Friday, May 27, 2005

The Speech Every Graduate (and no adult) Should Be Hearing This Month
Given by Howard Zinn, at Spelman College
My first hope is that you will not be too discouraged by the way the world looks at this moment. It is easy to be discouraged, because our nation is at war - still another war, war after war - and our government seems determined to expand its empire even if it costs the lives of tens of thousands of human beings. There is poverty in this country, and homelessness, and people without health care, and crowded classrooms, but our government, which has trillions of dollars to spend, is spending its wealth on war. There are a billion people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East who need clean water and medicine to deal with malaria and tuberculosis and AIDS, but our government, which has thousands of nuclear weapons, is experimenting with even more deadly nuclear weapons. Yes, it is easy to be discouraged by all that.
Then he reminded that the Civil Rights Movement did eventually break the entrenched, institutionalized discrimination of the White South, and that an anti-war movement among soldiers, citizens, and draftees did eventually end the seemingly never-ending Vietnam War. And concluded:
The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies. I know you have practical things to do - to get jobs and get married and have children. You may become prosperous and be considered a success in the way our society defines success, by wealth and standing and prestige. But that is not enough for a good life.
He's right. At times, it feels like there are so many fronts of injustice, greed, and just plain bullying, that I have a hard time knowing just where to mount a resistance; harder still is knowing how to resist with any efficacy. That concern then becomes my complaint ("It won't work!") in response to every idea, and I end up doing the easiest thing of all, nothing. Voting isn't enough. Being right--even when I am--doesn't help. Blogging isn't enough really an act of any kind.

He's right (still, a paragraph later). Only peaceful, determined, principled, organized confrontation will keep us--eventually--from terrorizing the world, from terrorizing gay people, from leaving the vast majority of citizens (of the US and the World), not to mention governments, impoverished in one way or another. Confrontation annoys, irritates, rouses attention. I don't lack the will, or the nerve, to act--even if I did, those things can be increased with time and circumstance. I'm worse. I lack the constitution for it. Just a loose knitting of decent manners masquerading as a human being. (That kind of (non)existence really impresses the ladies too!)

Amid a brief excursion into mainstream political activism, my impression is that it is essentially endless, directionless, pointless meetings, one after another, plus giving what money you can to the same old ineffective machines. Something's got to change. I've got to act (up) more, or else care less. Horrible things are being done in our name, under our noses, and sold as righteous, patriotic, freedom-loving Christian values; and what am I doing?

A good graduation speech should make the graduates feel empowered and the adults feel like failures. It worked. Thanks, Howard.

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