Commencement 2007

Commencement Address

"Another Bend in the Road"
William M. Hohengarten '84

Reed College, May 14, 2007

Thank you President Diver. That gives a new meaning to "warm" welcome.

Congratulations, graduating Reedies. It's a real honor for me, as a Reedie, to address you on this day. Let me say just a few words about how that happened.

A few months ago, Peter Steinberger phoned me up out of the blue and invited me to speak today. This is a trick they learn in Dean school. Take 'em by surprise. In my case, it worked. I was so surprised, I actually said I'd do it.

After I hung up, it dawned on me that the call might have been a practical joke. True, the guy on the phone sounded like Peter Steinberger. He had the same accent, suspiciously undiluted by decades in Portland. But the invitation seemed improbable. Then I got a confirmation letter, purportedly signed by President Diver. The first thing I did was check the watermark. A Griffin. But I was still dubious. Nonetheless, I played along by sending my acceptance back to Diver. Things went on like this for a while, until eventually I realized this was no hoax. Finally, the grim reality sank in - I actually had to write this speech.

I waited for inspiration. But the months slipped by, with no flashes of insight. Finally, I realized the problem. As a lawyer, I don't think up topics anymore. Clients bring issues to me. Okay, that helps. I just have to think of you graduates as my clients. And the issue that confronts you is this: Where do you go from here?

Let me try to provide some insights by drawing on my own experience since graduating from Reed. It's a story that begins on this very day 23 years ago, as I sat in the audience at my own Reed Commencement. On that day, I viewed Commencement not as a beginning (as the word "commencement" implies), but as the end - the end of my years at Reed. I loved the time I was in college here. So much so, that four years weren't enough. I opted for the five-year plan. I worked in Portland during the summers. My friends were here.

If one of those friends had told me then, that someday I would be a partner in a law firm, addressing you here today, I would have said "somebody's been raiding the leftovers from Renn Fayre." I didn't remotely foresee my present life. I was heading off for a year at the Free University in Berlin, and then to grad school in the States, to study philosophy and someday be a professor. I liked the life of the mind. And I didn't think my Reed education suited me for much else.

I went to Germany to study Hegel. That was another thing that was Peter Steinberger's fault. Yes, I took Peter's "Hegel and Marx" class when I was at Reed. And my senior thesis was a very erudite comparison of Hegel's and Marx's concepts of social and personal freedom.

When I got to Berlin, I signed up for a course on Wittgenstein. After that, Hegel was out; Wittgenstein was in. But I kept up an interest in Habermas from my Reed days. After years of study I arrived at my dissertation topic, an epic battle between Wittgenstein and Habermas. The question I tried to answer was whether our linguistic practices commit us to try - or, instead, actually prevent us from trying - to reach rational consensus with others about what we say and do. But that clash between the thesis of Wittgenstein and the antithesis of Habermas led to an unexpected synthesis. I went to law school.

Why? There was no one reason. Part of it was practical. My life partner David is an architect. I should have mentioned before that I met David on my very first day in Germany, less than three months after I graduated from Reed. That's another thing I never imagined as I sat in the audience at my own Commencement: the best thing that would ever happen to me, meeting the person with whom I would share my life, was just around the corner. Now, as I was finishing my doctorate, David needed to put down professional roots in an urban area. And that wasn't compatible with the itinerant life of a junior philosophy professor.

Another reason I switched to law was intellectual. Wittgenstein describes philosophy as a sickness, and also as its own cure. That metaphor used to annoy me. But that's because I still had the disease. It might have plagued me my entire life if I hadn't continued my philosophical studies after Reed. But after years of study, I was cured. "Real world" problems were suddenly a lot more interesting than asking questions such as: What's it like to be a brain in a vat?

Another reason I decided to go into law was that I could. When I graduated from Reed, it didn't seem possible for an openly gay person to flourish in the mainstream business world. (Well, maybe it didn't seem possible for a Reedie to do that either!) So I never really looked at it as an option. By the early 90s, that had begun to change - at least the gay part. Now I could picture myself in the government, or a law firm, not just in academia. I could help effect social change, not just theorize about it. And I could also help change perceptions of gay people just by being myself, an openly gay man living my life like everyone else in the everyday world.

Still, the decision to give up philosophy wasn't easy for me. I had worked long and hard to lay the foundation for a successful academic career. It was painful to just walk away from it. My colleagues in philosophy thought it was a terrible idea. One of my professors sneered that "law is just a trade." I was told that I feared success. Or maybe I was just a failure.

But going to law school turned out to be a great decision, at least for me. Law may be "just a trade," but it's a trade in which you use your intellect to really accomplish things. As a lawyer I use the same skills of analyzing and synthesizing complex ideas that I honed at Reed and in graduate school. It's not that far from Hegel v. Marx and Wittgenstein v. Habermas to Lawrence v. Texas. But instead of meta-debating whether we can, or must, use rational argumentation to try to reach social consensus, as a lawyer I just go ahead and do it.

Now, I'm a partner in a law firm. That means we try to make money. So most of my work involves commercial disputes for paying clients. Those paying cases almost always involve cutting-edge legal issues, and I care a lot about them. But one of the greatest things about being a lawyer is the ability - indeed, the duty - to go beyond paid cases and do pro bono work - that is, provide free legal services for the public good.

I guess I was invited here today because of my work in one of my pro bono cases, Lawrence v. Texas. I hope you already know that in Lawrence, the Supreme Court overruled its earlier decision in Bowers v. Hardwick and recognized that in America the government cannot criminalize gay sexuality. If you've never read the Court's decisions in Bowers and Lawrence, you should. When you read Bowers - which was written in 1986 - I think you'll be shocked, as I was, by how overtly homophobic the Supreme Court's opinion was. The feeling any gay person came away with after reading Bowers was: "They really hate me." It was the justifying legal document for second-class citizenship for gay people in this country between 1986 and 2003.

The decision in Lawrence is just the opposite. I was at the Supreme Court the day Lawrence was decided. I sat in the audience as Justice Kennedy read the Court's opinion from the bench, and I was literally moved to tears by the glowing affirmation of gay people. One of the images I recall from that day was footage from the Castro, where the rainbow flag was lowered and the American flag was raised in its place. That's what Lawrence means to me, and to most gay people. We stopped being second-class citizens and starting being Americans. We still have a way to go to full equality, especially concerning marriage and the military. But even if the Supreme Court turns its back on us - which could happen with just one more retirement and new appointment on the Court - society itself is on the right course in securing full equality to gay Americans. You see that, for example, in the domestic partner and anti-discrimination laws signed by the Governor just last week here in Oregon. When I graduated from Reed, I never imagined I might contribute in a real way to this trend, much less that being gay would be a source of my greatest professional achievement - not a stigma.

Unfortunately, not everything is on the right course. I want to talk for a moment about one of the other issues I have worked on in pro bono cases: the treatment of so-called "enemy combatants." This is just one symptom of a broader attack on the rule of law in this country since 9/11. Using the horrible events of that day as a justification, the current Administration has pursued a strategy of arresting individuals that it labels "enemy combatants" and imprisoning them without charge, potentially for life, without any opportunity to contest the allegations leveled against them. The military's own career attorneys reject this policy as unsound. It is being driven by an extreme ideology of executive power unconstrained by law, which has no precedent in our nation's history. This is another thing I could never imagine happening in America when I graduated from Reed 23 years ago.

I have worked on a couple of the cases challenging this extreme policy, including Jose Padilla's. You recall Padilla. When he was first arrested, the Attorney General held a news conference claiming he planned to detonate a "dirty bomb" in an American city. On order of the President, with no judicial review of the evidence against him - if indeed there was any evidence - Padilla was held in solitary confinement by the military on a naval brig for years. During that time, he was almost certainly tortured by our government. He was arrested in the United States. He is an American citizen. He could be you or me.

The history of the legal challenge to Padilla's confinement is complicated, but suffice it to say that when it was about to go to the Supreme Court a second time, a strange thing happened. The government suddenly released Padilla from military custody and handed him over to civilian authorities, thereby blocking judicial review of his unconstitutional executive detention. After that, criminal charges were brought against Padilla using the procedures spelled out in our Constitution. But those charges did not include a plan to detonate a dirty bomb, or anything comparable. The entire basis of Padilla's military detention had just been a mistake.

That's why we have guarantees of due process and habeas corpus in our Constitution. These aren't "legal technicalities" to protect the guilty. They are fundamental safeguards to protect innocent people from unchecked government power. But these bedrocks of liberty and justice are under attack today in ways that were unimaginable just six years ago. Under the current policy, the President can issue a unilateral order to arrest any one of us at any time and hold us incommunicado in a military prison, forever. The Founders of our Nation did not give the President, or any other official, this power, because they understood its potential for abuse - abuses we see today. But the institutions the Founders built to preserve liberty are not self-sustaining. We as citizens must ensure those institutions survive attacks, whether from without or from within.

So, to return to our question: Where do you graduates go now? Here's my advice, based on my own experience over the past 23 years, since I sat where you are today.

First, there's no rush to "decide what you're going to do with your life." There are so many possibilities in your future that you don't even imagine now. So take your time. From the time I started at Reed till I graduated from law school, I was a student for 15 straight years. I'm sure this endears me to all the parents in the audience. Mind you, I wasn't supported by my parents. I got by on fellowships and loans. If you're not afraid to be poor, being a student's a pretty good way to go. Or you could be a wilderness guide, or an activist, or join the Peace Corps, or do a thousand other things. I got a job when I graduated from law school at 34. And I've been pretty successful as a lawyer, I think, in part because I came to the profession later in life, when I was ready to throw myself into it.

There is a corollary to this. Don't be afraid to switch to something completely new. From time to time, you should step back and ask if you should keep going in the same direction, or change course. Just because you're good at something doesn't mean that you have to keep on doing it. Treat your accomplishments as resources you can draw on no matter what you do, but not as limitations on what you choose to do. You probably don't realize it - I didn't when I graduated - but your Reed education has prepared you for anything. You know how to reason critically. That's the most important skill you need, wherever you turn in the future.

Most importantly, use your talents for the good of the larger world. You are graduating from college at a time of unique peril in our nation's history. Ideology (or, to use Stephen Colbert's term, "truthiness") is ascendant. But the best antidote to that is critical reason, something Reedies have in abundance. It doesn't matter whether you are a scientist, a carpenter, a historian, a doctor, an activist, an artist, an entrepreneur, a slacker - or even a lawyer. Whatever you do, find a way to help steer America back to its core values.

I realize now that Commencement is not really an ending, as I thought when I was graduating from Reed 23 years ago. Nor is it a brand new beginning, as the word implies. It is a bend in the road, a road you are already traveling. There will be many other bends in the road of your life. They will take you places you don't imagine as you sit here today. Your years at Reed have prepared you well for the rest of the journey. Have a great trip.

Read more about 2007 Commencement Speaker Bill Hohengarten '84.