The announcement of Joe Biden as the 2013 commencement speaker at the University of Pennsylvania did not cause much controversy on campus. Though Biden’s speech need not cause uproar, it ought to serve as an occasion to ask serious moral and political questions of an elected leader.
Harry Truman said of himself and all other vice presidents, “[They’re] as useless as a cow’s fifth teat.” In American culture, vice presidents are well liked when they poke fun at the limits of their own title. Joe Biden, a smiling and avuncular figure who has repeatedly served as his president’s bipartisan bridge builder, embodies the good humor Americans look for in a vice president.
A vice president is already a lot like a college commencement speaker: the crowd may remember his name, will likely forget what he says and hopes he’s funny. When the two jobs are united in the same person, the event seems so benign it is unlikely that one would get riled up about it. For this reason, the announcement of Joe Biden for commencement elicited the same reaction as Flo Rida for second warm up act at Spring Fling 2011: “I can sit through that!”
For a student to lament the missed opportunity for a Steve Jobs level address would be to commit the same error as a utopian, spoiling reality while waiting for the impossible. Graduation is supposed to be a sunny affair, so don’t look for the gray-haired speaker in the silver lining. In graduation’s atmosphere of optimism, disappointment is socially inappropriate, and so too is righteous indignation. It would seem awkward for both ACLU and NRA aligned students to protest our vice presidential commencement with signs reading, “Hey Hey
LBJ Joe B. How many kids did you kill drone today this week?” and “Don’t tread on my Second Amendment rights!” These placards would appear incongruous if not grotesque amid smiling students, parents, grandparents and a vice president, who, at least on a northeastern college campus, is an uncontroversial and likeable figure.
While confrontational chants may be out of place at a commencement, an invitation to serious discussion — such as a publicized student and faculty panel before or after the event — is absolutely necessary.
Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, which left over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead, nearly 4,500 American servicemen and women killed in action and over 30,000 American soldiers wounded. Many constructive reflections on our government and greater nation’s mistakes during the war have been published. Iraq War veteran John A. Nagl wrote in his eloquent and moving New York Times editorial “What America Learned in Iraq,” “It would devalue the sacrifices of the many who have suffered if we were not to read these lessons written in blood … We must hope that from such peril and toil this great young generation … will build a better future for a wiser and chastened America.”
What better day to begin the process Nagl describes than graduation, a celebration of our emergence as educated, critical thinkers? Though graduation is supposed to be a joyful day, perhaps sacrificing a bit of our bliss in deference to the victims of our government’s mistakes, and in the hope of averting such mistakes in the future, is exactly the lesson we should draw from our nation’s experience before and during the Iraq War.
We should invite Joe Biden as a thoughtful man and moral agent to share the wisdom he gained coming to terms with the deadly consequences of his vote in the Senate to invade Iraq. We can’t expect our leaders to ask difficult questions of themselves if we are unwilling to begin the dialogue. We have a right and a responsibility to ask: what is Biden’s case for reauthorizing the Patriot Act, allowing the government to invade and seize private property without probable cause? Why did his administration break its promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and end indefinite detention there? How does Biden explain, legally and ethically, the targeted killing of American citizens without due process and the mortal maiming of innocent civilians, many of whom are in Pakistan? We ought to ask these questions of the vice president out of respect for his ability to offer meaningful answers.
The aversion to making the personal political, especially on a happy occasion like a commencement, is understandable. Failing to even recognize the political as political, however, is a fatal error, the bloody consequences of which soldiers like Nagl can attest to. As the noble Penn motto reads, “Leges Sine Moribus Vanae,” or “Laws Without Morals are Useless.” Respecting our educations at the University of Pennsylvania, the vice president and our shared nation requires us to ask Joe Biden serious moral and political questions when he comes to address us in May.
Jack Solowey is a College senior. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.