An open letter to Ken Burns in the wake of election night

Nov. 11, 2016, 5:34 p.m.

Dear Mr. Burns,

In light of this election and its outcome, my thoughts continue to circle back to the speech you delivered to my graduating class at Stanford this June. You probably don’t remember me — I’m sure you shook a lot of hands that day — but I thanked you outside the stadium as you prepared to leave. To be perfectly honest, however, I did not enjoy the speech. One of my largest frustrations at school was the lack of political agency amongst my friends, and I found your reminder of this vexing. Isn’t graduation a time for celebration? Couldn’t we put the world on pause and spend the weekend happily commemorating the past four years with dear friends and family? Shouldn’t our commencement speaker impart words full of optimistic wisdom derived from years of hard-earned success?

Apparently not. Instead, you implored us to examine history in order to warn about the perilous consequences at stake in this election. Yet in the moment, it seemed unfit for the occasion. This ceremony, traditionally a celebration, became a platform for our speaker’s agenda. And though I agreed with your message, what I didn’t understand then, but certainly do now, is that you were holding us to a higher standard than you would have in a normal year, because this is not a normal year. You thought we would hear your message. But we were selfish. I regret not listening.

Commencement as you explained is not only about reflecting on the past but also about approaching the future and life as an adult citizen. You informed us that this rite of passage comes with responsibilities that extend beyond getting a job and paying bills. During a weekend already shrouded in the heartbreak of Brock Turner’s trial sentence and the scrutiny of sexual assault culture on college campuses, you came to remind us of another threat — one that would define our commencement into the real world. You warned about Donald Trump and how his candidacy confronted our nation with a “ferocious urgency.”

I agreed with your message, but chose to remain passive. I chose to celebrate instead of contemplate. To talk instead of do. I allowed this election to unfold by merely voting for Secretary Clinton rather than devoting myself to her campaign. Now the polls have closed. I regret my indolence.

I don’t claim that my actions alone would have reversed the results of this election, but I do believe I could have made a difference, especially if my peers had been similarly galvanized. We could have been for something, as you so ardently advised. Many were, but others, myself included, were not. I regret my complacency.

The graduation body you addressed had the honor and privilege to obtain the best education this country offers. You addressed us as the future leaders of our generation with well researched sincerity and unfiltered fear. And we, as a student body, did not respond in kind. I regret my inaction.

But what now? What do we do with this divided nation of ours that, just a few days ago, stated that our chosen leader will be a man with no political experience, whose rhetoric is laced with sexist, racist, homophobic and isolationist principles (among others)?  I’m offended. I’m pissed off. I’m grief-stricken. I’m terrified. I’m confused. I’m still American. So, what now? What do I — what do we — do?

One thing is certain: I cannot remain passive. My peers and I no longer study at Stanford nor live in its safety net, so we cannot avoid or ignore the social and economic threats a Trump presidency presents. Armed with our education, we must choose to act and ensure that the future of this country does not regress into a state of “-ists.” We must embrace each other and be brave for each other. We must not forget the shock on election night nor the residual fear. We must be catalyzed to serve our country to work towards a future that is empathetic rather than polarized. We must care, vocally and actively, about each other, about the environment, about education and about so much more. We must ensure that the progressive policies fought for and accomplished over the last eight years are protected and deepened.

Though in the wake of this election, we witness race-related hate crimes on the rise, we must recognize that we cannot match anger with anger. The individuals who voted for Mr. Trump do not deserve our hate. It’s hard. It hurts. But as we hurt, we must remember President Obama’s wise reminder: We are all on one team. This team must learn to work together as a nation to yield understanding and achieve progress. On both sides.

Thank you, Mr. Burns, for speaking at Stanford’s commencement and for stripping down ceremonial gaieties in order to address the student body with candor, believing that we would not just listen but that we would act. I will not be helpless. I will not be silenced. I will not forget. I will be for our nation and its citizens. But I am still processing. Still hurting. Still learning.

I did not listen then, but I implore you now — what do I do?

With the deepest respect and gratitude,

— Nathalie Weiss ’16


Contact Nathalie Weiss at nsweiss ‘at’

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