Friday, May 8, 2020

A Charge to the MSU Class of 2020: The Citizen as Essential Worker

Today, the Department of Political Science celebrated its graduates at our traditional Friday-Before-Graduation party. Alas, this year--because of COVID-19--we had to celebrate via Web Ex. We laughed, we cried, we shared memories over the past four years we've spent together.

Every year, a faculty member is chosen to give a charge to the graduates. I became the new head this past December after a stint filling in for a semester while Dr. Wilmer was on sabbatical. I decided to give the charge myself this year. What follows is the speech I delivered to these fantastic students who will go out into the world and do wonderful things. I will miss them, but at the same time, our nation needs their energy, their passion, and their brilliance now more than ever.

A Charge to the MSU Class of 2020: The Citizen as Essential Worker
September 11, 2001. I’ll wager a bet that none of you graduating today have a clear memory of that moment. I certainly do, and whenever I hear mention of 9-11, my mind snaps instantly back to a particular image:  A plume of smoke pouring from the North Tower of the World Trade Center right before—in the background—a plane steers toward the South Tower. That plane is Flight 175, destined to slam into that second tower shortly after 9 a.m. Eastern Time. Why does my mind go there? I think it’s because that image encapsulates the realization that—at that exact moment—it was clear what America was facing: A terrorist attack and likely war with those harboring the monsters who killed thousands of innocent men, women, and children. That still frame, to me, is one of those key turning points in a nation’s history. We are still wrestling with the consequences of that horrible day nearly twenty years later.
Right now, we are living through another momentous time which will shape our collective futures for a generation or more. What’s your picture representing this moment?
For me, it’s a photo of a young man with black hair and bronzed skin. He’s clad in green medical scrubs, standing astride an intersection in downtown Denver. His arms are crossed, he’s wearing a medical mask, and he’s—angry? Determined? Outraged? It’s hard to see with his mouth covered.
In front of him is a large pickup truck—a brand-spanking new silver Ram 1500. An older, heavy-set woman, wearing a T-shirt with USA emblazoned on the front, is leaning out of the passenger window—(Screaming? Glaring? It’s not clear)—at the medical worker blocking her car. She’s holding a placard with the words, “Land of the Free” flush against the side of the truck’s door. Is she going to or departing from a rally opposing the stay at home order put in place by Colorado’s Governor? We don’t know—and that’s fitting because there is so much uncertainty in the depths of this pandemic.
For me, that’s the COVID-19 moment. With whom do you identity, graduates? The defiant healthcare worker or the woman demanding her freedom?
It was a stifling hot summer in Philadelphia when 56 men affixed their signatures to parchment, detailing to the world how King George had violated the social contract—and that the only remedy was to sunder the binds tying the 13 American colonies to England. Freedoms had been withheld and denied, yes. But those freedoms had been trampled upon by a government that was not representative. The colonies had no members of Parliament. We had no say in the decisions made for us. The Declaration is often remembered—and idealized—because it is viewed as an expression of the freedoms that people ought to enjoy by virtue of their humanity—rights that no government should easily deny.
But as much as Jefferson’s Declaration is one of independence from Britain, it is also a Declaration of Inter-dependence among those proclaiming the birth of a new nation. Let’s not forget the concluding sentence:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Back to that picture in Denver. It’s easy to say don’t tread on me—like that woman in the ginormous pickup truck. Oh, I bet it felt so damn good to release all that frustration. Haven’t we felt some of that? Don’t you hunger for companionship—to go to the grocery store sans mask, to hug your friends, to belly up to the bar for a drink with your buddies after a long day of school?
But then there’s that man clad in protective gear in front of that car, reminding us that those hugs, those trips to the grocery store without sanitizer, those shared beers, or an in-person graduation celebration—can come at great cost. Perhaps not for us—but maybe for that nurse in the ER, the grocery store clerk checking us out, the bartender pouring that beer, or the elderly relative sitting in the Field House as you walk across the stage.
Freedom without responsibility to each other is just another form of tyranny. The Founding Fathers got it; they knew that a declaration of freedom is worth no more than the paper upon which it is printed without care for each other. The freedoms we now enjoy were collectively earned and are collectively defended. Are the costs we bear now any higher than those born by previous generations charged with protecting this nation? It is a point worth pondering.
Our inter-dependence is essential, so I find it disturbing that the Department of Homeland Security’s definition of so-called essential workers neglected perhaps the most important job of all: Citizen. Our allegiance in this liberal democracy of ours is to each other—we are all essential. To be free, we citizens must all hang together— at six feet apart (!)—or surely, we will hang separately.
Graduates of the Class of 2020. I remind you that to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity required the founders to strive for a more perfect union. To be more perfect: Together. Your charge is to work on that union as citizens, mindful of what we owe each other, while being kind to ourselves and others during these turbulent times.

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