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.
Molly Ivins, a frequent Nation contributor, put the case against objectivity well some years ago when she said:
“The fact is that I am a 49-year-old white female, a college-educated Texan. All of that affects the way I see the world. There’s no way in hell that I’m going to see anything that a 15-year-old black high school dropout does. We all see the world from where we stand. Anybody who’s ever interviewed five eyewitnesses to an automobile accident knows there’s no such thing as objectivity.”
At the New York Times, so-called objectivity helped perpetuate the false belief that the Iraqis were developing weapons of mass destruction. But speaking in my capacity as an opinion journalist, I urge you in your scholarship to honor accuracy, yes. But don’t be afraid to form your own opinions. Sharing your opinions, not to mention analyses and interpretations, is a way of testing your expertise, putting it to work on behalf of the public interest.
Third, and here I speak with some trepidation, as a writer. I know all about deconstruction and poststructuralism, but if I were you, having mastered my specialty, I would leave the jargon behind.
In law school I had a maverick professor named Fred Rodell, who way back in 1936 wrote a famous article called “Farewell to Law Reviews.” It began: “There are two things wrong with all legal writing: one its content and two, its style.” He vowed never to write another footnote, and didn’t. Let him be a source of inspiration to you.
Fourth, I come before you in my capacity as an officially certified danger. I am pleased to report that when one David Horowitz, one-time lefty but now a hardcore neoconservative, recently published his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, I made the cut. I really don’t feel that I earned it, and I regret that he is not more of a scholar–he got most of his facts wrong, not just about me but about his 100 other subjects as well–but I will say that I was flattered to be included. I feel about it the way Lee Hayes, a member of that wonderful folk-singing group from the 1950s, The Weavers, felt about what happened during the McCarthy era. He said, “If it wasn’t for the honor of the thing, I’d just as soon not have been blacklisted.”
Getting blacklisted is not always something that is within your control, so I can’t advise you on how to get on a blacklist. But I can remind you that there are two themes in American history: the theme of freedom, of liberty, of free speech, of Thomas Paine and Jefferson and the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights and all the other good things we were taught in civics and social studies classes. The other is the theme of repression and intolerance, and it goes all the way back to the Alien and Sedition Acts, to the raids on radicals during and after World War I, the internment of the Japanese in World War II, the so-called McCarthy era (I say so-called because it began before the senator from Wisconsin appeared on the scene and its legacy lasted long after he drowned in alcohol) and most recently to the suspension of the rights and liberties of Muslims and other suspected terrorists in the post-9/11 period; and the broad-brush attempt on the part of the Administration and its supporters to portray dissent as disloyalty, dissenters as traitors.
This latter development, part of the misnamed “war on terrorism,” places an extra burden on you but an opportunity as well.
In my view, the “war on terrorism” is misnamed because real wars are won and lost. The so-called “war on terrorism”–which is held forth as the reason for the suspension of our rights and liberties–almost by definition can’t be won. If Saddam Hussein is sentenced to death and executed and Osama bin Laden is picked up tomorrow, there will still be a car bombing the day after. What it means is that if the powers that be have their way, the suspension of our rights and liberties will be perpetual.
Yes, terrorists pose a serious problem, but it is important also to recognize that in the long history of counter-subversion, the counter-subversives invariably do more damage than the subversives they set out to disable. My advice: Use your prestige and where relevant your scholarship, your powers of analysis and persuasion to stand up to unjust authority.
And finally, I want to speak to you in my capacity as a taxpayer.
As a taxpayer, I want my money’s worth. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York is a public institution. It is a beneficiary in increasingly modest amounts to be sure, but a beneficiary nevertheless of public largesse and involvement. As a member of the public, as a citizen and taxpayer, I am a strong supporter of the Graduate Center. But as I see it, I and my fellow taxpayers have an investment in you. And at a moment when both of our major political parties tell us that the time of big government is over, that the market, the private sector, free enterprise is the answer, when the Administration tells us that we should privatize Social Security and further privatize healthcare, at a time when vouchers and other schemes threaten to undermine our national commitment to public education, I say to you, I implore you, I advise you, graduates of this great public institution:
Don’t go private.
As the product of the Graduate Center of CUNY, you are in a prime position to enrich the public sphere. Not all of you are going to play the role of our most visible public intellectual in the great tradition of men and women such as W.E.B. Du Bois, John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, your own Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but you have something to learn from them. You have all demonstrated the capacity to dig deeply in your specialty. A recent study by Richard Posner has argued the modern university–and many of you will be joining such institutions of higher learning–has encouraged the professionalization and specialization of knowledge in a way that has shrunk the ranks of the independent intellectual. Resist that trend. Give the public the benefit of your opinions, your beliefs.
Opinions are to ideas as facts are to knowledge and as knowledge is to wisdom. So launch your ideas, let others study, assimilate, criticize and modify them as they are projected out into the culture. The challenge is to persuade the public to come back to politics and to cease to sit passively before a discussion conducted by experts and translated by journalists. Some of you will do it in the classroom, others through the media or the Internet or letters to the editor. But all of you can make your contribution by joining and thereby elevating and improving the national conversation.
There is in the penumbra of the USA Patriots Act the rendition of prisoners, the detention of however many anonymous suspects without even the pretense of due process, not to mention legal representation, the perpetual suspension of civil liberty, a new blatancy.
John Kenneth Galbraith, another public intellectual, used to talk about countervailing power. As a new cohort of PhDs, don’t underestimate your potential to constitute a countervailing power of your own. You have the power of your ideas, of your learning, of your achievements. My advice: Use it.
In my favorite Marx brothers movie, if I remember it right, there is a scene where Groucho emerges from a pile-up on the football field shouting, “Is there a doctor in the house? Is there a doctor in the house?”
Way up in the grandstands, a man leaps out of his seat carrying his medical bag, fights his way through the crowd; at last, out of breath, he arrives on the field saying, “I’m a doctor, I’m a doctor.”
Groucho flicks an ash off his cigar, wiggles his eyebrows and asks, “How do you like the game, doc?”
By my count there are 331 doctors in this house. I say it is not enough to be a spectator at the game. Leap into the fray and give it all you’ve got.