Politics & Policy

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

You're free to dream.

Good Afternoon graduates, President Burke, trustees, faculty, and friends of Keuka College–and Dad. Thank you for the chance to speak on this wonderful day. To the Class of 2006, warmest congratulations.

Commencement is both a celebration of what you have already achieved, and a day on which a speaker is invited to tell you, while you are still recovering from final exams, that it’s not over by a long shot–that your real education is just beginning. The good news is that from here on out, when you do the homework, someone will probably be paying you for it. The even better news is that a lot of the tests will be the ones you choose for yourself.

Commencement is also a time to honor those who set themselves the test of making our education possible. It is a time for graduating students to thank the parents and teachers who have arranged their lives so that we can celebrate this day. I find myself in the interesting position that my own father, Richard Rosett, has just joined Keuka’s graduates of ’06. So, for my own education, I offer heartfelt thanks to the honorary student. He taught me much of what I know; and a great deal of what I don’t know, he is still trying to teach.

When I was invited to give this speech, I spent some time pondering what it was that I, as a journalist, might bring to this stage. I don’t think it is tips on journalism that are wanted today. But, being a reporter, I did some reporting, to see what other folks have said on occasions such as this. I can now tell you that there are three things almost everyone says:

Don’t ever stop learning.

Follow your heart.

This speech will be short.

I suppose I could stop right there. In a simpler world, I would. But at this particular hour of the millennium, in this beautiful place, I’d like to dwell briefly on that second item, the one about following your heart–which can be quite a merry chase, both terrifying and exhilarating. The daredevil course of the human heart is one of the big reasons that life is a process of continuing education. Here, at Keuka College, I would like to make a zig-zag to follow my own heart, and add a note about Keuka Lake, which has also been called Crooked Lake, a lyrically charming name that has always reminded me of a few lines about love, by the poet William Butler Yeats:

Oh love is the crooked thing,

There is nobody wise enough

To find out all that is in it

For he would be thinking of love

Till the stars had run away

And the shadows had eaten the moon.

For all the difficulties, Yeats concludes that, when it comes to love, one cannot begin it too soon.

Yeats was talking about romantic love, and I wish you a full portion in the years ahead. But the endless mysteries of the heart, the explorations large and small of a life lived with passion, apply to many other kinds of love as well: love of your friends, your work, your family, your country, love of the intricate and lovely patterns we trace–each in our own way–through what another poet, Wallace Stevens, called this “old chaos of the sun.”

That is what life at its best is all about. You will find another phrase for this process in our country’s Declaration of Independence, where it is listed along with life and liberty as one of the inalienable rights, called the Pursuit of Happiness.

And that brings me to the main message, which, after a quarter of a century reporting on places far from Keuka Lake, I would like to offer. Today, the portals of the world stand open to you. You have both the schooling and the freedom to pursue what you will, to choose the kind of work you do, whom you share your life with, the mentors, the colleagues and even the enemies who will in one way or another allow you to use your individual knowledge, skill, talent, and imagination to live a full life.

You can do this because you live in America. You can do this because our system protects your liberty and provides a framework of law in which you have the chance–more than anywhere else on earth–to follow your heart, to make of yourself what you will. To have such astounding opportunity is rare in the history of mankind, and rare in many parts of the globe even today. It is the wellspring of America’s success, it is an extraordinary gift–bequeathed to us by the generations who built this country, and the many citizens who have fought and died to defend it.

We all know this. And yet, it is easy in the daily grind to lose sight of it. As a journalist, I spend a fair amount of time myself trying to call attention to the foibles, hypocrisies and failings that attend upon our democracy–what Winston Churchill called the worst system except for all the others. But as a journalist it has also been my privilege to travel widely over the past quarter century, and from that vantage it becomes easer to see a bigger picture. We live in the greatest country on earth. America is powerful not because of our size, our numbers, or our natural resources–all of which are dwarfed in one way or another by places elsewhere. This country is great precisely because it runs on the principles that we are all endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, by its very nature, is an affront to the tyrants of the world, and that is why we are under attack.

That bigger picture is the real ball game. Your generation not so long ago had its own Pearl Harbor, September 11, 2001. You are graduating in a time of war. In this peaceful place, on this lovely day, that can be hard to believe. Yes, we live in the information age, and there are endless bulletins and debates on this war in the newspapers, on TV, on the Internet. But apart from those who have friends or family in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan, we don’t much feel it in our daily lives. Even the attacks of September 11 have begun to fade. I would guess each of you can remember exactly where you were that morning, but it is becoming harder to remember exactly what we all felt.

It’s out there. It is quite real. And while the complexities of the modern world are many, the bottom line is simple. The basic struggle here is between tyrannies and free societies. We do not yet know what course this war will take, or what difficulties lie ahead, or what kind of courage and deeds might yet be needed. Some may serve by risking their lives, others simply by making their way as citizens whose labors in their chosen fields are what make this country thrive.

I will not try today to tell you what you, individually, might do. But I can tell you that in this war, there are more allies out there than we tend to hear about. For years, I have been writing about democratic dissidents and their struggles in places from China to Zimbabwe to Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Libya and beyond. This week I had a call from the democrats of Turkmenistan, a place whose aging Soviet-holdover ruler believes himself to be the god of a golden age–and is filling his prisons with those who disagree. The democrats of such places, whenever they get the chance, tend to make America their first port of call. They look to us for help. They yearn for the freedoms we take to be our natural right. We see this over and over, in the Iraqis who turn out at risk of their lives to vote, in the Lebanese who rallied a million strong in Beirut last year, demanding their freedom in defiance of the occupying forces of Syria’s tyrannical government.

One of the most poignant memories I have is of a North Korean, a dozen years ago, who, when I met up with him, had escaped his country’s totalitarian regime into the miserable but relatively freer environs of Russia. There, he was on the run from the North Korean secret police, who killed such defectors if they caught them. He was stateless and desperate, but still grateful to be in a place where he no longer had to march in lockstep to the orders of a tyrant. He sat, in hiding, marveling at what he perceived to be the liberties and luxuries of decrepit post-Soviet Russia, and asked me, wistfully, “Is it true that America is even better than this?”

One more snapshot.

In China, in 1989, I went to cover the uprising that became known as Tiananmen Square. It is remembered now chiefly for the killing with which the Chinese army, on orders of China’s own communist government, rolled into Beijing in the early hours of June 4 and ended the demonstrations for democracy with tanks and gunfire. But what took place in the weeks before that was an astounding display of determination and courage by millions of Chinese people, who stood up and told their rulers and the world that they wanted freedom, they wanted democracy, they wanted justice. They wanted us to know the truth about China. In Tiananmen Square they built their own statue of democracy–it stood for six days, before the tanks knocked it down.

That was far away, and it is now 17 years ago. But there is one memory of it, one moment in particular, that has a great deal to do with all of you. It was late in the evening of June 2, a lovely spring evening, warm and breezy, just about 24 hours before the killing began. I was wandering around Tiananmen Square, notebook in hand, chatting with some of the student demonstrators who had been camped out there for weeks. In the Square is a monument with a big marble platform, and on the platform one of these student demonstrators was sitting, in a canvas beach chair, gazing at the Chinese statue of liberty, modeled on our own. I stopped to chat with him. And he asked me a question. He said, “I know what China is dreaming. What is America dreaming?”

That night, I did not know what to tell him. In preparing these remarks for this, your Commencement day, almost a generation later, I realized that I now know the answer. America was dreaming of you. Your generation. You who were children then, and are now the class of 2006. You who now take up the torch as the pride of your families, the future of your country, the hope of the world. That is a mighty trust. It is a context in which your own individual pursuit of happiness is freighted with meaning for the next generation. Keep faith with the best in yourselves, and you will keep faith with them.

You are already well begun. Here you are today, with the sweat of a college education behind you, and this is a day of celebration, a time for joy. Along with life and liberty, it is time pursue the very immediate happiness of libations and good fellowship on this, your Commencement day, in one of the most blessed places on earth.

I thank you for the honor of speaking to you here today, and wish you Godspeed.

–Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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