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Commencement Remarks by President Ralph J. Hexter

Hampshire College Commencement
Remarks by President Ralph J. Hexter
May 22, 2010

Welcome. This day belongs to our graduating students, so let’s begin with the first of many rounds of applause for our triumphant graduating students.

Graduating students of Hampshire, you know well that all of Hampshire takes pride in your accomplishments and rejoices with you today. I think we should also recognize some folks without whom none of you would be graduating. First, let us recognize the faculty and staff, every one of them, who are such dedicated and loyal members of the entire Hampshire Community. Let’s give them a generous round of applause.

Next, let’s be sure not to forget your parents and families, without whom you would not have completed this journey, indeed, would hardly have started it and who have been gracious enough to let us come together as a community and learn together for these past few years. Students, faculty, and staff all together: let us give a heartfelt round of applause for the parents, families, and friends of our students.

This is a day of applause, of laughter and joy. We have, inevitably, to face a few “farewells.” Last night the board the trustees honored outgoing trustees Gerry Warburg and Tim Koller, as well as Professor Falguni Sheth, who has just completed a two-year term as faculty trustee, and Matan Cohen, who served one year as student trustee alternate and this past year as student trustee.

May I have a round of applause for Falguni and Matan, Gerry and Tim, indeed, all our trustees, departing, continuing, and newly elected, as well as all those who serve Hampshire on our multitude of committees and task forces? Thank you for the responsibility and care you exercise!

We also say good-bye to several retiring faculty who have for many years guided students and shaped Hampshire with their deep wisdom and passion for education— Frank Holmquist, Judith Mann, and Stan Warner. We owe each of them a remarkable debt of gratitude. It is inspiring to hear what they have planned and how highly they hold the College in their esteem. I look forward to their being friends and neighbors – indeed, Stan Warner just moved into the house next to 15 Middle Street, where he can easily give me sartorial advice, coming by to check out my closet every morning if he so wishes.

Forty years ago Hampshire was preparing to welcome its first entering class. Forty years ago those now legendary first-year interviews had already taken place on the basis of which Hampshire boasts a beginning as the country’s most selective college and on the basis of which dozens of alumni still dine out. We will be gathering here in three weeks to celebrate those first forty years and hope that all our alumni and their families will join us to “reune.” The party on June 11-13 is going to be quite a blow out, with panels and discussion sessions, a fair where dozens of Hampshire alumni will display the alphabet of achievement from art to wares, with music performed by Hampshire alumni, and even a gourmet slow food meal. Please come, and please preregister if you plan to come. You can see who’s already registered by going to the alumni website.

Each year I have a deeper and greater sense of what is so very special about Hampshire. This year has had its challenges, much in the wake of the severe economic recession from which we are slowly, fitfully, and very unevenly emerging. Even as some economic indicators improve, there are troubling questions. Why is it that the largest financial institutions are made whole while tens of millions individuals who have lost or never had jobs get little or no help, and if any assistance extended is begrudged them? Why are millions of families losing their homes to foreclosure?

These are altogether wild and even frightening times, as evidenced by the protests in the streets of Athens that led to loss of life, civil wars, and coups d’état around the globe. It is striking to register the extent of protest and violence in Thailand, since Bangkok at least had seemed so tranquil for so long. From a distance (as Bette Midler might say). One should never equate peace and quiet with peace and justice. Even more, it reminds us that being “safe” for wealthy tourists does not equate to safety for inhabitants of the country, especially the overwhelming majority, who are poor. If there is any kind of peace now, it has been purchased with blood. I appreciate that many of you are wearing red in solidarity with those seeking justice and democracy in Thailand, and quite rightly.

Then there is the appalling debacle in the Gulf of Mexico – by no means a natural disaster, since it arose from a mechanical failure of a BP drilling rig. This unstopped gusher, far worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster, spotlights the extraordinary environmental risks our entire system of extracting petroleum and natural gas involve, so that at every step of the way our well-nigh global addiction to carbon-based sources of energy harms the world we live in. We cannot at this point tell how vast the damage will be; we know it will be vast. A calamity for an entire ecosystem, flora and fauna, the latter including every creature from single-celled organism to humans. If this is the point at which we stop taking such horrific risks, and get serious about demanding, and funding, meaningful and objective governmental oversight over private industry, some good might come of it, if too late for many. Will we really have and maintain the will to make long-lasting systemic changes? If so, it will be only if we can convince more and more of our fellow citizens, around the world, to be like Hampshire students: to study the science, to study the policies, to study the politics, to study hard realities, to be critical, to stay involved, to maintain a dialogue.

This is a time of anger also politically. Ever since President Obama brought health care reform for debate, temperatures have been getting hotter and hotter, in Washington and around the country. (Is there political warming comparable to global warming?) Debate is even more strident and partisan than it was running up to the presidential election, and that had already seemed to set new standards for stridency and partisanship. The longest-running recession since the great depression, the collapse of the housing market and implosion of credit, leaving foreclosures and bank closures in their wake, and continued high employment – this all makes for a yet more super-heated and explosive atmosphere.

Particularly through the health-care debate, we all have watched at destructive work the politics of “no,” the rigid discipline of the opposition that very nearly put a stop to the momentum for any health-care reform. We have observed the techniques: negativity and resistance right from the start to protect existing privilege. Look at the debate on the so-called “public option.” Opponents of a single-payer system, even as an option, managed to keep the ball so far from midfield that the scrimmaging is all at one end of the field. (Hope I got that right. It’s always a risk when I try sports metaphors.) We witnessed the twisting of messaging and heard the falsifications. We watch appalled – at least I did – at the way certain phrases took on a zombie-like life of their own, for example, the infamous “death panels.” As if folks aren’t already having their health care options policed, restricted and denied by insurance companies now!

Not that we needed a further example of absurdity, but remember the folks who simultaneously feared any change to their beloved Medicare program and argued that no government-run health program could possibly be any good! Let us remember how easily it is for folks to be swayed by cleverly manipulated messaging. If you repeat a falsehood often enough, many people will believe it.

Of course, we know that anxiety about changes to our health-care program is not the whole story. It didn’t take long for strong indications to emerge that President Obama’s parentage had something to do with the animosity that is frighteningly rampant. His father was not merely black but African, a Kenyan, raised in a Muslim family. Even before health-care reform became a lightening-rod issue there were the “birthers,” folks who claimed President Obama wasn’t born in the United States and hence wasn’t eligible to be president. Legitimacy questions in other words. There were yet others who argued that Chief Justice Roberts’ bobbling of the oath invalidated President Obama’s inauguration. These folks just couldn’t tolerate the fact that Barack Hussein Obama Jr., an African-American, was the duly elected and inaugurated president of their United States. For this very vocal subset, his presidency seemed a zero-sum game: whatever accrued to him, to his difference, took away their power, diminished their privilege. That the gentleman was highly-educated, well-spoken, had degrees from fine universities, including a J.D. from Harvard, only made matters worse.

I don’t know whether it’s a comfort or not, but for a host of reasons – maybe it’s my training, maybe my temperament – but I often turn to history. No, I’m not going to go back to the classical world, and I’m not going medieval on you. In fact, my talk is long – what else is new? – and time short. I would simply urge one and all of you, at some point in your lives, perhaps sooner rather than later, to look into the famous, or rather infamous Dreyfus Affair that embroiled France from 1894 to 1908. It would take many lectures simply to chronicle the series of events, betrayals, cover-ups and forgeries within the army and intelligence services as well as the outrageous miscarriages of justice in multiple trials and multiple levels, with laws passed with retroactive effect, suppression of evidence, intimidation of judges. Any single one of these episodes seems incredible. The totality simply beggars the imagination.

Alfred Dreyfus was, as many of you know, a Jewish officer who had earned top honors in the French military. And while France prided itself at one level on its official tolerance of Jews, anti-Semitism was rampant and indeed on the rise. It was a fire that a nationalist and reactionary press was only too happy to add fuel to. And the country, and army in particular, was still smarting from its ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Once evidence emerged that some officer was passing or selling information to the German embassy, it was only too easy to pin it on the one Jew among top-level journal officer going through a circuit of training in the various military commands, and once accusation of espionage and thus high treason became attached to Dreyfus, it was virtually impossible to dislodge. It was axiomatic for the accusers that this was an assault on patriotism and the army, and it seemed obvious to them that the Jew, the outsider, was the likeliest traitor. Once the narrative had been launched, it took on a life and perverse logic of its own. Prejudices were only confirmed. As one aristocratic embassy secretary noted in his journal, “The officer charged with treason is a Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus. … His indiscreet curiosity, his constant snooping, his air of mystery, and finally his false and conceited character, ‘in which one recognizes all the pride and all the ignominy of his race,’ have made him suspect for a long time.” 1

What evidence did not exist was simply confected out of thin air, and entire dossiers were created and submitted by the prosecution in secret to the judges without sharing it with the defense – a procedure absolutely prohibited even in France judiciary practice of the time, including military tribunals. The prospect of a second court martial unleashed a new wave of forgeries. One forgery was so blatant that when it came to light, the high government official committed suicide. Scandals of that nature, and the tireless championing of the cause of justice first by Dreyfus’ brother Matthieu and then a growing army of defenders, the Dreyfusards, most famously the novelist Emile Zola, eventually led to the nullification of the first court martial and a second court martial, which was also suborned, then a pardon, and ultimately official exoneration. Zola’s letter to the nation “J’accuse” stands as one of the great examples of political journalism of all times. In it Zola purposely put himself at risk for libel in order to bring to public scrutiny the entire prostitution of justice the initial court martial was as well as the deep corruption and self-serving, rank-closing bloody-mindedness of the military class that could produce such a miscarriage of justice in the first place.

I urge you take the time to read about this complex affair for yourselves. If you do so, you will not merely learn of one of the great episodes of modern anti-Semitism – there were riots and pogroms, with Jews killed and injured, in the wake of the publicity of these trials, and this is turn-of-the-20th-century France! You will find yourselves unsurprised by anything occurring on our political stage today, whether tea-party or right-wing demagoguery, the media side-shows of cable networks commentators and bloggers, and the degree to which politics and interest intrude into oversight agencies and the very courts themselves.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking symbolic moment was the public degradation of Alfred Dreyfus on January 5, 1895, in the courtyard of the École militaire. By degradation, I mean the stripping from Captain Dreyfus of his military rank and of his arms. That’s the literal act of unranking or degrading from which the word degradation comes. It was, then, always a wonder, and a tribute to Dreyfus true patriotism, and his love of France and its army even after and over and beyond the acts of treachery, betrayal and injustice that once he returned from Devil’s Island he eagerly took back his uniform and, ultimately, his stripes.

Dreyfus was vindicated, and thanks to courageous writers like Zola and Jean Jaurès we know what went wrong. Political and judicial reform starts from the revelation of in justice. The Dreyfus Affair stands, thanks to them and all who continue to study it, as a warning against intolerance and judicial abuse.

Graduating students: you have comparable courage, you vigorously champion the cause of those who are downtrodden. Remember: the truth will out, and it is always right to pursue it. Remember that we are all, despite moments of disagreement, even passionate disagreement, one community, and together we celebrate your graduation and congratulate you.

1Louis Begley, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 8, quoting (and having effected his own translation of) Maurice Paléologue, Journal de l’Affaire Dreyfus, 1894-1899 (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1955), p. 7.

 
 

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