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At World’s End and Back Again
Posted on Jun 6, 2013
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.
Here may be the most commonplace sentence anyone could write about graduation day in any year: when I think back to my own graduation in 1966, an eon, a lifetime, a world ago, I have no memory of who addressed us. None. I have a little packet of photos of the event: shots of my parents and me, my grandmother and me, my aunt and me, my former roommates and me, my friends and me. You can even see the chairs for the ceremony. But not the speaker. And yet it’s odds on that he—and in 1966, it was surely a “he”—made some effort to usher me into the American world, offering me, as a member of a new generation, words of wisdom and some advice. You know, the usual thing that no one pays much attention to or ever remembers.
Here, on the other hand, is my most vivid memory of that day. I reserved a room at a local motel for my parents the night before the graduation ceremony. As it happened, I had reserved the same room the previous night for my girlfriend and me (and conveniently not paid for it). When, on the morning of graduation, I picked my parents up and my father went to pay, the hotel clerk charged him for both nights, winked, and said something suggestive.
It was, believe me, a humiliatingly uncomfortable moment. Despite what you’ve heard about the 1960s, this wasn’t acceptable behavior. I wonder what was in my mind then? Was I really incapable at the time of thinking 24 hours ahead? Or was I simply out to rile my parents up? At this distance, who knows? I may not even have known then, since our motivations tend to be far more mysterious, even to us, than we like to think.
In any case, on this sun-dappled afternoon 47 years later, standing here before you, the class of 2013, I have little doubt that not much has changed when it comes to graduations. As your last experience here, your final moment, you’ve been guaranteed the same regurgitation of “wisdom,” passed on from those who supposedly know to those who supposedly don’t. So, as the novelist Kurt Vonnegut might once have said, it goes. Or every now and then, it doesn’t.
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Graduating the Class of 1966
In the meantime, let me address a group with far less time than you, but perhaps a longer attention span at this particular moment. I’m talking about your grandparents sitting here with you today. Or to make things simpler, let me just speak directly to my own cohort.
Class of 1966, it’s my feeling that all of us post-post-docs of life need a graduation speech that will usher us back into our world for one last round of action and activity. After all, we have two obvious things going for us. We’re living longer, so no one should write us off quite yet and we’re the generation for whom, briefly, the American world seemed to split open back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Among other things, we saw into a certain heart of imperial darkness in those Vietnam years, so that nothing after, not Abu Ghraib, nor CIA torture, nor drone assassinations, nothing could truly be news to us when it came to the American way of war.
But we saw something else, too. We saw possibility. We had the example of the Civil Rights movement just behind us. We saw what “the people” could do. We saw that everything did not have to remain as it was, as it had always been. We saw that language could change, which meant that it was possible to think about and describe our American world in new ways. This was no small thing, even if, in truth, that moment didn’t last terribly long or end particularly well. After all, from the rubble of “the sixties,” the only obvious “revolution” that arrived was the right-wing one, ushering in the Age of Reagan. Still, we saw what we saw.
It’s common enough in graduation addresses for a speaker to say that his generation’s moment is over and to pass the “baton” to the next one, to insist in this case that the class of 1966 is history, and that the class of 2013 has arrived and should seize its main chance now. These days, it would be easy enough to put a nasty twist on that sentiment and tell our children and grandchildren, you, the graduates of 2013, that we failed you, that we left the world in worse shape, and that now—thank you very much—we’re dumping it into your laps to deal with. Good luck and godspeed!
And in some sense, any sane person who surveyed our American world today would have to agree with that: the congressional system is busted; a president nobody in Washington pays much attention to resides in a White House which has garnered so much power that he can commit more or less any kind of mayhem he wants outside our borders; our wars are endless, destructive to others and treasury-draining to us; our infrastructure is rotting away; the kind of entrenched poverty we have now would have made Lyndon Baines Johnson blush; inequality is growing by leaps and bounds; the rich only get richer; big money and dark money have our politics by the throat and “democracy” has largely become the name for a new form of nonstop campaign season TV punditry and entertainment; fossil fuels have been proclaimed the American future and are being hailed as such, even though getting them all out of the ground will fry our world; “extreme weather,” neutered of its possible climate-change significance, makes for constant dramatic news ledes and so we’re pointlessly regaled with disconnected tales of particularly stunning storms, tornados, floods, heat, cold, drought, and so on; and that’s just to begin a list that could be (but won’t be) the rest of this speech. If you wanted to offer an epitaph for our world, the sort of thing you might etch on our collective tombstone, you could do worse than quote the rhetorical question Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, asked his company’s shareholders recently: “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”
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