Paul Rogat Loeb, Convocation address, Bates College, Sept. 8, 2004
The news is ugly and overwhelming. You read, ‘Seven U.S. troops dead in Iraq.’ About global warming and extreme weather events. There is a tendency to feel overwhelmed. The economy is up and down, and uncertain. They’re outsourcing jobs halfway around the world. You must be wondering, How will I get through? How will I pay off my student loans? Will there be a job for me? These are large issues that can seem daunting. The challenge is to find ways to have a voice. . . .
Take Maine and its campaign-finance reform. I talk about this reform in the rest of the country and they say it’s impossible, they feel they’re destined to be run by the Enrons and Halliburtons of the world. I tell them, look at Maine. They’ve managed to change. Maine also now offers health-care insurance for everyone. Part of the definition of tackling large issues is trying to think beyond the bounds of what we’re told is achievable and what isn’t. A minister has said, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.” . . .
As a student, you feel uncertain. But what we don’t recognize is that everybody who acts is uncertain. You never proceed with absolute knowledge. We think that Rosa Parks came out of nowhere and single-handedly, acting alone, launched the civil rights movement. None of that is true. She was laboring hard and in the trenches for 12 years. She was the secretary of the NAACP local. The TV cameras don’t zoom in on someone taking notes at an NAACP meeting. But that was just as much a part of what happened in history as that day on the bus. That moment on the bus was pivotal in U.S. history, but if you go back, was it more so than that first NAACP meeting she went to? Was it more so than all the times she hung in there with doubts? All those events are interconnected.
If she had given up in year three, or five, or seven or 10, we never would have heard of Parks. If Rosa Parks had given up because things were hard, history might have been different. And when someone acts, they act by joining together with others. The process of making change is about bringing new people in. One of the exciting things about being at a school like this, with a long tradition of involvement, is that you have a chance to enter that tradition. The historian Vincent Harding calls it a river, a river of people working for social justice. It extends thousands of years, extending forward into the future. We can all be part of that.
I see the banner for Wesleyan at the back of this gym [among a group of banners representing NESCAC colleges]. A young woman registered 300 voters at Wesleyan a few years ago and her congressman won by 27 votes. She said, “I guess I made a difference.” I said, “I know you did.” You never know how an action is going to play out in the world.
Often, we’re told that our efforts can’t matter; we’re condescended to. People are cynical. There was a rock band called Plastic People of the Universe in the Czech Republic, influenced by groups like the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa. The authorities did not like their music; they said it was “morbid” and “not socially constructive.” (Perhaps you’ve heard that at some point about some music you like or play.) They played anyway, in underground raves, in a warehouse, that police would break up. Then they were jailed. Vaclav Havel was a few years older and a few years more respectable. He formed a defense committee, and the authorities prosecuted the defense committee; that’s what dictatorships do. Havel tried to circulate a petition to get these people out of jail, and he was being mocked, even by people who said they didn’t like the regime. People said the defense committee and others were exhibitionists, indulgent, just trying to get attention. They asked why they didn’t quietly work behind the scenes. I’ve heard those same phrases levied against students trying to make a difference: “Oh, you’re just trying to get attention. You don’t even know what you’re doing.” There’s always a standard — I call it the “perfect standard” in Soul of a Citizen — that you can levy at someone: “You’re doing it in the wrong way. You don’t know enough. You’re not eloquent enough. Give up. Don’t even begin.” Havel, looking back several years later, noted that his efforts did not free a single political prisoner. On some levels, the critics were right. On another level, they were wrong, because when those people got out of jail, they said the efforts of Havel and others gave their sacrifices meaning, allowed them to act. Those people who signed those petitions took a first step to challenge the regime. Several years later, they were playing dissident music, putting on dissident theater, preaching sermons. They were challenging this regime that, wrote Havel, would not long stand, and he was right. We don’t always know the impacts of our efforts. The courage of ordinary people, who recognize that bringing somebody new into involvement, is just as important as the particular fight on a particular issue.
The hardest conversation to start about an important issue may be the first one, because we aren’t used to it. People are not always going to agree with you. They will have different viewpoints. Listen to them, hear them out. Try to understand how someone came by those views. Whatever view you have, it will serve you immensely. Sometimes people say, when I caution them not to get caught in the perfect standard, “Suppose you take a wrong stand on an issue. What do you do? What if you make matters worse?” The first stand I ever took was on Vietnam and I supported the war. I discovered I’d been lied to, so I ended up opposing it. How do I frame that first stand? I frame it as a learning process, a process that got me engaged so I could ask further questions, learn more, and change my position. If we do that with people who disagree with us, it’s immensely valuable whether or not we change their minds; we see how their world view develops.
What terrifies me is the ethic of bullying from Washington, D.C. A friend is a colonel in the military who said after 9/11, “They want us to shut up and color, like we’re 8-year-olds.” Or John Ashcroft saying, if you’re against us you’re an ally of terrorism. Or Cheney saying that if the terrorists attack, the Democrats will have invited them. Or they run an ad against Tim Johnson, Democratic senator from South Dakota, the only one in Congress whose son is actually serving with our forces: Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan — the hardest places. They had the gall to call him unpatriotic. We have to be able to draw a line that says, “Excuse me, patriotism is asking the hardest questions at the hardest possible time. We may disagree over the answers, but that’s part of what being a citizen in a democracy is about.” But don’t let a politician from either party tell us that we are being unpatriotic by questioning. That erodes our democracy.
I hope you will get off campus to meet people who are engaged in the hardest issues. Some are flaky, sure, and some are crazy, but most are amazingly resilient and strong and couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else. Desmond Tutu has had a hard life. He’s spent his whole life fighting apartheid, he’s had prostate cancer. He’s seen people tortured, murdered, imprisoned. You might think he would be broken down and bitter. But he is the lightest spirit imaginable. At a benefit in Los Angeles, there was a band from East LA playing and I saw Desmond Tutu dancing, in the middle of the floor. I’d never seen a Nobel Peace Prize winner dance before; I wondered, is there a lesson here? The lesson is about being passionate about life. Here was somebody who, in addition to speaking out, was embracing the best of what life can offer. Embracing life is inseparable from speaking out against injustice in a prophetic voice.
What does a lifetime mean? What does four years at Bates mean? Or five years, 10 years, whatever. Imagine if we look back on our lives and ask what we’ve done for the common good. We could choose one path, one that’s about us and us only. We could choose another path reflecting a sort of American creed: After 9/11 someone wrote a letter to my newspaper that said, “Be patriotic. Run out and buy a sofa.” Salvation at the mall, but I’m not quite sure that’s what it’s all about. Or we could choose another path that asks, “Why am I here on this earth? What purpose do I have?” And we can answer by saying, “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know all the questions. But I do know I am connected with my fellow human beings. I am going to explore that connection. I am going to pursue it and stand up for what I believe in. I may not always do things right, but I will act as best I can, keep on, and see what happens from there.” That, I think, is the way to live.