The homework Sulzberger did is illuminating. He went back and read "what generations of other commencement speakers had said." If he was thorough in this, that means he read about 30 of my own, though it can't be deduced that from these he learned anything at all. Usually, commencement speakers satisfy themselves with well-composed vapidities.
Years ago I amused myself on this score by using the identical speech 10 times at 10 different universities, confident that no human being in the tallest library stack in the world would detect the repetition. No one did. It was sobering to reflect that I might have been uttering, for the first time, the Sermon on the Mount, and nobody would notice.
What Mr. Sulzberger did, which was certainly attention-getting, was take the blame for the sourness of the world we live in. "You weren't supposed to be graduating into an America fighting a misbegotten war in a foreign land."
That's true. And we weren't supposed to be born into a country fighting a war that was manifestly misbegotten but that was endorsed by the overwhelming majority of legislators, Democratic and Republican. And it isn't misbegotten because it is being fought "in a foreign land." The very best thing about most American wars is that they are fought in foreign lands, not on native soil. We did that once, and after the Civil War resolved never to do it again, selecting other theaters in which to fight.
Which of our wars have been outright misbegotten is difficult to say, inasmuch as all wars are testimony to failed diplomacy, so that it isn't war -- the most hideous collective action this side of totalitarian practice -- that is so awful; rather the failure to have avoided war. Half a million people died in the First World War, into which President Woodrow Wilson, who not only gave commencement addresses but presided over them, led us. Liberal intellectuals, we were invited to assume at SUNY, don't do that kind of thing. They are too ... A problem. Too what?
Mr. Sulzberger, having read all those other commencement speeches, said: "Ninety-five percent of them come down to this: 'Today you enter the real world. Follow your heart. Find what you love and do it.' Who can argue with such wisdom? It's sort of a motherhood and apple pie statement."
There are two difficulties with that generality. The first is that it is not always wise to do that which you love, which could include shooting commencement speakers. The second is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with devotion to apple pie, let alone motherhood.
Today's speaker was comprehensively at odds with the world he lives in. Citing his own experience as a graduate in the class of 1974, he said that he and his classmates had "entered the world committed to making it a better, safer, cleaner, more equal place. We were determined not to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. ... You weren't supposed to be graduating into a world where we are still fighting for fundamental human rights, be it the rights of immigrants to start a new life, the rights of gays to marry, or the rights of women to choose."
That formulation asks us to believe that certain things in philosophical and political contention oughtn't to be contended, it being so obvious that there is only a single correct position in the matter. The graduating student was being asked to assume that the 50 million Americans who believe in tender loving care for unborn children are misbegotten in their concern, even as they were wrong to have voted for a human-rights-oriented foreign policy in Iraq. And Mr. Sulzberger should have taken just a moment to say to the graduates: At least we brought you this, a world in which a communist superpower no longer threatens freedom in the world.
"This is my first ever commencement speech," the speaker said, "and, depending on your reviews, maybe my last." The prospect of 30 commencement speeches in the future by the same speaker brings to mind The New Yorker cartoon depicting a naked man lowering into his mouth an apple handed to him by a naked woman. In the foreground is an exercised astronaut just landed on the scene. The caption says: "Whoa! Stop! Wait just a ---- minute!"