Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s visit to the USF campus last week was celebrated by the University’s administration as a public relations coup. It was, no doubt, and the University milked the $150,000 event for all it was worth, cleverly tying it to the yearlong celebration of USF’s 50th anniversary.
But for many of the attendees, the event was more than a high-profile photo opportunity. It was encouragement to believe in peaceful activism, civil liberties and, most of all, forgiveness and reconciliation – charmingly delivered by a man who was not merely preaching it, but living it.
Tutu’s speech did not dwell much on the negative experiences he had when confronting apartheid in South Africa. Even in the press conference before his speech when reporters attempted to lure Tutu into making a political statement, Tutu laughed in the charming fashion that has become his trademark and began enumerating “good things” that had happened in recent months.
Speaking about Hurricane Katrina, he said many terrible things had occurred, but “also a lot of good things happened there.” He spoke of “incredible generosity” and of “people opening their homes” or giving money to help those in need. He also spoke of the “millions of people” who protested the war in Iraq.
While many people – myself included – often feel overwhelmed by the uphill battles they face, Tutu found a way to remain true to his positive outlook on the world and his drive to improve the world we live in. He even dismissed the allegation that “young people” did not care enough about their society as “baloney.” According to him, “some of the most idealistic are young people.”In our own little corner of the world at USF, such reflection and eventual reconciliation is desperately needed as well.
Nahla Al-Arian, wife of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian, seemed to also adhere to – or at least hope for – such reconciliation when I spoke to her in one of the cavernous hallways of the Sun Dome on Tuesday night. Mrs. Al-Arian, while quiet, seemed surprisingly upbeat even though members of her family had been put through the justice system without regard for the principle “innocent until proven guilty.”
She still speaks of America as “this beautiful land” and took hope from the jury’s verdict. She also spoke with hope of overcoming the situation Palestinians and Jews alike face every day. As long as the injustices on both sides continue, she said, so will the situation.
USF President Judy Genshaft later threw a similar chance to call for such reconciliation to the wind. When I told her of my conversation with Nahla Al-Arian – admittedly in a hurried fashion minutes before Tutu took the stage – she quickly stopped me in my tracks and said, “Right now what we are doing is hearing Archbishop Tutu.” When I elaborated and asked if she hoped the lecture would also help motivate people to reconcile differences here at USF, she repeated the same phrase three more times without explaining what she meant by it.
Granted, Genshaft has been under fire for her handling of the “Al-Arian controversy,” and it’s no wonder she’s on edge as soon as someone drops the name “Al-Arian” in her presence. But minutes after I asked Genshaft about reconciliation and was brushed aside with a stern smile, she took the stage to introduce Tutu and said that “bringing together” the community by bringing “such an esteemed member of our global society to USF” was one of the University’s goals as it enriches the community.
Genshaft further said, “Archbishop Tutu’s message of international peace and forgiveness is in line with USF’s commitment to one of our areas of great strength: global outreach.” She also said that it was her hope that the attendees of the lecture would “leave here tonight inspired to make a change in our world.”
So why not answer my question with that?
In his speech, Tutu later said the dark chapters are often ignored in the United States’ past as well as present.
“The wound has not healed,” Tutu said. “Take the risk and open the wound. This great country would then reach tremendous heights.”
It is obvious that some are quite hesitant about reopening such wounds and believe that by ignoring a problem, it will go away.
But that’s the wrong approach. Tutu’s words only strengthened my belief that the seemingly insurmountable ignorance – be it conscious or unconscious – we often face is only an obstacle to be tackled rather than feared.
In the long run, a spiral of escalating spitefulness will not help anyone. Only when people on both sides objectively look at mistakes made can reconciliation and progress truly happen.
Sebastian Meyer is a senior majoring in political geography and a former Oracle opinion editor.