149th Commencement Remarks by Naomi Wolf

Feminist author and political activist Naomi Wolf spoke at SUNY Oswego’s 149th Commencement ceremonies Saturday, May 15. The following is a transcript of her remarks as delivered at the morning ceremony.


Naomi Wolf speaking at Commencement.Thank you. Thank you. I am so honored to be on a podium with such luminaries, and I’m also so honored and excited to be present at this commencement for a university that has turned out young people that, even in my brief time here, I can tell are engaged, idealistic, full of really important dreams for the future and who are going to take a huge part in saving the country and saving the world. So I just want to honor you before I begin, with my own applause to you, and you to yourselves. Thank you.

I’ve been sitting here listening to commencement and it is in way a little bit of a bummer, I imagine, it to be at commencement and hearing how dire, you know, the economy is and how dire the threats are that are facing you, so I’m going to bum you out just a little bit more before I lead you to a little bit of sunshine. The economy is certainly a serious issue, but America has weathered economic downturns before, and I’m quite sure that you will weather this one. But one thing America can never lose is its cherishing of freedom, and when were saluting the flag and singing the national anthem, I was feeling very moved, because what I want to talk to you about today is your role in supporting and sustaining and redeeming liberty and what that means to your personal happiness, because, believe it or not, these things are very much intertwined.

Defining liberty

So you’ve come of age in time of a mighty struggle, but it’s also one that brings you tremendous opportunity. If you look at today’s paper, you’ll see that there is not a fight between left and right around the world, but actually the big fight is between tyranny and freedom. This week an AIDS activist was expelled from China after having been held in custody for a month. In Kurdistan, students like you are protesting, risking their lives, because a journalist has been killed. In Iran, still another journalist was sentenced in absentia to thirteen years in prison and a flogging. In Thailand ordinary people like all of us have been taking to the streets to express their opposition to a dictatorial government and to ask for their democracy back.

So what does all this ferment have to do with you and your big day today? You inherit the greatest gift imaginable because of the times in which you are coming of age, as well as immense responsibility, and you have this task that can lead you to make as big an impact or greater as the Greatest Generation, the generation of your grandparents, many of whom are sitting in the audience, who saved the West essentially from fascism. Your generation happens to be the one that can seize the day and lead the fight to save and spread democracy. You were born in a land that was seen as the beacon of freedom around the world. You grew up blessed by due process, which means your right to have a trial if someone accuses you of wrongdoing. You were blessed with the First Amendment right to speak, rights to be protected against your government’s unreasonable search and seizure of your personal papers and possessions and computers, rights that we take for granted, but that young people and their families dream of passionately and desperately around the world. You grew up, as we all did, telling the bully in your neighborhood who tried to silence you, “It’s a free country.”

This freedom is a big part of who you are. You feel you have the right to make changes, to say what you believe, to challenge injustice. You feel you can criticize your government without risking arrest or your family losing your livelihoods. You can express your views to your peers and debate issues in your dorm rooms, even if the conversation becomes heated, without self-censorship. Many of you here have parents who risked a great deal, some may have risked their lives, to bring you to this country so you could grow up in this way. Many of them have come from countries in which people must speak in hushed tones and turn their faces away from wrongdoing and keep silent. Almost all of us here have ancestors who came from such places at one time. The freedom in which you came of age is part of the excitement of this day—part of why you feel that anything is open to you, any path available to you, that you can choose whom to love, how to create your family, what kind of work to do, and how you can express your true self as the years unfold.

Defending liberty

You should be excited. But please also take some time on this incredible day to become more fully aware of how precious and fragile this gift is, about your part in protecting and defending it. Even in America we are now in a state of struggle about these freedoms. The recent Supreme Court nominee favors indefinite detentions, detentions without trial—forever. In a place called Guantanamo Bay, people many of them innocent have been held for years without access to witnesses in their defense—a violation of what the great American patriot John Adams stood for when he insisted that even the most hated terrorists of his time, the men responsible for the Boston Massacre, deserved the right to trial. The President at this very moment is asking Congress to weaken the Miranda rights of a United States citizen held in an interrogation, and drone missiles have been authorized to attack yet another U.S. citizen without due process of law. The Fourth Amendment, which our wise founders put in place to protect you from the government wrongly invading your privacy, has been tattered with the Patriot Act, which still allows the United States government without warrant to eavesdrop on innocent citizens. These are not—I really want to stress—partisan issues, as we see because people as disparate in their points of view as myself and Glen Beck are concerned about them; these are issues of concern to all patriotic Americans. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not partisan documents. They are meant for every one of us. (Thank you, there’s the applause!)—every one of us of any race, any background, any set of political beliefs. That is what makes this country so great.

But most distressing of all is the way the culture of freedom has not been fully transmitted to your generation by your elders outside of this great university for you to understand and protect. Studies show that half of college students can’t identify key aspects of our structures of government in a free society, can’t recognize key elements of a democracy. This is not your fault, but it is your problem, since by not training your peers outside this university in the practices of liberty, your elders have ensured, either by neglect or commission, that your generation may not be as quick to recognize your innate rights as Americans, or as vigilant in defending freedom, as you would be if you knew intimately what a democracy is and what keeps it healthy so it can protect you and your family. (Applause)

I was lucky in who I was surrounded by while I grew us, just as you are lucky in this way, being here at SUNY Oswego, in the sense of being taught to cherish freedom. My dad’s family was wiped out in the European Holocaust, so I always knew that it was possible in a matter of short years for a government to turn from being a protector to a predator. My mother’s mother was a social revolutionary in the czar’s Russia, and she used to go into the woods when she was a teenager to read aloud newspaper accounts of peasant protests against a brutal regime to the peasant members of her own village, since she was one of the few people in that town who was literate.

I grew up in San Francisco, where during the late sixties and early seventies—an era I a quite sure you are tired of hearing about—but where I saw firsthand how marches and protests by the emerging gay rights movement led to averting bad laws that would have taken some of our best teachers out of our schools because of whom they happen to love. And I saw also how political organizing by people with almost nothing in terms of money, recent immigrants, led to their becoming an effective force in local government in a way that benefited the whole community. I believed, when I was in high school, that by the time I grew up all those bad isms—racism, classism, sexism—would be part of the past. They weren’t, I discovered when I was your age in college, and I spent 20 something years doing what I could to make them part of the past. (Applause)

The fight for a better world is frustrating. It is hard sometimes. But what I want to share with you on this big day is, that when I meet warriors in that fight, they are really, really happy; they are personally happy.

Training citizen leaders

So let’s take a moment to think about where you come in on all this. You are incredibly lucky here because of the example set for you by your teachers and your administrators and your campus leadership here at this amazing institution, SUNY Oswego. (Applause) This campus and these educators are among, I mean, almost none—I travel all over the country, all over the world and I’ve never been on a university that actively trained citizen leaders in a democracy, as yours does. It is so rare. They’re actively engaged in the process of cultivating engaged, informed citizen leaders in an open, civil society to lead a strong democracy rather than watching passively and assuming that someone else will fill in the missing information along the way. And judging from the incredible young people, engaged and impressive, that I have met on this campus already in my short stay, you and your peers have risen beautifully to make the most of this opportunity by becoming extraordinary leaders already. I’m so proud of you. (Applause) But I’m not quite done. You and your families and parents and your children and grandchildren will benefit from how you have been trained here to recognize and understand your freedom as Americans. The message you have been given consistently by the citizenship programs established by this university and its emphasis on open discussion and personal responsibility prepare you to think for yourself, speak up for yourself, and imagine the world of your dreams for yourself as you move on into the rest of your lives. You have been prepared to choose careers, contribute as volunteers; you have learned quite a lot, I’m sure, about love and commitment here—but you have also learned to value your freedom, and freedom is the ground and air for your personal missions on this planet as you move ahead into the future. And that’s where your personal happiness comes in.

How does the defense of freedom connect to your personal hopes and dreams as you prepare to graduate? Because freedom is the grounding of dreams. You cannot truly live out your personal missions—the missions that your soul knows and that you will recognize more fully if you are really listening inside to that inner voice, as you go on and engage with the days that wait for you—if your are not grounded in a free society. By the same token, America has been so great—and Americans have been so great—because a free society liberates this incredible potential in each one of us—this ability to listen deep within and recognize what our unique destiny is, is what our spirit calls us, individually, to do.

Student dissent

This greatness that freedom allows us to release in ourselves and our society—I have to say it, it’s the elephant in the room—is exemplified by even the fact of student dissent here on campus in the last few weeks (Applause), a First Amendment act which would have been as much a part of the hallowed American tradition of expressing one’s point of view freely if it had been about any issue or any individual at any point along the political spectrum, including any of us here, including myself. The great patriots all faced protest and dissent. George Washington faced protests up and down the eastern seaboard when he was president, as did Thomas Jefferson. Our nation was founded in protest and in the act of citizens assembling before officials and expressing very noisily their points of view. Protest is a citizen’s way of saying, “This dialogue must not continue without my participation.” (Applause) If you look at American history you see clearly that dissent and protest are not disrespectful, they are rather the highest form of respect, since they are grounded in the assumption that in a free society, free people are strong enough to hear one another out, even in the most powerful disagreements, with civility and without violence, and that is the kind of respect for one another that has made America great. (Applause)

So when you leave here, amazing SUNY Oswego graduates of the Class of 2010, think about freedom and your personal freedom, what it means to you. Cherish it, learn about it, defend it, recognize it when it is threatened and when you need to act in its defense, because the founders did not leave the defense of liberty to pundits and experts and constitutional scholars and a set of political elites—they expected us to defend it, they expected you to defend it. Their dream meant that its logical extension would include people from every walk of life in liberty’s defense, from the person who delivers your mail and cleans the wastebaskets in this university to homemakers and factory workers and young adults just graduated from college. You are supposed to lead America. You are supposed to defend freedom, you and your families. (Applause)

Pursuit of happiness

So finally, because I know we’ve got a very busy day, talking again about happiness. I urge you to defend liberty so that everything else good that flows from a ground of liberty can come to you. I have heard from many college graduates in times like these that they feel they don’t know their true mission—and worse, don’t feel truly entitled to know it. They feel intensely stressed day by day—maybe working at classes while working at a job or even two jobs; maybe driven to choose a study track that will lead to a more lucrative career, even if their hearts are elsewhere, in service or in the arts or in the humanities. They are preoccupied with having to pay enormous student loans from the minute they leave the university and worried about how they will get that first good job in this economy, and then how they will balance work and family. Many students have spoken to me about family pressures and expectations, whether these students come from old established families—and I don’t mean just students here, I mean everywhere—who, their children believe, want their kids to carry on with certain life tracks long established by others, or whether their families are recent immigrants who, these students believe, may be disappointed, as Senator Schumer described, if they didn’t aspire in a certain path to success. In such students’ voices and dilemmas, the notion of a personal mission seems like an impossible luxury.

But happiness, I have learned, for what it’s worth, does not equal material status or even material success. I see that in people all around me. It’s good to be financially stable, and I urge everyone graduating here to aim for financial literacy and learn to negotiate the highest wage he or she can command in the marketplace. Whatever you do, it benefits no one for you to struggle with being underpaid. But apart from financial stability, I want to tell you that more and more and more of material possessions and status does not lead a path to happiness. (Applause)
Our culture says: always aim for more: more status, more money, more stuff. I am here to say that from what I have observed, this message is pernicious and a waste of your time. The people I know who set their compass this way are not happy, and their daily lives do not radiate for themselves or for others. They often feel empty inside and far from their sacred mission.

Do aim for more, by all means, you wonderful graduates. Aim for more love, more service, more truth, more justice, more kindness. Look after your loved ones: put your family first. There is nothing more precious and you will never regret having chosen time with them. Do shelter the homeless and visit the sick. Do fight for justice for all. Do choose a path, assuming you can sustain yourself and your family, that lets your innate gifts and talents come forward—and please sit and talk patiently and lovingly with the people around you if this does not coincide at first with their dreams for you. Because I have learned that following the dreams of others, no matter how well intended they are, and setting our sense of selves against the benchmarks of others, no matter how much they care for us, is a recipe for anguish and even depression long term, while lovingly setting our own compasses while treating our loved ones with great respect and care is a recipe for true success.

Personal mission

Do listen to that inner voice that speaks to you about the direction that truly calls you. There is no way I can explain this logically, but I do believe and have seen many times in practice that each of us comes onto this planet with a mission engraved, as it were, on our hearts. It doesn’t have to be something externally seen as gigantic; some of us may want to be the best mom or dad in the world; some may come alive in creating or distributing a great new product or innovation; some may long to cook delicious food; some may want to work with children in education, or become entrepreneurs, or healers, or artists, or represent our community in the political arena. But you know your mission, Class of 2010, from the way it sparkles for you when you think about it, the way it calls you, how your heart beats when you approach it. Please know that even if you don’t see clearly right now how to make a living pursuing your mission, there are many ways to make it central to your lives.

I just heard from an ER nurse who had always wanted to play the clarinet; she overcame the voices in her head that had always told her, how dare you consider yourself a musician. She rented an instrument and took it one day at a time. Now she is still an ER nurse by day but she plays clarinet with a music group four nights a week, and she considers herself, and others consider her, a talented musician as well. That part of her grew. I asked how it had changed her life and she said, “I am the happiest person I know now.” I am working with a businessman who always wanted to write: he took classes and made time for his passion and now he has four chapters of a nonfiction book. That part of him is growing. I just heard about a Hollywood producer who was very successful but kept feeling the tug to help kids in disaster areas. He flew in to help with the aid effort in Haiti and never came back—and he is now very happy making a fraction of what he had been earning, having started his own nonprofit to get food to kids. I am not saying, throw away solid careers doing something you may not ultimately want to do; I am saying that your mission will make itself known to you if you keep listening, and that your being radiantly happy, as your class leader described, is good for you; it’s good for your parents, your spouses and your children and society as a whole.

Let’s take a moment to think about our parents and families who are here with us today. Let’s think about what it meant for them to get you through four years of this higher education, as well as all the steps they took that led to your successful arrival here. No parent is perfect—neither is any child, the mother of a teenager wishes to note. But they supported you, took your calls at midnight, deferred or delayed their own plans and expectations so that you can have this amazing opportunity. They saved for you, thought of you, counseled you when things were tough, advised you so you would avoid mistakes, whether you appreciated their advice at particular moment or not; checked in on you, nurtured you, bought you hangers and scotch tape, protected you, may have taken in your dirty laundry and cooked for you—perhaps glad that you came home—now I’m getting all choked up—to give them the chance to look after you for a bit—bragged about you, and are surely today taking pictures and videos of you that will take pride of place in their homes. You graduates are heroes today, superheroes—but so are your parents. (Applause) Being a good mom or dad is the pinnacle of achievement and in helping you educate yourselves at this admirable university, your parents have accomplished a major milestone of their own success and their own mission on this planet. As one stay at home mom said, “My job is raising good global citizens,” and your parents have raised 1,500 of them today.

So finally, I’m going to skip ahead (Applause), while you fight the world’s greatest fight in defense of liberty, do so with joy. Two of my favorite quotes are: “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution,” and the line from the old labor song, “Give us bread, but give us roses.” Your spirit needs celebration and love and fun as much as it needs justice and hope, so always make time for laughter and poetry and for your friends. Go save the world, be the heroes of your own wonderful destinies that await you as graduates of this amazing community, and while doing so please have a wonderful time. Thank you very much.


(Posted: May 15, 2010)

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