A Nation That Closes Its Eyes Is Sure To Stumble 0aSometime
By James Depreist
The Portland Tribune
Tuesday 08 July 2003
On June 14, James DePreist, long the conductor of the Oregon 0aSymphony Orchestra, delivered the commencement address for the graduating class 0aof Portland State University. His speech, slightly condensed, appears below.
Graduates, the world in which we live is a mess. Myth 0amasquerading as truth, our beloved United States in crisis, many of its 0afundamental principles under assault.
And yet a goodly number of your fellow Americans seem oblivious ... sleepwalking through these alarming times, heedless and gullible beyond 0abelief. Our country simply cannot afford this, and our hard-won freedoms cannot 0along bear the weight of an unenlightened citizenry. This has nothing whatsoever 0ato do with the unspeakable horror of Sept. 11 or the very real menace of world 0aterrorism. History has clearly shown that the ultimate weapon of mass 0adestruction for any society is ignorance.
Those poor young souls whose promise spilled red onto the beaches 0aof Normandy ... that tragic society of the abridged, abed in Arlington, did not 0aso bravely fall in order to preserve a nation that would so easily allow the 0araging torrent of their authentic patriotism and courage to become mere rivulets 0aof passivity and acquiescence.
If some can sacrifice their lives, then surely the rest of us can 0agive our attention.
I am certain that you are not graduating from this wonderful 0auniversity in order to join the choir of the complacent. That chorus is large 0aenough, and sadly includes much of our once-vibrant press. Former Vice President 0aSpiro Agnew, the phrase-fashioning future felon of the Nixon administration, 0adelighted in characterizing the media as "those nattering nabobs of negativism." 0aBut with few exceptions, it seems to me, the nattering of the nabobs has become 0athe silence of the lambs.
In a democracy, a free press is a vital bulwark against the 0aexcesses of those in power ... Democrats and Republicans alike. This is not a 0amatter of partisan politics; rather, it concerns the role of a populace in a 0agovernment of -- by -- and for -- the people. Yes, a free press is essential to 0aa free society. All we ask -- tell us the truth.
It is our free press that should distinguish spin from substance, 0aand not add posturing and platitudes to the national discourse. The stakes in a 0ademocracy are too high to allow us a swing in the hammock of simplistic 0athinking. We must demand more of those in power, no matter the political party. 0aStupidity is an equal-opportunity failing.
To the noble enterprise of participatory democracy, we must bring 0aideas that will enhance the public good. Cynics chuckle at this notion, but 0acynicism is the refuge of the impotent and the badge of those who really don't 0agive a damn.
You can help change all that. You can change it with quality 0aideas and inspired execution. Be assured that others will be at work to stop 0ayou.
We do have much to be proud of -- but self-congratulation should never be a 0agrowth industry. Patting ourselves on the back at every turn tends to overlook 0athe vital work remaining to be done ... work that requires both hands.
At any given time democracies need most of all the leavening good 0asense of our outlaw ideas. Ideas such as emancipation ... women's suffrage ... 0aenvironmental protection -- you know, small issues like these. Often the message 0ais merely a call to first principles ... a reminder that when our deeds fail to 0ameasure up to our lofty words, we dishonor both the ideals and ourselves.
You must find the ideas that our society needs to hear and make 0ayour country heed your words. At the 1964 Republican convention, Sen. Barry 0aGoldwater let fly this provocative clarion reaffirmation: "Extremism in the 0adefense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no 0avirtue."
Could the senator have been thinking of the Declaration of 0aIndependence and our revolutionary war led by that ragtag band of left-wing 0aextremists like Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry? Just imagine the list 0aof those who today could rally 'round the banner emblazoned with Goldwater's 0awords. Over here -- the leaders of every coherent left-of-center and radical 0agroup. Right next to the team of Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Rice and Wolfowitz, who in 0aturn are alongside Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Ralph Nader. All of them 0alistening to a concert by Lee Greenwood and the Dixie Chicks.
You get the picture. The strangest of bedfellows, all believing 0athat Goldwater means them! At the center of the work of democracy is the 0aavoidance of the difficult ascent to anarchy on the one hand and the far easier 0aslippery slope toward fascism on the other.
The navigational chart for our ship of state is the 0aConstitution. But make no mistake, the nation is kept on course -- true to its 0apromise and principles -- by the people. All of its people. It is so very easy 0ato veer dangerously off course.
I was in high school during the McCarthy reign of terror. It was 0aa menacing and disgraceful time in the nation's history. The senator's "weapons 0aof mass destruction," which he looked for everywhere, were communists. It was a 0atime of loyalty oaths, neighbor asked to spy on neighbor, blacklists, wiretaps, 0aand guilt by accusation and innuendo. The self-righteous wrapped themselves in 0athe flag and denounced anyone who disagreed with them as being un-American and 0aunpatriotic. Lives and careers were destroyed with reckless abandon. Let me know 0aif any of this sounds familiar.
Each generation of Americans is asked to be vigilant against the 0aerosion of our constitutional rights. The task of your generation is more than 0amere vigilance. Of you will be demanded the reclamation of eroded guarantees. By 0aso doing, you will define a patriotism devoid of theatricality and profoundly 0aauthentic. It will not be easy.
The era of Enron is distinguished by the almost routine 0afacilitation of malfeasance. Unbelievably, Enron actually had a code of ethics, 0abut when greed entered the boardroom, it was accompanied by an elemental 0acynicism that enabled the assembled to vote to suspend this inconvenient code so 0athat they could plan the violation of law in strict conformity to Robert's Rules 0aof Order ... much like using a sterile alcohol swab before giving a lethal 0ainjection. In some quarters integrity, it seems, is becoming an endangered 0aspecies.
But you can change all of that ... and must. We all must, for 0ayours is a multigenerational struggle, as vital to your parents as it is to your 0achildren. It is a quintessentially American struggle ... a call not to arms but 0ato our senses. Our sense of justice, our sense of duty, our sense of compassion, 0aour sense of global interdependence, our sense of history, our sense of 0ahumanity, our sense of humility and our sense of honesty.
A great nation, when it is in the wrong, should have no trouble 0asaying "my bad," and when it is in the right should allow others to trumpet the 0atriumph. Being right is its own reward.
James DePreist is the laureate music director of the Oregon 0aSymphony Orchestra. He lives in Scottsdale, AZ.