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Commencement

The open space of democracy

by Terry Tempest Williams

Published in the March/April 2004 issue of Orion magazine



Migration, 1999
Migration, 1999
Painting by Mary Frank, used with permission

This is the first essay in a three-part series by the author. See also part two, “Ground Truthing,” and part three, “Engagement.”

SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 we have witnessed an escalation of rhetoric within the United States that has led us to war twice in two years. We have heard our president, our vice-president, our secretary of defense, and our attorney general cultivate fear and command with lies, suggesting our homeland security and safety must reside in their hands, not ours. Force has trumped debate and diplomacy.

Our language has been taken hostage. Words like patriotism, freedom, and democracy have been bound and gagged, forced to perform indecent acts through the abuse of slogans. Freedom will prevail. We are liberating Iraq. God bless America.

For many of us, the war on terror is not something that has been initiated outside our country, but inside our country as well. We wonder who to trust and what to believe.

I have always believed democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion—a never-ending project where the windows and doors remain open, a reminder to never close ourselves off to the sensory impulses of eyes and ears alert toward justice. Walls are torn down instead of erected in a counter-intuitive process where a monument is not built but a home, in a constant state of renovation.

It was within this context of witnessing America at war and contemplating democracy that I accepted an invitation to deliver the commencement address to graduating seniors at the University of Utah on May 2, 2003. I was to receive an honorary doctorate degree in the humanities. Nothing could have meant more to me than to be recognized by my own school in my own town. They know who I am and who I am not. We share a history and history is always complicated. For me, personally, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Before the speech, I had had the great pleasure of meeting with a group of graduating seniors. What I heard were mature voices, steady minds, speaking from a generation that had witnessed the beginning of two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, while students at the university. They were not interested in ideas or language that polarized people: Christianity vs. Islam; republicans vs. democrats; Mormons vs. non-Mormons; wilderness vs. development. They talked about alternatives, solutions, how to speak a language that opens hearts rather than closes them. These students were acutely aware of complexities and hesitant to take sides before considering all the evidence.

I had fifteen minutes to speak from my heart to these young people on their graduation day. My heart was pounding.

President Machen, Senator Bennett, members of the Utah State Board of Regents, distinguished guests, faculty, family, and most especially, University of Utah graduates; it is a great privilege to stand before you this morning…

Lives change at this university. Mine did. I remember the moment. The class was American Romanticism. The professor was Dr. William Mulder. He introduced us to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson. It was in this course, I realized, “Yes, I am a Mormon, but I am really a Transcendentalist.”

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
—Emily Dickinson

These words became sacred text.

I realized that in American Letters we celebrate both language and landscape, that these words, stories, and poems can create an ethical stance toward life: Melville’s Great Whale; Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; Thoreau’s Walden Pond; Emerson’s “Oversoul”—the natural world infused with divinity. I came to understand through an education in the humanities that knowledge is another form of democracy, the freedom of expression that leads to empathy.

It begins with our questions…

Up until now, the words of my speech had been safe, no feathers ruffled.

How do we engage in conversation at a time when the definition of what it means to be a patriot is being narrowly construed? You are either with us or against us. Discussion is waged in absolutes not ambiguities. Corporations have more access to power than people. We, the people. Fear has replaced discussion. Business practices have taken precedence over public process. It doesn’t matter what the United Nations advises or what world opinion may be. America in the early years of the twenty-first century has become a force unto itself. The laws it chooses to abide by are its own. What role does this leave us as individuals within a republic?

Abraham Lincoln warns: “What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our crowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of these may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them. Accustom to trample on the rights of others and you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises among you.”

How do we engage in responsive citizenship in times of terror? Do we have the imagination to rediscover an authentic patriotism that inspires empathy and reflection over pride and nationalism?

I would submit that we can protect and preserve the open space of democracy by carrying a healthy sense of indignation within us that will shatter the complacency that has seeped into our society in the name of all we have lost—knowing there is still so much to be saved.

What does the open space of democracy look like?

In the open space of democracy there is room for dissent.

In the open space of democracy there is room for differences.

In the open space of democracy, the health of the environment is seen as the wealth of our communities. We remember that our character has been shaped by the diversity of America’s landscapes and it is precisely that character that will protect it. Cooperation is valued more than competition; prosperity becomes the caretaker of poverty. The humanities are not peripheral, but the very art of what it means to be human.

In the open space of democracy, beauty is not optional, but essential to our survival as a species. And technology is not rendered at the expense of life, but developed out of a reverence for life.

Reverence for life.

I was halfway through the speech with my heart still pounding. It was difficult to establish eye contact.

The open space of democracy is a landscape that encourages diversity and discourages conformity.

Democracy can also be messy and chaotic. It requires patience and persistence.

In the open space of democracy, every vote counts and every vote is counted.

I could feel the republicans in the Huntsman Center (thousands of them) thinking, “Here’s just another two-bit liberal grousing over George Bush.”

Stay focused, I said to myself, follow the words.

When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech. Rhetoric masquerades as thought. Dogma is dressed up like an idea. And we are told what to do, not asked what we think. Security is guaranteed. The lie begins to carry more power than the truth until the words of our own founding fathers are forgotten and the images of television replace history.

An open democracy inspires wisdom and the dignity of choice. A closed society inspires terror and the tyranny of belief. We are no longer citizens. We are media-engineered clones wondering who we are and why we feel alone. Lethargy trumps participation. We fall prey to the cynicism of our own resignation.

When democracy disappears, we are asked to accept the way things are.

I beg you: Do not accept the way things are.

I finally relax and find my footing.

Question. Stand. Speak. Act.

Patriots act—they are not handed a piece of paper called by that same name and asked to comply.

To engage in responsive citizenship, we must become citizens who respond. Passionately. This is how we can make a difference. This is how we can serve society.

What is at stake? Everything. Everything we value, cherish, and love. Democracy.

It was true in 1776. And it is true in 2003. This is the commitment we make to a living, breathing, evolving republic.

Thomas Jefferson said, “I believe in perilous liberty over quiet servitude.”

May we commit ourselves to “perilous liberty.”

Our insistence on democracy is based on our resistance to complacency. To be engaged. We may be wrong. We will make mistakes. But we can engage in spirited conversation, cherishing the vitality of the struggle.

Democracy is built upon the right to be insecure. We are vulnerable. And we are vulnerable together.

This is what the open space of democracy looks like.

Question. Stand. Speak. Act.

Make us uncomfortable.

Make us think.

Make us feel.

Keep us free.

THE COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS was met with both boos and applause in equal parts, as far as I could tell. Many students in the College of Business sat in their seats defiantly, breaking their code of good behavior by cupping their hands around their mouths yelling in the negative. Utah Senator Bob Bennett and former Senator Jake Garn had their heads bowed in disapproval. Students in the College of Humanities were on their feet cheering with much of the faculty. It did not feel personal. I simply witnessed my hometown mirror the ideological split alive in our nation.

THE SPRING OF 2003 was a moment in time of unseemly American bravado. We had arrived in Baghdad with unprecedented speed and relatively little opposition, as a long convoy of humvees and tanks rolled into the ancient city. American casualties were few and a kick-ass attitude more akin to football than war permeated this country like a fever.

Those of us who protested the war, and there were millions around the world, were told to eat crow. After the graduation ceremony, Tom Korologos, another recipient of an honorary degree (a Utah native and powerful lobbyist in Washington, D.C., who after being named a senior advisor to Paul Bremer successfully persuaded Congress to release $87 billion for the ongoing war in Iraq), extended his hand and with wry humor quietly said, “You don’t know what the hell you are talking about. I’d like to take you to Baghdad and see what you’d say then.” As we walked off the stage together, he was waving a small American flag.

Afterwards, Senator Bennett, our neighbor and former Mormon bishop, took me aside and in a brief conversation said, “In the spirit of democracy, I want to register my strong dissent to your talk.” A few weeks later, I received a four-page, single-spaced letter from Senator Bennett dated May 7, 2003. It was not on official stationery, but plain paper straight out of his own computer.

Dear Terry:

....As I listened to you outline things that are important to you, an interesting question popped into my mind: What would she be willing to die for? Waging war always creates the risk of dying, so any discussion of war raises that issue. Then I asked myself what I would be willing to die for. The answers that came were predictable, at the front end—family, certainly—followed by church, protection of community, and yes, finally, the cause of freedom, for others as well as my own family and friends.

That is what went on in Iraq. To use Colin Powell’s comment, which I quoted to you, America has sent brave young men and women voluntarily all across the world to fight for peace and freedom. We did it this time not only for Americans but for Iraqis and all the others in the Middle East who will benefit enormously as a result of the removal of Saddam Hussein. “Greater love hath no man than this,” Jesus said, than that he “will lay down his life for his friends.” I think the willingness to risk death in the cause of freedom for others deserves enormous respect. Again, as Powell said, we do not do it for territory…”

I put down the letter. He had asked a provocative question. What was I willing to die for? Like Senator Bennett, I come from a religious tradition where the founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered for his religious convictions. There is no shortage of martyrs among Mormons. I also recognized the long line of military service in my family. We grew up on war stories told to us by our great uncles who served in World War II and my cousin, Scott Dixon, has never fully recovered from the horrors he witnessed in the first Gulf War.

It occurred to me, over the many weeks that it took me to respond to Senator Bennett’s letter, that what mattered most to me was not what I was willing to die for, but what I was willing to give my life to. In war, death by belief is centered on principles both activated and extinguished in the drama of a random moment. Heroes are buried. A legacy of freedom is maintained through pain. Life by belief is centered on the day-to-day decisions we make that are largely unseen. One produces martyrs born out of violence. The other produces quiet citizens born out of personal commitments toward social change. Both dwell in the hallowed ground of sacrifice.

In my response to Senator Bennett I mentioned that before the war in Iraq, thousands of Americans turned to poetry to voice their opposition to the invasion, creating the largest written protest in the history of this country. Eleven thousand poems were presented to Congress on March 5, 2003, by Sam Hamill and W. S. Merwin. My words were among them:

The erosion of speech is the build-up of war.
Silence no longer supports prayers, but lives inside
the open mouths of the dead.

After much thought, I told the Senator that what I would be willing to die for, and give my life to, is the freedom of speech. It is the open door to all other freedoms. We are a nation at war with ourselves. Until we can turn to one another and offer our sincere words as to why we feel the way we do with an honest commitment to hear what others have to say, we will continue to project our anger on the world in true, unconscious acts of terror.

DEMOCRACY INVITES US TO TAKE RISKS. It asks that we vacate the comfortable seat of certitude, remain pliable, and act, ultimately, on behalf of the common good. Democracy’s only agenda is that we participate and that the majority voice be honored. It doesn’t matter whether an answer is right or wrong, only that ideas be heard and discussed openly.

We are nothing but whiners if we are not willing to put our concerns and convictions on the line with a willingness to honestly listen and learn something beyond our own assumptions. Something new might emerge through shared creativity. If we cannot do this, I fear we will be left talking with only like-minded people, spending our days mumbling in the circles of the mad. I recall the words of William Faulkner, “What do we stand to lose? Everything.”

How we choose to support a living democracy will determine whether it will survive as the beating heart of a republic or merely be preserved as a withered artifact of a cold and ruthless empire.

If we cannot engage in respectful listening there can be no civil dialogue and without civil dialogue we the people will simply become bullies and brutes, deaf to the truth that we are standing on the edge of a political chasm that is beginning to crumble. We all stand to lose ground. Democracy is an insecure landscape.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS lives in Castle Valley, Utah, with her husband Brooke. Her most recent books, Leap and Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, continue her exploration of people in place.

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