BY MANDY KATZ, CONTRIBUTOR
Dear President Washington,
What’s old is new again. I didn’t think I’d face commencement bigotry even once in my life, let alone twice.
As my daughter neared graduation from Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School in 2010, seniors were excited to have the pathbreaking female and Lebanese-American journalist Helen Thomas lined up as speaker. That is until she told a reporter that Jews should “leave Palestine” and go “home” to “Poland, or Germany…or wherever.” Had her remark targeted Zionism alone, it might have been tolerable, but she was going after Jews as Jews, and she later doubled down on it.
Keeping her as speaker would have offended and ostracized a distinct cohort of prospective graduates, their loved ones, and other foes of intolerance. This is true of Youngkin, too: The objection to his presence at commencement is more than a political exception. His views and agenda target and deny the very personhood of many graduates, not to mention their health and safety.
Why should Patriots from already persecuted backgrounds have to hear from him at what should be one of the proudest moments of their lives? (He is also patently anti-education; I’ll leave it to the university’s scholars to address his unsuitability on that front.) GMU now, as Whitman’s community did, must address the question: Who should have to skip our commencement to avoid confronting hate – the outside speaker? Or the graduates themselves? This should be an easy call. It was an easy call for Principal Alan Goodwin in Bethesda, who recognized commencement celebrants as a captive audience; he invited Thomas to visit the school later for actual, structured, discourse with students.
Like my daughter back then, and when my turn comes at GMU, graduates want to revel proudly in their moment, not grit their teeth through (or regretfully boycott) a program that will constitute for them and others – as it does for Youngkin himself – a political event.
You call it “discourse,” but discourse requires two-way communication. Will GMU treat it as such, making space, as discourse entails, for rebuttal and protests from Patriots targeted by just about everything he stands for? Not sounding like such a celebration anymore.
Helen Thomas made one ugly if revealing remark; Youngkin acts against women and minorities every day. Substitute “Youngkin” for “Thomas” in my comments pasted below from the 2010 debate, and you will see that, when the rights of minorities come under attack, nothing is new under the sun.
“Many describe this as a free speech matter. Indeed, if Thomas had been invited to speak at a campus forum, where she could debate the issues and take questions from the audience, we wouldn’t object. Deeply offensive remarks like Thomas’s — which are raw and recent and hurtful to many in our community — should disqualify any public figure from speaking at our community event. Those who would, as individuals or groups, forgive, forget or probe Thomas’s views should find other opportunities.”
“We will also remember whether our own community was willing to send the message to all, ‘you are welcome at our celebration,’ by telling Thomas she no longer is.”
I hope you will follow wise Dr. Goodwin’s example and kibosh this untenable invitation. Your allegiance must be to students, not politicians.