‘Venturing Into Unknown Skies’

Investigative journalist Sheila Coronel H’22 congratulates the “fresh thinkers, brave souls and explorers of ideas” in the Class of 2022.

By Sheila Coronel H’22

The following is the prepared text of the Commencement address delivered by Sheila Coronel H’22 at Kenyon’s 194th Commencement on May 21, 2022. 

Congratulations and salute, Class of 2022!

What an honor to be on this beautiful campus today, in the company of distinguished faculty and alumni, and a student body that has had some of the best education this country — this world — can provide.

Thank you, President Sean Decatur, and the faculty for accepting me into the Kenyon family, and for this honorary degree. I am both humbled and proud to be receiving this honor from an institution that has, for nearly 200 years, nurtured generations of leaders, doers, writers and thinkers who have made the world a better place.

Warm greetings to the Class of ‘22. You did it! I’m so thrilled to be in this class with you! Congratulations to the proud parents and the professors who guided you.

What a class this is! I feel you. In the past four years, you’ve faced more world-historical events than perhaps any other graduating class in recent history:

  • To begin with: A global pandemic that has killed at least one million Americans, many of them the poorest and most vulnerable in our society;
  • In the midst of all that, there were protests for racial justice, on a scale not seen since the 1960s;
  • Nature, too, seemed to be in revolt: In the past several years, we’ve witnessed apocalyptic floods and wildfires, warning signs of the existential dangers that face our warming planet;
  • And as if all these were not enough: In January last year, an insurrection at the Capitol that showed how fragile American democracy is and how so divided these United States are, they can’t even agree on who won an election. 

I don’t blame you if you sense the world is unraveling before your eyes. You have every right to blame us, your elders, for making a mess of it. To be fair, we did get some things right. At least for a while. But we took our eyes off the ball. We believed we were on the right side of history and no one could stop us. In fact, we have proven to be poor caretakers of democracy and of Mother Earth. We have failed to defend — to protect you — from an assault on science, on truth and on facts.

If it is any consolation to all of us in America — and it is not — we are not alone. I just returned last week from reporting on the elections in my home country, the Philippines. The winner of that election is Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., whose father and namesake ruled with an iron fist.

Ferdinand Marcos and his First Lady, Imelda, presided over what has been called a conjugal dictatorship. Thousands of dissenters were tortured, killed and jailed during their reign. Theirs was a world-class kleptocracy. They amassed an estimated 10 billion dollars — that’s 1980s dollars! — of plundered wealth. Some of that, they used to purchase Manhattan real estate. A lot of it, they hid in Swiss banks.

In 1986, Filipinos ousted the Marcoses in a popular uprising. I was there when nuns praying the rosary and young women offering flowers stopped Marcos troops and armored vehicles from mowing down protesters. 

On the last night of the three-day uprising, I stood outside the presidential palace, along with thousands of others. I remember the wild cheering, the jubilation of the crowd when we heard the Marcoses had fled. We danced in the streets and celebrated our freedom. It was intoxicating. 

That night, the Marcoses were airlifted to exile on board two U.S. Army helicopters. They landed in Hawaii with hurriedly packed Pampers boxes overflowing with money and jewels. They were gone! We had been delivered from strongman rule. Forever.

For a long time, this was the story I believed in, and one that I, as a journalist, continued to tell: That we had fought for and won our freedom, and that however imperfect the democracy we had midwifed, there was no turning back. It was a triumphalist narrative. And it seemed right. For a while. Until it was wrong.

As Filipinos and others around the world have seen in recent years, the spell of authoritarianism is not so easily broken. Voters unhappy with democracy’s failed promises have elected strongmen. Thirty-six years since we deposed Marcos, we are back where we had started.

I am a citizen of two countries: the Philippines, where I was born and where I was for many years a journalist. And the United States, where I have lived the past 15 years as a journalism professor. I shuttle back and forth with two passports. I cannot help but be haunted by the specter of comparisons.

Unlike the Philippines, its former colony, the United States is a mature democracy. In four years, we will celebrate its 250th birthday. Americans have a firmer basis to believe in a triumphalist narrative, in their exceptionalism. In this narrative, America was destined and will forever be the beacon of democracy. The City on the Hill. The leader of the free world, immune, or so we think, to the authoritarian temptation.

And yet, in both these countries, I see citizens seduced by strongmen. And we are not the only ones. We live in the Age of Autocrats: Vladimir Putin in Russia; Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil; Narendra Modi in India; Viktor Orban in Hungary. The list goes on.

Donald Trump, the former — and possibly future — U.S. president, has much in common with these populist leaders. All of them have risen to power on …

  • the promise of greatness,
  • the assault on facts,
  • the stoking of fear,
  • the erasure of memory.

They like to wave from balconies, finding affirmation in the adulation of crowds. They thrive in times of insecurity and uncertainty — they are hungry beasts who feed on the frustrations with democracy.

They are hyper-masculine and larger than life. Propelled to power by myth and lies, they do not live in the world of facts. They use our broken information system to deny their crimes and to propagate false narratives of victimhood:

  • The narrative of a suffering Russia, oppressed by the West, for example;
  • Of poor Hindus in India, held back from a Golden Age by Muslim intransigence;
  • Of the Marcoses in the Philippines, ousted from power by a conspiracy between the CIA and the Vatican;
  • And in the United States, of white Americans, victimized by liberal elites and Jews who want to replace them with brown and Black people and immigrants.

These are dangerous lies. They inspire hatred and violence.

In India, angry Hindu mobs have attacked and lynched Muslims and lower-caste people they blame for Hindu misery and their country’s failure to return to a mythic Golden Age. 

In Russia, the myth of an empire under siege from the West — and of native Russians being targets of genocide in the Donbas — justifies a war on Ukraine.

In the U.S., as we saw last week in Buffalo, the replacement myth has triggered violence against innocent men and women.

Last year, we saw how lies about a stolen election fueled the January 6 coup. The coup itself birthed more lies — contradictory narratives that gained traction even if they do not make sense: How is it that the insurrection can be both a defense of democracy by so-called patriots while also being a false-flag operation cooked up by the FBI?

There was a time myths like these lived and died in the fevered swamps on the margins of the internet. No longer. They are now in the mainstream, propagated and kept alive by social media platforms whose algorithms put a premium on virality. Hate and anger go viral. The more outrageous the lie, the greater the chances that it spreads.

The world’s strongmen have mastered a playbook for viral disinformation. Trump, Marcos, Modi, and Putin borrow from this playbook: They erase and rewrite history. Make America Great Again, Trump said. Like him, strongmen elsewhere invoke a Golden Age and seed a “Great Again” narrative on social media platforms that care more about profit than about truth, democracy and human rights.

Today a parallel information ecosystem is taking shape before our very eyes. It is a fortress made up of Facebook pages, YouTube and TikTok videos, and chat groups on WhatsApp and other messaging apps. This fortress cannot be breached by facts and to the kind of evidence-based journalism I teach and continue to believe in.

To Autocrats Inc. and Kleptocrats International, journalists are irrelevant. We are mere mosquitos in the swamp of lies. We deserve swatting, that’s all. Otherwise, they pay us no heed because they are communicating largely through bloggers, vloggers, influencers, and homegrown versions of Fox News commentators. Today two information worlds coexist and rarely engage with each other: One is based on fact, the other, on fantasy.

I am sorry. I apologize on behalf of my generation. We tried and we did have some success. We moved the dial on gender, racial and ethnic equality. We helped birth democracy around the world. We brought opportunity to many. But we were complacent. We believed that the arc of history bending towards justice was inevitable — so inevitable we no longer had to work at it. It would take care of itself. We were wrong.

And so, dear graduates, you are being let loose upon this swamp of lies. Your Kenyon education has given you the tools to be discerning and skeptical. I have had the pleasure to meet some of your faculty, including those who have thought deeply about history, autocracy and democracy. I know you have been taught well. You know how to bust myths and deconstruct narratives. You can tear apart memes. You understand how algorithms can manipulate public sentiment. You know — at least I hope you do — when you are being gaslighted. 

My students tell me only old people fall for fake news. You young people, you grew up with the Internet, you are worldly and meme-weary. I hope that’s right.

Because your generation will be dealing with profound questions about free will and human agency in a world ruled by algorithms and artificial intelligence.

This is what I have learned. That justice is a north star, and that we can make progress. But only with hard work, and sustained effort. There will be setbacks but we carry on. Every generation must do its part. 

Ours did only part of the work. As we hand the baton to you, please do not repeat our errors. Our triumphalism, our complacency.

My generation believed in a number of truths — indeed, we took them for granted:

  • One, That humanity is inevitably on a trajectory toward greater freedom and democracy.
  • Two, That science and rationality will prevail over magical thinking.
  • Three, That technology will save us and this planet from ruin: That’s the fantasy of the Elon Musks of this world.

So if not Elon Musk, in what gods do we still have faith? What can we still believe?

I believe that freedom and democracy are not writ in our stars. They are not destined. They are instead the product of human striving. Unless democracy’s defenses are reinforced, authoritarians will return. Strongmen don’t really go away. Like bears in winter, they fall into a deep sleep and awake once they can feed again.

Democracy is vulnerable to authoritarian assault because it is a promise that is hard to keep. If people fall for the Golden Age fantasy, it’s because democracy itself seems like another fantasy. Democrats — with a small “d”— make lofty speeches about freedom and equality but the reality falls far short. Democracy requires the taming of self-interest and greed so there can be equity and inclusiveness, dialogue and mutual respect. Democracy cannot flourish if the soil from which it rises is poisoned by injustice and division. It requires constant tending, especially in the seasons of discontent.

I am sure you've learned in Kenyon’s halls that autocrats and demagogues are not a historical aberration. The only way to keep them at bay is to acknowledge the failures that helped them rise and to address the anger and frustrations that keep them alive. The battle for this nation’s soul, for example, means addressing racial, environmental, class, and other forms of inequality. It means repairing the fraying social safety net and giving voice to those on the margins

John Lewis was right: Democracy is not a state, it is an act, and each generation must do its part. Our generation tried. Yet here we are, litigating what we once thought were inviolable and worthy of protection: democracy, facts, a free press, voting rights, the right of women over their own bodies. 

Class of 2022, we trust you to come up with fresh ideas — to find solutions for our current and yet-to-be seen woes. I believe that your energy and your imagination will get us out of this swamp of lies and distrust.

Do you know what vagrant birds are? They are those who wander beyond their species’ normal range of movement, who stray away from the flock and explore new worlds. These birds, according to ornithologists, are like sensitive tentacles. Through them, the species is made aware of the possibilities currently beyond their ken.

The long-term impact of even a single wayward bird, the New York Times reported recently,  “can be ecologically profound.” Vagrant birds can produce more resilient hybrid offspring. They find new breeding and wintering places. Wayward birds can seed new life. They are also more likely to survive species extinction.

I don’t see any vagrant birds; there aren’t any in the sky right now — but I see them before me. 

I see them in all of you. You are what our species needs. Fresh thinkers; brave souls; explorers of ideas. Wayward birds, venturing into unknown skies, unafraid of unconventional thinking and uncommon wisdom, experimenting with new ways of doing, of seeding new life and helping humanity not just survive, but thrive. May you soar. We will watch you with awe and gratitude. The future is yours. You are our salvation.

No pressure.

Congratulations and more power to all of you.

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