A “progressive” coalition goes after Bret Stephens as our Class Day Speaker; he delivers an excellent address anyway

June 3, 2023 • 11:00 am

You’ll know Bret Stephens as a conservative columnist for the New York Times. He also got his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in 1995 and later won a Pulitzer Prize for political commentary. Because of his journalism and association with the University, he was invited to deliver yesterday’s University Class Day speech, an invitation extended by the University. (“Class Day” is the beginning of the Convocation Weekend, or graduation, with the formal cap-and-gown ceremony taking place today.)

The students didn’t like that much, especially because they didn’t have a say in who got to speak.  And the speaker is a conservative who doesn’t hate Israel, which means he’s doubly damned. A coalition of students from the groups below thus wrote a very long Google document (see below the fold) calling Stephens a bigot, a racist, a “bigoted ideologue”, and an “apologist for Israeli apartheid” (yes, the signers included the Students for Justice in Palestine). There’s also a “content warning”. Here are the signers:

CareNotCops [JAC: they want to abolish the police]
Environmental Justice Task Force
Students for Disability Justice
Students for Justice in Palestine
UChicago Against Displacement
UChicago Democratic Socialists of America

They criticize Stephens for many things, the one most relevant to this post being his supposed attempt to suppress the speech of other writers at the NYT. The evidence, however, is merely a Twitter thread by writer Wajahat Ali that is entirely hearsay, saying that Stephens has criticized other writers, written to editors (no evidence is adduced), and has also responded to being criticized with more criticism.  This is thin gruel. I don’t agree with everything Stephens says in the NYT, but one thing I haven’t seen him do is call for suppression of speech.  If he ever did, he’d be violating the principles of the college from which he graduated—the principles he lauded in his talk.

The Chicago Maroon (our student newspaper) reported on the coalition’s criticisms (again, see below the fold), and gave Stephen’s’s response:

In an email to The Maroon, Stephens responded to the statement.

“I read the coalition statement carefully. It is a caricature of my views. It is based on cherry-picked and misleading quotations and bad-faith readings of my work. It also borders on self-parody: To accuse me of being an “imperialist” sounds like 1960s agitprop. For the record, I am not an imperialist, a racist, or anything else the statement accuses me of being.”

In the email statement, Stephens countered that he had a more moderate ideology than what the statement suggested, pointing to some of his political views.

“The more mundane truth is that I’m a moderate conservative and card-carrying NeverTrumper who opposes the Dobbs decision, supports repealing the 2nd Amendment, and favors a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Last year, the Russian government banned me for life from visiting that country and Tucker Carlson calls me a ‘leftist.’ If this puts me beyond the pale of the ‘coalition,’ it says a lot more about them than it does about me.” (Editor’s note: Stephens included the hyperlinks himself in his emailed statement.)

Well, all the student criticism is fine, even encouraged by our University, for it’s free speech. And to be fair, none of the critics called for the cancelation of Stephens’s speech. As far as I know, it wasn’t disrupted, either.

But Stephens got his own back with his talk, which he reprinted in the NYT. It’s all about the importance of freedom of expression, and gives special encomiums to our recently deceased President and free-speech promoter Bob Zimmer. You can read it by clicking on the link below.

I’ve listened to a lot of anodyne graduation speeches in myu career (this one is really not the official graduation address, which is always delivered by a member of our faculty—today colleague and law professor Tom Ginsburg). It’s the “Class Day” address. Read it by clicking the headline below, and it’s also been archived here.  After reading it, I’m guessing that the University invited Stephens to talk on Class Day precisely so he could impart the lesson below to the departing students. If they wanted to cater to the students, they’d probably invite someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Stephens begins by addressing his critics directly, and then praising two major figures at the University (I don’t know if there was a walkout):

To those of you who are protesting or planning a walkout, I thank you for not seriously disrupting my speech. And though I’m sorry you won’t hear me out, I completely respect your right to protest any speaker you dislike, including me, so long as you honor the Chicago Principles. It is one of the core liberties that all of us have a responsibility to uphold, protect and honor.

To those of you who choose to stay, I thank you for honoring another Chicago principle, one that was dear to my dear friend, Bob Zimmer: Namely, that a serious education is impossible except in an environment of unfettered intellectual challenge — an environment that, in turn, isn’t possible without the opportunity to encounter people and entertain views with whom and with which you might profoundly disagree.To John Boyer, who welcomed me to Chicago in 1991 when I was a nervous 17-year-old freshman, I want to salute you for everything you’ve done to make the college so much better, while preserving what always made it great: the conviction that to think clearly, we must be able to speak freely; that to disagree intelligently, we must first understand the views of our opponents profoundly; that to change people’s minds, we must be open to the possibility that our minds might be changed. All of this asks us to listen charitably, argue candidly, consider deeply, examine and re-examine everything, above all our own deeply held convictions — and, unlike at so many other universities, to respond to ideas we reject with more and better speech, not heckling or censorship.

And the ending (but do read the whole thing):

. . . . You are about to go out into the real world, as real adults, with a real hand in shaping the conditions of our common life. Many of you will soon join and eventually lead great institutions, and a few of you will create significant businesses, NGOs, schools and other institutions of your own. I’m guessing not many of you are thinking: “I want to make them just like the University of Chicago,” at least as far as subzero temperatures, midterms that begin the third week and the food at Valois are concerned.  [JAC: Valois is a downscale cafeteria in Hyde Park, known for its homey and inexpensive food. Barack Obama would occasionally eat there, even as President.]

But I hope you can at least say this: that, at Chicago, you learned that institutions become and remain great not because of the weight of their traditions or the perception of their prestige, but because they are places where the sharpest thinking is given the freest rein, and where strong arguments may meet stronger ones, and where “error of opinion may be tolerated” because “reason is left free to combat it” and where joy and delight are generally found at the point of contact — mental or otherwise.

If you can say this, then Chicago will have served you well. And if you can bring this mind-set and this spirit to the places you will soon make your own, then you will have served Chicago even better.

Go forth, good luck, and thank you.


Stephens delivering the talk:

Click “read more” to see the “coalition statement on Bret Stephens’ Class Day Invitation“:

Coalition Statement on Bret Stephens’ Class Day Invitation

cw: sexual assault, antiblackness, violence

The following is a statement authored by a united coalition of student organizations – CareNotCops, Students for Justice in Palestine, Students for Disability Justice, UChicago Against Displacement, UChicago DSA, and the Environmental Justice Task Force – voicing our unanimous opposition to the University’s decision to host Bret Stephens as this year’s Class Day speaker. As outlined in the statement below, Stephens’ invitation exposes the fundamentally reactionary orientation of University administrators and their disregard for the perspectives of marginalized peoples, including their own students. Stephens’ career as a right-wing journalist serves not only to illustrate the interrelatedness of the various forms of oppression in which he and the University are both complicit, but also as an urgent reminder of the need to form a united front dedicated to opposing these evils and transforming the University from within. We stand together in condemning Stephens’ invitation and call on University students, staff, faculty, and community members to join us by signing at this link: https://tinyurl.com/mrebbrf5 

Last month, the University of Chicago announced plans to host journalist Bret Stephens as its 2023 Class Day speaker. A veteran columnist for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Stephens has spent the better part of the last three decades acting as a professional mouthpiece for such forces as U.S. imperialism, Israeli apartheid, climate denialism, and racist policing. Still more troublingly, Stephens has used his journalistic platform to lend these and other reactionary causes a veneer of intellectual and political “respectability,” dressing up the grossest lies, crimes, and prejudices of the U.S. political establishment in the polished rhetoric of NYT-style journalism.

Consider first Stephens’ long track record of support for U.S. imperialism. During his tenure as editor of The Jerusalem Post, Stephens emerged as a prominent supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq – an illegal war of aggression that resulted in the deaths of some 500,000 civilians, the destruction of Iraqi society, the formation of ISIS, and the displacement of nearly 1 in 25 Iraqis. Incredibly, Stephens doubled down on his support for the war as recently as last March, praising the U.S. military for its success in toppling the Iraqi government and insisting, counterevidence be damned, that in fact “Iraq, the Middle East and the world are better off” as a result of the invasion. That the overwhelming majority of Iraqis feel otherwise is of no interest to Stephens. Here as elsewhere, Stephens displays a classic colonial indifference to what Arab and other non-Western populations think and feel about their lives and futures. Furthering the interests of his preferred Euro-American imperial projects is Stephens’ only real concern: the havoc those projects wreak on faraway populations can be brushed aside as so much “tragic” collateral damage.

Stephens’ disregard for Arab life is nowhere more evident than in his history of enthusiastic support for Israeli colonialism. It is well known that Stephen has devoted much of his career to cheerleading Israel’s century-long project of stealing Palestinian land, demolishing Palestinian homes, violently expelling Palestinian civilians, and replacing them with Jewish-only settlers. Still more galling, however, is Stephens’ recurring insistence that it is the Palestinians – not their colonizers – who deserve primary blame for what they suffer. According to Stephens’ profoundly racist portrayal of the situation, Palestinians, like other Arabs, are a fundamentally backward and irrational people: perpetually victimized by their own foolish decisions, possessing no “great universit[ies]” or “serious scientific research” to boast of, imprisoned in a “stunted literary culture,” and consumed by a near-congenital “hatred” of Jews. The Palestinians’ real problem is not that they have had their land stolen, their history erased, their people butchered, and their rights trampled on for 75 years by an occupying superpower. No, the underlying problem is the Palestinians themselves: if only they would renounce their “culture of victimhood,” their pathological love of “violence,” and their incorrigible “antisemitism” — what Stephens elsewhere calls “the disease of the Arab mind” — then surely their suffering would cease and they would enjoy the prosperity of the ‘civilized’ world.

If this rhetoric of racialized victim-blaming sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is no less frequently employed by defenders of institutional racism in the domestic U.S. context. Here too Stephens has earned a paycheck for himself in recent years, using his journalistic platform to voice support for U.S. police departments and demonize the Movement for Black Lives. In one recent interview, Stephens attributes racist policing practices to the widespread “criminality” at work in Black communities and villifies Black Lives Matter (BLM) as a movement with “some really thuggish elements in it.” After chastising BLM for failing to recognize that police are “vital to the preservation of black lives,” Stephen goes on to criticize the movement for having created a “culture” marked by a “dramatic increase in murders.” What hyperpoliced Black communities truly need – Stephens tells them – is not structural transformation as demanded by BLM or other Black organizers, but a modest process of “reform” grounded in the proper recognition that “all lives matter” and that “the great majority of police officers are hard-working, brave, public-spirited, working class men and women … tasked with some very unpleasant but essential jobs.”

Unsurprisingly, Stephens’ enthusiasm for “tough-on-crime” politics extends beyond police departments to the U.S. carceral system more generally. In one recent op-ed, Stephens celebrates Biden’s notorious 1994 crime bill by deploying the racialized rhetoric of “criminal deviancy” and attributing high crime rates to individuals’ choice to “disobey” the law — a problem successfully addressed, claims Stephens, by the bill’s revival of broken-window policing. Though Stephens briefly alludes to the regrettable “side effects” these policies have had on the lives of “offenders” – by which he means the mass incarceration and political disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Black, Brown, and poor people – he ultimately champions the destructive era of superpredator politics as a moment of “moral clarity.” Mass incarceration, in his view, is “something for [Biden] to trumpet, not apologize for.” Evidently, the fact that mass incarceration has stolen the lives, families, and basic rights of countless individuals – including the thousands of our peers currently imprisoned in Cook County Jail – bears less importance for Stephens than the “greater margin of safety” such policies supposedly provide for citizens like himself.

A similar disregard for the plight of vulnerable populations has marked Stephens’ years of ignorant commentary on the global climate crisis. In 2008, Stephens published an article entitled “Global Warming as Mass Neurosis” in which he dismissed climate change as a “mass hysteria phenomenon” and falsely claimed that much of the relevant science had been discredited. He has since repeated these claims in numerous articles and interviews, misrepresenting leaked emails from British climate scientists to justify his “climate agnosticism” and declaring climate change to be just another “imaginary enemy” of liberalism. (Other evils Stephens has dismissed as “imaginary” include the campus sexual assault epidemic, institutionized racism, and food insecurity.) While Stephens has more recently taken steps toward acknowledging the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the fact remains that he spent the better part of the last decade wielding his influence to disparage established climate science and uphold the U.S. culture of inaction around the crisis. Even now, Stephens continues to advocate against significant government intervention and “alarmist” climate activism, instead suggesting delay tactics that align with those preferred by private corporations. 

Stephens’ forays into pseudoscience have not, however, been limited to climate change. In one recent article – “The Mask Mandates Did Nothing. Will Any Lessons Be Learned?” – Stephens argues that masks make no difference in preventing the spread of respiratory illness, a claim that has been debunked numerous times by medical and scientific communities and that rests upon a direct misinterpretation of the study he tried to cite. This argument has been deeply harmful in its impact on U.S. responses to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. It has been particularly devastating for already disabled people who are high-risk, suffer chronic health conditions, and have had difficulty leaving their homes for the past three years – in large part due to the spread of misinformation such as that peddled by Stephens. Furthermore, inasmuch as U.S. Covid policy bears directly on other axes of social justice – including the lack of protection against the pandemic faced by many workers and the limited access to Paxlovid and other medical care in many racialized communities – Stephens’ spread of misinformation has reinforced other societal inequities that the pandemic has exacerbated.  

Finally, given that the University has justified its decision to platform Stephens by appealing to the principle of free expression, it is worth noting that Stephens has himself shown complete disregard for the principles of free speech and labor solidarity during his tenure at the NYT. Stephens has repeatedly utilized his power and clout as a prominent columnist to limit criticism and attack his coworkers. Several of Stephens’ colleagues have come forward with accounts of his attempts to get them fired for expressing disagreement with his many bigoted articles. In 2020, for example, columnist Wajaheet Ali outlined Stephens’ impact on the NYT culture and workplace in a Twitter thread: “He has even emailed the masthead complaining about fellow editors or writers. As a result many walk on eggshells when it comes to him. There’s a simmering resentment and feelings of a very real double standard. People fear for their jobs so remain quiet.” It is unacceptable for the University of Chicago, an institution that claims freedom of expression as a “core element” of its history and culture, to platform Stephens even as he actively curtails freedom of expression in one of the nation’s most powerful publications. This hypocrisy is made still more glaring by the fact that the University is sustained by the labor of thousands of unionized workers. The power of these workers and their unions is premised on the principles of solidarity and unity. Stephens’ harassment of and attacks against his fellow workers betray the basic principles of this solidarity that allow workers to bargain and fight for what they deserve. 

Commenting on the University’s decision to platform Stephens this year, Dean John Boyer described him as “one of the most insightful voices in American journalism today.” Given Stephen’s actual track record, we find this statement difficult to stomach. Yet in many ways, inviting a right-wing ideologue like Stephens is neither particularly surprising nor inconsistent with the University’s history and practice. After its use of racially restrictive covenants became outlawed, the University forcibly displaced generations of Black Americans from the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood in a systematic effort to keep the area White. It then protected this newly seized territory by establishing a massive, unaccountable private police force – the UCPD – that disproportionately targets Black and Brown community members. Building on these racist foundations, the University continues today to be complicit in the various oppressive systems supported by Stephens, as is evident in its hosting of Israeli generals, its ongoing displacement of Black communities, and its continued investment in fossil fuels. In these and other areas, the University plainly privileges the interests of wealthy administrators, trustees, and other profiteers over the needs of marginalized populations in Chicago and around the world.

But the University shouldn’t, and doesn’t, belong solely to those who administrate and profit from it – which is why we, the undersigned students, faculty, and staff, have decided to make our collective voice heard in unequivocally condemning the administration’s decision to host Bret Stephens. A University that maintains a culture of free expression while also respecting the dignity of its students, neighbors, and others around the world is certainly conceivable. So long as racist ideologues like Stephens are being hosted at Class Day ceremonies, however, there will remain a long way to go toward achieving this goal.



Environmental Justice Task Force

Students for Disability Justice

Students for Justice in Palestine

UChicago Against Displacement

UChicago Democratic Socialists of America

13 thoughts on “A “progressive” coalition goes after Bret Stephens as our Class Day Speaker; he delivers an excellent address anyway

  1. What’s with knocking the Valois? I love that place. It’s one of the good things about living in Hyde Park.

    1. I didn’t say it in my comment below, but, having read only the first few lines, the length alone shows its to be one of the most conceited and supercilious “statements” I’ve ever seen, especially when it’s against someone as anodyne as Bret Stephens.

      Also, I would just like to thank our host for reading these things. I challenge any commenter to read the stuff PCC(E) reads for us on a daily basis. Thank you, Jerry, for your grueling and enduring service. As you often say, you read this stuff so we don’t need to (not that we ever could!).

  2. What I would have given for the commencement speaker at my college graduation (I know this wasn’t that speech, but rather the “Class Day” speech, which we didn’t have). Mine was a certain Democratic Senator, who did nothing but give a perfunctory introduction talking about us and then droned on about how great he and his accomplishments were.

    In anticipation of how boring it would be, I asked my parents to buy me a PSP (Sony Playstation’s portable gaming device) for my graduation gift. While everyone was sitting bored out of their minds through a ceremony that lasted several hours, I was playing God of War and a few other titles. The students near me were so jealous.

    I think those few hours were the smartest I’ve ever felt 🙂

    1. EDIT: “What I would have given for the commencement speaker at my college graduation to have been someone like Bret Stephens.”

      Sorry, the edit button has done its disappearing act again, this time for several weeks.

  3. Stephens: “For the record, I am not an imperialist, a racist, or anything else the statement accuses me of being.”

    I doubt that any of those who made these accusations has any idea how one should go about recognizing when someone is *not* an imperialist, *not* a racist etc. And just as a diagnostic test that was 100% accurate at detecting when a patient has COVID but 0% accurate at detecting when the patient does *not* have COVID would be worthless, just so would I account the validity of those accusations.

  4. I’m very happy to hear about this commencement speech. If there’s an place that should be open to different, and opposing views, it’s colleges and universities, so I’m very opposed to the idea of banning or “uninviting” speakers who may say controversial things.

  5. I take the success of Stephen’s speech as a hopeful sign of progress in the fight against the anti-rational Left, evidence that those on the side of angels have a fighting chance after all, just in the sense that punching and living to punch another day is evidence one is learning how to both punch and to take punches.

  6. I’m glad that Stephen’s was able to speak. Perhaps the members of the student coalition who wrote that letter at least learned that shouting down a speaker isn’t an acceptable option. On the other hand, their letter is appalling. It will be immediately forgotten (but not forgiven) as the immature ravings of people who protest for sport.

  7. What a wonderful speech Stephens gave! His verbal slapdown of the protesters was perfect, and perhaps more so because of its brevity. I went to BYU, and his speech would never have been allowed there, more’s the pity.

  8. Why we still call backwardness a “progressive behaviour”? It happened in the history so many times that it is boring and dangerously well tolerated by indifferent crowds…
    Revolutionaries usually tend to control populations not progress of thinking or technology. Thank you for the article.

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