Hero: Jean Rohe

Unlike my “creeps,” 4&20 heros say smart things. Some even stand up and speak the truth directly to the faces of those in power. Enter Jean Rohe.

You, like me, may have tuned your radio to NPR this weekend and heard some of the raucous commencement at New York’s liberal college, New School, when John McCain was invited to speak and was met with a chorus of protests and chants and heckling.

You, like me, may have had some mixed thoughts about the proceeding. John McCain, while moving steadily right in his 2008 bid for President, is still one of the better politicians in DC right now. (That’s not saying a lot, I admit.) While he kowtows to the President more than we like and waaaaaaaaaay more than he should, he’s also one of the few Republican Congressmen to stand up to the administration – and offhand I’m thinking of his opposition to Cheney on the subject of torture. So when he’s booed…well…seems like maybe they’re picking the wrong target.

Or so it seemed to me while listening to NPR’s story. Part of that story was a quick sound bite of the introduction of student speaker, Jean Rohe, made to begin her speech, which directly proceeded McCain’s. This is what I heard on the radio:

Right now, I'm going to be who I am and digress from my previously prepared remarks. I am disappointed that I have to abandon the things I had wanted to speak about, but I feel that it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge the fact that this ceremony has become something other than the celebratory gathering that it was intended to be due to all the media attention surrounding John Mc Cain's presence here today, and the student and faculty outrage generated by his invitation to speak here. The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded. Not only this, but his invitation was a top-down decision that did not take into account the desires and interests of the student body on an occasion that is supposed to honor us above all, and to commemorate our achievements.

The nerve!

But then I found the full text of the speech along with some thoughts on why she made the decision to speak out against McCain on a post over at the Huffington Post. Um…in context the speech is…well…pretty d*mn cool!

First, Rohe had no plans to make a controversial political speech until she read the content of McCain’s speech, the same one he gave at Colombia and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. She realized that the national media would be covering McCain’s speech – both Fox News and NPR planned on being there – and she felt she had to speak out against the “particularly loathsome” elements of McCain’s speech. So she rewrote her speech the night before commencement as a rebuttal to the points McCain would make in his speech following hers directly.

Here’s the full text of Rohe’s speech:

If all the world were peaceful now and forever more,Peaceful at the surface and peaceful at the core,

All the joy within my heart would be so free to soar,

And we're living on a living planet, circling a living star.

Don't know where we're going but I know we're going far.

We can change the universe by being who we are,

And we're living on a living planet, circling a living star.

Welcome everyone on this beautiful afternoon to the commencement ceremony for the New School class of 2006. That was an excerpt of a song I learned as a child called "Living Planet" by Jay Mankita. I chose to begin my address this way because, as always, but especially now, we are living in a time of violence, of war, of injustice. I am thinking of our brothers and sisters in Iraq, in Darfur, in Sri Lanka, in Mogadishu, in Israel/Palestine, right here in the U.S., and many, many other places around the world. And my deepest wish on this day–on all days–is for peace, justice, and true freedom for all people. The song says, "We can change the universe by being who we are," and I believe that it really is just that simple.

Right now, I'm going to be who I am and digress from my previously prepared remarks. I am disappointed that I have to abandon the things I had wanted to speak about, but I feel that it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge the fact that this ceremony has become something other than the celebratory gathering that it was intended to be due to all the media attention surrounding John Mc Cain's presence here today, and the student and faculty outrage generated by his invitation to speak here. The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded. Not only this, but his invitation was a top-down decision that did not take into account the desires and interests of the student body on an occasion that is supposed to honor us above all, and to commemorate our achievements.

What is interesting and bizarre about this whole situation is that Senator Mc Cain has stated that he will be giving the same speech at all three universities where he has been invited to speak recently, of which ours is the last; those being Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, Columbia University, and finally here at the New School. For this reason I have unusual foresight concerning the themes of his address today. Based on the speech he gave at the other institutions, Senator Mc Cain will tell us today that dissent and disagreement are our "civic and moral obligation" in times of crisis. I consider this a time of crisis and I feel obligated to speak. Senator Mc Cain will also tell us about his cocky self-assuredness in his youth, which prevented him from hearing the ideas of others. In so doing, he will imply that those of us who are young are too naïve to have valid opinions and open ears. I am young, and although I don't profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that preemptive war is dangerous and wrong, that George Bush's agenda in Iraq is not worth the many lives lost. And I know that despite all the havoc that my country has wrought overseas in my name, Osama bin Laden still has not been found, nor have those weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, Senator Mc Cain will tell us that we, those of us who are Americans, "have nothing to fear from each other." I agree strongly with this, but I take it one step further. We have nothing to fear from anyone on this living planet. Fear is the greatest impediment to the achievement of peace. We have nothing to fear from people who are different from us, from people who live in other countries, even from the people who run our government–and this we should have learned from our educations here. We can speak truth to power, we can allow our humanity always to come before our nationality, we can refuse to let fear invade our lives and to goad us on to destroy the lives of others. These words I speak do not reflect the arrogance of a young strong-headed woman, but belong to a line of great progressive thought, a history in which the founders of this institution play an important part. I speak today, even through my nervousness, out of a need to honor those voices that came before me, and I hope that we graduates can all strive to do the same.

The interesting thing about all this was NPR’s premise, which mirrored McCain’s quote to the New York Times — “I feel sorry for people living in a dull world where they can’t listen to the views of others ” – that the student body displayed an arrogant display of intellectual intolerance.

Of course, hearing Rohe’s side of the story, nothing could be further from the truth. First, McCain had already given the speech twice and gotten plenty of press from the speeches. Second, most of the students at the New School were familiar with the text before he gave the commencement.

Ultimately of course, the reason the students were so shrill was that the current administration and the GOP in general had not “listened to the views of others,” that they had recklessly and dangerously chased their ideological and narrow foreign and domestic policies despite popular outcry and against the advice of policy experts.

McCain is right when he says people aren’t listening. But it’s not the students who hear the Republican talking points – like we do, too – every night on the national and local news programs and in our newspapers. McCain wanted an audience, this was supposed to be his triumph of bipartisanship, his display of intellectual bravery to give the same speech to fundamentalists, ivy leaguers, and liberals. It was his grand entrance into the Presidential campaign. Only the New School students didn’t want to be talked at, they didn’t want to be a passive target of vetted sound bites.

This was obvious in a reply to Rohe’s post on the ‘Net by McCain aide Mark Salter, who wrote, that McCain intended to “discuss” with his “fellow countrymen” the “things that are important in political debates: that we owe each other respect…”

Well, Ms. Rohe, and your fellow graduates's comical self-importance deserves a rebuke far stronger than the gentle suggestions he offered you. So, let me leave you with this. Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber.

Truly Salter missed the entire point of Rohe’s speech, that McCain’s “gentle rebuke” was essentially a demand that she – and we – should clam up in our opposition to the state, and that she would not stay silent.

That she spoke out against what she felt is a great injustice despite pressure not to do so, for that reason Jean Rohe is a 4&20 blackbirds hero.

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