Defend Civilization Itself

Mark Helprin
Novelist; Editor, Wall Street Journal

Mark Helprin, a novelist and a contributing editor of the Wall Street Journal, was raised on the Hudson and in the British West Indies. After receiving degrees from Harvard College and Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, he did postgraduate work at the University of Oxford, and he has served in the British Merchant Navy, the Israeli infantry, and the Israeli Air Force. He was published in The New Yorker for almost a quarter of a century, and his stories and essays appear in the New York Times, Commentary, American Heritage, Forbes ASAP, and many other publications here and abroad. Translated into more than a dozen languages, his books includeRefiner's Fire, Winter's Tale, A Soldier of the Great War and Memoir from Antproof Case.

The following speech was delivered to the graduating class of Hillsdale Academy, Hillsdale College's K-12 model school, on May 24, 2002.

I had wanted to speak to you tonight about defense, about the campaign in Afghanistan, and the war against terrorism—to shower you with facts and figures, which would support my contention that, in regard to the defense of this country, three administrations in a row have not done, and are not doing, enough. Three administrations in a row have not appreciated, and still do not appreciate, the gathering storm. I had wanted to do that, but the president of a surrounding college said, wisely, “Remember the occasion.” And I shall, for it is a most worthy occasion, and he is right, it must take precedence over policy, which not only blows with the wind, but disappears with it. The graduates tonight cannot know what is in their parents’ hearts. You have been spared that, until you have children of your own, who are about to take the first step in leaving you . . . forever. Among those of false and mechanistic emotion, the expectation is that your parents will be overjoyed. But in a world where things matter, where love is understood in its relation to mortality, and where there is the courage of commitment—which is to say, in this world—they cannot be overjoyed. And this I know not only because I once left my own parents, and then they left, me, forever, but because I have two daughters of your age, and although they must, it breaks my heart to see them go. My heart will have to wait, however, because by tradition in this the very last act of your extraordinary secondary education I am obliged to impart to you some sort of resolution for which, given the nature of that education, you are particularly suited. It is also my hope that, in regard to resolution, I can outdo the deservedly most famous high school commencement address in all of history, Clarence Darrow’s command to a 1918 graduating class: Get out of here, and go swimming. That’s admirable, but I would like to add just a little more, and to lengthen it by only a third. My charge to you, then, taking into account who you are and the nature of this institution, is: Get out of here, go swimming, and defend Western Civilization. Admittedly that is a bit more than Darrow asked, but then again he was a Progressive, and Progressives are notoriously permissive with their young. I know that such a charge is most ambitious, but it comes at the right time, both in history and in your lives. There is a time to lay down arms, and there is a time to take them up, and that we are now in a time to take them up is self-evident. Those for whom it is not self-evident, who would challenge the right to defend against and preempt barbarous attacks upon our persons and our country, and who would instead substitute a distorted inquiry that would end in the condemnation not of the terrorists but of the terrorized, do not find the need to defend their civilization—Western Civilization—self-evident. Nor do they find the action of doing so congenial, in that it is something from which they habitually abstain. This is a serious charge, and I have drawn a clear line, but I mean to, so let me give you an example. Several years ago, I was speaking in a university town in Massachusetts. By some quirk which I hope never to see reproduced, and before I knew what was happening, I found myself debating my entire audience on the subjects of human sacrifice and cannibalism. These well-educated and polite people—only a few of whom would actually have murdered or eaten one another—who had sons and daughters, Ph.D.s, and BMWs, were defending the Mayan and Aztec practice of human sacrifice—that is, in the main, of children—and the South Sea custom of cannibalism. It wasn’t that they were for such things: they weren’t. It wasn’t that they were not against them: they were. It was that to take the position that human sacrifice and cannibalism are wrong is not only to reject relativism but to place oneself decisively in the ranks of Western Civilization, such a position being one of its characteristic distinctions, and this they would not do. They were ashamed to do so, and they were afraid to do so. My charge to you is that in this, you never be either ashamed or afraid. Civilization is vulnerable not only to munitions, it is vulnerable to cowardice and betrayal. It is a great and massive thing of many dimensions that can be attacked from many angles. When professors of ethics at leading universities advocate infanticide, you know that civilization is under attack. When governments and churches advocate racial discrimination, you know that civilization is under attack. When a popular “art” exhibit consists of human cadavers in various states of mutilation, including a bisected pregnant woman and her unborn child, you know that civilization is under attack. The list is endless. The daily assault could fill an encyclopedia of decadence and degradation. You must never fail to stand against such things, to use your education to break the sophistry that surrounds them, and to draw upon it to summon the memory of a thousand struggles, of ten thousand battles, and of the countless millions who fell to establish and defend those principles that not long ago were called self-evident, and that, now and forever, absent moral cowardice, are self-evident. If civilization can be attacked on many fronts, it can also be defended on many fronts, and to do so you need not necessarily drop into Afghanistan by parachute or found a political party. Last summer, in Venice, I was walking from room to room in the Accademia, which, unlike timid American museums, throws its windows wide open to the light and air of day. As if to bring even further alive the greatness and truth of the Bellinis and the Giorgiones on the walls, the galleries were flooded with music. As is most everything in Italy, it was unofficial. It came from a guitarist and a soprano on a side street. He played while she sang—gloriously—Bach, Handel, Mozart, and anonymous folk songs of the 18th Century. Because it was music, I cannot properly convey to you how beautiful it was, but it was accomplished, precise, and infused with the ineffable quality that lifts great art above that which merely aspires to or pretends to be great art. I could not see them from the windows, but when, several hours later, I went outside, they had neither ceased, nor skipped a beat, nor produced a single false note. They were impoverished Poles, who appeared to be in their late twenties. She was thin, sharp-featured, and hauntingly beautiful. Most people simply passed them by, some dropped a few coins in a basket at her feet, and the visitors to the Accademia had no idea who they were, but she sang as if she were bathed in the footlights of La Scala, where she should have been, and where someday she may be. It did not matter that they were unrecognized, that they sang on the street, or that they were desperately poor, because that day in Venice they rose above everyone else, except perhaps the saints. In this they shared a brotherhood with the American soldier who made the first parachute jump, in the dark, into Afghanistan. For they and he were defending the civilization of the West, and they and he are inextricably linked. Without the soldier, they could not exist except in subjugation, and without them, he would not have enough to fight for. I ask you to join this brotherhood, and, in your own way, whatever that may be, to defend and champion the sanctity of the individual, free and objective inquiry, government by consent of the governed, freedom of conscience, and the pursuit—rather than the degradation and denial—of truth and of beauty. I ask you to defend a civilization so buoyant with the presence of God that it need never compel others in His name. I ask you to defend a civilization that rather than deliberately obscuring the difference between combatants and non-combatants, struggles to maintain and respect it. I ask you to defend a civilization of immeasurable achievement, brilliance, and freedom. I ask you to defend civilization itself. It is not without risk, and to request this of you in the presence of your parents is something I can do only because I ask the same of my own children. Because of the temper of the times (and, some would say, the temper of all times), what may be exacted from you is sacrifice—of income, position, title, acceptance, respect, perhaps even of life. But what may be provided, or, rather, earned, is a kind of battlefield commission that will give you neither rank nor insignia nor anything but honor. And therein lies the justifying balance, for honor is usually worth at least what you must give up to obtain it. We have heard of late how we are at a disadvantage in the war that has just begun, because in the West we cling to life and comfort at the expense of honor. Our enemies tell us that, and in the telling they barely conceal their enjoyment. Do they really believe this? Because if they do, I have a message for them: The sense of honor in the West may be slow to awaken, but it exists in measures and quantities, when it does awaken, enough to fill the world, as it shall, as it must. How do they think we have come to where we are? How do they think we survived the battles that led to the great revisions in this civilization, its unprecedented turnings, redirections, and rededications—of which, being entirely unself-critical and subjective, they have not yet had the courage to make even one? They say we have no history. Did we spring from a leaf? How do they think we have come through our five thousand years? Honor. From long familiarity, we know what honor is. It is what enables the individual to do right in the face of complacency and cowardice. It is what enables the soldier to die alone, the political prisoner to resist, the singer to sing her song, hardly appreciated, on a side street. It is God’s valuation and resplendent touch, His gift of strength to those who need it most, when they need it most. I ask you to defend and protect what is great and good, to choose your battles, but to stand your ground. For little things cascade into big things, and even should the larger battle not go well, hold your position. Even if, in the end, you do not prevail—though you must—you will have done right, and the ghosts of those who came before you over many thousands of years, of those who fell unknown and unremembered while doing right, of those who upheld against all pressures and in the face of wounding opposition, will be justly honored, as you will be justly honored, by those who come after you. Congratulations, and God bless.