I want to speak to you today about war and empire.

Killing, or at least the worst of it, is over in Iraq.  Although blood will continue to spill—theirs and ours—be prepared for this.  For we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power, and security.  But this will come later as our empire expands and in all this we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves.  Isolation always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.

We have forfeited the good will, the empathy the world felt for us after 9-11.  We have folded in on ourselves, we have severely weakened the delicate international coalitions and alliances that are vital in maintaining and promoting peace and we are part now of a dubious troika in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out . . . gratuitous and senseless acts of violence.  We have become the company we keep.

        —Chris Hedges, Rockford College
commencement (May 17)

I read about some squirrely guy,

Who claims, he just don’t believe in fightin’.

An’ I wonder just how long,

The rest of us can count on bein’ free.

They love our milk an’ honey,

But they preach about some other way of livin’.

When they’re runnin’ down my country, hoss,

They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.

        —Merle Haggard,
“The Fightin’ Side of Me”

When Rockford makes the national news (I once wrote), you can be certain that the story will not be positive and upbeat.  That observation held true in mid-May, when the commencement ceremonies at Rockford College were marred by (depending, it appears, almost entirely on your view on the war in Iraq) either commencement speaker and New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges or (according to the most reliable estimates) anywhere from 50 to 200 students and guests (out of a crowd of 2,000) who responded to Hedges’ speech with various behaviors, from turning their backs on the podium to shouting Hedges down to, on at least two occasions, pulling the plug on his microphone.  While similar incidents had occurred at scores of speeches delivered by conservatives and establishment Republicans in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, there was one important difference that may help explain the level of national attention: Hedges is an outspoken liberal, and those who disrupted his speech were, presumably, pro-war “conservatives.”

On the evening of May 17, when Kathy and Bethany Lewis, who had volunteered at the commencement, told me about the disturbance, it was inevitable that I would hear Merle Haggard’s voice singing inside my head.  I was born in 1968, so most of my memories are post-Vietnam, but “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” seem to form the sound-track to my early life.  (My father still has the live album that Merle recorded in Muskogee.)  The lyrics fit well with the reflexive patriotism of a young boy growing up in a small town that was, at that time, still largely untouched by the social forces that were remaking America.  Even today, when my views on Gulf War II are much closer to Chris Hedges’ than to Paul Wolfowitz’s (though I do not share Hedges’ ideological pacifism), a certain nostalgia sweeps over me when I hear “The Fightin’ Side of Me”—a far different reaction from the revulsion I feel when Toby Keith’s chest-thumping “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” comes blaring across my radio:

Oh, Justice will be served and the battle will rage.

This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage

You’ll be sorry that you messed with the US of A

’Cuz we’ll put a boot in your ass

It’s the American way.

Hey Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list,

And the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.

And the eagle will fly,

And there’s gonna be Hell,

When you hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell!

It’s gonna feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you . . .

Brought to you courtesy of the Red, White and Blue!

In the uproar that followed in the wake of Hedges’ speech, one thing became clear: Most Rockfordians, regardless of their position on the recent war, thought that the speech was inappropriate for a college commencement.  With his monotone delivery and preachy introduction, Hedges came across more like a lib-eral clergyman than like the upbeat boosters usually called upon for such occasions.  (Not surprisingly, Hedges is a former divinity student, and his father, to whom he dedicates his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, is an ordained minister.)  Wade Provo, professor emeritus of French at Rockford College, aptly summed up the feelings of most Rockfordians in a letter that he submitted to the Rockford Register Star:

Know your audience.  Fit your remarks to the audience and the occasion, and do not alienate your listeners.  Mr. Hedges needs to accept responsibility for violating these principles of effective communication.

(The Register Star, which had supported the war in Iraq and had published its account of the speech under the headline “Speaker disrupts Rockford College graduation,” declined to print the letter.)

Dr. Provo, however, went on to write that Hedges “alone incited the listeners and set a tone of condemnation on a day of celebration” and, in a separate letter, that “the non-violent protest only revealed the degree to which [the audience] felt Mr. Hedges had violated their right to a more positive experience.”  He concluded: “In a world where youth often seem apathetic, I found it refreshing that in this case we are not outraged by their silence.”

Pace Dr. Provo, it may be wrong to lay the blame entirely at the speaker’s feet.  While Hedges has delivered similar speeches on college campuses, they have always been in political or discussion forums.  This was his first commencement address, and, while he clearly misjudged the occasion, the more fundamental problem seems to be that Dr. Paul Pribbenow, the relatively new president of Rockford College, had asked Hedges to speak about war.  Whether he had asked him to speak specifically about the war in Iraq is still unclear; in his most complete remarks on the incident, published as a column in the Register Star, Pribbenow offers conflicting testimony.  On the one hand, he writes that:

Once Hedges had begun his speech, which included criticism of the war in Iraq, I had the duty as president of the college to allow him to continue—no matter what I or the other members of the audience felt about his remarks.

On the other hand, he admits that “we hoped to have an address that would include a timely message for graduates about the world” and that

We chose Hedges because his book about war is grounded in strong liberal arts scholarship and reflects a balanced perspective on war in human history and experience.  We expected him to address the graduates through the lens of the book and his work as a war correspondent.  Perhaps he would have—if he had been allowed to finish his speech.

It is hard to imagine how Hedges could have lived up to Dr. Pribbenow’s expectations if he had simply ignored the war in Iraq and the ongoing “War on Terror.”

The most disturbing aspect of the incident was highlighted by the national debate that raged for days afterward on talk radio and the Fox News Channel.  Suddenly, conservatives who had complained for years about how liberal students and professors had made a mockery of academic freedom by shouting down Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett were defending the actions of the protesters and declaring, in the words of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, that it was about time that a liberal got a dose of the same medicine.  Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online, who recently delivered his own first commencement speech (a mixture of puerile sexual innuendo and even less edifying neoconservative theorizing) to the graduating high-school seniors at Hillsdale Academy, slammed Hedges and offered to deliver next year’s commencement speech at Rockford College for 75 percent of Hedges’ honorarium.  (While Goldberg mentioned the War on Terror in his address, he thoroughly approves of it, so presumably his remarks would not be considered inappropriate.)

Lost in all of the triumphal shouting of conservatives was any discussion of proper standards of civility and decorum, which was particularly disappointing in light of the relatively recent history of Rockford College (the very motto of which is Dec-us et Veritas).  Under the presidency of Dr. John Howard, the college gained a reputation as a conservative school, though that reputation may have overstated the conservative commitment of its students and faculty.  One thing is certain, however: Dr. Howard set a standard for behavior at the college that the protesters on May 17 did not meet.  While he likely would not have invited a speaker to address such a sensitive topic on a festive occasion, it is equally unlikely that, during his tenure, students and guests would have behaved as they did.

(I should note that The Rockford Institute, the publisher of Chronicles, was the brainchild of Dr. Howard and began life as The Rockford College Institute.  Since 1980, however, there has been no connection between the college and the Institute.)

In the long run, civility and decorum may be the greatest casualties of the Chris Hedges incident.  The movement conservatives who praised the actions of the protesters no longer make even a pretense of holding themselves to a higher standard than they do their political adversaries.  What can we expect, however, when the “conservative leaders” of today are the descendants of the liberal activists of yesteryear—or, in many cases, the very liberal activists themselves?

The United States changed quite a bit between 1970, when Merle Haggard re-corded “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and 1979, when he released his somber hit “I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver (Are the Good Times Really Over for Good),” and war was responsible for much of that change.  And with the constant military activity—invasions, bombings, “peacekeeping missions,” and outright (though undeclared) wars—of the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II years, that gulf has grown even wider.  Compare the Merle of 1970—

I hear people talkin’ bad,

About the way we have to live here in this country,

Harpin’ on the wars we fight,

An’ gripin’ ’bout the way things oughta be.

An’ I don’t mind ’em switchin sides,

An’ standin’ up for things they
believe in.

When they’re runnin’ down my country, man,

They’re walkin’ on the fightin’
 side of me.

—with the Merle of a 2000 interview on Salon.com:

Look at the past 25 years—we went downhill, and if people don’t realize it, they don’t have their f- – -ing eyes on.  In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there’s available to an average citizen in America right now. . . . God almighty, what have we done to each other?

Indeed.  As America is being remade in the imperial image of Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, and Richard Perle, who, today, are the real patriots?  Two hundred and twenty-seven years into our nation’s history, The Hag’s final warning may apply less to that “squirrely guy” than to those to whom the reins of power have been entrusted:

If you don’t love it, leave it:

Let this song I’m singin’ be a warnin’.

If you’re runnin’ down my country, man,

You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side
of me.