Viewpoint: Reflections in a fun house mirror

We all heard about what happened at the Rockford College commencement exercises May 17.

The featured speaker, Chris Hedges, a reporter for The New York Times, was booed off the stage and almost attacked when he tried to deliver an anti-war speech.

Rockford’s daily publication ran a headline reading “Speaker disrupts RC graduation.” That’s a peculiar perspective that puts the “onus” entirely on the speaker and tries to absolve the boo-ers who upset the ceremonies.

We were told that many in the audience were very disturbed because the speaker didn’t deliver the traditional “get out there and conquer the world” graduation send-off.

Hedges has been a war correspondent for the Times for 15 years. He has written more than one book dealing with the topic of war and its effects on societies and individuals.

It’s not unreasonable to think he might talk about war. “…that is, of course, what I was prepared to speak about when I got to Rockford,” Hedges told the national radio and TV show Democracy Now.

He added: “What I was not prepared for was the response. I have certainly spoken at events where people disagreed—that is to be expected. But to be silenced and to have people clamber onto the platform with the threat of physical violence was something new, and frightening.”

Hedges’ microphone was twice turned off. He talked only about three minutes before it was turned off the first time. What does that kind of behavior say about us? What does the rest of the country think of Rockford, Ill., and Rockford College?

Whatever happened to civility? Isn’t college supposed to train young people to think rationally and critically? This was a display of lockstep group think based on endless media indoctrination.

We saw the very same thing with the Brown Shirts in Germany in the 1930s. Have we spawned a new crop of “Hitler jugend”?

Hedges is the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He has covered war in El Salvador, Guatemala, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and has been a prisoner of Iraq’s Republican Guard.

What did he think at the eruption that greeted his effort to relay the realities of war to this group of graduates and parents?

“…as I looked out on the crowd,” he said, “that is exactly what my book is about. It is about the suspension of individual conscience, and probably consciousness, for the contagion of the crowd, for that euphoria that comes with patriotism.

“The tragedy is that—and I’ve seen it in conflict after conflict or society after society that plunges into war—with that kind of rabid nationalism comes racism and intolerance and a dehumanization of the other. And it’s an emotional response. People find a kind of ecstasy, a kind of belonging, a kind of obliteration of their alienation in that patriotic fervor that always does come in war time.”

Hedges added: “Crowds, especially crowds that become hunting packs, are very frightening. People chanted the kinds of clichés and aphorisms and jingoes that are handed to you by the state. ‘God Bless America’ or people were chanting, ‘send him to France’—this kind of stuff and that kind of contagion leads ultimately to tyranny, it’s very dangerous and it has to be stopped.”

Hedges said all he knew about Rockford College was that one of its most celebrated graduates was Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago.

He noted that when Jane Addams spoke at Carnegie Hall to protest American involvement in World War I, she, too, was booed off the stage.

“So, to be shouted down at her alma mater—there’s a very sad kind of irony to that, of course,” Hedges said.

The war on Iraq and its accompanying flood of jingoistic propaganda is like a virus, infecting and polarizing the country. It is a sickness that badly needs treatment.

Americans need to take a long hard look at what this government is doing to us and to the world.

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