In the midst of a profoundly boring commencement season, there have been only a few graduation speeches worth noticing:
– Craig Newmark, Craigslist founder, delivered commencement addresses at Case Western Reserve and UC Berkeley. He doesn’t seem to have, well, written the latter speech. Descriptions of the “improvisatory” speech involved terms such as “off the cuff” and “rambling.” Wired was more direct: “it sucked.”
– Michael Mukasey responded to criticism of his appearance at Boston College Law School for a commencement address by… delivering a long defense of torture memos. How better to mollify opponents? Jerry Springer took a different approach to criticism of his commencement appearance at Northwestern Law School:
“To the students who object to my presence – well, you’ve got a point. I, too, would’ve chosen someone else..”
But in an attempt to soften the pain, let me stipulate to the facts. You are right. I am an imperfect being – (on my talk show, more colorful language might be employed) – and I feel hardly qualified to tell you what to do with your lives.”
Springer’s address involved, for a commencement speaker, an unusual amount of self-abnegation (then again, one could see why). Most speakers followed the far easier path (blazed by Chris Hedges, among others) of airing fiery opinions, then urging students to act upon them.
– Bianca Jagger delivered what seems to have been an excrutiatingly long speech at Simmons College. She began with talk about her work in Latin America, but devoted the core of her address to condemning the Iraq War, 9/11 and the “erosion of civil liberties” and “climate chaos.” What could a peroration say after that?
“We must hold our politicians accountable for their decisions. We must fight for universal respect for human rights and dignity, the abolition of the death penalty, and the prohibition of torture. We must call for worldwide nuclear disarmament…”
– Jessica Lange, speaking at Sarah Lawrence, built to a lengthy Vietnam-Iraq comparison, and the observation that
“We are living in an America that in the last seven and a half years has waged an unnecessary war, established prison camps, condoned torture, employed corporate armies, eliminated the right of habeas corpus, practiced extraordinary rendition, and believe me, this is only a partial list – I had to keep myself in check.
I don’t wish to dwell on the misery caused by this administration, but that legacy is being passed down to you. It is a heavy burden to inherit and will require tremendous dedication and hard work to put it right again. You must determine if we are going to measure ourselves on the basis of military might and economic power or if there is perhaps something deeper – more essential in our national character – that needs to be awakened.
We must commit ourselves, wholeheartedly, to the pursuit of peace, equality and justice.”
Just a few commands to take out into the world with you. I’d be happy if any of the current crop of speakers made slightly more frequent acknowledgement of the fact (as John has suggested before) that they were speaking to graduating students, not political devotees.