[Note for TomDispatch Readers: In recent years, this website has had a fine record when it comes to college commencement addresses, in part because I have a fondness for the form at its best, and in part because I think we should all have a chance to graduate into our world, whatever our ages. In previous years at TomDispatch, you've read commencement speeches by Howard Zinn ("Against Discouragement"), Mark Danner ("Words in a Time of War"), Rebecca Solnit, ("Welcome to the Impossible World"), and even me ("Missing Word, Missing World"), written, as I put it last year, "from the edge of the campus of life."
Unfortunately, no one I know gave such a speech this year and, for some unknown reason, no college offered me the opportunity, so I decided to write another graduation address, again from the privacy of my apartment. Let me mention, by the way, that while our distant foreign wars are largely out of the news and off the American agenda, paying for them isn't. Without a peep, the Senate just approved another round of "emergency war spending" to the tune of tens of billions of dollars to cover Afghanistan and Iraq. Our inability to focus on the American way of war has been striking recently. If you want to know more about it, consider preordering my new book, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, which will be out in a couple of weeks.
While I'm at it, let me mention two other books, not slated for publication till August, that you should definitely preorder. Both make new sense of our American world. If you want to understand why two presidents as different as Barack Obama and George W. Bush have so often ended up in policy agreement, then make sure to get Andrew Bacevich's new book, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War. It explains how the Washington consensus on foreign policy formed, and just why its fundamental assumptions and options remain so narrow -- and so militarized. If you want to understand just where so much of your money is really going, then check out Chalmers Johnson's successor volume to his Blowback Trilogy , Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope. And keep in mind that any time you click on a book link or book cover image at this site, go to Amazon.com, and buy a book (or anything else for that matter), we get a small percentage of that purchase at no extra cost to you! Tom]
Living in a Can't-Do Nation
By Tom Engelhardt
Graduates of the class of 2010, I'm honored to have been asked to address you today, but I would not want to be you.
I graduated in 1966 on a gloriously sunny day; then again, it was a sunnier moment in this country. We were, after all, still surfing the crest of post-World War II American wealth and productivity. The first oil crisis of 1973 wasn't even on the horizon. I never gave a thought to the gas I put in the tank of the used Volkswagen "bug" I bought with a friend my last year in college. In those days, the oil for that gas had probably been pumped out of an American well on land (and not dumped in the Gulf of Mexico). Gas, in any case, was dirt cheap. No one thought about it -- or Saudi Arabia (unless they were working for an oil company or the State Department).
Think of it this way: in 1966, the United States was, in your terms, China, while China was just a giant, poor country, a land of -- as the American media liked to write back then -- "blue ants." Seventeen years earlier, it had, in the words of its leader Mao Ze-dong, "stood up" and declared itself a revolutionary people's republic; but just a couple of years before I graduated, that country went nuts in something called the Cultural Revolution.
Back in 1966, the world was in debt to us. We were the high-tech brand you wanted to own -- unless, of course, you were a guerrilla in the jungles of Southeast Asia who held some quaint notion about having a nation of your own.
Here's what I didn't doubt then: that I would get a job. I didn't spend much time thinking about my working future, because American affluence and the global dominance that went with it left me unshakably confident that, when I was ready, I would land somewhere effortlessly. The road trips of that era, the fabled counterculture, so much of daily life would be predicated on, and tied to, the country's economic power, cheap oil, staggering productivity, and an ability to act imperially on a global stage without seeming (to us Americans at least) like an imperial entity.
I was living in denial then about the nature of our government, our military, and our country, but it was an understandable state. After all, we -- the "sixties generation" -- grew up so much closer to a tale of American democracy and responsive government. We had faith, however unexamined, that an American government should and would hear us, that if we raised our voices loudly enough, our leaders would listen. We had, in other words, a powerful, deeply ingrained sense of agency, now absent in this country.
That, I suspect, is why we took to the streets in protest -- not just because we despaired of American war policy, which we did, but because under that despair we still held on tightly to a hope, which the next decades would strip from our world and your generation. And we had hopeful models as well. Remember, the great Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was still a force to be reckoned with -- and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, the riots of 1968, the burning ghettoes, the shock of American troops occupying American inner cities, as yet had no reality for us.
Even in protest, there was a sense of... well, the only word I can think of is "abundance." At the time, everything seemed abundant.
President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program was expansively underway in the midst of war -- and even guns and butter seemed (for a while) a plausible enough combination for a country like ours. The Peace Corps, that creation of the Kennedy presidency -- which my future wife joined in 1964 -- was still new and it, too, encapsulated that sense of American abundance and the hubris that went with it. It was based, after all, on the idea that you could take a bunch of American kids like you, just out of college, with no particular skills, and ship them off with minimal training to needy nations around the world to improve life, all as part of a great Cold War publicity face-off with the Soviet Union.
And those kids, who turned out in droves to experience something bigger and better than themselves, did often enough find ingenious ways to offer limited amounts of help. The Peace Corps was but one small measure of a pervasive sense -- about to be shattered -- of our country's status as the globe's preeminent can-do nation. There was nothing we couldn't do. (Hadn't we, after all, singlehandedly rebuilt devastated Europe and Japan after World War II?)
Then, of course, there was "the war." Vietnam, that is. It was the oozing oil spill of that moment, regularly referred to as "an American tragedy" (never a Vietnamese one). The tragic aspect of it, above all, seemed to be that victory would not come; that, as Henry Kissinger would later put it, speaking of communist North Vietnam, "I can't believe a fourth-rate power doesn't have a breaking point."
The very idea of defeat -- hardly mentionable in those years but ever-present -- was corrosive to what, in a book of mine, I once called America's "victory culture." Because the Vietnamese refused to give way in that "meat grinder" of a war in which millions of Vietnamese (and tens of thousands of American soldiers) would die, doubt, like that oil seeping into the Louisiana marshes today, oozed into the crevices of American life, and began to eat away at confidence.