College of Staten Island 2005 Commencement Address
2005 College of Staten Island Commencement Address
So it has come to this—graduation. I’m so proud of you all today. I know the sacrifices you’ve made to be here and I know the joy of standing up and saying “I did it!”
For me this is a kind of homecoming. My first real job, when I was in Graduate School, was teaching at the City University and I still remember my students with great fondness. They apparently remember me too, because two of them showed up at a reading my daughter gave for her second book at Barnes & Noble and they told me with great enthusiasm that I had taught them to read; not just the lines but between the lines.
Why am I here? Well. . .not only because I graduated too, a long, long, long, long time ago, but because I’m a writer and I’ve spent more than 30 years worshipping the word—putting words in the right order, and trying to make sense; which to me means- telling the truth.
Telling the truth has never been easy and has never really gone out of style. But it has become harder these days because the language we speak has been captured by deliberate liars. Who are these liars? Advertisers, politicians, movie stars and other celebrities who all have what they think are good reasons to say the opposite of what they really mean. Advertisers, as we’ve always known but sometimes forget, make you want products you don’t need and which also may hurt you. Viagra which can possibly blind you, hormone pills which can cause breast cancer, and plastics that can damage a healthy fetus. Politicians specialize in saying the opposite of what they really mean in order to get your vote. They say “Healthy Forests,” when they mean clear-cutting trees. They say “Clear Skies” when what they mean is pollution. They say “Pacify” when they mean killing people. They say “Collateral Damage” when they mean killing foreign civilians. They say “Friendly Fire” when they mean killing our own soldiers. They trumpet peace while they send our youngest Americans to war.
Movie stars tell you that they’re in love when they’re just doing PR. Think of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Most people think they are in love. But they’ve pledged it on Oprah, so it must be true. New Age gurus may be the worst word corrupters of all. Do we really need wellness when we have health? Do we need healers rather than physicians? The words mean the same thing, but one sounds more alternative; another cant word). Do we need holistic, when we have whole? Is holistic somehow cooler than whole? It certainly has more syllables. People invent New Age cant in the hopes of sounding very important. New Age cant often introduces Latinate words where there used to be Anglo-Saxon ones. The more syllables, the more important. Wrong, simplicity of language can contain the most profound of ideas. Wellness is not better than health, it only sounds a little fancier. Not long ago I read on a so-called “wellness website” that chocolate is good for your heart, but not when it is mixed with fat and sugar and made into candy bars. This has not stopped the Mars Company from claiming the heart-healthy effects of their chocolates. Heart healthy, by the way is another word that sounds like a great deal more than it is. Telling the truth has never been harder because our very words have been corrupted. But our country was founded on the truth that the plain words of the people are more important than the fancy words of the kings.
We admire George Washington, not only for refusing to be king, but also for not lying, even though the cherry tree story may be a myth. We hold politicians to a much lesser standard today—we expect them to lie to us. We grant them the latitude to lie. We are lax about holding them to their word. We do not expect them to tell the truth about power any more than we expect Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to tell the truth about love. And we write off many lies as PR. Having stopped expecting truth, we rarely ever get it.
I guess I’ve been chosen to talk to you because as a writer—I’ve published nineteen books: poetry, fiction, non-fiction—I have never stopped expecting it, never stopped trying my best to tell it and have never stopped getting mad when its not told to me. I want you to learn to get mad when you are deliberately lied to. That is one of the main things an education is for—learning to distinguish between lies and the truth.
Why is getting mad at lies so important? Because our survival depends on it. Our republic depends on it. Our lives depend on it, whether it is pharmaceutical companies lying about the side effects of drugs or chemical corporations lying about pollution or politicians lying about why our young people are coming home in boxes. We are in danger unless we know the truth and the truth depends on words. During the Vietnam War we used to say that people came home in body bags but those words became politicized so now the military speaks of transfer tubes, transferring folks from the battlefield to the cemetery. This happens after the patient failed to fulfill his wellness potential, in other words, he died.
At McClellan Air Force base in Sacramento, California, civilian mechanics were placed on non-duty, non-pay status—that is, they were fired. And as for matters of life and death like war and the death penalty, Senator Orrin Hatch said, “capital punishment is our society’s recognition of the sanctity of human life.” I could go on and on and on and on. The examples are everywhere.
Why are words so vital? Why would someone spend her whole life indoors playing with words? Because whoever controls the words controls the conversation! Whoever controls the conversation controls its outcome—because framing the debate is the beginning of winning it; which is why what you have learned here at CSI is so precious.
In our time, it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a party line. Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, white papers and the speeches of under-secretaries, of course, vary from party to party. But they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, home-made turn of speech.
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases: “bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder,” one often has a curious feeling that one isn’t watching a human being but rather some kind of dummy. A feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacle and turns them into blank discs, which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again and over again, he or she may be almost unconscious of what he or she is saying. . .as one is when one utters the responses in church. This reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is favorable to political conformity.
This is George Orwell, writing his indispensable essay, Politics and the English Languag in 1947, just around the time he was starting his novel 1984, which appeared in 1949. Orwell understood better than any writer of the Twentieth century that a debased language, makes for a debased political life. When we say the opposite of what we mean and tolerate others saying the opposite of what they mean, we are well on our way to totalitarianism. Language is that important.
In his book, 1984, the Ministry of Truth, Minitrue, disseminates lies. The Ministry of Peace, Minipax, makes war—and the Ministry of Love, Miniluv, maintains order, usually through violence. Surrounded by barbed war and gun turrets, the Ministry of Love has no windows and is heavily guarded at all times. The Ministry of Plenty or Miniplenty controls all economic life. How can there be poverty or deprivation when Miniplenty is in charge.
You cannot even talk about such things. There are no words for them. But the people starve, for which newspeak has no word. No wonder the three mottoes of society are: WAR IS PEACE! FREEDOM IS SLAVERY! IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH!
You came to the City University because you didn’t believe such slogans which have their own equivalents in our society, and because you were willing to open your mind and let the fresh air inside. The families who supported you believed in fresh air also. They were able to cheer you on—even though they did not always understand what you were studying. They believed that education was a good thing, even if it was not always a comfortable thing. They deserve enormous credit for that and so do you! Being able to tolerate what is uncomfortable is the beginning of knowledge. Challenging yourself is the beginning of wisdom. I have written a whole shelf full of books. But when I Google myself online (all writers Google themselves constantly as a means of procrastination) what do I find? This quote, again and again, “And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.”
And this one, “Everyone has talent, what is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.”
One of these quotes is from my first novel, Fear of Flying, and one is from my second, How to Save Your Own Life. But most of the quoters probably do not know that. Usually, there is no attribution but my name. But what is interesting to me is what I am quoted for--tolerating risk and cultivating talent. And that is OK with me because those are two things I still care about alot. In fact, they may be the most important themes of all my work. You had to tolerate a great deal of risk to get where you are today and you still have to go deep into yourself and into the darkness to cultivate your talent; that will never ever change. Those things are both scary. Fear, which we all feel when we do something new, will try to stop you. But you will feel the fear and go on anyway; that’s also one of the themes of many of my books. I wish I could make it easier for you to tolerate the fear— I can’t, I can only offer inspiration. I can encourage you, but I can’t do it for you. I can offer some simple guidelines. Check the language you hear for clarity. If it’s not clear, the motivations aren’t either. Murky language means somebody wants to pick your pocket. Phrases like “Wellness Website” and “Heart Healthy” mean that your credit card will soon be punched. Phrases like “Axis of Evil!” and “9/11 Changed Everything!” mean that your draft card may be the next thing punched. And phrases like “the bravest who fell” and “Honor the Fallen” mean that you may soon be among them. All these phrases are meant to keep you from thinking. All these phrases are meant to instill fuzzy feelings of pride and patriotism that prevent clear thinking. Why should anyone want to keep you from thinking? There are only a couple of possibilities, to pick your pocket, to cover up something, or to put your life at risk while pretending to protect you.
Journalists are often the worst offenders—they seem to think that something is only news when some official does a press release about it, or that it is news when two rabid screamers, one from the quote right and one from the quote left, do a Punch & Judy show about it. But perhaps there is another way to look at news. Perhaps, as Bill Moyers says, “news is what people want to keep hidden” rather than what they do press releases about. We just saw that with the revelations of Deep Throat being rehearsed in the news. Perhaps news is the other thing you have to go into the darkness to find, and take risks to find. Perhaps news is neither right nor left. Perhaps news is only found by remaking the language and saying what you really really mean. We are deep into Orwell’s NEWSPEAK in America and are encouraged to lie at every turn!
We hear No Child Left Behind while education budgets are cut! Even this university was once FREE and PROUD OF IT! When I taught at City College, tuition was less than minimal. We hear of returning heroes while VA budgets are cut.
How can we keep from getting our pockets picked? By listening to what is said and probing deeper— by trying to remake the language so that it is clear again. By questioning authority, doing in short all the things you have learned here at CSI.
If Newspeak narrows the range of thought, then clear speaking expands it again. If New Age Cant obfuscates the truth with fancy verbiage, then puncturing it shows us the hollowness at its core. If political speech is meant to lull you into unconsciousness with ready-made slogans, then clear speech wakes you up. The labels “right” and “left” are inadequate to explain what people care about. They have become new means of censorship and obfuscation. We shut out truth by saying “right” and “left”. Nobody really thinks of herself as “right” or “left”. She thinks of herself as a person with complex views. But we face a danger today from orthodoxies with their automatic assumptions, and since the politicians, journalists, advertisers and new age gurus divide us into right and left, red state, blue state, we are lulled into doing it ourselves even though we know our views cannot be neatly bracketed that way. That way leads to fuzzy thinking and having our pockets picked.
I have fallen into the habit of blogging, which can be a great time waster, but is one way to keep our language clean. I’m blogging on the Huffington Post, Arianna’s blog along with Bill Maher, Larry David, Nora Ephron and a host of other ill-assorted blogomaniacs. Bill Maher remarked this morning thast it is impossible to keep a straight face in America because of all the “doublespeak”; he’s right. Memorial Day comes and goes and we are hearing all about brave fallen, while nobody seems to give a damn about the Downing Street memo that got us into the bloody Iraq mess in the first place. Then Memorial Day weekend is over and we are deep into 30 year-old news.
Deep Throat was Mark Felt. It’s ancient news even if Woodward and Bernstein did protect their sources. They got endless market share and moolah from that fact and good for them. I love it when writers make money, but the real news of the last two weeks has been mostly ignored. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is dead for another five years. Do we have another five years? And not only are there those loose nukes all over the place (even Bush and Kerry agreed on this in the 2004 Presidential campaign) but there are also several suicidal terrorists ready to lob them at cities like New York, LA, Chicago, Miami, London, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, etc.
Hello? I know that Condoleeza Rice couldn’t bother to go to these talks but Duarte said himself they set the cause of nuclear nonproliferation back years and we would have been better had the talks never occurred. And now we are off and running about a Vanity Fair story that recounts yet again the atrocities of the Nixon administration.
I know! I know! It’s no fun to think about nuclear incineration, in fact, it’s really depressing. I look at my sixteen month old grandson, Max, and I try to wrap my mind around a nuclear accident in New York and my mind just doesn’t want to go there.
But let’s get real! Tim Russert did a Meet The Press program last Sunday in which gray haired, sober-sided guys -Senator Sam Nunn, Senator Richard Lugar, Senator Fred Thompson, Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean of the 9/11 commission. Basically, all agreed that we are in deep danger. The materials are there. The terrorists are there. And the world goes on about a 91 year old guy confessing about a 30 year-old event.
I am baffled of course. I know you can’t predict the future. Nuclear Armageddon could come from an American, a Russian, a North Korean, an Israeli, an Iranian, count the countries . . . .mistake rather than a suicidal terrorist with a loose nuke. The truth is, we just don’t know. What we do know is the more materials are out there, the more the percentages against our survival go up. Think about New York in the case of some kind of Chernobyl happening here. Multiply 9/11 times a million. People die, get radiation poisoning, children die or get cancer, the stock market tanks, the world stops dead, nobody worries about “Deep Throat” or Martha Stewart or Paris Hilton’s engagement or whether the vote count in Ohio was fudged. GMA and the Today Show are still neck-in-neck, but nobody is watching! Why is nobody focusing on this? What will it take to get us to focus? As we used to say in the 1960’s, what do you do in the case of a terrorist with a loose nuke? “Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.”
It is hard to think about the future and we almost always get the details wrong. It’s true that most great empires are surrounded by prognostications of decline and fall and choose to do nothing about them. They seem incapable of even focusing on them. Rome didn’t fall in a day, nor did Greece and Sumer. But Rome, Greece and Sumer didn’t have nuclear weapons and people ready to employ them. Even in the 1950’s, that ancient age when I was in grade school, we were told to prepare for the nuclear holocaust by putting squares of oilcloth on the floor, kneeling on the floor like Muslims in prayer, covering our eyes, waiting for the flash and then what?
Tim Russert’s Meet The Press, the other day had a 1950’s video clip of a 1950’s general in charge of civil defense, say with a straight face, that if the A-bomb fell in America we should all
a) go down into our bomb shelters
b) eat canned food and drink bottled water for a while and
c) be sure to shower frequently to get rid of the radiation.
He didn’t say when we should come out of those bomb shelters. But we did come out of them and then promptly forgot all about the nuclear threat.
The great French sage, La Rochefoucauld said, “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” He was right! We don’t want to contemplate our own mortality let alone the planet’s. The sun is blinding and it is perfectly human to turn away from death. But whether we call it nuclear proliferation or the terrorist threat or the post 9/11 malaise, it’s time to look at our priorities. Let’s tell the truth! Let’s admit that danger is real but that we have the human ingenuity to solve it! Solving it will be much harder than it was to invent the Atomic bomb. But we’re smart. We know that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. We won’t be manipulated by the people who want to pick our pockets and destroy the only world we know that can sustain intelligent life. That’s you, intelligent life. I know you can do it. Thank You and Congratulations!