Saturday, June 7, 2008

World’s Best-Educated Harry Potter Convention

With author J.K. Rowling on the bill to speak at this year’s Harvard Commencement, I volunteered to help out as a Marshall. This is a quaint tradition where alums are drafted to police the outdoor ceremonies in Harvard Yard dressed in top hats and tails with red batons (wands). I of course forgot to pick up the briefing materials, and so was left to improvise answers to questions like:

Q: Can I cut through here? A: No, you’ll have to go around.

Q: How do I get to Memorial Church? See the building behind the speaker’s platform? That’s it. You’ll probably want to go around back.

Q: How do I get back to the ART? Q: Go out this gate, turn right, and walk back into Harvard Square. Do you know how to get there from there? Good.

Q: Do I have to go out to smoke? A: Just step back out of the way behind one of those buildings.

Q: Where are the bathrooms? A: Just go in the bushes.

Alan Khazei from the 25th Reunion Class of 1983 served as this year’s Chief Marshall. Alan was president of my house when I was a junior, and all of us thought he would go on to become President of the United States, if he could get voters past that funny last name. He did go on to found City Year, the youth service organization that became a model for Americorps.

Alan’s latest endeavor is Be the Change, Inc. He is helping organize Service Nation Day of Action for September 27, 2008 to promote the idea that all young people should spend a year in public service before going on to jobs and careers. He says “If we want change, we must be the change.” It’s no accident if this sounds like the Obama campaign mantra, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the change that we seek.” Both are based on a Mahatma Gandhi quotation, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” I always found that Obama slogan a little peculiar, but I see now that he is not using a royal “we” but a real “we” and that he is not channeling the second coming of Jesus Christ but Gandhi’s call to action.

I’m working on my own idea for organizing communities to be called Gandhi Incorporated. I’ve got a Gandhi quote, “Capital as such is not evil, capital in some form or other will always be needed.” Our slogan will be “What was wrong with the status quo?” Please don’t all hit reply with your list of wrongs at once. As Gandhi said, “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”

The graduate student address was delivered by Anthony Christopher Woods, who was getting his Masters in Public Policy from the Kennedy School. Before the Army sent him to graduate school, he served a tour in Iraq as a young lieutenant fresh out of West Point. “Harvard is a very long way from Iraq,” he said. He talked about losing soldiers and roadside bombs and also about a suicide bomber killing 40 Iraqis in a local market, and wondered why our media doesn’t portray those victims as individuals with families like it portrays our soldiers.

Harvard President Drew Faust, best-selling author in her own right of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, focused her remarks on the recent public debate on endowments:

“The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present. A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must – that even ought to – conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands. ... Endowments represent a concrete embodiment of our accountability to the past and to the future. They derive from our history and the dreams of those who have preceded us; they are in turn the vehicle that enables us to project our own dreams into the future."

J.K. Rowling spoke on the benefits of failure and the power of imagination. To those who don’t know her personal history, she was a broke single mother when her first Harry Potter novel was published, “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” It was an inspirational speech:

“Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

Rowling also had something to say about our politics:

“You belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.”

But I think of those parts of the American electorate that didn’t go to Harvard, that maybe didn’t go to college at all, that live in socio-economic circumstances that they don’t see as privileged, that don’t see a Presidential candidate’s gender or race as making a difference in their everyday lives. How do they feel? Can we lack the imagination to see that they think our government might pay more attention to them, and less to the rest of the world?

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