"Go Forth Unafraid"
May 18, 2003
Thank you all so kindly. I am delighted to be here. I think I can pretty well guarantee that the world will little nor long remember what is said at Commencement 2003, Scripps College. It is the fate of commencement speakers to be forgotten almost immediately. But these are the last words y’all will hear before you become diploma’d and commenced, so pay attention because I have some real good advice for you.
Now, I love commencements. This is one of my favorite rituals and I think those of us who really love the tradition should stick to tradition. It’s what Tony Kushner calls “that giddy graduation mood compounded of jubilation, accomplishment, bankruptcy, terror, and exhaustion.” And so, in keeping with commencement tradition, I would like to say to the graduates, go forth unafraid. I knew you’d appreciate that advice.
Actually, given the state of the world, go forth unafraid but probably a soupçon of caution would not be out of place. The other thing I’m supposed to tell you is that success cannot be measured by money; however, in the real world it often is. Money isn’t everything, but it helps. Life in the real world is hard, but it is not as hard as Experimental Psychology 2. Education is never wasted, and I bring that up because of my difficulties with experimental psychology. When I got to Experimental Psych, they gave me a Skinner Box and a rat. My rat was supposed to learn that if he pressed the bar, he would get a food pellet. He was a bright rat—he learned that in no time flat. Then, he had to learn that he had to press the bar twice in order to get a food pellet. But, my rat had committed something called over-learning, which can be plotted on a Bell Curve. And what happened was, he would press once and not get his food pellet, and instead of trying again, my rat developed something called neurotic ritual. It would turn around three times to the left, tossing its little ratty head, and then kind of fall over backwards in frustration. I ruined a perfectly good rat, and felt guilty about it for years and never saw any use in it.
And then one day, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I had occasion to visit the State Department, and particularly those who had served on the Soviet desk, and realized as I watched them all turning to the left three times and kind of throwing their heads around that they had all committed over-learning and I then understood their problem and this was really good. All right, that’s the value of a liberal arts education.
Now, I have three pieces of advice for you out of my very own life experience. Ready? First, raise hell—big time. I want ya’ll to get out there and raise hell about damned near everything. My word there is a world out there that needs fixing. Get out there and get after it! Now let me tell you, no matter what you do your whole life (many of you being Scripps graduates will probably throw pots), but you’ll become doctors or lawyers or beggars or thieves—whatever you wind up doing, you will be, most of you, citizens of this country your entire life. That is a second job and it’s a job that requires real responsibility.
We are at a time in our national life where the political system is pretty frankly corrupt. I know that many of you despise organized politics. You’re young and idealistic and entitled to do that. But the corruption can be fixed and the heritage is too important to be let go. We are all of us collectively the heirs to the most magnificent political tradition any people has ever received. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men (and women) are created equal, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We hold that governments are instituted among men to secure these rights and that whenever any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
Those principles are so profoundly revolutionary that they still echo with great force around the world after more that 200 years. There are people today who are dying for the chance to live under those principles. They died in South Africa. They died at Tiananmen Square. They are dying today in Myanmar. And in this country we are in some danger of throwing away that entire legacy out of boredom, and cynicism and inanition. And I hear constantly people say, “Well, I really just don’t care much for politics;” “Ah well, they’re all crooks, there’s nothing I can do.” People have a million reasons for not getting involved. The thing is, you can’t back out of it, it’s not your choice. You can’t look at politics in this country as though it were a television program, or a picture on a wall that you could stand back and look at and decide whether or not you liked it.
Your entire life—the warp and woof of your life—is going to be bounded by political decisions made in city halls and state capitals and the White House, and the Capitol in Washington. How deep you will be buried when you die, the qualifications of the people who prescribe your eyeglasses, whether or not the dye you use on your hair will cause cancer. All of those, and many, many more things that touch your life everyday in a thousand ways. Whether or not your car is safe when you get into it, all of these things are affected by government. You are involved, whether you like the picture or not. And if you don’t like it, you really have an obligation to change it.
Let me point out a couple great pieces of news about raising hell. This leads me (having impressed you with the importance of raising hell) to my second piece of advice, which is—and I’m really serious about this—you must have fun. You must work at having fun. Let me tell you, you can’t put it off. You’ve gotta have fun while you’re fighting to fix the world, because first of all, we don’t always win, so it might get to be all the fun you’ll ever have, and second of all, it’s a better way to live. If you don’t have fun while you’re fighting to make a better world, what’s gonna happen is you’re gonna get tired and bitter and cynical and burnt out and just wind up a complete waste to everybody. So just put fun on your list.
In Texas, the peculiar place from which I come, we find that imagination and beer are useful.
A few years back, the state legislature in Texas took a fit of communism and declared Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state holiday. Now don’t worry, it was a package deal; we kept Confederate Heroes day. Nevertheless, we now honor Dr. King’s birthday as a state holiday and as y’all can imagine, it upset the Ku Klux Klan. And the Klan announced that it was coming to Austin to have a big march and a rally to protest this terrible thing. Now, it’s always awful, I didn’t realized civilized people in other parts of the world don’t have this problem, but it’s always a real pain in the butt when the Kluckers come to march. It upsets the black citizens, it upsets the Jewish citizens. Skinhead kids turn out to cheer for them, people get in fist fights on the sidewalk, and everybody’s mad at everybody for a good six months. And it is one’s bounded duty as a good American citizen, as a civil libertarian, a believer in the constitution and the principle of free speech, to stand up for the right of these blue-bellied nincompoops to spew whatever vicious dribble they want to. It says so right there in the first amendment. And I will tell you that this is a stand that will make you about as popular as a whore trying to get in to the SMU School of Theology. It is not gonna improve your standing with the neighbors, take my word for it.
So, a group of us dispirited civil libertarians, faced with the prospect of a Klan march, gathered over a pitcher of beer down at the Zona Rosa bar in Austin and came up with what we thought was a better plan. Now we don’t have enough Kluckers right there in Austin to have a good march. They had to be bussed in from Waco and Vidor. They got off the buses wearing their little pointy hats on their little pointy heads and commenced to march up Congress Avenue towards the capital. They were greeted by several thousand citizens of Austin who mooned them as they marched. It made a very nice effect; it was kind of like a wave at a baseball stadium.
Not a tactic I would recommend for Minnesota in winter time, but once again you should consider that when you are out trying to improve the world, there is no earthly reason for you not to have fun doing it. And you’ve got to work at that, you’ve got to concentrate on that. I want to pass on a quote from a wonderful fellow, Joe Rauh, who died a few years ago. He was a great American freedom fighter. He was one of the lawyers who stood up and defended people during the McCarthy era—another time of fear—the fear of the terrible threat of Communism in those days, terrorism today, that made people so afraid that they tried to make themselves safer by making themselves less free. And the funny thing is, when you make yourself less free, you’re not safer, you’re just less free. There is no connection. But that is an instinct that shows up repeatedly in American life, and we’re going through another such episode.
So, Mr. Rauh would have been a great guy to have freedom fighting with us today. Fought during the McCarthy era, during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement when it was unclear that we were going to have any kind of success there, it was always hot, and we were always scared, Rowell used to come get people out of jail and deal with authorities. And he fought on the side of the right and the good most of his life, and toward the end, one of these big national organizations was fixing to lay one of these lifetime freedom fighter awards on him, and Joe was sick in the hospital, and asked a friend of his to go down to Philadelphia to collect the award for him. Friend went to see him in hospital, said “Joe, what do you want me to tell these folks when I pick up the award?” He’s looking at Joe lying there sick as a dog, and thinking about his life, all the struggles, all the hard times, you know, trying to fight for social justice, and racial justice, and trying to deliver on the promise of “liberty and justice for all” and all the hard battles, and all the hard work, and Joe looked up at him and said, “Oh, tell them how much fun it was. Tell them how much fun it was.” Now think about it. Y’all get down toward the end of your road, I want you all to be able to turn around and tell the young women who come behind you, and believe me, as women you are going to go through some special tests, that you just had a hell of a lotta fun raising hell. Thank you.
Now, my third piece of advice today—I know you would remember to do it anyway, but I think it is real important—I want y’all to thank your moms and your dads and your stepmoms and stepdads, and aunts and uncles, and everybody who helped get you through.
Have wonderful lives, go forth unafraid.