The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being about truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. — David Foster Wallace
It’s graduation season, and all across America graduates are listening to commencement speeches delivered by special invitees. Generally speaking, the task of a commencement speaker is to inspire graduates to go forth and make a difference in the world. This isn’t an easy task. It’s hard to strike a deep chord with a group of young graduates itching to get moving. “Attention” and “awareness” are in short supply. I suspect most graduates after, say, 10 years out of college probably couldn’t tell you who their commencement speaker was. Sure, if they attended an elite school that attracted a big celebrity maybe they’d remember that person’s name 10 years on. But even if that’s the case, how many would still remember the message? Because the “message” is what the commencement speech is really all about. The reason, I think, these speeches are so unmemorable is because the message simply didn’t resonate below the surface; it didn’t ripple the deep, still waters.
And then there are those rare speeches that, like high art, speak across time and across generations. They send wakes deep below the surface. 13 years ago today, on May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered what is considered by many one of the greatest commencement speeches recorded. With all the reports of commencement speeches in the news during this time of year, I usually revisit Wallaces’s speech. It’s good for the soul. It always repays me to hear his talk, because, like superior art, it always has something to tell me about myself each time I listen to it.
I invite you to take the 22 minutes involved and listen to this speech. I suspect you’ll be very thankful you did. It may not help you change the world, but it may help you change yourself.
Yesterday, Jon Meacham gave the commencement address at UMass Lowell. He provided these points of welcome wisdom gleaned from his decades of writing history and biography.
So what can we learn from the past as we engage the present:
That the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
That compromise is the oxygen of a free government.
And that we learn most from the past not by looking up at people from our history adoringly, or looking down on them condescendingly, but looking them in the eye and taking their measure as human beings, not as Gods, so that we can learn how they overcame the obstacles of their time.
I just finished watching a well done docudrama on Netflix called Hitler’s Circle of Evil. I highly recommend it. It’s definitely a good binge watch (10 episodes) for a weekend rainy day—if you like history. (If you don’t have Netflix, you’re in luck. Someone has uploaded the whole series to Youtube.)
I’ve read a lot about Hitler, the Nazis in general, the Holocaust, and, of course, the 2nd World War, but my knowledge of Hitler’s inner circle of power and how they interacted and related to der Führer (German for “The Leader”) was rather thin and incomplete as I enjoyably discovered.
These are just a few, among the many, interesting takeaways I got from the series:
Joseph Goebbels was true believer to the bitter end. I’d read this about him to some degree, but this Netflix series really showed just how critical Goebbels was in building the Nazi party and, more nefariously, in pushing the hatred of the Jews as one of the core beliefs of the Nazis. It was Goebbels who was behind the infamous Kristallnacht(Crystal Night) in 1938, named “from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed.” Kristallnacht marked the first steps toward the Final Solution. Over two nights hundreds of Jews were killed and 30,000 were sent to concentration camps as a result of Kristallnacht. The day following the pogrom Hermann Göring said, “The Jewish problem will reach its solution if, in anytime soon, we will be drawn into war beyond our border—then it is obvious that we will have to manage a final account with the Jews.” While Göring and Himmler would ultimately abandon Hitler at the end, Goebbels remained loyal to the very end. Sadly, I had forgotten, Goebbels had brought his family to Hitler’s bunker and after Hitler committed suicide Goebbels had his wife poison all three of their young children and then he and her took poison pills.
Hermann Göring seem less fanatical and more pragmatic. He didn’t think invading Russia, for example, while the British were still not pacified, a good strategy. Likely thinking of WWI, he didn’t think a two front war was a winnable situation for Germany. But he couldn’t get Hitler to listen. He was angry and confronted Goebbels about Kristallnacht, complaining the violence and destruction bad for the German economy. And “who was going to pay for all the damage” Göring demanded to know from Goebbels. Of course the answer, from Goebbels and agreed to by Hitler, was that the Jews would pay for it.
Albert Speer, who’s memoirs I read many years ago, is one of those characters who doesn’t seem so much a committed Nazis as much as a committed German. He is the young architect who Hitler took under his wing and was ultimately made Minister of Armaments and War Production. It’s really in following Speer’s path that you see one of the most fatal flaws (that surely Speer mentioned in his book but I’d forgotten) in Hitler’s approach to war. Even as the Russian front and Operation Barbarossa began to look grim for Germany, the German Economy was still not in full war mode. Hitler wanted the home-front affected as little as possible by the war. As late as 1942, with German soldiers occupying most of Europe, Britain still in the war and America now a member of the allied forces, and a raging war in Russia, a number of German factories were still producing common household goods instead of war materials for troops in the field. It was Speer and Goebbels who pushed Hitler to approve a plan of “total war.” This plan called for ALL Germans to be directly involved in supporting the war. All factories had to be retooled to produce war materials and even German women (which Hitler resisted at first) needed to be working in those factories in support of the war effort. Of course in Britain and America this was the situation pretty much from the beginning. Germany had been at war since 1939, and here they were three years later just getting around to a total war economy. My theory is success blinded Hitler to the need to transform his economy. His victories had been swift against the allies in the beginning. The tempo of his economy was sufficient for the task up to that point, so he didn’t see a need to transform all his industries and bring the war home. It was Speer who realized this fatal flaw, but by then it was really too late.
In one of Orwell’s essays he writes, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I read this essay years ago and this quote still hits me during times I’m struggling to pay attention to the course of a discussion or observe some interaction or event. By the way, we say “pay attention” for a reason, because there is effort involved, it “costs” us something to be present and focused in the now. My lovely wife reminds me that I tend to run deficits in my attention budget. So I have work to do myself.
Anyway, Orwell recognized that most people may look, but they struggle to see what lies right in front of them. I know I certainly do. Of course we all know a good portion of our fellow travelers who simply don’t want to see—because they might not like what they see! It might weaken their web of belief to see things differently, which would disturb their world, overturn their settled opinions. And so we beat on, boats against the current, having those utterly pointless arguments with some friends and relatives for whom critical reflection and a change of mind is simply not an option. Better off to talk about the weather instead.
It has taken me many years to realize that not everyone, heck most people actually, aren’t interested in a search for truth, beauty, or goodness. Heck, some aren’t even mildly interested in a sensible position—especially in politics and football—for that matter. I got it. Many of us just want to feel comfortable and that type of higher level, deeper, thinking, can be “a bit much” as my wife says. But I’ll note here that the “in front of your nose” type thinking/awareness is more about attentiveness to subtleties and nuances in the moment. Experience is multilayered, and its influence on our thinking and actions is often unconscious. Orwell might remind us that’s why propaganda, well orchestrated, can be so effective. This is why history is crowded with groups of people that, at times, have believed monstrous lies. If you’ve been alive long enough you’ve probably come to the same conclusion I have that people aren’t primarily rational, they’re emotional. And that’s what moves them. The trick, of course, is to get people, early on during their educations, emotionally invested in the importance, goodness, and benefit of seeking truth…faith, hope, & love. As William James put it, truth can be realized by its “cash-value in experiential terms.” Simply put: The truth pays.
So try to remember Orwell’s words as you go about your day and keep reminding yourself to pay attention to what’s happening right in front of you. You might be surprised at what you see and learn.
I’m not sure about you, but my daily dose of news can be quite depressing. I find myself more and more reaching for the TV mute button. Generally speaking, political scandal and sensationalism are what sells, or attracts viewers, and so our media outlets just keep up a steady barrage. And we can’t get away from it either. Our morning shows give us the bad news over coffee; our 24 hour news channels keep our blood pressure elevated throughout the day; and then, for our commute home, the array of vitriolic talk radio programs stoke our road rage. All this negativity has become a major kill joy. So the question becomes, for any discerning mind wanting to stay informed but avoid stroking out, choking someone out, or dying from alcohol poisoning, how might we manage this?
I recently read about a guy named Erik Hagerman, who decided he was done with politics and all the bad news. He decided, literally, to cut himself off from pretty much all the news, starting the day after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. The crassness and depravity were just too much for him to bare. So for over a year now, Hagerman has been successful at staying joyously uninformed about what’s going on in the world. And, yes, he feels great! But he’s also officially clueless. So you understand, Hagerman lives by himself and has no children, so he’s got tight control over what he takes in, a situation, if you’re thinking about a similar project, to bare in mind. But then, we must ask, I think, if Hagerman’s way, a total black out of bad, unwelcome, or disturbing information, is really a good idea to follow?
I too have sometimes wished I could live as if the outside world didn’t matter, but alas that option isn’t realistic or very smart. Consider this: Hagerman bought 45 acres of land on the site of a former Ohio strip mine that’s been reclaimed by mother nature. He wants to restore this land and sees his efforts as “penance for the moral cost of his [news] Blockade.” His mission is to care for this land, restore it, and then leave the nature preserve for future generations to enjoy. Great! I love the idea. How green of him. But let’s consider the potential costs to Hagerman by not staying informed, and not being able to connect the dots. So Hagerman is working away on his land and not paying attention to the news or the political climate of his nation or county, and then suddenly he discovers, via construction vehicles, that a petrochemical plant has been approved next door to his land. His life’s work is suddenly looking pretty grim, ruined actually. While Hagerman was burying his head in the sand, his neighbors were rallying local votes and paying off politicians for the approved purchase of their land so they could get rich. Hagerman is now a victim, in large part, by his own making. Responsible citizens must be active, least they be unexpectedly victimized by forces (other people pushing their agenda or interests) working to impose their will at our cost. That is just how the world works, and is exactly what can happen when you don’t stay informed, be an active citizen, and, critically, vote at election time. Voting may not save you, but by not voting, and not understanding the issues when you vote, you’re surrendering without any fight at all.
But let’s back up for a moment. The reason our news outlets have so much disturbing news is because, well, there actually is plenty of disturbing news folks. With that said, there is obviously the spin that various media outlets put on the news—politically speaking. That’s the source of much anger and discomfort, I realize. But it’s not true that all media outlets put the same amount of spin on their news coverage or commentary. There actually are news outlets, journalists, and editors who try hard to preserve their intellectual and journalist integrity. You just have to pay attention and be open-minded enough to see that. But here’s a hint: If you think your favored news outlet, especially your preferred TV news outlet, is the best, most accurate one out there and all the others are bias, you’re probably living in a bubble, which makes for a good chance that you’re misinformed on a variety of issues. The question you need to ask yourself is: Do I care about seeking the truth and solving problems, making a better future for me and my family, while also reasonably protecting my interests, or am I just going to be a cheerleader for the politics (and tribalism) I uncritically prefer, regardless of the ruin it may inflict on me, my family, or my country? So many, it seems, prefer the bubble, the tribal identity and loyalty. And that’s one big reason why our current politics is so dysfunctional. We each, remember, have played some part in why this is happening.
So instead of the Hagerman way, or the passive acceptance of your own bubble, I suggest you adopt a deeply critical mindset about news and information in general. You probably think you’re doing that now, but for the most part you’re probably not thinking critically, you’re just rearranging your prejudices. We rarely take the time to step back from the words, the salesmanship, and truly examine the ideas thrown at us; to ask ourselves important questions and follow, honestly, the twisting path of its implications. Remember, that just about all communication is an argument of some type. Whether it’s a TV commercial or a talk show or a politician, all of them are trying to get you to buy something. Just like, hopefully, you wouldn’t squander your money on things you don’t need, don’t uncritically accept—or buy—what anyone or any organization, business, or political party is pushing. They know your weak points and they exploit them. They know most of you don’t have time to research the issues, and they’re counting on you being impulsive, a party loyalist, a tribalist hearing the whistle, and not necessarily knowing what your long term interests truly are. We’ve all heard the saying that “we need to have the courage of our convictions,” and this is indeed an important virtue. But I would argue that it’s equally important, if not more so, that we have the courage to question our convictions. This is a much rarer virtue from my experience. It takes a higher courage, which, unfortunately, seems in really short supply right now.
So first, my suggestion is that you don’t tune out from it all, but that you adopt the attitude that every organization, every politician or news station, to some degree, is always trying to sell you something. So, like a good consumer, you stay tuned in to the market, but with a critical distance from all the attempts to incite you, to provoke you to buy. Some of the goods are clearly junk or nickel plated nonsense. It’s easy to recognize, if you’re paying attention to the sales job and you know your own mind. But some of it is more pernicious and hard for us to discern, because it’s packaged to appeal to our emotions more so than our good sense or intelligence. Good salesmen know that capturing your emotions will often shut down that critical, often skeptical, debate going on in your head. Do your best to check your emotions and see their arguments and heated rhetoric for the simple sell job it is. Your job is to always ask yourself if what you’re hearing—being asked to buy, believe, or vote for—is truly the best thing, the higher thing….if, of course, that’s what you’re truly about in this life. That’s a question only you know the answer to.
Second, try hard to understand what your true interests are. I know most people think they know what their interests are, but my experience has confirmed over and over this is simply not true. Simply put, unless you can connect the dots you don’t know where they lead. And if you don’t know where they lead you’re just as likely to be supporting something that actually hurts you rather than helps you and your family. Try to connect the dots and do the best you can to see if the path those connections are making best serves you, your family, your community, and your nation. How many of us have discovered AFTER digging into the details of something, we’d long thought was benefiting us, our family, or our society, had actually been screwing us all along! That lesson applies not just to money and services, but to ideas and politics.
Stay engaged, know what’s happening, be deeply critical of information, be honest with yourself, and know what your true interests are. This is a duty you owe yourself, an obligation you owe your family, and your nation.