This is what separated us from you; we made demands. You were satisfied to serve the power of the nation and we dreamed of giving ours her truth…. – Albert Camus, “Letters to a German Friend”
Earlier this month, Janis Besler Heaphy, publisher and president of the Sacramento Bee, gave a commencement speech at California State University at Sacramento that was fitting of a true patriot and all that it means to be an American: “The terrorist attacks awakened a sense of patriotism long dormant in this country. We have been reminded of our greatness and how lucky we are to be Americans. But that blessing comes with responsibilities.” That responsibility, illustrated in her remarks before she was booed off stage, is to ask the questions and serve the citizenry, however difficult those questions are to ask or however much they may disagree with official government policy. We may never know the motivations of those who shouted and stomped. Perhaps there was a mix of those put off by her questioning the erosion of civil liberties in a time of war—and others who thought she “rained” on their day to shine. My country, right or wrong, meets the world is your oyster. Whatever the cause, it’s the consequence of their actions that brought the university and the publisher a certain amount of fame and fallout. What it brought us as citizens was a textbook example of our democracy at work. It is Heaphy’s act of dissent, her willingness to question those who derive their power from the consent of the governed, to dissent in a public setting, and on a campus university, that deserves our congratulations.
How many of us since September 11 have noticed examples of where distinctions between official policy in Washington and personal opinion have all but disappeared? In such an atmosphere, no official mandate of censorship is required. We self-censor remarks, internalize our difference of opinion, and throw our ideals—for a world without war and all forms of violence—out the window marked “unsound.”
Then along comes someone like Janis Besler Heaphy, newspaper publisher. Who would have thought that a university commencement address would generate more than its usual polite applause and "let's get this over with" feeling among the crowd. Heaphy's speech reiterated what we already know: citizens in a democracy need information in order to provide informed consent to those who serve us. And a free and vigorous press is the best vehicle to fight for the whole story, not just what official Washington wants us to know. If the citizenry of the United States does not want the whole story, only parts of it that favor “our side” in a war, then we shouldn’t be surprised if journalists and newspaper publishers stop asking the questions.
Luckily for us, Heaphy remembered who she was.
We live in a time of great sensitivity and a wish not to hurt feelings. Emotions are running high and sentimentality reigns. In time, we will look back at Janis Besler Heaphy’s Commencement Address as the highest mark of a public servant, who, like the true patriot, is one who shows a higher loyalty to the country it can be than to a country that it is. Heaphy may have been stung by how some received her speech in the moment of its making, but in the long run she will have strengthened our values as a citizenry and the proper role of the university. Read her speech, without interruption, and see the duty and beauty in asking questions.
Nancy Snow teaches in the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. She is a faculty consultant to the Center for Experiential Education and Service Learning, UCLA, email@example.com.