(I took the header picture of a Common Loon resting on a pond in Utah on its way north in June of 2015. It was in transition from winter to summer plumage.)

Translate - I dare you. Then make a comment on the funny errors the translator made.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thoughts on the recent BYU commencement

Well, the BYU Commencement with Dick Cheney as speaker is over, and so is the Alternative Commencement which was put on by students who felt disenfranchised by the administration's invitation to VP Cheney. You can read an article about it here.

As a BYU alumn, it's been interesting to watch what little of this I could with the time I could spare. I have wondered what I would have done if I were still living within close range of Provo, and especially if I were a student (or working) at BYU now.

When I was a BYU student, I was beginning my leftward drift but only beginning. At my graduation in April 2001, Tom Lantos spoke, and I was surprised to learn that he was a Democrat. He received an honorary degree and gave a wonderful speech, and nobody seemed bothered in the slightest by his political affiliation - you might never have guessed it from his speech.

I have seen various reasons why people have protested Cheney's participation in this commencement. One thing I have read is that it seems to many people to compromise the Church's political neutrality by giving the appearance of an endorsement of the Republican Party. I have not found this to be a very satisfying argument mostly, partly because of my memories of my own commencement. The official statement ran to the effect that Cheney was invited because of his office and not his party. In principle, that's fair enough, but the fact that this particular VP was invited at this particular time does complicate the question. Still, given the Church leadership's general optimism towards the powers that be, it's not surprising that the BYU board of trustees rewarded Cheney's offer with an invitation.

It's hard to see sometimes through the fog of the political opinions of common members of the Church, and I can see how, again, this particular VP being invited at this particular time may look to some like flirting too closely with the appearance of political endorsement - I still haven't heard anyone try to explain how one member of BYU's board of trustees being a Democrat fits into this view though.

One might suggest that in order to avoid such troubles, no political officers should speak at commencements - would that be too austere? My sister got to hear Neil Postman at her commencement, the lucky duck. What if they did just keep the politicians to other functions? Would I have gone to hear Tom Lantos if he weren't speaking at my commencement? Certainly not, if the BYU Democrats had hosted it.

Another reason has been the controversy created by the current administration's policies, and going along with that, the outrage that many feel because of the policies and actions that Cheney has done, made, or been a part of - as one of the protesters' signs read: "it's not a partisan thing, it's an ethics and morals thing!" This to me was a much better reason to protest his speaking at the commencement, although again, the trend of optimistic and polite deference to those in power that has marked Church policy since the mid-20th century made it a pretty good guess that nothing would get the board of trustees to drop the invitation. Does that frustrate me? Yeah it does, somewhat, but I don't want to get too distracted by that frustration, because, look: there was a protest, and there was an alternative commencement. I could wish the protesters had an easier time of it, but the fact that there was a protest - and that BYU allowed it - gives me tremendous hope for the students, the school and the Church.

Some of the protesters put out a petition, which you can read here. I signed it, even though I knew it wouldn't stop Cheney from speaking at the commencement. I signed it mostly because of the second paragraph, and after I signed it I wondered if I ought to have just written a letter instead. Still, I was glad to hear that in fact VP Cheney did not "use the BYU commencement ceremony as a platform for his controversial political agenda" - apparently his speech was apolitical, so in that I choose to claim some success for "our side".

Come to think of it, when Margaret Thatcher spoke at a BYU forum while I was there, I don't recall her saying anything overtly political either . . .

So I'm glad that students and others protested. I'm glad that they got enough donations to hold their alternative commencement. I wish I could have been there. And I hope that this does help stir people at BYU and in Provo up from complacency.

Still, I see some danger:

The main danger I see is the anger and resentment that I detected in some of my associates at BYU even when there was no big controversy going on. Those of us who find much of "Mormon" culture - or even some unofficial (but still often rigid) practices within the Church to be silly, distracting, indefensible, wrong, or offensive, but still hold our faith and our covenants dear - we are always going to have the challenge of keeping ourselves from being poisoned by the anger that comes so easily whenever we get into conflicts with people who are attached to those things we object to.

Look at the outrage expressed in one call for donations for the alternative commencement, which was not written by a BYU student (and be aware: it uses harsh language). While I am glad that this post got the students the donations they needed, and I know that particular blog is highly thought of, in this instance the author goes too far: BYU as "a fringe example of blatant fascism"? I had my frustrations with the school's administrative style while I was there, but I didn't want to ally myself closely with people who had such contempt for it, and I still don't. I would hope that the student protesters would remember why they are protesting and not give in to such self-righteous anger - even if they see some in their opponents.

Another danger: the alternative commencement now has a website (in case you missed it, you can see it here). It isn't the same investment as a building or a newspaper might be, but still: it's an established presence, and there may be a temptation to keep it going: will someone get the bright idea to try to have an alternative commencement next year, and the next? I hope not: doing something like that for its own sake would quickly produce results very much like bad art and mediocre punk music.

All in all, though, it looks like the protesting students were true to their convictions and consciences and behaved in a way that citizens of a democracy should, and that makes me happy.

(One student made a short video about the protest, which is kind of amusing.)