Putting the “host” in hostile

Paulson and Rice protesters violated fundamental standards of hospitality and free discourse.

By Eric Wessan

What is American hospitality? Throughout the ages there have been various ideals concerning hospitality, and it seems very strange to me that there is not a consistent idea of what hospitality means in America. Whether you consider chivalry in the Middle Ages, laws concerning treatment of strangers in ancient Rome and Greece, or even the incredibly welcoming laws among Bedouins in the deserts of the Middle East that still persist today, there is a basic conception of hospitality that a culture embraces. Even within America, people comment on how nice people in the Midwest are, or romanticize good old-fashioned Southern hospitality. But it seems as if, in its current iteration, 21st- century American hospitality needs a severe reboot.

This summer I was traveling around Israel in a group, and we stayed in a Bedouin tent. There, with the help of a translator, a Bedouin explained to us his concept of hospitality. He explained that in his culture any person, known or stranger, enemy or friend, was welcome at a Bedouin family’s tent for three days. During that time there could be no fighting and no questions. The guest should be served food and tea (which was delicious) and not much else. This sort of welcome with open arms fosters a great sense of community.

Contrast this with the recent trouble that former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson had in inviting his good friend, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to visit him at the University of Chicago. Henry Paulson currently heads the independent Paulson Institute, located at the University of Chicago, and Condoleezza Rice is coming out with a new book, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington. Neither of these former Secretaries is currently involved with their former departments in any more than an ancillary sense, but in the past they worked together under former President George W. Bush.

To some, it seems that working under former President Bush is a complete condemnation of character. Following in the wake of the Occupy protests, a group formed on Facebook named “Unwelcoming Hank and Condi—Occupy Hyde Park”. This group was formed with the explicit purpose of making guests to this university feel unwelcome. The detailed description on the group page claims (correctly) that Paulson and Rice worked both in the private and public sectors, for both large companies and our large government. Members of the group found all of this to be so offensive that their commenters ranged from asking for help in “A PUBLIC TRIAL AGAINST HANK PAULSON” to a request for students to call the University of Chicago’s offices and ask “why they are hosting terrorists.” While everyone should respect free speech, and everyone has a First Amendment—guaranteed right to share their opinions, there is a difference between sharing an opinion and being rude. As hosts, we should respect our guests, and, if we disagree with them, attempt to peaceably address that disagreement. The whole event was going to be a question-and-answer session—where better to ask polite but pointed questions on controversial policies?

Unfortunately, that would have been far too civil, and would not have allowed people to feel as free as they can possibly be in expressing themselves. Some even went so far as to request that people try to sneak in, with posters and noisemakers, in order to interrupt the speeches that would have been made by what they refer to so vulgarly as “a wall street parasite and war profiteer come together.” This would be a definite infringement of free speech, as the people who were coming for the express purpose of speaking (and whom a majority of students would be seeking to listen to) would be drowned out by a minority. This is outrageous. When group members were asked how they felt about this stifled discourse and sharing of opinions, the response was immediate and visceral. Within one hour of the post going up on the group, five people on eight posts commented as to why the stifling of Secretaries Rice and Paulson’s speech was a good thing. Reasons were given ranging from violent oppression and anecdotes of murder (in an abstract sense) to a denial that free speech exists in the first place, arguing that Rice, specifically, had lost her right to free speech.

The University has stated that Condoleezza Rice’s speech has been postponed due to a scheduling conflict, and I hope this is the case. For whatever reason, the University of Chicago has proven to be a bad host, and certain students have succeeded in their stated mission of being unwelcoming. Through new media, through embracing ideas that run contrary to the spirit of hard work and enterprise that make America such a great country and through ignoring the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, we have together failed as hosts.

Eric Wessan is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.