[Note to Tomdispatch readers: I’m off for a few days to attend a graduation ceremony. I admit to a weakness for graduation speeches, most of which, as glazed, bored graduates can tell you, are worthless. (Typically, I can’t remember who spoke at my graduation 41 years ago.) In recent years, however, I’ve posted some splendid graduation speeches — last year by Rebecca Solnit, the year before by Mark Danner. Both gems. This year I thought I’d try my hand at the form and write the speech I’ll never be asked to give. Tom]
Close Your Eyes
The Graduation Speech I’ll Never Give
By Tom Engelhardt
Graduates of the class of 2007, close your eyes.
No kidding. That’s my advice in a nutshell.
Okay, take a last look around if you want, you who entered college in September 2003, when it still wasn’t apparent to most Americans that our President had crash-landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, to give his famed May Day speech declaring “major combat operations in Iraq” at an end.
Look at your world just a little longer. As on that sunny September day when you arrived here almost four years ago, it’s another lovely day as you prepare to depart and, at a glance, the world — the American world anyway — doesn’t seem that much the worse for wear. Okay, the price of a barrel of oil essentially doubled in those four years, as did the price of a gallon of gas at the pump; the Democrats retook Congress; Iraq descended into the charnel house of history, into what was already being termed back then, in a bow to the Vietnam War, the “q-word” (for quagmire); newspapers began losing young readers to the Internet as if into a black hole; and the Bush administration, touted in 2003 as the “most disciplined” in anyone’s memory, has fallen into belligerent disarray; but, hey, the stock market is at a high-water mark, the Boston Red Sox are leading the American League East by 8 games, lawyers are suing, doctors are medicating, and brokers are brokering away more or less as usual.
And here you are in your serried ranks, your parents nearby, your school’s president and various deans, as well as distinguished faculty, arrayed before you on this stage in impressive gowns and tasseled caps. Today is a much-awaited moment for you, the culmination of years of work, just as graduation days like this have been for those who preceded you.
The campus, this balmy afternoon, seems hardly changed from four years ago. The same gentle carpet of grass, green with spring, dotted on its distant edges with beds of tulips, surrounded the graduating class of ’03 — and probably the class of ’66, the year I sat through one of these ceremonies. The dorms you slept in are behind us; the dining hall you ate so many unmemorable meals in is just over that hill, which I have no doubt you climbed grudgingly on many wind-chilled winter mornings. At least some of the classrooms you did your learning in, housed in solemn gray stone (as monuments to timeless knowledge should be), flank us. The Greek-style columns of your library with its million-plus volumes can just be glimpsed through the distant trees.
Yes, look around. All is as it should be. Everything we can see and everything we know is here — all of it normal, all of it fit for a graduation speech. Fit for you.
In the years just after I graduated from college, the much praised (and maligned) 1960s, the young were said to believe in a single aphorism: “Never trust anyone over thirty.” I must admit I never heard such a thing myself, but then, as now, the media has a way of knowing what we think better than we do. I read it, ergo it’s so.
Now, I want to update the phrase for your moment which, believe me, is far worse than anything I ever imagined possible in the Sixties. On such a normally celebratory day, I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t urgently believe it — and if I didn’t think that, in your heart of hearts, you believed it too.
So here goes. Some graduation advice — three pieces of it, actually — that probably run against most of what you’ve been taught at this distinguished institution in these last four years:
Don’t trust what you see around you.
That’s right. No matter what anyone tells you, don’t trust the world that’s most obviously in front of you. Don’t trust your own eyes. Not on a day like this, not in a country like this. Reality is elsewhere.
That’s why I say, close your eyes. Go ahead. Listen to me for a while in the dark and understand that I’m not trying to blind you. I’m only suggesting that you’ll be able see the world more clearly with your eyes shut tight and so graduate with a more reasonable sense of what your future job on this planet really is.
That’s no easy thing to assess, if you’re on this pristine campus, or in any mall in America, or, for that matter, in most parts of the city on the outskirts of which this campus stands rather than in Baghdad, or Kabul, or low-lying Bangladesh, or the melting Arctic, or some exposed Pacific atoll.
This sunny May day — the one you are not looking at any more — is deceptive indeed. It masks a far darker world that your generation is about to inherit on a planet two-thirds of whose inhabitants, as a group of retired admirals and generals interested in climate change recently noted, live near a coastline (that might in coming decades flood). Put another way, according to the NGO Christian Aid, one out of every seven people on the planet — perhaps a billion in all — might, over the next half century (essentially your post-college work lifetimes) be forced from their homes and into the kinds of desperate migrations that would make the present American debate over illegal immigration seem like a global joke.
Over the next 100 years — the heart of your life and that of your children — the Earth could lose its glaciers (major sources of water in places like South Asia); the Greenland ice sheet could radically melt down; and up to half this planet’s wealth of species could go extinct. You could also experience the onrush — evidently already underway — of ever more extreme weather patterns (massive hurricanes, typhoons, monsoons, 100-year droughts, and the like), the spread of lethal diseases to new locales, and a host of other unnerving phenomena.
In other words — and even those of you who claim to doubt the reality of global warming sense that this is so — fifty years from now, you are likely to be living on another, poorer kind of planet. It will also be a far lonelier one. People, who have the urge to frighten, often say that we are “destroying the planet,” but that is probably not accurate. The planet will undoubtedly spin on. Given a few million, or a few tens of millions, or even a few hundreds of millions of years — the sort of time that, without our consciousness, wouldn’t matter a tinker’s dam — Earth is likely to develop a future filled with life, just without us (and many of our creaturely neighbors).
The planet’s future may not be in doubt, but surely ours is. New Scientist magazine has offered an estimate of 10 million years for the planet to “repair” the present “dent” made in biodiversity. I like to use the example of the pronghorn antelope, “the prairie ghost” of our West, to explain this. It’s a speedy creature, capable of running at up to 60 miles per hour, at least 30 mph faster than any predator in its environment. That extra mileage might seem hard to explain unless you understand that, before the last great mammalian megafaunal die-out on this continent, some 13,000 to 16,000 years ago, there were evidently creatures (perhaps lions or dire wolves) that could power along at something close to those speeds. So, for all those thousands of years, far longer than human history from Ur to the latest disasters in Iraq, the pronghorn has had a ghostly companion. So much time in human terms and it still hasn’t “registered” the loss; so much time and that niche in our environment remains empty.
Back in the ancient 1950s, a half-century-plus in the other direction, only one thing could end our world, the world I grew up in — nuclear weapons or The Bomb (which, when that was all there was, often sported capital letters) via the Cold War superpower confrontation. The thought of a nuclear war was paralyzing and nightmare-inducing enough. Believe me, when I heard President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech on October 22, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis (aka “the most dangerous moment in human history”), I feared my world was toast — and I wasn’t alone. I always believed that the Sixties held such a powerful sense of liberation, in part, because world-annihilating possibilities were, for a few brief years, simply left behind.
Over half a century later, nuclear weapons have multiplied and proliferated (even without the other superpower in attendance), and yet they now have to queue up for attention in a jostling line of potentially world-ending perils, real and fictional; while all of you live in the peculiar sunshine of a locked-down, locked-up, Patriot-Act, homeland-security, gated-community country (of a sort no one in the 1950s could have imagined). I stand here looking out at you, your eyes closed, and I doubt I can really imagine your world, the one I’m trying to describe, or the almost unnoticed, largely unacknowledged exterminatory grid that has settled paralyzingly over consciousness in this country, that has left you able perhaps to imagine a job, a mate, even a family — the most immediate of futures, but not a human future beyond that.
An image comes to mind. You know how bits of semi-knowledge from who knows where stick in your brain? Here’s one from mine that’s useful for this speech, whatever its historical accuracy. Around 1000 AD, there was a millenarian movement of peasants who, believing they saw the end days coming, built their own coffins, and, at the predicted moment, climbed into them to await their foreordained fate. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what happened next. Assumedly, sooner or later they climbed out again.
But here’s the point I want to make: As long as you’re looking at our world through your usual lenses, I suspect you’re already in our version of those coffins, even if they pass for normal daily life. Only in the dark can you begin to imagine the possible Pompeii-scapes to come, the potential for the extreme unraveling of normalcy. And only after you imagine that, can you do what those peasants undoubtedly did when they realized that the last days had not come — not yet anyway: climb out.
If all of you were to clamber out of the coffins we’ve built for you, there would still be trouble ahead, but the end of times would be just that much less likely to arrive.
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” As you English majors already know, Dante claimed this inscription was over the entrance to Hell. Today, as you form your processional, walking like every class before you through the arch that fronts this campus, I think you should imagine that inscription over your heads, because that’s the futureless world you’re entering with your eyes open. My definition of hell is, in fact, futurelessness, a world in which no one can imagine their grandchildren or great-grandchildren — and so, no one can work to build a country, a planet for them.
Now, for a second piece of advice — probably not best given at a world-renown center of learning — but here goes.
Believe the Hollywood previews. Believe your video games. Believe “24.” Believe The Day After Tomorrow.
It’s true that, despite what the screen showed in the global-warming film, The Day After Tomorrow, the Northern Hemisphere is not going to turn into an ice sheet in approximately 30 seconds; wolves, freed from the local zoo, are unlikely to roam the streets of New York City any time soon or movie stars burn books for warmth in the fireplace of the frigid New York Public Library; spy Arnold Schwarzenegger or his equivalent will not, despite True Lies, kiss Jamie Lee Curtis while an atomic bomb, handled by Arab terrorists, goes off behind them in the Florida Keys; you won’t save us or the planet the way you do in first-person shooter video games; and, no, torturing à la “24” is neither good, nor even effective as an information extractor. Meanwhile, all these blimps, trains, buses, cable cars, and who knows what else hijacked by terrorists and heading toward everything we hold dear will not all arrive as the stadium blows up, the airport goes down, the White House is zapped, or the city, country, planet disappears.
Nonetheless, since my childhood, Hollywood, not religion, has been the greatest deliverer of end-time scenarios. This has been true at least since the atomic war-film-that-couldn’t-be-made — the one that would have ended not in American victory but in a planet-shaking set of explosions — mutated into the horror and science fiction genres. Those films moved under the mushroom cloud in various futuristic settings where all sorts of monstrous, irradiated beings and alien creatures possessing strange rays did to our cities and towns what we had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while crowds of onscreen Americans, screaming and fleeing, were crushed or mangled, burned or consumed.
And then, of course, we all left the movie theaters or drive-ins a little shaken, a little thrilled, and life began again. However weird or warped or fantastic these films may have been, however happy the endings when the giant ants went down for the count in the sewers of Los Angeles, or the aliens were themselves zapped, or the terrorists foiled, or the monsters destroyed, these were, in essence, Hollywood’s previews of our world to come.
The movie-makers knew, but only because we knew. They wanted our eyes (and our popcorn money) and so they made a beeline for the stories, the fears, that resonated most deeply in us, the ones that could be returned to profitability over and over again. Perhaps, from the beginning, what we humans had was an ability to view possible ends. Perhaps what made us human wasn’t that opposable thumb, but the fact that we arrived in the world capable of imagining its termination.
Explain it as you will, Hollywood has been sending us a single riveting message over the last half-century-plus as the mushroom clouds rose, the aliens descended, the post-apocalyptic zombies feasted, the swarthy terrorists arrived, the pandemics spread, and Los Angeles or New York (the nation’s pre-9/11 Sodom and Gomorrah) became a dystopian prison, or an ice palace, or a place to be zapped, or stomped by monsters, or
Well, you of all people know the story. You’ve seen it again and again, your eyes open in another kind of darkness — or you’ve experienced it in your own living room, while you desperately manipulated hand-held controls to save us from the mutants, zombies, terrorists, bad guys who wanted to end it all. You’ve watched the previews, just as al-Qaeda did, just as people all over this planet have.
And then, as most of us have for over fifty years, you left the multiplex pretending that what you just saw was simply fun, or plain-old entertainment, or plain crud, or eye-candy, the sort of thing that only puritan wackos (or academics) could wax ridiculously serious over. Whatever it was, it wasn’t life, not this life anyway.
But you were wrong, I think. To get things straight, you now have to ignore much that you’ve been taught and you’ve got to attend to the essential wisdom of the most watched, but least respected, teachers on the planet. Only they can give you the real, inside dope on what’s coming our way — if, that is, you’re going to lead a life that matters, if you’re going to do something.
So here’s a final piece of advice, possibly not the best to offer in the heart of a great university:
Don’t think too much.
I look out over this audience, remembering that, when I was 21, there seemed so much that needed to be done. How could it be that, over 40 years later, there seems to be so much more — starting with somehow ending not (as in my college days) one, but two mad frontier wars, two scenes of slaughter and carnage, Iraq and Afghanistan, in a world where frontiers no longer exist? These are wars guaranteed to kill tens of thousands more and, in the long run, to endanger us all — and there’s only you to end them. There’s only you, really, to change everything. It’s a terrible burden that my generation of parents should never, never have loaded on your shoulders, but understand this clearly: It’s not a coffin, not by a long shot.
We failed you. I believe that and I don’t even know exactly how.
If you aren’t already settled in, awaiting the end times we have bequeathed you in our short-sightedness, but you think too carefully for too long about what needs to be done, all will seem hopeless. As with so many tasks that desperately need to be undertaken, those who undertake them must be, in a sense, foolhardy just because the burden looks so heavy, the path so long and twisting, the end so out of sight. It seems so much easier to lie in those made-in-America coffins and wait.
But that, of course, is the royal route to everything none of us could possibly want for our world. No one of you can save a planet of people and, if the future already seems stolen from you and the previews are so apocalyptic, then the possibility of building movements of any sort must seem dim indeed. But don’t settle back quite yet and don’t ponder too long. Acting is usually better.
The moment you begin to act, I suspect you will discover that there is much you might still be able to call on for support, including many in my generation who, if you’re willing to trust some over-thirties (but not too much), might have a little energy and perspective still to offer. Then, there’s an American can-do (even quick-fix) tradition that has been lost in recent years, in Katrina-level idiocy and incompetence. How we turned from a can-do into a can’t-do (or, as I like to think, a Republican’t) nation is worthy of a history or two, if people are still writing them somewhere down the line. But the Iraq War, our oil dependency, even the potentially massive effects of global warming might all respond to a new surge of can-doism, to a nation still rich enough to put its money, its best brains, and its efforts where its mealy mouth and consumer culture (and a President whose idea of sacrifice in “time of war” is a trip to Disney World) now is.
To my mind, here’s your first job: With your eyes closed, try to see our world honestly for what it is and then perform a magical act: Conjure up a new set of previews — fit for a future for which it’s worth doing a great deal. To act in concert and meaningfully, you need to able to imagine yourself, fifty years from now, standing at a podium like this, speaking to a group of graduating seniors, or perhaps simply sitting with all those parents proudly watching your own child in cap and gown in — let’s hope — a very different world with fewer coffins in sight.
Now, with those eyes still closed, take a good look at our world, the one you already know is there, but don’t think too much. It’s time to pass through the portals of this school that has held you these last four years, out the gate, into the streets beyond, into the world beyond, and get yourself an education. It’s time to look up and read the inscription — by now, you can surely do so with your eyes closed — and then reformulate it. How about, for example: Abandon paralysis all ye who exit here.
I can’t tell you how to act or what to do. I wouldn’t even pretend to know. For that, in the dark, you, all of you, have to look into our world and then into yourselves. I suspect that, when enough of you close your eyes and begin to believe your own previews, you’ll know. At least perhaps, you’ll know where you want to start and, knowing, you’ll act; or perhaps, not even knowing, you’ll act anyway; and, in acting, hope — because, in bad times, it’s always the act that engenders hope — and, then, in hoping you’ll know.
From the edge of the campus of life
May 17, 2007
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt