Class of 2018, I’ve always been told that a joke’s a good way to launch any talk. It’s a matter of breaking the ice, though on your graduation day, with the temperature soaring into the upper eighties, that may not be the perfect image. Still, you know what I mean: an attempt to lighten the atmosphere a little before getting to the tough stuff. Again, though, in our world — in case you hadn’t noticed, a near majority of American voters elected Donald Trump president in November 2016 — lightening the atmosphere may pass for a joke in itself (and I do think I hear a little laughter out there somewhere).
Anyway, here’s my official joke on this sunny afternoon in the middle of this beautiful open campus quad. Ready?
Bang, bang, I’m dead!
No, really, in our present world, shouldn’t that pass for a joke? Think of it as my way of making light of a grim reality of your educational lives. After all, imagine some classmate of yours, angry at, well, who knows what, or simply, as new head of the National Rifle Association and former illegal gunrunner Oliver North suggested recently, on Ritalin and devoted to violent video games, stalking onto this very campus this very afternoon. He’s — and it almost certainly would be a “he” — spoiling for payback of some sort and he’s — who could doubt this in twenty-first-century America? — armed to the teeth with lethal, possibly military-style weaponry. The odds are that, standing up at this podium in front of you as he began blowing people away, I might well be the first to go. Hence, my joke! But of course you got it, didn’t you?
The Adults Under the Desks
To be clear, on your graduation day I’m not just kidding around. I’m also doing what the truly old — I’m almost 74 — always try to do: somehow get in the spirit of the young just about to step into, not out of, our world. It’s true that when I went to school back in the Neolithic Age, we had our own version of being blown away — and of active-shooter drills and of the fear of dying that went with them.
From the time we were little, we were, in the parlance of that moment, “ducking and covering”; that is, diving under our school desks for protection with our hands over our heads like (as one civil defense cartoon of the time had it) Bert the Turtle going into his shell. We were protecting ourselves against a nuclear attack from a land you won’t even remember, the former Soviet Union, which imploded before you were born (R.I.P. 1991), aka the Ruskies, the Evil Empire. And yes, looking back, those tiny kids crouched under those desks, one of whom was me, couldn’t have represented a more pathetic image of “safety” or, to use the word that has dominated this American century, “security.” And yes, even as children, we knew it. The underside of a desk and your hands were no defense against the atomic bombing of New York City (where I lived in those years, as I do today). In fact, you have to wonder what sad group of adults came up with that brilliant strategy for terrorizing children?
Those were the active-shooter drills of that particular lockdown moment, us under those desks as CONELRAD blared its warnings from a radio on the teacher’s desk and sirens howled in the streets outside. Even at a ridiculously young age, you knew that you, your parents, your grandparents, your friends might not be around for long if that particular shooter, the Soviet Union, made it into your world. Its “shot” would, of course, have been heard not just in that classroom but around what was left of a nuclearized world. So, believe me, whatever your nightmares about mass shooters in your schools may be, we had them, too.
On the cheerier side, in the present moment, nukes, thanks in part to a president who likes things BIG, are clearly making a bigly return in our present world. Since the Obama years, more than a trillion dollars (a number sure to rise) have been slated to produce yet more of them in even more usable versions for what’s already a staggering arsenal, one that could easily obliterate several Earth-sized planets. We’re talking about an arsenal that our president referred to hair-raisingly just last week while canceling his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” That, of course, is the very same arsenal with which he had previously threatened to bring “fire and fury like the world has never seen” down on North Korea.
Now, in these years, as you’ve crouched silently in the darkness of some classroom, preparing for the moment when a well-armed student or former student might be roaming the halls of your school preparing to shoot you down, your own set of fears have been far more up close and personal than mine were, but no less horrifying. The New York Times recently reported on a high school, 1,000 miles from the latest mass school slaughter in Santa Fe, Texas:
“Calysta Wilson and Courtney Fletcher, both juniors at Mount Pleasant Community High School in Iowa, believe their table in the cafeteria would be the first one a gunman entering the room would target. ‘We sit at the table closest to the doors,’ Calysta, 17, said as she took in a softball game. ‘In the case that you came in as a shooter and you killed the first person you saw, I would die. I would not make it.’”
Here is where I feel oh-so-old standing in front of you today. I can’t even imagine such calculations as a daily part of anyone’s education. For the Texas versions of Calysta and Courtney, however, that state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick (who’s pushed for bringing concealed weapons to church), does have a solution: more guards, fewer school entrances (“There are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses.”) — or, as the wags had it, “Guns don’t kill people, doors do.”
Let’s face it, though, Patrick is hardly a loner when it comes to such solutions to society’s problems. Since the Parkland, Florida, school slaughter sparked a movement to curb guns in America, calls for the the further arming, fortifying, and militarizing of American education — from the NRA to President Trump — have come thick and fast (even if the insurance companies have balked, doubting that armed schools will be safer places). And Patrick’s solution is very much in line with our moment more generally. It fits perfectly, for instance, with the president’s famed response to “Mexican rapists” and other imagined dangers to the nation: Wall them out and wall us in. (In the background, can’t you hear Trump’s base at his rallies chanting “build that wall!”?)
To offer a little perspective on your world of walls to be, they simply don’t work. Not for long anyway. The 4,500-mile Great Wall of China may still be the ultimate symbol of such construction (even if not actually visible from outer space), but the “barbarians” from the steppes of Asia still managed to invade and establish their dynasties in the Chinese heartland. In America, the walling in of education, the turning of schools into no-exit fortresses, will hardly solve problems. Consider, for a moment, the simple fact that school-age children gather in other places as well — coffee shops, fast-food restaurants, gyms, you name it. Are you really going to fortify the entire society, put guards and guns at every McDonald’s? And are you really going to turn American “education” into a fully armed experience? In other words, will an education that, theoretically at least, is supposed to “open” you up to the world, actually leave you desperately closed off from and pre-terrorized by it (even though school still remains the statistically safest place for a child to be in this society)?
In fact, exercises like the full-scale fortifying of schools are really the twenty-first-century adult equivalent of ducking under a giant desk and putting your hands over your head. Sad!
The reality of this moment is that what truly endangers us — and especially you, the graduates of 2018 — can’t possibly be walled out (or in). I hate to tell the lieutenant governor of Texas this, for instance, but when it comes to the planet itself, unlike Texas’s schools, we can’t easily create fewer exits (not certainly in the age of the Sixth Extinction) or arm the guards better. That’s why climate-change denial — the greatest form of ducking and covering around — is so convenient. It means you can ignore (for now) the single greatest threat on the planet (other, perhaps, than nuclear weapons) that can’t be walled in or walled out. But more on that momentarily, as I throw further shadows over this glorious day of yours.
Here, then, is an entrance-and-exit reality to start with: you can’t arm a citizenry like no other on the planet (Yemenis come in a distant second) and then successfully wall yourself off from that reality with fewer entrances and yet more arms. You can’t let more than 300 million weapons loose in a single country, including millions of military-style assault rifles, as if preparing for a future war at home and expect nothing to happen. (It’s hardly surprising, under the circumstances, that this country leads the world by a long shot in what are politely called “mass shootings.”) You can’t arm your police nationwide with weaponry and other equipment directly off the distant battlefields on which your armed forces have been fighting for almost 17 years, or fill their ranks and their SWAT teams nationwide with veterans off those very same battlefields who used those very same weapons and expect nothing to change.
You can’t fight wars for more than a decade and a half, still spreading in those same distant lands, and not expect them to come home somehow, even if in the fantasy figures of terror-minded refugees against whom you plan to build those walls and institute those travel bans. You can’t have a Washington in which in 2003 and again in 2018 — despite everything that’s happened in the years between in the Greater Middle East — “real men want to go to Tehran” and successfully wall yourself off from the results of that urge. You can’t expect all of that and not also expect that somehow or other this will, to use the title of my new book, turn out to be a nation unmade by war.
There are no walls, no entrances or exits that can be closed in order to contain the damage from or protect the American people from Washington’s destructive follies.
Heading for the Entrances, Not the Exits
Think of it as an irony of the first order that, in the face of historic dangers, the American people sent a man into the White House ready to create an administration that would give the classic head-in-the-sand cartoon ostrich a run for its money. Yes, Donald Trump did once claim that climate change was a “Chinese hoax,” but who could have imagined that he would consciously staff his administration with the most wide-ranging set of climate-change deniers imaginable; or that he and his cronies would put so much effort into the further fossil-fuelization of the Earth; that, while bragging about building walls and instituting travel bans to protect the American people, he would put his greatest energy, focus, and effort into creating ever more of the most destructive kind of “exits” and “entrances” on this planet?
After all, everything else we might discuss today from those endless piles of weaponry in this country to the strange potential autocrat now in the White House is just part of ordinary human history in which empires and autocrats rise and fall; people rebel and fail, die and suffer, and Kim Jong-uns run their countries until they don’t. Climate change is nothing of the sort. It operates not on a human time scale, but on an awesomely different one, a planetary one. Note, for instance, that, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, every one of the last 400 months (since the presidency of Ronald Reagan) has been warmer than the historical norm and 16 of the last 17 years since 2001 have similarly been the warmest on record. Just a hint of what’s coming.
Climate change functions on another time scale entirely, one that puts human time in grim perspective. So whatever the horrors and crimes of the present moment, the greatest of them all (except nuclear destruction) is undeniably aiding and abetting in the future warming of the planet, a phenomenon sparked by us and yet not likely to end on a human time scale. In other words, if President Trump and his crew have their way, they will prove to be true terrarists (rather than terrorists), the greatest criminals in human history. They will have consciously chosen to aid and abet the destruction of the very environment that nurtured humanity all these centuries. They will have been the shooters in humanity’s schoolyard.
All of this means that all of you, all of us, are now living with a version of the apocalypse up close and personal, whether we fully grasp that or not, in part because this potentially apocalyptic moment will play out over hundreds, even thousands of years. And that’s no joke.
It may, by now, be crossing your mind that it would be better not to graduate at all from this beautiful school. Instead, why not close and lock that giant gate over there, fortify this campus, and hunker down for the human version of eternity, or simply crawl under your chairs right now, in the midst of this ceremony, put your hands over your hands and refuse to come out.
But perhaps I could suggest something else for you, class of 2018. Perhaps now is the perfect moment for you, your parents and grandparents, your friends and relatives to stand up, form yourselves into your serried ranks, gowns on and caps in hand ready to be tossed. Perhaps now is the moment to stand tall, be proud, and head for one of the very exits to this campus, which are really entrances to our world — of the sort that so many are so eager to shut down and armor up. Perhaps now is the moment to begin your procession off this campus into a world where the entrances and exits should be opened, not closed, and things should truly be so much better than they are. Now is the time to enter our beleaguered world and go to work. We need you, class of 2018, not under some desk but out there ready to change our world for the better.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His sixth and latest book, just published, is A Nation Unmade by War(Dispatch Books). He gave today’s speech from the campus of his mind.