Keynote Speech by Dele Olojede at the NLNG Grand Award Night, Lagos, Oct. 8, 2005
An Honor System:
Recently I went home to Modakeke to visit with my father, who is 91 years
old. He had given us quite a scare a couple of weeks earlier, when he seemed
suddenly to have lost his memory and power of cognition, as well as his
sight. But he quickly recovered and by the time I visited, he was strong
enough of mind and of spirit to be able to share his favorite scotch with me
on a pleasant afternoon. He said, only half in jest, that he was now ready
to go meet his ancestors, and if I promised to bring his granddaughters to
visit before year's end, why, he would even hang around for them.
As my father slips deeper into the autumn of his life, and he prepares to
welcome the gathering darkness with his customary good cheer, I think more
and more of the lives that he and his friends-the people of his
When one considers the state of our country today, my father's generation
has to be thankful that they at least led a purposeful life, where honor
mattered, where a real effort in the service of others was routine, and
where it was still a matter of course that one's life was constructed around
the simple notion that you shall do nothing to bring the family name into
My father and his friends built a community for us to grow up in, where it
mattered little if you came from a different clan or belonged to a different
faith. Their town needed a high school, so they simply built one. They
needed a lawyer, so they pooled money together to send a bright youngster to
study the law in England, come back home and hang up a shingle:
Attorney-At-Law. They were men of faith but they did not wear their religion
on their sleeves. If a neighbor's crop failed, they found a way to keep his
children in school. They worked together to do their best for their
community, because in their eyes all that mattered was the common good, from
which all goodness flowed. It was by no means an idyll, but at least they
had honor, and it was an article of faith that if you had no honor left,
then what had you?
This is a story, I would wager, that is familiar in at least its broad
outlines to most of you here tonight, my father's people. And of course, our
inquiry would not begin to gather momentum unless I could somehow find a
golf analogy to explain its contours.
As avid golfers know, golf is constructed around an honor system. There are
no referees, no supervision, no scorekeeper. The game relies entirely on the
players' integrity, to penalize themselves when their balls sail out of
bounds; to not improve an unfavorable lie even though no one is looking; to
declare their score though they are the only ones who know what that score
is. In short, golf is played according to a set of rules fully understood
and subscribed to by the players, who then are trusted to police themselves
and do the right thing.
The environment constructed by my parents and their peers, in which we grew
up, was founded substantially on such an honor system. You do what must be
done in the way that reflects well on you and your family. You pay for
produce stacked by the roadside even if the seller is nowhere in sight. You
kept an eye on the neighbor's child as diligently as on your own. And if you
strayed, you accepted the penalty for your transgressions. That was the
natural order of things.
Trust is the lifeblood of any society. The lack thereof manifests itself
quickly in the simple exchanges of our everyday lives. If you can't persuade
your bank to lend you anything other than an ultra-short-term facility, it's
because the bank does not trust you to take your repayment obligations
seriously. The landlord who demands two years' rent in advance is acting out
of the fear that there may be no tomorrow, and that you cannot be trusted to
pay your rent diligently once you occupy the premises.
And so we must ask: What constitutes the good society? Your answer may
include words such as democracy, prosperity, equality, community, education,
justice, law and order, ambition, liberty, honesty, values, prosperity,
diversity, selflessness. In some societies this has been boiled down in
their constitution-their social contract-in the ringing tones of the French
Revolution: "liberte, equalite, fraternite." Or the Americans later on, as
they tried to set an ambitious agenda for their emerging nation: "life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Probably most of us in this hall,
and most people outside, will have no disagreement with these words and
phrases, even if some would emphasize one over another.
Then we may ask also, is Nigeria such a country? And if not, how can it be
made into such a country?
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the nature of our inquiry tonight.
The Challenge of Facts:
A debilitating lack of self-confidence, I think, characterizes today's
Nigerian, having seen his country go down the tubes whilst in the custody of
rapacious rulers, and with his own active connivance or apathy. This
condition sometimes manifests itself in a prickly defensiveness. I often
have friends of mine lapse into such grand statements as, "that's because
you don't live here," as an all-purpose dismissal of an argument whose
uncomfortable truths they cannot logically avoid. It is manifested in the
irrational xenophobia exhibited by many against, for example, South Africans
doing business successfully in Nigeria.
But this defensiveness cannot conceal the facts of Nigeria's condition
today. By all objective measures, the country is far poorer-- $350 billion
in oil revenues later-than it was 40 years ago. Its moral foundations have
cracked wide open, a society whose core values matter far less today than
they did four decades ago. Its schools and hospitals 40 years ago were far
superior to its schools and hospitals today. Its bureaucracy was more
meritorious and far more efficient than it is today. Its elite was far more
self-sacrificing, certainly, than today's elite, whose behavioral patterns
bear striking resemblance, if I may be direct, to a swarm of locusts.
Nigeria in 1960, as we all know by now, was ahead on the development curve
than Singapore or Malaysia or the Philippines or South Korea. Nigeria's life
expectancy has fallen-FALLEN!!- a full decade since the early 1970s, to just
43 years, according to the latest edition of the United Nations Human
Development Index, which measures these things. What this means is that I
have already lived longer at my age than the average citizen of this nation
can fairly be expected to live. The average Nigerian now lives only half as
long as the average Chinese or Japanese. We have become a poster child
worldwide for fraud and corruption. We are clearly traveling down an
escalator that is going up.
The road to recovery is paved with these uncomfortable facts. Confronting
them, rather than avoidance and obfuscation, is a necessary condition for
A Hobbesian Jungle
I was at a seminar on leadership recently in the South African bush, and in
preparing for it I was obliged to read Hobbes' Leviathan again. A wiser and
older friend remarked to me once that philosophy is lost on youth.
Re-reading Hobbes after so many years, and with the advantage of thinning
hair and the wisdom acquired from the slings and arrows of middle age, made
me realize that my friend was indeed a good and wise man.
You cannot read Leviathan and not feel that Hobbes, who wrote in the 17th
century, was in fact writing about Nigerian society today. We live in a
Hobbesian jungle, where everyman is for himself and the concept of the
common good has become totally alien. We blatantly expropriate public
property for private use, so long as it is possible to get away with it, and
it often is. This applies equally to the elite who divide up public parks
among themselves to build private monstrosities behind 10-foot walls, and
the very poor who take over highway medians and overpasses to make building
blocks or set up trading kiosks or tap directly into street lamps for their
In such a state, there is no law that anyone is willing to obey. The state
itself is considered illegitimate. Force and fraud are the two driving
forces. Individuals arrange for their own security, their own electricity,
their own water; every home is like a private local government. What we need
we take, in complete disregard of any rules. Hobbes calls this chaotic
free-for-all a state of war, the very heart of our darkness. It is an
entirely unpredictable place, and everyone plans only for the short term.
Let us listen to Hobbes: "In such condition there is no place for industry,
because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the
earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by
sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such
things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no
account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all,
continual fear, and the danger of violent death; and the life of man,
solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
Now the language of the 17th Century transplanted to today may sound a tad
melodramatic. But I think that, in its essentials, it offers a useful way of
understanding the underlying forces that have made Nigeria such a chaotic
society, to wit: a virtual absence of a legitimate authority that governs
the country's affairs primarily for the common good, as opposed to catering
to the wretched excess of the elite and its elaborate rituals of pompous
The Good Society
Earlier we touched briefly on the words that might represent for most of us
the idea of a good society, such as liberty, equality, justice, morality,
modesty, self-sacrifice, honesty, and so forth.
I think it is quite clear that any attempt to construct a good society must
of necessity start with the citizens coming together to determine for
themselves their rules of engagement. What kind of a country do we, the
people, want to have? How shall we be governed? How do we collect and
allocate revenue? How do we educate our children?
I don't think anyone can reasonably claim that our current arrangement
works-or is even seen to be legitimate by most citizens. Without legitimacy,
a state cannot serve as the pillar of the good society. The legitimate state
is one where the individual components have willingly surrendered their
natural rights-from the primitive state of every man for himself-in exchange
for the more orderly and more efficient system of managing the common
affairs, including security, laws in respect of property, and dispute
We are not called upon to reinvent the wheel; simply to recognize, as
Rousseau does in "The Social Contract," that "each man, in giving himself to
all, gives himself to nobody," and enjoys the same rights and privileges as
do others in society. And if the citizen should breach this covenant, it is
clear that the state has legitimate coercive powers that it can be
reasonably expected to deploy.
Law and order in a legitimate state is predicated on the sovereign having
the authority, within a system of checks and balances, to enforce the agreed
rules of engagement. The punishment must always be greater than the reward
that the lawbreaker expects from breaking the law. There also must be a high
likelihood that a transgressor will be caught and punished. It's no use
having laws imposing fines for running the red light at an intersection,
when a potential transgressor knows that the state has no capacity to impose
The necessity of creating a true Commonwealth in our country cannot be
overstated. And its legitimacy is conditional on the citizens having come
together to devise the rules of engagement. We can already see one of the
most appalling consequences of an imposed constitution, one that places a
class of politicians above the law of the land and basically grants them
blanket immunity, even when they brazenly steal the family silver. To place
anyone above the law is to debase the law itself, and invite the creation of
a locust culture, where the swarm of the political elite is engaged only in
plundering as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and for as long as
This is why, though a prophet I am not, I would take a bet that we will
eventually get around to instituting a genuine national conference, one
whose members are not substantially appointed by the current governments at
federal and state levels, to chart a new way forward.
The illegitimacy of the current state is at the heart of our more egregious
problems. The culture of impunity-a total lack of accountability that is
prevalent at all levels of society-can be traced directly to it. So can
corruption, election rigging, law breaking, even widespread poverty.
Between Memory and Forgetting
In our headlong rush into a future we have not planned for, we have mastered
the dangerous art of willful forgetfulness. If a people have no memory, how
can they measure progress? If memory is deliberately erased, what is the
evidence that they ever existed? Can there be justice without memory? Can we
seriously pursue a more equal, more just, more prosperous, more moral
society that we seek? Milan Kundera, the Czech author, goes so far as to say
that freedom itself is unattainable without the aid of memory, that "the
struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
And so today we are expected to forget the heinous crimes of some of our
past dictators, including state-sponsored murder, institutionalized
corruption, the abortion of our democratic experiment, and our eventual
delivery into the claws of Sani Abacha. So total is our memory failure that
some of our close friends have even wondered aloud, on occasion, whether
things were not better under Abacha than they are now.
Need I say more about the danger of forgetting?
Almost 40 years ago our nation underwent a violent convulsion. The image of
the grotesquely malnourished child, with distended stomach, spindly legs,
large head and unseeing eyes became the lasting imagery of the Biafra War.
One million of our children, our mothers and fathers, our fellow citizens,
perished in the war. Many thousands of women were raped and villages and
I often raise this issue with my wife, whose family was trapped in the
inferno for a while before they were all evacuated to England. Now and then,
some forbidden story from the extended family will surface-an aunt who was
raped, a man who disappeared, the constant struggle by many to find food,
the acts of heroism and cowardice and depredation, of fetching tenderness
and extreme coarseness.
All this has been erased from the national memory, though it no doubt
continues to exist in the interior lives of many. No monuments mark the
war's high points or low. No register of names of those who died fighting on
both sides exists anywhere that I know. No acknowledgement of loss and pain
and suffering. Nothing at all as we race headlong into our opaque future,
afraid of a backward glance lest we be turned, like Lot, into pillars of
The case of the forgotten war illustrates for me very vividly the unreality
of the Nigerian state. We have apparently decided that we are a people
without a past, and it stands to reason that we should be darting this way
and that in confusion, not at all sure what direction we should be heading.
The Challenge of Leadership
One of our most glaring failures has been in the area of leadership. By and
large we operate on the insane principle that it is not necessary to put our
best foot forward. This accounts for the fact that those who rise to
leadership positions in all spheres of our national life include a large
number of gangsters, shady businessmen, hustlers-even accused murders and
ex-convicts. It is not an accident that, since independence, Nigeria has not
managed to have a single president with a university education. Ten heads of
state and counting, and not one has a college degree! Now one cannot
sensibly claim that a college degree is a guarantee of efficient and
inspired leadership. But surely it should be no disqualification either.
In other societies, inspired leadership has galvanized the population toward
positive change and modernization. Lee Kwan Yu, Singapore's founding father,
willed an island backwater into perhaps the world's most efficient and
best-educated state-and also one of the most prosperous-in the short span of
30 years. On our own continent we have the awe-inspiring example of Nelson
Mandela, the very personification of the self-sacrificial leader, who, at
his moment of triumph, decided that wisdom was just as important as
righteousness, and that his own time on the national stage should be brief,
so that a new generation of leaders could be allowed to take the country
into the 21st Century. Unlike the disappointing Robert Mugabe, Mandela did
not believe in the infallibility of iconic leaders. Julius Nyerere, no
matter the failure of his economic policies, was nevertheless a deeply
honorable and modest leader, who shunned personal gratification and worked
tirelessly at trying to uplift his poor country.
What did these men have in common? They believed in certain fundamental
values-service, sacrifice, honor, freedom, human progress-on which they
anchored their lifelong labors. Which brings us to this central point:
Leadership, values-based leadership, is indispensable if we are to
successfully tackle the daunting problems that confront us.
So far, our national conversation exists mainly at the level of the cave
man, not a society trying to deal with the myriad challenges posed by a 21st
Century world. Various ethnic groups are clamoring for the next president
(or the next governor, or local government chairman) to come from their
area. As far as we are concerned geography is destiny. It matters little if
the next president is a scoundrel, an incompetent or a fool, so long as he
comes from the right "geopolitical zone," to borrow from the tendentious
language of our national politics. Thus the argument right now is whether
the "north-north" must produce the next president, or the "south-south" or
some other such ridiculous contraption.From the foregoing we can see that the quality of our national conversation is of an abysmal standard.
We are stuck firmly in the era of Big Man politics, a politics founded
entirely on personality. We have done this for 50 years already, and even a
child, having burned her finger by the flickering flame of the candle,
quickly realizes that a repeat misadventure is easily avoided.
Karl Popper, the Viennese philosopher, argues that a society's best bet is
to create institutions of state, properly balanced in their authority and
scope, as a more profitable way of insuring good governance, rather than the
moon shot of hoping for a wise and decent leader.
". it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom
one can implicitly rely," Popper argues. "If that is granted, then we must
ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the
possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst
leaders, and hope for the best."
In other words, the focus should not be on getting the next Wise Chief, the
benevolent Big Man who shall solve our problems-they almost never do, at
least in Nigeria's experience. Rather, Popper says, "how can we so organize
political institutions that bad and incompetent rulers can be prevented from
doing too much damage?"
I would agree with Popper that leaders of the quality of Mandela, or Gandhi,
or Lee, or Lincoln, are exceptionally rare; that "rulers have rarely been
above average, either morally or intellectually, and often below it." It is
far more likely that a country, particularly a country like Nigeria, will
get a below average leader, so that "it is reasonable to adopt, in politics,
the principle of preparing for the worst, as well as we can, though we
should, of course, at the same time try to obtain the best."
In this vein, it stands to reason that we must adhere strictly to term
limits, even at the risk of getting a less competent or even less honorable
leader. The value of predictable transitions far outweighs the faint hope
that an extended tenure for any particular leader will yield the benefits of
that good society that we seek.
Of Pets and Men
In addition to focus on leadership, we must understand that our best efforts
will be defeated if we do not create the conditions for a more equal
society, and that begins first and foremost with fighting poverty. I will
not bore you with the numbers, except to keep in mind just one: about 70
percent of our population-that's right, 70 percent-subsists on less than one
dollar a day. This extreme poverty in the world's sixth-largest oil producer
is a stain on our national conscience, though it's still debatable if we
have any conscience at all.
The evidence is all around us: the destitute fill the streets of our cities.
Rather than being in school, thousands of children beg for food from the
highway median, their noses pressed to the windows of our limousines while
we pretend to busily read the newspaper. We avert our eyes and we do
nothing, condemning a large proportion of our fellow citizens to lives of
serfdom. We build high walls to keep them out, but they will not be denied.
We withdraw behind 10-foot gates in Ikoyi and Victoria Island but they set
up roadside stalls as vulcanizers and guguru sellers in our residential
neighborhoods. We retreat to gated communities on the Lekki Peninsula but
they clog our roads and turn the sidewalks into brick making factories and
auto spare part shacks.
The inescapable fact is that we cannot build a modern state, in which we
have the rule of law and enjoy the fruits of liberty, in the face of such
overwhelming poverty. Starvation and dignity-or starvation and democracy,
for that matter-do not mix. Arthur Okun, the economist, arguing for a
mitigation of the excesses of the free market, says we must avoid a system
that allows "the big winners to feed their pets better than the losers can
feed their children."
Again, we need not reinvent the wheel. The most profound lessons are already
around us, often embedded deep in our culture. Ubuntu, umuntu, agamutu, say
the people of South Africa. People are people through other people. Or, in
plain English: I am my brother's keeper. What is good for the community is
good for me. When the Alsatians and the Dobermans of the elite receive
better medical care than the children of the poor, it's time to change
Those Who Walk Away from Omelas
If you are a member of this privileged elite, as many of you in this hall
tonight are, one must acknowledge that it is not easy to surrender a
perceived advantage, to fold your cards when you know you have aces and
kings. But experience teaches us that there is no better time to surrender
the mere pursuit of personal gratification, to walk away from Omelas, as in
the title of the magnificent moral dilemma written by Ursula K. le Guin.
The writer introduces us to the blissful surroundings of Omelas, a small
town where everyone is happy and prosperous; the sheer physical beauty of
it; the view of the bay and the mountains, the scent of jasmine and the
blaze of chrysanthemums and the bloom of crabapple. Even the sex enjoyed by
the residents appeals to our most wonderful fantasies, for orgies are
permitted unselfconsciously. A drug, called drooz, provides euphoria without
aftereffects or the pain of addiction. What could be more perfect?
There is only one cost: for the community to exist in this paradiseland, its
members must accept the abominable suffering of a single child locked up in
Most try very hard to avert their gaze from the suffering child, because
they feel they are having a lot of fun living in their idyllic town of
Omelas. Those who walk away are few and far between. They have moral
integrity and a troublesome conscience. But their passage is a lonely one.
Life in Omelas could roughly be compared to the hedonism of the Nigerian
super-elite, which lives in overwhelming abundance and even blithe excess.
The super-elite announces funeral arrangements on billboards. They drive in
Hummers with tinted and bullet-proof windows, albeit over flooded and
garbage-strewn streets. The cost of their wretched excess is not limited to
the "abominable suffering" of one child, though, but of the rest of the
To say that we fight for, and not merely talk about, a just society is not
to be against seeking a good life for ourselves. The tension between
egalitarianism and personal gratification can be reasonably balanced. Right
now, it seems there is room only for unlimited personal gratification. If we
do not do a course correction, we are doomed to remain at the bottom of the
The fastest growing industry in Nigeria today-faster growing than even the
telecom sector, and perhaps just as profitable, is the faith industry, which
feeds off the misery of the people and appeals to their worst instincts and
propensity to superstition, illogic and unreason. The mushroom churches are
particularly in love, it would seem from the billboards around our benighted
city, with words such as fire and damnation, as well as promises of wealth-a
kind of money-doubler trickery. Thus you have billboards proclaiming a
"mountain of fire," and the like.
We do not necessarily have to agree with Marx that religion is the "opium of
the people" to recognize the destructive power of mindless faith, which
eschews self help and sacrifice and instead asks you to trust in God, who
will magically provide everything for you.
This unquestioning faith has adopted and perverted one of the tools of
modern management, which is the concept of outsourcing non-core competencies
to others. In this case, our prophets simply ask us to outsource everything
to God. Of course, the prophets live spectacularly well off the backs of the
foolish multitudes. I was looking at one of these glossy magazines that are
established for the purpose of singing the praise of our moneyed class. It
featured one of the most popular prophets in the land, showing off his
collection of six or seven luxury cars, all in his favorite color black,
with the clear implication that anyone who follows him will of course be
I do not by this mean to single out Christians at all; I think the same is
largely true, even more so, in the other major religions. But our country
right now is in a desperate state, a time that calls for clear thinking and
rationality, not magical solutions and a reliance on divine intervention.
Life is grim and hard, and it should not be obscured by the sentimental
philosophy of the pulpit, where everything is outsourced to God and people
are encouraged to believe that the just and the good will somehow result
from some deity reaching down through the clouds to sweep all our sorrows
away. To quote the rationalist William Graham Sumner, to do so "is to spread
an easy optimism, under the influence of which people spare themselves labor
and trouble, reflection and forethought, pains and caution-all of which are
hard things, and to admit the necessity for which would be to admit that the
world is not all made smooth and easy, for us to pass through it surrounded
by love, music, and flowers."
The good society of which we speak will be built, as it has been built
elsewhere, by men and women who act, who take it upon themselves to
sacrifice a little bit of their individual pursuits for the common good. The
new society will be built by teachers who teach, doctors who actually treat,
lawyers who fight for justice and the rule of law, bureaucrats who manage
efficiently the commonwealth all the while resisting the lure of the easy
money, leaders who actually lead, and do not expect that a criminal is
worthy of being protected from the law by some perverted notion of executive
immunity. And yes, this good society will in large part be built by citizens
who understand and accept the responsibilities of citizenship.
We. The People
As we speak of the challenge of leadership as a catalyst for transformation,
so must we examine the nature of today's Nigerian, whose deep and
self-destructive cynicism, as we have seen, is perhaps the greatest obstacle
Many Nigerians today continue to deny the obvious-that a potentially
wide-ranging transformation is under way, needing only their buy-in for the
process to gain momentum. Perhaps because the process is at the moment
uneven, that the fight against corruption might even sometimes appear to be
a selective one, and that the fruits of a generally sound macro-economic
environment are not as yet readily apparent, many of our fellow citizens
still look upon the current situation with suspicion, if not outright
cynicism or hostility.
After years of corrosive military dictatorships and their attendant caprice,
as well as the general dissolution and greed of a thieving political class,
the Nigerian today feels so battered and bruised that he appears to have
lost all sense of how to be a citizen. I have been following with some
interest a simple but important exercise by the Ministry of Finance, which
uncharacteristically for a Nigerian government agency actually is promoting
transparency. The ministry periodically publishes in the newspapers a
complete list of revenues allotted from the federation account to every
single state and local government throughout the country. So if you live in,
say, Isukwato-Okigwe local government area of Abia State, you can tell from
the newspapers that your local government received 500 million naira last
month for the administration of its affairs.
The question that faces us is, how many residents actually take the trouble
to demand that their councilors account for how the money was spent? Did it
go toward fixing the broken windows in local schools? Or paving the rutted
neighborhood roads? Or reactivating a long dormant waterworks? Or purchasing
supplies for the local health dispensary? My guess is that many citizens do
not bother, thus signaling their leaders that they do not have to be
accountable at all.
The same is true in virtually every important respect. Most parents do not
get involved in their children's schools or hold teachers and school
administrators accountable for the proper education of their children. They
ask not why our highways are death traps. They witness fellow citizens
illegally expropriating public property for private use and they consider it
normal, or at least acceptable. They appear to believe, in fact, that rulers
have an entirely free hand to do anything whatever, including commit
grievous crimes and recognize no difference between public funds and their
private spending. The rulers-we must of necessity avoid the term leader,
which connotes purpose and service-have naturally taken as much liberty as
the citizens are willing to give them, and then some.
The citizen has become praise singer and court jester, obsequious, slavish,
bowing only to wealth and position. We have become Fela's parody of the
"government chicken boy." Our praise singing culture has reached new depths
of perversion, with music extolling the supremacy of anyone with money no
matter how accumulated, with newspapers and magazines dedicated only to the
chronicling of the comings and goings of the elite, with chieftaincy titles
bestowed with such feverish abandon that one of our big men apparently has
more than 600 of them! The age of Simply Mr., which The Guardian newspaper
so valiantly sought to champion more than 20 years ago, has passed into
We are ruled no longer by poorly educated men with guns, but the Nigerian
remains wary of his freedom. To paraphrase Rousseau, freedom is like a
lovely meal of pounded yam and edikai-ekong, but very difficult to digest,.
That the citizen in Nigeria today lives in relative freedom does not mean he
knows what to do with it. In fact, one often gets the impression that many
Nigerians would rather not be free, scared as they are of freedom's
responsibilities. They grumble and complain about the flagrant inequities
and outright robbery that unfold daily in full view, and they shrug and hope
for some divine intervention, and fail to act to shape their own destiny.
I have been looking out of the window in hopes of catching sight of this
divine intervention, but perhaps my sight is poor. There is no cavalry out
there riding to our rescue, ladies and gentlemen. We must face the cold hard
fact that the world owes us nothing, and those who are not prepared to
function in it will fall farther behind and become slaves to other races of
men. It is neither fair nor unfair; it is just the way it is. As the line
goes in the Merchant of Venice, "I hold the world but as the world,
The task before us, then, is not only simply to reform our political system,
but fundamentally to learn how to be citizens all over again. Simon Bolivar,
el libertador, said the main task facing the leaders of the newly freed
Spanish colonies of South America, early in the 19th century, was nothing
less than the creation of a new kind of citizen. The new political leaders,
he said, "have to reform men perverted by the illusions of error and
We must recognize that it is not necessarily a sure thing that citizens will
do the right thing when given the chance. As in the allegory of the chained
men in a cave in Plato's Republic, people do not necessarily want to see the
light. The sunlight is bright and can be momentarily blinding, though it
soon opens up the vista to our imagination. Freedom tastes great, though it
is hard to digest.
The Americans have this wonderful preamble to their constitution, a
statement of their ambitions as a nation. Its phrasing is elegant and
soaring. It rallies the citizens around a common purpose. "We the people of
the United States, in order to form a more perfect union." That's right, a
more perfect union, a recognition that the task of improvement is never
concluded, that a society must constantly strive towards the goal of
insuring the common good.
Are we the people here gathered, and those beyond these walls, pledged to
end the culture of greed and avarice that we have allowed to grow, like
cancer, on our nation's soul?
Are we the people here assembled ready to take charge of our own destiny,
set our shoulders against that boulder, and start the hard tasking of
rolling it uphill?
We the people, are we pledged to forsake purely personal advantage and
hedonism, and seek ye first the common good?
We the people, are we prepared work tirelessly for life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness?
Are we, the people, willing to set ourselves high standards, rather than
constantly seeking the lowest common denominator? Are we willing to create
the republic of ambition?
Let us close our exploration tonight by turning for inspiration to Anna
Akhmatova, perhaps the greatest of the 20th-Century Russian poets, whose
exhortations to sacrifice speak loudly to us today:
"Your heart must have no earthly consolation.
"You must not cling to either wife or home.
"Take the bread out of your own child's mouth
and give it to a man you do not know.
"You must be the most humble servant
of the man who was your desperate enemy
and call the forest beast your brother.
"Above all, never ask God for anything."