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A Nation That Closes Its Eyes Is Sure To Stumble Sometime
Published on Tuesday, July 8, 2003 by the Portland Tribune (Oregon)
A Nation That Closes Its Eyes Is Sure To Stumble Sometime
by James DePreist
 

On June 14, James DePreist, long the conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, delivered the commencement address for the graduating class of Portland State University. His speech, slightly condensed, appears below:

Graduates, the world in which we live is a mess. Myth masquerading as truth, our beloved United States in crisis, many of its fundamental principles under assault.

And yet a goodly number of your fellow Americans seem oblivious ... sleepwalking through these alarming times, heedless and gullible beyond belief. Our country simply cannot afford this, and our hard-won freedoms cannot long bear the weight of an unenlightened citizenry. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the unspeakable horror of Sept. 11 or the very real menace of world terrorism. History has clearly shown that the ultimate weapon of mass destruction for any society is ignorance.

Those poor young souls whose promise spilled red onto the beaches of Normandy ... that tragic society of the abridged, abed in Arlington, did not so bravely fall in order to preserve a nation that would so easily allow the raging torrent of their authentic patriotism and courage to become mere rivulets of passivity and acquiescence.

If some can sacrifice their lives, then surely the rest of us can give our attention.

I am certain that you are not graduating from this wonderful university in order to join the choir of the complacent. That chorus is large enough, and sadly includes much of our once-vibrant press. Former Vice President Spiro Agnew, the phrase-fashioning future felon of the Nixon administration, delighted in characterizing the media as "those nattering nabobs of negativism." But with few exceptions, it seems to me, the nattering of the nabobs has become the silence of the lambs.

In a democracy, a free press is a vital bulwark against the excesses of those in power ... Democrats and Republicans alike. This is not a matter of partisan politics; rather, it concerns the role of a populace in a government of -- by -- and for -- the people. Yes, a free press is essential to a free society. All we ask -- tell us the truth.

It is our free press that should distinguish spin from substance, and not add posturing and platitudes to the national discourse. The stakes in a democracy are too high to allow us a swing in the hammock of simplistic thinking. We must demand more of those in power, no matter the political party. Stupidity is an equal-opportunity failing.

To the noble enterprise of participatory democracy, we must bring ideas that will enhance the public good. Cynics chuckle at this notion, but cynicism is the refuge of the impotent and the badge of those who really don't give a damn.

You can help change all that. You can change it with quality ideas and inspired execution. Be assured that others will be at work to stop you.

We do have much to be proud of -- but self-congratulation should never be a growth industry. Patting ourselves on the back at every turn tends to overlook the vital work remaining to be done ... work that requires both hands.

At any given time democracies need most of all the leavening good sense of our outlaw ideas. Ideas such as emancipation ... women's suffrage ... environmental protection -- you know, small issues like these. Often the message is merely a call to first principles ... a reminder that when our deeds fail to measure 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 your country heed your words. At the 1964 Republican convention, Sen. Barry Goldwater let fly this provocative clarion reaffirmation: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Could the senator have been thinking of the Declaration of Independence and our revolutionary war led by that ragtag band of left-wing extremists like Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry? Just imagine the list of those who today could rally 'round the banner emblazoned with Goldwater's words. Over here -- the leaders of every coherent left-of-center and radical group. Right next to the team of Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Rice and Wolfowitz, who in turn are alongside Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Ralph Nader. All of them listening to a concert by Lee Greenwood and the Dixie Chicks.

You get the picture. The strangest of bedfellows, all believing that Goldwater means them! At the center of the work of democracy is the avoidance of the difficult ascent to anarchy on the one hand and the far easier slippery slope toward fascism on the other.

The navigational chart for our ship of state is the Constitution. But make no mistake, the nation is kept on course -- true to its promise and principles -- by the people. All of its people. It is so very easy to veer dangerously off course.

I was in high school during the McCarthy reign of terror. It was a menacing and disgraceful time in the nation's history. The senator's "weapons of mass destruction," which he looked for everywhere, were communists. It was a time of loyalty oaths, neighbor asked to spy on neighbor, blacklists, wiretaps, and guilt by accusation and innuendo. The self-righteous wrapped themselves in the flag and denounced anyone who disagreed with them as being un-American and unpatriotic. Lives and careers were destroyed with reckless abandon. Let me know if any of this sounds familiar.

Each generation of Americans is asked to be vigilant against the erosion of our constitutional rights. The task of your generation is more than mere vigilance. Of you will be demanded the reclamation of eroded guarantees. By so doing, you will define a patriotism devoid of theatricality and profoundly authentic. It will not be easy.

The era of Enron is distinguished by the almost routine facilitation of malfeasance. Unbelievably, Enron actually had a code of ethics, but when greed entered the boardroom, it was accompanied by an elemental cynicism that enabled the assembled to vote to suspend this inconvenient code so that they could plan the violation of law in strict conformity to Robert's Rules of Order ... much like using a sterile alcohol swab before giving a lethal injection. In some quarters integrity, it seems, is becoming an endangered species.

But you can change all of that ... and must. We all must, for yours is a multigenerational struggle, as vital to your parents as it is to your children. It is a quintessentially American struggle ... a call not to arms but to our senses. Our sense of justice, our sense of duty, our sense of compassion, our sense of global interdependence, our sense of history, our sense of humanity, our sense of humility and our sense of honesty.

A great nation, when it is in the wrong, should have no trouble saying "my bad," and when it is in the right should allow others to trumpet the triumph. Being right is its own reward.

James DePreist is the laureate music director of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. He lives in Scottsdale, Ariz.

© 2003 THE PORTLAND TRIBUNE

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