The Contradictions of Wins and Losses

The academy is at risk, and with it the fragile ecosystems on which all life depends.

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Memorial Day weekend opening our summer house on Cape Cod. Memories flooding my consciousness as the waves break on the shrinking beach, and breezes from Buzzards Bay carry musty smells of winter out the front door. The osprey are back with their high-pitched screeching, thrilling as ever. No signs yet of last summer’s mouse beachhead in the basement. The oyster farm out on the Bay seems to have weathered the winter, and with it our new solar panels that for now seem to be surviving the recent bankruptcy of the company that installed them on the roof. Win some; lose some.

The morning’s papers are taking stock of President Trump’s first international tour. He’s home now, tweeting again, and gearing up for a fight, we are told, “Raging Bull” back in the ring. Axios predicts he will ignore the importunings of world leaders and withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. He needs to reassure his base that his daughter and son-in-law — “Jivanka” — are not running the show. He’s holding us in suspense, the papers say, taunting us as though we were the audience in one of his reality shows.

As one who has worked to understand the science of climate change, I take scant comfort in the suggestion from another source that the current American administration could do more harm as a heavy-handed participant in the world’s efforts to respond to the crisis, than on the outside in the role of benighted and self-absorbed country Trump says he will have us be. How different it would be if Hillary were president, I can’t help but think.

In another striking reminder of what might have been, Al Gore is bringing out a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth this summer on July 28; a hard-hitting documentary in which, The Guardian comments, “climate change has a new villain,” Trump. But as much as we might wish to distance ourselves from this man, recalling slogans from the women’s march — “He’s not my president” — the reality is that he is, and we Americans are responsible for the havoc he wreaks in the world.

On Thursday, in a celebration of the one hundredth birth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy, Charles Gibson interviewed David McCullough at the Kennedy Library. He contrasted these words from Kennedy’s inaugural address with Trump’s throbbing promise, in his, that he would always put America first:

“To those people in huts and villages on the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery,” Kennedy said, “we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required, … not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”

Because it is right. This beach house brings back to mind scores of speeches I labored over here during the 14 years I led Wellesley College, searching for words that would be right for a variety of situations. My final commencement was in 2007. This Friday, a decade later, I returned for the first commencement led by Dr. Paula Johnson, my sucessor’s successor in the college’s presidency.

The guest speaker was Hillary Rodham Clinton, back for her third Wellesley commencement speech, her first, famously, as the first-ever student graduation speaker in 1969. On Friday, Hillary’s words were personal, poignant, funny, and urgently inspiring. So were Paula’s, and those of this year’s student speaker, Tala Nashawati.

Hillary reminded the seniors that her generation, too, had graduated in “tumultuous times,” and had gone on to activate a gradual transformation of society for the better. This new generation is poised to do the same. What’s different now, she warned, is the

‘“full-fledged assault on truth and reason,” violating the very principles on which America was founded, “the principles of the Enlightenment — in particular, the belief that people, you and I, possess the capacity for reason and critical thinking, and that free and open debate is the lifeblood of a democracy” and of the “American university system — the envy of the world.”

It’s been a tough year at Wellesley, to be sure, but equally at colleges and universities across the nation. Academic leaders are experiencing tremendous pressure to walk a tightrope in a chaotic political landscape where resistance to violations of foundational values may play into the populist tactic of sustaining power by labeling critics “enemies of the people.” Threats of travel restrictions against immigrants and even green-card holders and of deep cuts to federal support of tuition assistance and basic research interact with escalations of the culture wars, and well-financed assaults on academic values.

The academy is at risk, and with it the fragile ecosystems on which all life depends. For humans to turn our backs now on knowledge, the search for knowledge, and the methods developed for knowing what we do and don’t know is literally suicidal.

So what are we to do? To that question “there’s only one answer,” Hillary said simply to the graduates. “To keep going. …

Stand up for truth and reason. … Do it in private — in conversations with your family, your friends, your workplace, your neighborhoods. And do it in public — in Medium posts, on social media, or grab a sign and head to a protest. Make defending truth and a free society a core value of your life every single day.”

Here we are, then, on Medium. Speaking out. Listening to others. Until we can get it right. For my part I need to resolve the contradiction between my rage at what is happening — the repudiation of reason and science and of compassion and responsibility — and my deep belief, with Martin Luther King, that

“hate is too great a burden to bear. If you are seeking the highest good, you will find it through love.”

And so I close this reflection, unfinished for now, with that contradiction unresolved, but nevertheless grateful for the inspration of the rousing words at Wellesley.

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