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With Civility for Each and Respect for All: Making America a Hate-Free Nation Commencement Address

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Miami-Dade College
300 N.E. 2nd Avenue
Miami, FL 33132
United States

May 1, 2010

President Padron, Dr. Ferrer, faculty, and most of all members and families of the Class of 2010:

It is an honor to address graduates of America’s largest college. Miami-Dade symbolizes many things. Three stand out.

With two-thirds of the college’s 170,000 students having outside jobs, it is hard to visualize a more diverse student body with a greater work ethic. With 150 academic disciplines taught, it is hard to visualize a college that prepares more people in more fields. And with a tradition of fielding one of the finest chess teams in America, it is hard to visualize an emphasis on more far-sighted extra-curricular competition.

America has always been a land of opportunity, especially for the prepared. And preparing for the future is Miami-Dade’s mission.

We all understand that these are trying times. But America will remain a land of opportunity as long as the young and the young-at-heart are committed to bettering themselves and thus their country with the acquirement of new knowledge and new skills—some specialized and job specific, some of a broader nature in the arts and humanities designed to uplift and provide perspective to life.

Graduates, each and every one of you, are to be congratulated for academic efforts undertaken, for missions accomplished.

At a time when pride in accomplishment is so understandably evident, graduation speakers have an obligation to put a stamp on the time, place, and circumstances that surround diploma granting.

A stamp of time would indicate that America is a young country, vibrant and evolving. Our history has been hallmarked by four great debates.

The first commenced with the founding of the Republic and the question of whether a country could be established based on the Rights of Man.

The second was about definitions—whether the Rights of Man applied to individuals who were neither pale nor male. It took two centuries of struggle, including a civil war, suffrage and abolitionists movements, and courageous civil rights leadership to bring meaning to the values embedded in the Declaration of Independence.

The third debate, symbolized by the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the emphasis on individual initiative of Ronald Reagan, involves the question of opportunity, whether rights are fully meaningful if all citizens are not given a chance to succeed and provide for their families.

The fourth debate, which acquired grim resonance with the dawn of the nuclear age, is the question of whether any rights are possible without peace and environmental security.

In this historical context and challenging circumstance, never has humanity’s foremost country had a greater responsibility to take stock in order to lead anew.

Perspective requires the sobering recognition that the world has recently emerged from the bloodiest century in recorded history, a century in which “isms” of hate—fascism and communism—challenged civilized values and civilization itself.

The last century of the last millennium produced quantum additions to the stockpile of knowledge of science and technology but limited additions to the understanding of human behavior and the human condition.

Now as civilization faces for the first time the globalization of terror and the tandem proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we are obligated to ponder Einstein’s observation that splitting the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking.

For the spaceship earth to have a future with man aboard we have no choice except to dwell, as our founders did, on moral philosophy, the question of the nature of man, the need to understand and respect others and base our own society on what Lincoln once described as the better angels of our nature.

Seldom has it been more important to pull together and morally rearm, not with intolerance for others but with faith in traditional American values—honor, dignity, love or, at least, respect for neighbors, near and far.

But whether the cause is a job-short economy or principally involves other human considerations, American society is becoming increasingly polarized.

We see this polarization in the public square where history-blind words like “fascist” and “communist” are being applied to individuals in high office as if these individuals should be considered mortal enemies rather than political rivals; and where concepts like “secession” and “nullification” are being considered as if the Civil War didn’t resolve issues of the human soul and the primacy of the union.

The irony is that expressions of hate are on the rise at the same time that public opinion polls indicate that many Americans, especially the young, are becoming more tolerant. Yet the media is omnipresent, with increasing segments of news reporting being omni-angry. On talk radio, on the Internet, on cable t.v., wars of words are incessant. It is as if the public is being given a steady diet of those who polarize rather than those who seek common ground.

But for most citizens polarization is not the American way.

Yes, vigorous argumentation helps avoid dogmatism. It is a social good.

And yes, standing forthrightly up for values is to be respected, especially if tyranny is at issue. But implying that fellow Americans are fellow-travelers with creeds of hate and oppression is beyond the pale of historical reasoning.

Uplifting words like Lincoln’s call in his Second Inaugural for internal reconciliation with malice toward none and charity for all, and President Obama’s appeal in Cairo for greater respect among peoples of varying faiths and greater communication among the youth in distant lands can help reconcile and unite peoples of different backgrounds.

Conversely, the politics of polarization can have debilitating consequences and even impel violence.

Hence as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the few non-partisan positions in the federal government, I have been visiting campuses and dozens of other venues across this land to remind Americans of Lincoln’s concern, expressed with words borrowed from Scripture, that a house divided cannot stand.

We are all in this together in the shared space called America. We are all connected to one another, but sometimes the threads seem bitterly fragile. This is why a fresh infusion of respect in public discourse is so important.

Civility is an ancient virtue of civilized society. It is not simply about manners; nor moral judgments. Rather it is about respectful engagement with a sense of fair play, which is especially important when differences are most strenuous.

In an age characterized by change and its acceleration, by caffeinic mesmerism with Blackberries and texting, the collective of history is taking backstage to the fleeting novelty of individual experiences. Yesterday can seem like yesteryear, a distant memory, an era before.

Nevertheless, the great Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana told us this truth as the 20th Century was getting underway: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In a chord of history that resonates between generations, Santayana was born in December, 1863, less than a month after Lincoln put the challenges of America in historical perspective at Gettysburg.

1863 was the midpoint of a war on a scale so devastating that nobody could have imagined it beforehand. In the first few battles in the rolling Virginia countryside, not far from Washington, people carried picnic baskets out to watch the blue and the gray engage as if it were a sporting contest. Two years later, Lincoln gave the most memorable address in American history, reading from notes jotted on the back of an envelope at the site where so many young men had given what he so eloquently described as the last full measure of devotion.

Lincoln reminded his countrymen, then and now, that: “It is for us, the living” to be dedicated “to the unfinished work which they who have fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” It is for us the living, Lincoln affirmed, to resolve that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Santayana later said something else so sobering that it underscores Lincoln’s prescience: “Only the dead,” Santayana noted, “have seen the end of war.”

It is for this generation of young leaders to claim peace for the living.

How can this peace be obtained?

There are battlefields far distant.

But it must begin at home. Thus my charge to you—the Class of 2010—is to go forth and rejuvenate the American spirit with civility toward each and respect for all. A hate-free nation must be our common goal.

It is what so many American sergeants from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, from the trenches of World War I to the beaches of Normandy, from the wintry slopes of Korea to the sultry rice paddies of Vietnam, from the Persian Gulf to the mountains of Afghanistan fought for; it is what so many elected to the highest office in the land from Washington to Jefferson; from Lincoln to FDR; from Reagan to Obama fought for; it is what those who never sought office but nevertheless led their country, from Frederick Douglass to Elizabeth Cady Stanton; from Martin Luther King to Cesar Chavez fought for: a country at peace with itself and with the world.

Thank you.