Congratulations, fellow doctors. This is your last required lecture, and I promise to keep it brief.
I want you to know that like Senator John McCain, I intend to give the same commencement speech here that I would give at Reverend Falwell’s Liberty University–should they ever get around to asking me.
I speak to you today in five capacities. As the recipient of your honorary degree; as the former editor and publisher of The Nation; as a writer; as one of, and here I quote, the 101 most dangerous academics in America, unquote; and last but far from least, in my capacity as a taxpayer.
First, as a recipient of your honorary doctorate, I am, of course, honored to be honored–especially in the company of two of my heroes, E.L. Doctorow and Roscoe Lee Brown. But I am also humbled because when I think of proffering advice–which is, after all, the deal: You give me a degree and in return I give you advice–I am reminded that you did all the work to get here. All I had to do is show up.
Here, then, is my first piece of advice:
As a newly minted PhD, you are now officially an expert. Don’t let it go to your head. As it happens, some years ago a colleague, Christopher Cerf, and I did a study of the experts and we compiled what we modestly called “the definitive compendium of authoritative misinformation.”
Here are two of our findings:
§ In October 1929, the day before the great stock market crash, one of the leading economists in the country, Irving Fischer, professor of economics at Yale University, wrote “stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.”
§ In 1895 Lord Kelvin, the mathematician, physicist and president of the Royal Society, assured his audience that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
So while I am pleased to offer you all honorary membership in what we like to call the Institute of Expertology–one honorary bestowal deserves another–I must warn you that in and of itself expertise is not enough.
Second, I want to speak to you as former proprietor of The Nation, America’s oldest weekly magazine. You know in the magazine business, survival is the ultimate test of success. And The Nation, founded in 1865, the year the Civil War ended, has survived where magazines with circulations in the millions–Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers–have gone under. By that standard, despite the fact that it has lost money for most of its 140 years, The Nation is America’s most successful magazine. For myself, I attribute its success partly to the fact that it is a cause more than a business–its owners have regarded it as a public trust–and partly to the fact that it has always been suspicious of the official line, that it has challenged the mainstream press’s claim to objectivity.
These days the president of ABC News goes around making speeches claiming that opinion, which is supposed to be bad, is driving out objectivity, which is supposed to be good. In my opinion it’s not quite as simple as that.