Stanford, CA: Intellectual Life Under Obama

‘A mock funfair with absurdist theatre and the return of ideologues of 40 years ago — is that the new era of change and hope?

Academia Dispatches Education North America War on Terror

There isn’t much more to California than palm trees and sun — or so it seems to a European. Sure, the state is the most populous in the US and is known for the diversity of its population. But you don’t find much proof of a rich cultural history that has grown over centuries. Some see this as the state’s peculiar appeal — you have the freedom to be whoever you want at any given moment. Others view this as potential peril — people seem to live removed from traditional values. In California, it seems, opinions are formed as a result of “anything goes”. 

How does a state like this react to a bit of controversy? Condoleezza Rice’s return to Stanford University, where she last served as Provost (1993-2000), is a case in point. 

The former Secretary of State had quietly returned to Stanford as a professor of political science and a Senior Fellow at the university’s Hoover Institution during the winter term. In mid-April, however, the peace and quiet disappeared when the media reported Rice’s approval, in a 2002 memo to the then CIA chief George Tenet, of the use of waterboarding, before eventually crossing it off the list of interrogation techniques in 2005. According to the reports, Rice defended waterboarding, saying it did not constitute torture under the United Nations Convention, signed by the US in 1988. At first, the report seemed like old news and did not get much attention at Stanford, despite some pressure from within the Democratic Party to have an official investigation. The situation heated up when undergraduates questioned Rice, a former key player in an administration unpopular with students, about its interrogation techniques. The ensuing controversy, however, turned out not to be a political issue, but rather a tale about the intellectual life of a generation of students who wholeheartedly embrace the idea of change associated with the Obama administration.

The tale begins in an unassuming student hall of residence. Rice had agreed to dine with some of its residents. At the after-dinner discussion, Rice defended her stance on interrogation techniques. A student secretly recorded this and uploaded it to YouTube. The next day, the student newspaper ran a story about the event, under the headline “Rice defends waterboarding”. The outrage was echoed in the national media, which followed up the story. On his blog, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos wrote that it was the first time since the release of Justice Department memos that anyone had got “Condie” Rice on the record about the Bush administration’s interrogation tactics. The Atlantic magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan labelled the video Rice’s “Nixon moment”, because of her declaration that waterboarding did not violate domestic or international law by definition because it had been cleared by the President. This was Nixon’s defence of Watergate in his interview with David Frost. 

The next week, there was a protest on the Stanford campus, which was unusual because of its laid-back atmosphere, in contrast to Berkeley, its radical rival across the Bay . Students organised a so-called “Condival” to protest against Rice’s return to the university. It was a kind of mock funfair, which ran under the banner “So much fun, it’s a war crime”. It featured a spoof display of support from fake campus conservative organisations. A devilish image of Rice was projected on to the Hoover tower, where she has her office, and in front of it students performed a parody of waterboarding. Some students held another above a tub of water, while a third student yelled at him, asking where the terrorists were — all of this to a small crowd of bystanders laughing hysterically. The organisers claimed this activity was intended as absurdist political theatre to draw attention to the ridiculousness of the Bush administration’s rhetoric and to pull people out of their comfort zones. But what are the comfort zones of those young students, most of them in their early twenties — and were they political?

Those who expected or hoped that this might lead to some kind of campus unrest, or even “a new political consciousness”, as one professor expressed it, were wrong. The smell of protest was not in the air. The new political mood of change some had hoped to see turned out to be an old one.

The main protest was held by a few dozen elderly alumni, who had been student activists in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, they were members of the Stanford branch of Students for a Democratic Society. They nailed an informal indictment against Rice on to the door of a building, which 40 years before had been the stage for their protests against the Vietnam War. Their action 40 years later — urging legal authorities to investigate and prosecute Rice — was meant to be symbolic. It was the finale for a week-long reunion organised by veteran anti-war protesters. 

A mock funfair with absurdist theatre and the return of ideologues of 40 years ago — is that the new era of change and hope? Not quite, because interestingly enough the majority of Stanford students did not seem indifferent, but rather reflective. They highlighted the differences between politics and intellectual life, which resonated in the debate about Rice’s accountability and her presence at Stanford. Some said it was only fair to give Rice institutional space and support, even if they disagreed with many of the actions taken by the administration she served. Others even said her case was an educational opportunity: what better way to learn how personalities, bureaucracies and pressure lead to controversial decisions? 

The interesting twist is not so much how much or how little Rice’s presence turned into a controversy in Stanford, but how the notion of change featured in it. Some students suggested that the campus heed President Obama’s call to tone down political rhetoric in order to create a comfortable and vibrant political scene. One professor, by contrast, was overheard saying, “Obama is an intellectual, not a politician”, implying that the President was one of “us”, while Professor Rice was one of “them”. 

One wonders why intellectual life and political life should all of a sudden be incompatible. For the younger generation, which so wholeheartedly embraced the idea of change, they seem almost inseparable. Perhaps this is a paradox — but then, California is built on them.