Greetings, assembled graduates, oligarchs of the board, happy faculty, worried parents, Mona Lisas, Mad Hatters, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, pausers and contemplators of tufts, blossoms, shells of the shore, anyone who has been penetrated by a mountie.
I have just plagiarized several poets, plus an Elton John song. Do you all feel welcome?
You sit under the punishing brightness of this cloudless day, and I tell you now that, even as you prepare to move forward into this world, one of its great institutions stands at a crossroads. And that institution is the commencement address. Stop looking at your phones! I’m talking!
Consider this season. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew as Rutgers’ speaker, and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, did the same from Smith – each time because students and faculty opposed the choice.
Less celebratedly – because no one has ever heard of him – Robert Birgeneau withdrew as Haverford’s commencement speaker. Birgeneau was chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and, as a loud champion of the education rights of undocumented immigrants, seemed eminently suitable, but he had authorized the use of force by campus police during an Occupy protest.
A group of students and professors informed Birgeneau that they would countenance his speech only if he met nine demands, including an apology, an admission of playing an instrumental role and, I believe, a shrubbery.
Maybe Haverford didn’t want to be left out. Last year, crosstown rival Swarthmore protested its commencement speaker, Bush administration human footnote Robert Zoellick, and he too backed out. Is this becoming a fad, like ear gauges and Beats by Dre?
At Haverford, one of the other honorary degree recipients, former Princeton President William Bowen, stepped in and gave a speech in which he called the protest against Birgeneau “immature” and “arrogant” and the whole incident “sad” and “troubling.”
The excuse often used by self-cashiered speakers for crawfishing away from the commencement is that they don’t want to ruin a day of celebration. The argument often used by protesters: Give us a speaker who fits the celebratory nature of our special day. But then the guy who comes in from the bullpen calls you a bunch of douchebags. I ask you, assembled commencers, how’d that work out?
One possible solution is to invite speakers with no discernible ideological baggage. In 1999, MIT invited two of its graduates, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the “Car Talk” guys. The speech was heavy on recycled shtick from their show, but I doubt many people complained. Smith College, in 2012, invited the actress Jane Lynch, whose speech revolved around knowing when to say “YES AND” and when to say “NO WAY.” In 2007, one year after a commencement speech given by U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, Northwestern invited actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She made self-deprecating jokes about that contrast, handed out compact fluorescent light bulbs and told the graduates, “Don’t be an ass.”
I would have been delighted to have been in the audience for any of these speeches, provided someone was taking me to a nice restaurant afterward.
But is it the only way to go?
Distinguished graduates, I charge you to seek and accept a balanced diet of brain food, and that means some speeches, some years, will clash with your closely held values. So what? You’ll be spending the rest of your life sharing space and oxygen with people who are not exactly like you. With any luck, you’ll learn to listen respectfully (YES AND) and then, when appropriate, object – sometimes strenuously (NO WAY).
To invited speakers, I offer a different charge. Stand your ground. You, Madame Rice, should not have retreated in the face of resistance. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no closet Condiphile, maintaining private photo albums of your trill-ass catsuits and making video montages set to special music. That was Gadhafi. But once you accept the invitation, you stay the course. The horrifying irony of you, Condi Rice, is that you signed off on badly-thought-out military aggression in your White House days and, here in 2014, couldn’t face the wrath of 50 hipsters in ironic T-shirts and leather harem pants.
You too, Christine Lagarde. I blame you less because the criticisms coming from the Smithies barely made any sense, especially when directed against a very reform-minded managing director. I’m sure you said, in French, “Why put myself through the aggravation?” Because free inquiry is worth it.
Bowen, the replacement at Haverford, said the same about the missing Birgeneau. After spanking the students for their snotty-nosed list of demands, he said, of Birgeneau, “Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.”
There’s something to be said for pushing through a vexing situation, even if doing so seems less appealing than spending the weekend binge-watching “Deadwood.” I never though I would write these words, but: Maybe we should take a lesson from Barbara Bush, who faced pushback in 1990 when Wellesley invited her to speak. The argument against her was that she had never done anything on her own. Bush recruited Raisa Gorbachev as co-speaker, and both of them folded that criticism – you’re just the wife of a powerful man – into their speeches. In the immediate aftermath, there were a lot of graduates saying the whole thing was considerably better than had been expected. Maybe they still would have rather had Alice Walker, but this was a pleasant surprise.
That, by the way, is a skill in decline: the ability to be pleasantly surprised by somebody you were not expecting to like.
I can see by the fidgeting out there that my time is running short. Let me address a compelling counter-argument. A commencement speaker invariably receives an honorary degree. Both things – the degree and the speaking invite – elevate the person.
If you say this, I rejoin, “You’re right.” And if, after thinking it over carefully, you decide that the damage done by honoring one of these people would outweigh the damage you might be doing to civil discourse , then be my guest: occupy the dean’s office, break a window, etc.
I just hope the current trend doesn’t lead to denatured and insubstantial commencement addresses. Let’s not forget that the Marshall Plan was introduced at a commencement address. And that one great work of American literature was a commencement speech. Sorry, David Foster Wallace fans. I didn’t mean “This Is Water,” which is a very fine little speech indeed. I was thinking more RWE than DFW. Emerson’s 1838 Divinity School Address is one of the greatest outpourings of prose in American culture.
But here’s an irony. As a result of the speech, which questioned the historical practice of Christianity, Emerson became a hot potato – the kind of person whose prospective speeches inspire outrage.
And that’s my final thought as you prepare to flip those tassels or whatever you do: If you book a speaker to whom nobody objects, that should worry you.