Amherst Magazine

Beyond Competing Interests

By President Anthony W. Marx

image
On the Commencement stage, Geoff Giller '10 shakes hands with Marx.

Congratulations, Class of 2010.

Today is a new beginning, a commencement, a day of celebration. We celebrate you. We also celebrate and give thanks for the loving families, friends and teachers who have supported you.

You are a great class. You have learned, worked and played together for intense years here that have changed your lives, bringing you love, lessons, habits of mind and friendships that will last your whole life.

Please come back often. Stay in touch with us. We have felt honored to have you here, for you have altered our lives and this college as well. Building beyond the individual interests you brought with you, we have seen you expand your minds, transcending yourselves to wrangle with the great relations of human values to ideas of the world, of art and science. Do that in your careers, in your teaching, in your parenting, and you will live the principled lives of consequence we envision; powerfully consequential, whether you are creating a family, fostering an enterprise, building a community or an institution; consequential in successes and in failures, for there are lessons in both.


Graduates, we send you forth into “interesting times.” Today many things are happening at once. Ideas of identity shift and blur as global markets eat away at national borders, diluting the power of any one government alone to protect any economy. Across cyberspace, concepts of the self alter. Former institutions of media give way to servers of the individual search, diffusing the power of any one to command attention or even agreement on common facts. Meanwhile science delivers ever more on its promise of new frontiers, where we discover more things we can, but should not always, do.

Amid this rapid change, it seems unlikely you will encounter a slower progress any time soon. Instead, I believe you are living now in one of those rare moments of historical transformation. They are recognizable if you step back to the bigger picture.

Usually in any democratic order, we organize ourselves according to everybody’s interests—be these economic, religious, cultural or other group interests. These specific interests, both faint and powerful, compete and combine as we compromise among them to reach decisions. Often that way of living works well enough. It can bring spectacular progress, as in innovation and economic growth.

But the ancient Athenians knew they could not last long just by aggregating everyone’s separate interests, especially when the society faced issues that challenged everyone.

We as a people know that too, even if we have learned it the hard way. For we follow our private interests only to a point before hearkening, at least somewhat, to meanings beyond ourselves, especially when confronted by our failings. In rare times, when we are forced to see how mere aggregation of interests fails, transcendent vision becomes the driver. History offers few examples of such transformational moments, but I do think we are in one now. This is your moment. Let’s look back at some other such moments.

Begin at our country’s founding. In 1776, revolutionary Enlightenment ideas of individual dignity, rights and potential both energized and undermined society here and globally. New groups gained power. Colonial advances frayed and inflamed national loyalties.

The U.S. had begun to burst with commercial activity, with the founding of institutions, schools and libraries. These pulled us together across interests, and in 1776 we declared ourselves “one people.” In the beginning was the word, the vision of unity. And from that vision flowed the idea of “unalienable rights.” This idea lay beyond interests and inspired later movements toward yet more justice and fairness than one could find in the static rule of crown over subjects. And so, as Daniel Webster argued, the Declaration is our founding document, our title deed as an act of a whole people. It is not a communiqué issued by selected local factions.

But vision and unifying ideas also come under attack from interests, and did quickly after the Declaration, right here in the woods of this valley we look out upon. Capt. Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and farmer who faced destitution in the postwar recession, led others like himself in armed rebellion against attempts by urban interests to seize their farms and cast them into debtors’ prisons to obtain cash payment for war debts.

Shays’ Rebellion, and others like it, shook the newly declared nation. And the people responded to the “storm” with a Constitution wrought out of competing interests, which they ratified just one year after Shays’ Rebellion.

Beginning “We the people,” the Constitution assumed the unified vision of the Declaration and established rules for organizing the forces of the people’s competing interests, adding protection of individual rights in the first 10 amendments. Rule of law, channeling interests, was driven by the vision of unity and rights, and the whole nation held. Until it did not.

The Civil War cracked the nation. Again, the politics of compromise among interests alone was not up to the task. But Abraham Lincoln was. At Gettysburg he grounded the American Idea in a yet larger vision of equality—in effect, reinvoking the founding Declaration and drawing the principle of equality further into the Constitution. His was a new act of founding, as Gary Wills observes. In speech and writing before the Civil War, the term United States was a plural term. Afterwards, it became a singular.


And after the war came an age of ferment. American literature found its authentic voice in Whitman and Twain. The great land-grant colleges were created, including the university that shares this valley with us. Industry took off: steel manufacture, railroads, oil, the telephone, electric light, commerce, regulation, organized labor. Imagine yourselves sitting right here, graduating from Amherst amid all that turmoil and progress.

We passed through at least one more great transformative moment, after the stock market crash of 1929, when again private interests had failed to preserve us from a deep depression. From the New Deal through World War II, we drew together and changed our vision of government and civic life. We sowed seeds along the way for an eventual further harvest of civil rights.

So here we are now, poised before your moment.

One angle of reflection upon this moment is offered by political historian Tony Judt, who writes that we today face a “social question” of how to avert the harmful inequities that arise when the economy transforms so rapidly that “accompanying social changes cannot be wrought at the same time.”

Judt fears we have countenanced severe inequalities today by thinking only “economistically,” which he says is “not intrinsic to humans.” By such thinking, we have come to define self interests too narrowly, with “minimal reference to ... altruism ... or collective purpose.”

Instead, our collective will, as reflected in the conditions of our schools and roads, has slipped. “Markets and free competition require trust and cooperation” to work, and they do not automatically generate attributes necessary for the common good.

However, I believe these recent imbalances Judt decries bear us a gift. They restore our attention to the collective good.
In fact, they draw us upward now, more clearly toward what my former teacher Albert Hirschman called the “vaguely felt needs for higher purpose and meaning in the lives of men and women.”

Recent years have reminded us how private interests alone neither stem environmental degradation—as we now see so dramatically in the Gulf—nor ensure health care or financial stability. Our public institutions are over-stretched by the pull of such interests, and we see the fissures now regularly, from Washington’s dysfunction to angry Tea Parties of fearful denial. In that turmoil, the opposite tradition of seeking a broader vision that pulls us together again emerges.

More than 40 years ago Martin Luther King, like those American Revolutionists before him, spoke of a call to justice “in the fierce urgency of now,” and warned, “There is such a thing as being too late.” He quoted James Russell Lowell to stress the moment had come “to decide / in the strife of truth or falsehood, / for the good or evil side.”

As I’ve suggested, history rarely sees that level of urgency or the kind you encounter now. But, in contrast to that sort of struggle King defined—wherein one can, indeed is obliged, to see and resist evil done by others—many of our urgent problems today trace their causes uncomfortably nearer home.

They relate to how we all live today when subject to private marshaling of resources, energies, goals not transcended by a collective value. Without such a vision, we are blind to the fact there is no such thing as “too big to fail.” Breakdown is a part of life; it comes in every size. But we recover our deeper purpose especially in hard times of breakdown when the big is failing, when, as Mary Jo Salter has written, “we’re given a wound that won’t allow us to refuse to carry on.”

Graduates, this being Amherst, I am sure some of you will fully disagree with the implications of history I have drawn. But no matter what meanings you move toward, I pray you will keep on debating ideas and values, building a culture that prizes ideals more than interests.

I hope you will strive to help your communities and the world do this, for, as George Soros writes, “the strongest interests are not necessarily the best ideas.” Trust in the common good doesn’t just emerge out of compromise, and the untended marketplace does not produce it either.

The ancient Athenians saw education as the countermeasure to the purely self-serving. Use your education to decide how we are to answer the higher calling to fairness, to the good, the just and the true.

Despite my claim that you enter a time of rapid change, look to assist in the more patient revolutions. No era of transformation is all lofty aspiration. Short-term interests will explode around us. Laws will be twisted but still contain us.
Do what good sailors do: zigzag against the wind when that’s how to stay on course, to tack in the direction you have set. You embark today into strong headwinds.

This type of advance requires a subtler command of maneuvers than sailing with the wind at your back.

image

By your labors and leadership you will also inspire others to move against those currents of fear of change, of self-interest camouflaged as principle, that draw too many people backward. This type of advance requires subtler perceptions and greater agility than when you ride with the advantages of the wind at your back. You will need all of the skills we have tried to impart here, and more. The payoffs of your efforts will take time. Establishing vision, the refining of ideas through debate and practice, their application always take time.

So hold on. You are a stalwart, smart crew of great hearts, great minds. And, as I said at the start, you can count on that strength of Amherst in each other, to see you onward, supporting each other. Tacking upwind isn’t easy. It is a way of redirecting countervailing forces toward a new direction, firmly forward.

Take hold now of the tiller of society’s ship. Bring us forward against the headwinds.

Godspeed.

Terras Irradient.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04