Last month in this space I suggested that New York City needs to regain its identity as a place unlike the rest of the United States, and that to do so, it must resist the wave of fundamentalism sweeping across the heartland. One of the ways this can be done is by not letting political opportunists seeking to ride the fundamentalist tide go unchallenged. The bad news is that one such figure, Senator John McCain, has been invited to serve as the commencement speaker at the New School’s graduation ceremonies on Friday, May 19th at Madison Square Garden. The good news is that many different voices are coming out against McCain.
Unlike the vast majority of New Yorkers—including the more than 300 thousand people who marched down Broadway on April 29th—McCain is resolutely pro-war. And he is further out-of-sync with us in his belief that women should not have the right to choose what happens to their own bodies. On gay marriage, McCain is trying to stake out one of his signature “I’m not as bad as the rest of my party” positions. He intends to vote against the Republicans’ National Marriage Amendment in June, on the grounds of states’ rights. But at the same time, he supports an anti-same sex marriage amendment to the Arizona constitution. Just six days before his New School speech, of course, McCain will present his conservative bona fides to graduates of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. In his positions and actions, McCain may try to have it both ways—but fundamentalism and secularism are inherently incompatible beliefs.
The growing opposition to McCain has produced student walkouts, petition drives from both students and faculty, and various statements of outrage in and around the New School. Why did school president Bob Kerrey invite him? In general, Bob Kerrey’s motivations are clear only to Bob Kerrey, perhaps. As for the campus protests, the signs of which are literally everywhere in New School buildings, Kerrey claimed in the campus paper that he was unaware of them. Presumably he’s aware that a large percentage of students at Lang, the school’s undergraduate college, are gay or lesbian, and thus may be interested in marriage someday. And he knows that McCain’s reactionary positions on choice and the war don’t square with the overwhelming sentiment on a traditionally very liberal campus.
The bottom line is that the protests against McCain are about more than one flagrantly out of place commencement speaker. They are about a school trying to preserve its identity, in a city that needs to do the same. All are good fights, indeed.