at Harvard that goes straight back to the very start of President Faust’s 10 year tenure in office, and surely can be traced back still further: apathy.
In December 2007 twelve other alumni of the Class of 1967 and I, meaning approximately 1% of our cohorts, issued an open letter to President Faust which was picked up by the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, by the Boston Globe and other media. See
This was the time of an escalating U.S. military campaign in Iraq. It was a time when the Patriot Act and Homeland Security were still riding high. It was a time of complete docility among the Harvard student body. We called upon the University President to set up a committee to foster an environment conducive to “civic courage and political engagement.”
Nothing was done about it, of course. The student newspaper snottily rejected advice or implicit criticism from the burned out generation of Vietnam War protesters.
The nature of the speeches delivered by Messrs Zuckerberg and Biden show that a culture of “steady as she goes’’ continues to be installed in these ivy-clad halls. Charitable activity and pietism are the rule, defense of free speech or other civil liberties that have been under challenge across America since 2001 are the rare exception. Perhaps Harvard does not need a committee to investigate remedies, but the question remains: how to raise the concerns of Harvard and other university communities from the community level to the national and global level apart from the much-beloved subject of global warming. This is all the more pressing now that a substantial share of the undergraduate student body is not just foreign-born but foreigners. The diversity of thinking on the issues of global governance should be brought into play, as it clearly has not been till now.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.