In the valley between truths
Anand Giridharadas Accepts Harvard Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanism in Culture
“From time to time, a people is lucky enough to stand in the valley between an eroding mountain of old certainties and a rising volcano of new truths.”
The following is my acceptance speech upon receiving the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanism in Culture, also known as the “Rushdie Award,” after its inaugural winner, Salman Rushdie, from the Humanist Hub and the Humanist Community at Harvard. It was, with palpable irony, given to me at the opening of the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference at Harvard Business School, on March 2, 2019.
When you get an email informing you, at age 37, that you’ve won a lifetime achievement award, your first reaction is excitement.
Wow — someone in the world thinks I’m as good as I think I am on those rare nights when, instead of red wine, I take to drinking mezcal.
Then another feeling sets in. You realize they’re giving you a lifetime achievement award now because they’re not sure that what follows will be an improvement. You realize that giving someone a lifetime achievement award at 37 is like giving Lehman Brothers a solvency award in 2006.
When I called my mother to tell her about the honor — named after Salman Rushdie, who shares her hometown of Bombay — she performed the best impersonation of an Indian mother I have ever seen, a role that comes naturally to her as an Indian mother:
“Lifetime? Lifetime? How can you get a lifetime achievement award when you haven’t lived a lifetime?”
You know you’re Indian when a university you dropped out of has more faith in you than your mom.
But her question made me think. And help me see that a lifetime achievement award for me is also one for my parents.
Forty springs ago, my father graduated from this august institution, Harvard Business School. At the time, he wasn’t yet a father, wasn’t yet married in fact, though he was months away from changing that — a destiny he didn’t know at the time of collecting his diploma — Indian weddings can sometimes be as last-minute as they are large. My father was not yet an American, and in fact he had no way of knowing at the time whether he would become an American.
So it is beyond doubt that, in the spring of 1979, my father had no idea that, forty springs on, with his hair grayed, reading glasses in his pocket, and a grandson beside him here, he would be back on this ground watching his American son get a lifetime achievement award for that son’s services in attempting to burn Harvard Business School down.
After my father graduated, he took some classmates of his to India. On that trip, he reconnected with my mother, whom he’d met long before in the best place for someone from the deep south of India to meet someone from the far north: French class in Bombay.
They found each other again; he found the words to propose to her; she found, after some days, the irrevocable word “yes”; and, before she knew it, she was backing a red Oldsmobile down an icy driveway in a leafy suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, awaiting a little flamethrower in her womb.
I tell you this story because, without its particulars, there wouldn’t be me, wouldn’t be this award, wouldn’t be the work it seeks to celebrate today, for which I’m so grateful. And you would probably be listening to Malala. Again.
What I have tried to be in my career is a teller of truth. And I trace that calling in part to the truths my family told around the dinner table — the truths of my and my sister’s school lives, the truths of my father’s spreadsheets and my mother’s ceramics, the truths of the country they had come from, the truths of all of us trying to find our place between two cultures and two visions of life and the good.
I also trace that truth-telling to the battles I used to have with them — and to a tongue that, before it had found its companion, the pen, often aimed its ferocity at the two people who made me. No one is more relieved than my parents that what I once did to them, out loud and without much thought, I now do in writing, with a bit more thought, to Mark Zuckerberg, Wall Street, and Davos.
A lot of Indian parents — a lot of immigrant parents — dissuade their kids from becoming artists or writers. But not mine. Mine just told me, in no uncertain terms, to be better at whatever I do than everyone — no pressure! — you know, so they would have something pride-giving to distract them when, later on, they suffered ailments that I wouldn’t be tending since I wasn’t a doctor.
Which is fine. It’s totally fine. It’s fine.
So, Mama and Papa, this lifetime achievement award to me, for my services to humanism, is really, in my mind, an award to you, for your lifetime of service to me, the first human you created — if not necessarily the best. (I think my sister slipped that line into the document while proofing this.)
Now, this is an award for humanism, given by humanists. And humanism, like Blockchains and ancient grains, is one of those things we all pretend to know when we hear people discussing it.
When I learned I was getting an award for contributions to humanism, my first thought was, “Is this related to Blockchain?” My second thought was: I have been a humanist all my life.
Because what humanism proposes is something I have always believed — and something that has guided and propelled my work — my thinking, my writing: the idea that we ought to be enough for each other. That, whatever else there may be in the universe or beyond it, whatever different convictions we bring to the public square where we metaphorically gather every day, we ought to be each other’s reason for being, and what we build down here on earth can be, in its own way, sacred.
I have applied that belief to the work of being a reporter, a writer — on good days, an artist. And my particular art starts by leaving the house. Getting out there. Silencing your own answers so that you can first hear others’. Listening fiercely in a way that our culture no longer teaches us to do. Reading documents that powerful people don’t want you to. And then, faced with a small hurricane of reality, working to find the eye. To figure out the burning truth at the heart of a situation. And giving special priority to those truths people know deep down but can’t say, or won’t say, or prefer not to hear you say, because for them the suppression or the denial of reality is more comfortable.
And this vocation of mine, this truth-telling, which requires support, requires independence, is in peril. In an age that has glorified the businessperson, the app maker, the venture capitalist, the hedge funder, the turnaround specialist, the Cayman Islands banker, the entrepreneur, the social entrepreneur, the social everything, the philanthrocapitalist, certain vital things tumble by the wayside.
No castle can stand on its own. Castles need soil. And no star-grasping dream dreamed here, in this citadel of business, can stand firm in a world without underlying truths we can believe in, or the people who seek and tell them — and without the systems and institutions and laws and, yes, taxes that make the values of humanism — of equality, decency, dignity, fairness, justice — possible.
So I wish to thank the Harvard humanists for honoring, through me, the writers and artists who try to tell the truth.
I wish to thank Harvard Business School for the lax security that let me in here today, and the faith that you placed in my father four decades ago, because of which my story became possible.
I wish to thank my parents, for insisting until they were blue in the face, which in our case is really just a slightly darker brown, that any society and any well-lived life is defined above all by values. I wish to thank my thrilling wife, Priya, and our beloved Orion, who’s on his iPad, and Zora for showing me what it’s all for.
This moment we’re in can seem terrifying on any given day. It is never a good sign when Michael Cohen is your Nelson Mandela. But in my eyes it is also, against all odds, a time of hope. From time to time, a people is lucky enough to stand in the valley between an eroding mountain of old certainties and a rising volcano of new truths. We live in such a time.
So, for me, back to work — back to those truths.