The recent New School Commencement speakers have been Justice Stephen Breyer (2005), Ted Sorenson (2004), John Hollander (2003), and Bernard Lewis (2002). Both Breyer and Lewis gave essentially nonpartisan talks, Lewis's being the dullest of the four commencement addresses that I read on the New School's website. Of course, a speech is meant to be heard, not read, so judging from the text may be misleading.
These days I am guarded in my use of the word "loyalty", particularly when I speak of anything like a patria. For in these days I'm reminded more and more of Samuel Johnson’s celebrated claim that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. I had grown up feeling myself to be quite patriotic , yet at the same time distrusting people who loudly asserted such patriotic feelings of their own. For me these two notions walked hand in hand, and not in opposition. Chauvinism felt like an affront–and certainly an embarrassment to–what I felt was my relation to my native land. So that in high school and first encountering Johnson’s remark, I took it as sufficiently naughty to be true, and sufficiently true to be more than merely naughty. In any case, it seemed to vindicate my feelings. But also, like most people, I misunderstood it by not reading it carefully enough. In saying that scoundrels would appeal to their own or their listeners' patriotism when all other claims or arguments failed them, Dr. Johnson was not saying that only scoundrels were patriots or vice versa; but he was observing that if you walked through the door of the sacred house of patriotism, you'd certainly find a lot of scoundrels there among the other virtuous residents. This didn't mean that patriotism was itself a bad idea or institution. It did point out one of patriotism’s particular defects, namely that it attracts the most desperate, coarse and sleazy seekers after justification. But patriotism has to be protected from scoundrels, and though this will never be taught in schools, it remains one of the many conclusions toward which education in and for a free society must lead.
On the surface, Hollander seems to be attacking the right (and probably mostly he is), but he is doing so much more--making a profound point about both the dangers of patriotism and the need for it. Hollander also advanced the idea (enshrined in the University of Chicago's Kalven Report) that universities should not, as a collective, take political positions. I would have loved to have heard this brilliant address.
This is not a speech. Two weeks ago I set aside the speech I prepared. This is a cry from the heart, a lamentation for the loss of this country’s goodness and therefore its greatness.
Future historians studying the decline and fall of America will mark this as the time the tide began to turn – toward a mean-spirited mediocrity in place of a noble beacon.
For me the final blow was American guards laughing over the naked, helpless bodies of abused prisoners in Iraq. "There is a time to laugh," the Bible tells us, "and a time to weep." Today I weep for the country I love, the country I proudly served, the country to which my four grandparents sailed over a century ago with hopes for a new land of peace and freedom. I cannot remain silent when that country is in the deepest trouble of my lifetime.
I am not talking only about the prison abuse scandal–that stench will someday subside. Nor am I referring only to the Iraq war—that too will pass—nor to any one political leader or party. This is no time for politics as usual, in which no one responsible admits responsibility, no one genuinely apologizes, no one resigns and everyone else is blamed.
The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict upon us.
The stain on our credibility, our reputation for decency and integrity, will not quickly wash away.
This is extraordinarily eloquent, but (despite Sorenson's protestations to the contrary) it is strongly partisan. This, of course, does not make anything he said wrong, or even necessarily inappropriate for a commencement address, where if you say something partisan, you should pull back from the brink (as Sorenson does) of pointing fingers, even though everyone knows what you are saying. I would have enjoyed hearing that speech, as I would have enjoyed a similarly partisan one from the other side the following year, if (hypothetically) such a speech were to be given by an eloquent Republican speechwriter such as Peggy Noonan.
(To read about whom Harvard, Penn, and the Northwestern Law School have had as commencement speakers, click on "Show Hidden Text" and continue reading below the fold.)
Since I joined the Northwestern Law School faculty in 1996, our commencement speakers have included Bob Kerrey, Dick Durbin, Janet Reno, and Joe Biden. IMO, the best of the speakers was Kerrey (mostly for a rare moment of real feeling and candor), with Durbin a distant second, though still excellent. The most partisan of the group was Biden, but he wasn't excessively so, though he went on a bit long. Our graduation speaker this year will be Joel Flaum, Chief Judge of the 7th Circuit, a truly wonderful person (a "mensch") and a great friend of the law school.
At Harvard College, I see that they have had a better mix of speakers than one might expect.
On the one hand:
2004 Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, LLD
2002 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Former U.S. Senator, LLD
2001 Robert E. Rubin, Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, LLD
1997 Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State, LLD
1994 Albert Gore Jr., Vice President of the U.S., LLD
On the other hand:
1999 Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve Chairman, LLD
1995 Václav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, LLD
1993 Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, LLD
Of course, Harvard can get (and afford to pay) almost anyone it wants.
I see that Penn's list leans a bit farther to the left than Harvard's, but nonetheless has some major exceptions, including John McCain in 2001 and Barbara Bush (!!!) in 1990.
If one is going to invite politicians to speak, which Northwestern Law School does about half the time, in the spirit of diversity it would be nice to hear some different political voices.
Because this post is so long, I moved an aside regarding Ted Sorenson's contributions to Profiles in Courage to a new post.
Related Posts (on one page):
- Did Ted Sorenson Ghostwrite Profiles in Courage?--
- Political Commencement Addresses.--
- Conservative Commencement Speakers Not Welcome.--