Tony Kushner’s 2004 Commencement Address at Columbia University
The most moving commencement speech I’ve ever read. A wittily political, erudite, and poetic call to arms.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner ‘78 delivered a 2004 Class Day address noteworthy for its impassioned call to action, its often self-deprecating humor and the rapid pace at which it was delivered. Kushner, whose work includes Angels in America, Homebody/Kabul and the Tony-nominatedCaroline, or Change (currently on Broadway), told the graduates to “heal the world, and in the process, heal yourself, find the human in yourself by finding the citizen, the activist, the hero.” A streaming video of Class Day is available at www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/broadcast/commencement2004/
By Tony Kushner ‘78
I’m incredibly honored to have been invited to speak to you today. I’ve been asked to limit my remarks to eight minutes. I’m not sure what the significance of eight minutes is, it seems a little arbitrary, though I’m sure it only seems so.
I’ll move along to the substance of my eight-minute speech but first I feel I have to clear the air. A few weeks back, some helpful person e-mailed me a link to an article in the Columbia Spectator. It was an article announcing that I was to be your Class Day speaker. A few paragraphs in, I found this:
"[Khalid] Ali [‘04] said that deans in the Office of Student Affairs had presented the class council with a list of potential speakers, and that the council had narrowed the list down to five possibilities. The group’s first choice was comedian Jon Stewart, who hosts the Comedy Central talk show The Daily Show, but Stewart turned down the Columbia offer in order to speak at Princeton University, which had extended an earlier invitation. Stewart’s brother is a Princeton graduate.
"The council also considered billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Business ‘51, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Law ‘59. But Ali said that an agent for Buffett declined the invitation, and Ginsburg’s office did not return phone calls."
So in other words, I am your fourth choice. We can get through this, but it will take a few of my eight minutes to do so.
I think I should begin by acknowledging your disappointment that I am not Jon Stewart. Think how I feel. Your disappointment that I am not Jon Stewart will last one morning; I am disappointed at not being Jon Stewart every morning of my life. Instead of speaking to you, Jon Stewart is speaking at Princeton. The joke’s on Jon Stewart, because I’ve heard that all Princeton graduates wind up working for the CIA - whereas, as everyone knows, Columbia graduates don’t wind up working for anyone.
Your No. 2 guy, Warren Buffett, well, of course we’re all disappointed we’re not Warren Buffett. Most of us would be very happy being the interest on one of Warren Buffett’s household accounts. He would have been a cool speaker: He might have told us about his conversations with Arnold Schwarzenegger during the course of which Buffett suggested telling Californians that if they wanted to correct the debt-strangled dysfunctional mess they call their state economy they were going to have to raise taxes, which conversation occasioned Schwarzenegger stuffing Mr. Buffett in a burlap sack for the rest of the recall election. Perhaps it was this revolutionary idea of raising taxes that inspired you to ask Mr. Buffett to speak to you today, or perhaps you’re just greedy and you wanted to be near all that money. I don’t blame you. It’s swoony, all that money. Your parents will be interested to know that Mr. Buffett has told his children they won’t be inheriting his vats of money to do with as they please. They will have to work! Perhaps Mr. Buffett would have come to tell your parents that they should disinherit you. So maybe you’re lucky he declined the invitation.
Although again, this is Columbia, not Princeton, so most of you probably won’t inherit very much.
What would Ruth Bader Ginsburg have to say? I’ve heard her speak, she’s very impressive, though she’s not very dishy. On the other hand, she wouldn’t sic U.S. marshals on Columbia Spectator reporters who were trying to record her speech, unlike her fellow associate justice and her former weekly dinner partner, Antonin Scalia. Maybe Justice Ginsburg could talk about the rumor that since the Florida election steal . I mean decision . friendly relationships between the more-or-less progressive justices and the Reactionary Troika have curdled (Justice Ginsburg is progressive, but she has or used to have a slightly Scalia-inflected slant against Roe v. Wade), and maybe now she’s decided she doesn’t find the prospect of a meal and bridge game with the states-rights-putschist recusal-refusenik duck-hunting homophobe quite as appetizing as formerly it was, and maybe she’d talk about that. She didn’t return your calls, Columbia Class of 2004, so we’ll never know. Don’t take it personally. Justice Ginsburg doesn’t speak as rapidly as I do, maybe she heard about the eight-minute limit and it scared her off.
I’m very, very honored to be here, though I have to say that I’m here only because I didn’t have to cross a picket line. If the teaching and research assistants at Columbia had not voted to call a hiatus in their strike against my beloved alma mater, I wouldn’t be here. I was very worried, I didn’t want to be rude, and I wanted to come; some people might have refused, learning they were No. 4 - what would Jon Stewart have done in my shoes, I wonder? - but I’m a playwright, I’m easy, as long as I don’t have to cross a picket line. I spent a lot of my time as a student here on picket lines. So I’m thankful to the Graduate Student Employees Union for making it possible for me to be here, and I know Columbia will want to respond to their considerateness in kind, free the ballot box, break with the Bush administration’s anti-union tactics, and recognize the GSEU.
Is anyone timing this?
I’ve heard a rumor that choice No. 5, Donald Rumsfeld, was very disappointed that I accepted. He’s having a lonely spring.
I’m not entirely sure what goes on at Class Day. I missed mine, I was on a picket line, so I’m sort of guessing as to what it is you want me to do this morning, apart from saying mazel tov, mazel tov, to all of you, and I do say it, mazel tov, mazel tov, it’s very exciting, a whole new bunch of Columbia College grads ready for the world, for the public conversation, for the work of repairing the world and repairing the public conversation, ready and able and, dare I say, eager to elevate the terms of the vast public debate in which you, American citizens, have a place prepared if you will claim it, you with your heads and hearts as full of fierce and fiery ideas fresh as they are ever likely to be, you who are not, by virtue of the superlative education you have received and its concomitant openness, engaged skepticism and reckless curiosity, you who are not the sort of grim careerists and ideologues and boodle-minded misadventurers who have seized the public debate and garbled it and reduced it to babble and run with it straight to the ninth circle of hell, dragging behind them the glory of our republic — you will rescue us from these dreadful, dreadful people, and we who are old are deeply grateful, and deeply proud, and, well, scared shitless, so mazel tov and get busy, your work awaits you, the world awaits you, the world is impatient for you, it made you for this purpose — and I don’t want to usurp the role your parents had in you, in getting you to this day, they too made you, the world made them so they could make you, and make the sacrifices they’ve made to get you to this point — my cherished B.A. in English literature from Columbia College, the entirety of the four most valuable and profitable years of my intellectual life, cost my parents less than one year of your time here, and I’m still paying student loans! — mazel tov to your parents, too, and by the way, if you haven’t gotten a graduation present yet, I have a musical running on Broadway and the number is 1-800-telecharge.
I really was more excited than honored to speak to you today, thrilled to get to meet you, you redeemers and rescuers, because this spring, unlike, let’s say, the past spring, or the spring before that, or the spring before that, this May I sense hope in the air, and urgency, and as has so often been the recent case, terrible danger, and so the urgent need of the world is about to snatch you, ready or not, from this most beautiful brick and stony womb and begin its demanding: HELP! HELP! HELP! The world is melting, the world is darkening, there is injustice everywhere, there is artificial scarcity everywhere, there is desperate human need, poverty and untreated illness and exploitation everywhere, there is ignorance everywhere, not native to the species but cruelly enforced, there is joylessness and hatred of the body and slavery masked as freedom and community disintegrating, everywhere, racism, everywhere, sexism, everywhere, homophobia, everywhere (though a little better for the moment in Massachusetts!), everywhere the world is in need of repair. Fix it, solve these things, you need only the tools you have learned here, even if you didn’t pay as much attention as you should, even if you’re a mess and broke and facing a future of economic terror — who isn’t, who doesn’t? HELP! HELP! HELP! The world is calling, heal the world and in the process heal yourself, find the human in yourself by finding the citizen, the activist, the hero. Down with the boodle-minded misadventurers, after them, you know where they are, I figured this speech should be nonpartisan in case there are any, you know, Republicans in the audience but even if you are Republican, after them, down with the boodle-minded misadventurers, up with the Republic. Duty calls, the world calls, get active!
No summer vacation, no rest for you, we have been waiting too long for you, we need your contribution too desperately, and if they tell you your contribution is meaningless, if they tell you the fix is in and there’s no contribution to be made, if they tell you to contribute by shopping your credit card into exhaustion, if they tell you to surrender the brilliant, dazzling confusion your education should have engendered in you, to exchange that quicksilver polyphony for dull monotone certainties, productive only of aggression borne of boredom and violence borne of fear borne of stupidity, they’re lying, don’t trust them, get rid of them, you know who they are and where they are to be found and they’ll all be happier back on the ranch in Crawfordsville.
Eight minutes doesn’t intimidate me, I just ignore it. I’m almost done.
This is the Columbia dialectic, the New York City dialectic, all this spectacular symmetry, all this Euclidean geometry, all this rational griddage is a lattice entwined with floribund, uncontrolled and uncontrollable vines, shoots, roots, fruits, leaves, bees, busily cross-pollinating. This box, this machine, this is a crystal incubatory whence comes the fluid, the protean, the revolutionary, the non-mechanical, the non-commodified, the non-fetishized, the human. The air this morning is electric. You have fed, you have sated, you’re ready; and every step you take from this point on counts.
This is your Code Orange: Life and its terrors, terrible and splendid, awaits. I know I speak for Jon, Warren and Justice Ruth — seek the truth; when you find it, speak the truth; interrogate mercilessly the truth you’ve found; and act, act, act. The world is hungry for you, the world has waited for you, the world has a place for you. Take it. Mazel tov. Change the world.