EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Danner delivered this commencement address to graduates of the Department of Rhetoric at Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, on May 10, 2007. Originally published on TomDispatch, it appears here as part of the continuing Moral Compass series, focused on the spoken word.
When my assistant greeted me, a number of weeks ago, with the news that I had been invited to deliver the commencement address to the Department of Rhetoric, I thought it was a bad joke. There is a sense, I’m afraid, that being invited to deliver The Speech to students of Rhetoric is akin to being asked out for a romantic evening by a porn star: Whatever prospect you might have of pleasure is inevitably dampened by performance anxiety–the suspicion that your efforts, however enthusiastic, will inevitably be judged according to stern professional standards. A daunting prospect.
The only course, in both cases, is surely to plunge boldly ahead. And that means, first of all, saluting the family members gathered here, and in particular you, the parents.
Dear parents, I welcome you today to your moment of triumph. For if a higher education is about acquiring the skills and knowledge that allow one to comprehend and thereby get on in the world–and I use “get on in the world” in the very broadest sense–well then, oh esteemed parents, it is your children, not those boringly practical business majors and pre-meds your sanctimonious friends have sired, who have chosen with unerring grace and wisdom the course of study that will best guide them in this very strange polity of ours. For our age, ladies and gentlemen, is truly the Age of Rhetoric.
Now I turn to you, my proper audience, the graduating students of the Department of Rhetoric of 2007, and I salute you most heartily. In making the choice you have, you confirmed that you understand something intrinsic, something indeed…intimate about this age we live in. Perhaps that should not surprise us. After all, you have spent your entire undergraduate years during time of war–and what a very strange wartime it has been.
When most of you arrived on this campus, in September 2003, the rhetorical construction known as the War on Terror was already two years old and that very real war to which it gave painful birth, the war in Iraq, was just hitting its half-year mark. Indeed, the Iraq War had already ended once, in that great victory scene on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, where the President, clad jauntily in a flight suit, had swaggered across the flight deck and, beneath a banner famously marked “Mission Accomplished,” had declared: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
Of the great body of rich material encompassed by my theme today–“Words in a Time of War”–surely those words of George W. Bush must stand as among the era’s most famous, and most rhetorically unstable. For whatever they may have meant when the President uttered them on that sunny afternoon of May 1, 2003, they mean something quite different today, almost exactly four years later. The President has lost control of those words, as of so much else.