War Comes to Rockford

Before he spoke to the 350 graduates of Rockford College on May 17, reporter Chris Hedges of the New York Times enjoyed a breakfast with some students and teachers who’d read his recent book. Unlike Jane Addams, the college’s most illustrious alumnus, Hedges isn’t a pacifist, but he’s seen plenty of war, meditated on it, and concluded that it reserves some of its worst effects for the victors. The book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, is about those effects, and he wanted to discuss them at the graduation and tie them to Iraq. “I ran by what I was going to say,” Hedges tells me, “and they all thought it was a great idea.”

Working through an agency in New York, Rockford College had located Hedges as a graduation speaker after Governor Blagojevich canceled in March. “I didn’t know anything about the college except Jane Addams, who was a great pacifist and a great moral figure. And they certainly celebrate her legacy,” says Hedges. “I thought the audience honored that legacy and came out of it, and I was incorrect.”

He’d given the same talk before as a lecture, but this would be the first graduation speech he’d ever made. “I want to speak to you today about war and empire,” he began without preamble. Three minutes later the hooting began, and when Hedges sat down after 15 more minutes of shouts, whistles, and foghorn bursts, the crowd seemed to him close to physical violence.

The graduation was a major national story, but you’d never have known it from reading the Sun-Times and Tribune, which kissed off the event in briefs published days later, or from Hedges’s own New York Times, which ignored it until last Sunday, when its national survey of commencement speeches mentioned in passing that “perhaps the least-civilized expression of ideas in the [Iraqi war] debate came at Rockford College in northern Illinois.”

Columnists and editorial writers at other papers weighed in on what Hedges’s reception signified about America’s temper. Speaking at Vassar’s graduation on May 25, Susan Sontag discussed Hedges’s ordeal at length. “It’s easy, maybe too easy, to condemn the behavior of the students at Rockford,” she said. “No one, I would wager, is likely to be driven off the stage at Vassar for opposing American bellicosity.” But she challenged the students. “Suppose someone took this platform and uttered stridently racist remarks or gleefully recounted misogynistic anecdotes. What would we–you, I–do then?”

Sontag left it at that–with her audience mulling over the differences between the time to sit politely and the time to stand and protest. She soon moved on to her variety of the wise old head’s advice that all commencement audiences expect to hear: “Despise violence. Despise national vanity and national self-love,” she said, to great applause. “Don’t allow yourself to be patronized, condescended to, which, if you are a woman, happens and will continue to happen all the time, all your lives. Don’t take shit. Tell the bastards off.”

The Vassar senior class clapped and cheered. Sontag knew her audience and had a sense of the occasion. Hedges didn’t and hadn’t. “I personally was waiting for him to enlighten me and tell me what an accomplishment it was that I was finally graduating from college and give me some words of wisdom to go out into the world with,” says Eileen Cullen, who’s from Bolingbrook. Soon she tuned him out. “All he did was talk about himself and his book,” she says. (Actually he didn’t mention his book.) “I know that one of my friends, it took her 12 years to graduate. This was her day. She had her kids here. And the day was ruined.”

Besides failing to acknowledge the graduates, Hedges failed to invoke Jane Addams, the college’s patron saint and the obvious bridge between what his audience was willing to hear and what he wanted to say. He just barged ahead with it, not the graduation’s wise old head but its usurper.

Yet because his speech was such a debacle, Hedges’s message eventually reached multitudes. On its Web site, www.rrstar.com, the Rockford Register Star posted a transcript of the speech–or at least as much of it as Hedges was able to deliver–as well as an audiotape and a videotape. As of Monday night there’d been more than 81,000 hits on the transcript, 73,000 on the audiotape, 16,000 on the videotape.

“Terrorism will become a way of life, and when we are attacked we will, like our allies Putin and Sharon, lash out with greater fury,” Hedges was saying when the booing started. “Fear engenders cruelty–cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis. In the center of Dante’s circle the damned remained motionless.” That’s when a foghorn began to blare. As Hedges warned that Iraq would turn into a “cesspool,” a chant of “USA, USA” began.

“My friends,” said Rockford’s president, Paul Pribbenow, stepping in to appeal for order, “one of the wonders of a liberal arts college is its ability and its deeply held commitment to academic freedom and the decision to listen to each other’s opinions.” A foghorn blew again. Many cheered.

Hedges told the audience that he knew Iraq, spoke Arabic, and had spent seven years in the Middle East. He predicted a “long bloody war of attrition” such as had driven the British from Iraq in the last century and the Israelis from Lebanon. “This is a war of liberation in Iraq,” he said, “but it is a war now of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation. And if you watch closely what is happening in Iraq, if you can see it through the abysmal coverage, you can see it in the lashing out of the terrorist death squads, the murder of Shiite leaders in mosques, the assassination of our young soldiers in the streets…

“Read Antigone, when the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules. Or Thucydides’ history,” Hedges told the audience chanting “USA, USA.” He pushed on. “This, Thucydides wrote, is what doomed Athenian democracy. Athens destroyed itself.”

A bit later a young graduate student in a black cap and gown made his way up to Hedges and quietly asked, “Can I say a few words here?” Hedges replied, “When I finish, yeah.” He’d now reached a critical theme from his book, but someone unplugged his microphone and it had to be plugged in again before he could begin to develop this idea. It was about the friendship of peace that is “a deepening of our sense of self” and the comradeship of war, in which we lose our identities “for the collective rush of a common cause.” When war ends, comradeship ends, and “this is why after war we fall into despair.”

Against the boos and catcalls and cries of “Go home!” Hedges’s reflections didn’t have a chance. By now Pribbenow, looking out over the crowd, sensed that things could blow at any second, that protesters could either rush the podium to silence Hedges or begin duking it out with the audience members who wanted to hear him. Hedges knew better than to tempt fate. “Friends do not, the way comrades do, love death and sacrifice,” he proclaimed. “To friends, the prospect of death is frightening. And this is why friendship, or let me say love, is the most potent enemy of war. Thank you.”

And he was done. Guarded by security, he slipped away and caught a bus to O’Hare. He left toting two books by Addams, and it consoled him to learn that in 1917 she’d been booed off the stage at Carnegie Hall. One of the most honored Americans before World War I, Addams was excoriated during it because as a pacifist she’d done everything she could to keep the U.S. out of the war. The Daughters of the American Revolution expelled her.

Addams graduated in 1881 from the Rockford Female Seminary, which would be renamed ten years later (she’d hoped to go to Smith, but her banker father wanted to keep her close to home). Small and expensive, and coeducational since 1959, Rockford College has been more closely identified over the years with bulldog conservatism than with Addams’s bulldog progressivism. John Howard, president from 1960 to 1977, is remembered for ordering the flag run back up the flagpole when students lowered it to half-mast to protest the killings at Kent State in 1970.

Under Howard, Rockford College refused to accept federal funds so as not to wear Washington’s collar. A dean at the college, looking back on Howard’s rocky tenure, told the Reader’s Peter Schwendener in 1982 that most trustees and faculty members went along with Howard’s conservative views “but didn’t think that the college should be an ideological bastion.” Howard did. To bolster the authority of that bastion, in 1976 he founded the Rockford College Institute (renamed the Rockford Institute after he left the college), which impressed Schwendener as a “relatively obscure place of refuge for the culturally disgruntled.” Severed from the college in 1981, it would eventually earn renown as perhaps the nation’s leading “paleoconservative” think tank. When a schism drove Howard from the institute in 1997 he founded the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society.

The attention Rockford College is paying Jane Addams is a very recent thing. Pribbenow, who’s 46, studied Addams at the University of Chicago, where ten years ago he got a PhD in social ethics. Arriving in Rockford last July with a reputation as a fund-raiser, he launched a marketing campaign–“Think. Act. Give a damn”–that both Howard and Addams might have applauded but that invoked only Addams. A letter of welcome from Pribbenow that can be read on the college’s Web site (www.rockford.edu) asserts that “what we stand for as Rockford College is grounded in our vision to be Jane Addams’ college in the 21st century.” Pribbenow promises a school that will honor her legacy “by seeking to live out her commitments to liberal arts education, to civic engagement, and to being an agile and accountable institution.”

One section of the Web site is devoted to the “Jane Addams legacy at Rockford College.” It announces the founding by the college of the Jane Addams Center for Civic Engagement and has various links to other on-line Addams materials. “Something in the culture here has always led students to see education as linked to citizenship,” Pribbenow says. “Jane Addams personally had political positions that might be pegged in a particular spot on the spectrum, but she was a pragmatist. She entertained all opinions, believing in learning and service together in pursuit of a whole variety of ends. The promise we see in her is the notion of activism, that when you’re educated you also have to act.”

The only working reporter on hand for the graduation was Susan Stephens of public radio station WNIJ in De Kalb. She was doing a piece on Hedges. While he spoke she ran errands, but she’d left her tape recorder running. Her seven-minute report aired locally Monday, as calls started coming in to the Register Star. Re-creating a dramatic situation you didn’t see is an iffy proposition in journalism, and Register Star education writer Carrie Watters leaned heavily on grousing callers as she patched together an account that Pribbenow calls “very sketchy and immature.” He protests the line “After his microphone was again unplugged, Pribbenow told Hedges to wrap it up.” And he regrets the woefully imprecise headline, “Speaker disrupts RC graduation.”

“That’s the story that was picked up by the Drudge Report, so her article became the reality,” says Pribbenow. “So it was really a firestorm.”

Yet he praises Watters and the Register Star for sticking with the story, writing at greater length and with much more detail on subsequent days. The paper’s Web site is admirably thorough. Under the heading “Free speech vs. Civility” (if the free speech at issue is the audience’s and not Hedges’s, then the paper is posing the same choice Sontag posed), the Register Star has posted all its articles, columns, and editorials, including a guest column by Pribbenow, as well as the audiotape, the transcript, and, after advertising for one on-line, the videotape.

Transcribing the audiotape could have been a nightmare, says on-line editor Alex Gary: “He had so many Greek mythological and theological references that were beyond my comprehension.” Fortunately, Ben Taylor, a senior at Rockford Guilford High who works part-time nights in the sports department, stepped in. “He only got a 35 on his ACT. He picked Dartmouth over Harvard. That’s a little bit over where I was in school,” says Gary, a product of Northern Illinois University. “He was sitting there and he says, ‘Oh, that’s Thucydides’ history.’ Otherwise we’d have spent another two or three hours trying to figure it out.”

The plea for a videotape was spotted by Eileen Cullen, who’d graduated and gone home to Bolingbrook. She called and volunteered the tape her father had made. The paper was lucky it existed. Richard Cullen, a band director in the Bolingbrook public schools, almost turned his camera off, but Eileen’s sister told him not to. “I’d had enough of him,” he says. “And my daughter said, “No, no, keep it going. Something’s going on.’ That’s when people were starting to turn their backs on him.” Before long he was taping the crowd as much as the speaker.

Pribbenow maintains that most of the graduating seniors behaved themselves while Hedges spoke. But at least half the graduates were there to get MAs and teaching degrees–“and they don’t necessarily have a liberal arts education.” Then there were the parents, who at graduation anywhere have a much more exacting notion than their children of how the occasion is supposed to go. Pribbenow says friends of the grads were the unruliest of all.

The college posted its response to the graduation on-line. For the graduates, there was Pribbenow’s apology: “Our speaker presented his ideas in a style that suggested the day was about him and not you.” For the world at large there was a set of “clarifications” of press accounts:

“The primary cause of the unrest… did not come from Rockford College students, but from guests….Our students are educated in a strong liberal arts institution, they are taught to respect opinions from diverse perspectives…

“President Pribbenow did not tell Mr. Hedges to stop his speech after the power was cut for the second time. He and Mr. Hedges discussed how best to proceed in an obviously dangerous environment and agreed that Mr. Hedges would bring his speech to a close in some appropriate manner. Mr. Hedges did so…

“Perhaps if the speech had been completed, we all would have learned from Mr. Hedges’ broad and liberal arts-informed perspectives and experiences of war. Given both the style in which the speech was offered–which never acknowledged the audience–and the rude and uncivil response of a small minority of the audience, we did not have an opportunity to learn from Mr. Hedges.”

Readers who find the footwork that puts Pribbenow on everyone’s side a little too nimble need to know that he’s received death threats and has changed his home telephone number. “Maybe what this illustrated,” he says, “is that the belief that a timely and challenging issue is relevant for a commencement may have been naive.”

It worked at Vassar.

“We’re in northern Illinois,” he says.

Pribbenow is new to the area, but after the graduation he heard from one of his professors at the University of Chicago, someone who earlier in life had been a Methodist minister west of Rockford, in Mount Carroll. He told Pribbenow, “It’s a lesson I learned the hard way 30 years ago, and you just learned it.”

Cartoonist Kerfuffle

By every account editorial cartoonist Richard Locher is one of the nicest men in journalism. Retired from the Tribune, he still draws for a syndicate, and when his friend Bruce Dold asked him last year to give the Tribune some local cartoons on the side Locher said he’d be glad to. Dold is editor of the Tribune’s editorial page, and he’s been getting by without a cartoonist of his own since Jeff MacNelly died three years ago this month.

The cartoon on the Middle East that just got Locher and the Tribune into so much trouble was one he drew for the syndicate. It was clumsily done–the figures we assume are Sharon, Bush, and Arafat don’t look much like any of them–and the concept doesn’t work. Bush is laying money on the ground to tempt Sharon across the bridge over “Mideast Gulch” to Arafat, who’s waiting, arms folded, on the far side. Sharon, staring at the money, says, “On second thought, the pathway to peace is looking a bit brighter.” The idea is that the U.S. is using its economic leverage over Israel to get a recalcitrant Sharon behind the latest American peace plan. There’s a huge, pointy (and false to life) nose on Sharon, who’s identified as Jewish by a Star of David, and the idea that Israelis knuckle under for gelt had Tribune readers screaming. “The cartoon is blatantly anti-Semitic,” wrote one of them, Don Rose, “reinforcing the long-held racist image of Jews as avaricious and greedy.”

The cartoon ran last Friday, and two days later public editor Don Wycliff was in print with an unusual Sunday column allowing that it had “crossed all the lines” and naming the editors who’d put it in the paper. The Sun-Times ran an opportunistic editorial that pointed to the “hump-backed, balloon-handed, hook-nosed Jew” and denounced the drawing as “like a swastika painted on a synagogue door, an act whose hostility and use of the shunned symbols of hate dwarf any shred of legitimate meaning.”

This description makes Locher’s caricature sound vicious. But Locher’s big-nosed Jew was vastly less derisive and, if you will, anti-Semitic than the big-nosed and rat-tailed Arab (labeled “Saudi Arabia”) of the cartoon on the Tribune editorial page this past Tuesday. This one was by Michael Ramirez of the Los Angeles Times. It ran above a raft of letters denouncing Locher’s drawing as anti-Semitic, and it had the effect of a rejoinder, as if the paper were saying, “But you like this, don’t you?”

The question these two cartoons together pose is, when will the Tribune stop settling for whatever the syndicates toss over the transom and hire a cartoonist of its own?

For a long while the opportunity to succeed MacNelly was the most coveted in American editorial cartooning. But the Tribune has left the opening unfilled for so long that cartoonists I talk to have written it off as a paper that no longer takes seriously what they do. A year and a half ago Dold was down to a list of three–Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nick Anderson of the Courier-Journal in Louisville, and Jack Ohman of the Oregonian in Portland. Lukovich asked for a lot more money than the Tribune was willing to pay, and Anderson and Ohman got tired of waiting. Now they’re all out of the picture. But a new name recently surfaced–Robert Ariail, who draws for the State in Columbia, South Carolina, and whose cartoons frequently run in the Tribune.

Ariail interviewed with Dold a few weeks ago, thought things went well, and told other cartoonists he believed the Tribune wanted him. He quickly became less certain. A couple of weeks ago I asked him where things stood, and he replied, “I’m hoping things will be moving forward here, but I have no comment at this time. But I am interested, and I hope they are too.”

Somebody else who wants the job is Rick Tuma, a Tribune illustrator. Tuma began trying his hand at editorial cartoons two years ago, and last year Dold printed enough of them in the Tribune’s Saturday gallery of cartoons from around the country that Tuma was able to enter himself for a Lisagor Award. And he won–beating out the Sun-Times’s Pulitzer-winning Jack Higgins. “This collection of terrific cartoons is hilarious and dead-on,” the judge wrote. “Tuma makes his point with humor and poignancy.”

“I would love the job,” Tuma says. “I’ve sent them a letter saying, ‘Why don’t we create our own cartoonist?'”

The Tribune needs to do something. Maybe imitating the New York Times and running no cartoon at all is the way to go. Wycliff allowed in his commentary on the Locher cartoon that “the best editorial cartoons…have all the nuance and delicacy of a stick in the eye.” But a lot of cartoonists think a sharp stick terrifies today’s editors and publishers. All a sharp stick–or even a not-so-sharp stick–brings is trouble, as the Tribune just found out. By now many cartoonists have concluded that the Tribune is looking for someone who doesn’t exist: a cartoonist who’ll be really, really clever and sensibly conservative and won’t make waves.

Cartoon Recount

Three weeks ago, in a story on Ariail and Tuma that inadvertently appeared on-line but not in the printed Reader, I reported that the Tribune published 18 of Tuma’s cartoons last year. He’s written to say that’s incorrect; the Tribune published 6.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Rockford College, Paul Merideth.