This is a speech given by Charlton Heston (1923-2008), American actor and social activist, at the Harvard Law School in 1999. I came across this speech as an undergraduate, and I remembered being impressed by Heston’s conviction and rhetorical force when I first read it.
I do not agree with everything Heston said in the speech but the gist of the speech is something I embrace as my own ideal — civil disobedience. To actually act on this ideal takes guts, and perhaps it’s easier to do if you are a multimillionaire Hollywood superstar than if you are a nobody.
I haven’t looked at this speech for five years, yet somehow tonight I got reminded of its existence. Anyway, here is the speech:
Winning the Cultural War
(delivered 16 February 1999, Austin Hall, Harvard Law School)
I remember my son when he was five, explaining to his kindergarten class what his father did for a living. “My Daddy,” he said, “pretends to be people.” There have been quite a few of them. Prophets from the Old and New Testaments, a couple of Christian saints, generals of various nationalities and different centuries, several kings, three American presidents, a French cardinal and two geniuses, including Michelangelo. If you want the ceiling re-painted I’ll do my best. There always seem to be a lot of different fellows up here. I’m never sure which one of them gets to talk. Right now, I guess I’m the guy.
As I pondered our visit tonight it struck me: if my Creator gave me the gift to connect you with the hearts and minds of those great men, then I want to use that same gift now to re-connect you with your own sense of liberty, your own freedom of thought, your own compass for what is right.
Dedicating the memorial at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln said of America, “We are now engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Those words are true again. I believe that we are again engaged in a great civil war, a cultural war that’s about to hijack your birthright to think and say what lives in your heart. I’m sure you no longer trust the pulsing lifeblood of liberty inside you, the stuff that made this country rise from wilderness into the miracle that it is.
Read the rest of the speech here.