- Wally Lamb, Conneticut Collge, 2003
- Martha Nussbaum, Georgetown University, 2003
- Lewis Lapham, St. John’s College, 2003
- Fred Rogers, Dartmouth College, 2002
- Vaslav Havel, Harvard University, 1995
“What do Novelists Know?”
Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut USA
MAY 18, 2003
A nationally honored teacher of writing in the United States, Mr Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, received rave reviews when published in 1992. He currently teaches at the University of Connecticut.
President Fainstein, Connecticut College trustees, faculty, and staff: thank you for the invitation to speak today; it’s my privilege to do so.
Fellow parents and elders of today’s graduates: as one of the troubadours of our baby boomer generation, Joni Mitchell, used to sing, “We’re captives on the carousel of time.” My hope is that, as you listen to these reflections, that they’ll resonate with you and allow you to nod in recognition.
Finally, most especially, members of the Class of 2003: As you can see, I’ve lugged no weighty book of wisdom to this podium. I stand before you on your special day not with answers but with questions, and with an abridged history “I have, each day in solitude, shucked my own life and put on different lives so that I might move beyond the limitations of my own experience and better empathize with, better know the un-me, the other. “of my 52-year-old trial-and-error American life as student, teacher, father, and fiction writer. So make of my words what you will, and also, please note that I’ve fired up the retrorockets. Fasten your seatbelts, everyone. We’re about to blast backwards into the virtual past.
We’ll try a short trip first. Look, we’re here already; it’s February of 2003. The Bush administration is hard-selling the case for invasion, Home Depot is selling out of duct tape and plastic sheeting, and on the front lawns of many American homes “No War on Iraq” signs are popping up through the snow like mutant crocuses. We’re innocent, still, of the concept of “embedded” journalism and that new marketing slogan-“shock and awe”-but our initiation is upon us. Diplomacy is defunct, our leaders tell us. War is inevitable.
I’m in my office when a challenge arrives via Outlook Express. The novelist Dennis Lehane has drafted a petition to President Bush which acknowledges the tyranny of Saddam Hussein but asks that all diplomatic measures be exhausted before we risk ending the lives of innocent Iraqis and American military. Lehane invites fellow writers to sign.
Now, I want what Lehane wants, but I admit this to you, graduates: I blink. I walk around the office. Weigh the pros and cons of signing. There is, after all, the book buyer to consider; there’s product waiting in the warehouse at Amazon.com. Like it or not, we’re in an era of intolerance for dissenting opinion. The Dixie Chicks have yet to be beheaded, plucked, and rotisserie roasted, but the White House has cancelled a literary event where anti-war poets were to speak. In the wake of social satirist Bill Maher’s remarks about terrorism, the President’s press secretary has warned that we must all watch what we say and Maher has lost his television show. So maybe I shouldn’t sign that petition, I think. Still, my kids are watching me, listening to me, studying my responses to the world, and I do not want to send them the message that they can speak their minds at the dinner table but they had better shut up once they get into the school cafeteria. This, after all, is America, where patriotism speaks in many different voices and need not nod mutely like a smiling bobble head. And so, along with 150 other writers, among them Julia Alvarez, Amy Tan, Richard Russo, and Stephen King, I sign the petition. It’s published in the New York Times and the following day, another email arrives, this one from a reporter for a different national newspaper. He wants to know what makes me think novelists know anything about war – why I assume fiction writers have any of the answers.
Hmm. Good question, Mr. Journalist. Please note that I’ve turned on the seatbelt sign. We’re heading back to the year 1961.
Whether you’ve been here before or not, have a look. Dwight Eisenhower is moving out of the White House and John Kennedy’s moving in. The space race is on, our astronauts chasing Soviet cosmonauts into the heavens, while back on terra firma, Maris and Mantle are chasing the Babe’s single-season homerun record. On the small screen, a hapless man named Wilbur holds secret discourse with a talking horse named Mr. Ed, and at the movies, the Absent-Minded Professor has just invented flubber. We are still light years away from Eminem, and Nelly, and It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes. No, no, our transistor radio is playing Dion & the Belmonts, who are warning against the feminine wiles of a girl named Runaround Sue and the Shirelles ask, demurely, that musical question on the mind of every teenage girl being driven in a Chevy Impala up to Lover’s Lane: “Will you still love me tomorrow?”
Yet as we climb into our cuddly feet pajamas of mid-century nostalgia, let’s not forget that this is also the year that the CIA superimposes a bull’s eye on the face of Fidel Castro, feeds fiction to the public, and sends bankrolled dissidents to the Bay of Pigs to accomplish what will be a dangerously miscalculated attempt at “regime change.” Across the Atlantic, in Berlin, a 25-mile barbed wire fence is being erected to separate East from West. In response, the president pre-empts “Mr. Ed” to warn Americans that the escalating crisis may result in a Soviet nuclear attack on our soil. His speech triggers a national preoccupation with homeland security and the back yard bomb shelter, that quaint concrete cousin of the plastic and duct tape shroud, becomes the trend du jour. On the civil rights front, the Freedom Riders travel by bus from Washington to New Orleans to desegregate the South. En route, they are met with bombs and beatings by men in hoods. Because racism is a legacy, not a genetic predisposition, one of these hooded bullies will, perhaps, sire a son who will sire a son who will scrawl anonymous hate graffiti on a college bulletin board in New London, Connecticut nearly forty years hence. Racists, anti-Semites, gay-bashers, Arab-trashers: no matter what the era, no matter who the target, the hate monger is cut from the same cloth of inferior weave.
But, as for me, if it’s 1961, then I am ten years old, a fifth grader living just up the road in Norwich, Connecticut. At school, I’m learning how to diagram sentences, master long division, and execute the duck-and-cover exercises which somehow will save me when the Soviets drop the bomb on the submarine base in Groton. I won’t write my first fiction for another twenty years, but the seeds of my storyteller’s life are planted this year by a scary nun named Sister Mercy.
You see, my mother, who is alive again and dark-haired, insists that I attend catechism class at St. Patrick’s School each Wednesday afternoon from 3:30 to 4:30. Having already spent the day with three dozen parochial school students, Sister Mercy is not happy to see three dozen more rowdy public school students tramping in. We are equally unhappy to be there. There is acting out, screaming, rulers slapped against desktops, spitballs launched from the barrels of ballpoint pens. And as Sister patrols the aisles, one of us catechists, a wild girl named Pauline Migliaccio, goes so far as to affix a paper sign to the back of her veil. “Shake It, Don’t Break It,” the sign says, and so that you might appreciate the full-fledged audacity of Pauline’s act, may I remind you that we’re still decades away from the invention of the Post-It note.
Unlike Pauline Migliaccio, I am far too timid to make trouble for Sister Mercy. My modus operandi for survival is to sit in back, say nothing, and try as best I can to blend in with the wainscoting. But on the afternoon my fate as a fiction writer is sealed, I get a strange and inexplicable urge. I want Sister to like me. Or, if she cannot like me, then at least to notice I exist. And so, at 4:30, when she intones those liberating words, “Class dismissed,” my peers lurch toward the exit, and I hang back. I stand. With a wildly thumping heart, I approach Sister’s big wooden desk.
She is correcting papers and scowling–doesn’t notice at first that I stand facing her. And when she does look up, she says, “Yes, what is it?”
I don’t really know what it is, but she has spent a good part of the last hour talking about the Vatican. “Sister,” I say. “My grandfather moved to America from Italy in 1890.” True. He did. Pure, unadulterated non-fiction. But I can see from Sister’s clenched face that she is unimpressed.
My knees knock; my mind ricochets. Now, as it happens, earlier this same day, two of my public school classmates brought into class a papier-m?ch? volcano. They poured baking soda into the core, added vinegar, and made lava bubble up, spring forth, and dribble down the sides. And this demonstration suddenly comes to mind.
“And, Sister ? before Grandpa came over? When he was still living in Italy? This volcano erupted in his town. It was early in the morning, and he was the only one awake, and so he pounded on people’s doors and everyone escaped and so he saved a whole bunch of people’s lives.”
Sister’s facial muscles relax. She cocks her head. Her gold rim glasses glint a little from the light of the fluorescent lamp above. But I can see that my marriage of falsehood and fact has fallen just short of being enough. It’s a moment of truth. A moment suspended in time. Sister looks at me and waits. I look back at her and wait. And then, finally, I add: “And…the Pope gave him a medal.”
She nods, she smiles. She reaches into her bottom desk drawer, removes a holy picture, and presents it to me. The following Wednesday afternoon, Sister knows my name, I have preferred seating up front, and for the rest of this school year, whenever there is need for a note to travel from Sister Mercy’s room to the office, you can probably guess who is chosen to deliver it.
And so, at the tender age of ten, I learn of the rich rewards that can be yours if you take the truth and lie like hell about it. Bend it to your liking. Now, I could have become a Connecticut politician, I suppose. But no, I became, first, a teacher, and later, a fiction writer.
But what do fiction writers know, Mr. Journalist has emailed me to ask. Why should anyone listen to them? Because, says Grace Paley, “A writer must be truthful. A story is a big lie. And in the middle of this big lie, you’re telling the truth.” Because, says novelist Jesamyn West, “Fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures.” “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction?” Mark Twain observes. “Fiction, after all, has to make sense.”
Fast forward. It’s 1984. Ronald Reagan, Boy George, break dancing, big hair. That new NBA rookie, Michael Jordan, seems so effortlessly airborne that it’s as if he’s affixed flubber to his sneaker bottoms. I’m thirty-three now. I’ve been both a father and a fiction writer for three years; one calling has somehow unleashed the other. You see, as I study my small son Jared and try to imagine who he will grow up to become, I begin to get these characters’ voices in my head. I write down what these figments say and start to worry about them and root for their safety as if they were real. The catch is: I can only find out what’s happening to them when their voices spill from the pointy end of my Bic pen onto the loose-leaf pages in front of me. And as I work on these stories, I defy as best I can that other voice of self-inflicted doubt, which keeps whispering, Stop kidding yourself. You’re never going to get anything published. Get real. Get up from that desk and mow the lawn.
But I’ve let the lawn grow and toiled away for three years and now, in 1984, the phone rings. It’s Lary Bloom, the editor of the Hartford Courant’s Northeast magazine. He wants to publish one of my short stories-the one about the fat woman, Dolores. When my conversation with the editor ends, I hang up the phone and dance my wife around the kitchen. I pick up three-year-old Jared and toss him so high into the air that his head hits the ceiling. But, hey, it’s okay because it’s one of those suspended ceilings with the lightweight panels, so Jared’s head isn’t hurt; it just disappears for a second. My short story is published on Easter Sunday. I drive at dawn to the convenience store and buy three Hartford Courants. For ten minutes, I can’t bear to look. Then I do look. I sit there by myself in the strip mall parking lot and cry like an idiot. I am on my way. Zoom zoom. It’s 1999. Kosovo, the Clinton scandal, the slaughter of students at Columbine High. My fiction has been twice-touched by the magic wand of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, and so my character Dolores has relocated from my hard drive to the best seller list. The troubled identical twins I’ve worried into existence for my second novel have followed suit and so I am preparing to take off on a cross-country book tour. Meanwhile, Jared has metamorphosed from that airborne three year old into a 6’2” high school senior, a near-man of seventeen. He helps me heft my luggage out to the driveway where a purring limousine waits. And as I’m driven away, I look through the tinted rear window at my child and, again, I am wet-eyed.
I see a young man coauthored out of love – a son who, having moved recently into his adult body, is receding from me, but who I once knew better than I know myself-better than he knew himself, certainly, because he has been, and in my mind remains, that arm-flailing infant on the changing table and the pot-bellied toddler in training pants. As he stands there in the present moment, he cannot possibly know that he is simultaneously, for me, the boy in the bowl cut clutching He-Man and Skeletor. ? the Webelos scout in the untucked uniform. ? the catcher of polliwogs in his squishy sneakers ? the afternoon paperboy, the strap of his canvas bag crossing his chest like a bandolier ? the zookeeper of a never-ending domestic menagerie: turtles, fish, fiddler crabs, two “female” gerbils-and their five or six hundred offspring. “Gee,” one of his middle school teachers had told him. “You like people and animals so much, you ought to be a biology teacher.”
But at seventeen, Jared doesn’t know what he wants to be, or even where he wants to go to school next year-Bates, Bowdoin, Trinity, how’s he supposed to know? Oh, and Connecticut College is on his list. He likes that cross country coach down there, that Coach Butler. And that Coach Wuyke, too. He wouldn’t mind running for those guys. But, hey, first things first. He can’t even think of what to write for his stinking college admission essay.
On my book tour, in city after city, the crowds come out. Strangers who have read my novels ask me how I knew their lives, their flaws, their family secrets. And, of course, I’ve known none of these. I’ve only gone to work each day and told the lie that I am someone other than myself: a wounded girl trying to survive rape, an Italian immigrant with an ego larger than Sicily, the frightened identical twin of a schizophrenic brother. I have, each day in solitude, shucked my own life and put on different lives so that I might move beyond the limitations of my own experience and better empathize with, better know the un-me, the other.
The novelist John Edgar Wideman has said, “I seek in fiction some hint that imagination can change the world, that the world is unfinished, a hint that we are not always doomed to make copies and copies and copies but possess the power to see differently and the guts and good fortune to render accessible to others some glimmer of what our own souls experience. Stories, after all, are a gift. Unless we’re willing to imagine what it might feel like inside another skin, then we are imprisoned in our own.”
By the time the limo delivers me back home again two weeks later, Jared has written his college essay. “Dad,” he says, “can you check this for spelling?” And God knows, he needs it checked. Seventeen years old and he’s still spelling the word “tomorrow” with two m’s. But as I proofread, my attention shifts from mechanics to content. I’m surprised – I’m moved – to read that my son’s essay, too, focuses on “the other”: a girl on the front page of last year’s newspaper – an innocent eleven-year old Latina named Angelica who lived in our town and who loved to dance and who was stalked, raped, and murdered by a pedophile. Angelica and Jared were strangers to one another, born seven years apart. What they had in common was that each had walked the same steps of that paper route; each had played at that polliwog-filled pond where Angelica’s body was later found. In his essay, Jared describes a solitary visit to the pond, where a granite boulder has become a makeshift memorial to Angelica. He writes: The rock appeared to be alive with color, light, and movement. Pink rosary beads, purple flowers. Expired candles coat the rock with blue, green, and orange wax and, on the ground, a few flames still flicker with life. A plain white sheet of paper is scotch-taped to the rock. In bold red letters its one word sums up all my feelings: WHY?
Mr. Journalist, fiction writers have no answers, only questions, the most succinct and significant of which is: WHY?
Why, God, if You exist and are merciful, must our loved ones be claimed by cancer, addiction, AIDS, mental illness, muscular dystrophy, murder? Why, America, if justice is blind, do we imprison the descendants of slaves in such disproportionate numbers? Why must our poorest children get the poorest education and our hungriest be denied a place at the banquet table? Why, suicide bomber? Why?
Tough questions, graduates. Unanswerable, many of them, no matter what your major – no matter what your grade point average. And yet, we grope, we struggle to understand why. That struggle, I believe, is what makes us not just human but humane. And it can be a noble struggle when accompanied by a rejection of the unacceptable, unimaginative status quo and an honest effort to change things for the better. But how to improve an imperfect world, an imperfect nation, our imperfect selves? That question has occupied the minds of scholars, scientists, artists, and activists throughout time-and has sometimes?sometimes?been the pebble in the shoe that becomes the unbearable pain that motivates good minds and generous hearts to bring their gifts to the table, roll up their sleeves, and fix things. Graduates, be a part of that. Find work that adds to the world instead of depleting it. You owe that to yourselves, and to those descendants whose DNA you store inside you, and to the descendants of the un-you, the other.
Here we are back at the station-back in the uneasy present. What’s that line from The Matrix? “Welcome to the desert of the real.” As for the future, you’ll have to get there yourselves. But before you depart, I offer you a modest travel gift: these few things a father and fiction writer knows.
Aubrey, Vlado, Maylynn, Britt: In life, as in writing, voice is crucial. Your voice has been honed by your family, your ethnic heritage, your neighborhood, and your education. It is the music of your meaning in the world. Imitate no one. Your uniqueness-your authenticity-is your strength.
Sarah, Oslec, Miranda, John: Make yours a life story which is character-driven, not plot-driven, character being defined as the way you behave when there is no one else in the room to judge you. Don’t fear that silent room. Solitude will guide you if you remain strong of character.
Meghan, Justin, Alex, Joe: Learn to love the editing process. Listen to criticism, welcome it with gratitude and humility, but beware the false critic with a covert agenda. Make mistakes, lots of them, reworking draft after draft after draft of your continuing story. Your errors will be educational, and if your pencil outlives its eraser, then you’ll know you’re getting it right.
Clancy, Becca, Mridula, Jose: Regarding plot-the twists and turns and episodes of your life-outline as much or as little as you like, but expect surprise. In fact, invite surprise. Each time you begin some next chapter, your composition of yourself will be at risk. But that’s okay-that’s good-because you will not live fully if you never displace yourself. “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” E.L. Doctorow once said. “You may be able to see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
And finally, Jared, a personal word to you: You have been a most enjoyable child to raise. Levelheaded, playful, kind to others, you’ve made few missteps, and no unforgivable ones, with the exception of that time you rented that white tux, tails, and top hat for your senior prom. As you prepare now to board the bus-to take the Freedom Ride down to New Orleans to teach biology in one of the most forsaken school districts in the nation-please know that your family loves you and is proud of you and the work you’ve chosen. Keep in mind that the best teachers are the ones who love the student as much as the subject matter-the ones who stop speaking long enough to listen. Teaching will teach you, again and again, that you are the other and the other is you, despite the barriers we erect and the bombs we drop. Draw strength from the knowledge that education will break the backs of poverty, disenfranchisement, and violence; that war is never inevitable but only a terrible failure of the imagination; and that love is stronger than hatred.
As it says so beautifully in Corinthians:
As a child, I saw it face to face
Now I only know it in part
Fractions in me of faith, hope, and love
And of these three, love’s the greatest beauty
So, Jared, Vaya con Dios. Be well. Be safe. And know that, in the end, I wrote these words not for Mr. Journalist but for you, and your classmates, and Angelica, together.
Dr. Martha C. Nussbaum
Georgetown University, Washington D.C. USA
MAY 16, 2003
Most graduation speakers receive an honorary degree. Here — as an excellent example of how they often are phrased — is Dr. Nussbaum’s: “Martha Nussbaum has given new life to the ancient vocation of the philosopher, understood as a thinker who both pursues deep questions about justice and the good and defends humanity’s highest ideals in the public forum. She has helped us see that the greatest human goods are fragile; that our emotions of love and loss, and their narrative depiction in literature, rightly record this fact; and that the capabilities for living a good human life of the most fragile and vulnerable among us, the women and children of the developing world, deserve shelter and support from their governments and from us all. Although critical of the Stoics’ assessment of our emotions, she has become a premier defender of the cosmopolitan ideal, which has come down to us from the Stoics via Immanuel Kant. Like her beloved Aristotle, Professor Nussbaum does not shrink from examining all sides of human nature. Chided for spending his time studying the movement and digestion of shellfish, Aristotle responded that ‘in every natural thing there is something wonderful.’ Having told us that story, Professor Nussbaum has gone on to examine all of humanity’s wonderful aspects, from our most sublime to what it is that we consider shameful and disgusting. Her many prize-winning books and hundreds of published essays cover topics from cosmopolitanism to cloning, from Aristotle’s Movement of Animals to Orwell’s 1984. She has contributed greatly to our understanding of the ideal of liberal education with her book, Cultivating Humanity, winner in 2002 of the Grawemeyer Award in Education. In a forthcoming work, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law – depending on how one counts, perhaps her eleventh book – she examines how disgust and shame themselves can reflect and distort our moral judgment. For her contributions to the study of the ancients, which help us understand ourselves; for her inspired engagement with the full range of human artistic and literary achievement and her insistence on showing us how philosophy can learn from poetry; and for her passionate commitment to understanding and bettering the plight of the least fortunate, Georgetown University is proud to confer upon Martha C. Nussbaum the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.”
President DeGioia, faculty, parents and friends, and, especially, graduates: On this day of celebration, I want to ask you to pause for a minute, and to think of the ending of a tragic drama, Euripides’ The Trojan Women. The towers of Troy are burning. All that is left of the once-proud city is a group of ragged women, bound for slavery, their husbands dead in battle, their sons murdered by the conquering Greeks, their daughters raped. Hecuba their queen invokes the king of the gods, using, remarkably, the language of democratic citizenship: “Son of Kronus, Council-President of Troy, father who gave us birth, do you see these undeserved sufferings that your Trojan people bear?” The Chorus answers grimly, “He sees, and yet the great city is no city. It has perished, and Troy exists no longer.” A little later, Hecuba and the Chorus conclude that the very name of their land has been wiped out.
In one way, the ending of this drama is as bleak as any in the history of tragic drama. Death, rape, slavery, fire destroying the towers, the city’s very name effaced from the record of history by rapacious and murderous Greeks. And yet, of course, it did not happen that way, not exactly. For the story of Troy’s fall is being enacted, some six hundred years after the event, by a company of Greek actors, in the Greek language of a Greek poet, in the presence of all the adult citizens of Athens, most powerful of Greek cities.
Hecuba’s cry to the gods even imagines him as a peculiarly Athenian type of civic official, president of the city council. So the name of the land didn’t get wiped out after all. The imaginations of the conquerors were haunted by it, transmitted it, and mourn it. Obsessively their arts repeat the events of long-ago destruction, typically inviting, as here, the audience’s compassion for the women of Troy and blame for their assailants. In its very structure the play makes a claim for the moral value of compassionate imagining, as it asks its audience to partake in the terror of a burning city, of murder and rape and slavery. Insofar as members of the audience are engaged by this drama, feeling fear and grief for the conquered city, they demonstrate the ability of compassion to cross lines of time, place, and nation – and also, in the case of most of the audience, the line of sex, perhaps more difficult yet to cross.
Nor was the play an aesthetic event cut off from political reality. The dramatic festivals of Athens were sacred festivals strongly connected to the idea of democratic deliberation, “Without families and their intense loyalties, we will have, Aristotle says, a ‘watery’ kind of care all round. Nonetheless, when we observe how narrow and partisan our compassion usually is, we must ask how it can be educated and extended, so that the equal worth of all human beings becomes a stable psychological reality for us.”and the plays of Euripides were particularly well known for their engagement with contemporary events. In this case, the audience that watched The Trojan Women had recently voted to put to death the men of the rebellious colony of Melos and to enslave the women and children. Euripides invites them to contemplate the real human meaning of their actions. Compassion for the women of Troy should at least cause moral unease, reminding Athenians of the full and equal humanity of people who live in distant places, their fully human capacity for suffering.
But did those imaginations really cross those lines? Think again of that invocation of Zeus. Trojans, if they worshipped Zeus as king of gods at all, surely did not refer to him as the president of the city council. The term prytanis is an Athenian legal term, completely unknown elsewhere. So it would appear that Hecuba is not a Trojan but a Greek. Her imagination is a Greek democratic (and mostly male) imagination. Maybe that’s a good thing, in the sense that the audience is surely invited to view her as their fellow and equal. But it still should give us pause. Did compassion really enable those Greeks to reach out and think about the real humanity of others, or did it stop short, allowing them to reaffirm the essential Greekness of everything that’s human? They are just us, and we are the ones who suffer humanly. Not those other ones, over in Melos.
America’s towers, too, have burned. Compassion and terror are in the fabric of our lives. And now, like the Athenians, we must grapple with the fact that we have caused devastation in foreign lands. In the lives of Americans since 9/11, we do see evidence of the good work of compassion, as Americans make real to themselves the sufferings of many different people whom they never would otherwise have thought about: bereaved families of so many national and ethnic origins, even, sometimes, Arab-Americans who have suffered unfairly from airport searches and other types of mistreatment. Sometimes our compassion even crosses the national boundary. Tragedy led many people to a new awareness of the sufferings of the women of Afghanistan, and now many of us have compassion for the people of Iraq. All too often, however, the nation is the stopping place. In the New York Times issue last September , commemorating 9/11, I was asked to comment on how America has changed. I wrote that Americans are becoming more curious and at least a little more knowledgeable about problems of poverty and lack of education in other parts of the world. But when my piece came out, it was on a page with about 20 other pieces, not one of which mentioned any other nation but the U. S., thus casting grave doubt, at least, on my optimistic contention.
Often things are still worse: our sense that the “us” is all that matters can easily flip over into a demonizing of an imagined “them”, a group of outsiders who are imagined as enemies of the invulnerability and the pride of the all-important “us.” Just as parents’ compassion for their own children can all too easily slide into an attitude that promotes the defeat of other people’s children, so too with patriotism: compassion for our fellow Americans can all too easily slide over into an attitude that wants America to come out on top, defeating or subordinating other peoples or nations. Such attitudes have played an unfortunate role in much of the rhetoric surrounding the war with Iraq. We have been encouraged to be like sports fans cheering for our team, rather than as responsible world citizens trying to achieve a cooperative solution to our problems.
How can we educate American citizens who do take seriously the reality of lives outside America, and who think of their own citizenship and its duties accordingly? Citizens who are not simply Americans, but citizens of the entire world, committed to both compassion and justice for the millions who suffer, not only from war, but from daily preventable tragedies such as malnutrition and disease? A child born in the U. S. today has life expectancy at birth of 78.6 years. A child born in Sierra Leone has life expectancy at birth of 38 years. In some African nations, 40% of the population is HIV positive, a situation perpetuated by the absence of affordable medications and suitable health infrastructure. In approximately one third of the world’s nations, less than 50% of women can read and write, a situation perpetuated by the inaction of multi-national corporations, who typically view young lives as instruments for gain, and who feel no responsibility to create educational opportunities and health care for their workforce. How can we educate American citizens who think responsibly about such problems, and America’s role in forming a world community to work on their solution?
Creating compassionate world citizenship has two aspects, the institutional and the personal. These must be cultivated at the same time, and they must reinforce one another. We will not get decent public attitudes without institutions that nourish the thoughts of inclusive world citizenship. But we also will not sustain those institutions, if we do not work to produce an expanded compassion in people, so that they make real to themselves the suffering of people at a distance.
The institutional aspect of world citizenship has been much discussed, and though my proposals here go very much against the grain of the present administration and its public policies, they are familiar, and therefore can be stated briefly. We should base all our dealings with other nations on the recognition that there are binding moral norms that link us all into an international society. We should work to formalize those norms through international institutions, such as the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, the World Criminal Court, multinational alliances of many kinds, and binding agreements in areas such as environment, sex equality, and the rights of children. I believe we should not aim at a world state, and that global institutions should remain plural and decentralized, in order to protect national sovereignty, an important part of people’s right to freedom and self-determination. Nonetheless, we should work to strengthen the international institutions we already have, and to create others in particular areas. We should support these institutions with a true respect for the opinions of those who differ with us. That none of these goals is currently realized in our nation’s foreign policy, skeptical as it is of moral norms, of alliances, and of any interests outside of U.S. power, should be all too obvious.
It is, however, the personal and psychological side of the issue on which I want to focus for the remainder of these brief remarks. Compassion is an emotion rooted, probably, in our biological heritage. But this history does not mean that compassion is devoid of thought. In fact, as Aristotle argued long ago, human compassion standardly requires three thoughts: that a serious bad thing has happened to someone else; that this bad event was not (or not entirely) the person’s own fault; and that we ourselves are vulnerable in similar ways. Thus compassion forms a psychological link between our own self-interest and the reality of another person’s good or ill. For that reason it is a morally valuable emotion – when it gets things right. Often, however, the thoughts involved in the emotion, and therefore the emotion itself, go astray, failing to link people at a distance to one’s own current possibilities and vulnerabilities. (Rousseau said that kings don’t feel compassion for their subjects because they count on never being human, subject to the vicissitudes of life.) These errors are likely to be built into the nature of compassion as it develops in childhood: we form intense attachments to the local first, and only gradually learn to have compassion for people who are outside our immediate circle. For many Americans, that expansion of concern stops at the national boundary.
Most of us are brought up to believe that all human beings have equal worth. At least the world’s major religions and most secular philosophies tell us so. But our emotions don’t believe it. We mourn for those we know, not for those we don’t know. And most of us feel deep emotions about America, emotions we don’t feel about India, or Russia, or Rwanda. In and of itself, this narrowness of our emotional lives is probably acceptable and maybe even good. We need to built outward from meanings we understand, or else our moral life would be empty of urgency. Aristotle long ago said, plausibly, that the citizens in Plato’s ideal city, asked to care for all citizens equally, would actually care for none, since care is learned in small groups with their more intense attachments. Without families and their intense loyalties, we will have, he says, a “watery” kind of care all round. Nonetheless, when we observe how narrow and partisan our compassion usually is, we must ask how it can be educated and extended, so that the equal worth of all human beings becomes a stable psychological reality for us.
To begin extending compassion as best we can, we need to ask how and why local loyalties and attachments come to take in some instances an especially virulent and aggressive form, militating against a more general sympathy. I would suggest that one problem we particularly need to watch out for is a type of pathological narcissism in which the person demands complete control over all the sources of good, and a complete self-sufficiency in consequence. This pathology occurs repeatedly in human life, but perhaps it occurs with particular regularity in America, where young people are brought up to think that they are part of a nation that is on top of the world, and that they should expect to be completely in control of everything important in their lives, in consequence. Recent studies of troubled teens in America, particularly the impressive work of Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, in their book Raising Cain, has given strong support to this idea. Kindlon and Thompson focus on boys, and they do believe that the problems they bring to light have a gendered aspect, but they are also signs of more general cultural problems.
The boys that Kindlon and Thompson study have learned from their culture that real men should be controlling, self-sufficient, dominant. They should never have, and certainly never admit to, fear and weakness. The consequence of this deformed expectation, Kindlon and Thompson show, is that these boys come to lack an understanding of their own vulnerabilities, needs and fears, weaknesses that all human beings share. They lack the language in which to characterize their own inner world, and they are by the same token clumsy interpreters of the emotions and inner lives of others. This emotional illiteracy is closely connected to aggression, as fear is turned outward, with little real understanding of the meaning of aggressive words and acts for the feelings of others. It is more than a little unfortunate that the foreign policy of our nation is at times expressed, today, in terms that reinforce these pathologies: we won’t let anyone threaten our preeminence, we’ll strike first against them, etc.
So the first recommendation I would make for a culture of extended compassion is one that was also made by Rousseau. It is, that an education in common human weakness and vulnerability should be a very profound part of the education of all young people. Especially when they are at the crucial time when they are on the verge of adulthood, young people should learn to be tragic spectators, and to understand with increasing subtlety and responsiveness the predicaments to which human life is prone. Through stories and dramas, history, film, the study of philosophical and religious ethics, and the study of the global economic system, they should get the habit of decoding the suffering of another, and this decoding should deliberately lead them into lives both near and far.
To be successful, this education must foster the habit of critical thinking, rooting out the inconsistencies of self-serving ethical thought; this suggests a key role for religious and secular philosophy. And it must also nourish the imagination; this suggests a key role for the arts. Third, it must offer much more knowledge of the world: the major world religions, economic conditions in developing countries, the deprivations with which a large proportion of the world’s people live from day to day.
Finally, this education must take place in a culture in which materialism and greed are powerfully and pervasively criticized. World citizenship is impossible when the powerful define their humanity in terms of possessions, rather than the goods of the soul. As the Greek philosophers long ago remarked, the goods of the soul are such that we can all strive toward them harmoniously: one person’s attainment of them reinforces, and does not undermine another’s. Material goods, by contrast, always cause conflict, especially when the goal is limitless accumulation, not merely sustenance. So world citizenship, and the compassion that supports it, must be built on the goods of the soul.
That is one reason why I am so honored to be here on the campus of America’s oldest and most distinguished Catholic university, and why I typically feel so much at home when I lecture in Catholic universities: because there is a shared understanding that the soul comes first, and that possessions are tools. That understanding (which is also formative in my own religion) is a non-negotiable basis for compassionate citizenship in today’s world. Are such ideas understood in our government? Not fully, I believe, even though our leadership portrays itself as Christian. On this day of celebration, let Hecuba’s cry for compassion and justice echo in our hearts, calling us to a life that challenges entrenched complacency and greed, and the violence that so often grows out of that greed, working against the recalcitrance of the world to make compassionate citizenship not just an ideal but a reality.
Congratulations, may you prosper, and may you live, some day, in a world of justice for all.
St. John’s College – Annapolis, Annapolis, Maryland, USA
MAY 11, 2003
Mr Lapham was the distinguished Editor of Harper’s, one of America’s most respected journals, for almost 30 years, ending in 2006. He has published many books and articles and recently founded The Lapham Quarterly.
If I bear in mind the syllabus with which the class of 2003 has been engaged over the last four years, I don’t know how else to think of your invitation to deliver a commencement speech except as the proverbial praise from Caesar. I count it both as an honor and as a piece of luck because I’m always glad of the chance to try for an answer to the question, “What in God’s name are the humanities, and why are they of any use to us here in the bright blue, technological wonder of the 21st Century?”
The standard set of answers read like funeral orations-newspaper columnists mourning the death of western civilization, editors of alumni magazines likening the humanities to a suite of virgins set upon by Philistines or dogs, college deans talking about the precious ornaments of ancient art and modern literature buried in the tomb of a medieval library. The sanctimony is traditional, and invariably reminds me of a poem by Archibald MacLeish, “Freedom that was a thing to use, they’ve made a thing to save, and dug round and fenced it in, like a dead man’s grave.”
A mistake to think of the humanities as luxuries, or as a decent appearance that must be kept up, like the country club membership or the house in Palm Beach. Necessities. I can think of no other set of studies more relevant to our present circumstance. Our techologists bear comparison to the sorcerer’s apprentice, producing continuously improved means toward increasingly ill-defined ends. Unless we look to the humanities to clean up the mess, we stand a better than even chance of killing ourselves with our new toys.
In its Renaissance usages, the word humanist connotes resourcefulness, skepticism, irony, and self-reliance, “refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy.” A character played by Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart, not by Hugh Grant; more to do with the cunning of Ulysses, great-hearted and wide-wandering, than with the dithering of the cultural endowments in Washington, or with the intrigues behind the arras of the English Department at Yale. Humanism is about the passion of thought and the will to understand, about Darwin sailing for the Galapagos or Dostoevski in trouble with the police, about Condorcet dying in a garret and hunted by agents of the guillotine, writing his outline of human progress so that he might hearten mankind by his vision of its possible perfections.
The imaginative taking of experience of the past can be put through as many paces as a well-trained circus horse, and when I’m at a loss to remember why I read Tacitus or Moilière I think of the magician Merlin in T. H. White’s Once and Future King, seated under a willow tree and presenting the young Prince Arthur with a certain cure for melancholy:
“The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then-to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never dream of regretting.”
Among my own teachers, the one nearest in spirit to T. H. White’s Merlin turned up forty years ago under a potted palm tree in a New York City restaurant under the name of Otto Friedrich. In the heyday of what was then called “The New Journalism,” Otto was the managing editor of The Saturday Evening Post, and I was one of the magazine’s newly recruited contract writers. When I first met him in the autumn of 1962 he seemed a remote and professorial figure-tall and heavy-set but with the stooped posture of a man accustomed to bending over books, taciturn, unsentimental, and matter-of-fact, given to wearing the same rumpled suit for days on end, not yet fifty but seeming as old as Merlin’s owl. Over the course of the next five years, listening to him talk about the last months of the Roman Empire or Mozart’s attachment to the key of E flat with the same degree of certainty that he brought to a discussion of the Kennedy Administration’s geopolitical game theory, I understood that he joined a scholar’s love of learning with a journalist’s boundless curiosity. Free of cant and incapable of hypocrisy, Otto taught by example instead of by precept, patiently and with an unstinting kindness that he took a good deal of trouble to conceal behind a show of churlishness. He was as suspicious of metaphors as he was of politicians, and because he was a better writer than all but a few (a very few) of the more famous authors whose work he ushered into the light of print. I seldom quarreled with his judgment. Otto never indulged a writer with the sloppy display of adjectives that he associated with publishers’ blurbs and lipstick advertisements, and the best that could be hoped for was that the manuscript might pass inspection without attracting a scourge of marginal notes (“empty phrase,” “wrong word,” “absurdity”) that indicated not only a redrafting of the text but also the jettisoning of its presumed topic. By the time the Post ceased publication in the spring of 1969 I had come to recognize him as a man who summed up in his life and turn of mind what I take to be the meaning of the word “humanist.”
Over the course of a life that didn’t allow him much time to write, he published fourteen books, and when he died at the age of sixty-six in 1995, he had a list of twenty other books in mind, among them biographies of Richard Wagner, St. Paul, and Attila the Hun, a man whom he regarded as “much misunderstood, and far more worthy than his Roman enemy.” Otto wrote books in the way that other people wander off into forests, chasing his intellectual enthusiasms as if they were obscure butterflies or rare mushrooms-books about roses and Eduard Manet’s Olympia, extended essays about Scarlatti, the Albigensian Crusade, the siege of Monte Cassino and the fires of Auschwitz, books about Berlin in the 1920’s and Hollywood in the 1940’s, biographies of Glenn Gould and Helmuth von Moltke– An historian in the amateur tradition of Henry Adams, Bernard DeVoto and Walter Karp. Otto ignored the apparatus of academic scholarship, and approached the study of history in the same spirit that he approached Mozart’s piano concertos. “The only way to understand a Mozart concerto thoroughly,” he once said, “is to sit down at the piano and play it, which I do with his number twenty-seven, humbly, every six months or so.”
Otto was never at a loss for a story to tell, if not about drifting ships then about earthquakes, or flowering trees, or the company of the Christian miracles gathered on the island of Iona. His life was not without sorrow-two of his children born disabled, his right eye gone blind with disease, none of his books profitable enough to release him from his chores as an editor, a siege of mental illness so severe that for a year it brought him near insanity-but like the Merlin imagined by T. H.White, he found that the best thing for being sad was to learn something. Although he was well-versed in the “trembling of the anatomies”, I never once heard him complain of his misfortunes, and I suspect that he had little liking or patience for the kind of people-quite a few of them writers of large reputation-who display their afflictions as if they were made of gold lace. Otto believed that we are all caught up in the telling of stories (some more complicated and more beautiful than others, many of them incoherent, a few of them immortal), and he assumed that no matter how well or how poorly we manage the plot, we are all of us engaged in the same enterprise, all of us seeking evocations or representations of what we can recognize as appropriately human.
On the afternoon of May 24, 1995 in Saint Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue in New York City the memorial service began with the playing of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and as I listened to the theme presenting itself in a succession of different rhythms and voices, I thought of Otto setting the libretto of human feeling to the counterpoint of time. The music shifted to an aria from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and I remembered that two years before going to Paris in the summer of 1948, Otto had traveled around Europe to pay his respects to various artists in whose work he had found inspiration. “Barging in on living monuments,” he once said, “a tourist collecting a generation.” At Rappallo in the north of Italy Otto invited himself to tea with Sir Max and Lady Beerbohm; in Rome he found George Santayana, reclining in striped pajamas on his bed at the Convent of the Blue Nuns. In Munich he briefly took piano lessons with Georg Pembauer, who was said to have been a pupil of Liszt, and on the terrace of the Grand Hotel in Lausanne, he accosted Richard Strauss, by then a bent and white-haired man of eighty-two, with the first pages of a piano concerto he had begun to write on the voyage from New York. The elderly lady accompanying the composer on his afternoon walk angrily waved Otto out of sight, never guessing what it was that Otto had come to say or that forty-nine years later, on Lexington Avenue and East 53rd Street, the music of Der Rosenkavalier would oversee the departure of Otto’s civilizing spirit.
Within the profession of journalism I often have heard it said that the truth shall make men free, but it was Otto who taught me what the phrase means. The truth isn’t about the acquisition of doctrine or the assimilation of statistics, not even about the chicanery in Washington or the scandal in Santa Monica. It’s about the courage to trust one’s own thought and observation, to possess one’s own history, speak in one’s own voice. Most of Otto’s books never sold more than a few thousand copies, but although he knew that the reading and writing of history settles nothing (neither the grocer’s bill, the argument in the faculty lounge, nor next year’s election), he also knew that the study of history is the proof of our kinship with a larger whole and a wider self, with those who have gone before and those who will come after, and that we have nothing else with which to build the future except the wreckage of the past. Time destroys all things, but from the ruin of families and empires we preserve what we find useful or beautiful or true, on our way to death we make of what we have found the hope of our immortality.
Stories move from truth to facts, not the other way around, but in the attempt to convey the essence of a thing the teller of tales must give it a name, an age and an address, and when I see the world devastated by evil lunatics, I think of Otto Friedrich, sick or in pain, blind in one eye, playing Bach’s Partita in C Minor on a winter night on a piano badly out of tune, planning his next raid on the kingdom of the past, wondering how he might hearten himself and his fellow men with a story not yet told.
Most of what I know about the composition of English prose I learned from Otto Friedrich, who also gave me to understand that very few of the world’s powers can do you irreparable harm if you don’t make the mistake of running a con-game on the unique character and specific temper of your own mind, and that most of the political arguments going forward in the world at the present moment are the same ones that enlivened the scaffolds of Renaissance Italy annals of Imperial Rome-the old and bitter quarrel between time past and time future, between the inertia of things as they are and the energy inherent in the hope of things as they might become.
The former and more portly faction invariably commands the popular majority. It is the party of military parades and “Late Night with David Letterman”, of Time magazine, Steven Spielberg movies, and the oil company lobbyists working the halls of Congress. All of you belong, by definition if not by choice, to the party of things-as-they-might-become. Don’t underestimate the guile of your enemies. The servants of the status quo like to say that nothing is seriously amiss, that this is the best of all possible worlds, that the wisdom in office, whether at the White House or on the set of “Nightline”, brooks neither impertinence nor contradiction.
The authorities rest the case for their assurance on two lines of false reasoning. First, that the future is so dangerous that only football captains need apply, that everything is very difficult, very complicated and very far beyond the grasp of mere mortals who never have sailed up the Nile with Henry Kissinger. Second, that because this is the best of all possible worlds, nothing important remains to be said or discovered. The media have a hand in both of these deceptions, and I speak from some experience when I say that the fear of the future sells newspapers and bids up the market for cheap miracles and expensive cosmetics. The enormous acquisitions and disseminations of knowledge over the past twenty years (about nuclear physics, cancer cells, the history of Germany, terrorism, and the chemistry of bats) have brought forth corresponding gains in the levels of anxiety. Hardly a day passes without somebody naming yet another substance (previously thought to be harmless) that can kill or maim everybody in downtown Los Angeles. The evil omens decorate the seven-o’clock news, and every self-respecting newsletter announces the depletion of the reserves of deutschemarks, sunlight and conscience. The seers who look into the abyss of the millennium predict catastrophes appropriate to the fears of the audiences they have been paid to alarm. During the span of a single week at Harper’s Magazine I once received the galley-proofs of three new books entitled, in order of their arrival, “The End of Nature,” “The End of Science” and “The End of History.”
The rumors are as exaggerated as the ones about Saddam Hussein’s inventory of nuclear weapons. It is the business of the future to be dangerous, and most of the people who magnify its risks do so for reasons of their own. Jealous of a future apt to render them ridiculous or irrelevant, they bear comparison to the French noblewoman, a duchess in her eighties, who, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier’s balloon from the palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back upon the cushions of her carriage and wept. “Oh yes,” she said, “Now it’s certain. One day they’ll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead.”
To disprove the second proposition, you have only to consult the listings in any newspaper-any week, any edition-to know that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are still at large on five continents and seven oceans. The headlines give the lie to the assertion that the servants of the status quo know why the word wags, and who or what wags it. Quite clearly, almost everything remains to be done, said or discovered; also quite clearly, the world stands in need of as much help as it can get, and if it doesn’t get that help from people like yourselves, then in whom does it place the hope of a new answer, or even better, a new question.
As a student at Yale in the 1950’s I was taught to think of the 20th Century as the miraculous and happy ending of the story of human progress; I now think of it as a still primitive beginning. From the perspective of the 30th Century, I expect the historians to look back upon the works of our modern world as if upon sand castles built by surprisingly gifted children.
When I was your age I made the mistake of imagining the future as a destination-like Paris or Baltimore or the Gobi Desert, and I thought that in the so-called real world the people who ran the place were made of Greek marble or Gothic stone. As I grew older I began to notice, first to my surprise, and then to my alarm, that the more loudly the Wizards of Oz claimed to know all the answers the less likely that they knew even a few of the questions. The walls of the establishment are made of paper, as often as not the fortress manned by soldiers already dead, propped like sandbags on the parapets of office. The party of things-as-they-are stages a great show of its magnificence in order to conceal its weakness and fear, and it makes small complaint if all the voters in California, New York and Michigan wander through their lives in a passive stupor. As a nation we now spend upwards of $500 billion a year on liquor, pornography and drugs, and the Cold War against the American intellect constitutes a more profitable business than the old arrangement with the Russians or the new arrangement with the viceroys of terrorist Jihad.
The discussions in the newspapers about the sorrows of American education assume the existence of what the editorial writers like to call “the educated citizen.” To the best of my knowledge I have never met such a person; even the idea of an educated citizen strikes me as preposterous. I can conceive of a self-educating citizen, and I have had the good fortune to meet a number of people who can be so described, none of them fool enough to proclaim themselves educated. Without exception they possess the valor of their ignorance, conceiving of education neither as a blessed state of being (comparable to membership in the Cosmos Club) nor as a material good sold in a store (even at Harvard’s rate of $34,000 per annum) but rather as a ceaseless process of learning and re-learning. Few pleasures equal the joy of the mind when it’s being put to constructive and imaginative use, and if not to people like those of you on this lawn, to whom do we turn for a new equation, a new line of economic or political theory, a new lyric and a new song?
Mark Twain referred to such people as “the makers of the earth after God,” and you are lucky enough to have inherited not only the writings of Twain but also the mechanism of democratic self-government. Democracy allies itself with change and proceeds under the assumption that nobody knows enough, that nothing is final, that the old order (whether of men and women or institutions) will be carried off-stage every twenty years. The plurality of democratic voices and forms assumes a ceaseless making and re-making-of laws and customs as well as of fortunes and matinee idols. Democratic government is a purpose held in common, and if it can be understood as a set of temporary coalitions among people of different interests, skills and generations, then everybody has need of everybody else. To the extent that a democratic society gives its citizens the chance to chase its own dreams, it gives itself the chance not only of discovering its multiple glories and triumphs, but also of surviving its multiple follies and crimes.
No matter what the season’s top billings in the American political circus, the argument between the past and future tense falls along the division between the people who would continue the democratic experiment and those who think that the experiment has gone far enough. The freedom of thought and expression presents society with the unwelcome news that it is in trouble, but because all societies, like most individuals, are always in some kind of trouble, the news doesn’t cause them to perish. They die instead from the fear of thought and the paralysis that accompanies the wish to make time stand still. Liberty has ambitious enemies, but the survival of the American democracy depends less on the size of its armies than on the capacity of its individual citizens to think for themselves. Tyranny never has much trouble drumming up the smiles of prompt agreement, but a democracy stands in need of as many questions as it can ask of its own stupidity and fear. Idealism rescues cynicism, and the continued comfort of the party of things-as-they-are depends on the doubts placed under their pillows by the party of things-as-they-might-become. The future turns out to be something that you make instead of find. It isn’t waiting for your arrival, either with an arrest warrant or a band, nor is it any further away than the next sentence, the next best guess, the next sketch for the painting of a life portrait that might become a masterpiece. The future is an empty canvas or a blank sheet of paper, and if you have the courage of your own thought and your own observation you can make of it what you will.
“The Best of Whoever You Are”
Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire USA
JUNE 8, 2002
Fred McFeely Rogers (1928 – 2003) was an American television personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister. He was known as the creator, music composer, and host of the educational preschool television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show featured Rogers’s kind, neighborly, avuncular persona, which nurtured his connection to the audience.
Wow. What a privilege to be with you all. Since I’ve arrived here in Hanover, many people have greeted me by saying, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.” Well, indeed it is a beautiful day, but before I begin, I’d like you to know that I recognize that you, who live and work here, have had many days, particularly during these last several months, that have been far from beautiful. You’ve had a painful time, and you’ve handled it with dignity. I feel certain that the Zantop’s generous spirits inspire you. And it’s a great privilege for me to be with you all.
When I was at Dartmouth in the late 1940s, the tuition, room, and board all added up to $1,100 a year. Nobody owned a home computer, and hardly anyone had a television set. And those who did, there was a choice of three channels. I’m not sure if Jeanne Shaheen was even born yet, but very few people would have guessed that within 50 years, a woman would be governor or New Hampshire. Yes. When I was here, the first word of the alma mater was “Men. Men of Dartmouth give a rouse.” Well, now the first word is “Dear.” Some things change for the better.
During my first year here, I lived right over there at 101 Middle Mass. And I had two roommates. I had a professor, over there, who did his best to scare everyone in his class, and he gave me the lowest grade that I ever had in any school anywhere. But I also had an astronomy professor, George Dimitrov, who looked for and found what was best in each of his students. When I look at the night sky, I still think of that extra special, kind man.
Dartmouth is many things to each of us, and I’m grateful to Jim and Susan Wright for all that they have done for this school. And I’m grateful to my old friend, Chick Koop, for all that he has done for all of us. And I congratulate every one of you who is being honored in any way during this Commencement weekend.
Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.
Have you heard my favorite story that came from the Seattle Special Olympics? Well, for the 100-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line, and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward, one little boy stumbled and fell, and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy, and said, “This’ll make it better.” The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together, and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in that stadium stood up, and clapped, and whistled, and cheered for a long, long time. People who were there are still telling this story with great delight. And you know why. Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius—what a name—was the last of the great Roman philosophers, and the first of the scholastics of the Middle Ages. Fifteen hundred years ago, Boethius wrote this sentence, “O happy race of mortals, if your hearts are ruled as is the universe, by Love.”
I was once invited to sit in on a master class of six young cellists from the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. The master teacher was Yo-Yo Ma. Now, Yo-Yo is the most other-oriented genius I’ve every known. His music comes from a very deep place within his being. And during that master class, Yo-Yo gently led those young cellists into understandings about their instruments, their music, and their selves, which some of them told me later, they’d carry with them forever.
I can still see the face of one young man who had just finished playing a movement of Brahms’ Cello Sonata, when Yo-Yo said, “Nobody else can make the sound you make.” Of course, he meant that as a compliment to the young man. Nevertheless, he meant that also for everyone in the class. Nobody else can make the sound you make. Nobody else can choose to make that particular sound in that particular way.
I’m very much interested in choices, and what it is, and who it is, that enable us human beings to make the choices we make all through our lives. What choices lead to ethnic cleansing? What choices lead to healing? What choices lead to the destruction of the environment, the erosion of the Sabbath, suicide bombings, or teenagers shooting teachers. What choices encourage heroism in the midst of chaos?
I have a lot of framed things in my office, which people have given to me through the years. And on my walls are Greek, and Hebrew, and Russian, and Chinese. And beside my chair, is a French sentence from Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. It reads, “L’essential est invisible pour les yeux.” What is essential is invisible to the eye. Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had at least one person, and often many, who have believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.
I’d like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some, like my astronomy professor, may even be in Heaven. But wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self. And I feel that you deserve quiet time, on this special occasion, to devote some thought to them. So, let’s just take a minute, in honor of those that have cared about us all along the way. One silent minute.
Whomever you’ve been thinking about, imagine how grateful they must be, that during your silent times, you remember how important they are to you. It’s not the honors and the prizes, and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted. That we never have to fear the truth. That the bedrock of our lives, from which we make our choices, is very good stuff.
There’s a neighborhood song that is meant for the child in each of us, and I’d like to give you the words of that song right now.
“It’s you I like.
It’s not the things you wear.
It’s not the way you do your hair
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now
The way down deep inside you.
Not the things that hide you.
Not your caps and gowns,
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like.
Every part of you.
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you remember
Even when you’re feeling blue.
That it’s you I like,
It’s you, yourself
It’s you I like.”
“It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your caps and gowns, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings. Whether old or new, I hope that you remember, even when you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like. It’s you, yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.”
And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch. That deep part of you, that allows you to stand for those things, without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.
So, in all that you do in all of your life, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are. Congratulations to you all.
“Radical Renewal of Human Responsibility”
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
MAY 12, 1995
Mr. President, Mr. Vice-President, ladies and gentlemen,
Dramatist and dissident, Mr Havel dedicated his life to the Czechoslovak intellectual opposition during the years of Soviet occupation. For standing by his convictions he spent five years in prison. He was elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 and of the Czech Republic in 1993. He died in 2011.
One evening not long ago I was sitting in an outdoor restaurant by the water. My chair was almost identical to the chairs they have in restaurants by the Vltava River in Prague. They were playing the same rock music they play in most Czech restaurants. I saw advertisements I’m familiar with back home. Above all, I was surrounded by young people who were similarly dressed, who drank familiar-looking drinks, and who behaved as casually as their contemporaries in Prague. Only their complexion and their facial features were different – for I was in Singapore.
I sat there thinking about this and again – for the umpteenth time – I realized an almost banal truth: that we now live in a single global civilization. The identity of this civilization does not lie merely in similar forms of dress, or similar drinks, or in the constant buzz of the same commercial music all around the world, or even in international advertising. It lies in something deeper: thanks to the modern idea of constant progress, with its inherent expansionism, and to the rapid evolution of science that comes directly from it, our planet has, for the first time in the long history of the human race, been covered in the space of a very few decades by a single civilization – one that is essentially technological.
The world is now enmeshed in webs of telecommunication networks consisting of millions of tiny threads, or capillaries, that not only transmit information of all kinds at lightning speed, but also convey integrated models of social, political and economic behavior. They are conduits for legal norms, as well as for billions and billions of dollars crisscrossing the world while remaining invisible even to those who deal directly with them.
The life of the human race is completely interconnected not only in the informational sense, but in the causal sense as well. Anecdotally, I could illustrate this by reminding you – since I’ve already mentioned Singapore – that today all it takes is a single shady transaction initiated by a single devious bank clerk in Singapore to bring down a bank on the other side of the world. Thanks to the accomplishments of this civilization, practically all of us know what checks, bonds, bills of exchange, and stocks are. We are familiar with CNN and Chernobyl, and we know who the Rolling Stones, or Nelson Mandela, or Salman Rushdie are. More than that, the capillaries that have so radically integrated this civilization also convey information about certain modes of human co-existence that have proven their worth, like democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law, the laws of the market-place. Such information flows around the world and, in varying degrees, takes root in different places.
In modern times this global civilization emerged in the territory occupied by European and ultimately by Euro-American culture. Historically, it evolved from a combination of traditions – classical, Judaic and Christian. “I have been given to understand how small this world is and how it torments itself with countless things it need not torment itself with if people could find within themselves a little more courage, a little more hope, a little more responsibility, a little more mutual understanding and love.”In theory, at least, it gives people not only the capacity for worldwide communication, but also a coordinated means of defending themselves against many common dangers. It can also, in an unprecedented way, make our life on this earth easier and open us up to hitherto unexplored horizons in our knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in.
And yet there is something not quite right about it.
Allow me to use this ceremonial gathering for a brief meditation on a subject which I have dwelt upon a great deal, and which I often bring up on occasions resembling this one. I want to focus today on the source of the dangers that threaten humanity in spite of this global civilization, and often directly because of it. Above all, I would like to speak about the ways in which these dangers can be confronted.
Many of the great problems we face today, as far as I understand them, have their origin in the fact that this global civilization, though in evidence everywhere, is no more than a thin veneer over the sum total of human awareness, if I may put it that way. This civilization is immensely fresh, young, new, and fragile, and the human spirit has accepted it with dizzying alacrity, without itself changing in any essential way. Humanity has gradually, and in very diverse ways, shaped our habits of mind, our relationship to the world, our models of behavior and the values we accept and recognize. In essence, this new, single epidermis of world civilization merely covers or conceals the immense variety of cultures, of peoples, of religious worlds, of historical traditions and historically formed attitudes, all of which in a sense lie “beneath” it. At the same time, even as the veneer of world civilization expands, this “underside” of humanity, this hidden dimension of it, demands more and more clearly to be heard and to be granted a right to life.
And thus, while the world as a whole increasingly accepts the new habits of global civilization, another contradictory process is taking place: ancient traditions are reviving, different religions and cultures are awakening to new ways of being, seeking new room to exist, and struggling with growing fervor to realize what is unique to them and what makes them different from others. Ultimately they seek to give their individuality a political expression.
It is often said that in our time, every valley cries out for its own independence or will even fight for it. Many nations, or parts of them at least, are struggling against modern civilization or its main proponents for the right to worship their ancient gods and obey the ancient divine injunctions. They carry on their struggle using weapons provided by the very civilization they oppose. They employ radar, computers, lasers, nerve gases, and perhaps, in the future, even nuclear weapons – all products of the world of modern civilization. In contrast with these technological inventions, other products of this civilization – like democracy or the idea of human rights – are not accepted in many places in the world because they are deemed to be hostile to local traditions.
In other words: the Euro-American world has equipped other parts of the globe with instruments that not only could effectively destroy the enlightened values which, among other things, made possible the invention of precisely these instruments, but which could well cripple the capacity of people to live together on this earth.
What follows from all of this?
It is my belief that this state of affairs contains a clear challenge not only to the Euro-American world but to our present-day civilization as a whole. It is a challenge to this civilization to start understanding itself as a multi-cultural and a multi-polar civilization, whose meaning lies not in undermining the individuality of different spheres of culture and civilization but in allowing them to be more completely themselves. This will only be possible, even conceivable, if we all accept a basic code of mutual co-existence, a kind of common minimum we can all share, one that will enable us to go on living side by side. Yet such a code won’t stand a chance if it is merely the product of a few who then proceed to force it on the rest. It must be an expression of the authentic will of everyone, growing out of the genuine spiritual roots hidden beneath the skin of our common, global civilization. If it is merely disseminated through the capillaries of the skin, the way Coca-cola ads are – as a commodity offered by some to others – such a code can hardly be expected to take hold in any profound or universal way.
But is humanity capable of such an undertaking? Is it not a hopelessly utopian idea? Haven’t we so lost control of our destiny that we are condemned to gradual extinction in ever harsher high-tech clashes between cultures, because of our fatal inability to cooperate-operate in the face of impending catastrophes, be they ecological, social, or demographic, or of dangers generated by the state of our civilization as such?
I don’t know.
But I have not lost hope.
I have not lost hope because I am persuaded again and again that, lying dormant in the deepest roots of most, if not all, cultures there is an essential similarity, something that could be made – if the will to do so existed – a genuinely unifying starting point for that new code of human co-existence that would be firmly anchored in the great diversity of human traditions.
Don’t we find somewhere in the foundations of most religions and cultures, though they may take a thousand and one distinct forms, common elements such as respect for what transcends us, whether we mean the mystery of being, or a moral order that stands above us; respect for our neighbors, for our families, for certain natural authorities; respect for human dignity and for nature: a sense of solidarity and benevolence towards guests who come with good intentions?
Isn’t the common, ancient origin or human roots of our diverse spiritualities, each of which is merely another kind of human understanding of the same reality, the thing that can genuinely bring people of different cultures together?
And aren’t the basic commandments of this archetypal spirituality in harmony with what even an unreligious person – without knowing exactly why – may consider proper and meaningful?
Naturally, I am not suggesting that modern people be compelled to worship ancient deities and accept rituals they have long since abandoned. I am suggesting something quite different: we must come to understand the deep mutual connection or kinship between the various forms of our spirituality. We must recollect our original spiritual and moral substance, which grew out of the same essential experience of humanity. I believe that this is the only way to achieve a genuine renewal of our sense of responsibility for ourselves and for the world. And at the same time, it is the only way to achieve a deeper understanding among cultures that will enable them to work together in a truly ecumenical way to create a new order for the world.
The veneer of global civilization that envelops the modern world and the consciousness of humanity, as we all know, has a dual nature, bringing into question, at every step of the way, the very values it is based upon, or which it propagates. The thousands of marvelous achievements of this civilization that work for us so well and enrich us can equally impoverish, diminish, and destroy our lives, and frequently do. Instead of serving people, many of these creations enslave them. Instead of helping people to develop their identities, they take them away. Almost every invention or discovery – from the splitting of the atom and the discovery of DNA to television and the computer – can be turned against us and used to our detriment. How much easier it is today than it was during the First World War to destroy an entire metropolis in a single air-raid. And how much easier would it be today, in the era of television, for a madman like Hitler or Stalin to pervert the spirit of a whole nation. When have people ever had the power we now possess to alter the climate of the planet or deplete its mineral resources or the wealth of its fauna and flora in the space of a few short decades? And how much more destructive potential do terrorists have at their disposal today than at the beginning of this century.
In our era, it would seem that one part of the human brain, the rational part which has made all these morally neutral discoveries, has undergone exceptional development, while the other part, which should be alert to ensure that these discoveries really serve humanity and will not destroy it, has lagged behind catastrophically.
Yes, regardless of where I begin my thinking about the problems facing our civilization, I always return to the theme of human responsibility, which seems incapable of keeping pace with civilization and preventing it from turning against the human race. It’s as though the world has simply become too much for us to deal with.
There is no way back. Only a dreamer can believe that the solution lies in curtailing the progress of civilization in some way or other. The main task in the coming era is something else: a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility. Our conscience must catch up to our reason, otherwise we are lost.
It is my profound belief that there is only one way to achieve this: we must divest ourselves of our egotistical anthroponcentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of being, where it is judged.
A better alternative of the future of humanity, therefore, clearly lies in imbuing our civilization with a spiritual dimension. It’s not just a matter of understanding its multi-cultural nature and finding inspiration for the creation of a new world order in the common roots of all cultures. It is also essential that the Euro-American cultural sphere – the one which created this civilization and taught humanity its destructive pride – now return to its own spiritual roots and become an example to the rest of the world in the search for a new humility.
General observations of this type are certainly not difficult to make nor are they new or revolutionary. Modern people are masters at describing the crisis and the misery of the world which we shape, and for which we are responsible. We are much less adept at putting things right.
So what specifically is to be done?
I do not believe in some universal key or panacea. I am not an advocate of what Karl Popper called “holistic social engineering”, particularly because I had to live most of my adult life in circumstances that resulted from an attempt to create a holistic Marxist utopia. I know more than enough, therefore, about efforts of this kind.
This does not relieve me, however, of the responsibility to think of ways to make the world better.
It will certainly not be easy to awaken in people a new sense of responsibility for the world, an ability to conduct themselves as if they were to live on this earth forever, and to be held answerable for its condition one day. Who knows how many horrific cataclysms humanity may have to go through before such a sense of responsibility is generally accepted. But this does not mean that those who wish to work for it cannot begin at once. It is a great task for teachers, educators, intellectuals, the clergy, artists, entrepreneurs, journalists, people active in all forms of public life.
Above all it is a task for politicians.
Even in the most democratic of conditions, politicians have immense influence, perhaps more than they themselves realize. This influence does not lie in their actual mandates, which in any case are considerably limited. It lies in something else: in the spontaneous impact their charisma has on the public.
The main task of the present generation of politicians is not, I think to ingratiate themselves with the public through the decisions they take or their smiles on television. It is not to go on winning elections and ensuring themselves a place in the sun till the end of their days. Their role is something quite different: to assume their share of responsibility for the long-range prospects of our world and thus to set an example for the public in whose sight they work. Their responsibility is to think ahead boldly, not to fear the disfavor of the crowd, to imbue their actions with a spiritual dimension (which of course is not the same thing as ostentatious attendance at religious services), to explain again and again – both to the public and to their colleagues – that politics must do far more than reflect the interests of particular groups or lobbies. After all, politics is a matter of servicing the community, which means that it is morality in practice, And how better to serve the community and practice morality than by seeking in the midst of the global (and globally threatened) civilization their own global political responsibility: that is, their responsibility for the very survival of the human race?
I don’t believe that a politician who sets out on this risky path will inevitably jeopardize his or her political survival. This is a wrongheaded notion which assumes that the citizen is a fool and that political success depends on playing to this folly. That is not the way it is. A conscience slumbers in every human being, something divine. And that is what we have to put our trust in.
Ladies and gentlemen, I find myself at perhaps the most famous university in the most powerful country in the world. With your permission, I will say a few words on the subject of the politics of a great power.
It is obvious that those who have the greatest power and influence also bear the greatest responsibility. Like it or not, the United States of America now bears probably the greatest responsibility for the direction our world will take. The United States, therefore, should reflect most deeply on this responsibility.
Isolationism has never paid off for the United States. Had it entered the First World War earlier, perhaps it would not have had to pay with anything like the casualties it actually incurred.
The same is true of the Second World War: when Hitler was getting ready to invade Czechoslovakia, and in so doing finally exposing the lack of courage on the part of the western democracies, your president wrote a letter to the Czechoslovak President imploring him to come to some agreement with Hitler. Had he not deceived himself and the whole world into believing that an agreement could be made with this madman, had he instead shown a few teeth, perhaps the Second World War need not have happened, and tens of thousands of young Americans need not have died fighting in it.
Likewise, just before the end of that war, had your President, who was otherwise an outstanding man, said a clear “no” to Stalin’s decision to divide the world, perhaps the Cold War, which cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars, need not have happened either.
I beg you: do not repeat these mistakes! You yourselves have always paid a heavy price for them! There is simply no escaping the responsibility you have as the most powerful country in the world.
There is far more at stake here than simply standing up to those who would like once again to divide the world into spheres of interest, or subjugate others who are different from them, and weaker. What is now at stake is saving the human race. In other words, it’s a question of what I’ve already talked about: of understanding modern civilization as a multi-cultural and multi-polar civilization, of turning our attention to the original spiritual sources of human culture and above all, of our own culture, of drawing from these sources the strength for a courageous and magnanimous creation of a new order for the world.
Not long ago I was at a gala dinner to mark an important anniversary. There were fifty Heads of State present, perhaps more, who came to honor the heroes and victims of the greatest war in human history. This was not a political conference, but the kind of social event that is meant principally to show hospitality and respect to the invited guests. When the seating plan was given out, I discovered to my surprise that those sitting at the table next to mine were not identified simply as representatives of a particular state, as was the case with all the other tables; they were referred to as “permanent members of the UN Security Council and the G7.” I had mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, I thought how marvelous that the richest and most powerful of this world see each other often and even at this dinner, can talk informally and get to know each other better. On the other hand, a slight chill went down my spine, for I could not help observing that one table had been singled out as being special and particularly important. It was a table for the big powers. Somewhat perversely, I began to imagine that the people sitting at it were, along with their Russian caviar, dividing the rest of us up among themselves, without asking our opinion. Perhaps all this is merely the whimsy of a former and perhaps future playwright. But I wanted to express it here. For one simple reason: to emphasize the terrible gap that exists between the responsibility of the great powers and their hubris. The architect of that seating arrangement – I should think it was none of the attending Presidents – was not guided by a sense of responsibility for the world, but by the banal pride of the powerful.
But pride is precisely what will lead the world to hell. I am suggesting an alternative: humbly accepting our responsibility for the world.
There is one great opportunity in the matter of co-existence between nations and spheres of civilization, culture and religion that should be grasped and exploited to the limit. This is the appearance of supranational or regional communities. By now, there are many such communities in the world, with diverse characteristics and differing degrees of integration. I believe in this approach. I believe in the importance of organisms that lie somewhere between nation states and a world community, organisms that can be an important medium of global communication and cooperation-operation. I believe that this trend towards integration in a world where – as I’ve said – every valley longs for independence, must be given the greatest possible support.
These organisms, however, must not be an expression of integration merely for the sake of integration. They must be one of the many instruments enabling each region, each nation, to be both itself and capable of cooperation-operation with others. That is, they must be one of the instruments enabling countries and peoples who are close to each other geographically, ethnically, culturally and economically and who have common security interest, to form associations and better communicate with each other and with the rest of the world. At the same time, all such regional communities must rid themselves of fear that other like communities are directed against them. Regional groupings in areas that have common tradition and a common political culture ought to be a natural part of the complex political architecture of the world. Co-operation between such regions ought to be a natural component of cooperation-operation on a world-wide scale. As long as the broadening of NATO membership to include countries who feel culturally and politically a part of the region the Alliance was created to defend is seen by Russia, for example, as an anti-Russian undertaking, it will be a sign that Russia has not yet understood the challenge of this era.
The most important world organization is the United Nations. I think that the fiftieth anniversary of its birth could be an occasion to reflect on how to infuse it with a new ethos, a new strength, and a new meaning, and make it the truly most important arena of good cooperation-operation among all cultures that make up our planetary civilization.
But neither the strengthening of regional structures nor the strengthening of the UN will save the world if both processes are not informed by that renewed spiritual charge which I see as the only hope that the human race will survive another millennium.
I have touched on what I think politicians should do.
There is, however, one more force that has at least as much, if not more, influence on the general state of mind as politicians do.
That force is the mass media.
Only when fate sent me into the realm of high politics did I become fully aware of the media’s double-edged power. Their dual impact is not a specialty of the media. It is merely a part, or an expression of the dual nature of today’s civilization of which I have already spoken.
Thanks to television the whole world discovered, in the course of an evening, that there is a country called Rwanda where people are suffering beyond belief. Thanks to television it is possible to do at least a little to help those who are suffering. Thanks to television the whole world, in the course of a few seconds, was shocked and horrified about what happened in Oklahoma City and, at the same time, understood it as a great warning for all. Thanks to television the whole world knows that there exists an internationally recognized country called Bosnia and Herzegovina and that from the moment it recognized this country, the international community has tried unsuccessfully to divide it into grotesque mini-states according to the wishes of warlords who have never been recognized by anyone as anyone’s legitimate representatives.
That is the wonderful side of today’s mass media, or rather, of those who gather the news. Humanity’s thanks belong to all those courageous reporters who voluntarily risk their lives wherever something evil is happening, in order to arouse the conscience of the world.
There is, however, another, less wonderful, aspect of television, one that merely revels in the horrors of the world or, unforgivably, makes them commonplace, or compels politicians to become first of all television stars. But where is it written that someone who is good on television is necessarily also a good politician? I never fail to be astonished at how much I am at the mercy of television directors and editors, at how my public image depends far more on them than it does on myself, at how important it is to smile appropriately on television, or choose the right tie; at how television forces me to express my thoughts as sparely as possible, in witticisms, slogans or sound bites; at how easily my television image can be made to seem different from the real me. I am astonished by this and at the same time, I fear it serves no good purpose. I know politicians who have learned to see themselves only as the television camera does. Television has thus expropriated their personalities, and made them into something like television shadows of their former selves. I sometimes wonder whether they even sleep in a way that will look good on television.
I am not outraged with television or the press for distorting what I say or ignoring it, or editing me to appear like some strange monster. I am not angry with the media when I see that a politician’s rise or fall often depends more on them than on the politician concerned. What interests me is something else: the responsibility of those who have the mass media in their hands. They too bear responsibility for the world, and for the future of humanity. Just as the splitting of the atom can immensely enrich humanity in a thousand and one ways and, at the same time, can also threaten it with destruction, so television can have both good and evil consequences. Quickly, suggestively and to an unprecedented degree, it can disseminate the spirit of understanding, humanity, human solidarity and spirituality, or it can stupefy whole nations and continents. And just as our use of atomic energy depends solely on our sense of responsibility, so the proper use of television’s power to enter practically every house hold and every human mind depends on our sense of responsibility as well.
Whether our world is to be saved from everything that threatens it today depends above all on whether human beings come to their senses, whether they understand the degree of their responsibility and discover a new relationship to the very miracle of being. The world is in the hands of us all. And yet some have a greater influence on its fate than others. The more influence a person has – be they politician or television announcer – the greater the demands placed on their sense of responsibility and the less they should think merely about personal interests.
In conclusion, allow me a brief personal remark. I was born in Prague and I lived there for decades without being allowed to study properly or visit other countries. Nevertheless, my mother never abandoned one of her secret and quite extravagant dreams: that one day I would study at Harvard. Fate did not permit me to fulfill her dream. But something else happened, something that would never have occurred even to my mother: I have received a doctoral degree at Harvard without even having to study here.
More than that, I have been given to see Singapore, and countless other exotic places. I have been given to understand how small this world is and how it torments itself with countless things it need not torment itself with if people could find within themselves a little more courage, a little more hope, a little more responsibility, a little more mutual understanding and love.
I don’t know whether my mother is looking down at me from heaven, but if she is I can guess what she’s probably thinking; she’s thinking that I’m sticking my nose into matters that only people who have properly studied political science at Harvard have the right to stick their noses into.
I hope that you don’t think so.
Thank you for your attention.