Mr. Carter’s Missive

Yale legal scholar Stephen Carter waxes disapproving of Rutgers’s and Smith’s cancellations of commencement speeches by Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde.

The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.

Right. Cause nothing says “complexity and nuance” like a commencement speech.

Methinks there is a massive mismatch between rhetoric and reality in Mr. Carter’s missive.


  1. Palermo, Joseph A May 16, 2014 at 11:38 pm | #

    Yes like Tim Egan’s miserable little op-ed too JP

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Freddie deBoer May 16, 2014 at 11:50 pm | #

    So when should students be compelled to listen to ideas they don’t like?

    • marymargaretmccurnin May 16, 2014 at 11:56 pm | #

      Ain’t a matter of “not liking”, it is a matter of dealing with an at large murderess. Ask the Iraqs how they feel about Ms. Rice and if they think the universities did the right thing.

    • Corey Robin May 16, 2014 at 11:58 pm | #

      ??? Every time a student enters a classroom she is compelled to listen to an idea she doesn’t like. I’d be thrilled to hear a commencement speech in which an idea I don’t like is uttered. Hell, I’d be thrilled to hear a commencement speech in which an idea is actually uttered. Having sat through a fair number of them in my day, I’d say the utterance of an idea is not actually the order of the day.

      On Fri, May 16, 2014 at 11:50 PM, Corey Rob

    • Matangi Taco May 25, 2014 at 10:41 am | #

      it’s also about the idea that the voice of the students be heard under the institution that they’re under, that they represent and that they’ve paid very good money for (too much money most of the time). There is a huge different between a commencement speaker and any other speakers…. when should schools/colleges be compelled to actually listen and cater to students and their needs?

    • YankeeFrank May 26, 2014 at 12:15 am | #

      How about when they’re in school, instead of when they’re graduating? And its not the hearing of ideas we don’t like that we object to, its the presence of people we find odious because of their immoral acts on the happy day of our graduation. Would you want a person you despise to speak “wisdom” at you during your commencement? Or do you want that day to be free of anger and strife? The idea that people one considers war criminals should have the right to pollute graduation day with their despicable presence is one the right would never go for. What would the right do if Castro was selected to speak at the Harvard graduation? Or Che Guevara? Or Lenin? Putin? These are all people with lots of blood on their hands. And to respond to the comment downthread about Buckley, there’s a difference between Buckley, Rice and LaGarde. Buckley was a commentator. The others are/were active agents of the neoliberal order with much blood on their hands. Ideas are not being opposed here. Acts are.

  3. Critical Reading May 17, 2014 at 12:21 am | #

    If anyone can be accused of “bringing back the Middle Ages,” it would be Condoleeza Rice in Iraq.

  4. William Neil May 17, 2014 at 6:28 am | #

    Well, I was leaning a number of ways here. Rice and LaGarde, I think it can be decently argued, do represent a “comprehensive and authoritarian” mode of thought – neoliberalism – which, at its high tide in the form of F. Fukuyama’s “The End Of History and the Last Man” would seem to fulfill Carter’s and Steiner’s bill. I’m sure they would all protest the authoritarian slant, though.

    This posting was bound to take me back to my own commencement, wasn’t it? Of course, and my own discomfort and protest (wearing a McGovern button) as Lafayette College insisted that its wayward sons recently sprinkled with a few daughters, must have their leftward drifting ways corrected, and by the highest flights of language then available, by none other than William F. Buckley, Jr. That was in May – or was it early June? of 1972. And to close the circle begun here with the two contemporary speakers, Mr. Buckley’s topic was that our class and our times did not have, should not have, a monopoly of idealism. He argued that capitalism was a form of idealism, which made a lot of us squirm in puzzlement and confirm our initial reactions that this was indeed a cruel rebuke to our own ideals. Even then, when one could argue, as many do today, like Paul Krugman, and cited directly by Thomas Piketty for doing so, that capitalism was in its “best” form in the years 1945-1973, I thought that this was a pretty long stretch of the idea of “idealism,” given the modes of capitalisms workings, but I saw what Buckley was driving at. Then again, given such generous boundaries, what movements or systems of thought could be excluded from such a definition? The Vikings, maybe.

    And how did Buckley square the tensions between his Christianity and capitalism, which other scholars on the right, the older right in this country, said couldn’t be done, since the nature of capitalism was change itself, uprooting and upending all previous systems of thought and modes of production, morals as well, and scrapping its own physical plant ASAP – and taking the tax write downs on very favorable terms? I don’t want to get carried away here, but I guess it was Augustine who rescued him, and the great polarity of his age, the Cold War, where it was easier to plane away the well founded and ancient tensions between the two “C’s'” when one looked east to Moscow. But these are later thoughts; I don’t recall thinking about this aspect during Buckley’s speech.

    And today, we have some very prominent reminders of those ancient tensions, don’t we? What would Buckley say, in the time of Piketty and his worry that the greatest impact of his findings, what worries him the most, is the impact of inequality upon democracy? Would Buckley speak out in the scolding tone he used to warn Michael Harrington about the dangerous paths he was treading down…the same Michael Harrington who was engaged in a process of discovering Marx the non-determinist, the humanist Marx, sounding much like, but almost 50 years earlier, David Harvey in his “Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism?” Harrington missed his time; “Socialism” and the “Twilight of Capitalism” are reading much better in 2014 than they did in the 1970’s.

  5. jonnybutter May 17, 2014 at 10:46 am | #

    ack, I wish I hadn’t skimmed/read that. I started out reading closely, but my overworked bullshit meter was beeping too loudly to keep on. There is so much to object to, but this kind of line is always a good ‘tell’:

    Now and then I’ve strayed from the party line.

    When someone brags that they’ve strayed ‘now and then’, it is just so obviously formulaic and fake, as if straying any more or less is a problem in the Three Bears sense, but he has done so in exactly the right amount. And, otherwise the ‘party line’ is just fine.

    it’s just pure bullshit like the rest of the column.

  6. BarryB May 17, 2014 at 11:23 am | #

    Carter hates the explicit rejection of his political stance, and it’s public visibility. He pulls up an argument that ignores politics and the real world, so that he can chastise the university for something it isn’t guilty of. This has the twofold advantage of letting him create a situation which ignores reality when it’s inconvenient to deal with, and pontificate self-righteously about an issue that would otherwise be a complete non sequitur. Corey, it’s not a mismatch. It’s an honored and ancient human practice: ignore what you don’t like, and create a world framework in which your views are both utterly correct and under attack by the hoi polloi.

    It’s classic. It’s neat. It also not surprisingly marks him as a fearless spearchucker in defense of the one-percenters, and is required every now and again when you’re entowered at Yale, looking down the great defile that leads to Rutgers.

  7. calling all toasters May 17, 2014 at 12:03 pm | #

    George Steiner?! What’s next– citing Richard Hofstadter as showing that it’s liberals and scientists who are anti-intellectual and paranoid? He really shouldn’t invoke works that he has no chance at understanding….

  8. Glenn May 18, 2014 at 12:40 am | #

    Carter asks for a world more tolerant of his right to be intolerant.

    Would he object to a commencement speaker who calls for the repeal of the Thirteenth Amendment, still barring Rice from the podium and, hypothetically, himself from Bloomberg, only under other terms?

    Could he hold blameless any little nobody, separating the person from the consequences of his acts, one who works dutifully doing things he doesn’t like, paralleling the Eichmann defense?

    How faithful can he be to his principles before failing them in a philippic against racism?

  9. Lev Raphael May 19, 2014 at 6:11 am | #

    Egan missed the point of commencement speeches entirely. They’re giant after-dinner talks: they’re meant to be both inspiring and entertaining. They’re not supposed to have much substance or be especially memorable because the day itself, the fellowship, family, sense of completion (and exhaustion) mean far more. I do a great deal of public speaking and always pay attention to the venue–the last thing I’d bring to a commencement speech is contentious ideas.

  10. levraphael May 19, 2014 at 6:15 am | #

    Egan entirely missed the point of commencement speeches. They’re meant to be entertaining and broadly inspiring, like a giant after-dinner talk. Ideas? Nobody’s really listening. The day is about friends, family, completion, exhaustion, summer coming, internships, anxiety, grad school perhaps, partying–and a hundred other things. I don’t even remember who spoke at my graduation, but I remember the church, the ill-fitting cap and gown, the heat, the photos and much more.

    • William Neil May 19, 2014 at 11:32 am | #


      I hear you, and you’ve got part of it, but going back to my 1972 ceremony at Lafayette College, do you think that when the college invited William F. Buckley, Jr. that the intent was too be “entertaining and broadly inspiring?” I think the intent was to teach a lesson to left leaning idealists and that was what we got, and I still have mixed feelings about it. This would have been about a year after Lewis Powell wrote he famous 1971 memo Kim Phillips-Fein writes about so well in “Invisible Hands,” the beginning of the sharp turn to the right in American corporate attitudes. Willam E. Simon, another Lafayette grad, was also a big part of that turning with his polemical “A Time for Truth.”

      Even though I didn’t like it at the time, there is some merit, maybe a lot, in having speakers address, in rebuttal, the flow of the times. At the same time, my critical reaction to the serious content of Buckley’s speech, that capitalism and business are, or should be, an accepted form of idealism, has held up well, despite their island exile in the neoliberal sea of ideas of the past 30 years. Today, its more and more common to see the word “predatory” qualifying that idealism. Maybe there’s more to that series about the Vikings that I thought.

      • Lev Raphael May 26, 2014 at 5:59 am | #

        Yes. He was a star and he was delightful. Buckley was one of the funniest, wittiest speaker around in 1972. Like him or not, that lizard-tongued wit was the right’s answer to Gore Vidal and you could count on him to be a three ring intellectual circus. (I should have, btw way, said “or” not “and.”) I would have And I always enjoyed watching him even though I disagreed with him. Because he was well-read and amusing. George Will thinks he’s Buckley’s intellectual heir, but he’s not remotely that. Thanks, btw, for name checking Ragnar Lothbrook’s series.

  11. Russell Scott Day May 19, 2014 at 5:00 pm | #

    I had something to say and said it to you on the twitter. That is that the statues to Southern CSA heroes and fools worked to raise up the CSA again. We are getting the CSA now otherwise known as the GOP due to statues put up in Richmond at Monument Row. The UNC-CH monument people are forced to look up to as are they all in Southern town centers, squares is called Silent Sam. Racism, Elitism and Classism are all learned at these Universities. To give Donald Sterling a hard time about it seems lame when the UNC-CH Board gets nothing done but tuition raises and more money for the stadium.

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