02 December 2011

My Lunch with Condi

The world is filled with oddities and wonders.

And a small oddity, if not a wonder, is that I received an invitation to a lunch for Condoleezza Rice that was part of her November 30th speaking engagement at Claremont McKenna College.  The lunch itself was held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, in the hotel’s Tiffany Ballroom—rather than here in Claremont.  

Though the intended invitees to the lunch were “a special group” of donors to CMC, I had received an invitation—despite not being in that “special group”—due to a connection to CMC that goes back many, many years.
The lunch was, then, exclusive, but only on a limited scale.  There were, after all, some 500 other guests.  And for the record, the lunch cost $50 per person—with a signed copy of Rice’s recent memoir, No Higher Honor, included in the cost.    

My reason for attending the lunch was to circulate, as widely as possible, criticisms of Rice.  At my own expense, I had printed up 5x8 inch cards with much the same information—about her responsibilities for crimes against democracy and crimes against humanity—that I provided in my previous blog post, "Thoughts on Condoleezza Rice's Upcoming Visit to the Claremont Colleges."
When I arrived at the hotel, I picked up my name tag and proceeded to a lobby area where the guests were congregating.   After catching my breath, I walked over to one of the other guests and extended my arm to invite a handshake, and said: “Hello, my name is Daniel Segal, and I am a professor of history and anthropology at Pitzer College, where I have taught for 26 years.  I am here today because I love democracy and I love humanity, and I am concerned that Condoleezza Rice is responsible for crimes against democracy and crimes against humanity…”  I then proceeded to give more specific information and to offer an information card to the person I had introduced myself to. 
 
When I had done this just a small number of times, a large and muscular man, wearing an ear device and a small dangling microphone, appeared next to me, and promptly told me that I could not do what I was doing.  You can imagine the conversation. 

As best I recall, I said: “Hello, my name is Daniel Segal, and I am a professor of history and anthropology at Pitzer College, where….” and I ended by offering the gentleman one of my information cards.  He spoke over me and said that the hotel was private property and did not permit the distribution of such cards.  I responded that it was a CMC event for a public figure and thus, in my own judgment, CMC’s responsibility to uphold the ideals of academic freedom and free speech trumped any legal capacity to restrict speech that the hotel otherwise could claim.  The gentleman was not convinced by my argument (and I, of course, do not know if it would have any traction in a court of law).  But in any case, I continued my "hellos" and card distributions.

As I did so, the same gentleman followed me and at times was joined by a second gentleman, also large and muscular and also with an ear device and a microphone.  Very quickly, these men became my close companions, and they made it difficult for me to move, and repeatedly said such things as, “if you hand-out one more of those cards, you will be removed and arrested.”  At one point, moreover, the first gentleman spoke into his microphone and said, “call the LAPD; code 2.”  (And yes, I did wonder what ‘code 1’ and ‘code 3’ were—and even what exactly ‘code 2’ meant).  
Finally, on at least two occasions—once in the foyer and once in the lunchroom itself—CMC employees joined the cluster of persons who threatened me with arrest and removal.  
During the entire time, only one person, a CMC faculty member, addressed the gentlemen with ear devices and said it was wrong of them to threaten me with arrest for merely distributing a printed card.  And I’ll add that this colleague did this with poise, even grace.
It may have been because of this colleague’s intervention that I was not subject to arrest, or it may have been because I made a point of staying in crowded and visible areas—where an arrest would have been maximally disruptive of the lunch’s politesse.  Or perhaps it was both.  In any case, at several moments, I was asked to step into a private area, “to talk this over.”   And that was a request I always refused.  
 
Let me be plain spoken here.  Without question, I experienced intimidation, both verbal—from the repeated threats of arrest—and physical—from being blocked and bumped by the gentlemen with ear devices.  At some point, I realized I was sweating profusely, and indeed, by the time the lunch had ended and I drove back to Claremont, I was dehydrated and woozy.

Rice’s talk was—predictably—pabulum.  Yet, for me, it had its ironies.  Early in her talk, she told an anecdote that she called “the Ceausescu moment” to illustrate the importance of the individual right to free speech (the same anecdote, in much the same words, is also found on p. 731 of No Higher Honor).  In that anecdote, Ceausescu’s reign is brought to its final end in 1989, when, as Ceausescu is giving a public address to reclaim popular support, “an old lady suddenly yelled, ‘Liar.’”
   
In the fleeting moment that I heard Rice tell this story, I thought that if I were suddenly to yell, ‘Liar,’ I was sure it would result in my removal and arrest.  In that moment, I considered this prospect and tried to judge whether the irony of being arrested for mimicking Rice’s Ceausescu moment might have sufficient rhetorical power to make the arrest worthwhile, in terms of exposing the lack of commitment to free speech and democracy at Rice’s own talk.  But in that fleeting moment, I judged otherwise, reasoning that nothing she had said at the lunch could be deemed a lie—and thus my arrest would probably not effectively bespeak the message that I would want it to.       

So having foregone the possibility of yelling ‘liar’ as Rice spoke, what then is my own reckoning of the value of my activities at the Biltmore hotel that day?   What, if anything, had I done? 

I had (i) distributed several dozen of my information cards, (ii) fostered a sustained (and quite good-natured) political debate with several persons seated near me,  (iii) conveyed—in a small way—that dissent might get through barriers set up to block it, and (iv) shown, through testing and probing, the sad limits of CMC’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom.
 
Not as much as I would like to have done, but something. 

29 November 2011

Thoughts on Condoleezza Rice's Upcoming Visit to the Claremont Colleges

Tomorrow, the 30th of November, Condoleezza Rice, will be speaking here at the Claremont Colleges, specifically at the invitation of Claremont McKenna College.  Before and during her talk, I will be joining the “Un-Welcome” protest for, and teach-in about, her.  I will do so because I believe Rice is responsible for crimes against democracy and crimes against humanity. 

In this regard, two aspects of her government service under George W. Bush are particularly noteworthy: 

In July of 2002, Condoleezza Rice, as National Security Advisor, conveyed authorization to waterboard to CIA Director George Tenet.[1]   Waterboarding is torture and thus a violation of international law[2] and a violation of basic human rights.   Condoleezza Rice is thus responsible for this crime against humanity.

In late 2002 and early 2003, Condoleezza Rice, as National Security Advisor, played a central role in circulating and accrediting false intelligence about Iraq to the U.S. and global publics, for the purpose of building support for the war in Iraq.  In this way, Condoleezza Rice is responsible for crimes against democracy and crimes against humanity.

Some thoughtful students have asked me why I plan to be outside at the protest and teach-in, rather than inside attending her talk and listening to her.  My response is, first, that anyone who wants to attend her talk, and has the opportunity to do so, should do so—though it should be noted that CMC is giving preference to CMC students and faculty, so the opportunity to hear her will probably not be there for anyone else.

In addition, I would note that someone like Rice is very unlikely to say anything new in a talk of this sort:  what she will give is a speech that she has given, and/or will give, many times—and, indeed, a video of it may already be on the internet.  We also should realize that a standard question-and-answer session with a speaker of this sort almost never yields a genuine intellectual or political exchange.  Rice is too much a professional politician, too much a scripted and rehearsed public persona, for there to be any give-and-take or anything new said by her.  For an appearance by Rice to be a genuine intellectual and political exchange would require that she be questioned by a panel of scholars with relevant expertise—and that they be allowed to ask follow-up questions and even, should they wish, to rebut claims she might make.  What, instead, will happen when Rice speaks on Wednesday at CMC is more a piece of shallow theater than anything of genuine pedagogic value.  By contrast, the events outside will involve open dialogue.  

In terms of where both learning and democracy are more likely to happen, I'd bet heavily on being "outside," rather than "inside" with the powerful visitor. 

 

[1] Hines, Nico, “Condoleezza Rice gave nod for ‘torture’ techniques,’ The Times (London), 23 April 2009.
[2] United Nations Convention Against Torture.

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The SLOW BLOG movement recommends further reading; in this case:

Russell Baker's essay, "Condi and the Boys," in The New York Review of Books, back in 2008.