Readings — From the September 2004 issue

Rag Time

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University by E. L. Doctorow. Doctorow’s assertion that Saddam Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction provoked the audience to such outrage that he was forced to interrupt the speech while the university president restored order. Doctorow died on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. He was 84. Read his obituary in the New York Times.

I write stories. That is my profession. From the earliest days of my life I have considered stories very important. When they are told well we can believe them and live by them and hold to the truths they embody. Think of the very old stories, the stories of the Bible, for example. They are well and meaningfully told, and so we are instructed and moved and try to live according to the truths discovered in them.

Because I’ve been telling stories all my life, I’ve become a pretty good judge of the stories other people tell. I’ve been listening for almost four years now to the stories the President of the United States tells. And, sadly, they are not good stories. They are not good stories because they are not true. One story he told was that the country of Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was intending shortly to use them on us. That was a scary story all right, but it was not true. Another story was that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was in partnership with the terrorists of Al Qaeda. And that turned out to be untrue.

But off we went to war on the basis of these stories. And there soon followed the story that the invasion of Iraq was a “mission accomplished,” and that, tragically, is not a true story. It is so untrue that nobody is allowed to photograph the return of our fallen servicemen and women as, to this day, they are brought back to the United States in their coffins. The President doesn’t want us to know how untrue that story is. But of course we know.

When I tell a bad story or any other writer tells a bad story there is no great harm done except, perhaps, to ourselves if a publisher won’t publish it. But when the President tells a bad story, it is published all over the world. And it has immense consequences. For one thing, it creates other bad storytellers in the President’s style, from Cabinet members who ignore the Geneva Conventions and sanction the unlawful interrogation of prisoners, down through the ranks to the American soldiers who, in the very same prison where Saddam Hussein tortured prisoners, have tortured and humiliated detainees, stuffed their heads in toilets to make them renounce their religion, and posed them naked with dog collars around their necks. And before you know it we are hearing from this President stories that are not true American stories, stories that are no longer our stories, stories that we tum away from because they are so un-American.

Pumping out the presidential stories is a whole stable of people writing in his name, a stable of empire-dreaming ideologists and oilmen for whom the thirteenth-century tribal idea of preemptive war seems the way to be a twenty-first-century American. Never mind that it has actually made us hated all over the world and expanded Al Qaeda’s recruitment base, or that it has encouraged other countries similarly to abandon their diplomatic restraint. Never mind that it tears apart international understandings that were inching the world toward some hope of permanent universal detente, ecological sanity, and judicious means for the settlement of competing national interests.

Our government has imprisoned suspects without bringing charges against them or arranging for their trials. It is now legally empowered. to conduct secret searches and surveillance of homes and offices of people who for any reason come under its suspicion. It may subpoena the public library or your university library and demand to see what books you’ve been reading. And so with all the consequences of this President’s bad stories, we have to ask ourselves: What is happening to us? What are we becoming? These are crucial questions because the total of this President’s bad stories is beginning to sound like a deconstruction of the 228-year-old American story.

You’ve been concerned to pass your courses and get your degree, but now you have to understand that your own private concerns, your well-being, even your life’s course, will be profoundly affected by the condition of the country you live in. And right now it is not a healthy condition. We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse. Are you prepared to say that we can tolerate ourselves as anything other than what Abraham Lincoln called us-the last best hope of mankind? For it is not just our politicians who are given to write the story we live by. The genius of our democracy is that finally everyone writes its story. You will hear that to question authority is to aid terrorism. You will hear that to dissent is to signal weakness in the national resolve. Do not believe these stories. They are beneath contempt. You have been taught in your years here how to distinguish truth from cant. You have the means now to recognize the truth and to write it. Your minds are enlisted in the struggle for a human future and a society not in thrall to stupidity and terror. Your generation is as of this day entrusted with writing the American story. And do not delude yourselves, if you don’t write it, someone else will write it for you.

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