New Yorker Editor David Remnick called on the Princeton University Class of 2013 yesterday to consider the nature of freedom and understand the responsibility that comes with it.
A 1981 graduate of Princeton, Remnick was the keynote speaker for Class Day, a university tradition that dates back to 1855. Class day is an upbeat celebration organized by the graduating class. Awards are presented, honorary class members are named, and speeches full of humor are made.
In that spirit, Remnick reminisced about his time and Princeton founding the Nassau Weekly, studying with John McPhee, struggling in Russian language courses, and later becoming a foreign correspondent in Russia, noting that “failure has a way of inspiring no less than success does, so long as you don’t take it personally.” He poked fun at Harvard, Princeton University and its “eternal halloween colors”, and joked about his parents concerns about his decision to study comparative literature instead of law or medicine. He then reminded students how lucky they are.
“Princeton is a complicated, flawed, but unassailably glorious institution,” he said. “It always runs the risk of self-admiration but there is good reason to admire it: The possibilities it offers its students are limitless and you leave here, as I did, barely appreciating their variety.”
Quoting from Bob Dylan, Remnick then got to the heart of his speech, saying, “A hero is someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.”
Remnick wished the students personal success, fine careers and fulfilling lives.
“But personal success is not the same thing as meeting the demands, the responsibilities, that freedom asks of you,” he said. “Freedom, with all its limits, is not a natural condition. It certainly was not our original social condition. And it is by no means a universal condition. Freedom is fragile, rare, and provisional. We’re reminded often about the immense number of countries that have made a democratic transition in the last generation or two. But this is a radically more complex story than we sometimes like to admit.”
He recalled his time as a correspondent in Moscow watching the Soviet Union crumble.
“We saw hundreds of millions of people come, blinking and amazed, into the bright light of historical honesty, their expectations raised to unprecedented heights,” he said. “On Aug. 21, 1991, the triumphant night when a coup d’etat led by the secret police collapsed, I sat with thousands of others on the banks of the Moscow River and watched the fireworks and listened to the singing. In the coming days, young people, in an ecstasy of liberation, tore down the statues of the old Bolshevik leaders and secret police chiefs. Like so many, I entertained the idea that it wasn’t just communist ideology that had eroded and collapsed. I allowed myself to think that after a thousand years of absolutism under the tsars and general secretaries, democracy had been born…But my optimism was out-sized and premature.”
Remnick then recalled other demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Tunis, Damascus, and Tiananmen Square.
“Mentalities, repressive institutions and history do not change so smoothly or easily,” he said. “A generation later, the Chinese Communist Party persists. The brutally shrewd authoritarian reign of Vladimir Putin floats on a tide of oil profits. The hapless and retrograde vision of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood mock the pluralistic tone of Tahrir first street protests. These are but a few of the instances of the stubborn, jagged, and unpredictable nature of historical progression. The end of one form of oppression does not preempt the rise of another.”
The human capacity to underestimate the resilience of non-freedom and the forces of reaction is vast, he said.
“We, and the other mature democracies, are well familiar with our own illiberal voices and impulses,” he said. “In this country, they’ve been heard, in the wake of the 2008 election, in the Tea Party calls to `take back our country.’ They resound in nativist and fundamentalist voices everywhere. The impulse to stifle the press and freedom of thought, to torture, to occupy, to repress women, to impose an official religion, to monopolize power and wealth under the guise of development and stability — none of these tendencies necessarily disappear with the signing of a constitution.”
The question graduates face, he said, is the question a thinking person always faces: “What can I possibly do about all this? It is hardly the only question in your life, but it is serious one — a central one. It’s a question that seems so large that it’s beyond us…I want to suggest that we all, in the course of our lives, no matter how modest or private, will make decisions that are bound to shape the nature of freedom as we actually live it. You’re not free when you are poor, or sick, or ignorant. You are not free when you’re unable to shelter your own thoughts from surveillance. You are not free in the face of impending environmental disaster.”
“Globalism is not just the ubiquity of Starbucks and the iPhone, it’s the intensification of common responsibility,” he said. “And this means that the future of freedom enlists and implicates pretty much everyone, particularly people of talent, of means, of mobility. And that means you; all of us.”
“This isn’t just about the great issues of what happens in the so-called public square. It relates to your personal goals and concerns, too,” he said. “My heroes are those men and women who, in one way or another, put the demands and centrality of liberty at the center of their life’s work. They have done it in different ways, with different sensibilities, and from different angles. Few of us, probably none of us, will reach such heights or sacrifice ourselves so thoroughly, or beautifully, for our ideals. But you came here not merely to set out on a trade or profession, but to exercise the freedom of your minds. You’re needed in the larger world — and not merely to shop and take up space. The stakes are huge. The project of building a free society isn’t something you can farm out to the experts. You must, in some way, play your part.”
Photo: Remnick tries on his Class of 2013 jacket. Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite.