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Novelist Dennis Lehane Tells Graduates to Change the World, Follow the Money, Vote

Award-winning novelist Dennis Lehane began his address to the Emerson College Class of 2017 with a confession.

“I dropped out of Emerson,” Lehane said to cheers and laughter. “It’s a very strange thing to drop out of a college and have them ask you to come back and give a commencement speech. It’s like I swiped left and we somehow ended up hooking up anyway,” he said, referring to the dating app Tinder. 

In a speech that was equal parts comedy routine, historical analysis, and call to action, Lehane touched on climate change, economic inequality, and intolerance in our society. He told the graduates before him on Sunday, May 14, at Boston University’s Agannis Arena, that there are those who cling to false and ugly “myths and narratives” about what this country is, and that if the students want to make America everything it can be, they’d better “get off [their butts] and vote.”

Lehane is the author of several bestselling novels, including Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone Baby Gone, all of which were made into films, and a staff writer for HBO series The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, on which he also was a producer.

He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Emerson during the Undergraduate Commencement ceremony, along with lawyer and civil rights advocate Anita Hill, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, and poet/playwright and MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Claudia Rankine.

Lehane offered up a metaphor for the crowd: A lifelong smoker goes to the doctor and is told he has lung cancer, but if he quits immediately, he will almost certainly survive. The man tells the doctor he’s going on vacation next week, and really likes to smoke while on vacation. The doctor tells him in that case, he will die. He visits 99 more doctors, all of whom tell him the same thing.

Finally, the 100th doctor, “who smells of gin and works out of the back of a taco truck on the corner of Mass. Ave.,” tells him to smoke up, he’ll be fine.

“He dies six months later bitching about how unfair life is,” Lehane said. “That little metaphor, ladies and gentleman, is climate change denial.

“I bring up climate change because it’s so cut and dry, but a large swath of American people doesn’t believe it is… So now we must ask, ‘Cui bono? Who profits from climate change denial?’”

We’re all “addicted to the myths and narratives” of what we think was a better place and time, said Lehane, who admitted he gets “wistful” when he remembers growing up in his tight-knit Dorchester neighborhood.

But he also recalled driving in South Boston with his parents in 1975, turning the corner, and coming upon riots in the wake of the city’s busing order. People were burning effigies of Judge Arthur Garrity and Sen. Ted Kennedy, screaming ugly racial epithets.

“And I can still see the flames’ [reflection] going down the back of my father’s car,” he said. “So those were the ‘good old days,’ just so you know.”

Everyone remembers the 1950s as a “golden age” in America, but it was an economic situation built dependent on the lack of competition due to World War II, and we’ll never find ourselves back there, Lehane said.

“We find ourselves here right now,” he said. “And the issue, I don’t think, is red state, blue state… It’s about jobs, but it’s also about perspective.

“You either believe you are part of a collective humanity or you don’t,” Lehane said to cheers. “You either have empathy for your fellow man regardless of race, creed, or immigration status, or you don’t.”

Recent elections in France and the Netherlands, in which far-right anti-immigrant candidates were defeated by more moderate, pro-Europe politicians show that the “ugly tide” of intolerance can be reversed, he said. But elections need voters.

“The world can change, and the world is looking to us, but it won’t change without you,” he told the Class of 2017. “You better get off your [butt] and vote,” he said.

“You can change the world. So go change the world. Seriously.”

The Graduate Commencement ceremony was scheduled for 3:00 pm, Sunday, May 14, where Associate Professor Emeritus John Dennis Anderson will be the speaker. For coverage of that ceremony, and for more coverage of Undergraduate Commencement, check back at


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