After being exposed to the likes of John McCain and Condi, I'm betting that graduating seniors around the country may have wondered whether the older folks had anything worthwhile to tell them. Well, once again, the venerable Bill Moyers comes to the rescue. Mr. Moyers, you are a national treasure. The full text of his speech at Hamilton is here; and I've quoted a significant portion below.
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."
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.
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 against 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.
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.