This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
In recent years, TomDispatch.com has had a fine record when it comes to college commencement addresses, in part because I have a fondness for the form at its best, and in part because I think we should all have a chance to graduate into our world, whatever our ages. In previous years at TomDispatch, you’ve read commencement speeches by Howard Zinn ("Against Discouragement"), Mark Danner ("Words in a Time of War"), Rebecca Solnit, ("Welcome to the Impossible World"), and even me ("Missing Word, Missing World"), written, as I put it last year, “from the edge of the campus of life.” Unfortunately, no one I know gave such a speech this year and, for some unknown reason, no college offered me the opportunity, so I decided to write another graduation address, again from the privacy of my apartment.
Graduates of the class of 2010, I’m honored to have been asked to address you today, but I would not want to be you.
I graduated in 1966 on a gloriously sunny day; then again, it was a sunnier moment in this country. We were, after all, still surfing the crest of post-World War II American wealth and productivity. The first oil crisis of 1973 wasn’t even on the horizon. I never gave a thought to the gas I put in the tank of the used Volkswagen "bug" I bought with a friend my last year in college. In those days, the oil for that gas had probably been pumped out of an American well on land (and not dumped in the Gulf of Mexico). Gas, in any case, was dirt cheap. No one thought about it—or Saudi Arabia (unless they were working for an oil company or the State Department).
Think of it this way: in 1966, the United States was, in your terms, China, while China was just a giant, poor country, a land of—as the American media liked to write back then—“blue ants.” Seventeen years earlier, it had, in the words of its leader Mao Zedong, “stood up” and declared itself a revolutionary people’s republic; but just a couple of years before I graduated, that country went nuts in something called the Cultural Revolution.
Back in 1966, the world was in debt to us. We were the high-tech brand you wanted to own—unless, of course, you were a guerrilla in the jungles of Southeast Asia who held some quaint notion about having a nation of your own.