A Word to Graduates: Organize! | The Nation


A Word to Graduates: Organize!

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Having some answer to the Why me question, having done the work to change the way you inflect that question from the adenoidal to the introspective, is useful as you try to answer the other question, What am I doing here, a question that vast forces of reaction, otherwise known as the devil, the Republican Party, the petrochemical industry, Dick and Lynne Cheney, call them what you will, vast and nearly ineluctably persuasive and pervasive forces of reaction will seek to answer for you: You are here to consume and to surrender. You are here to comply, to be in agreement. You are not, these agents of sin and of Satan will tell you, here to do anything, or rather you are not here to ask what to do, or why. The only action, the only agency permissible, is the secret compact of compliance you are expected to make with an order so vast it is nearly invisible, the secret surrender you are expected to have made of your own specificity in the name of an antihuman, unjust, anti-egalitarian, antidemocratic ideology that masks its brutality in the guise of an Individualism that enforces conformity and a Freedom that exists within a desperately circumscribed arena of economic terror, scarcity and selfishness. What you are doing here is knowing never to ask the question What am I doing here in such a way that your perilous security is imperiled, in such a way that your civilization's failure to provide for you anything like a civilized security, safety, luxury, home is exposed through your asking and answering.

Tony Kushner delivered this commencement speech at Vassar College on May 26.

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Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner’s most recent work includes the new play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and...

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This has always been true, as I'm sure you've learned in your classes and in your lives: There have always been these forces, these imps and demons, this terror. But you graduate into a world in which the terror has become exponentially greater, though its aim is essentially unchanged. Its aim remains the preservation of the global economy of violence and oligarchy, preservation of grotesquely unequal distribution of the world's wealth and the human services and societal and cultural infrastructures that go with wealth. Its aim remains the perpetuation of the tragedies of unequal development. Its aim remains injustice, and though it doesn't even know it itself, it is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The answers you provide for yourself to the question Why me will be of great consequence to the way you answer What am I doing here, but if I may succumb to the immemorial nasty habit of commencement speakers since back in the days when the robes you are wearing were street clothes, and offer you advice, one of the answers to the what question ought to be: I am here to organize. I am here to be political. I am here to be a citizen in a pluralist democracy. I am here to be effective, to have agency, to make a claim on power, to spread it around, to rearrange it, to democratize it, to legislate it into justice. Why you? Because the world will end if you don't act. You are the citizen of a flawed but actual democracy. Citizens are not actually capable of not acting. It is not given to a citizen that she doesn't act; this is the price you pay for being a citizen of a democracy. Your life is married to the political beyond the possibility of divorcement.

You are always an agent. When you don't act, you act. When you don't vote, you vote. When you accept the loony logic of some of the left that there is no political value in supporting the lesser of two evils, you open the door to the greater evil. That's what happens when you despair, you open the door to evil, and evil is always happy to enter, sit down, abolish the Clean Air Act and the Kyoto accords and refuse to participate in the World Court or the ban on landmines; evil is happy refusing funds to American clinics overseas that counsel abortion, and evil is happy drilling for oil in Alaska; evil is happy pinching pennies while 40 million people worldwide suffer and perish from AIDS; and evil will sit there, carefully chewing pretzels and fondly flipping through the scrapbook reminiscing about the 152 people he executed when he was governor, while his wife reads Dostoyevsky in the corner. Evil has a brother in Florida and a whole bunch of relatives; evil settles in, and it's the devil of a time getting him to vacate. Look at the White House. Look at France, look at Italy, Austria, the Netherlands. Look at Israel. See what despair and inaction on the part of citizens produces. Act! Organize. It's boring but do it. The world ends if you don't.

And as long as I have slipped and am offering advice, here's some more: Don't smoke; are you crazy? Don't take drugs; aren't there enough chemicals in your apples and your air and your antihistamine? Don't drink; it makes you sloppy. Don't drive an SUV; are you crazy? Don't make deals with the devil; don't even do lunch with the devil; don't even take his phone calls. He wants you to write a screenplay for him and he wants to give you notes.

Will the world end if you act? Will the world end anyway, even if you find an organization, stuff envelopes, give money, organize? Maybe. Quite possibly. These are monstrous times and there's no telling. Look across the globe--when have you ever seen such a dismaying crew in occupation of every seat of power, a certifiable nutcase here, a tinpot dictator there, a feckless, blood-spattered plutocrat in this office, an unindicted war criminal in that office, miscreants, meshugenas, maniacs, and every one of them has the means of doing the most appalling damage. You aren't fundamentalists, you have had a superb education and you have learned how to read, you have learned that all reading is interpretation; you are smart readers, but we've failed miserably to educate the world, and so there are many poor readers out there, many fundamentalists, and every one of them has the means of doing the most appalling damage. Everyone who wants to can do quite a lot toward bringing the world to an end.

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