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'Why Can't We?' | The Nation

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'Why Can't We?'

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The fifth and final lesson I offer is that you don't have to do everything in order to do something. I've already mentioned Orwell, who has long been a favorite writer of mine. But this presented me with a serious problem: If you grow up reading Orwell, and you set out to write your own book, you are in trouble: He set the bar too damn high. Some influences can be paralyzing.

Samantha Power delivered this commencement address to the graduates of
Santa Clara University Law School on May 20. This is the latest in The Nation's series Moral Compass, focusing on the spoken word.

About the Author

Samantha Power
Samantha Power is a Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her book "A...

But a few years ago I came across an essay on Orwell by Lionel Trilling that liberated me, reminding me of Orwell's magnetic ordinariness. Trilling wrote:

If we ask what it is [Orwell] stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one's simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.... He is not a genius--what a relief! What an encouragement. For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done, any one of us could do.

With Trilling's words I was able to embark upon writing A Problem From Hell. I was unleashed to do what I could do. I could do no more. But I also knew I should do no less.

You are now free to do what you can do. You don't have to be educated to tell the truth, anymore than you have to be a lawyer to revere the law. But you, graduates of 2006, have simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and you have a real-life skill. You have a degree that empowers you to help those who cannot help themselves. Like Ahmatova, you can act as the voice for those who are inarticulate, weak or muzzled.

It would be perfectly normal, in the days ahead, if you found yourselves daunted by the weight of this burden, or by the complexity of the twenty-first-century condition. But before you give up, try, if you can, to remember the words of Stephanie, the 18-year-old Rwandan girl--Stephanie, the Swarthmore student who, though new to America, already understood the essence of the American dream, the essence of American democracy, and the essence of the journey and the struggle ahead. Remember Stephanie's words, and Stephanie's challenge: why can't we?!!

Congratulations, Santa Clara Graduating Class of 2006. It's now official: You can. And you must.

I thank you.

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