To be true dissent, it must be more than disagreement. It needs to expose and undermine the very foundations and assumptions of the object of critique. In this sense, the Colbert speech was true “dissent” in that it exposed the ridiculousness of the event (see Billmon’s post for a fuller discussion). [It's also similar to the way that Shakespeare's jesters (including Mercutio) often stood "outside the play" exposing the absurdity "inside."]
Publius thinks that Rohe was actually playing into McCain's hands because McCain wanted to get booed at New York's liberal New School to bolster his cultural cred in the heartland. Possibly, but I doubt it.
McCain is trying to cultivate a moderate image while pandering to the religious right. McCain called Jerry Falwell "agent of intolerance " in 2000, but this year he changed his mind and agreed to give the commencement address at Falwell's bible college, Liberty University.
McCain's handlers sent him to The New School as cover for his visit to Liberty University. Rohe was able to get the jump on McCain because he bragged to the media about giving the same speech at all of his commencement gigs. McCain was acting as if a canned address is a display of integrity, a sign that he's a straight shooter who doesn't change his message to suit his audience. In fact, it proves that he's a phony and user. He doesn't care about these institutions, these students, or these ceremonies. It's all about him.
Imagine you're Jean Rohe. You learn that the University administration has allowed John McCain to hijack your commencement ceremonies. To add insult to injury, he's been bragging to the press about how he's going to give a canned speech. That's not all, it's a canned speech about how today's college graduates are too vain, self-important, and naive to participate in American political discourse. So, your convocation has become a campaign event for a candidate who appears to hold you in contempt.
Should you just play along? I don't think so.
McCain's supporters say that Rohe's remarks were inappropriate. On the contrary, it was McCain who was out of line. Being a U.S. Senator doesn't give you the power to dictate socially acceptable behavior.
Rohe's responsibility as a student leader was to represent her class at the podium. When she realized that McCain gearing up to disrespect the proceedings and the participants, she was honor-bound to rebuke him.
What did Rohe accomplish? First off, she embarrassed John McCain and the New School, not simply by being outrageous, but by pointing out that exactly what was offensive about the decision to invite him in the first place. McCain was counting on the student body to passively accept his grandstanding and by their acquiescence to burnish his reputation as a principled moderate.
Maybe next time, The New School will think twice before lending out its students for campaign events.
Rohe's larger public service was to undermine McCain's fake bipartisanship.