Archive | May, 2012

Valedictorian Drop-Out

9 May

10 years ago, I spoke at my high school graduation. It had nothing to do with grades and everything to do with writing and delivering stock inspirational pablum, which I did. I thought about what I would say today to a football stadium full of young know-it-alls if I could do so without getting arrested, and here it is. Disclaimer: by reading this you are dispensing any notions you may have of the world as a benevolent place with a special song-and-dance for everyone. I have a much simpler message. Anyone who tells you that they have everything figured out is completely full of shit, including me.

You, young person, are a conflicted little mammal. The human condition is the rancid leftovers of millions of years of evolution. This condition has taught us to sacrifice long-term gains for short-term pleasure and develop crippling emotional attachments to things, people, places, time itself. You are a walking stockpot of adrenaline left over from the days when we all lived in caves and had to maintain hyper-vigilance for the sake of survival. And yet we have never been safer, warmer, or better fed as a species than we are now.

This excess adrenaline is often poorly implemented. Ignorance, bigotry, xenophobia, hate, violence – all of these are some modern vehicles for the existential anxiety that we all carry in our DNA. You can’t even passively watch a news program without getting the sense that the sky is falling hard and fast and we are all fucking doomed. We’re not, but we’re hardwired to anticipate disaster. Which might make the prospect of entering “the world” seem moot, or at the very least, catastrophically overrated.

And you want in on a secret? It is. Overrated, that is. The “real world” is not a place you should be in a rush to visit. This whole notion of conferring adulthood on people barely two decades old because they stood in straight lines and carried No. 2 pencils for twelve years is absurd. Sure, high school prepares you for the real world – the same way that raisin bran prepares you for a colonoscopy. There many people whose only justification for retaining a “system” is because they had to do it, so everyone else should have to do it too!

The problem with the trite lines you are fed by commencement speakers is that they just aren’t true. They’re meant to imbue you with a sense of “forward progress,” with the concept that you are moving from here to there, and that this distant “there” is always better than now. Well, that’s complete BS. Living your life as if there is an abstract fixed point in the distance where you will suddenly “get it,” like a highway sign for a rest stop, is going to guarantee you nothing but pain and dissatisfaction. There is a time in your life that’s fucking awesome, and that’s NOW. The ability you have to influence your personal circumstances through right thought and right deed is absolutely staggering.

Another thing: typically these commencement addresses involve some variation on the “your class will change the world!” theme. That’s good, in one sense, because it acknowledges that the world NEEDS FUCKING CHANGING. On the other hand, it vastly overestimates human nature and assumes that all of you will somehow transcend your biological imperatives and take the sort of risks that are involved with changing the world. The truth is that most of you won’t. The majority of you will find meaning in following the path that’s been laid out for you, and you will rationalize the construction of your identity around this path as “the way things are.”

Unabashed rejection of everything you and every member of your family have been fed since birth is dangerous territory, man. People who question party lines and who think for themselves are DANGEROUS. When I tell you to cut against the grain, I am telling you to do something that can alienate a lot of people you care about. I’ve been there. But there’s a reason I implore you to tap your creativity, tap your intellect, and use them both on a daily basis, as much as possible.

The majority of you will enter career fields that are designed to render some form of service to the social classes above you. If you’re REALLY lucky, you can claw your way up to becoming a member of the top tier social classes, but by and large, you have to be born into such a status. This doesn’t make you bad people, just cogs in the machine. It takes some serious mold-breaking to not be a cog. You have to literally mutilate your cog self so that you no longer fit in the machine, and that shit hurts. This machine is maintained in a number of ways:

– Educational “standards” can render the lumpen proletariat inert when it comes to intellectual engagement. You think those standardized tests you take serve any purpose other than to annihilate independent thinking and initiative? Because they don’t. They are there to ensure that the populace never engages with an intellectual idea on anything more than a superficial level. Proponents of these tests argue that they are the only “empirical” way to gauge desired educational outcomes.  Sure, that may be true. But there are vehicles of human expression – like philosophy and the arts – that can NEVER be empirically validated. Does this make them irrelevant?

– On that topic, the folks at the top tier have this arts/education destruction thing figured out. The thing that makes art and philosophy so cool is that they are means to criticize the state, the social elite, corporations, etc. Art is awesome because it’s one of the last refuges the people have to express their frustrations without getting locked up. Shostakovich was able to present his audiences with biting satire of life under Stalin through his music, and he was able to do it through musical irony – counterpointing a well-known (to the vernacular audience) Russian peasant song against  the triumphal march of the Communist party. He got to say his piece without uttering a word. That is why art is awesome. Unfortunately, the people at the top have figured out the game. They know if they present art as this effeminate, foreign (anti-Murrican!) thing, that the lower social classes will self-censor. And this makes the sort of dangerous, outside-the-party-line creativity that the WORLD NEEDS impotent.

And there’s the rub. This self-censorship ensures that the financial and political elites will maintain and further consolidate their holds on power, money, and knowledge. But make no mistake: knowledge of history, culture, human behavior, Disney movie dreams and romance novels, will not disappear amongst those folks hanging out on top. “Useless,” “foreign,” or “gay,” humanities-based educations have always been valuable to the ruling classes throughout history. In other words, they’re happy to deprive you of the same culture that they recognize as important, because your application of creativity could one day unseat them. Machiavelli would dig it.

That kind of cultural knowledge is retained by the top tier. All they care about, when it comes to YOU, is teaching you to show up on time, understand and follow simple written instructions, and maybe operate a calculator. But more than anything else, they want to make sure you know your place.

– There are people out there who have become billionaires by pitting the populace against each other. See, they know that if they can harness that inborn fear that all of us have, they can set up a system of scapegoats so effective, that all they have to do is poke the hornet’s nest periodically, and the people will keep that system rolling for them. It’s brilliant, when you think about it. It’s also cynical as fuck, and I assume you’ve only made it this far because you aren’t a cynical bigot. Good for you.

Here’s what I want you to take away from this: the world is dependent on your creativity and your cultivation of your intellectual curiosity and spirit. You don’t have to go to college to nurture your intellect, though it helps. Especially when you can be surrounded by people who are a lot older than you, who have fought the same pitched battles time and again and come out with their ability to ask questions and detect bullshit intact. We call them “professors,” and a lot of them rock.

Our culture is completely fucked-up and places all value on material goods, the consumption of disposable entertainment, and establishing a pecking order where certain folks get to line up at the top and others are shoved to the bottom. It’s a cruel and bitter thing. But the more you reject the fear, the more you quell the existential anxiety that makes “safe bets” look so safe, the more awesome experiences you will have. And the world, as messed up as it can be, gives back to the people who love it. We are all connected. Life is a dream, death is not real, we are purely the fictional creations of our neuroses. So just go love the world. Don’t worry about changing it. Use it, love it, discover it.

It’s going to hurt like hell to do all of that. People will use you, you will get your heart broken, and you will suffer. If you are afraid of suffering, afraid of the sort of pain that only change can bring, then you should think twice before choosing enlightenment as your goal, because it’s gonna hurt. I haven’t even begun my process of “waking up,” and I’ve already had enough adversity in my life for three or four people. And there will be more. It’s not going to stop because you love the world; like any lover worth taking, the world can set you on fire with passion and break your spirit in the same sweeping blow.

It’s worth it. Don’t be like your parents. Don’t be like your classmates. Don’t be like me. Everything is connected, and you’re always where you’re meant to be. Now go piss off an authority figure.

3 May

Jesus tapdancing Christ.


I am writing this very quickly while on the side of Interstate 20. I am also struggling mightily to not use my colorful repertoire of insanely rhythmic and appropriate curse words. Thank me later.

Today The Chronicle of Higher Education published a blog entry from Naomi Schaefer Riley entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I refuse to link. They do not deserve the traffic. Google it or take my word for it.

Schaefer Riley is responding to an earlier Chronicle article lauding the first cohort of Northwestern University’s Black Studies program. So bemused is she by the mere titles of the dissertations of these young black scholars that Schaefer Riley can barely contain her glee as she proceeds to viciously, intentionally, and deliberately insult every single one of the scholars listed and everyone within the field of black studies. You can almost…

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