At many colleges and universities across this great land of ours, graduation weekend has just passed. Amid the festivities and regalia and good-hearted celebration, that meant the return of one of our most dreaded civic traditions: the commencement speech. For those fortunate enough to have avoided these in recent years, the commencement speech has become the chief opportunity for would-be public intellectuals to spout truisms and feel even more self-important than usual.
Case in point: one of this site’s favorite bloviators, John Kerry. Invited to speak at Yale’s Class Day, presumably on the strength of his sterling undergraduate record, Kerry produced a masterpiece of vacuity, making a case for how urgently the students needed to trust their “instutitions,” by which he meant the government. In addition to the expected lame jokes and the kinds of cultural references that dads make to try and pretend they’re still cool, Kerry indulged in his habitual verbal offenses:
- word salad, such as rallying students to “galvanize action to recognize felt needs” (translation: “we need to spend lots of money meddling with people”);
- doublespeak, such as “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.” (translation: “especially meddling with people in other countries”);
- bumper stickerism, such as “None of our problems are without solution, but neither will they solve themselves” (translation: “our meddling can solve anything”); and
- dubious assertions, such as “Participation is the best antidote to pessimism and ultimately cynicism” (translation: “never doubt even for a moment that meddling isn’t the right thing to do”).
Thing is, by graduation-weekend standards, Kerry’s speech is only half bad—I’ve survived much worse. What’s happened this year that has given me hope is students finally getting fed up and fighting back. At a number of schools, the student body banded together to reject the speaker being foisted on them. This move has brought howls from the sorts of writers who hope themselves one day to deliver commencement addresses. But why submit yourself to listening to a half hour from an architect of the Iraq War, like Condoleeza Rice, or a defender of forceful police coercion against nonviolent student protestors, like Robert Birgenau, if there’s any alternative? Graduations are a time for students to celebrate with friends and family, a chance to reflect on years past and look forward to years future. Nothing about that requires the importation of big-name outside speakers—especially those whose fame depends on the degree to which they’ve intruded themselves into the lives of others.