You live in and are part of a special moment in American history. For many of you, this moment is characterized by resistance, persistence and insistence. Various aspects of it are known by names and acronyms: “Black Lives Matter,” #Me Too, #Never Again, DACA.
Taken together, these acronyms represent a generational shift – a movement not yet named, populated mostly, but not entirely, of young people. It is a movement of idealism and hope and re-imagining our nation’s motto: e pluribus unum – out of the many, one. It is a call to virtuous action.
There are also those who feel they have gained little from a borderless economy and imagine that they have much to lose from a threat to their national borders – a proxy for national identity. They struggle to hold on to their national identities as the working class and manufacturing companies among them cope with the unhappy consequences of a borderless economy and global corporatization. Many of them saw in their hopes for the future an iconoclastic outsider billionaire.
And, of course, there are those contemptible others who, having emerged from their dark and foul caves, spew their venomous hatred, creating havoc and fear. Though they are few in number, their despicable voices are loud. They represent the very worst of this country, and of humanity, for that matter. They deserve our disapprobation in the strongest of terms.
The first two groups have something in common, though it is rarely acknowledged:
For each, the world, to paraphrase the concluding stanza of Matthew Arnold’s melancholic poem, “Dover Beach,” the world
To lie before [them] like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
[And] hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And [they] are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
And so it is: America is divided right down the middle. Ours is a nation at war with itself. But you didn’t need me to tell you that. You already knew it. And you live it every day, you feel it in your heart and along your blood.
And while this social, economic, and political tug-of-war might seem new, it’s not.
In fact, it’s almost as old as the nation itself, most notably symbolized by a 19th-century civil war that took the lives of roughly 2 percent of the U.S. population. And certainly, the decades-long struggle for women’s rights, particularly the right to vote and for biologic control (for which we use the imperfect shorthand phrases “pro-choice” and “pro-life”). FDR’s New Deal, the 20th-century civil rights movement beginning with the desegregation of our public schools in 1954 and the Great Society in the 1960s, the bloody ongoing struggles in the ‘60s and early ‘70s (not only at home, but abroad in places called Vietnam and Cambodia), the political and economic revolution of Ronald Regan and “Morning in America,” and others represent battles – often generational battles of two nations as one or another belief seeks ascendancy over the other.
But there is something profoundly different this time.
[Hold up iPhone.] We anachronistically refer to this as a phone. It is not phone. It is a time machine – that is to say, it obliterates the distance between “I want it” and “I have it.” It allows us to purchase all manner of goods and services — merchandise, household appliances, furniture; rent apartments; rent out apartments; to check into and out of hotels; manage our finances; to deposit checks; move money from one account to another; buy books; watch films and television shows; create films and television shows; take photographs; receive photographs; listen to multiple music and news radio programs and podcasts; create music; read the news; create the news; play games; plan and navigate travel; order land, air and rail transportation; buy groceries; make dinner reservations or buy dinner and have it delivered; forecast the weather; find love; escape from love (or even from friends) — all of this in a blink of an eye. It wakes us up in the morning and tucks us in at night from a playlist of meditative chants and music. And the most anachronistic, old fashioned app of the dozens on this time machine is, in fact, the phone.
Technology, and social media in particular, challenge our conceptions of knowledge, truth, and beliefs as the distinction between what is true and what is fabricated – but posited as true – becomes increasingly blurred. Because our access to content is so swift and uncurated, it is less knowable, less verifiable, and more relativistic – more akin to reality television, which is not real at all, but rather a fictionalized, rehearsed, directed, staged, and edited version of what is real. It is representational only, a shadow – sometimes a dark shadow – of what is true.
Social media unmediated destabilizes and unsettles the truth. Truth seems relative and fluid, not absolute or fixed.
In this convergent world, recorded history is everywhere and nowhere. In fact, today nothing is truly real until it has been digitally recorded on our time machines (Selfie anyone?) and then shared with others. Time has collapsed on itself.
Sadly, we live in a “heads down” world, not a “heads up” world. The heads down world is digital; the heads up world is analog. (notes from CultureTrack ’17: Understanding an Evolving Cultural Landscape: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2017)
What have we missed, what will we miss, our heads down, our gaze fixed, as it were, on our time machines rather than the living, breathing world around us? If life is the process by which we comprehend the profound connectivity of the individual self to all that lies outside of the self, then what has been lost to us?
Is this, alas, our common humanity?
If so, what are we to do? What advice might I give you as you take your leave?
To be honest, I’m not really sure, because the world seems so pliant, even slippery.
But here are a few tidbits that I humbly and tentatively offer:
Exercise when you can and, especially when it seems most difficult, your sympathetic imagination, knowing that sometimes it’s important to stand in another person’s shoes before you pass judgment on them.
Or, put another way, resist the temptation to put people in boxes until you have opened up those boxes and peered inside. Increasingly, we tend to shout at each other through these boxes rather than taking the time to see what’s there.
I say this even as I know that it is vitally important to call out and root out racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, sexual assault, and all of the other behaviors and structures that harm people and corrupt and undermine our national values.
Learn, as a very smart person reminded me, that discourse is a form of action. Listening and talking are twin virtues, but of the two, listening is the most important for, “there are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said Hamlet to Horatio.
If possible, be humble in the face of conflict without sacrificing your core values.
Be patient and resist the urge to act, especially when your understanding is incomplete.
Be skeptical, but avoid cynicism. Hold on to your idealism as long as you can – before experience begins to chip away at it.
Is it possible that as a nation committed to equality and social justice, we may still hope that out of the rich diversity of human experience, we can create communities of learning, communities made both beautiful and effective by their pluralism, communities of learning that will turn the tide of want into a sea of joy and light?
Is it possible that though we may or may not all come to love one another, that we may understand that to be the best part of this place, we must have the moral courage to respect one another?
Is any of this still possible? I’m an idealist, and I have to believe that it is so.
So, I urge you to live lives of integrity. To seek habitually to live lives of reflection and introspection.
Cherish and tend with care the friends you have made here – great friends who are also great people.
And while I have more questions than I have answers these days, I am certain about this:
You will have a big and important role to play in the future of our nation and beyond. We will depend on your probity, your critical analysis, your impulse to get it right even at the expense of reporting it first; we will depend on your willingness to look at a thing as it truly is in itself; we will depend on your moral courage and your drum major instinct to solve the problems and change the world. We will need you more than ever before in the history of this country.
After all, you are the storytellers, you are the builders of human hopes and aspirations. You are the magic makers, the myth makers. You are the truth tellers.
So when you depart from this commonwealth of learning, may your life bring you some work of noble note, may you find meaning in your commitment to others, and may your memories of Emerson be undying.
Good luck and good cheer.