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Apocalypse Now

Bill Moy­ers to col­lege grads: “We’re real­ly sor­ry for the mess you’re inher­it­ing.”

May 25, 2006
I will make this brief because I know you have much to do between now and your farewell to Hamil­ton tomor­row, and that you are eager to get out and enjoy this per­fect day in this glo­ri­ous weath­er that some­how nev­er gets men­tioned in your pro­mo­tion­al and recruit­ment lit­er­a­ture.

I know so many Hamil­ton alums that I feel at home here. One of my clos­est friends and col­leagues, David Bate, grad­u­at­ed in 1938, and patri­ot that he is, head­ed right for the U.S. Navy where he served through­out World War II. David’s father grad­u­at­ed from Hamil­ton in 1908 and two of his chil­dren con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion. I asked David what he learned at Hamil­ton and he told me Hamil­ton is where you dis­cov­er that being smart has noth­ing to do with being warm and dry ... Just kid­ding!

Thank you for invit­ing Judith and me to share this occa­sion with you. Fifty years ago both of us turned the same cor­ner you are turn­ing today and left col­lege for the great beyond. Look­ing back across half a cen­tu­ry I wish our speak­er at the time had said some­thing real­ly use­ful — some­thing that would have bet­ter pre­pared us for what lay ahead. I wish he had said: “Don’t Go.”

So I have been think­ing seri­ous­ly about what I might say to you in this Bac­calau­re­ate ser­vice. Frankly, I’m not sure any­one from my gen­er­a­tion should be say­ing any­thing to your gen­er­a­tion except, “We’re sor­ry. We’re real­ly sor­ry for the mess you’re inher­it­ing. We are sor­ry for the war in Iraq. For the huge debts you will have to pay for with­out get­ting a new social infra­struc­ture in return. We’re sor­ry for the polar­ized coun­try. The cor­po­rate scan­dals. The cor­rupt pol­i­tics. Our imper­iled democ­ra­cy. We’re sor­ry for the sprawl and our addic­tion to oil and for all those tox­ins in the envi­ron­ment. Sor­ry about all this, class of 2006. Good luck clean­ing it up.”

You’re going to have your hands full, frankly. I don’t need to tell you of the gloomy sce­nar­ios being writ­ten for your time. Three books on my desk right now ques­tion whether human beings will even sur­vive the 21st cen­tu­ry. Just lis­ten to their titles: “The Long Emer­gency: Sur­viv­ing the Con­ver­gence Cat­a­stro­phe”; “Col­lapse: How Soci­eties Choose to Fail or Suc­ceed”; “The Winds of Change: Weath­er and the Destruc­tion of Civ­i­liza­tions.”

These are just three of the recent books that make the apoc­a­lypse proph­e­sied in the Bible ... the Rev­e­la­tions of St. John ... look like child’s play. I won’t sum­ma­rize them for you except to say that they spell out Dooms­day sce­nar­ios for glob­al cat­a­stro­phe. There’s anoth­er recent book called “The Revenge of Gaia” that could well have been sub­ti­tled, “The Earth Strikes Back,” because the author, James Love­lock, says human con­sump­tion, our obses­sion with tech­nol­o­gy, and our habit of “play­ing God” are strip­ping bare nature’s assets until the Earth­’s only con­so­la­tion will be to take us down with her. Before this cen­tu­ry is over, he writes, “Bil­lions of us will die and the few breed­ing pairs of peo­ple that sur­vive will be kept in the Arc­tic where the cli­mate remains tol­er­a­ble.” So there you have it: The future of the race, to be joined in a final and fatal march of the pen­guins.

Of course that’s not the only sce­nario. You can Google your way to a lot of opti­mistic pos­si­bil­i­ties. For one, the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion that will trans­form how we do busi­ness and live our lives, includ­ing active intel­li­gent wire­less devices that in just a short time could link every aspect of our phys­i­cal world and even human brains, cre­at­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of small-scale busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties. There are med­ical break­throughs that will con­quer many ills and extend longevi­ty. Eco­nom­ic changes will lift hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple out of absolute pover­ty in the next 25 years, dwarf­ing any­thing that’s come along in the pre­vi­ous 100 years. These are pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios, too. But I’m a jour­nal­ist, not a prophet. I can’t say which of these sce­nar­ios will prove true. You won’t be bored, that’s for sure. I just wish I were going to be around to see what you do with the per­il and the promise.

Since I won’t be around, I want to take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to say a thing or two that have noth­ing to do with my pro­fes­sion­al work as a jour­nal­ist. What I have to say today is very per­son­al. Here it is:

If the world con­fus­es you a lit­tle, it con­fus­es me a lot. When I grad­u­at­ed fifty years ago I thought I had the answers. But life is where you get your answers ques­tioned, and the odds are that you can look for­ward to being even more per­plexed fifty years from now than you are at this very moment. If your par­ents lev­el with you, tru­ly speak their hearts, I sus­pect they would tell you life con­fus­es them, too, and that it rarely turns out the way you thought it would.

I find I am alter­na­tive­ly afraid, can­tan­ker­ous, bewil­dered, often hos­tile, some­times gra­cious, and bat­tered by a hun­dred new sen­sa­tions every day. I can be filled with a pes­simism as gloomy as the depth of the mid­dle ages, yet deep with­in me I’m pos­sessed of a hope that sim­ply won’t quit. A friend on Wall Street said one day that he was opti­mistic about the mar­ket, and I asked him, “Then why do you look so wor­ried?” He replied, “Because I’m not sure my opti­mism is jus­ti­fied.” Nei­ther am I. So I vac­il­late between the deter­mi­na­tion to act, to change things, and the desire to retreat into the snug­geries of self, fam­i­ly and friends.

I won­der if any of us in this great, dis­pu­ta­tious, over-ana­lyzed, over-tele­vised and under-ten­der­ized coun­try know what the deuce we’re talk­ing about, myself includ­ed. All my illu­sions are up for grabs, and I find myself re-assess­ing many of the assump­tions that served me com­fort­able much of my life.

Ear­li­er this week I heard on the radio a dis­cus­sion in New York City about the new Dis­ney Broad­way pro­duc­tion of “Tarzan,” the jun­gle hero so pop­u­lar when I was grow­ing up. I remem­ber as a kid almost dis­lo­cat­ing my ton­sils try­ing to re-cre­ate his unearth­ly sound, swing­ing on a great vine in a grace­ful arc toward the res­cue of his dis­tressed mate, Jane, hol­ler­ing bloody mur­der all the time. So what have we learned since? That Buster Crabbe and John­ny Weis­muller, who played Tarzan in the movies, nev­er made that noise. It was a record­ing of three men, one a bari­tone, one a tenor, and one a hog caller from Arkansas — all yelling to the top of their lungs.

This world is hard on believ­ers.

As a young man I was drawn to pol­i­tics. I took part in two nation­al cam­paigns, served in the Kennedy and John­son admin­is­tra­tions, and have cov­ered pol­i­tics ever since. But I under­stand now what Thomas Jef­fer­son meant back in 1789 when he wrote: “I am not a Fed­er­al­ist because I nev­er sub­mit­ted the whole sys­tem of my opin­ions to the creed of any par­ty of men, whether in reli­gion, in phi­los­o­phy, in pol­i­tics, or any­thing else. If I could not go to Heav­en but with a par­ty, I would not go there at all.” Of course we know there’ll be no par­ties in Heav­en. No Democ­rats, no Repub­li­cans, no lib­er­als, no con­ser­v­a­tives, no lib­er­tar­i­ans or social­ists. Just us Bap­tists.

The hard­est strug­gle of all is to rec­on­cile life’s polar real­i­ties. I love books, Beethoven, and choco­late brown­ies. Yet how do I jus­ti­fy my plea­sure in these in a world where mil­lions are illit­er­ate, the music nev­er plays, and chil­dren go hun­gry through the night? How do I live sane­ly in a world so unsafe for so many?

I don’t know what they taught you here at Hamil­ton about all this, but I trust you are not leav­ing here with­out think­ing about how you will respond to the dis­so­nance in our cul­ture, the rival­ry between beau­ty and bes­tial­i­ty in the world, and the con­flicts in your own soul. All of us have to choose sides on this jour­ney. But the ques­tion is not so much who we are going to fight agains
t as it is which side of our own nature will we nur­ture: The side that can grow weary and even cyn­i­cal and believe that every­thing is futile, or the side that for all the vul­gar­i­ty, bru­tal­i­ty and cru­el­ty, yearns to affirm, con­nect and sig­ni­fy.

Albert Camus got it right: There is beau­ty in the world as well as humil­i­a­tion, “And we have to strive, hard as it is, not to be unfaith­ful ... in the pres­ence of one or the oth­er.”

That’s real­ly what brings me here this after­noon. I did put myself in your place, and asked what I’d want a stranger from anoth­er gen­er­a­tion to tell me if I had to sit through his speech. Well, I’d want to hear the truth: The truth is, life’s a tough act, the world’s a hard place, and along the way you will meet a fair share of fools, knaves and clowns — even act the fool your­self from time to time when your guard is down or you’ve had too much wine. I’d like to be told that I will expe­ri­ence sep­a­ra­tion, loss and betray­al, that I’ll won­der at times where have all the flow­ers gone.

I would want to be told that while life includes a lot of luck, life is more than luck. It is sac­ri­fice, study, and work; appoint­ments kept, dead­lines met, promis­es hon­ored. I’d like to be told that it’s okay to love your coun­try right or wrong, but it’s not right to be silent when your coun­try is wrong. And I would like to be encour­aged not to give up on the Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence. To remem­ber that the same cul­ture which pro­duced the Ku Klux Klan, Tom DeLay and Abu Ghraib, also brought forth the Peace Corps, Mar­tin Luther King and Hamil­ton Col­lege.

And I would like to be told that there is more to this life than I can see, earn, or learn in my time. That beyond the day-to-day spec­ta­cle are cos­mic mys­ter­ies we don’t under­stand. That in the mean­time — and the mean­time is where we live — we infin­i­tes­i­mal par­ti­cles of cre­ation car­ry on the mir­a­cle of lov­ing, laugh­ing and being here now, by giv­ing, shar­ing and grow­ing now.

Let me tell you one of my favorite sto­ries. It’s by Shalom Ale­ichem and it has stayed with me for many years now. The sto­ry is about Bontshe Shvayg, one of the accursed of the Earth. Every mis­for­tune imag­in­able befell him. He lost his wife, his chil­dren neglect­ed him, his house burned down, his job disappeared—everything he touched turned to dust. Yet through all this Bontshe kept return­ing good for evil every­where he could until he died. When the angels heard he was arriv­ing at Heaven’s gate, they hur­ried down to greet him. Even the Lord was there, so great was this man’s fame for good­ness. It was the cus­tom in Heav­en that every new­com­er was inter­ro­gat­ed by the pros­e­cut­ing angel, to assure that all tres­pass­es on Earth had been atoned. But when Bontshe reached those gates, the pros­e­cut­ing angel arose, and for the first time in the mem­o­ry of Heav­en, said, “There are no charges.” Then the angel for the defense arose and rehearsed all the hard­ships this man had endured and recount­ed how in all the dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances of his life he had remained true to him­self and returned good for evil.

When the angel was fin­ished, the Lord said, “Not since Job him­self have we heard of a life such as this one.” And then, turn­ing to Bontshe, he said, “Ask, and it shall be giv­en to you.”

The old man raised his eyes and said, “Well, if I could start every day with a hot but­tered roll...” And at that the Lord and all the angels wept, at the pre­cious­ness of what he was ask­ing for, at the beau­ty of sim­ple things: a but­tered roll, a clean bed, a beau­ti­ful sum­mer day, some­one to love and be loved by. These sup­ply joy and mean­ing on this earth­ly jour­ney.

So I brought this with me. It’s an ordi­nary break­fast roll, per­haps one like Bontshe asked for. I brought it because it dri­ves home the last thing I want to say to you.

Bread is the great re-enforcer of the real­i­ty prin­ci­ple. Bread is life. But if you’re like me you have a thou­sand and more times repeat­ed the ordi­nary expe­ri­ence of eat­ing bread with­out a thought for the process that brings it to your table. The real­i­ty is phys­i­cal: I need this bread to live. But the real­i­ty is also social: I need oth­ers to pro­vide the bread. I depend for bread on hun­dreds of peo­ple I don’t know and will nev­er meet. If they fail me, I go hun­gry. If I offer them noth­ing of val­ue in exchange for their loaf, I betray them. The peo­ple who grow the wheat, process and store the grain, and trans­port it from farm to city; who bake it, pack­age it, and mar­ket it — these peo­ple and I are bound togeth­er in an intri­cate rec­i­p­ro­cal bar­gain. We exchange val­ue.

This reci­procity sus­tains us. If you doubt it, look around you. Hamil­ton Col­lege was raised here by peo­ple before your time, peo­ple you’ll nev­er know, who were nonethe­less think­ing of you before you were born. You have received what they built and bequeathed, and in your time you will give some­thing back. That’s the deal. On and on it goes, from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.

Civ­i­liza­tion sus­tains and sup­ports us. The core of its val­ue is bread. But bread is its great metaphor. All my life I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and I’ve nev­er prayed, “Give me this day my dai­ly bread.” It is always, “Give us this day our dai­ly bread.” Bread and life are shared real­i­ties. They do not hap­pen in iso­la­tion. Civ­i­liza­tion is an unnat­ur­al act. We have to make it hap­pen, you and I, togeth­er with all the oth­er strangers. And because we and strangers have to agree on the dif­fer­ence between a horse thief and a horse trad­er, the dis­tinc­tion is eth­i­cal. With­out it, a soci­ety becomes a war against all, and a mar­ket for the wolves becomes a slaugh­ter for the lambs. My gen­er­a­tion has­n’t done the best job at hon­or­ing this eth­i­cal bar­gain, and our fail­ure explains the mess we’re hand­ing over to you. You may be our last chance to get it right. So good luck, God­speed, enjoy these last few hours togeth­er, and don’t for­get to pass the bread.