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18.4.05

Offensive Protests Against An Evil Man

As I type, Paul Bremer is giving a no-press-allowed lecture at Clark University. I didn't bother to go, because lectures by big-name speakers are typically not worth my time (particularly lectures by people famous for things they've done, rather than ideas they've had). When Bremer's lecture was announced, there was quite an uproar on this very left-leaning campus (whose students were amusingly described by Brigitta as "Clarxists"). As I see it, there are three arguments against Bremer's lecture:

1. The resource allocation argument: In general, I oppose bringing big-name speakers. As the fame of a speaker goes up, the price tag rises geometrically while the quality of their talk rises at best arithmetically. When you get into the Paul Bremer/Hurricane Carter league, the speaker's fee is a poor investment of scarce funds. The figure of $40,000 has been thrown around for Bremer's talk, though it's unclear where that number came from, since the contracts for speakers stipulate that the real figure won't be revealed (a stipulation I am very much opposed to, incidentally -- students have a right to know where their tuition dollars are going). But $40,000 is certainly in the right order of magnitude. Bremer's salary for an hour of reciting a speech he's doubtless given many times is certainly enough to support at least one grad student TA for a year. With the university constantly whining about its funding crunch, it has no business wasting that money on a big name speaker -- be it Paul Bremer or Noam Chomsky.

2. The procedural argument: I've been told that the process of selecting Bremer as a speaker was corrupt. This information is third-hand, so it may not be accurate. But if it is, it's a serious wrongdoing. Speakers are supposed to be chosen by the Speakers' Forum, a student organization. But I've been told that Dean Little and StudCo President Kevin Ready did an end run, selecting Bremer and cutting him a check without consulting the Speakers' Forum. The contractual stipulation that the press is not allowed is highly problematic as well, and were I given a vote I would oppose any speaker who demanded that.

3. The ideological argument: Paul Bremer is a bad man, who has screwed up Iraq and will say some pretty horrible things -- that much I have no argument with. What I don't agree with is the conclusion that it was therefore wrong to bring him to Clark. The fact that a group, or even a majority, of students disagree with a speaker's view is no argument against bringing them. A university has the duty to expose students to those ideas that are influential in the world -- and few ideas are more influential today than the neoconservative case for war that attendees of Bremer's talk will get to hear from the horse's mouth.

So while I disagree with rationale 3 for opposing Bremer's talk, I agree with rationale 1, and I agree with rationale 2 insofar as the information it's based on is reliable. Yet the organizing against his talk has focused almost entirely on rationale 3. So I passed on getting involved in the protest.

The actual protest turned out both better and worse than I expected. It was better in that the focus was on expressing opposition to the war in general and Bremer's actions in particular, rather than opposing his lecture. There were rumors that the protesters would attempt to block the entrance to the lecture hall, but (at least while I was there) people were able to enter in an orderly fashion.

It was worse in that some of the messages being presented at the protest were distasteful even for a dove like myself. Hanging Bremer in effigy from a nearby tree is no big deal, since that's a standard bit of hyperbole. The signs declaring the US to be the world's worst regime don't represent my view (I'll take George Bush over Turkmenbashi any day of the week), but I can appreciate where their authors are coming from. But two out of the half dozen or so signs being displayed were rather offensive. One sign declared "Victory to the Iraqi resistance" -- that is, victory to a movement that's killing civilians and would, if given power, be at least as oppressive as anything the US has set up. Another person engaged in a bit of gratuitous fat-bashing, proclaiming "Fat America, walk! Don't kill for oil."

All three of Clark's Republicans were there too, holding "Bush/Cheney '04" signs.

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