The greatest commencement address ever is now more than three decades old. And it’s safe to say it will never be surpassed or even equaled. It belongs to the ages.
In 1979, its author summed up the condition of modern man by noting that, quote, more than at any other time in history, humanity is at the crossroads: one path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. Unquote.
Bang. That’s all she wrote. With that one paragraph, Woody Allen, filmmaker and philosopher-king, made Graduation Day his bitch for all time. No point in any of us trying to bring anything new to this game; Woody has killed it dead. That he never actually gave the remark at any commencement is beside the point. True, it appeared only as a column in the New York Times, but so what? Linked as it is to no actual college or university, Allen’s address is now the preserve of graduates everywhere. It was mine when I slipped the surly bonds of the University in Maryland in 1983, and it belongs to you all now, here today. And if this forlorn little planet is still spinning when your children roll up and smoke their diplomas a couple short decades from now, it’ll be theirs as well.
Now, I can hear you out there muttering. What’s so great about Woody Allen’s words? What is there to admire, save for a nice one-liner, delivered with all the pitch-perfect neurotic self-doubt that Allen made famous.
Well, for thing, it is a funny line. And marching out into this beleaguered world of ours – you suckers are gonna need all the laughter you can get. Take solace in humor, people. As much as you can.
But more importantly, Allen was entirely, exactly and permanently right. He was right thirty years ago. And he’s right at this very moment. And if we’re lucky – if the odds don’t catch up with us and the human race continues to stagger forward into fresh decades of a new century, then he’ll be right thirty years from now.
We do indeed live at the brink of extinction – nuclear, or ecological, or epidemiological. Technology and Malthusian population scenarios – tethered as they are to man’s innate potential for inhumanity – all of this may indeed be conspiring at this very moment to bring about a sudden apocalypse. That’s true now and it’s going to stay true for all of the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, if we are lucky, we will endure and fight on, never vanquishing any of the fundamental threats to society but never capitulating either. Our problems will remain our problems, our solutions will always be incomplete. War will come again, famine too, and for every half-step forward, for every careful and reasoned moment of maturation in the human condition, there will be another moment in which greed or brutality prevails.
Okay, now you’re starting to get a little restless. You’re out there under those mortarboards, trying to enjoy this day. You did the work, you got the grades. Your parents are out there with you, prouder than hell. This is your day. And theirs. And who the hell is this lumpy white guy to come here and drip doom and despair all over the lawn in front of the Healy building. For the love of God, he’s sucking the life out of the big moment.
Well, okay. Maybe so.
But the thing of it is, thirty years ago, when I sat where you now sit, my generation made the mistake of reading Woody Allen’s words as a function of wit only. We got the joke. We were in on the joke. But we were pretty sure that it was, after all, only a joke.
After all, thirty years ago the darkest days of the civil rights struggle were behind us, or so it seemed. Race relations were improving. Our nation seemed to be moving closer to a just and inclusive society. And, too, our country seemed to have learned some painful and tragic lessons about America and the limitations of overseas interventions. The Cold War was ongoing, true, but two decades removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was becoming increasingly clear to most sensate observers that the Soviet Union was even more overextended than we were, that for our Vietnams, they had their Afghanistans. The stalemate was just that, and with détente, there was a growing sense of thaw.
Economically, the American middle class remained ascendant. In the post World War II years, industrialization and collective bargaining had created the greatest consumer class the world had ever seen – once-poor laborers were working jobs with union scale and benefits. Many became homeowners and middle-class, pushing their children toward college and something more then they had. Income was often rightly called discretionary, and worker wages were used to power the greatest economy in world history. We sold each other not just the things we needed, but the things we didn’t need. We were the fuel for our own unrelenting economic engine.
With all that going for us, how could it not get better? How could tomorrow be anything but more than today?
When I sat where you now sit, I simply assumed that my generation couldn’t help but seize the reins and deliver a great society. And later, when the Berlin Wall fell – when Cold War ideology no longer dictated American behavior around the globe, when our worst ideological fears were at last overcome – my, didn’t the future seem bright indeed for a moment or two.
Well, here we are. And here you are.
And every day, it seems, the headlines offer fresh examples of the greed and selfishness with which my generation has laid waste to its own possibilities. And it doesn’t end with Wall Street’s kleptocracy. In the world at large, we have proclaimed ourselves to be a peace-loving nation, yet we wage prolonged wars of choice. We declare our devotion to free and open markets, yet time and again unrestrained capitalism, while an effective tool for generating short-term profit, proves itself a useless metric for calibrating a just and inclusive society. We insist that we are still a great people, that an American Century is still to come, yet many of us feel no call to citizenship if citizenship has any actual cost. Even during wartime, with our armies afield, we whine about paying taxes, though our tax rates are the lowest in modern American history. Meanwhile, though less prone to overt racism, we have nonetheless abandoned the precepts of upward mobility for all Americans, conceding the very idea of public education, of equality of opportunity. And as our society further stratifies, as the rich get richer and the poor become less and less necessary to our de-industrialized economy, we wage a war against our underclass under the guise of drug prohibition, turning America into the jailingest society on the face of the earth. And as to reform? As to the political leadership and responsive government? That hardly seems possible when our high court permits capital to purchase our electoral process at wholesale prices.
Am I’m bringing you down with all of this stuff? Am I bumming you out? I can’t help it. I’m sorry. But hey, if you watched The Wire, or Generation Kill, or Treme – then you knew I was gonna go there, right? Those are angry narratives. They are saying angry things about the American future.
And now, forgive me, that future is yours. And Woody Allen’s clever turn-of-phrase, once played for laughs, now has a real and ugly echo, doesn’t it?
For starters, my generation probably owes yours an apology. Because, hey, we definitely shanked it. We choked. We let ourselves get distracted with greed, with gloss, with the taste of the bread and the glitz of the circuses. We took our eyes off the prize – which was always this:
There cannot be two American experiments, one for the fortunate and another for the rest. All of us must share the same future – like it or not. For the republic to long endure, there must be a real American collective and all of us must have some stake in that collective.
For you, emerging now from this university, the question is what you will stand for, what you will assert for. Your America, as viable and verdant as this beautiful campus? Or the other America, the one that got left behind? Will you argue for your future? Or a collective future? Your tribe? Or an America that isn’t tribal, that truly carries all of us forward, as a society? Are you for yourself? To a certain extent, we all must begin by being for ourselves. But if we are only for ourselves, or only for our families, or our friends, or our own class or interests – if empathy never reaches beyond our own backyard – then who the hell are we, really?
Right is right and wrong is wrong and you all don’t need those diplomas to know the difference. Will the right choice make it easier? Of course not. Will the right choice vindicate us? Doubtful.
Albert Camus, a great humanist and existentialist voice, pointed out that to commit to a just cause with no hope of success is absurd. But then he also noted that not committing to a just cause is equally absurd. But only one choice offers the possibility for dignity. And dignity matters. Dignity matters.
Stripped of all platitude and illusion, Camus was saying we still have to fight. So for God’s sake, fight. And get angry if you need to get angry. A little anger is a good thing if it isn’t on your own behalf, if it’s for others deserving of your anger, your empathy. And if you see the wrong around you getting bigger and uglier, then speak up, and call that wrong by its true name. Learn to refuse, to dissent. And in demanding something more from yourself and from your society, you may be surprised to find that you are not entirely alone. That other voices are saying the same things, that others want the same things.
It’s been said that no man is a hero to a newspaperman, and I spent too many years as an ink-stained wretch. So, yeah, I have few intact heroes left. Fact is, I’m down to I.F. Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Woody Guthrie – and sometimes, I’m not even all that sure about Woody Guthrie. Admittedly, we would all do better with few less heroes and villains and a few more ideas in our dialectic.
But I.F. Stone was a great dissenting voice in this country and one of the people who made me want to be a journalist – and he echoed Camus. He said that sometimes the only fights worth having are the ones that you know you are going to lose.
I know how that sounds. I know that it seems morose and futile, that it scarcely seems appropriate on a day like this, a day so ripe with human possibility. But it does make sense. Trust me. And if you bring the fight you need to bring, if you walk that road, it will make more sense with every mile.
Congratulations to all of you today. This moment matters deeply to you, to your parents, to your classmates, to your teachers. And that’s more than enough dignity for one day. But tomorrow’s task is to make this moment matter to your communities, to your country, to the world. And to make sure that at the end of your run, you leave that world better than you found it.
Thank you for having me.