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Colbert? Really?

Greg Yatarola | Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I don’t remember who spoke at my graduation. It’s not that he/she was so forgettable, though I’m sure he/she was. I didn’t go. I do remember, though, the previous year, when the graduating class president sniffed publicly that the speaker was good enough for Purdue maybe, but not Notre Dame. How she endeared herself to all Indiana!

Anyway, I don’t remember any administrators asking us seniors whom we wanted to hear, and if they had, I hope they wouldn’t have listened, for I’m sure that whoever did speak that day was less of an embarrassment to ND than our pick would have been.

Nonetheless, I understand seniors’ frustration with this year’s speaker. One doesn’t become a cardinal archbishop by saying anything interesting. I imagine he’ll talk a bit about following Jesus, but it’s doubtful at best that he’ll make such following seem noble or somehow attractive, or that he’ll discuss clearly what the stakes are. No, this won’t be Patton, or Kierkegaard, or Alyosha’s speech by the stone. But I hope I’m wrong.

What I do not understand, though, is how seniors can complain that the administration didn’t consider their input, given that their pick was Stephen Colbert. I’m more worried that the administration actually did consider it. They’re giving the Laetare award to someone who played pretend for a living, so why not invite an obnoxious pretend journalist to address the seniors? What I hope happened instead is that whichever official saw Colbert at the top of the list just blurted out “[expletive] grow up” and hit delete.

I don’t dislike Stephen Colbert, or think he’d disgrace ND by speaking at graduation, because of his show’s rather un-Catholic content. It’s sad to see a man his age amuse teenagers with jokes about selling his own semen, but oh well. Nor is it because I can’t identify a single accomplishment of his that would make him worthy of being at all honored by the University of Notre Dame. It’s not even that Colbert, like his mentor Jon Stewart, is a small, weasely man, a dishonest cheap-shot artist, a bigot with all the acceptable bigotries who can only counter ideas he doesn’t like by caricature. I highly doubt they’d practice their routine casual smearing if we had the right kinds of laws in this country, allowing dueling. I stopped watching Colbert when he described the pope in passing as a former Nazi. It’s not just that his target was the pope. He and Stewart do it all the time. Just recently, after his man-crush the Obamessiah came under fire for his delightful “bitter” remarks (delivered to affluent San Francisco donors – perfect!), Stewart went to bat for him. Obama was wrong in saying that slack-jawed rural whites turn to religion, guns, and racism because of economic hardship – no, according to Stewart, small-town white America is built on such backwardness. Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to give such candid analysis of some of Obama’s constituencies – say, Chardonnay-sipping hot-tub liberals in Marin County.

No, what disappoints me about this year’s pick is how unimaginative it was. I bet the couch-burners up in East Lansing picked Colbert too, or would have. Why not just pick Flavor Flav? I’m sure an interpreter could be provided.

Notre Dame’s student body is often criticized for conformity, and usually in terms of its Catholicity. I saw plenty of conformism at Notre Dame, but it wasn’t to the teachings of the Church. It was to our culture. As I tried to state in a previous article, I knew as many girls actually on birth-control as dead-set against it. I knew far more people who watched “Seinfeld” religiously than who said the rosary. The music I heard at parties was whatever awful noise was popular at the time, not the quirky unknown stuff college kids traditionally take pride in liking. Nobody I knew went to see independent movies, but blockbusters were a staple. Several kids I knew could recite every line of “Austin Powers”. Girls on the treadmills read “Cosmo”. My classmates, by and large, had no problem adopting a critical attitude toward the authority of the Church, often with the help of their theology professors. But rarely did I see such critical distance maintained toward the multiform stupidities of our popular culture. Slander Jennnifer Lopez, and you’d start a fight; my theology professor called St. Paul “evil,” and nobody batted an eyelash.

Of course, it’s better to have low-brow tastes in music, movies, TV, magazines, etc. than to be pretentious and elitist. But that’s the thing – Notre Dame too often combined the worst of both, devotion to “The Real World” or “Sex & the City” with looking down at state-school kids, believing themselves so different from the collegiate hoi polloi. You’re not that different. You greet strangers sometimes on the way to class? Great, but do you think they just hiss and spit at each other at Penn State or LSU? And kids at Cornell do lots of service too. You’re maybe smarter than the kids at Kentucky, and you’ve spent four years studying timeless works of towering genius (hopefully). But then you want a comedian at your graduation?

I’m not trying to scold anyone. Just please don’t go out into the world with a sense of superiority. We Domers already have a bad reputation for that. If we’re really that much better, let’s show it.

Greg Yatarola is a 1999 alumnus. He hopes it’s clear to all now why he asked to write under a pseudonym this year. He fears his class would have picked Jerry Seinfeld as graduation speaker. His address is gregpy@hotmail.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.