May 25, 2023
As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you. On behalf of all of us who have studied for two years at Chabot Community College in Hayward, California, two semesters of California State University, Sacramento, and forty-five years at the School of Hard Knocks, earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in One-Damn-Thing-After-Another, – yeah, appreciate being here, thank you, Harvard, about time…
Some of us here can recite by repetition the preamble to a television show we might have seen five days a week about a strange being from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who, disguised as a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper – there were many metropolitan newspapers once , some of them were great – who could change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel with his bare hands. He was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Those are all very impressive super-powers, no?
What was most impressive about his powers was how he chose to wield them. Yeah, cats were saved from trees. Innocent folks were rescued and crooks were banished to the Phantom Zone – with reliable and assuring regularity. But in those half-hour adventures – which have since grown to many full-length movies and multiverses – was the on-going struggle for not just the protection and safety of the world but the re-balancing of what is very wrong with what needs to be righted. Superman, you see – and his proxies: Wonder Woman, and Captain America, a black panther and widow, Avengers, Fantastic Four and my god there are a million of them, they are all enlisted in that never-ending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American way. In such a struggle, being a Superhuman is a plus. But, alas, there ain’t no Superman, nor anyone else in his Justice League.
On occasions such as this, beware of any orator who resorts to using sage quotations from historical figures, the words of legends of literature and the arts, or the name dropping of famous friends as a claim to wisdom or super abilities. Few people standing at this podium should be considered much more than lucky sots who were in the right place at the right time with the right goods, and the right attitude. Or as a man named Marlon Brando once said to me…Could you pick up that name, I just dropped there. That’s right… Marlon Brando… once left a message on my phone answering machine – “Tommy Tommy Hankerchief this is Marlon Bran Flakes wondering where you are…” Later he told me that when he registered for the draft he filled out the form for his name and age, but when it came to race he wrote: Human. “For what are we all, but human.”
Yeah, we are all but human. As an armchair-historian who reads non-fiction for pleasure, the books divine that there has never been a graduating class that has not faced the greatest challenges of all time; come every spring the maelstrom of history swirls so wildly
that no matter the year, the era, or the generation there is always an atmospheric river of events that makes right now the hinge upon which our fate is turning. And we here in the stands look at you all in the caps and gowns and hope – at last, help is on the way. Somewhere, under one of those caps and gowns, is a suit of iron, a woman of steel – a superhuman – and just in the nick of time. This is not because we have failed in our duties or are spent. We’ve done some very super things over generations. It’s because we are in a cage match, mixed martial arts battle royale with agents of intolerance, ignorance, and braying incompetence, the malevolent equals to Imperial Storm Troopers, Lex Luther, and Loki. And we could a superhero right now.
Looking out at the flowing colors of Harvard Yard, we see beings who are young and restless, with energy, imagination, righteousness and enlightenment, joy and compassion. We celebrate your proclaimed wisdom, your work-ethic. We know no one is faster than a speeding bullet – proved too often, every day, too often – but we can still summon more power than a locomotive, and we are all able to leap tall buildings at a single bound if we have the right gizmo. We can change the course of mighty rivers, if such a thing should be done and make machines that bend steel as easily as using our bare hands.
And, we know that to each other, we often seem like strange beings from another planet – in habits and tastes and languages, with holidays and even names for the days of the week all varying. We all have special powers and abilities far beyond the reach of other mortals… some of us can repair a screen door with ease. Take care of a five-year old kid and a toddler for 24-hours a day and never stop loving them… make sense of physics, of economics…survive somehow on minimum earnings… Graduate from college despite years of lock-down… achievements that are all stellar even though, yes, we are all but human. Still, we’d like to look up in the sky and see not a bird, not a plane, but, well, someone young, strong, and super, who’ll fight the never-ending battle for Truth, for Justice and for the American way – someone who will take on that work.
A kooky uncle once said we should all stay in school as long as we can because the moment we graduate we have to work every day for the rest of our lives. That man was, you know, a bit bitter, but he was not wrong. We all get to complain about The Man, and we all have debts we gotta pay, but the work that is called for is the construction of our ‘more perfect union’, a job that will never, ever be completed, one that requires rigorous attention and unfading
wherewithal. The work is the keeping of the promises of our promised land, the practice of decency, the protection of freedom, and the promotion of liberty for all – with no exceptions. Man, that takes a lot of work on multiple job sites every single day – call each of them a battle for truth, justice, and the American way.
Yes. The American Way, exampled in both plain sight and in subtle attitude, in routine moments of exchange, in broad expectations, in places of historic weight and import, and in the small spaces in which we all stand. The American Way is exampled when you respect the law and the rights of all because if you don’t, who will? When your food is brought to you and you thank the server, because if you don’t, who will? When you pick up the litter that missed the recycling bin, because if you don’t, who will? When you vote your conscience and make sure your neighbor has the opportunity to do the same with theirs, because if you don’t, who will? When you savor your victories and when you accept your losses because both are the result of proud and noble efforts. If you don’t, who will?
The American Way came about not far from here when subjects of a King demanded more control over their lives than that dictated by someone else’s definition of providence. At the same time an entire segment of the population had been taken from their homeland,
enslaved to work as chattel regardless of their age. And the original inhabitants of this continent, from sea to shining sea, the only ones who carried the DNA of America were considered sub-human. Even with such paradox, was written down the how-to , how to establish justice, and ensure domestic tranquility, and provide for the common defense, and promote the general Welfare, and secure those Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Posterity no matter, as time and conflict and the institutions of our Democracy would
determine, our gender, race, ethos, color, chosen deities, or who we love for it is our manifest destiny to pursue our own of happiness. All of us, no exceptions, are entitled to inalienable rights of liberty and freedom because… we live in the United States of America.
The vocabulary of the American Way- of the law and the rights we share is some part philosophical musing, some part the answering of a question with a question, and the rest is all practical, even physical, and certainly tangible – it is the language of telling the Truth. It is in the vision-quest for Truth that we look to you newly incorporated members of the Justice League of Avengers to come to the rescue, for the Truth to some, is no longer empirical, no longer based on data, common sense, or even common decency – telling the truth is no longer the benchmark for public service, no longer the salve to our fears nor the guide to our actions. Truth is now considered malleable, by Opinion, Narrative, by Zero-Sum Endgames. Imagery is manufactured with audacity, with purpose to achieve the primal task of steering the Truth via mock logic – “ I’m just saying… I’m just asking…I’m just wondering…” Now, literally, you cannot believe your eyes. Your ears help others lie to you. Someone will report the world to you exactly as you wish it were, full of alternative facts, of conjured Narrative meant to buttress the
Status Quo or deny its offenses depending on where one is on the food chain and the moral spectrum.
The American Way can be demonstrated without ceasing, as a perpetual prayer. Justice can be an everyday pursuit, case by case, with both lightning speed and the slow, inevitable effect of gravity. Truth, though, oh, truth feeds up in the High Country – as elusive as serenity, yet as certain as the North Star and the Southern Cross. Truth is mined at the intersections of our chosen behaviors and our fixed habits. Truth has synonyms such as honesty, honor,
transparency – and yet the common practice of so many is to play fast and loose with those words – to create enemies, to claim victimhood, to raise the mediocre into merit, and to make cloudy a vista that is actually crystal clear. Likewise, Truth has many opposites. Omission. (You don’t need to know that!) Distraction (That’s not the real story! This is!) Opinion masquerading as clairvoyance (Here’s what is going to happen!) and influence peddling (you know, a lot of people are saying…)
Truth, too, has a nemesis, equal to any colored Kryptonite, that, like a feral hound, is never too far off the path, in the weeds and shadows, lying in wait for the lethal opportunity to bring Truth down. That beast is Indifference, which will make moot all the permanence found in Truth. Indifference will rust away the living promise of our promised land. Propaganda and Bald-faced Lies will erode. Idolatry and Imagery lose luster and effect over time. Ignorance and Intolerance can be replaced by experience in the wink of an eye. But Indifference will narrow the vision of Americas people and make dim the light of Lady Liberty’s symbolic torch. Indifference makes citizens into indentured servants held in labor by the despots and tyrants who hold onto their power until they die, enabled by the subterfuge of their co-conspirators, rewarding the rationale of the complicit, and surging into the vacuum caused by the Indifference of a people who have been made weary by struggle, so weary that they lose hope, left to yearn to be saved by the fiction of superheroes.
Every day, every year, and for every graduating class there is a choice, the same option for all grownups to make: to be one of three types of Americans – those who embrace liberty and freedom FOR ALL, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent. In the neverending battle you have all officially joined as of today, the difference is in how truly you believe, in how vociferously you promote, in how tightly you hold to the Truth that is self-evident – that of course we are all created equally yet differently, and of course we are all in this together. Justice and the American way are within our grasp no matter our gender, our faith, our station, our heritage, our genetic makeup, the shade of our flesh, or the continental birthplace of our
ancestors. Why is that truth so hard for some to accept? If you live in the United States of America, this Truth is sacred, unalterable, chiseled into the stone of the foundation of our republic. When it comes our race, there are many models but only one chassis. None of us are super, but we are the Americans, unique in our willingness to admit that when it comes to our race, we are all but human. So said Marlon Bran-flakes to Tommy Tommy Hankerchief.
Congratulations. God’speed. May goodness and mercy follow you – all the days – all the days – of your lives.