Thursday, May 24, 2007

Commence and Commence Again

Just to piggy back BostonD's post, I will use this one to promote what was, for me (and I know VAD may not agree), one of the more inspiring speeches I have come across. What BostonD said is true, I'm a sucker for a good commencement ceremony, and what's makes the following speech even better is that it was given at our graduation.

Just to lay the scene a little bit. After a week of beatiful New York in Spring weather, during which we spent in a constant state of celebration with family and friends, we staggered down in a lackluster procession to sit for two hours in the sun, drenched in our own sweat. We hadn't discussed the day or the chosen speaker much -- perhaps a minor grumble about how we had lost out on Jon Stewart to Princeton and we would be subjected to some friggen playwrite instead.

So we sat, and I sweated profusly, looking forward more to a nap than this Tony Kushner guy. But, after some Dean introduced his impressive achievments (Pulitzer Prize, Tony awards, etc.) I figured I'd lend him an ear or two. His delivery was fast and I couldn't shake the similarities between his voice and that of John Tuturro's in Quiz Show -- a sort of nasaly, at times grating manner of speech. Nothing -- not the heat, the tanline of my mortarboard, or my hangover -- could detract from what was to follow, a speech that has lifted my spirits with countless rereadings and endeared me to its author, who I believe is one of the greatest American authors of the past 50 years:

..."I’m not entirely sure what goes on at Class Day. I missed mine, I was on a picket line, so I’m sort of guessing as to what it is you want me to do this morning, apart from saying mazel tov, mazel tov, to all of you, and I do say it, mazel tov, mazel tov, it’s very exciting, a whole new bunch of Columbia College grads ready for the world, for the public conversation, for the work of repairing the world and repairing the public conversation, ready and able and, dare I say, eager to elevate the terms of the vast public debate in which you, American citizens, have a place prepared if you will claim it, you with your heads and hearts as full of fierce and fiery ideas fresh as they are ever likely to be, you who are not, by virtue of the superlative education you have received and its concomitant openness, engaged skepticism and reckless curiosity, you who are not the sort of grim careerists and ideologues and boodle-minded misadventurers who have seized the public debate and garbled it and reduced it to babble and run with it straight to the ninth circle of hell, dragging behind them the glory of our republic — you will rescue us from these dreadful, dreadful people, and we who are old are deeply grateful, and deeply proud, and, well, scared shitless, so mazel tov and get busy, your work awaits you, the world awaits you, the world is impatient for you, it made you for this purpose — and I don’t want to usurp the role your parents had in you, in getting you to this day, they too made you, the world made them so they could make you, and make the sacrifices they’ve made to get you to this point — my cherished B.A. in English literature from Columbia College, the entirety of the four most valuable and profitable years of my intellectual life, cost my parents less than one year of your time here, and I’m still paying student loans! — mazel tov to your parents, too, and by the way, if you haven’t gotten a graduation present yet, I have a musical running on Broadway and the number is 1-800-telecharge.

I really was more excited than honored to speak to you today, thrilled to get to meet you, you redeemers and rescuers, because this spring, unlike, let’s say, the past spring, or the spring before that, or the spring before that, this May I sense hope in the air, and urgency, and as has so often been the recent case, terrible danger, and so the urgent need of the world is about to snatch you, ready or not, from this most beautiful brick and stony womb and begin its demanding: HELP! HELP! HELP! The world is melting, the world is darkening, there is injustice everywhere, there is artificial scarcity everywhere, there is desperate human need, poverty and untreated illness and exploitation everywhere, there is ignorance everywhere, not native to the species but cruelly enforced, there is joylessness and hatred of the body and slavery masked as freedom and community disintegrating, everywhere, racism, everywhere, sexism, everywhere, homophobia, everywhere (though a little better for the moment in Massachusetts!), everywhere the world is in need of repair. Fix it, solve these things, you need only the tools you have learned here, even if you didn’t pay as much attention as you should, even if you’re a mess and broke and facing a future of economic terror — who isn’t, who doesn’t? HELP! HELP! HELP! The world is calling, heal the world and in the process heal yourself, find the human in yourself by finding the citizen, the activist, the hero. Down with the boodle-minded misadventurers, after them, you know where they are, I figured this speech should be nonpartisan in case there are any, you know, Republicans in the audience but even if you are Republican, after them, down with the boodle-minded misadventurers, up with the Republic. Duty calls, the world calls, get active! No summer vacation, no rest for you, we have been waiting too long for you, we need your contribution too desperately, and if they tell you your contribution is meaningless, if they tell you the fix is in and there’s no contribution to be made, if they tell you to contribute by shopping your credit card into exhaustion, if they tell you to surrender the brilliant, dazzling confusion your education should have engendered in you, to exchange that quicksilver polyphony for dull monotone certainties, productive only of aggression borne of boredom and violence borne of fear borne of stupidity, they’re lying, don’t trust them, get rid of them, you know who they are and where they are to be found and they’ll all be happier back on the ranch in Crawfordsville.

Eight minutes doesn’t intimidate me, I just ignore it. I’m almost done.

This is the Columbia dialectic, the New York City dialectic, all this spectacular symmetry, all this Euclidean geometry, all this rational griddage is a lattice entwined with floribund, uncontrolled and uncontrollable vines, shoots, roots, fruits, leaves, bees, busily cross-pollinating. This box, this machine, this is a crystal incubatory whence comes the fluid, the protean, the revolutionary, the non-mechanical, the non-commodified, the non-fetishized, the human. The air this morning is electric. You have fed, you have sated, you’re ready; and every step you take from this point on counts. This is your Code Orange: Life and its terrors, terrible and splendid, awaits. I know I speak for Jon, Warren and Justice Ruth — seek the truth; when you find it, speak the truth; interrogate mercilessly the truth you’ve found; and act, act, act. The world is hungry for you, the world has waited for you, the world has a place for you. Take it. Mazel tov. Change the world."


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