It's great to be back at Hendrix and to share this very important day with all you graduates and your families, the faculty and administration of the college, and classmates of mine who have children graduating today. Thank you for having me.
I wasn't around Hendrix much during the first 20 years or so after I graduated, but lately I've been back on campus more-showing the film we produced based on my book and most recently bringing in my 16 year old niece from Washington state to visit as a potential student here
It's been good to be back, and has triggered me to reflect on my time here, AND made me thankful---especially thankful--that I got through the place long before it cost $50k a year to attend.
But I know it was worth every penny, just as it was back in my day.
I also must confess that when Jim Wiltgen, the dean of students, first inquired whether I would be receptive to being here this morning to speak,
I was a little bewildered.
Because as kind as Hendrix has been to me in recent years, I still remember clearly my own graduation day, and I think it's true that there was no one in the senior class who the administration was happier to see departing -than me…
I'd been the editor of The Profile for two years
My senior year, we had a particularly fine staff and newspaper
We'd raised the issue of whether Hendrix had investments in South Africa, where apartheid remained in full force in 1985.
And Nelson Mandela, the future president of South Africa, was still imprisoned
The administration at the time acknowledged that the question of its investments had become a reasonable one. (though the president didn't shared our youthful sense of urgency).
I somewhat stubbornly pushed ahead on a story in the Profile laying out how the college had pretty significant amounts of money invested with companies and firms doing business in South Africa
It caused quite a stir on campus. All the folks who regretted having missed the 1960s came out. There were rallies outside Staples, and a little mock shanty was built
It all dragged on for a while, even after the board of trustees said they were reevaluating where the endowment was invested. There was news coverage of the events here on campus. (and for a few years there was a scholarship for a black South African exchange student each year-which had been one of our recommendations)
But the administration understandably grew weary of some of the student efforts-and my self righteous editorials as well.
Now that was at the end of my time at Hendrix. But my tenure here began somewhat inauspiciously as well, in ways some of you may be able to relate to
During my senior year in high school, when I told my father that I'd decided to go to Hendrix, instead of the Univ of Arkansas,
He breathed out a big sigh
Then I told him I was going to major in English.
He let out another big sigh
And then he said, "Well you have to make that decision, Doug….
I would hate to see a good mind like yours…..
And a smart young man like you not be able to get a job….."
(now to my father's credit, he LATER came around-and in fact became in his own career a great advocate of liberal arts education)
I ratherly stubbornly decided to go to the Hendrix. In the end, I think / hope the record shows that my mind wasn't wasted by coming to Hendrix
Though admittedly I did destroy some brain cells here as well.
But I spent more time trying to do things---and learning how to do things---that over the rest of my life would in some way set me apart,
make me and my efforts distinctive somehow in the eyes of others,
decisions that would elevate the writing and life I pursued into things that had a chance to alter the world somehow, to make it better,
or at least make it easier for other people to understand the most important-or moving-aspects of the world they live in.
And that brings me to the topic I set out to discuss this morning. And that is
An idea of American Exceptionalism.
People have been using that terminology for a long long time, ever since Alexis de Toqueville wrote a version of it writing about America in 1831.
In the classic sense, American Exceptionalism is the idea that our country, our society is uniquely endowed with characteristics that explain the extraordinary success of the American experience. That because of that, America has a duty or mission to spread democracy and liberty, and that we have an innate capacity to do so that is different and stronger than anyone else's.
This idea was long offered up as explanations for why America was so prosperous, why we were victorious in the great world wars and the Cold War, why we needed to fight in Vietnam.
In more recent years, though, there have been many many critics of that idea-arguing that American Exceptionalism was a code word for white supremacy or simply arrogance. And that those ideas had been used to justify terrible things-like the decimation of Native Americans and the pillaging of Africa long ago.
Well, I will tell you: I believe in American Exceptionalism.
I think there are aspects of our society that are extraordinary and unique in ways that reflect the astonishing ideals and ambitions expressed in our founding documents. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
But my American Exceptionalism is different from the one that is used to justify some of the more aggressive aspects of our history. I don't see those innate character virtues as explanations for the obvious triumphs in our past. I see something exceptional in the way that Americans, as individuals and collectively, have been able to recognize our failures as a society---and attack those shortcomings in ways that did in fact truly lead the world.
I see American Exceptionalism in our willingness to wage war on ourselves to end slavery, in the Civil Rights movement a century later, when we finally for the first time began to fulfill our social creed for all Americans. I see exceptionalism in the liberation of women, and, though I know this is a topic not everyone yet agrees on, I see American Exceptionalism in the changes occurring around the roles and rights--and ability to legally sanction the relationships of--gay and lesbian couples.
That is my American Exceptionalism. Our ability---our gift as a people-to see our own blemishes (at least some of them) and work to heal them.
It's a kind of self-awareness that these days there is much too little of. We live in a political environment of arrogant self-importance, in which too many people have stopped listening to anyone else, have lost their handle on the idea of shared decision making. It is the great danger of our time.
Now when I came up with the slightly awkward second part of the title for these remarks: "Be It"
Did I mean that all of you should spend your lives "BEING" social activists? No
Instead, what I am suggesting is that there is a higher good, a more satisfying existence, and more success in work and relationships, when a life is led at least partly seeking the opportunities to be the Exception.
Hendrix didn't use those words back in my day, but it was part of what I learned, or figured out, while I was here. To be the exception.
Most of the things I did in that category while I was at Hendrix don't look so remarkable in hindsight. ….editing the student newspaper, traveling, engaging around politics, obsessing to get to know the authors who visited campus…
But in their own way they were remarkable, most importantly by my remaining open to the unexpected things they might lead to much later.
I never studied overseas for instance.
But I did live in the German House my junior year
Where we in fact neither spoke nor learned very much German
And a lot of brain cells were in fact wasted
But I befriended an Austrian fellow, and the next year I fell for an Austrian girl who was attending Hendrix
After graduation I worked at the Arkansas Democrat for a year, saving my pennies to go to Europe to see her.
(Once again, my dad let out a deep sigh, and suggested that traveling in Europe was something more appropriate for retirement….but I was determined to go)
I was a finalist for a Fulbright as well, to study in Austria
And had applied to a graduate program in foreign affairs. I thought my life as a German speaking diplomat and world traveler was shaping up
Then a week before I left, the Austrian girl wrote that she too had fallen in love with an Austrian----and of course I'm not an Austrian
My other Austrian friend told me to come anyway. That there was a little apartment on his family's farm that I could stay in as long as I liked
So I did. After I arrived I discovered that that apartment was actually an unheated compartment in an old passenger train car that had been dragged to the farm after World War II and converted into a barn. But I moved in.
And then a letter arrived saying the Fulbright fellowships were not being fully funded that year-and I was out of luck
And then a letter came that I wasn't getting into that graduate school program
It was the lowest possible moment I had felt.
And yet, I decided to stay and then to wander. Over the next several months, using that train car as my headquarters, I made myself become comfortable with the idea that I could operate in any environment, whether I knew the language or not. That I could make my way even when I didn't know the way. And I listened to people, their views on the world, their aspirations. And I tried to study their lives.
A very short while later after I had just gotten my first "real" job in journalism at the Atlanta Constitution, I saw a small item about vacationing East Germans swarming into the U.S. Embassy in Czechoslovakia, refusing to go home. I was convinced that something truly historic was about to happen. I lied to my editors and told them I'd been planning a vacation to Europe, and could I stay a few extra days to write some stories? They agreed as long as it was all on my dime.
A couple of weeks later, I boarded a plane for Munich, and, long story short I ended up in Berlin in November 1989, as the Berlin Wall was first being smashed, and then criss crossed central and Eastern Europe as Democratic revolutions overturned communist regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. It became a defining experience in my life.
I went back two years later to cover the reunification of the East and West Germany. And a few years later, still drawing on those experiences and understandings of the aspirations of Eastern Europeans, I was drawn into covering the Civil War in Yugoslavia, traveling in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia, where I witnessed and photographed war crimes still being adjudicated at the international war crimes tribunal at the Hague.
My decision to swallow my pride, stick around and stay in that old train car way back when is still paying off.
That is the kind of personal path that I believe becomes American Exceptionalism.
When I came back to Hendrix for the showing of my film earlier this year
I was introduced to a young African student, who told me he was part of a huge contingent of Rwandans now attending Hendrix
I was thrilled. The program under which he and others are here isn't directly connected to the editorials and protests of 1985. The people who established the Rwandan program probably aren't even aware of what happened back then
But I would venture that when someone had the good idea to establish that program, one of the reasons Hendrix saw its value and was ready to embrace it, had something to do with the questions that we students raised and the steps taken in response way back then.
For me, that's American Exceptionalism
Our ability to adapt and change
Our willingness to recognize more than any other society on Earth (though not always as quickly as we should) that things need to evolve;
That achieving a common good is worth the cost of sacrifice and experience;
That doing something different and exceptional makes you different and exceptional
My humble advice
--Take the leap / be the exception in your life
--Be relentless in the pursuit of what you aspire toward, what you think is right, what you think will make the world better than it was before you
--Have the endurance to push through the obstacles that will inevitably intervene
And along the way,
--Waste some brain cells
--Live in a train car
--Savor the wondrous moments
Be the American Exception.