I am an American: A Fourth Open Letter to Our Students

Dear Friends,

I do hope that you've had a good winter break, a time for rest, renewal and reflection. Amid all the festivities, family visits and travel, I wonder if you have had a few moments to think about the troubled state of our society or the state of the world you will soon inherit. What will you need to do to cope with the ugly realities of a world filled with violence, corruption, betrayal, racism and religious intolerance? How will you cope with social institutions that have become dysfunctional? How will you confront a world that is heating up so much that ocean currents have been disrupted, super-storms have become more or less routine, and floods and droughts have become increasingly severe. In this gloomy climate, it is easy to be cynical and say: "what can I do about it?'

Believe it or not, there's a great deal you can do to make your future life sweeter. Don't expect to get help from our public officials most of whom--from the bottom to the very top--seem intent on using their power to enrich themselves, their families and their friends. Their vision is short termed and ill-conceived, a vision that that will expand the gulf between the haves and have-nots in a society of rapidly increasing inequality--both social and economic. Our "leaders" consider the world simplistically. For them the world is divided into "winners" and "losers," a belief that creates an atmosphere of mean-spirited invective in which the "winners" insult the "losers," in which "getting over" has become more important than how the game is played. In such a context, there is little desire or reward for reflection, for critique, for dissent, or for doing the right thing.

Given the realities of our social moment you might think that if you keep quiet--even in the face of injustice--things might turn out okay. Maybe you'll get a well-paying job in which you'll be expected to follow the rules and do as you are told.

But is that what life is all about?

As a college professor, it is my job to tell you that there is more to life than doing what is expected. You can dream. You can be creative. You can exercise your imagination. You can learn to separate fact from fiction. You can step up to the plate and be counted. You can help to establish a more just society.

If you think one person's efforts are wasted against a stacked unjust system, consider the case of Cedric Harrou who grows olives in a hilly region in the south of France. Mr. Harrou has been charged with illegally smuggling hundreds of African migrants into France, As New York Times writer Adam Nossiter reported on January 5, Mr. Harrou...


..did not deny that for months he had illegally spirited dozens of migrants through the remote mountain valley where he lives. He would do it again, he suggested.

Instead, when asked by a judge, "Why do you do all this?" Mr. Herrou turned the tables and questioned the humanity of France's practice of rounding up and turning back Africans entering illegally from Italy in search of work and a better life. It was "ignoble," he said.

"There are people dying on the side of the road," Mr. Herrou replied. "It's not right. There are children who are not safe. It is enraging to see children, at 2 in the morning, completely dehydrated.

"I am a Frenchman," Mr. Herrou declared.

Mr. Harrou has become a folk hero in France. In the face of cynically inhumane policies that provoke human suffering and death, he stood up and said: "No!" By saying "I am a Frenchman," Mr. Harrou evoked the deep-seated values of French culture--liberty, fraternity and equality. For him, these words are more than idealistic statements with no value. His humanitarian defiance of the state has stirred deep-seated emotions about what is important in the world.

Here in America, we share these values. Liberty, equality and humanitarianism have long been the foundation of our democracy. Even so we have slipped into a social world in which these great values seem to have fallen by the wayside. In a world filled with cynicism, they have become empty words--meaningless bromides that falsely make us feel good about ourselves.

And so I ask you: in the face of racism, religious intolerance, massive corruption, and the mean-spirited invective of our politics, can you incorporate the moral spirit of Mr. Harrou and say, "I am an American?

Can you call out hate when you confront it--even in your family?

Can you defy injustice especially when it is doled out to the poor and powerless?

Can you shelter those whom the state would persecute?

I know you probably don't want to hear this sort of thing at the beginning of the spring term, but, like it or not, you are the future. You will inherit the world.

Will you stand up for what's right?

Will you say no to intolerance and ignorance?

Through your actions and words will you be able to say "I am an American?"