The following is excerpted from a speech given to the Solebury community during assembly on January 7, 2020.
I wanted to speak to you about the events that unfolded in our nation’s capital yesterday. One senator compared the day to Dec 7, 1941—a day then-President Roosevelt labeled “a date which will live in infamy.” I suspect for all of us, January 6, 2021, will join a list of dates we remember vividly. In the immediate aftermath of what was a truly horrifying day in American history, I would like to focus on glimmers of optimism in the midst of one of our democracy’s darkest moments.
The first glimmer is that our democracy faced perhaps its most stringent stress test since the civil war...and survived. The democratic institutions that form the pillars of this nation have been under stress for months, if not years, and while these institutions are certainly frayed and battered, they survived.
The second glimmer is this: yesterday should serve as a wake-up call to all of us who have taken our democracy for granted. It should become, must become, a reminder to us all that we are not destined, just because we are Americans, to escape the baser impulses of those who wish to retain power at all costs. That we are a democratic nation does not mean we will always be a democratic nation. Our democracy is a fragile construct that must be tended to by each generation; it is a living entity that is either strengthened or weakened by the care we give it.
January 6 must become a powerful reminder that we can never take for granted what generations of Americans before us created—a democracy where the power of who governs resides with the people, with you, and me, and not with a privileged oligarchy. If we join hands and vow that we will not forget what almost happened on January 6, then this day of infamy can also become the pivot point toward a strengthened democratic nation.
The final glimmer of optimism I would offer is simply this: we created this division and we can begin fixing it. On June 16, 1858, at the Republican Convention in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln accepted the presidential nomination of his party. He gave one of our nation's most famous speeches, offering those assembled this wisdom, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Today, 163 years later, we are once again a house divided. It is not a geographic divide pitting north and south over free soil and slavery. It is, perhaps, a more complicated divide along economic, ideological, and urban/rural lines.
If there was any doubt as to the seriousness of this division, and of the consequences, January 6 laid bare the stark reality of the nation we have become. IF we choose to ignore our current reality; if we choose to go blithely forward and ignore what just happened, then shame on us for passively watching while mankind's greatest democracy withers and dies. But if we reflect on the events that unfolded over these past many months, punctuated by a near insurrection on January 6, and we choose to listen to the wake-up call to begin healing our divided house, we can not just survive but thrive.
I urge all of you to reflect on this moment and what it means for you. In the blink of the proverbial eye, your generation will inherit this nation, with all its glories and all of its troubles. We here, now, are helping to prepare you for this challenge and this opportunity. Your education is not just about getting into a good college and having a successful career. A much larger goal awaits you—soon, you are going to be the stewards of this democracy.
What will you do?