Commencement Address of Rep. Raskin
At Montgomery Blair High School’s 2017 Commencement
June 6, 2017
Ms. Johnson, Ms. Ortman-Fouse, Councilman Leventhal, Dr. Smith, and Dr. Williams, Faculty and administrators, coaches, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends, big brothers and little sisters, big sisters and little brothers, Intell Science Awardees, theater people, Intonation singers, Blazer sports heroes and heroines, award-winning Blazer Cheerleaders, BLISS volunteers, the Chorus and Concert, Symphonic and Chamber Orchestra players, rockers and rappers and poetry slammers, Democracy Summer Fellows, undercover investigative reporters for Silver Chips, Seniors arriving late from one last unauthorized trip to Chipotle, and above all, to all the amazing 2017 graduating Seniors:
Thank you for this surpassing honor.
And thank you for granting me this one hour and 45 minutes to speak.
Now I have a question for you graduating Seniors. How many of you have ever fallen in love before?
Now, if you’re just getting back from Beach Week, please don’t kid yourself — I’ve been to Beach Week, and that was not falling in love.
Researchers say most people will fall in love for the first time between the ages of 17 and 21. So falling in love is one of the great things you have to look forward to now.
I raise the question because I have a request of you today. Whatever else you’re doing, find space in your heart and time in your life to fall in love with America too.
It’s an odd request I know, but I mean it.
I want you to discover the poetry of America. Walt Whitman — the poet, not the rival school — said, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” And Langston Hughes said, “I, too, sing America.”
Travel across America, if you can, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters, from California to the Chesapeake Bay. Read Emerson and Richard Wright and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson and Rachel Carson of Silver Spring and George Pelecanos of Silver Spring, and see Hamilton if you can get someone to buy you tickets. Read about Jefferson and Tom Paine and Ben Franklin and Hamilton’s duel with the devilish Aaron Burr and that great Maryland abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and the Roosevelts and Emma Goldman and Frances Perkins and read John Lewis’ new graphic novel about the civil rights movement; curl up in bed with the Constitution and Bill of Rights and Brown v. Board of Education. Read these people, books and documents not like homework but like love letters from the past, and then let yourself fall madly in love with America, its history, its institutions, its struggles, its agonies, its triumphs, its people, its land and water, from sea to shining sea. We need you to be smitten by your own country.
Now that doesn’t mean loving America by denying its faults, much less by celebrating its faults. It means loving America the way you love someone you love — by finding what is beautiful, unique and irresistible in it, holding it close to your heart, and then observing its faults too and working to shed and transcend them.
George Orwell once contrasted patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism, he said, is a deep love for your community, its people, its institutions, its culture, a whole way of life. Nationalism is just sinking your individuality into a huge military apparatus in order to go to war against other people. Be patriots, you Blazers, not nationalists.
You are part of a special generation. None before yours has overcome bigotry, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia like yours has. You Blazers are a special wonder to behold and you embody our hopes for the future.
Here’s a little story about you. When hundreds of you walked out of class on November 14 last year to protest the new religious and racial intolerance, I was on the floor of the House of Representatives at my Freshman Orientation. I saw your march on my laptop, and I got up on my feet and began to cheer. One of you texted me and I emailed you a message to read to the marchers.
But some of my colleagues sitting with me in the House said, “You shouldn’t support them like that. You shouldn’t be out there with a bunch of kids. Somebody might turn violent, they might yell stupid things, they might throw something, they might be vulgar. These kids could embarrass you.”
And I said, “No. Not these kids. Not Blair students. I am not afraid for one second of these students embarrassing me. I know exactly who they are and what are they made of. They will make me proud.”
And you did.
And I do know what you’re made of.
And how did I know? Well, I’m a Blazer Dad, for one thing, and so I’m related by blood to this school.
I know your fine principal and teachers, who teach you to act with courage, integrity and kindness. Let us recognize them today.
I know your parents and they have raised you with love and strength and with the hope that you will improve our world. Let us recognize them on this fine day.
But I also know the character of Blair students directly because you pretty much made my political career. But that’s a story for another day.
But America needs every one of you right now — whether you call yourself liberal, conservative, progressive, radical, libertarian, right-wing, left-wing, religious, secular, or even just plain apathetic, whatever you call yourself — we need you to recover the founding ideals and embattled unfolding values of America and celebrate and fight for them because tyranny and fanaticism on the march all over the world.
I know public life can be exhausting — believe me, I do know — I’m in Congress — but we need all of you to be constitutional patriots.
Consider the greatness of our Revolution.
Before America, the world had Kings who declared that they got their power from God and below the Kings and Queens were the nobles and the priests and below them were the people — mere subjects, not citizens.
But our Revolution turned it all upside down. We said that power comes from the people, which is why the three most important words of the Constitution are the first three words: “We the People.” Here government rests on “the consent of the governed,” and the people have inalienable rights. We have no Kings here, we have no Queens, we have no Titles of Nobility, no classes, no ranks and — since the Civil War — we have no slaves here, just free people with equal rights, all of us subject to the law and none of us above it. The highest office in the land is that of citizen and all of us who aspire and attain to public office are nothing but the servants of the people. It is a great honor to have a title like Representative, Senator or President but we are all nothing but temporary servants of the people. In the kingdoms and autocracies, the great Tom Paine said, “the King is law,” but in the democracies, “the law is King.” In America, we have no Boss. (Except of course for Bruce Springsteen.)
Before America, the Kings merged church and state. So the King of England was head of the Church of England and the English State too. This was a recipe for theological repression and endless religious conflict. Our Founders, champions of the Enlightenment, broke from centuries of religious warfare in Europe between the Catholics and Protestants no less bloody than the wars today between the Sunni and the Shia in Muslim countries. Our Founders rebelled against theocracy, Holy Crusades, the Inquisition, and witchcraft trials. In the First Amendment they said Congress could neither establish an official religion nor prevent people from freely exercising their own religious beliefs. They guaranteed the freedoms of speech, worship and conscience against any church efforts to impose religious dogma. They said there would be no religious tests for public office. They created what Thomas Jefferson called a “wall of separation between church and state,” which remains to this day the only wall we will ever need in America.
Basing government on the people’s will, leaving religion to the people, creating a Bill of Rights, dividing powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches — these were radical innovations departing from most everything that had come before. And all of them were made possible by one self-evident truth that Jefferson planted at the very beginning of the Declaration of Independence, a phrase so radical and breathtaking in its implications that even his personal complicity with slavery could not contain the explosive force of the idea: “All men,” he wrote, “are created equal.” This axiom has been the driving force of every mass movement, social struggle, and political campaign, to reform and uplift America.
Consider the Abolitionists and Unionists who overthrew slavery, which was America’s original sin — people like Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave 45 minutes from here on the Wye River, or the Founder of Silver Spring and your namesake, Montgomery Blair, who represented Dred Scott and argued for his freedom in the Supreme Court in 1856. These Radical Republicans insisted that America must live up to the original promise of equality for all men regardless of race. They fought a Civil War and amended the Constitution to abolish slavery, establish Equal Protection and forbid race discrimination in voting. They expanded our understanding of the founding ideal which Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Then the Suffragettes, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, argued that women and men are created equal too and must be treated as political equals. And their remarkable struggle gave us women’s suffrage in the 19th Amendment in 1920.
In the 1960s, a century after the Reconstruction Amendments were added to the Constitution, the Civil Rights Movement mounted a non-violent civil disobedience movement to challenge Jim Crow, the continuing system of racial apartheid in America. Dr. King said: “All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper.” And America passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and transformed American democracy and social life.
Graduates, you are the heirs in every way to the civilizing movements of our history: the Abolitionists, the Suffragettes, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the civil liberties movement, the LGBT movement, the peace movement, the human rights movement, the environmental movement. That is who you are — and no generation — none, not mine, not Ms. Johnson’s, not Montgomery Blair and Abraham Lincoln’s, not Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson’s — not one has ever better embodied the greatness of American ideals than yours, the people wearing caps and gowns today. We know you — you are our children — and we know you have America’s highest ideals written into your hearts and your minds. You give us faith in our future as you take your rightful place as lovers of American democracy.
Our future contains big challenges. I will not name them for you on this beautiful day. But one of them is plain to see: we need to reassert America’s identity as a “haven of refuge,” as Tom Paine called it, for people fleeing political and religious repression all over the world. That is who we are; other than the Native Americans and the descendants of the slaves, we are all immigrants and refugees or their descendants, which has made us a multicultural marvel to the world. We have lived through periods of extreme nativism before and we will get through this one too. As long as America is America, the Statue of Liberty will always be our rightful symbol.
But President Lincoln knew strong democracy is a delicate thing and said it would take the people’s active devotion to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.
We need you to be constitutional patriots. And I will offer you one last element of your secondary education by telling you the secret of Jefferson’s astonishing assertion that all of us are created equal.
What does this mean? On the surface, the claim seems ridiculous. After all, some of us are born tall and others (alas) short; some (like members of Intonation or the Chorus) with great singing voices, others not so much; some with enormous native ability in math or science (like the two graduates who scored perfect scores on their computer science APs) or athletics or art, others with deficits in the same areas; some of us are born healthy and some with health challenges.
These unequal physical or intellectual endowments can be compounded by even more sharply unequal social endowments. Some are born into obscene wealth, others obscene poverty; some live like royalty while others see their parents working two or three jobs with no health insurance.
So if we are not all created equal in terms of talents or wealth, in what sense can we say truthfully we are all created equal?
Human equality is true, above all, in the moral sense, because we all have an equal capacity to feel other people’s pain, or to ignore it, and equal power to choose to act in solidarity with other people — or just tolook out for ourselves. The tall and the short, the brilliant and the simple, the highly educated and the uneducated can all be compassionate or selfish, virtuous and good or corrupt and evil. The rich have no greater moral authority than the poor; indeed, if the Bible is correct about the camel and the eye of the needle, we might presume the opposite. A poor Mexican-American son of migrant farm workers like Cesar Chavez can become one of the great moral leaders of his nation while the sons of privilege can plunge the country into hellish wars like Vietnam and Iraq. And as Helen Keller’s imperishable example shows us, the blind can lead society with a moral vision that the seeing sometimes lack. As Dr. King put it, all of us can be great because all of us can serve.
Graduates, you enter the future today not just with a diploma but with a remarkable history and tradition of service. You are Blair Alumni, Blazers forever, and this experience and this institution become a crucial part of who you are.
You made history here. Your individual achievements are staggering, and will be forevermore a glorious chapter in the unfolding story of the school.
But even more impressive than what you have done individually in competition is what you have done collectively in community and common effort.
At every turn, you stood up for justice. You made this community One Blair. You championed equal rights. You defended freedom. You stayed woke and you woke up a new generation and created a chain reaction across America. You have never ever taken the easy road.
Don’t stop now. Just step out onto a broader stage. Fall in love with America. It is your birthright. It is your destiny. Go out and transform our beloved country the way you have transformed this beloved school.
Godspeed to you all.
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