Final Exercises 1991: Howell Speech

W. Nathaniel Howell
Commencement Address, May 19, 1991
University of Virginia

President Casteen, Mr. Rector, members of the University of Virginia class of 1991, parents, faculty, and friends.

It has been said by some of my foreign service colleagues that diplomats share at least one important characteristic with prophets – they are without honor in their own land. I can tell you today that this bit of conventional wisdom has no foundation. I am truly honored to have been asked to share with you this special place and special occasion. My sense of appreciation is especially keen. Just a few short months ago, I was far from certain when, indeed if, I would look upon this scene again.

Thirty years have passed since my own commencement ceremony on this lawn, in the late spring of 1961. In considering the thoughts I might usefully share with you this morning, I was somewhat embarrassed to discover that while I could recall a good bit of detail about the ceremony, even some of my thoughts as I sat facing Cabell Hall with my classmates. Try as I might, however, I could remember almost none of the pearls of wisdom undoubtedly cast before us by our commencement speaker. I’m prepared to share that fate today. I can confide to you your great good fortune that old friends here, faculty as well as fellow members of the debate team, have tempered my rhetorical instincts with a firm injunction: be brief! Those of you receiving your degrees today will join a long and continuing line of alumni of this great institution. You have contributed to its vigor and vitality but you have drawn even more from it. By your achievements you have demonstrated that you are among the brightest and the best that this land and society can produce. But, along with the blessings and opportunities bestowed upon you come responsibilities – responsibilities first to yourself, to family and friends who have provided support and encouragement; responsibilities to a society which, however imperfectly, strives to supply opportunities and facilities for personal growth and fulfillment; and, finally, responsibilities to succeeding generations that look to you to assure that they, in their turn, will enjoy the access and opportunities of which you have partaken.
For the greater part of the last quarter century, I have lived in and worked with ancient cultures of the Middle East. Their concept of historical continuity, actual or mythological, is much more deeply engrained than is our own. In my study of the Arabic language, I encountered a Levantine expression that encapsulates one positive aspect of their collective experience: zara[u fa akalna….

"we eat because they tilled the soil." Commonly left unstated, because it is assumed and understood, is the corollary – unless we till the soil in our turn, there will be no harvest in the future.

In founding this university, Mr. Jefferson envisaged it as the capstone of public education in Virginia and beyond. Inspired by his vision of the common good, generations of teachers, scholars and students have built it into one of the premier institutions of higher education in the nation. It is no accident, for example, that it attracts the sons and daughters of my foreign service colleagues from all around this country. In my service from Algiers to Abu Dhabi, the university is recognized as occupying a place in the top ranks of American universities. From the perspective of such distance, perhaps, the true worth of this jewel of the Commonwealth is particularly apparent. Even in an era of severe budget stringencies in all levels of government, we deny such education institutions the support required for operations and development only at great cost now and later. For it is surely false economy and dubious management to consume today the seed corn of tomorrow’s planting.

Whether you plan to pursue a career in public service (as I hope many of you will) or in the private sector, you will be called upon to play a crucial role in setting the terms of public discussion and establishing the direction of public policy. You will be opinion leaders in dealing with the numerous problems and issues that confront us domestically and internationally. Whether that agenda is more daunting and dangerous thaN it was in 1961 is certainly debatable. It is indisputable, however, that we face serious and complex challenges at home and abroad. Effective solutions demand nothing less thaN a clear-headed understanding of their nature and implications, serious and unrestrained consideration of alternative courses of actions and more effective mobilization of the vast potential of the human spirit within our society.

Returning to the United States after more than three years in residence in Kuwait, I believe there are observations in each of these three areas that I can profitably make. While I can yet employ this topic, I want to take a few moments to highlight aspects of contemporary society where the concern and involvement of educated men and women can make a real difference in the quality of public deliberations and decisions.

Americans today are continuously bombarded, literally overwhelmed, by the flood of information available to them. Technological developments in satellites and other fields make this data avalanche possible. Instant experts arrive and arise to complement instant communication and, as we have seen in the aftermath of the conflict in the Gulf, books and analyses can be rushed to print to interpret what we think we have been seeing. In the early days of television (and perhaps I date myself), the United States made do with a nightly newscast of fifteen minutes. That is certainly insufficient, but I have to wonder if it is true, as a twenty-four-hour-a-day operations imply, that almost one hundred times as much significant "news" is being made today as forty years ago.

The involved citizen, like policy makers, is daily exposed to almost instaneous visual images that can easily alter his priorities or drive a national agenda. Time for reflection, for evaluating what are unintegrated bits of data, has been reduced dramatically. The buffers provided in an earlier age by time, distance and a journalist with long experience on his "beat" have all but disappeared. Often, however, we are seeing only a part of this story and, frequently, the graphic images presented are devoid of context and the intellectual framework necessary to process the data. In the mid-1960’s, I wrote my dissertation on a Middle Eastern people little known even then to most specialists. Today, there is probably no one here who has not heard of the Kurds and their plight. But, we know little more about them, about their society, their history, their aspirations, than we did twenty-five years ago. The camera crews and reporters rushed to northern Iraq to record their tragedy are not equipped, by background, training or temperament, to fill this void.

This is not an indictment of the technology or individuals involved. I do want, however, to flag the fact that we have not yet learned how best to employ the new capabilities to serve our understanding of our own society and the world around us. Timely data provide important tools for comprehension, but information is not synonymous with knowledge and it certainly does not constitute wisdom. Sound analysis and prescription begin with an understanding of the limits of our information, selection of salient facts, and their application to an integrated framework of thought or policy.

When I arrived in Kuwait in 1987, the Iran-Iraq war was in its seventh year and Iranian missiles were being fired periodically at petroleum exporting facilities in Kuwait. These firings, and the resultant damage, were "news" and large numbers of media representatives flocked there. The only images that were aired in our media were related to the missile firings, creating the impression that, not surprisingly, nothing else of importance was occurring. On many occasions, I urged visiting journalists to take advantage of their presence to acquire some understanding of Kuwait and its people; only a very tiny minority took the time to do so. At the time, their omission was unfortunate, when Kuwait was invaded last year, it became tragic. Almost none of those assigned to interpret what was happening in Kuwait or the implications of those developments possessed a personal or institutional base-line against which to evaluate their information. In the early weeks of the Iraqi occupation, for example, we observed busloads ofIiraqis brought into the city dressed in approximation of Kuwait clothes, for demonstrations purportedly supporting Iraq’s annexation of their country. Then, courtesy of modern technology, I was able to turn on my television set and watch the Iraqi-produced tape broadcast on American networks. What we see is not always the truth.

We cannot turn back the clock on technology, and a free press is an absolute essential of our free society. On the other hand, an interested, educated citizenry is indispensable to give texture and perspective to public opinion. That citizenry must be alert to the fact that misinformation can be disseminated but cognizant of the fact that the environment in which the media operates continually skews coverage. Cameras cannot, of course, record what they are not permitted to film. This means inevitably that data on more open societies and their problems is much more plentiful than information on their closed, more oppressive counterparts. I once had occasion several years ago to ask a leading member of the Kuwaiti press why his coverage and criticism of the United States was so much more extensive than that of the Soviet Union. "That’s simple," he responded, "you americans provide so much more information about your imperfections than the Soviets do about theirs." And so what is available becomes what is known.

I can offer no grand solution to the dilemma posed by the real-time information overload we all face. There is certainly a good deal the media itself can do to make certain that they provide some correctives to the raw data they disseminate. Marginal disclaimers are not an answer. The practice of dropping false or unsubstantiated spot reports without later comment or correction only adds to the problem. Reporters with background on the areas and subject-matter with which they are dealing would be ideal, but I suspect that a healthy dose of informed skepticism by you, the consumers, remains the best remedy for information that appeals more often to the emotions than the intellect. We need not draw our conclusions from "live" reports of teams rushed to the latest flashpoint or tragedy. Such input can only be a single element in comprehending our world.

If access to reliable information is key to our ability to reach sound judgments individually, the protection of intellectual freedom and discourse is no less critical to our society’s capacity to form reasoned judgments and policies. Over the years, I have resided in and dealt with many societies where free inquiry and open expression were circumscribed. I doubt that any of those systems was successful in preventing individuals or groups from thinking the "unthinkable." The resurgence of human thought and expression that we have witnessed in the recent in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe provide dramatic evidence that even the most repressive regimes cannot indefinitely quell that spark.

My conviction is stronger today than ever before that Mr. Jefferson was never wiser than when he enjoined us to "follow truth wherever it may lead" and to combat error with reason rather than suppression. His philosophy expresses a human longing that is not bound by time, by place or circumstance. It is the essence of academic inquiry and a sound guide for discussion and debate in society at large.

In every age and time, we have had those who would prefer to limit inquiry and debate, who seek to curtail the search for truth in the interest of certainties they believe they have discovered. Their motives may or may not be noble; their method never can be so! In our day, this phenomenon bears the label "politically correct." Fortunately, all such efforts to impose orthodoxy – religious, political or cultural – by intimidation or any force save that of reason are destined to fail. I say fortunately not only out of regard for society as a whole but also out of consideration for the values the advocates of orthodoxy may wish to promote. For if previous efforts to confine human thought and expression had succeeded, if the "truths" of the past had been graven in stone, the precepts of the "politically correct" would not even have a hearing today.

If our society is to progress in directions we seek, it must retain the vitality and suppleness to cope with the unknown and the unknowable. It must provide a framework for civil discourse and the clash of ideas. Ideas, even bad ones, do not die because they are discouraged or suppressed. Proponents of new thoughts who claim for them special protection betray a remarkable absence of confidence in their durability. In our own lifetime, we have witnessed too much change, much of it for the better, to subscribe to the notion that emerging truths will not find fertile soil for growth. Mr. Jefferson recognized, as we should all, that to halt the contention of competing ideas, to try to freeze "truth" in place, is destructive of the quest for knowledge and corrosive, ultimately, of the social order.

In the final analysis, our capacity to deal effectively with opportunities, challenges and aspirations depends upon the strength of the American people. We sometimes forget the revolutionary character of the underpinnings of our nation. Perhaps, it is because the appeal of those ideals has become so universally accepted over succeeding generations. We have not achieved all of the ideals set for us; we yet have much to accomplish to unlock the full potential of all of our citizens. It is nonetheless demonstrable that no other political system or social system has provided as much opportunity for so large and diverse a population as this one. In so doing, we have developed impressive human resources which can and must be tapped more successfully.

Since my return from the Middle East in december, Mrs. Howell and I have had an opportunity to travel widely throughout this land. We have talked with literally hundreds of citizens from coast to coast. What impressed us most was the strong sense of identification with the welfare and security of their country and an eagerness to be part of something larger than themselves. If we can find the means to harness and direct this energy, the human spirit of our people, I believe there is no task we cannot accomplish – from preserving the environment to assuring quality education, from expanding real opportunities for all to increasing productivity and competitiveness in our economy.

I have experienced first-hand what a committed group of Americans could accomplish during the siege of Embassy Kuwait last summer and fall. If there was a positive aspect to that episode, it lay in the unconquerable spirit of the Americans on that compound. We were eight foreign service personnel and an assortment of citizens trapped in Kuwait by chance. For almost four months, without electric power or running water, in temperatures exceeding 120 degrees, and surrounded by a hostile army, this group refused to fold, coalescing into a functional community. Uncertain when or how the ordeal would end, it would have been understandable if they had given in to despair; instead, they gathered themselves and set about solving practical problems of survival. Experiencing discomfort, deprivation and stress, they might have been indifferent to one another or to fellow citizens hiding outside the embassy to avoid becoming hostages of the Iraqis; instead, they willingly gave of their time, talents and compassion to help in a dozen evacuation flights and to offer comfort and support to those unable to depart. In the process, this diverse collection of strangers became a close-knit community, committed to one another and to quiet defiance of the Iraqi occupation. Their assistance and support was crucial to my ability to carry out the mission assigned me by the president.

I was tempted to characterize this small band of men and women as "ordinary Americans," but I think that is not correct. They certainly were not specially selected or screened. On reflection, however, I like to think of them rather as "typical" Americans: individualistic, inventive, motivated and capable not only of humor but outrage. They gave promise, in microcosm, of the creative energy, resiliency and determination of a society of free men and women.

In conclusion, it is my privilege to commend you, the members of the class of 1991, for successfully fulfilling the requirements of the degree you are about to receive. Whether you recall anything else about my remarks today, and you probably won’t, I hope you remember one word symbolized by my presence – continuity – and you remember a son of this university who came to wish you well in your future endeavors and to hope that you will retain the affection for and attachment to virginia and its ideals that he has. Godspeed.