May. 25, 2006 |
I will make this brief because I know you have much to do between now
and your farewell to Hamilton tomorrow, and that you are eager to get
out and enjoy this perfect day in this glorious weather that somehow
never gets mentioned in your promotional and recruitment literature.
I know so many Hamilton alums that I feel at home here. One of my
closest friends and colleagues, David Bate, graduated in 1938, and
patriot that he is, headed right for the U.S. Navy where he served
throughout World War II. David's father graduated from Hamilton in 1908
and two of his children continued the tradition. I asked David what he
learned at Hamilton and he told me Hamilton is where you discover that
being smart has nothing to do with being warm and dry ... Just kidding!
Thank you for inviting Judith and me to share this occasion with
you. Fifty years ago both of us turned the same corner you are turning
today and left college for the great beyond. Looking back across half a
century I wish our speaker at the time had said something really useful
-- something that would have better prepared us for what lay ahead. I
wish he had said: "Don't Go."
So I have been thinking seriously about what I might say to you in
this Baccalaureate service. Frankly, I'm not sure anyone from my
generation should be saying anything to your generation except, "We're
sorry. We're really sorry for the mess you're inheriting. We are sorry
for the war in Iraq. For the huge debts you will have to pay for
without getting a new social infrastructure in return. We're sorry for
the polarized country. The corporate scandals. The corrupt politics.
Our imperiled democracy. We're sorry for the sprawl and our addiction
to oil and for all those toxins in the environment. Sorry about all
this, class of 2006. Good luck cleaning it up."
You're going to have your hands full, frankly. I don't need to tell
you of the gloomy scenarios being written for your time. Three books on
my desk right now question whether human beings will even survive the
21st century. Just listen to their titles: "The Long Emergency:
Surviving the Convergence Catastrophe"; "Collapse: How Societies Choose
to Fail or Succeed"; "The Winds of Change: Weather and the Destruction
These are just three of the recent books that make the apocalypse
prophesied in the Bible ... the Revelations of St. John ... look like
child's play. I won't summarize them for you except to say that they
spell out Doomsday scenarios for global catastrophe. There's another
recent book called "The Revenge of Gaia" that could well have been
subtitled, "The Earth Strikes Back," because the author, James
Lovelock, says human consumption, our obsession with technology, and
our habit of "playing God" are stripping bare nature's assets until the
Earth's only consolation will be to take us down with her. Before this
century is over, he writes, "Billions of us will die and the few
breeding pairs of people that survive will be kept in the Arctic where
the climate remains tolerable." So there you have it: The future of the
race, to be joined in a final and fatal march of the penguins.
Of course that's not the only scenario. You can Google your way to a
lot of optimistic possibilities. For one, the digital revolution that
will transform how we do business and live our lives, including active
intelligent wireless devices that in just a short time could link every
aspect of our physical world and even human brains, creating hundreds
of thousands of small-scale business opportunities. There are medical
breakthroughs that will conquer many ills and extend longevity.
Economic changes will lift hundreds of millions of people out of
absolute poverty in the next 25 years, dwarfing anything that's come
along in the previous 100 years. These are possible scenarios, too. But
I'm a journalist, not a prophet. I can't say which of these scenarios
will prove true. You won't be bored, that's for sure. I just wish I
were going to be around to see what you do with the peril and the
Since I won't be around, I want to take this opportunity to say a
thing or two that have nothing to do with my professional work as a
journalist. What I have to say today is very personal. Here it is:
If the world confuses you a little, it confuses me a lot. When I
graduated fifty years ago I thought I had the answers. But life is
where you get your answers questioned, and the odds are that you can
look forward to being even more perplexed fifty years from now than you
are at this very moment. If your parents level with you, truly speak
their hearts, I suspect they would tell you life confuses them, too,
and that it rarely turns out the way you thought it would.
I find I am alternatively afraid, cantankerous, bewildered, often
hostile, sometimes gracious, and battered by a hundred new sensations
every day. I can be filled with a pessimism as gloomy as the depth of
the middle ages, yet deep within me I'm possessed of a hope that simply
won't quit. A friend on Wall Street said one day that he was optimistic
about the market, and I asked him, "Then why do you look so worried?"
He replied, "Because I'm not sure my optimism is justified." Neither am
I. So I vacillate between the determination to act, to change things,
and the desire to retreat into the snuggeries of self, family and
I wonder if any of us in this great, disputatious, over-analyzed,
over-televised and under-tenderized country know what the deuce we're
talking about, myself included. All my illusions are up for grabs, and
I find myself re-assessing many of the assumptions that served me
comfortable much of my life.
Earlier this week I heard on the radio a discussion in New York City
about the new Disney Broadway production of "Tarzan," the jungle hero
so popular when I was growing up. I remember as a kid almost
dislocating my tonsils trying to re-create his unearthly sound,
swinging on a great vine in a graceful arc toward the rescue of his
distressed mate, Jane, hollering bloody murder all the time. So what
have we learned since? That Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weismuller, who
played Tarzan in the movies, never made that noise. It was a recording
of three men, one a baritone, one a tenor, and one a hog caller from
Arkansas -- all yelling to the top of their lungs.
This world is hard on believers.
As a young man I was drawn to politics. I took part in two national
campaigns, served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and have
covered politics ever since. But I understand now what Thomas Jefferson
meant back in 1789 when he wrote: "I am not a Federalist because I
never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any
party of men, whether in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or
anything else. If I could not go to Heaven but with a party, I would
not go there at all." Of course we know there'll be no parties in
Heaven. No Democrats, no Republicans, no liberals, no conservatives, no
libertarians or socialists. Just us Baptists.
The hardest struggle of all is to reconcile life's polar realities.
I love books, Beethoven, and chocolate brownies. Yet how do I justify
my pleasure in these in a world where millions are illiterate, the
music never plays, and children go hungry through the night? How do I
live sanely in a world so unsafe for so many?
I don't know what they taught you here at Hamilton about all this,
but I trust you are not leaving here without thinking about how you
will respond to the dissonance in our culture, the rivalry between
beauty and bestiality in the world, and the conflicts in your own soul.
All of us have to choose sides on this journey. But the question is not
so much who we are going to fight against as it is which side of our
own nature will we nurture: The side that can grow weary and even
cynical and believe that everything is futile, or the side that for all
the vulgarity, brutality and cruelty, yearns to affirm, connect and
Albert Camus got it right: There is beauty in the world as well as
humiliation, "And we have to strive, hard as it is, not to be
unfaithful ... in the presence of one or the other."
That's really what brings me here this afternoon. I did put myself
in your place, and asked what I'd want a stranger from another
generation to tell me if I had to sit through his speech. Well, I'd
want to hear the truth: The truth is, life's a tough act, the world's a
hard place, and along the way you will meet a fair share of fools,
knaves and clowns -- even act the fool yourself from time to time when
your guard is down or you've had too much wine. I'd like to be told
that I will experience separation, loss and betrayal, that I'll wonder
at times where have all the flowers gone.
I would want to be told that while life includes a lot of luck,
life is more than luck. It is sacrifice, study, and work; appointments
kept, deadlines met, promises honored. I'd like to be told that it's
okay to love your country right or wrong, but it's not right to be
silent when your country is wrong. And I would like to be encouraged
not to give up on the American experience. To remember that the same
culture which produced the Ku Klux Klan, Tom DeLay and Abu Ghraib, also
brought forth the Peace Corps, Martin Luther King and Hamilton College.
And I would like to be told that there is more to this life than I
can see, earn, or learn in my time. That beyond the day-to-day
spectacle are cosmic mysteries we don't understand. That in the
meantime -- and the meantime is where we live -- we infinitesimal
particles of creation carry on the miracle of loving, laughing and
being here now, by giving, sharing and growing now.
Let me tell you one of my favorite stories. It’s by Shalom Aleichem
and it has stayed with me for many years now. The story is about
Bontshe Shvayg, one of the accursed of the Earth. Every misfortune
imaginable befell him. He lost his wife, his children neglected him,
his house burned down, his job disappeared—everything he touched turned
to dust. Yet through all this Bontshe kept returning good for evil
everywhere he could until he died. When the angels heard he was
arriving at Heaven’s gate, they hurried down to greet him. Even the
Lord was there, so great was this man’s fame for goodness. It was the
custom in Heaven that every newcomer was interrogated by the
prosecuting angel, to assure that all trespasses on Earth had been
atoned. But when Bontshe reached those gates, the prosecuting angel
arose, and for the first time in the memory of Heaven, said, “There are
no charges.” Then the angel for the defense arose and rehearsed all the
hardships this man had endured and recounted how in all the difficult
circumstances of his life he had remained true to himself and returned
good for evil.
When the angel was finished, the Lord said, "Not since Job himself
have we heard of a life such as this one." And then, turning to
Bontshe, he said, "Ask, and it shall be given to you."
The old man raised his eyes and said, "Well, if I could start every
day with a hot buttered roll..." And at that the Lord and all the
angels wept, at the preciousness of what he was asking for, at the
beauty of simple things: a buttered roll, a clean bed, a beautiful
summer day, someone to love and be loved by. These supply joy and
meaning on this earthly journey.
So I brought this with me. It's an ordinary breakfast roll, perhaps
one like Bontshe asked for. I brought it because it drives home the
last thing I want to say to you.
Bread is the great re-enforcer of the reality principle. Bread is
life. But if you're like me you have a thousand and more times repeated
the ordinary experience of eating bread without a thought for the
process that brings it to your table. The reality is physical: I need
this bread to live. But the reality is also social: I need others to
provide the bread. I depend for bread on hundreds of people I don't
know and will never meet. If they fail me, I go hungry. If I offer them
nothing of value in exchange for their loaf, I betray them. The people
who grow the wheat, process and store the grain, and transport it from
farm to city; who bake it, package it, and market it -- these people
and I are bound together in an intricate reciprocal bargain. We
This reciprocity sustains us. If you doubt it, look around you.
Hamilton College was raised here by people before your time, people
you'll never know, who were nonetheless thinking of you before you were
born. You have received what they built and bequeathed, and in your
time you will give something back. That's the deal. On and on it goes,
from generation to generation.
Civilization sustains and supports us. The core of its value is
bread. But bread is its great metaphor. All my life I've prayed the
Lord's Prayer, and I've never prayed, "Give me this day my daily
bread." It is always, "Give us this day our daily bread." Bread and
life are shared realities. They do not happen in isolation.
Civilization is an unnatural act. We have to make it happen, you and I,
together with all the other strangers. And because we and strangers
have to agree on the difference between a horse thief and a horse
trader, the distinction is ethical. Without it, a society becomes a war
against all, and a market for the wolves becomes a slaughter for the
lambs. My generation hasn't done the best job at honoring this ethical
bargain, and our failure explains the mess we're handing over to you.
You may be our last chance to get it right. So good luck, Godspeed,
enjoy these last few hours together, and don't forget to pass the