It’s become a truism that student government is the bailiwick of shallow, egotistical resume-padders. Tracy Flick, the junior-varsity Lady Macbeth of the 1999 movie Election, was instantly recognizable, as was her nemesis, Tammy Metzler. Remember Tammy’s speech? “The same pathetic charade happens every year, and everyone makes the same pathetic promises just so they can put it on their transcripts to get into college.” Hard to argue with that. The odd thing is that sometimes the Tracy Flicks go off to college and do it all over again.
A few days ago, a friend of mine pointed me to a Convocation speech given by Noah Riner ‘06, Dartmouth’s student-body president, to the class of ‘09. I scanned the page, a pastiche of quotes by Martin Luther King Jr., Shakespeare, Bono. Why had my friend given me this? “It mentions Jesus,” he explained. “People will go berserk.”
So it does. It mentions Jesus, and then Bono mentions Jesus, and then Riner passes the baton to Dr. King–perhaps thinking nobody will wise up to the Lord’s presence. I confess that at this point, I thought my friend was indulging a bit of right-wing paranoia. Surely nothing as banal, as reliably soporific, as Riner’s address could rankle anyone. Surely people didn’t even listen to these things.
As it happens, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The bored work in mysterious ways, and a number of Dartmouth students saw the speech as a fine occasion for an attention-grabbing moral tantrum. The Daily Dartmouth’s “Verbum Ultimum” allowed that “Riner had every right, as a member of a community that values the freedom of speech, to speak freely about what matters to him.” But he chose an “inappropriate forum”–perish the thought–and “[preached] his faith from a commandeered pulpit.” Clearly, Riner is corrupting the youth of Hanover. Somebody fetch the hemlock.
The Student Assembly’s vice president for student life (savor that deliciously Orwellian title), Kaelin Goulet ‘07, resigned immediately. “I consider his choice of topic for the Convocation speech reprehensible and an abuse of power,” she said. Addressing Riner directly, she wrote: “Your first opportunity to represent Student Assembly to the incoming freshmen was appalling. You embarrass the organization; you embarrass yourself. . . . I pity the freshmen in Leede Arena yesterday.”
Got all that? Pity is something you feel for hurricane refugees, not for the “victims” of a convocation speech. Woe betide the student who hears Christ’s name in an “inappropriate forum”! It’s almost as though Goulet saw Riner as Father Karas and the freshmen as a host of demons, writhing in agony beneath a spray of verbal holy water. This is condescension distilled to its essence. Usually it’s the college acting in loco parentis, not the other students. What we are witnessing here is trickle-down ideology, with students employed as a sort of Securitate for their administrative overseers.
Could Goulet really have felt anything like the outrage and disappointment on display in her letters? Let’s examine Riner’s sole reference to Jesus:
Jesus’ message of redemption is simple. People are imperfect, and there are consequences for our actions. He gave His life for our sin so that we wouldn’t have to bear the penalty of the law; so we could see love. The problem is me; the solution is God’s love: Jesus on the cross, for us.
It may be unusual for a student speech, but the Edict of Worms it is not.
Another Student Assembly member, Tim Andreadis ‘07, complained that Riner “did not clearly label his religiously charged comments as reflecting his own beliefs.” A lack of clear labels–that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Just as Andreadis doubtless expects his plastic baggies to be clearly labeled a choking hazard, so he expects every word out of a fellow student’s mouth to be accompanied by an explicit disclaimer. Who needs in loco parentis when so many students are big enough to pull their own Huggies on?
And let’s not leave out Paul Heintz ‘06, whose crudely hieroglyphic “Guy & Fellow” comic strip “parodied” Riner’s speech. In the strip, a stick figure with Riner’s head says, “Jesus, together you and I shall rule the world and vanquish all those infidels and looters and rioters.” Pot-smoking Jesus replies, “Yo, chill out, dawg. Take a hit of this sh** and chill the f*** out.” Pot-smoking Jesus! How marvelously transgressive! Now have a gingersnap and back to the nursery with you.
As responses to the speech go, this had at least the merit of being too demotic to match the self-righteousness of all those pompous op-eds and public resignations. Of course, this made it no less embarrassing.
Is it worth training the Doppler radar on this teacup tempest? Higher education will always have its dull speeches, its Tracy Flicks, its outsize outrage. After a while, most students will forget about this and go on to something useful. But none of that is the real story. The fascinating–and disappointing–thing is that something as ordinary and blameless as religious belief should seem such a terrifying menace to college students. And what delicate little Hummels those students have become: They use tepid terms like “community” and “inappropriate” and “alienating” and then congratulate themselves for their sensitivity. I pray they never have to face something more trying than words–but I certainly wouldn’t count on it.
–Stefan Beck is assistant editor of the New Criterion.