When I sat where you now sit, I simply assumed that my generation couldn't help but seize the reins and deliver a great society. And later, when the Berlin Wall fell — when Cold War ideology no longer dictated American behavior around the globe, when our worst ideological fears were at last overcome — my, didn't the future seem bright indeed for a moment or two.
Well, here we are. And here you are.
And every day, it seems, the headlines offer fresh examples of the greed and selfishness with which my generation has laid waste to its own possibilities. And it doesn't end with Wall Street's kleptocracy. In the world at large, we have proclaimed ourselves to be a peace-loving nation, yet we wage prolonged wars of choice. We declare our devotion to free and open markets, yet time and again unrestrained capitalism, while an effective tool for generating short-term profit, proves itself a useless metric for calibrating a just and inclusive society. We insist that we are still a great people, that an American Century is still to come, yet many of us feel no call to citizenship if citizenship has any actual cost. Even during wartime, with our armies afield, we whine about paying taxes, though our tax rates are the lowest in modern American history. Meanwhile, though less prone to overt racism, we have nonetheless abandoned the precepts of upward mobility for all Americans, conceding the very idea of public education, of equality of opportunity. And as our society further stratifies, as the rich get richer and the poor become less and less necessary to our de-industrialized economy, we wage a war against our underclass under the guise of drug prohibition, turning America into the jailingest society on the face of the earth. And as to reform? As to the political leadership and responsive government? That hardly seems possible when our high court permits capital to purchase our electoral process at wholesale prices.
Am I'm bringing you down with all of this stuff? Am I bumming you out? I can't help it. I'm sorry. But hey, if you watched "The Wire," or "Generation Kill," or "Treme" — then you knew I was gonna go there, right? Those are angry narratives. They are saying angry things about the American future.
And now, forgive me, that future is yours. And Woody Allen's clever turn of phrase, once played for laughs, now has a real and ugly echo, doesn't it?
For starters, my generation probably owes yours an apology. Because, hey, we definitely shanked it. We choked. We let ourselves get distracted with greed, with gloss, with the taste of the bread and the glitz of the circuses. We took our eyes off the prize — which was always this:
There cannot be two American experiments, one for the fortunate and another for the rest. All of us must share the same future — like it or not. For the republic to long endure, there must be a real American collective, and all of us must have some stake in that collective.
For you, emerging now from this university, the question is what you will stand for, what you will assert for. Your America, as viable and verdant as this beautiful campus? Or the other America, the one that got left behind? Will you argue for your future? Or a collective future? Your tribe? Or an America that isn't tribal, that truly carries all of us forward, as a society? Are you for yourself? To a certain extent, we all must begin by being for ourselves. But if we are only for ourselves, or only for our families, or our friends, or our own class or interests — if empathy never reaches beyond our own backyard — then who the hell are we, really?
Right is right and wrong is wrong, and you all don't need those diplomas to know the difference. Will the right choice make it easier? Of course not. Will the right choice vindicate us? Doubtful.
Albert Camus, a great humanist and existentialist voice, pointed out that to commit to a just cause with no hope of success is absurd. But then, he also noted that not committing to a just cause is equally absurd. But only one choice offers the possibility for dignity. And dignity matters. Dignity matters.
Stripped of all platitude and illusion, Camus was saying we still have to fight. So for God's sake, fight. And get angry if you need to get angry. A little anger is a good thing if it isn't on your own behalf, if it's for others deserving of your anger, your empathy. And if you see the wrong around you getting bigger and uglier, then speak up, and call that wrong by its true name. Learn to refuse, to dissent. And in demanding something more from yourself and from your society, you may be surprised to find that you are not entirely alone. That other voices are saying the same things, that others want the same things.