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Whitman Commencement Address 2004: "Living Fearlessly in a Fearful World"

by Michael Ignatieff
Carr Professor of Human Rights Policy
Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights
Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University

You have done me a great honor and I accept it with gratitude. It is a pleasure for my wife and me to be part of the Whitman community today.

Michael IgnatieffA speech on graduation day should be short and to the point. I know only too well that I am a warm-up act. The main event—the moment you are waiting for—comes later, when you step up and get your degrees and you pose with your loved ones, the good people who sacrificed to get you to this moment, the doubters who never thought you’d make it, the quiet heroes who had faith in you when you didn’t have any yourself. It would be foolish of me to delay this moment of joy and recognition too long. Let me just offer you my heartfelt congratulations, especially to those among you who are the first members of your family to get a college degree. Try to make sure that this moment becomes a tradition in your family, for your children and your children’s children.

Do remember Whitman College when you leave. I have taught in the university systems of Canada, the United Kingdom and France, and from my experience, American higher education is the best in the world, especially because of the strength of its private liberal arts colleges. One reason for their strength is the astounding generosity of their alumni, their willingness to give back to the institutions that gave them their chance. Please continue that fine tradition.

Having given you a piece of financial advice, let me move on to the staple fare of any commencement address: moral advice. No person of my advanced years, given this honor, can avoid succumbing to the temptation to give advice to an audience held captive like this, and I shall succumb like all the others.

My theme is living fearlessly in a fearful world. Living fearlessly is not the same thing as never being afraid. It’s good to be afraid occasionally. Fear is a great teacher. What’s not good is living in fear, allowing fear to dictate your choices, allowing fear to define who you are. Living fearlessly means standing up to fear, taking its measure, refusing to let it shape and define your life. Living fearlessly means taking risks, taking gambles, not playing it safe. It means refusing to take “no” for an answer when you are sure that the answer should have been “yes.” It means refusing to settle for less than what is your due, what is yours by right, what is yours by the sweat of your labor and your effort. To those of you who have had to struggle to get here, who sometimes doubted that you were going to get through, remember this: you have already come too far to settle for less than the best.

Why am I talking about fear at a moment like this? Because your adult life is really about to begin: jobs, professions, marriages, relationships, children, responsibilities, burdens, worries and yes, fear. Fear that you are not good enough to make the grade. Fear that you haven’t got what it takes to carry the burden. Fear that you can’t meet the expectations of all those people watching you today as you step up and accept your degree.

Fight the fear. Remember the most important thing about a life is that it is yours and nobody else’s. You cannot live a life for the sake of your family, your parents, your brothers, your sisters, your children. A life without duty to these loved ones would not be a good life, but a life lived entirely to meet their expectations is not a good life. It is the ones who love us most who put the fear into us, who burden us with expectations and responsibilities we feel unable to meet. So we need to say: this is our life, not yours, and we are going to do this our way.

One of the greatest feelings in life is the conviction that you have lived the life you wanted to live—with the rough and smooth, the good and the bad—but yours, shaped by your own choices, and not someone else’s. To do that, you have to conquer fear, get control of the expectations that drive your life and decide what goals are truly yours to achieve.

Doing this—making sure that the life you lead is the one you want to lead and that you are prepared to lead it this way, whatever anybody says—is never easy. It’s not made any easier by the times we live in.

We live in a fearful time, perhaps the most fearful times for the United States since the Vietnam War. When I graduated, it was June of 1969, and Americans were dying in their hundreds every week in South East Asia. Today as you graduate, young Americans are dying every day in Iraq. Like Vietnam, Iraq divides Americans, and so it should. America is a democracy as well as a community of sacrifice. But sacrifice is only acceptable in a democracy if its rationale is supported by a majority of citizens. Questioning the rationale for war is not unpatriotic. Democratic debate does not demean the sacrifice of brave men and women: indeed, democratic debate—the lifeblood of freedom-- is what the bravery is supposed to be defending.

As young citizens, you should not be bystanders in this debate. This war concerns you because its course and its outcome will determine your security for years to come. The conduct of the war defines America as a nation: its moral reputation at home and abroad. So in this election year, when so many young Americans don’t bother to vote, please don’t listen to the cynics who say it doesn’t matter how you vote or whether you vote. Please don’t listen to the people who say: I don’t know who to believe, so I’m staying home on election day. Take part. Get involved. Become a precinct captain. Drive people to the polls. Canvass for your candidate. Raise money for people who run for political office. Be a good citizen because that is what it actually means to be a good American.

Being a good citizen and being a good American also means looking fair and square at disagreeable realities. Being a good citizen means living in truth. Living in truth is hard. It’s hard to face the truth about ourselves, and it’s hard to face the truth about our country. But we know that living in truth is better than living a lie.

We are living a moment of truth in Iraq, a moment in which we have to look fair and square at disagreeable realities, in which we have to look at ourselves. The pictures from Abu Ghraib prison are a kind of mirror in which we have to look at ourselves and ask: what kind of people did this? How did this become possible? Could I have done a thing like this to those people?

We do need to ask ourselves, as a society, as a free people, how we came to this pass. Those soldiers were acting in the name of America, and they disgraced its name. We have to ask who authorized them to do so. Who should take responsibility here?

We need answers to these questions, and we need to take responsibility as citizens that we get answers, and that accountability is established, right up the chain of command if need be, so that we do not go here again as a country.

Responsibility is a key element of living fearlessly. Taking responsibility: not being afraid to carry the can, when the can has to be carried by someone; not being afraid to demand that someone take responsibility, when everyone is ducking it. It’s hard to be responsible. It’s hard to take responsibility. But it is what it means to be an adult and a citizen.

I don’t like watching leaders who won’t take responsibility for what happened in those prisons. I don’t like ordinary soldiers carrying the can for errors of judgment and errors of command that went to the top of the chain of command. We deserve better from our leaders. We deserve better of those who serve in our name.

We need to acknowledge that the United States is a great country, but it is currently feared and hated by millions of people throughout the world. It is hated for being what it is: the most successful and powerful country in the history of the world. It is hated for what it does, for the policies of its governments, in all Administrations. As young adults, you have to take responsibility to do something about this hatred, this intense dislike for everything that America is and does that is sweeping through the Middle East and Europe. You may think it is undeserved. You may think it is unfair. You would be right. But that doesn’t matter. The fact is America is as unpopular as at anytime in the last half century.

This gives us reason to fear. There are people out there who want to kill us and destroy our way of life. We have to live with this. It is a fact of life nowadays like the weather.

There is only one thing we can do about this: live the way we are supposed to live, as our Constitution commands us to, with dignity and respect for all. Being an American is not easy. It is hard. We are required to keep some serious promises. We are judged by a high standard, one we crafted for ourselves in the founding documents of the republic, the ones that talk about the equality of all people, the ones that tell us that government is of the people, by the people and for the people. We need to live by this, at home and abroad, and it is just about the only thing we can do to face the hatred of those who want to destroy us. Our best defense is to stay true to who we are. Our best defense is to refuse to live in fear, of them, of ourselves, of anyone.

We have examples to guide us. America is constantly affording us proof that its people understand what it is to be a member of this particular democratic experiment. It is right to remember Army Specialist Joseph Darby and celebrate his fearlessness today. He is the young reservist in the 372nd Military Police Company who put the note under a superior’s door detailing the abuse by fellow members of his unit. It was his disclosure that led to the uncovery of the worst scandal in American military history since the Mylai Massacre.

Consider what he was up against: loyalty to his own unit, fear that he would not be believed, fear that his fellow unit members would take revenge if they found out, or ostracize him and his family. He risked himself, his career and his good name to get the truth out. Because he saw something in Abu Ghraib that ashamed him as a human being and as an American. Something that made him afraid. Something that was wrong.

Thanks to his fearlessness, we are in the middle of a painful but essential moment of truth in righting our course in Iraq and the wider Middle East. Some voices are saying: we are making too much of this. Some voices are calling on America to circle the wagons. Some are even saying that our enemies do worse, so we should respond in kind. The problem here is that this is America. This is a constitutional republic based on the rule of law and equal respect for all persons. We can’t pretend that we can bend the rules any which way. We made the rules for ourselves. We have to live by them. Specialist Darby understood that. He is one of the fearless ones, someone who fought fear and doubt in order to tell a necessary if painful truth.

Not everyone is going to be a Specialist Darby. Your lives may not call for or require any special heroism. Yet all lives require an encounter with fear, a battle with an emotion that can carry us away from our true selves. So we need to remember heroic people’s example, so that we can live ordinary lives decently and in truth. My final word to you is this: in a fearful time, try to be one of the fearless ones. Thank you very much.

Published on May 26, 2004
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