Subterranean homesick musings, revisited

"Johnny's in the basement, mixing up the medicine. I'm on the pavement, thinking about the government. The man in the trench coat, badge out, laid off, says he's got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off. Look out kid, it's something you did. God knows when, but you're doing it again. You better duck down the alleyway, looking for a new friend. The man in the coonskin hat in the big pen wants eleven dollar bills. You only got ten."

These words were part of the speech given to my graduating class 26 years ago. Let me assure you that no one in our class understood them any better than you just did. But the words sounded cool and hip and vaguely revolutionary, so we all tried to make sense of them. I suspect that the professor speaking to us didn't know what the words meant either. And I'm sure that Bob Dylan-when he wrote them in "Subterranean Homesick Blues"-cared more about the cadence and rhyming patterns than in crafting words to send us out to save the world.

I've often wondered why no one in our class stood up to challenge the meaning or the appropriateness of these words. In true Reed College tradition, we were challenging everything else about our society: laws against marijuana use, the Vietnam War, the failure of Reed to grant tenure to its bright young professors, even the very presidency of Richard Nixon.

I think the reason for our silence that day relates to the essence of the education we-and you-received here at Reed. I know you're tired of hearing it, but Reed College does teach you how to think and how to reason. There are times when you will look back on your Reed experience as a form of laser eye surgery that allowed you to see things just a little more clearly than those around you.

I know this ability is bestowed on all Reed students-Phi Beta Kappa or just barely graduated-because even I received it. My Reed experience was checkered at best. My freshman year I passed just two classes-one fewer than the number of letters I received from President Bragdon informing me that it was possible to flunk out of Reed. I took off most of my sophomore year to hitchhike around the country. In a YMCA in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I reached my epiphany when I realized that getting beat up intellectually by Marvin Levich was-all things considered-less painful than getting beat up physically by the local anti-hippie brigade.

My junior year-for reasons better left undisclosed-I was known around campus as the kid who thought Shakespeare had been translated into English from its original language.

And it all culminated with my name mysteriously being left off the list at commencement. And so I stood forlorn in line while all the Rs and Ss and Ts stepped around me to get their diplomas and my thesis adviser frantically struggled to convince her colleagues that I had indeed graduated. She succeeded, and our commencement speaker, Representative Shirley Chisholm, penciled my name onto a blank diploma. Still, when she graciously came down from the stage to present me the diploma, she tripped, fell, and ended up bloodying her nose.

This auspicious beginning sent me forth into the world, and yet the gift of rational thought-the capacity to analyze, to see things from different angles, to explain-was already implanted in me. But this gift comes with strings attached. Sometimes you'll be so enamored of your capacity to explain and understand that you'll forget to ask other vital questions-is an action or a situation appropriate, is it acceptable, is it right?

Let me give you a few examples from my own experience.

Since leaving Reed, I've spent most of my life working to resolve conflicts and encourage economic development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For Africa hands in the 1980s, the over-riding issue was South Africa and the fight against apartheid. Every American diplomat wanted a piece of the action. But to do so under the Reagan administration meant you had to promote a policy called "constructive engagement." That policy was easy to explain. To encourage South Africa's white leaders to accept revolutionary change, our government actively engaged with these leaders and assisted their contacts throughout Southern Africa. We avoided antagonizing them through sanctions, contact with black resistance movements, or harsh public criticism.

It was easy to explain constructive engagement-but impossible to justify. How could we ever justify exchanging polite courtesies and diplomatic niceties with leaders who were torturing political opponents and locking people of color into the cesspools of the townships and homelands? So, many of us refused to serve in South Africa and maintained a steady drumbeat of opposition from within, joining the principled stance of the U.S. Congress and millions of Americans.

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