David Levering Lewis
Commencement address: David Levering Lewis
President Hansen, trustees, distinguished honorees and platform guests, faculty, alumni, members of the Bates College community, relieved parents, and even more relieved graduates of the Class of 2004, I know from experience that what is remembered about the best commencement speeches is brevity. But as I have the honor and immense pleasure of standing before this outstanding graduating class, I would hope that my brief remarks may be remembered also for content.
For yours — the Class of 2004 — goes out into an America whose constant self-reinvention was acknowledged this past week in celebration and contemplation of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. You are going to work, play, bond, vote and parent in a multi-cultural nation of accelerating ethnic, demographic, gendered, and politico-economic complexity. It is a nation that has come about in major measure because of the ongoing revolution in civil rights whose momentum has propelled women, ethnics, gays and other challenged categories that continue to emerge and lay claim to a fair share of the vaunted American Dream. For nothing could be more obvious to us now than that the civil rights struggle of African Americans commenced the fight for the optimal expansion of everybody’s rights.
To be sure, the considerable social gains of the last 50 years are only as authentic and as enduring as your vigilant guardianship will make them. I hardly need tell you that you have your work cut out for you. Your generation is facing not only concerted assaults through the federal courts upon minority advancement in secondary and higher education and women’s reproductive rights, you and we confront the most formidable, and related, assault upon the very possibility of economic and political democracy in this country since the late 1890s. As the biographer of one of this nation’s most extraordinary public intellectuals, I’m frequently challenged to speculate on what W.E.B. Du Bois would say about these times. Mostly, I resist such requests as an exercise in improper historical license. Nevertheless, the temptation to speak to you through his salient, prescient words is, on occasions such as this, irresistible. One hundred years ago in William Randolph Hearst’s World Today, Du Bois deplored his times in accents of exceptional pertinence to our times:
“The gospel of money has been triumphant in church and state and university. The great question which Americans ask today is, ‘What is he worth?’ or ‘What is it worth?’ The ideals of human rights are obscured and the nation has begun to swagger about the world in useless battleships looking for helpless peoples whom it can force to buy its goods at high prices. This wave of materialism is temporary; it will pass and leave us all ashamed and surprised; but while it is here it strangely maddens and blinds us.”
I doubt that most of us here feel much confidence that what the 36-year-old Du Bois called a temporary “wave of materialism” is in reality a passing phenomenon. Du Bois himself realized at the end of the day that the fundamental problem of his 20th and our 21st century was not solely the famous color line but unregulated economic greed: the exploitation of the great majority of humankind by the kleptocratic minority. Who among us here doesn’t know that since the 1980s, the mal-distribution of income in the United States has become greater in favor of the rich than in any other modern democracy and is rapidly growing worse? More to the point, there are few real jobs in an economy where money chases after money, and business mergers produce watered stock and a contracting labor market in which real goods are produced mostly anywhere but here. Much of higher education is now priced so far above the means of middle class Americans as to be available, if at all, only through crushing indebtedness. In 2004, the political ethos in which taxes for social-democratic initiatives can be meaningfully debated no longer exists.
As for that swaggering about the world that Du Bois deplored, that too appears to be with us indefinitely. 9/11 has robbed us once again that innocence we Americans lose every other decade. Quite understandably, many of us feel that we have to trade some of our liberties in return for our security. This is an old, bad Faustian bargain. Unless we take great care, the Homeland Security State and its Justice Department handmaidens, Patriots Act I and II, may well leave our civil liberties as maimed as the New York cityscape has been by the al-Qaeda jihadists. The damage done to the United States in the community of nations through the perverse logic of superpower omnipotence affronts those fine Wilsonian principles much of the world is now beginning to try to abide by. To many of us, this fastening on of domestic vigilantism and international hooliganism is thought to be the consequence of international terrorism — an aberration running against the grain of American history. Yesterday, we had a republic, they say. Today we have the Homeland Security State. How can all this have happened? The reality, of course, is that there has always been an American counter-narrative that trumps the narratives of Walt Whitman and Woodrow Wilson. There has always been a dark side to that mythic city on a hill whence our ideal and institutions are said to derive. From this day forward, you are going to be challenged to be more discerning about the values that matter than any college generation since Vietnam. In this regard, I think of no more apt observation than one made by an illustrious Bates alumnus, who said: “I would rather go to hell by choice than to stumble into heaven by following the crowd.” These words were spoken by Benjamin Mays, Phi Beta Kappa, Class of 1920.
But commencements should be joyous, upbeat — salutes to the bright, productive futures that you certainly deserve after four enriching liberal arts years at Bates. If I’ve learned anything from my profession, it is that the future is never certain until it becomes history. As beneficiaries of a superb Bates education, it is fitting to expect you to play a significant part in the writing of the American future and to help determine, thereby, whether you will be citizens of an American Empire that mimics imperial Rome or of a republic dedicated to the planetary spread of knowledge, science and technology through democracy. Perhaps, as Winston Churchill famously opined, “Americans will always do the right thing—after trying all the other alternatives.” Regardless of the fears and challenges, the good news today is about you, because your class is uniquely equipped for leadership. As I close in saluting you, Class of 2004, I envy your options, because they really are breathtakingly historic. And now it’s up to you to make history come out the right way.
Congratulations. Thank you.