Some excerpts from the commencement address Antonin Scalia delivered to the Langley High School graduating class, where he took your usual commencement platitudes to the woodshed.
“My problem with platitudes (at graduation),” Scalia said, “is not that they are old and hackneyed, but that they are wrong.”
Citing Commencement Speech Bingo — when graduates make up cards of platitudes and, okay, it’s self-explanatory, play bingo with them (this actually happened to Tim Russert in 2005) — Scalia methodically shot down gag-inducing platitudes. He livened up graduation, and that’s Captain America work.
“It is important that you not believe you face unprecedented challenges, not only because you might get discouraged, but also because you might come to think that the lessons of the past, the wisdom of humanity — those are a couple of good platitudes — which it is the purpose of education to convey, is of not much use. I occasionally give a little talk about the Constitution, in the course of which I discuss some of the writings of the founding fathers in the Federalist Papers. They knew they were facing a great challenge in seeking to establish, in one at the same time, a new federation and a democracy. They did not think for a moment it was an unprecedented challenge. If you read the Federalist Papers, you will find that they are full of examples to support particular dispositions in the Constitution. Examples from Greece, from Rome, from Medieval Italy, from France and Spain. So if you want to think yourselves educated, do not think that you face unprecedented challenges.
“Much closer to the truth is a quite different platitude: There’s nothing new under the sun.
“It’s a belief that seems particularly to beset modern society, that believing deeply in something, and following that belief, is the most important thing a person could do. Get out there and picket, or boycott, or electioneer, or whatever. Show yourself to be a committed person, that’s the fashionable phrase. I am here to tell you that it is much less important how committed you are, than what you are committed to. If I had to choose, I would always take the less dynamic, indeed even the lazy person who knows what’s right, than the zealot in the cause of error. He may move slower, but he’s headed in the right direction.
“Movement is not necessarily progress. More important than your obligation to follow your conscience, or at least prior to it, is your obligation to form your conscience correctly. Nobody — remember this — neither Hitler, nor Lenin, nor any despot you could name, ever came forward with a proposal that read, “Now, let’s create a really oppressive and evil society.” Hitler said, let’s take the means necessary to restore our national pride and civic order. And Lenin said, let’s take the means necessary to assure a fair distribution of the goods of the world. In short, it is your responsibility, men and women of the class of 2010, not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. Not merely in their ends, but in their means. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person person begins with being a wise person, then when you follow your conscience, will you be headed in the right direction.
“Not to keep you in suspense, let me tell you what I think the answer is. We are the greatest because of the good qualities of our people. And because of the governmental system that gives room for those qualities to develop. I refer to qualities such as generosity. Americans are there not only when their neighbors need help, but even when strangers on the other side of the world do. Qualities such as honesty. Americans are by and large people you can trust. George Washington and the cherry tree, Abe Lincoln returning the book in the snow storm, are part of our national tradition. Qualities such as constancy. Americans can be counted on. They’re not quitters, even when things look bleak. Valley Forge, and Bull Run are part of our tradition, too. Qualities such as tolerance. Americans believe in things, and believe deeply. But they’ll try to persuade others to their way of thinking, and not coerce them. The first amendment, and the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom are part of our national tradition, too. And I could go on; self-reliance, initiative, civility — these are also qualities we take pride in and regard as especially American, characteristic of our great country. These are what make us the greatest.
Very good stuff, click the link for more.