Commencement Speech isn’t Free Speech

I’ve done hundreds of public talks of all kinds, including after-dinner speeches and keynote addresses for international conferences, and I’ve watched the whole uproar about commencement speakers being uninvited this past spring with disappointment.

Why?  Because the discussion has been so consistently wrongheaded.

One thread that comes up over and over is that students protesting a speaker’s invitation interfere with her free speech.  That’s just idiotic, and completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights.  Condi Rice, for example, is free to speak about her beliefs, her past, her hopes and dreams, her view of foreign affairs, whatever she likes anywhere she wants to.  She’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.

But the First Amendment says nothing about people who are invited to speak somewhere and paid to do so.  It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression.  That simply did not happen in her case or in any other case where a speaker was controversial and campus protests arose.

Just as foolish as invoking “free speech”: the sententious moralizing about how students should be open to a free expression of ideas.  The Washington Post editorial board isn’t alone in taking that tack, but are they for real? After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–and you shouldn’t get one.

Commencement speeches aren’t seminars or workshops with Q&A.  They’re supposed to be inspiring and entertaining.  Funny, if possible.  They’re throwaway, forgettable, a moment’s ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context.  And that’s okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration.  The ceremony itself isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved, it’s not meant to go down in history, and the speaker is not Moses descended from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn’t suffer, and nobody’s rights are interfered with if they get invited at a very hefty fee to speak to a graduating class of students, and then get uninvited.  Free exchange of ideas?  The only exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check she leaves with.

Bitten By A Vampire (Novel)

I’m teaching creative writing at Michigan State University this semester and one of the books my students are reading and discussing is Charlie Huston’s noirish Already Dead, a dazzling PI novel with a twist.  The tough guy private investigator/enforcer Joe Pitt is actually a vampire and one of his jobs is keeping lower Manhattan free of zombies.

Huston’s  worked out a terrific alternative reality in which vampirism is caused by a mysterious “Vyrus,” and I’ve read the book four times, marveling at his inventiveness. Already Dead is the only vampire novel except for Dracula that I’ve re-read, and it inspired me to launch into a genre I’d always enjoyed but never tried to write in.

Every writer has false starts, byways, and what seems like dead ends.  Huston made me dig out some good, juicy material I’d filed away while doing research on the Gilded Age for a historical novel riffing off of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

The material I’d set aside was mainly a bordello sex scene I really liked, but hadn’t figured out how or where to use. Bitten by Charlie Huston’s novel, I pulled up the folder on my PC, studied the scene and some notes, and realized that I had the makings of a short book: Rosedale the Vampyre.

It’s a dark story of powerlessness and grief that takes a very unexpected turn when its hero crosses over into a different reality and discovers life is entirely more satisfying for him as one of the Undead. Set in 1907 New York, the book is filled with period detail and sexual obsession. I’ve published books in almost a dozen different genres, but having created something that’s historical and supernatural, I feel as liberated and thrilled as my protagonist does when he first tastes blood.  And I understand from the inside, as a writer, the allure of this ultra-popular contemporary genre I’ve previously enjoyed only as a reader.

Now I’m hungry for more….

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