BYU Alternative Commencement Speech

Complete audio of the entire BYU Alternative Commencement is here.

The most sobering commentary of last night was from the students whose parents had chastened, berated, and even outright abandoned them over their involvement in this event. For a community that prides itself on family values, I was ashamed of what these young men and women have had to go through to speak their conscience. If my children were ever doing a similar event and I disagreed with their politics, I would still be by their sides, cheering them on. I can expect a random knucklehead passing by to lob a thoughtless comment at these individuals, but if you are a parent who abandoned your own child over this, I find it utterly disgraceful. You should be so lucky to have sons and daughters as bright and committed as these.

The text of my speech follows.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

“Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.” – I stole that line from Kurt Vonnegut. I miss Kurt Vonnegut.

My family’s history is rooted in the great conflicts of the 20th century. I am fortunate that these conflicts did not prevent my family from having a history.

My grandfather signed up for World War I and was selected for sniper duty. No doubt due to the amount of time spent sniping deer in the hills of Bountiful, Utah. His entire regiment was called up to be shipped out to France but my grandfather fell ill with the flu. Because the scarlet fever was ravaging America and depleting troops that shipped out with the infection, his commanding officers decided he would stay on base in California until he was well. This short illness saved his life. Nearly all of his regiment was wiped out in France. Snipers primary amongst them.

My mother was ten years old when the Germans overran Denmark in a day. She would vividly recount to me as a child how the Nazi commanders rode horses into the gymnasium of her elementary school in a show of force only to have them defecate on the floorboards. She, like many of her generation in Europe, held a deep seated distrust of anything German for the rest of her life.

My father was 16 when he wanted to join the Navy to fight the Japanese menace in World War II. He pleaded with my grandmother to sign the permission documents. She ended up signing these documents through her tears. At 16 he must have felt immortal because he requested submarine duty, one of the most dangerous jobs in the Navy. Yet my father, who has had 20/20 vision for most of his life, failed the eye exam. He told me that the hand of God must have been on his shoulder at the time. I think he was wrong, for it most definitely was in front of his eyes. Much to the dismay of an eager, immortal 16-year-old, he was placed on a supply ship in the Pacific that never saw any action for the duration of the war.

Throughout most of my childhood, an atomic mushroom cloud floated over my head. The Russians had their finger on the button and Hollywood did a good job of painting the inevitable outcome to me on a regular basis. I caught the tail-end of the ridiculous “duck and cover” and bomb shelter campaigns while I was in kindergarten.

Although I believe these conflicts have little in common with the war we find ourselves in today, one thing remains the same. My grandfather and my parents were told by their governments that the people we were fighting were savage, inhumane animals who cared less for their own children than they cared for world domination. The enemy were not individuals but hive-minded automatons who would fight to the very last man.

Then some wonderful things happened to my family. My older brother was called on a mission to Japan. I struck up a lifelong friendship with a fellow computer geek in Germany. The cold war ended, the Soviet Union collapsed, and now I count many former unknown enemies as my greatest friends.

My brother eventually married a woman from Japan whom he met while studying at BYU. Her father witnessed the Hiroshima atomic bomb blast and lost a sister who was vaporized because she was standing on the train platform unlike his other sister who was standing below it. I had the good fortune to visit the Shimamoto family in Hiroshima and to be taken to the peace memorial that has been constructed on ground zero. Visit this hallowed ground at least once in your lifetime. It is the most profound, moving sight I have ever seen. It changed me forever and convinced me to run for political office. I have no doubt that a day at this memorial can motivate even the hardest heart to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons and for global peace.

Peace between the United States and Japan, Germany, and even former Soviet Union countries seems to be a natural fit now. It is incomprehensible that we would ever find reason to declare war on these former enemies, for we have trade, communication, and most importantly an understanding of people who were once as alien as another planet.

I lament when I read Plato stating, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Will Plato be interminably right until mankind blows out the candle of its existence? I have but one hope. That if Plato had foreseen the Internet, he wouldn’t have been so pessimistic. Communication and trade are the foundations of the Internet, but more importantly, communication and understanding are the foundations of peace.

Today, insurgents, radicals, extremists, the ignorant and the insane have turned war into an entrepreneurial sport. We can no more fight teenagers using bombs and cell-phones with multibillion-dollar-aircraft-carriers and the latest jets than we can kill mosquitoes with a shotgun. If the Iraq war has taught me anything it is that our traditional methods of nation-state defense are currently useless against committed individuals. The inability to grasp this realization is what dates many politicians as dinosaurs in a modern world.

It is said that if you fear death you have a life worth living. The reverse is also true, if your life is worthless you welcome death. This country must work with its allies to make life worth living for all on this planet, or we will face suicidal bombers and campus killers for the remainder of our existence.

Today, I urge you to respond to the entrepreneurs of war by being an entrepreneur of peace. Try an experiment. Go to Google and search for “Iranian Blogs”. You may be surprised by what you find. Reviews of American movies, love poems, cyclists going on European tours. Barely an anti-American rant in sight. Instead a great admiration for our country’s culture and, imagine this, a zest for the basic things in life outside politics.

Then try this, email an Iranian and strike up a conversation. Ask them about the weather. Then wonder if you’ve just been put on a government watch-list in the land of the free and home of the brave. I hate that feeling.

In addition to exporting peace, work on it here at home. Find some common ground with your fellow Americans who may disagree with you politically. Respond to rhetoric with reason. Be open to changing your own mind. The best way to get rid of your enemies is to make them your friends.

Service is an essential part of all our lives. Give back at every opportunity, not only when it is convenient. Through my involvement in Rotary I have learned it costs $2500 to bring clean water to a village, $20 to cure some forms of blindness and $5 for a mosquito net that prevents the most common killer in Africa, malaria. How many hearts and minds could this country win with these cheap, life saving implements rather than expensive machines of death bought on a payment plan? America should be a beacon for what is right with humanity, not a pulpit for ideology.

Congratulations on your graduation. You have met a great challenge and the best is yet to come. There is much work to be done, and I know you can do it. Every day think about peace. Every day think about service. Every day believe that people can coexist no matter our cultural differences. Every day question your political leaders no matter the party and do not fear to speak your mind. This gathering is more than a response. This gathering is the future.

“We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul – ”We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

Peace on earth is the most virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy goal I can imagine. I ask you to share it with me.

18 thoughts on “BYU Alternative Commencement Speech

  1. That was a great speech. I almost went to see it in person but now I regret not having gone. I like the comparison you made between the antagonizing of our current enemies and those during WW2. If more people were aware of how propaganda affected them then maybe it wouldn’t work so well. I especially loved the analogy of mosquitoes and a shotgun.

  2. I had goosebumps, and almost tears. It was a perfect speech. I wish I could have copies to give to every Democrat at our convention tomorrow.

    Thank you so much, Pete.

  3. Pete,

    I admire your stand and the “forward” chastising parents for not truly loving their children. It was revealed by their not standing by them. My father served in WWI in the Army. I served during WWII in the US Navy. So we have a few things in common. As Marilyn stated it is too bad every democrat couldn’t have your speech to read. Maybe some people saw Bill Moyer’s show describing the duplicity of the present administration.

  4. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! I received your email about your speech just as I was sending Rep. Matheson an email about how disapointed I was in his no vote on the House Iraq war bill. I spent last weekend listening to a Army Colonel give my son’s Collateral Investigation Report from the Jan. 20, 2007 Karbala attack. Mr. Matheson needed to hear some of what was said. You, Mr. Ashdown have hit the nail on the head. We must work for peace and understanding through good works. Not just tolerance. Keep up the good work. I will be taking a copy of this speech to the next Cache Democrat meeting.

  5. Beautiful, Pete. Thanks so much for writing such a powerful and warming speech. You’re part of the solution. That’s as clear as day!

  6. What a beautiful speech, what a beautiful day. That this whole thing even happened at all brings tears to my eyes, and to have it happen so gracefully and perfectly is a dream.

  7. Nothing short of brilliant. Nicely said. I agree with making friends from political opposites. It helps everyone. Thanks for the speech.

  8. My son was in attendance at your presentation and was so impressed that he forwarded it to me. I too am impressed. I was unable to attend in person because I currently reside in the People’s Republic of China. Living here (this is my second non-consecutive year living in the PRC) has helped me to realize how often our country has inhibited meaningful dialogue with other nations through unwarrented suspicion and mistrust. We create many of our greatest problems.

  9. You say, find common ground with people that disagree with you politically, but at the same time everyone who listened to your speech at commencement turned a deaf ear on the vice president. I feel that it shouldn’t matter if someone is Republican, Democrat, Independent or any other political party, to listen to the vice president, the Head of the Senate; should have been an honor for any American. It dosent matter if you disagree with his politics, he is still the representative of all Americans whether they had voted for Pres. Bush or not.

  10. A very nice speech presenting a great sentiment of peace for young people leaving college behind and entering into a world which is in a constant state of conflict. Thank you Mr. Ashdown for being a becon of hope for our political future in an otherwise totalitarian state of ultra-conservative thinking and politics. I voted for you in the last election, and I will vote for you in the next election. Also, congrats to all the BYU grads, I wish you the very best of luck in your future. GO UTES!

  11. Dear Pete Ashcown,
    This was your finest speech. It shows you as a human being who cares about others. The background history of your family was an excellent way of establishing your roots. You should have used this speech or parts of it in your campaign last fall.
    With your permission I whould like to use parts of this speech in a letter to members of our Concerned Writer Club.
    Thanks again,Pete, for a five star speech.
    Bob Van Velkinburgh

  12. I was in attendance, as well. I agree with the other praise you’ve received here. I hope that all of the students found your speech as inspiring as I did.

    And I feel a need to respond to Spencer: The students stated that they felt that Cheney is a very immoral person, and given the emphasis on morals at BYU, I’m surprised he was allowed to speak there. It makes no sense to me to honor a person that is without honor.

  13. Pete,

    Your speech was inspiring, as always. We weren’t sure if we were going to head down to Utah County for it, but we’re glad we did. Keep up the good work.

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  15. Thanks for your wonderful commencement speech, Pete. It got me thinking about my relations.
    As a first-generation American (my parents came from Germany), I embrace those like me because of hideous experiences from my youth. On one occasion, I remember walking into my sixth-grade class (1972) at Indian Hills in Salt Lake and seeing a swastika engraved on my desk. It took many trips to the nearby bathroom where hard brown paper towels and grainy soap crystals combined with water to erase the image from my desk. Rather than feel shame, which might have been the graffiti artist’s intention, I felt baffled by those who created the image because their act proved a complete lack of understanding of who I was/am.
    I have close friends who are Pakistani, others from Iran, and others from Korea.
    I’m sure the passport division in Los Angeles put my name on a list when I served as a witness to my Iranian friend’s son (who’s close friends with my children) when he needed to renew his passport.
    I’m sure people wonder about my children when they walk home with our Pakistani neighbors who wear traditional Muslim clothing.
    I’m sure people questioned my Korean friend after the shootings at Virginia Tech.
    The mistrust in this country is unprecedented. How sad for us. What a horrible legacy these past years have brought on our nation. I wish we would look at ourselves rather than looking at others as the problem.
    Thanks again for your wonderful speech. I wish I could’ve been there.

  16. First of all, thank you very much Pete for you speech, your presence at the Alternative Commencement, and your posting of the commencement online. I hope that special experience will continue to teach and guide each of us who attended and others in the future.

    In response to the comment made by Spencer: It is true that some people involved in the Alternative Commencement didn’t listen to Vice-President Cheney. Most of them, however, did listen. As one of the three organizers of the Alternative Commencement, even I went to the commencement where Mr. Cheney spoke, and I did listen to his speech, and I thought that the ideas that he shared were important, true, and good. I still disagree with the things he has done in office and feel that he should be held accountable for that. But I do agree with you, Spencer, that we need to listen to more than just those people who agree with us. Most of those involved (the BYU 25, if you will), also agree.

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