Bard News & Events
The Honorable Cory A. Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Addressed Graduates at Bard College’s 152nd Commencement on Saturday, May 26, 2012
Text of Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s commencement address:
Please forgive me if it sounds immodest, but I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I get a handful of commencement invitations every year during this season. But this commencement speech didn’t even take me a moment. I didn’t have to check my schedule to see if there was a conflict. I jumped at the opportunity to be here. This is an institution that not only stands for something by its proclamation, but it stands for something by what it does every single day, not just for the students that are here, but for others.
I believe in my heart, and I’ve said this publicly, that the slavery of the 1800s and before in America was a slavery of physical bondage, but that the slavery of today is a slavery of spiritual and intellectual bondage where people are being cast into prisons of limited opportunities, chained and confined to small outcomes because they have not been given the opportunity to educate themselves to have broad and ample pathways to empower their intellect and to bring it to bear in this world.
This is a university that stands for those values, not just with the students we see here, but in communities like mine. The fact that you are present in Newark, in a city that for too long has been disregarded, disrespected, or just plain dissed. The fact that you all are there means so much to me, but even more than that, the fact that you all are the leading provider of education in our prisons to me shows me that you recognize the worth and the value and the dignity of every individual and that, ultimately, you are liberators.
And so let me begin just saying thank you for including me, thank you for having me here on what is one of your more precious days of your lives. I want to thank the trustees, who are the caretakers of this university, whose stewardship makes days like this possible. I want to thank the faculty and staff who have not just mastered their subjects, but shown some of the deeper, more admirable traits of humanity in their caring and their compassion and their support and the discipline that they have brought to their students. I want to thank those people who often do not get thanked, the faces that often are first forgotten, people who, without their work, we would not be here today. Those are the secretaries and the assistants, those are the people who prepare the food and serve it, those are the people who clean the floors and clean the bathrooms, those are the people that mow the grass and keep the grounds. They too deserve our thanks, our love, and our gratitude.
And now I want to thank the families. It is your love that made today possible, your care packages, your calls, often your checks. And, before I turn my attention to the graduates, allow me to thank the families here for not acting and behaving like my family did during my graduations. You see, my parents and relatives—cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents—used to pack tents like this, showing up five, six, seven hours before, reserving half of the event. If it was a ticketed event, almost ruining my political career with the famous Booker ticket-counterfeiting controversy. And then throughout the whole procedure, they would scream and yell my name at the most inappropriate moments imaginable. When the father was praying for the graduates, they would scream my name. Then after the graduation was one of my most painful, yet favorite, moments. It was when I was besieged upon by the sea of family that was there, and I would hear, from my eighth-grade graduation to law school, the same jokes over and over again, and the same stories. The jokes would come like this: someone would sidle up to me, often my granddad, and he’d say, “you see boy, the tassel is worth the hassle.” I’d say, “Yes, granddad, yes.” And then my family, always being the first to try to keep my feet on the ground, would fold open the program, flip through the pages, and say, “You see, boy, I don’t see you here as magna cum laude or summa cum laude. I guess you were just, thank-ya-lawdy, I’m outta here.”
But then would come the advice. And, I tell you, I would hear stories again and again, but always at the core, what I now reflect upon, it was the same advice: they wanted me to remember who I was, no matter what happened, understand and know, as one of my relatives put it, that the degree you hold was paid for, not by you, but by the sweat, tears, sacrifice, and even blood of ancestors that you don’t even know. They wanted me to fulfill the one obligation, stay true to myself, to be who I say I am, to live life with a courageous authenticity. Now my father and mother, they lived these lessons for me every single day and infused them in me. In fact, I tease my dad to this day, now that I’ve reached my 40s, I say “Dad, you gotta stop, I’ve heard these stories now for 40 years, and I know see that the facts are changing every time you tell them, the stories are getting more dramatic and more difficult. I hear about your childhood.” And if I ever say my dad was born poor, he’ll heckle me and say “Boy, I wasn’t poor I was just po’, P O, I couldn’t afford the other two letters. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
And the stories in this North Carolina town where he was born to a single mother, the weather just changed. First it was rain, then it was thunderstorms, then the hail period began, hail the size of golf balls, eventually hail the size of small Cadillacs. This Thanksgiving, I had to get into a fight with him and tell him, “Dad, I’m sorry, you were in the mountains of North Carolina, there was no way you could have experienced a tsunami in your town.”
I have to tell you though, my parents told me that same lesson in so many ways. Artfully they put it to me that “son, never forget that you are the result of a conspiracy of love that goes deep into your background, people whose names you do not know.” Despite my father’s exaggerations, that is the truth. He was born to a single mom, who could not take care of him. His mother then had to have his grandmother take care of him, then his grandmother couldn’t take care of him and he was taken in by a town. I don’t know the people’s names from that small community, but they looked after him, they put a roof over his head, they put food on his table. And then when my father was able to get people encouraging him in school—it was time to go to college—he couldn’t afford it and was just going to go work and not go to college, but people in that town, whose names I do not know, that conspiracy of love, intervened with my dad, insisted that he apply to a small, historically black college in North Carolina called North Carolina Central, and they said, “We will give you the money.” My dad tells me about dollar bills being put in envelopes. They gave him the money to pay his first semester’s tuition until he could find a job. I do not know these people’s names, but I own them my very existence.
But that conspiracy of love continued. Last year, I had the honor of being the 50th reunion graduation speaker for my mom at Fisk University. And the night before there was a dinner and she took me around, table to table, this was her 50th reunion and she stopped me and introduced me to people at the tables. “Oh, this person led our student voter registration drives when it was dangerous, dangerous to go out and register people to vote,” remembering Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. She would say, “This was the person who led our boycotts; this was the person who led our marches.” It was almost like she was saying to me, “Boy, boy, pay attention, you may not know these peoples names, but they are part of that conspiracy of love that gave you life. They fought for you. They protested for you. They sweated and sacrificed for you.” That conspiracy continued. My parents made it plain. They both graduated from college, ended up in Washington, D.C., at a time when blacks weren’t being hired by many companies, but that conspiracy of love came together, black people and white people forming organizations like the Urban League, and suddenly my parents were the breakthrough generation, the first blacks hired by different companies. My father, one of the first blacks for Sinclair Oil, and one of the first blacks for a department store, and then, the two of them became two of the firsts blacks hired in a new wave of African Americans working for this tech firm that you might have heard of, called IBM.
The conspiracy continued to the town I grew up in. My parents in the late 60s and early 70s, were looking for homes for their kids up in New Jersey and they couldn’t find any in white neighborhoods because real estate agents wouldn’t show black families homes in white neighborhoods. But this conspiracy of love, people coming together through an organization—the Fair Housing Council— names I do not know, worked with my parents so that they went to a house and were told it was sold, they sent a white couple out behind them, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, but they were not brown, they were white, and the house would still be for sale. My parents finally found a home they loved, there were told it was sold, the Browns went, it was still for sale, they made a bid on the home. On the day of the closing, instead of the Browns showing up, my father showed up with a lawyer whose name I do not know, but owe him so much. They marched into this real estate agent’s office and said, “You are in violation of New Jersey Fair Housing Council law,” and before you knew it, the real estate agent stood up, didn’t even finish listening to them, and punched my father’s lawyer in the face and sicced a dog on my dad. Now the size of the dog is up for some debate. My father insists it was Cujo. My mom will whisper to me and say, “it was just Toto, Cory, It was just Toto.”
Literally months later, after a big court case, we moved into a small town in New Jersey, into a home that I grew up in. As my father would affectionately call us, “the four raisins in a tub of vanilla ice cream.” And that town was nurturing soil for me. I grew up strong and proud, and my parents would always tug at me when they saw me as a senior, high school football all-American, when they saw me on the honor society, my dad would always tease me, “Boy, don’t you walk around here like you hit a triple. You were born on third base, boy.” And they would get serious. They would want me to understand that I drink deeply from wells of freedom and liberty that I did not dig. I eat lavishly from banquet tables prepared for me by my ancestors. I sit under the shade of trees that were planted and cultivated and cared for by those who I will never know. They wanted me to fulfill my obligation that came with all of these abundant blessings. Yes, you worked hard, yes, you struggled, yes, you made sacrifices, yes, you were disciplined, but never forget that your very DNA contains the components of that conspiracy, that you are love. You are not your stress. You are not your worry. You are not your fears. You’re not your anxieties. You are not your circumstances. You are love.
And so I did what my parents challenged me to do. I lived life as if I could not fail and embraced life in that way, and I decided that I would move to Newark, New Jersey, a town with many great neighborhoods, but I wanted to follow the calling of the great American poet Chris Rock, who said, “Why is it the most violent street in every city is named for the man who stood for nonviolence?” And I moved onto a section of Martin Luther King Boulevard that was very troubled in the mid 90s. And I’ll never forget as I got there with my youthful arrogance, a Yale law student, and somebody told me, if you’re going to do community organizing, you need to find the tenant president in this neighborhood. And I tell you, I’ve had many great professors in my life, but I knocked on the door of this woman and met one of my greatest life professors, who lived the spirit of my family. She opened the door, and I immediately saw this short older woman looking at me and saying, “Who are you?” And I was now, “I’m Cory Booker, ma’am.” I felt like John Wayne riding into town and I said, “Well, little filly, I’m Cory Booker, I live across the street. I’m a Yale law student and I’m here to help you.” She said, “you want to help me?” and I said, “Yeah!” And she said, “Okay, you want to help me,” and she almost looked sympathetic. She closed the door and she said, “Follow me,” and she walks down five flights of stairs. I follow her through the courtyard into the middle of Martin Luther King Boulevard, cars going by back and forth, and she says to me, “You need to tell me what you see around you,” and I go, “What do you mean?” She goes, “Describe what you see.” I said, “Sure.” I said, “I see uh, uh, uh, abandoned building used for drugs, I see graffiti,” I just described the neighborhood and the more I talked, the more disappointed she looked. And, then finally when I stopped, she says, “I’m sorry, you can’t help me.”
She started walking away, and I chased after this woman, and I stopped her on the side of the street, and I said, “What are you talking about?” and she turns around, looks me hard in the eyes. She was shorter than me, but I tell you I felt like, at that moment, she was looking down on me, and she said, “You need to understand something, boy, that the world you see outside of you will always be a reflection of what you have inside of you, and if you’re one of those people who only sees problems and darkness and despair, that’s all there’s every going to be. But, if you’re one of those people who stubbornly, every time you open your eyes, you see faith, hope, opportunity, love—if you see the face of God, then you can be one of those folks who comes up here and helps me.” And she walked away, leaving me on the side of the street. All I could do was scratch my head and think to myself, “Okay, Grasshopper, thus endeth the lesson.”
I went back and started working with Miss Jones, and I started seeing a world of women who cared about that community, who fought to keep people in their apartments, who fought to take care of kids, who were always around this kitchen table strategizing like this conspiracy of love my parents told me about. You see, graduates, this to me is the hardest lesson I’m relearning over and over and over again, that the circumstances don’t matter. That, in fact, my very perspective of the world says less about the world than it actually says about me. And my challenge in life, every day and every moment that I get, is just to tell my truth to the world, to infuse at every moment my spirit, my authenticity, my courage. And, in fact, life is not about the big challenge, the big election, the big fight, the big job. No, to me, the most important things in life are the small moments, and, in fact, the biggest thing you can do on any given day is a small act of kindness, just showing this world consistently, indefatigably, showing this world who you are at your core.
Now I have a funny example of this, and I hope you won’t laugh at me too much, but when I was 19, I was traveling from Newark airport to San Francisco airport, flying back to college. I get on a plane and it was packed, every seat was taken, and I sit down in a row where there was no seat taken. Now you have to understand, please look at me if you can and just close your eyes now and envision a college football player, see me as the chiseled man I was back then. Now I’m no longer chiseled, I just jiggle, but please work with me here for a second. As the door to the plane closed and I had three seats open, all these uncomfortable people packed like sardines, pushing each other, shoving each other, I immediately thought the obvious thing: God must love me more than he loves these other people.
And I sat back there, stretching out, putting my chiseled arms out wide and spreading my legs and pushing my stuff over, and I’m a religious guy, so I started singing, “Yes, Jesus loves me.” And before I could go on with my next verse, the door to the plane opens up and the cabin fills with these cacophonous screams, as if somebody is being murdered outside the plane. Everybody stopped what they were doing, shot their eyes at what beast could be coming through that door to the plane. And, in walks this woman with a little boy and a baby, and this baby was crying as if it was a nuclear-powered speaker, and they came closer to me, and immediately everyone stopped looking at that woman and the baby and just turned their heads and slowly looked at me. And everyone on that plane was thinking the same thing: “You smug little man.” She comes to sit with me, and she says, “I’m sitting there.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, here’s this woman and her woofer and tweeter, oh my gosh.” And she sits down next to me and, immediately, I thought this was going to be the worst flight of my life. But that was me surrendering to circumstance, not owning the most important decision we all have to make in every minute or our life, will we accept things as they are or take responsibility for changing them? Suddenly, I had an evolved thought, and I said, “I’m going to be present in this moment, I’m going to infuse my truth here, and I’m going to make this flight the best flight I can have.” And before you knew it, I started talking to the woman, and as soon as I pulled myself out of my drama, I saw that she was embarrassed, that everybody was staring at her. And I tried to make her feel at ease. I started making faces at the baby that paralyzed some of my face muscles. And then we take off, and now we’re having a good time. She’s relaxed, I’m playing tic-tac-toe with the little boy, and then I proceed to tell him every single joke I had appropriate for a seventh-grader. Why did Tiger and Eeyore have their heads in the toilet? Because they were looking for Pooh.
That’s why I’m in politics. It was the quickest flight I’d ever taken. I land in California, we exchange addresses, we say we’re going to keep in touch. But we don’t keep in touch. Five years pass, 10 years pass, 15 years pass, and now I’m in one of the most difficult periods of m life. I was running for mayor, I was in a street fight, and I was discouraged on this particular day, and I opened the mail and there was this letter from a woman saying, “You may not remember me, but I met you on the first flight I ever had with my kids. I thought it was going to be horrible, but you made it so good. Your kindness I will never forget.” She went on to say that they were in Newark; her family was in Newark, owned a factory in the city. The little boy I was brutalizing with my jokes was now a young man who became one of my best campaign volunteers. They employed lots of Newarkers and invited me to talk to them, and then they did something that politicians love: they wrote me campaign contributions.
This is the truth of who we must be. We must tell this world our truth on our journey because it’s not about the journey, it’s not about where you’re going, it’s about the now and this moment. And every moment, whatever you encounter is for your good. I tell people always that you should love those who hate you. Or as I say often, “Let your haters not be your deflators but your motivators, let their fire take you higher, and let their lies fuel your rise.” I tell people, along their journey to make sure, in the very moment that you’re in, that you take risks, that you take chances. I believe in my heart of hearts that it is better to have your ship sunk at sea than have it rot in the harbor. I tell people, on their journey, to please, make sure, in the present moment, to take on the more difficult challenges. In life you don’t get everything you pay for, as Frederick Douglass reminded us, but you must pay for everything that you get. I tell people on their journey to make sure in the present moment, in the now, make sure that you live your love, because you will not have that moment again.
I conclude with another elderly woman and she happened to be the first person I ever represented as a client. And she embodied that lesson from my parents so well that I’d like to end with her note. I changed some of the facts out of respect for the family, but I met her at a public housing project in New Haven, Connecticut. She was being evicted from her home because she had a 19-year-old nephew that was looking after her because she would fall into seizures and would need somebody there, but her 19-year-old nephew was caught with a lot of drugs. And the housing authority had a very draconian law that if one person is caught with drugs in the family, they move to evict everyone. Well, I listened to this, and I was upset. I left her little apartment and I drove back to my legal center. I sat with my supervising attorney, and I said, “We’re going to fight this injustice.” I’m so upset by this, and my supervising attorney looked at me patiently and said, “You need to understand something, Cory, you are a lawyer now. You don’t represent your own agenda for justice. You represent that woman, and if you force her to fight this, I’ve seen these cases, you might have a 10 or 15 percent chance, and if you force her to fight and she loses, you’ll go home so upset, but she won’t have a home to go to at all. You need to go get her, take her back here, and explain to her rights and let her choose for herself.” And I did just that, I picked her up, drove her back to the legal center, sat in a conference room for what was one of the longest hours of my life. And all this woman could do was cry during that time. My elder, this woman of dignity, all she could do was cry and say over and over again, “Why are they doing this to me? I’ve done nothing wrong. Why are they doing this to me?”
And then, all of a sudden at the end of that hour, something miraculous happened. I believe in miracles, I really do. Emerson said, “That only which we have within can we see without. If we see no angels, it’s because we harbor none.” And here this woman manifested to me a miracle in a simple question. She curled inside herself and stopped me from speaking just by that motion. She opened her eyes and she said, “Just tell me one thing,” and I said, “Yeah.” She goes, “If I decide to fight this case, will it help other people?” I looked at her, and I said, “I told you, ma’am, we only have a 10 or 15 percent chance of winning a case like this. My supervising attorney has seen them before, but, yes, I guess if we win the case, yes, it will help because we’ll have a precedent.”
Before I could go on she just heard that word, “yes,” and she curled inside of her body again. This woman took her frail fingers and curled them into fists and opened her eyes looking like a woman of a new spirit, slammed her fists on the table, pushed back, and she stood up, and she looked at me hard and she said, “Ten or 15 percent is enough for me. We will fight.” And in that moment, I saw her truth. I saw her heroic hope. I saw her defiant dignity. I saw her love. She was greater than her fears. She was greater than her worries, her doubts. She was greater than her circumstances. She was light. She strode out of that room with a regality in her spirit, and I just watched her go. I turned to my supervising attorney, and we just stared at each other until I realized I had to give the woman a ride home, so I ran after her and put her in my car.
I worked for three days and three nights on this case. I woke up one day, getting ready to go back to the library, and I get a call from my supervising attorney, who said, “Cory, you need to stop for a second.” I go, “No, come on, I gotta hurry.” My supervising attorney said, “No, stop.” I said, “What?” She said, “I have some really bad news for you.” I go, “What?!” She goes, “Well last night, your client, your very first client, had a heart attack and died.” I remember slamming down the phone, feeling my eyes fill with tears and rage. I began to want to cuss like a sailor, and suddenly I realized my arrogance. You see, I thought God had put the great Cory Booker there for my poor client, but there’s purpose in everything. God had put this great woman there for the poor me. At the very beginning of my career, months before my last graduation, she demonstrated to me what fundamentally is the most important force in universe. The Greeks called it agape. The Hebrews called it chesed. As a poor Baptist from Newark, New Jersey, we just call it love.
This to me is the calling to me that my parents gave me: to be who I am, not the world around me. I wasn’t born to fit in. We were all born to stand out. Be who you are. You’re not born to accept what is; you’re born to infuse your change. And, as King said, “Change will never roll in from the wheels of inevitability; it must be carried in on the backs of authentic spirits of love.” This is the calling of my graduations. I tell you, my parents would swirl around me with other family members. And, I don’t mean to be down for the graduates, but as I stand here 20 years since my last graduation, some of those family members that were there from eighth grade to college to graduate school to law school, some of them are not here anymore. My future wife, she’ll never get to meet my grandfather. My kids will never get to meet my grandfather, but they will KNOW him. They will know his love. They will know his spirit. Embrace those people today and let them know that you will go out into this world understanding that your very makeup is composed by that conspiracy of love, of which they were a critical part. Go out there and swear to this world your oath, not with your words, but with what you do. Not with your hand over your heart, but with your hand outstretched to a world that desperately needs your hand, your help, your insights, your creativity, your honor, your courage. It needs you.
On this idea of an oath, I conclude with what my parents would read me as a boy. Nights before I would go to bed, they would read me stories and poetry and this one means the most to me. It simply reads this: “Oh, let America be America again, the land that never has been yet, but yet must be the land where everyone is free, the poor man, the Indian, the Negro me. Who made America, whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain must make our mighty dream live again. Oh yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, but I swear this oath, America will be.” As Langston Hughes has called you, as your families have called you, as this institution has called you, now is your turn to go unto this world, swearing your oath, telling your truth, living your love. And with that courage, day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment, second to second, with that truth, you will join a chorus of conviction of your peers. With that truth, you will join together and you may be the generation that makes this nation live up to the promises spoken by our children in classrooms in Newark, that we will be the nation with liberty and justice for all. Thank you.
Text of Bard President Leon Botstein’s Charge to the Graduates:
As we all know too well, no one ever seems to remember what anyone really says at a commencement, and for the most part what is said is predictable and so familiar. Presidents of colleges, like priests and rabbis, have discovered that no matter how eloquent, no matter how serious a tone they assume, formal speeches, like homilies and sermons, leave precious little residue. Invoking high ideals from the commencement platform has all the efficacy of the annual sermon among Christians and the Yom Kippur sermon among Jews. We are exhorted to extend peace to all, to be virtuous, and to act for the betterment of humankind, but, before even each holiday recedes into memory—and these holidays really blend together—we return to our old ways, to a world of strife, prejudice, violence, and suspicion.
You, the Class of 2012 are remarkable even by Bard’s standards. You deserve the very best advice and wisdom I’m capable of giving you. Since I’m, sorry to say, a veteran of failed conventions of final charges to graduating classes of any attempt at excellence, I’ve decided to appeal to your sense of irony and humor. I may owe you the plain, unvarnished truth just for once. But if I do tell you the truth in front of your justly proud parents and family, I will cloak it in the traditions of satire. I do not wish to shock you, irony aside, that what I’m about to tell you, stripped of its evident appeal to parody, actually survives out there as truth, and, as you confront what is out there and what passes for received wisdom and popular belief, your affection and loyalty to Bard will deepen.
I now share with you my top ten choice pieces of advice. The ten things I wish my own children to have learned from me. The number 10 is not arbitrary. There are many top ten traditions, from hit song charts of yesteryear to David Letterman’s Late Night Top Ten. Since Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments to our current rage for rating doctors, hospitals, schools, cities, composers, restaurants, and, above all else, colleges, we have developed an obsession for ranking the ten best. I’m still hoping that some magazine will have the courage to rank churches and synagogues, along some bizarre standard of measurement: perhaps how likely it is that God might pay a visit.
So, Class of 2012, here are the 10 pieces of advice, in no particular order or priority, but the 10 most useful.
Number one: never sleep. Sleep is truly the most overrated and wasteful of activities. As Vladimir Nabokov once observed, sleep maybe seems restful, but it is at best a form of living death. It is hard to achieve sleep, and when we do, we relinquish consciousness for no apparent reason, so please stay awake at all costs. You’ll enjoy and profit from life more, double your enjoyment by adding countless hours of wakefulness. Only to never rest and never drift away can you observe the world, witness its minutiae and glorious wonders. Struggle to stay awake just in case you might miss something during the all-too-important time given to us. Sleep, simply put, is a waste of time. Adults have told you otherwise to justify their own behavior and prevent you from discovering you the truth.
My second piece of advice is: avoid exercise. Now I know this runs counter to the adage about a sound body and sound mind, but that advice is designed to lend legitimacy to our love of sports and a commercial and financial industrial complex that has made a fetish of exercise. The exhortation to spend hours getting into shape is really a devious lie. You’re being asked to join a losing battle against aging and time, designed actually to lure you away from using your mind. This massive manipulative conspiracy has worked. You can see it through the windows of fitness studios. Adults spend countless hours in pain, sweating profusely as they run in place, swim back and forth for no purpose mindlessly, addicted to machines that do nothing and go nowhere. This they do in the name of feeling better. They actually could be using their minds. Embrace aging, don’t hide it. The perverse social consequence of exercise is that there are now more people with sound bodies and empty heads living longer than ever before. And remember the human body is precious, like a precious machine, a rare sports car. If you push it too hard and use it too much, it will depreciate and wear out. Treat your bodies as if they were fragile and delicate instruments, sparingly so they won’t wear out. When the impulse to exercise comes over you, sit down. Exercise is a seductive waste of time and energy.
My third piece of advice: Never listen. Since you were little babies, adults have told you to listen. You now need to hear the truth after spending four years paying to listen to us. Listening, like exercise, is among the most overrated habits. It is just a convenient invitation to become passive and irrelevant. It is far better to imitate us in the academy and your fellow citizens in the streets, on trains, and in airports: just keep on talking. Now we have the technology, for the first time in history, to prevent us from listening. I do not mean earplugs or headsets. We have cell phones. We never have to cease talking. Wherever we can walk, we can now talk. We never have to look at anything or anyone or be stranded in silence. There seems to be no place left on earth where there’s no cell phone service and no place where we cannot be found at all times. And if there should be a bad service area, we can switch easily to texting, which is really talking with our thumbs. We may not think we have anything to say, and our parents and grandparents may have survived without the cell phone, but they, as you know, tried their best to keep talking. The torrent of our own words will simplify our language and the spelling. Now that we can talk nonstop, we’ll never have to listen to the sound of our own voices.
Stay at home. That’s my fourth piece of advice. I’m suggesting that you return to move back with your parents. I am cautioning you that once you choose your home, never leave it, and, above all, never travel, except under duress. Travel is also among the most overrated and expensive activities. We actually travel and vacation to run away from ourselves. And tourism is a fraud, perhaps the most wasteful of all travel. Tourists, glued to guidebooks, go about in ugly buses, merely confirming things already known to them and painstakingly described in books. Travel, like eating in restaurants, is a colossal waste of money. The Eiffel Tower, or the Great Wall, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, do not need us to see them in person or for us to be photographed next to them. Our computers offer easy access to any and all the images we would ever want to see. We can travel now in the privacy of our own homes, and modern travel has become particularly perverse. Getting there and back is humiliating, tiring, and unhealthy, and wipes out any gain from the so-called vacation. Think of how much time you can save by staying at home, living in your imaginations, inventing worlds, and exploring the past in complete comfort. Emerson thought the same and he was right.
Fifth piece of advice: ignore your neighbors. Living with others is hard, frustrating, and bound to disappoint. If you really want to love your neighbor as yourself, you’ll leave that neighbor alone and in peace. Stay away. Don’t get on the slippery slope that begins with being a good neighbor and ends up as friendship. It is bound to disappoint. If, after friendship, you fall for so-called love, that too is a dead end. It is just a prelude to the pain of loss. If you keep to yourself, you’ll never have to feel abandoned, you’ll never have to accept differences, compromise, be polite or circumspect, negotiate conflict, and develop empathy—all activities that distract, frustrate, and reap few rewards. Keep your contact with others at a bare minimum. You’ll never have to worry about politics, and you’ll never have to get divorced. And you will not need to share the suffering of others or solidarity with those who want to improve the plight of the less fortunate. Stay entirely on your own. And nothing is as superficial and meaningless as that new form of neighborliness: the social network. Cancel your Facebook account. You’ll spare yourself the consequences of wishful thinking.
The sixth piece of advice: never tell the truth. No one wants to hear the truth. Knowing how to skirt the truth, slant it, distort it, hide it are really the most useful skills in life. They lead to success in politics and in romance. Keep saying that which something is not and that which you know others wish to hear. Discovering the truth and truth telling will only get you in trouble and inspire envy. If you know the truth, just smile and keep it to yourself. You don’t have to lie, just keep silent.
Seventh piece of advice: resist paying taxes. We know discover the government is our enemy. It is wasteful, intrusive, and inefficient. We obviously can fend for ourselves in every way, each of us. Therefore, allowing a government to take our hard-earned money from us in the form of taxes or a mandate is a form of theft. We can take care of our safety, our health, our education, and our welfare all on our own, by ourselves. So pursue every loophole. Enter the black market, and deal just in cash. Report no income. See how well all those nations do where citizens never pay taxes and what a high quality of life they have, in contrast to us, the most dutiful tax-paying nation in the world, all of our complaints notwithstanding. As so many of us now hear, if no one paid taxes, we would live in a better, more just, and clean world, and each of you would be richer. And, having a lot of money is, after all, the only thing anyone really cares about anymore in our culture. So, don’t fret about inequality or poverty.
Eight: Join no cause or organization. Organizational membership immediately deprives you of your individuality. And, like government, groups and causes promise more than they deliver. They really are what they seem, even if you read the fine print. Take, for example, the National Rifle Association, among our nation’s most popular and powerful organizations. They would like us to believe that bearing arms, that owning a gun is a true mark of a free society and our most precious right under the Bill of Rights. So, if we take the NRA really seriously, we would be justified in seeing to it that everyone, from the noble hunter to the unemployed in our cities, would be armed with weapons, all in the name of freedom, liberty, equality, and democracy, and look where that might get us. So, you’d be advised to stay away and resists organizations masquerading as groups working on your behalf.
Nine: Remain anonymous. Standing out from the crowd is truly a bad idea. It requires time, discipline, and hard work. Should you succeed in gaining the notice of others, others will simply envy you. Ambition and the desire to win the admiration of others are shortcuts to remorse. They are addictive. Publicity and the limelight are drugs that few can resist, which is why movie stars work so hard doing so little to stay in the news. No good can come from the cult of personality, so stay under the proverbial radar screen. Don’t stand out from the crowd, and your life will be restful, peaceful, and free from worry.
And the last piece of advice: remember as little as possible. Forgetting is the most secure path to happiness. Cultivating one’s memory is, in contrast, as source of anxiety. By struggling to remember, we’ve become susceptible to feelings of regret and nostalgia. We end up looking in the past rather than the present. We will miss the future by judging it through the lens of the past, by finding fault with the present. When we live in or through the past, we tend to distort that past, so that all our efforts at remembering are actually undermined. And, since we now have the Internet, it is really superfluous to keep anything in one’s mind for very long. No one needs to know anything anymore. All one has to do is to have the right gadget handy, an iPhone, an iPad, or the next generation of a little box, and look something up. As far as our visual and aural memories go, they too are not needed. Just snap a picture, make a recording, and you need not recall in your mind how anything looked or sounded. It exists somewhere, even though you will never want to find it. Simply live in the moment and remain free of any sense of loss or pain.
I realize that much of this advice runs counter to what we here at Bard have tried to instill in you. But, on this august occasion, we finally need to tell you what people out there really believe. If you think this is an exaggerated view of conventional wisdom, beware; we live in a world where standup comics tell the truth far more than newscasters or politicians. Out there, you’ll be told that the cost of your education was too high, and the subject matter of the arts, the sciences, and the humanities are irrelevant and superfluous. The least I can do, therefore, as you enter the so-called “real world” and assume completely your status as adults, is to warn you. Behind my attempt at parody is the fact that this College will, no matter what, continue to stand as a beacon of resistance. You will come to realize that and cherish your memories of Bard and Bard’s principles. You have earned your alma mater’s highest praise and deepest affection. May indeed the truth, and not what passes for the truth, serve you well. Congratulations.
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This event was last updated on 05-31-2012