Autumn – the season of change, of turning inwards for warmth as the summer sun fades -– is always a time for excitement at universities. Classes begin, friendships are rekindled, and roommates meet for the first time. Students are reminded once again of the unique pleasures and challenges of school living, of the joys of this liminal space brimming with knowledge for those between youth and the "real life."
At Columbia University, where I am an undergraduate senior, autumn is also high-profile visitor season. At least once a semester, an infamous guest appears on campus, addresses over-excited students, and then exits. Often, the Daily News or the New York Post weigh in on the event: "Columbia Hosts a Thug" opined the Post when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared on the scene last September.
This year's visitors came on the seventh anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Students were ecstatic when they found out that Columbia was hosting a forum for presidential candidates Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain as part of the ServiceNation Summit, a two-day gathering of leaders highlighting volunteer and national service. The candidates' presence, especially that of campus favorite Obama, a 1983 grad, was expected to exorcise the ghosts of fall speeches past.
In late 2005, I was a freshman when I saw John Ashcroft, who'd stepped down as Attorney General earlier in the year, speak to a hot undergraduate-filled auditorium. Some students brought banners decrying torture; others presented rational arguments during the question-and-answer portion of the event. I stayed up the rest of the night, buoyed by adrenaline, to write a paper due the next day at 9 a.m. At the fourth or fifth hour of my vigil, I realized that the political themes of the Ashcroft spectacle – the debate over security, national identity, civil liberties – had informed my understanding of Thucydides' reading of the Peloponnesian Wars.
This is what they meant by extracurricular education, I thought. I was pleased.
The next fall, when I was a sophomore, the College Republicans invited the Minuteman vigilante group's leader Jim Gilchrist to discuss the perils of letting immigrants over the Mexican border. Many student groups, led by the Chicano Caucus, viewed the event as deeply offensive, even threatening. I was covering the swelling protests on campus for a student magazine when a cluster of friend reporters cried out that chaos had broken out. After an introduction by an African American preacher, Gilchrist began spewing invective against the heckling students in attendance. A Chicano Caucus-led contingent then burst onto his platform to unveil a banner that read "No Human is Illegal" in English, Spanish, and Arabic. Minutemen supporting Gilchrist responded by trying to rip down the banner. College Republicans jumped into the fray, and a Latino student was kicked in the head by a middle-aged, burly, booted vigilante.
In the weeks that followed, "The O'Reilly Factor" had a heyday with the debacle, University President Lee Bollinger – a free speech lawyer – denounced the student protesters, and the Columbia blog at which I was an editor received dozens of threats and vile messages. One read simply: "your worse then the mooselums [sic] who flew the planes into the buildings."
My bright-eyed freshman enthusiasm for Thucydides on the wane, I stared head-on at the ugly side of racism, media bias, and violence underpinning various aspects of American society.
Within weeks of returning to campus, this time for my junior year, we received a jolt of news: Iran's Ahmadinejad, who'd reportedly called for a "world without the United States and Zionism," had been invited to speak at the university's World Leaders Forum. The press exploded. On the day of the speech, nearly sick with excitement, I entered an auditorium buzzing with reporters, students both angry and curious, and sedate professors, while outside, thousands of students watched on massive screens. It was here that Ahmadinejad said, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country" and called Iran "friends with the Jewish people."
My friends' reactions ended up on USA Today, The New York Times, international wires as well as Fox and CNN. I soon learned that Richard Bulliet, a history professor at Columbia's Middle East Institute, was behind Ahmadinejad's invitation. In an interview with me for The Bwog, he explained, "My feeling, what I wanted, was to see to what degree this event can serve as a brake on the push towards war.…What kind of a triumph would it be to bring down Ahmadinejad?"
So with these memories of speeches past, I geared up this September for what I thought would be the most exciting autumn addresses yet: Obama and McCain, either of whom could become the next president of the United States. The excitement was all the more palpable because of their Columbia connections: Obama as an alum and McCain as the father of a 2007 grad.
"You realize that he's had the exact same education as us," a female student said of Obama. Her eyes brightened. "He's read The Wretched of the Earth too." For McCain's part, he wasn't just a Columbia parent; he also delivered the keynote address to graduates in 2006. We felt these things were significant.
By 8 p.m. on the big night, thousands of students had swarmed over the steps of Low Library, Columbia's popular hangout, to watch the event on a large screen. The expanse of stone and brick was covered with picnics, games, books, blankets, beer bottles, water jugs, cigarettes, and cameras. Clusters of students became territorial about their 2-by-4-foot plots of brick ground, and bathroom runs were out of the question. There was something epic about our rock concert stance, as if we expected to wave lighters or break out in mass dancing.
McCain, we were told, had won a coin toss to be the first interviewed by PBS correspondent Judy Woodruff and Time editor Richard Stengel. McCain said America should expand its military without a draft. He also criticized Columbia for not allowing Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) recruitment on campus, a measure first taken to protest the Vietnam War and later reaffirmed because of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gay personnel. After a commercial break, Obama took the stage. He too called for the expansion of the military, and he also criticized Columbia's stance on ROTC.
Suddenly, things were not as they had seemed. We had assumed Obama read Fanon, that he understood us and represented our intellectual desires. But on the ServiceNation stage, under the scrutiny of television viewers, he joined McCain in criticizing our school for its hard-line stance for gay rights. We were at a loss.In my first three autumns of college, I came to understand that the truths we held self-evident were really strands of many truths tied together with frayed edges. Politics was messier than I ever imagined. And big issues – about civil liberties, racism, and foreign policy, to name a few – were so complex it was a wonder anyone made any progress. Watching McCain and Obama laud service, I hoped desperately for a deep, real change.