Monday, May 30, 2022

We are Saved by Love

 

We are Saved by Love

 

[These were my remarks to the class of 2022 at their commencement on Saturday.]

 

It is an especially tough time to be a 21 or 22-year-old. Frankly, it’s not the easiest time to be a 58-year-old.

 

When most of you arrived at SU, none of us could have anticipated the tumultuous events of the past four years. As we welcomed you on August 23rd 2018, I spoke about our academic theme of Resilience stating:

 

The Liberal Arts provide us with an array of viewpoints and historical perspectives so we can better contextualize and understand the challenges we encounter in our lives.

 

In anticipation of the myriad inevitabilities we all face, you are here to develop the tools to live your lives as fully as you can, to respond to challenges with grit and poise, and to lift up those around us whose resolve is spent.

 

I then spoke about the need to be courageous:

 

Courage and bravery are not the same thing. Often the only difference between bravery and stupidity is who’s telling the tale. Courage, on the other hand, is deep. It is built upon faith and wisdom, and fundamentally, it is selfless. You are here to seek wisdom and to develop the moral courage to become leaders of consequence, to become resilient, and to cultivate resilience in those around you.

 

Little did any of us know how this would be tested and proved again and again throughout your matriculation.

 

A global pandemic, an eruption of social unrest in response to systemic inequities, an attack on our nation’s capital by bands of its own citizens, and a major world power waging war on a neighboring democracy; senseless mass shootings, climate change, continual assaults on the truth, and politicization of fundamental moral principles. We are fraying, and we are afraid.

 

Now sounding prophetic, I recited this passage from William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” at your opening convocation:

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.[1]

 

Written a century ago, it sounds as if Yeats is describing this moment in history. Maybe it would have rung as true a century before he wrote it, or even a century before then.

 

Perhaps Dickens’s description is evergreen, and it has always been the best of times and the worst of times, but I am more optimistic for the future because of you. I believe you are capable of relegating our worst times to the past.

 

I believe this because I have seen what you are capable of doing;

I believe this because I know what you have learned; and

I believe this because I have witnessed your kindness, your compassion, your passion, and your goodness countless times as we have journeyed together.

 

You persevered when you were scattered across the nation and the globe unable to return to campus.

 

You added your voices to the millions who advocated for justice in its many forms in your communities and on our campus. You listened to the smallest voices and echoed them so all might hear.

 

You took care of each other, you made sacrifices to keep each other safe and healthy, and pushing against seemingly infinite resistance from the world around us, you arrived at this spot. You have made our mission statement manifest.

 

Those of you who know it, please join me.

 

Susquehanna University educates students for productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.

 

This is not a pithy slogan. It is the foundation of global citizenship and the fruit of a liberal education. Over the coming years, I hope you will reflect on how these lofty goals continue to unfold in your own lives and how your unprecedented experiences at Susquehanna have cultivated your capacity to live this mission to its fullest.

 

This is what our weary, hungry world needs – your driven achievement, your selfless leadership, your committed service, and, most of all, your moral courage.

 

Our democracy was biproduct of the Scottish Enlightenment, which embraced the humanist spirit of the Western Enlightenment that celebrated the nobility and worth of each individual and valued the respective reason they possessed. The Scottish Enlightenment took this further by rejecting authority that was not likewise governed by reason.

 

This balance of individual autonomy and collective coherence has been critical to the survival of our republic and to that of subsequent democracies around the world. Our future as a nation and as a global community depends upon our ability to inclusively embrace all peoples, to reconcile what is true, and to govern ourselves through reason for the common good.

 

You have seen first-hand how truly interdependent we are. We are able to be here today because you chose to work as a community for the common good, and nearly every setback we experienced resulted from a moment when someone lost sight of that. As leaders, you must always choose the common good.

 

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”[2]

 

Our progress will require hope, faith, and love – these you have in abundance.

 

Class of 2022, you are graduating into an alarmingly broken world, but I am hopeful because I know what you can do. I am so proud of you, of what you have accomplished, and even prouder of what you will achieve.

 

Congratulations!

 



[1] Yeats, William Butler: “The Second Coming (1919),” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, revised second edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran. New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996.

[2] Niebuhr, Reinhold: The Irony of American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Responsibility and Free Expression

 


Responsibility and Free Expression

A recent conversation with students led me to opine on a blog I posted in 2018.

 

The conversation began with concerns about how government controls over Russian media are leading their coverage of the war in Ukraine to be nothing but a propaganda campaign.

 

I told the students about a speech President Coolidge gave to the Society of Newspaper Editors in which he said, “The relationship between governments and the press has always been recognized as a matter of large importance. Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Where ever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press.”[1]

 

The conversation took a turn to the pamphleteers who did so much to shape the opinions and understanding of the American colonists toward independence and later the debates that produced our Constitution. The students saw these federalist and antifederalist publications as a model of a dynamic and balanced marketplace of ideas that they feel is missing from much of today’s popular media.

 

The students were lamenting that they believe there is perilously little accountability in the news sources the majority of their friends and families follow.

 

This brought me back to another passage in Coolidge’s speech that emphasized the need to keep a firewall between the news department and the advertising branch:

 

Our American newspapers serve a double purpose. They bring knowledge and information to their readers, and at the same time they play a most important part in connection with the business interests of the community, both through their news and advertising departments. Probably there is no rule of your profession to which you gentlemen are more devoted than that which prescribes that the editorial and the business policies of the paper are to be conducted by strictly separate departments. Editorial policy and news policy must not be influenced by business consideration; business policies must not be affected by editorial programs. Such a dictum strikes the outsider as involving a good deal of difficulty in the practical adjustments of every day management. Yet, in fact, I doubt if those adjustments are any more difficult than have to be made in every other department of human effort. Life is a long succession of compromises and adjustments, and it may be doubted whether the press is compelled to make them more frequently than others do.[2]

 

He knew that allowing the commercial enterprise of the press to drive news content would lead us to some version of what many Americans now mistakenly believe is the news.

 

Advertising revenues are driven by ratings, and viewers are drawn to messages that affirm their views and beliefs. The media that once sought to enlighten and inform now profit by telling us what we want to know rather than what we need to know.

 

Objective and ethical news organizations continue to do important journalistic work, but their audience share is sadly in the minority.

 

The role of editorial establishments was to verify what they presented, but now in many news organizations, content is driven by ratings algorithms. The formats of delivery allow them to make unsubstantiated claims without recourse.

 

As more and more Americans get their “news” from social media sources, the concept of editorial oversight truly becomes meaningless.

 

Debates about what constitutes a true manifestation of first-amendment freedoms on social-media platforms have seen a general switch of what are often labeled liberal and conservative positions. Historically, the “liberal” position was in support of little or no limits. Today, what is often labeled as the “conservative” position is really a libertarian one: no one’s speech or writing should be regulated.

 

The challenge we face is guaranteeing free expression (a fundamental necessity for democracy to flourish), while holding people accountable for what they say and write (a fundamental necessity for civilization to persist). Free speech and free expression are sacred rights, and we who enjoy those rights should honor them by holding ourselves responsible for how we exercise them.

 

The Bipartisan Policy Center has sponsored a useful and thought-provoking roadmap to help colleges and universities navigate these challenges on our campuses.

 

As a people, we are at an epistemological crossroads. How can we divine fact from opinion and truth from mere belief? As we are being nearly drowned by ever-rising floods of unfiltered and manipulated information, our collective future will depend upon individuals who can rescue the truth from the deluge of noise.

 

This is the heart of a liberal-arts education. We teach our students to verify what they read and hear, we help them to think critically about the information and perspectives they encounter, and we encourage them to advocate for their conclusions. 

 

Let us hope that those who drive the media will do likewise.

 



[1] Coolidge, Calvin: Address to the Society of American Newspaper Editors, 17 January 1925.

[2] Ibid.

Welcome!

Happy Thanksgiving