Moravian College Commencement 2011
Commencement Photo

Commencement 2012

Sunday, May 13, 2012

By Gary Olson

President Thomforde, trustees, faculty, families, friends, all those who’ve fed, nursed, counseled, salted icy sidewalks, provided security, and otherwise cared for those graduating today – and especially Moravian’s Class of 2012. To the class, please know that I treasure this honor.

Being aware of your tech-savvy lifestyles, I worried that I’d need to abridge my speech down to tweet-able length, send it you, and sit down. But then I remembered something: I don’t tweet or post on Facebook. I don’t own a smart phone. I had a cell back in 2010 but people kept calling me so I tossed it in my glove compartment.

I know what you’re thinking. How does this poor guy live without a phone? Well, as a recovering user, I joined T.A., -- Tweeter’s Anonymous. Our 12 step program includes Mindfulness Mondays, fifteen minutes of ear-bud-less, uninterrupted solitude. And Talking Tuesdays, meaningful face-to-face encounters between real people. It’s hard to explain without being there.

This morning I want to say a few words about seeking and speaking truth, an increasingly rare pursuit at many colleges and universities. First, one caveat: There are rare circumstances when it’s preferable NOT to tell the truth.

While getting dressed to come over this morning, I asked my partner Kathleen, “Is my stomach starting to hang over my belt and making me look like a slob?” She winced and said, “Honestly Gary? Yes. You were so trim when we met. What the heck happened?”

No, she really said, “Gary, I see tons of men every day whose stomachs protrude way more than yours.” No, I’m fibbing. She went straight for the big whopper and said “You look great!” Then she lovingly added, “Just keep your robe on during the reception.”

So, with that qualification, what about truth? In traditional Latin truth is Veritas (wear‘it ahass).  I confess to barely passing high school Latin and that grade was a gift from dear Mrs. Quanbeck. After two years of studying Latin I only recall That All Gaul Was Divided Into Three Parts. WHY that tripartite division occurred or why knowing it would help my SAT scores – as I was promised – still eludes me.

Most colleges have a Latin motto. Ours is Via Lucis (wee’ ah loo kiss,) The Way of the Light. Now, the Class of 2012 knows that America’s 6th oldest college we like to keep our traditions fresh by changing our logos and marketing slogans every six months. So, after 270 years, why not a new Latin motto? We need something to set us apart from the thundering academic herd. Here’s my suggestion:

Veritas te the liberabit sed primo te the inritabit.

(Wear it ahass; te the lee-bear-ahh-bit; sed primo te the; in-ree-tah-bit).

Hearing that pronunciation the saintly Mrs. Quanbeck would be cringing and shedding copious tears of undisguised pity. But here’s my translation: “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”

Coined by the celebrated feminist Gloria Steinem, it means that prior to feeling any mental elation, we experience an almost reflexive resistance upon first hearing dangerous truths. That is, many ideas are labeled dangerous, not because they’re false but because they might be true. For exposing dangerous ideas to young folks like yourselves, Socrates was sentenced to death and chose suicide. Galileo was charged with heresy by the church and sentence to house arrest. Others have suffered exile, jail and much worse.

But that was then. Today, truth tellers can still get in trouble but mostly they’re ignored or subjected to massive disinformation campaigns. So why bother? There’s an old Quaker saying about the responsibility of “speaking truth to power” and it has righteous ring. But as the distinguished public intellectual Noam Chomsky reminds us, the powerful already know the truth. Hearing more won’t suddenly prompt Saul to Paul moral conversions for these folks.

Why? Because some truths are threatening to concentrated power. And so they spend enormous resources on limiting our exposure to dangerous ideas. Chomsky suggests that we reformulate the Quaker aphorism from “speaking truth TO power,” to speaking truth to the powerLESS – where it might actually do some good. Even better, find truth WITH the powerless. Because until we understand how the world works there’s no chance of changing it.(1)

The climate debate is a good example. Bill McKibben, the pioneering environmental activist, tells us that “The earth that we knew – the only Earth we ever know – is gone.” And if you’re watching the Discovery Channel’s spectacular series, The Frozen Planet, you’ve seen dramatic HD images of enormous portions of melting ice breaking off in Antarctica. Viewing the imperiled seals, polar bears and those waddling, prat-falling penguins, it’s impossible for any decent person not to feel empathy, a sense of responsibility and some anger.

Why anger? Because by their own admission the producers of the series, fearing the wrath of commercial interests, chose not to go near the truth about why our planet is warming. Prof. McKibbon said it was like “doing a powerful documentary about lung cancer and leaving out the part about cigarettes.”

If we move from the feckless to the frightening, the Tennessee state legislature, occupants of a parallel universe, passed a corporate-written law that welcomes the teaching of climate denial in the K through 12 science curriculum.

The new law is based on the Orwellian titled Environmental Literacy Act. The Tennessee bill was opposed by radical fringe groups like the National Association of Biology Teachers. By the way, the same pandering politicians amended the state’s Abstinence Education program to define holding hands as a “gateway sexual activity.”

Public policy debates in our country rarely extend to questioning the economic system. As Lester Brown notes, we’re still waiting for the first mainstream economist to acknowledge the massive indirect environmental costs generated by a relentlessly expanding market system that rewards the private exploitation of the global commons. The costs are conveniently omitted from the accounting books as “externalities,” just fancy jargon for trivializing the unintended consequences of doing global business as usual.

My dangerous idea for the class of 2012 is that Green Capitalism is a howlingly, preposterous, oxymoron. In ecologist Joel Kovel’s apt phrase, that’s a ‘really’ inconvenient truth. Either we move beyond this eco-incompatible, obsolete model with its growth ideology or those discounted externalities will accumulate right up to the irreversible planetary ecological endgame.(2) As the bumper sticker says, There is No Planet B.

In closing, I trust the Class of 2012 has come in contact with many dangerous ideas over these four years – and been pissed off by them. How often that’s occurred is a good measure for assessing the value of your liberal arts education. And also whether those of us on the faculty have been faithful to our mission. Bear in mind, though, that when Jesus reputedly said “The Truth Will Set You Free,” he wasn’t guaranteeing perpetual bliss or even more Facebook friends. The message of “set you free” is that really knowing is immensely satisfying and invaluable.

Some students know that I discerned some possible truths in the dystopian, sci-fi book and film The Hunger Games. It’s a chillingly insightful allegory about North America’s politics, culture and perhaps, future. One of many vivid images that remains with me is the 16 yr. old protagonist, Katniss Aberdeen extending a rarely used but poignant three finger salute to to convey her gratitude, affection, and farewell to people she cares about deeply.

It comes to symbolize both resistance to a creeping, citizen surveillance state and a communal commitment to affirming and defending certain self-evident truths.  I hope that silent salute catches on and I conclude by offering it to the Class of 2012 – along with my approval to upload and share any of this on Facebook.

Gary Olson chairs the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.

1) I’m indebted to Terry Eagleton’s synopsis in his “Death of the Intellectual,” Red Pepper, October, 2008.

2) For an excellent analysis see, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism. (New York: Monthly Review Press,  2011). Also, Victor Wallis, “Beyond ‘Green Capitalism,” Monthly Review, February 1, 2010; Joel Kovel, “A ‘Really’ Inconvenient Truth,” (Several YouTube versions from 2007 – 2011).