“Every original idea seems crazy at first”

By Kati Marton
June 17, 2011

By Kati Marton

This is an adaptation of a commencement speech delivered at Central European University in Budapest on June 16. The views expressed are her own.

It is a great honor for me to stand before you on one of your life’s most important days.

I look out at a sea of bright faces – representing 73 different countries – you give us so much cause for optimism.  We also must acknowledge the vision of CEU’s founder in creating this remarkable institution – which seemed liked a risky gamble when George Soros conceived of the idea. Today, 20 years and 7, 748 graduates from every corner of the globe later, CEU, under John Shattuck’s dynamic leadership, is one of Europe’s success stories.

I am here with a dual purpose: as your commencement speaker and as recipient of this wonderful recognition of my husband.

First, a few words about Richard Holbrooke, who would be so proud to receive this award.  I will take some credit for first bringing him here to Budapest – one of the few places on Earth he did not know.  The occasion was our wedding in 1995.  Of course, 1995 was the year Richard made history here in this region, when he negotiated the end of most vicious European War since World War II. Richard went on to play a historic role for this region in helping Hungary and her neighbors into NATO.

Here are a few lessons I learned during that year and the subsequent 16 years of living on the front lines of history with Richard:

- Richard believed in the primary importance of American values, as a force for good in the world.   He was what you might call a muscular liberal: he wanted American power to stand for American decency.

- He never let bureaucracies – nor process – hinder his goal.

- He thought it was ok to step on some big toes if lives were at stake.

-His brand of diplomacy had a human face—it was built on trust and respect—not assertion of power.  But if that failed, he was fearless about summoning power.

- He felt the only way to break down barriers is by sitting  face to face, human to human, with your bitterest foe.  That is what Richard did in the Balkans.  When he was given the Afghanistan/Pakistan mission he insisted the Presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan come to Washington together. And attend all meetings together.  Once you know your adversary, it’s much harder to demonize him.

-He liked to say that diplomacy was like jazz.  You improvise as you go along – always keeping your goal very clear  – and using any available tool to achieve your goal (sometimes, if he thought I could help, he deployed me).

President Clinton, in eulogizing Richard, said that “In diplomacy if you can do, you are saving lives. And Richard could do.”  Since his death I have been overwhelmed by the tributes – the letters that I still get each day from the powerful and ordinary souls – whose lives he touched.  How did he touch so many lives? I keep asking myself.

And this brings me to you: the graduating class of 2011.  W.B. Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” Certainly a fire burned brightly in Richard until the very last.  He did not waste any time.  And neither must you.  Here, in one of the world’s great cities, walking its history-soaked streets these past years, Budapest, your teachers, and your fellow students have surely lit a fire within you.  Be fearless now as you begin the next chapter. Remember: every original idea seems crazy at first.  Be original and trust your instincts and do not take no for answer.  Especially if the no is followed by, “That is not how we usually do business around here.” That is what Richard was told when he tried to get the European powers to break the deadly siege of Sarajevo, yes, by using force – which is sometimes the only way.

Or, later at the United Nations, when he pushed the Security Council to deal with the worldwide scourge of AIDS.  “We don’t deal with health issues,” he was told.  He prevailed by never giving up and never getting discouraged.  “The Audacity of Determination” could be the title of his biography – and may someday be yours. “There is no sadder sight,” Mark Twain once said, “than a young pessimist.”  Pessimists don’t change the world! They don’t think its worth the trouble.  But you can!

We are living an exciting and dangerous moment in history. We are witnessing Arabs from Tunisia to Syria and the nations in between rise up and claim their human rights and dignity.  It is young people your age who are at the heart of this Revolution. There were few pessimists among young Tunisians and Egyptians who forced the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt from power after many decades.  These young people are fighting for their future.  And they are fearless even as they face tanks, gunfire and prison. There has perhaps never been a time when we needed to speak truth not only to power, but to the millions of people who are connected in our wired world, and who are increasingly claiming rights Americans and most Europeans take for granted.

For a number of years I have fought for journalists’ rights as the only real safeguard against demagogues and dictators.   Whether in the Middle East or in Central Europe, you simply cannot build a genuine democracy without a free and responsible press, empowered to rigorously investigate politicians, government officials and business leaders.  It’s that simple. Please note that I used the word responsible when describing the press.  “Comment is free, but facts are sacred!” a great British editor once said. It is the bravest of the brave who are under fire from Damascus to Teheran, reporters risking all to keep us  informed.  It is for them that I make interventions through my work at the Committee to Protect Journalists.  I do this partly because there was no such organization when the Hungarian Secret Police arrested my mother and father and sentenced them to long prison terms, merely for the crime of being good reporters.  Then, as now, facts upset dictators.  They can even upset countries whose self-image can clash with the truth.  (Recall how as Americans we recoiled from the images of torture at American hands in Abu Ghraib).  But facts are sacred.

Much has been made of the role of technology in spreading the Arab Spring.  But let us not lose sight of the fact that it was not a million tweets, but a vegetable vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in protest of the confiscation of his wares, and the humiliation that he suffered at the hand of a municipal official, which set off the demonstrations in Tunis, which two weeks later resulted in the demise of a dictator, soon to be followed by another and perhaps more to come. Ironically, when the Egyptian government shut down the internet, crowds poured into the streets of Cairo to get the news from each other. As a child I witnessed the Hungarian Revolution, which began as a spontaneous demonstration a few minutes walk from here, and within 24 hours exploded into a popular uprising.  So my point is this: let us credit the fundamental human urge for dignity and  freedom – an urge that knows no boundaries nor cultures.  Of course the technology helps. But it is the human impulse for a right to say what we like, use the internet, and have our leaders serve our interests not their own —that is what we are witnessing today in the Middle East.

My  parents  went to prison fighting for those rights just a few decades ago. In Europe we have a great tendency to forget too soon. That is a mistake. Only history puts today’s events in perspective. People die.  History does not.  For the first time in 2500 years most Europeans live in liberal democracies.  For the first time European nations do not ask their citizens to die for their countries.  When I first returned to this city two decades after my family was forced to flee, my Hungarian friends and I lived in different worlds. Today we share the same world.  Our children are indistinguishable from each other, in appearance and in their aspirations. That is a wonderful thing. But let us not lose sight of the people, our parents, grandparents and great grandparents who paid the highest price so we may live to enjoy this day in Budapest.

In my books I try to connect today’s world with our recent past – as a sort of  warning bell.  Intolerance on this continent is ever present and dangerous. At the same time, a determined man or woman can achieve remarkable things.  Richard Holbrooke was one.  In my book on Raoul Wallenberg, I focus on the difference one such man can make in standing up to racist hate mongers.  Wallenberg , like Richard, also stood up to those cautious bureaucrats who – in their way – can also lead millions to their death, by blindly following inhumane policies.

In my most recent work, Enemies of the People, I burrowed into the archives of Communist Hungary to reveal how ordinary, decent people are turned into tools of a terror state, by the most powerful weapon of all: fear.

Facts are the most potent of all weapons, and dictators know that.  Look at how the Iranian demagogue Ahmedinajad freely distorts history, denies the Holocaust, and how devastating his lies would be, in the absence of documentation to prove he is a fabricator.

National identity is a beautiful thing.  I still get a lump in my throat when I hear the haunting sound of Isten Aljd Meg a Magyart, Hungary’s haunting and tragic national anthem.  But national identity cannot be a weapon of exclusion  in our global village. In the age of  a Europe without borders, the internet, instant messaging, and Facebook, it’s unimaginable to isolate one people, one nation, from any other.  I am looking at a student body that represents 73 countries!  The friends you made here will be your friends for life.  You are strangers no more.  The world is your neighborhood.

The education you have received here and the friends you have made position you to carry on Richard’s work.  Waste no time. And keep the optimism I see radiating from your faces.  Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Thank you so much for allowing me to share this day with you. Now go out there and make a difference.

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