It’s the season for graduation ceremonies, and I have a confession to make: I love good commencement addresses. I like them almost as much as I like funerals, and for a parallel reason: Just as funerals call our attention to the inescapable reality of death, good commencement addresses call our attention to the unbounded possibilities of life. Eulogies and commencement addresses are like the two great bookends of what little public philosophizing we show any patience for.
Anyhow, I thought this week I would feature three great commencement addresses. Today’s selection was first delivered at Georgetown’s Tropaia exercises in 1986, by a graduating senior named Mark Ouweleen. I wasn’t there in 1986, and I don’t remember when I first read this, but I do remember that when I re-read it about five years ago I was struck by its continued — perhaps even increased — relevance. There is much to admire here, but parents of college-bound children might be particularly interested in Mark’s strong linkage between liberal education and bedrock religious truth.
The name of the speech, the “Cohonguroton Address,” is taken from an old Indian name that is connected to Georgetown in some way I have forgotten. I mention that because it provides important background for this somewhat condensed version of Mark’s speech.
Here’s something you may be happy to know: I like my mother. Take my word for it: she is a rather swell human being. That is why I am decently reluctant to disappoint her. I think that she can live with the fact that my four years’ study of English here has left me embarrassingly unmarketable. . . .
She may be comforted by her belief that I have made some progress in learning one skill, that of taking the twenty-six symbols which make up our alphabet and scrambling them around on paper, until they give the illusion that I know what I’m talking about. She hopes that, even if I am not qualified to do anything next year, I should at least be able to come up with something original to say. That is why I am hesitant to reveal something which may convince her that I have wasted my time and her money here. This may also disappoint you other folks, who are sitting there wondering what comforting and original things I have to say about the meaning of existence. Here’s the hard truth: I have absolutely nothing original to say. Neither do I intentionally say anything comforting. Everything you are about to hear is as old as the hills, and very troubling. Lucky you.
. . . For many years the Cohonguroton speaker would emerge from a teepee to deliver his address dressed in an Indian costume, war paint and all. I don’t know just when the College abandoned that practice. It may have been the first time the brave elected to give the address turned out instead to be a squaw. So now we wear this cap and gown. I imagine I’ll get as much wear out of the new uniform as I would have out of the feathers and war paint. I could have worn those every Halloween to pretend I was an Indian. Now I can wear this outfit to masquerade as an educated man.
Still, I think it was appropriate to have the speaker dressed as an Indian, and emerge from a teepee. This is a scene I imagine you’ve all seen in cowboy movies. And what have we been doing in the College for four years but watching cowboy movies? The hero in cowboy movies is always a superman, bigger than life. He is kind to ladies and horses, and less kind, but always just, to bad guys. We can see epitomized in him all that we would like to be. He is an antidote for the daily doses of petty troubles that dull our sense of man’s nobility. He lets us see mankind as worthwhile, respectable, worth getting excited about.
It’s the same way with the liberal arts. . . .
Georgetown has shown us the true Movie-Cowboys of humanity, has forced us to wrestle in awe with great poetry, music, science; has been one long high noon duel of great thoughts and great thinkers. It has shown us that man may after all have a good deal of value. It has allowed us to believe the preposterous idea that God almighty has chosen to be God-for-man, that he has made his home in man, that to love him we must serve each other. Our education shows us the grace of God in man, shows that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ to the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
All this good from cowboy movies? You bet. And here’s another surprise: cowboy movies are also at the root of the greatest evil known to man. When are cowboy movies the root of the greatest evil? When we believe them, when we forget that they are movies. We are happy when the Cowboy in the movies wipes out the Indian, and well we should be, because the Cowboy is the embodiment of Good, and the Indian of Evil. When good wipes out evil, what can we say but “Hooray?”
The problem comes when we look at reality in the same black and white terms, seeing ourselves and our friends as good- incarnate Movie-Cowboys, and our enemies as Movie-Indians. Who would be so silly as to see things in these terms? Real cowboys, for one. When white people “discovered” America, they saw themselves as a lot like Movie-Cowboys. The Native Americans, by contrast, were Movie-Indians. Listen to what a white man named Cotton Mather had to say about the people he found in this land:
We may guess that probably the devil decoyed these miserable savages hither, in hopes that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ would never come here to destroy or disturb his absolute empire over them.
People like Mather saw the Indians as evil incarnate, because they lacked an education the likes of which Georgetown has given us. They lacked civilization, culture, and Christianity. So what did these people do? They fired their civilization, culture, and Christianity at the Indians out of muskets, Howitzers, and Gatling guns. And what did the Indians do? They died.
Adolf Hitler believed that Movie-Cowboyness was genetic, and that he and the Aryan race had been lucky enough to inherit it. So they used their superior intellects to design ingenious ways to wipe out evil, which happened to have been inherited by Movie-Indian Jews, Movie-Indian Catholic priests, and the Movie-Indian Allies. Today in South Africa, men who perceive themselves to be Movie-Cowboys think it only right that the Movie-Indian non-whites be imprisoned, oppressed, and killed as often as possible.
Even these examples of gross evil are for us in a sense only movies. We are comfortably removed from them by either time or distance, and know them only through carefully written books and tastefully edited news reports. This brings up another problem with watching movies, which is the perception they may give us that all evil is dramatic, Hollywood-worthy. We see this at work in the story about a bunch of people who watched a woman in Central Park spend her lunch hour getting raped. Why didn’t they stop the rapist? Because the rape didn’t seem real to them, didn’t look like rapes look. There was no swell of background music, no slow motion, no camera zooming in.
In the same way we think that, since we are not Adolf Hitler or Pieter Botha, we are innocent of making Movie-Indians of people. But of course, we are not innocent. We make Movie-Indians of people whenever we dismiss them with a label, imprison them in a word box. When we see ourselves and our friends as different in kind from the rest of humanity. We do it when we see our liberal education as offering us only “Freedom from”: freedom from the fetters of ignorance and darkness, freedom from the lot of the vast mass of less privileged humanity. We have secret code names for those we consider Movie-Indians, and even if we are too polite to speak them aloud, our actions often reveal that in our thoughts we’re screaming them. They are names like nigger, faggot, communist, fool, ignoramus, loser, bum, jerk, and, yes, weenie.
To those who have given us this forty thousand dollar ticket to a four-year Cowboy movie I say this: if ever the great and poetic things we have studied here allow us self-righteously to ignore, dismiss, or oppress those who are not so great, dramatic, and poetic, if ever we see Hopkins’ lines as meaning that Christ is seen only in limbs that are lovely, then not only have we wasted your money, we have used it to make ourselves deeply evil. To prevent ourselves from disappointing you in this way, we must remember this commandment, which is what I have to say about the meaning of human existence: Thou shalt make no Movie-Indians.
This may sound hauntingly familiar to you. If so, congratulations. You are on your way to becoming a human being. If not, it may be because you missed my speech last Sunday, when I said exactly the same thing, although today I have scrambled our twenty-six symbols cleverly to disguise this as a new speech. But of course, it was not original last week either. For all I was saying is what Georgetown has been telling us for four years.
She has forced us to live with people with whom we never would have associated otherwise. These people are now our best friends, and any reflection shows us that if we have found so charming a random sample of humanity, the masses from which they were selected cannot be so bad either. She has pulled us beyond our selfish close-mindedness, forced us to appreciate great art, great thought, great music, great poetry as “other,” not as an extension of our own small selves. She has sent us to care for the sick, the homeless, those ugly in limb. We have contemplated the great in specific human enterprises not to congratulate ourselves and our fellow cowboys that we monopolize that greatness, but instead to see and serve the greatness of humanity itself. She has shown us that it is not loveliness and beauty that brings Christ to man, but rather Christ who confers beauty to all men. She has taught us that our freedom, the “liber” from which the liberal arts get their name, is not just a release, a “freedom from,” but also a burden: “freedom to.”
So it is only if there is anything original in my speech that my nice mother should be disappointed. For if the message I took away from Georgetown were new and comforting, I could be clearly seen to have had my mind closed, my ears plugged, my heart sealed for four years. If we have heard Georgetown’s message, we ought to be terrified by what it asks us to do. It has labored to free us from the burdens of ignorance and selfishness in order that we might follow a commandment much older than Georgetown’s two centuries.
This scary, ancient commandment was given by a man whose name you heard in the quote from Cotton Mather. Cotton and his friends perceived themselves as Movie-Cowboys, and would have been surprised to find that if this man had chosen to be born in their time, he probably would have been an Indian. It is because of this man that Georgetown exists, and because of his message that it would be appropriate for us to end our career here with an address by a person in Indian garb. This man was labeled a Movie-Indian by some men who fancied themselves Movie-Cowboys. To make quite clear the way they felt about him, these people nailed him to a tree. And what did he do, besides dying? He forgave them, and thus embodied to the end the terrifying commandment which has been lurking behind everything I’ve said, and behind everything we have done here for four years:
“Love your enemy.”