Do Well by This World
University of Connecticut Commencement Speech — May 7, 2016
I thank you both, Dr. Herbst and Dr. Choi for bringing me. And I’d also like to thank Professor Frank Costigliola, of your History Department, who’s written a new book on the Cold War that greatly enlarges our understanding of a time when countries resorted, once again, to paranoid fears of invasion and subterfuge.
And I’d like to extend a BIG CONGRATULATIONS to all of you — the class of 2016 — on this wonderful achievement in your lives. Today is a great day. And also congratulations to your parents and relatives who are here to celebrate your evolution. Bravo!
I actually went to four different colleges in my life, so I’m not necessarily the best-suited speaker for this ceremony (but I think you knew that when you invited me). My first college was down the road at Yale. In my class, among others, was George Bush, two Olympic gold-medal athletes, one pro football star, several future multi-millionaires and billionaires who now have a big say in our destiny, Pulitzer Prize winners, a future Secretary of State, etc.
It’s what I call ‘The Obama School of Ivy League Geniuses.’
But the truth for me was that Yale was so incredibly difficult academically, and competitive in all things, that my four grueling years of preparation at a boys’ boarding school in Pennsylvania were not sufficient to compete. And the freedom given by the College was far too liberal for my discipline. Basically, all of a sudden, we were on our own — study when you want; eat, sleep when you want; do what you want. Go to New York City for a week, it doesn’t matter. No one really cares as long as you pass the course.
That was the point — no one cared and there was no headmaster around to scare the shit out of you. I barely survived the first year, failed Greek, and just made it through the most abstract course I ever had: Economics. And after trying, I also failed to make any of the serious athletic teams. I was just another mediocrity and I quit school, shaken and depressed.
I went to Asia — Vietnam specifically— for almost a year, to teach high school and work in the U.S. Merchant Marine, as a “wiper” in the South China Seas. Then I gave Yale another try for half a year, and again I was profoundly disappointed — in myself. Mr. Bush could get Cs and party and get through it all. And with a pedigree, he could become President. But I had no pedigree.
I think, more importantly, I couldn’t stand any longer the air of Ivy League superiority and competition. There was a lack, essentially, of humanity — a compulsive need to out-do your fellow man.
I wanted something gentler, something like I’d seen in Asia; an ability simply to breathe a natural life.
So I abandoned school once again, but it was clear this time that there was no going back. In fact, I’d failed every single one of my courses. That’s pretty hard to do; four-out-of-four zeros.
Dad was pissed. Some $9,000 in tuition (no tax deduction here) blown away. And what would I do for the rest of my life? He’d expected me to get to Wall Street at the least — sort of as an “idiot son,” like Bush. Or, at worst, a steady job at AT&T in New York, starting at a couple hundred bucks a week.
I went home and hid my face from my dad’s friends, who’d known me as a promising, conservative young man. I was a BUM now — in my eyes as well as dad’s. I had no real skills or earning power.
I decided I had nothing to lose so I’d join the Army, specifically the Infantry, and go to the front lines in Vietnam.
And if it was intended by the Greek gods, or the monotheistic God from the Bible, either way, I was putting it on the line. The divine forces would cast their decision, and I’d either live or die.
On my 21st birthday — I suspect many of you here are 21 or close — I was on a plane bound for Vietnam a second time. All 120 of us in Army khaki with buzzcuts. I never even had a 21st birthday; as we crossed the International Date Line, my birthday dropped away into the sea as the calendar jumped a day. It was like an omen that I’d never get to 21. I’d be lost in some crack of time in Vietnam.
After 15 months of — let’s say another kind of world — I went back to the U.S. with no idea of what to do and no skills except camping, surviving, hunting, and not sleeping very well. I had taken a few electronics courses through a college extension program and talked with some Army buddies about opening a construction company down in Alabama, or maybe Latin America and getting contracts from the Government. But all that fantasy died on the return, and my buddies went to other small towns and cities in the country. And rarely did we see each other again.
This reality, along with something we didn’t know much about at the time, since called PTSD, left us each in some dark holes.
People simply didn’t understand because that war was crazy and made no sense. How can you explain it when it makes no sense? After months of low-level depression, an old school friend who’d graduated from Yale was pursuing a career making low-budget porno films — and making money at it.
He told me I could actually go to one of these new “film schools,” and I could get 80 percent of my tuition paid from the GI Bill. It sounded nuts to me. “You mean I can actually get credit for watching movies all day?” It was too good to be true, but it was a new world. There were respected schools in California, but now NYU had one too. So I thank you — I mean it — to the U.S. Government.
It was really a vocational school for me. I was older than the others. It was difficult for me to readjust to the mentality. I was quiet and didn’t mingle much. These students were in another world, and they probably looked at me like I was the guy in Taxi Driver who ends up blowing up the class.
But I had fun there. I also learned the beginnings of a skill. And then after 6-7 years of professional rejection and writing a lot of speculative scripts and making low-budget films, breaks started coming my way. I actually made it into the film business with some success. In fact, much to my father’s inability to think it possible, I actually started to make a living at this film thing.
I think a point to be made of this experience is no matter how dark it gets early, don’t get too down on yourself.
You have (you may not know them) hidden talents, skills and passions. You simply cannot recognize it yet. So listen to the wind. The answer might be blowing right past you. But although I now had a degree and some success, I didn’t really have an education. Learning a trade is not a complete experience. I was a partly educated writer-director who’d never really studied with any rigor history, mathematics, English, or science. All I had was curiosity, and thank god for that.
So almost 40 years later, like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School, in I went to my third college in 2008. It was not your normal campus with the bells beautifully tolling and the cries of young people in the air — but a concentrated 5-year journey through American history from the 1890s to today. Guiding me was a highly intelligent mentor and professor at American University, and his staff of graduate students. (In fact, he’s here today, my co-author of The Untold History of the United States, Professor Peter Kuznick, who’s been teaching for 30 years.)
I learned a lot — too much in many ways to function well in this culture.
I learned how to check and recheck everything — every little detail. I learned how to doubt and cross-examine myself. It took us almost five years and many drafts and edits to make our incredible thesis entertaining enough for a wide audience uninterested in history feel able to watch it on a prestige cable company — or read the 700-page book we wrote to back it up.
That millions watched it and continued to watch it for 10 weeks, and that it made the New York Times’s Bestseller List, and that it was sold in many countries in the world, and that we traveled to numerous colleges and high schools to share it, was proof enough to me that I’d finally earned my self-declared and really-proud-of-it college degree in history.
And why not? The thing that people don’t realize is that history can be fun and that the narrative can be taught with great sweep and power like a movie, not a museum. Nor need it be a “Walt Disney movie” of American history the way it’s taught now, which is mostly a pat on the back for being a great and special country — singular in history and particularly blessed by God.
That’s why young people have so often turned away from American history. They can smell Lies and Hypocrisy.
Needless to say, it was quite controversial and often ignored because that’s the price you pay to say something strong in this country. I’m proud to tell you that our mainstream media blasted it or ignored it because that’s the same media — you know them, all the “biggies” — that since Vietnam have helped cheer us on into so many pathetic wars without any purpose or validity, and yet have never apologized for their mistakes.
And then a few years later, they move on and recommend another set of disastrous choices that lead to war. Where did this ongoing delusion start? This was the main point of our series — and why so many progressive historians praised it as a work that brought an entire century into one tent with its recurring pattern of militarism, false patriotism, racism, sexism, and financial greed (revealed).
All because we never really learned from our past. Because we never looked deeply in elementary or high school, and we went with this mythology that we were somehow exceptional and outside history. And, as a result over time, our memories became clouded, the history distorted by the politics of the powerful school boards in Texas and California.
And over those 80 years since World War II, we began, on a grand scale, to truly lose our collective memory of what we’ve done in the world without recognizing the consequences (or apologizing) — including the militarily unnecessary atomic bombing of Japan.
As a result, your generation suffers all the consequences of this. And you accept that, since 9/11, a policy of unending war is necessary and endurable.
Policies of torture, detention, drones and undeclared wars, interfering in the affairs of every country in the world and declaring unilateral “regime change” as if we were gods, has given us an overwhelming arrogance that lives inside the skin and brain of the power elite in Washington, D.C. The feeling that the State itself has the right over its own citizenry to break the laws as it chooses, and most egregiously violate the 4th and 5th Amendments in the name of defending our National Security.
In doing that, we lose sight that security at any cost is a prison for all of us without end — a panopticon that cows us all to surrender our sense of protest, of individuality, of privacy itself to this anonymous secret state that has eyes on all of us. This is the triumph of force over liberty, this is naked fascism, dress it however you like!
And this has nothing to do with the country I was born in and went to war for as a young, conservative man.
Please don’t ever forget that Edward Snowden was 29 years old when he challenged this system on behalf of us all — just a few years older than you. He’s an avatar for your generation. Do not be cynical and say, “Privacy? So what? I have nothing to hide.” Because when you’re older, you might understand what you’re surrendering without knowing it is your greatest secret of all — yourself.
I told you I went to four colleges, but maybe I exaggerated a bit. Because the fourth college is one you never graduate from. For want of better words, I’d call it the “College of Older Age.” It’s the toughest of all because it makes you question everything. It teaches to those who listen to the necessity for ambiguity in life’s grayer matters — nothing being black or white — and it humbles us in ways we have never been before.
I’m sure in your lifetime you’ll see things we never thought would happen, as we were surprised by these wars, JFK/RFK/MLK assassinations, the theft of the 2000 election, 9/11, the incorporation of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, allowing money once again to suffocate our voices. More will happen to you, in the same way that everybody through the centuries feels that theirs is the most important time of all.
But I still believe that we’ve been given a divine blessing to be alive in this world. And I believe the purpose of our journey is to grow our consciousness, our tolerance, and finally, our love.
This purpose allows us also to act badly at times, to indulge ourselves, and hopefully discover both our mistakes and our regrets. And with it comes an allowance for our weakness and strength because both are so similar. Enjoy what you can.
In closing, I’d suggest you take a year off and do nothing! Be a bum — or do something you’ve never done before. If you choose nothing, see for yourself if being a lazy person works for you or it bores you. Sit on a bench, walk around, fish. But go to the end of that feeling and find out for yourself. Be a janitor. Clean hotel rooms. Work with your hands. Learn how to plant, grow, and cook. Travel to foreign countries, second or third class, and see how you relate to all kinds people and challenges. Above all, even if you want to make a fortune as quickly as you can, I urge you to break your pattern here and now, and don’t do what you did for four years.
So, go in peace, love, justice, and mercy — and do well by this world.