In America, words precede reality, literally and beautifully so. Pilgrims hadn’t yet touched land on the new continent 400 years ago when John Winthrop imagined for them not only that they’d be building that “city upon a hill,” but that “the eyes of all people are upon us.” The Constitution 160 years later was another leap of words into an undiscovered country: a republic built exclusively under the law. After 1500 years of blood-soaked religious tyrannies, God was gone, along with absurd notions of divine right or government without representation. It took a while for the Constitution’s words to apply to anyone not white, not male and not moneyed. But again, the words of Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, Susan Anthony and Martin Luther King anticipated what lesser men and women more or less fulfilled.
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American history is inseparable from American language, and American language is inseparable from the American speech — the sermon from the pulpit, the Chautauqua lecture, political convention speeches, the state of the union message, the commencement address. So it is every year around this time: tens of thousands of speeches across the land in universities, colleges and high schools taking stock of the country in its present state and imagining, sometimes inventing, what’s ahead. John Winthrop’s speech to the pilgrims was, after all, America’s first commencement address.
Most of those are cannonades of Bartlett’s quotations and clichés, especially in high schools, where student-speakers are strait-jacketed by assumptions that they should be reverential to those who got them there at precisely the moment when they should break those chains and re-make the world on their own terms. Favorable terms to us all, we hope.
Anthony DeAugustino’s valedictory at the Flagler Palm Coast High School graduation last week had some of that edge. “May we never forget what God has done for us, and may we never cease to be thankful for those things, as long as we are one nation under God, and we declare that it is in god we trust,” DeAugustino said to wild, and rather chilling, cheers. It’s encouraging to see students expressing themselves freely, no matter what one may feel about their ideas. I wish more did so, whether it’s about religion, politics, education, or whatever else they’ve been led to believe is “inappropriate” to speak of on graduation. “Inappropriate” according to whose gate-keeping stupidity? That’s not to say that the better speeches shouldn’t invite responses and reflections of their own. DeAugustino’s speech certainly did.
He quoted Jeremiah, but he also quoted Theodore Roosevelt, though not the TR who decried the “narrow bigotry” of those who make their civic decisions based on religious creed. So it was less encouraging to hear a large local crowd go nuts, like a bunch of fanatics at a Taliban pep rally, at the emphasized declaration of “one nation under god.” They think they’re one nation under god, too, over there where American soldiers are dying every day, and they take it to the final logical level when such beliefs are held to be the national creed: they behead those who disagree, just as Europeans did in centuries of mixing god and politics before our own Founders and the Constitution showed them the better way.
Two days after the Flagler Palm Coast High School graduation, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter spoke to the 359th graduating class at Harvard. “Is there any one of us who has not lived through moments, if not years, of longing for a world without ambiguity, and for the stability of something unchangeable in human institutions?” Souter asked. “I don’t forget my own longings which heartily resisted the pronouncement of Justice Holmes, which I read as an undergraduate, that certainty generally is illusion and repose is not our destiny. But I have come to understand that he was right.” The better speeches are also those that renounce fundamentalism’s skanky seductions.
A week ago Lisa Kudrow at Vassar remembered her own graduation 25 years ago, when then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo was the speaker, Ronald Reagan was president and George W. Bush was still a drunk. Cuomo had done one of those things speakers often do at these things: tell the graduating class to look around and take in what the previous four years had meant. But Kudrow had it right when she remembered the moment last week: “I wasn’t in the mood to look back and be sad over what I might miss later. I was ready to be looking forward, like I’m sure a lot of you are.” That’s assuming there’s much to look forward to these days. This year’s addresses aren’t all in yet. But they’re not going to be that different from last year’s serial reality checks on an American dream less dreamy than it had been since Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” therapy started the country on its ruinous addiction to fantasy on borrowed money.
“There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Never was, never will be,” the historian David McCullough told graduates of the University of Oklahoma last year. “We are all, as were those in whose footsteps we follow, shaped by the influence and examples of countless others — parents, grandparents, friends, rivals.” Not to mention government’s enormously helping hand since the founding of the Republic, especially to a business world that still begs for government help with one lip while bad-mouthing it with another.
The playwright John Patrick Shanley was blunt at the College of St. Vincent: “Not to bring up something upsetting, but when you leave here today, you may go through a period of unemployment. My suggestion is this: Enjoy the unemployment. Have a second cup of coffee. Go to the park. Read Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman loved being unemployed. I don’t believe he ever did a day’s work in his life.” Speaking as an unemployed person, I’m not so sure Shanley knows we can’t all be Walt Whitmans, especially in a country where Walt Whitman would have been booted off American Idol in the first round.
Barbara Ehrenreich had even bleaker words for the University of California’s School of Journalism graduates: “You are going to be trying to carve out a career in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You are, furthermore, going to be trying to do so within what appears to be a dying industry.” Ehrenreich thankfully didn’t play into the self-pity I hear from my journalist colleagues all over the place. She went on: “Well, you are not alone. How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now? And I’ve spent time with plenty of laid-off paper mill workers, construction workers and miners. They’ve got skills; they’ve got experience. They just don’t have jobs. So let me be the first to say this to you: Welcome to the American working class.”
About time, too, considering that despite its founders and Lincolns and Kings and their greatest words, this country would have been nothing without its working class. It won’t hurt us to rediscover its existence, to become part of it again—and to beg for its blessing and forgiveness before presuming to have god’s.