Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Politics of a Commencement Speaker

Today most Northwestern students that I know in the Class of 2006 (by no means a representative sampling) were pleasantly suprised to learn that U.S. Senator Barack Obama will be our commencement speaker. People from the class of 2005 with whom I spoke were also jealous. John McCain, the speaker from last year, I learned, had done a bad job. He was "too political." People hoped that Obama wouldn't be as political. "I hope he'll say something inspirational," was one sentiment. What, though, does it mean to be inspirational? I hope it doesn't mean to be contrived or maudlin or too praiseworthy, and I hope that students from a university as good as this one want more than just cheap inspiration, want more than an oral version of those trite posters with captions that say "Teamwork" or "Challenge." If that's all we can stomach, then maybe Obama isn't our guy. After all, he told this to the Class of 2005 at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois as their commencement speaker last year:

Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th century solutions, let’s imagine together what we could do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century.

What if we prepared every child in America with the education and skills they need to compete in the new economy? If we made sure that college was affordable for everyone who wanted to go? If we walked up to those Maytag workers and we said “Your old job is not coming back, but a new job will be there because we’re going to seriously retrain you and there’s life-long education that’s waiting for you—the sorts of opportunities that Knox has created with the Strong Futures scholarship program.

What if no matter where you worked or how many times you switched jobs, you had health care and a pension that stayed with you always, so you all had the flexibility to move to a better job or start a new business? What if instead of cutting budgets for research and development and science, we fueled the genius and the innovation that will lead to the new jobs and new industries of the future?

I'm presuming that when people say they don't want to hear about the political in a commencement address, they in part are speaking of not wanting to hear about the outside world and all of its problems. We students have been insulated enough from that world for the past four years that it shouldn't hurt us to be challenged for 30 minutes.

And yes, Obama was political in his Knox College address, at least insofar as he expressed a point-of-view that may be disagreable to some:

Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn’t much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government—divvy it up by individual portions, in the form of tax breaks, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, their own education, and so on.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.

John McCain was also political in his commencement address at Northwestern last year. What made McCain's commencement address less palatable than Obama's was not so much that it was "political" but that it did not represent a call to the new graduates to act, as Obama's did. Instead, it represented a defense of the Bush Administration foreign policy. Yes, McCain did tell students that "the world is about to become your responsibility," but he did not mount a challenge to them as Obama did. He spoke of the immorality of genocide, but who disagrees with that? What I want to know is what I can do about it, and not just from McCain's call to "support action," especially if all military action is lumped under spreading freedom of which the administration which McCain so strong supports is guilty. Obama went much further, putting this challenge to the Knox students:

Now, no one can force you to meet these challenges. If you want, it will be pretty easy for you to leave here today and not give another thought to towns like Galesburg and the challenges they face. There is no community service requirement in the real world; no one is forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the big house, and the nice suits, and all the other things that our money culture says that you should want, that you should aspire to, that you can buy.

But I hope you don’t walk away from the challenge. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own. Not because you have a debt to those who helped you get here, although you do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I do think you do have that obligation. It’s primarily because you have an obligation to yourself. Because individual salvation has always depended on collective salvation. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.

Yes, I don't want to hear a McCain-style foreign policy explication on graduation day, but I also don't want to hear an effusively trite speech. That's why I'm glad Obama is our speaker.

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