If you have not already discovered it, you will find that from here on in, life is a precarious balancing act between your conscience and your baser instincts. Between, in other words, what you ought to do and what you want to do.
To a certain extent, you've known that since puberty. What may surprise you somewhat is how little support in the outside world you'll find for following the dictates of your conscience. The world is full of people ready to help you rationalize away your more troublesome principles. It is compromise that lubricates the machinery of our civilization, and people of genuine principle, reluctant to compromise, are frequently seen as obstacles rather than role models.
We have just left behind a century that glorified efficiency. The greatest struggle for most of these past 100 years was between and among fascism, communism, and a form of democratic capitalism, with each system portraying itself as doing the most for the greatest number. That competition for efficiency gave us some of the greatest benefits and the most horrific evils that the world has ever known.
|The world is full of people ready to help you rationalize away your more troublesome principles.|
We live longer, we eat better, we've made enormous strides in health care, we can travel more swiftly and more comfortably than at any time in history. We can communicate instantaneously no matter how distant we may be from one another physically. We can assemble entire libraries on a silicon chip the size of a fingernail.
But we must also acknowledge that during our 20th century, humankind slaughtered and brutalized and imprisoned more people than at any other comparable time in history. Twenty or 30 million killed in China under Mao. A similar number under Stalin in the Soviet Union. Six million under Hitler in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe. The atrocities of Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, where only a couple of million or a few hundred thousand were murdered, became merely footnotes of the horrors of the 20th century.
How did our generation and our parents' generation rationalize their inaction, even their silence, in the face of all this evil? And anyway, what does all of this have to do with any of you on this occasion?
|The voices of reason and compromise will whisper soothing and seductive questions in your ear: "Why is that an American problem? What do they expect us to do about it anyway?"|
"We didn't know," we said, and they said. We didn't know what was going on in China or in the Soviet Union; we didn't find out until much too late what had happened during the Holocaust. It wasn't a really convincing excuse, but it was the best we could come up with.
Your generation won't even be able to take refuge in that. If satellite television doesn't inform you, the Internet will. You will know. And then the voices of reason and compromise will whisper soothing and seductive questions in your ear: "Why is that an American problem? What do they expect us to do about it anyway? Shouldn't we be more concerned about resolving our problems here at home?"
My concern for you as you leave this place has nothing to do with the quality of your education or the anticipated comfort level of your lives. By most of the standards that can be applied uniformly to most people around the world, you will do well. You have the freedom and the means to travel as no previous generation has done. You have access to more information. Your lifespan should be longer, your health should be better. You have more choices available to you in your leisure time, and because you are educated men and women you are better equipped to compete in the flourishing marketplace that awaits you.