As graduates and their families shivered slightly on an unseasonably cool, but sunny commencement morning, Christiane Amanpour, CNN international correspondent and this year's speaker, urged Emory's class of 1997 to "be bold in whatever you do, have big ideas, dream big dreams and have the guts to make them come true.
"Free your minds and your mouths from today's tyranny of political correctness and her evil twin, moral-equivalence, distinguish between good and evil and then do the right thing when you are called," she told them.
Although her profession's credo stresses impartiality and objectivity, Amanpour spoke passionately about what she sees as a crisis of leadership that affects people the world over. "I have seen the peace that America helped craft in the Middle East stretched to the breaking point. I have seen the peace America backed in Northern Ireland breakdown. I have seen the chance for lasting peace America brought to Bosnia wasted for lack of political will," she said.
"I have to tell you I am offended, angry and frankly dispirited each time I come back [to the United States] because I am always told Americans don't care about foreign news. Given America's unique position in the world, that is unacceptable, undignified and unworthy of a great nation-and it's dangerous," said Amanpour.
"I am alarmed that most U.S. media, including the so-called 'high-brow' media pay less and less attention to international affairs at a time when our world is becoming more and more complex. As I watch from across the ocean, I am horrified that some of your politicians are trying to yank this country back to the era of isolationism.
"America fought and won the Cold War [but] she still doesn't know what to do with that. America, for better or worse, is the only superpower. She is still reluctant to shoulder that responsibility," said Amanpour.
"The world has changed since the Cold War," she continued, "but it hasn't changed for the better. Now there are small conflicts proliferating, based on ethnic, religious and political differences. All sorts of tin-pot dictators and thugs are testing the so-called 'new world order' and finding they can get away with just about anything."
Still not mincing words, Amanpour told the graduates that role models for effective and moral leadership are in short supply. "With very few exceptions-Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa-our political landscape is a desert dotted with midgets," she said to a sprinkling of laughter. "Our leaders are not leading, they are following opinion polls. Look carefully for your heroes," she admonished.
Recognizing Emory's continuing emphasis on international studies, Amanpour said to the graduates assembled, "You are the next generation of leaders. You know that you cannot ignore your role in the world, put your head in the sand and pretend what happens in the world won't affect this country." The world will need informed citizens ready to take a stand on issues, she said, using the crisis in Bosnia as an example.
"For myself and my journalist colleagues, Bosnia was the test of our responsibilities as professionals and human beings. Bosnia is a little country, but it's implications during the war were universal. It was about whether our world, our leaders, our citizens were prepared to stand back and watch as genocide, ethnic extermination, the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children took place solely because of their religion. Unfortunately, the world did stand back and watch.
"We wondered whether history had taught us nothing. What did those words 50 years ago mean? 'Never again' was happening again-minutely recorded with the most sophisticated communications technology. It was happening in Europe at the end of the 20th century. Americans and Europeans pride themselves on being compassionate people, good people-so why was the silence so deafening?"
Amanpour chided government leaders and officials for their inappropriate response to the crisis. "Presidents, prime ministers, foreign and defense secretaries from the U.S. to Europe and beyond were calling it a humanitarian crisis, as if it were an earthquake or a natural disaster like a flood or something, not genocide.
"So while world leaders who did not want to intervene kept calling this just a civil war-all sides being equally guilty-our job, our duty became to confront the double talk . . . we didn't take sides, we just told the story.
"I tell you this because if you are lucky in the course of your career, whatever that might be, perhaps you will one time be called to take a stand. It will always be easier to refuse," she said.
"My message to you is a very simple one. What we do, what we say, how we react in critical situations defines not just the moment, but it defines and shapes us as individuals-perhaps forever.
"I have used the word duty. I could add mission, morality. These words are kind of unfashionable in our material, cynical world. The idea kind of makes us uncomfortable, but they are what counts. Without conscience, what are we? As journalists we would just be repeating nonsense and lies, be just megaphones or stenographers.
"You sit here full of youthful hopes and idealism and perhaps this stuff seems obvious," said Amanpour, who, at 38, is a generation younger than many of the parents assembled to see their children graduate. "But believe me," she said, "one day life will come calling, an extraordinary situation will knock on your door and the things that seem so obvious today will really be put to the test."
Amanpour then recounted her own experiences as a young college student whose family fled to America from Iran at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, a time of great hostility towards all things-and people-Iranian, as a female foreign correspondent in a field dominated by men and as a woman with neither the looks nor the accent then preferred on American television.
"If I can do it, so can each and every one of you-no matter what you choose," she told the class of 1997.
"So good luck," she concluded, "step boldly and bravely into your future. And when it's rough-when you're afraid-close your eyes, grit your teeth and remember: it's always easier to refuse."
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