Means, ends and endings

Alan Ryan on commencement season in the US: this time, it’s political

May 31, 2012

This is the season of commencement. I shan’t start a tedious riff about the American habit of referring to what is in fact the end, conclusion, finale or culmination of the academic struggle as a “commencement”. Respect for other people’s cultural quirks is mandatory in the US, and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers. In any case, snide remarks about beginning at the end would invite questions about why the University of Oxford calls the annual ceremony at which honorary degrees are handed out to the great and good “Encaenia”.

American commencements are significant events, especially this year. There’s nothing to rival baseball titan Yogi Berra’s great advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”; but there is much to enjoy, if not in the content of the addresses, then at least in the kerfuffle that surrounds the process. It is very unEnglish. Oxbridge chancellors are almost wholly silent on such occasions: “almost” because they must confer the honorary degrees, “auctoritate mea et totius universitatis”. Speech-making is left to the public orator.

In the US, the commencement speaker is invited precisely in order to say something, as well as to collect an honorary degree. What they are expected to say is straightforward: the graduands are congratulated on the effort they have put into obtaining their degrees (the faculty should not titter, turn pale or laugh cynically at this); advised that the world is their oyster (nobody will observe that a bad oyster can put you off shellfish for years, if not for life); and finally told that they should not simply look forward to a life of making money, but rather understand that the way to happiness is to serve their fellow creatures to the best of their ability (at which point financially literate graduands, especially in law, business or medical school, will do a quick calculation of how long it will take them to pay off anything up to a quarter of a million dollars in student loans and groan inwardly).

That is the usual gap between depressing truth and uplifting rhetoric. This year, it’s not so much that the gap has widened as that circumstances have conspired to heighten the usual absurdities. It has been a year in which the Republican primary campaign allowed all sorts of people who would ordinarily be sedated at the time of the full moon to walk abroad in daylight. They have done their bit to make more rational politicians less so, and the silliness has infected commencement.

Ken Bennett, secretary of state for Arizona, said that he might not permit Barack Obama’s name to appear on the presidential ballot paper this autumn because he had not seen a satisfactory copy of the president’s birth certificate (the Hawaii authorities have now sent him one). Catholic bishops also decided it was a good moment to make mischief (they may have had a rational motive: a former colleague is facing trial in Philadelphia for allowing a known paedophile priest to move from parish to parish; any distraction is a good distraction). They decided that Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, was not a proper person to address students at Georgetown University - a Jesuit institution - on 18 May because she is responsible for Obama’s healthcare reforms, which require all employers - qua employers - to provide a full range of health insurance to their employees, including access to birth control, and in extremis to medical care that might include abortion. Georgetown, to its credit, told the bishops to get lost; Sebelius, to her credit, confined herself to uplifting platitudes and said only that people in government have to make hard choices.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mitt Romney cosied up to voters from the evangelical Christian Right by addressing the graduation ceremony at Liberty University on 12 May. Liberty was founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, and offers its 12,000 residential and 60,000 online students a conventional university education alongside faith-based programmes in a fiercely conservative Christian framework. Romney is a Mormon: his family were some of Joseph Smith’s first followers. The atheists among us think that anyone who believes that Smith was divinely inspired is crazy, and that anyone who isn’t crazy remains a Mormon for the commercial reasons that people join the local Masonic Lodge. But as Hume observed, it’s inherently implausible that God revealed himself to a dozen illiterate fishermen in Judea, so why not upstate New York?

Romney’s problem with evangelical Christians is that they think Mormonism is only dubiously a Christian creed, and that Romney himself would say anything to anyone to get himself elected president. My cynical view is that this is a good thing. Once elected, he would govern as a boring, centrist bureaucrat and forget everything he had said to get elected. He was a perfectly good governor of Massachusetts. But addressing his 35,000-strong audience at Liberty, the only moment he fired up the people was when he declared his hostility to gay marriage.

Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan on 1 May and Barnard College on 14 May, Obama made his usual vain pleas for common sense. Since Republicans nowadays despise it, these were blatantly campaign speeches. Non-politicians mostly adhere to the usual platitudes: nobody wants to remind the graduates that although economic conditions have improved, graduate pay has fallen; student debt is at an all-time high; Congress is too quarrelsome to agree on measures to keep it under control; and they are the first generation in a century with good reason to fear that they will lead less interesting and happy lives than their parents. When adjunct professors are eligible for food stamps, it’s hard to look reality in the eye and remain cheerful. As they say, welcome to the rest of your life.

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