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Other than elections, this is the time of year for public speaking. In every location with a public school there will be graduation ceremonies where student representatives, educators, and guest speakers try to summarize what has or supposedly took place to bring the graduate to the point of graduating. When I left the U of M long ago in Pre Cambrian times my five year (victim of side tracking) U experience was recapped by a famous American poet who did his honoring of time, place, and those present by putting us all to sleep. It was kind of him to dull us to the future, but in not selling pillows beforehand he missed a great opportunity to increase his wealth while adding to our comfort during the long snooze of his poetical drone. If his speech contained anything useful or memorable it was lost in his tone of fulsome self-appreciation allowing us to listen.
But then, what can any speaker in the midst of today’s information say about what future lies outside the auditorium door? None of the wise, well-intended, encouraging, or ruminating speakers at any of my High School, College, or University commencements could have seen ahead to tell his or her fidgeting listeners that when they reached retirement age they better have a lot of economic success behind them. I’ll use the example of 1960 as a time when a retiree with a million dollars could hardly have spent it fast enough while a retiree in 2015 with that amount is one serious illness away from looming poverty. Economically and technologically we see enough change to make the most learned heads spin in confusion. Within a few generations we’ve gone from a Cold War bristling with nuclear annihilation to Theology War begun in an embassy in Tehran. Few saw that event leading to the eventual attack on the Great Satan in NYC or predicted multitudes overseas would cheer gleefully as the twin towers fell. None of these things and certainly not the ISIS penchant for beheading was foreseen in our faith in self-determination, freedom, and democracy. It is a sorry reckoning and not the material for a commencement send off to remind the departing that our ideals are not as widely held nor honored by a great many more than a few extremists.
Some, understandably holding firm to the conviction of their ideals, will say the real cause behind acts we find so disturbing today and wish to ascribe to a radical few is the logical result of poverty and economic disparity among nations. Is economic upheaval the cause of persecution and graphic executions? If so I think we’d see a lot more of our poor lopping off heads or setting off bombs to express their distress and resentment of inequality. However we might excuse them the makers of suicide bombs and bombers say rather clearly they like the wealth of the West but judge Western civilization evil. In the eyes of their god it is deserving of persecution and death. A speech about the future of graduates these days has to look at a far more roiling picture than political idealism of either the left or right. Economic theories of justice and market societies are of little consequence when graduates stand before gates being stormed by theology. I envy no graduation speaker and no graduate at a time when it so appears our highest ideals mean nothing to the holders of theological absolutes. To view otherwise is to argue the usefulness of reasoning with unreason, an activity rewarding as talking Aristotle to a two year old having a tantrum.
Maybe it’s my age or a form of cynicism has taken over that causes me to be skeptical of things presented as really good ideas. I understand why Pollution Control in the State of Minnesota would take a dim view of fossil fuel. It is indeed visionary and forward looking to talk the wisdom of breaking the chains of fossil fuels for a future built on energy from water, wind, solar, and harvested fuels. I listen hopefully to those offering their inspiring vision, but I wonder do they see as I do so many, many earlier inspirations that have left no trace? We stand waiting for the time we flit to work or play in jet cars and live in geodesic bubble homes where the only solid wall is in the toilet.
Visions and assumptions do drive us. These things motivate believers in forms of alternate energy as vision and assumption moves forward the core of ISIS along its path. We believe (or at least someone does) before acting. If you’ve ever attended a public meeting you know some of the believers in the crowd have little more to offer than the profound conviction the sound of their own voice saying nothing of particular utility is the very thing most needed to balm the ills of the listener. Worse of the lot are those who add not knowing how to say it with having little worthy of saying. These twin deficiencies are a potent combination but they never seem to stop those who most need to be halted before digression number two in their verbal meander turns into sidetrack thirty seven on the road to who remembers.
I don’t want to be unkind toward well intended public speakers. They have at heart the best interests of their listener and are often the most able champions of causes we’d never know of otherwise. I once listened to a heartily sincere woman tell me the dangers of esoteric glass spread in a sinister plot around the university campus to weaken the will and capacity of students. I had no choice but bow before her very much superior knowledge of this arcane subject. I very well imagine this is as much and real a threat now as it was then and have lost no sleep over it as a consequence. A great many wise and foolish things are said this time of year, but to me none is nobler than the silent remembrance Memorial Day should carry.