The following is based on the commencement address given to the graduating students of the Department of English of the University of California at Berkeley in the Hearst Greek Theatre, May 15, 2005.
When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked for a title. I dillied and dallied, begged for more time, and of course the deadline passed. The title I really wanted to suggest was the response that all of you have learned to expect when asked your major: What are you going to do with that? To be an English major is to live not only by questioning, but by being questioned. It is to live with a question mark placed squarely on your forehead. It is to live, at least some of the time, in a state of “existential dread.” To be a humanist, that is, means not only to see clearly the surface of things and to see beyond those surfaces, but to place oneself in opposition, however subtle, an opposition that society seldom lets you forget: What are you going to do with that?
To the recent graduate, American society—in all its vulgar, grotesque power—reverberates with that question. It comes from friends, from relatives, and perhaps even from the odd parent here and there. For the son or daughter who becomes an English major puts a finger squarely on the great parental paradox: you raise your children to make their own decisions, you want your children to make their own decisions—and then one day, by heaven, they make their own decisions. And now parents are doomed to confront daily the condescending sympathy of your friends—their children, of course, are economics majors or engineering majors or pre-meds—and to confront your own dread about the futures of your children.
It’s not easy to be an English major these days, or any student of the humanities. It requires a certain kind of determination, and a refusal—an annoying refusal, for some of our friends and families, and for a good many employers—to make decisions, or at least to make the kind of “practical decisions” that much of society demands of us. It represents a determination, that is, not only to do certain things—to read certain books and learn certain poems, to acquire or refine a certain cast of mind—but not to do other things: principally, not to decide, right now, quickly, how you will earn your living; which is to say, not to decide how you will justify your existence. For in the view of a large part of American society, the existential question is at the bottom an economic one: Who are you and what is your economic justification for being?
English majors, and other determined humanists, distinguish themselves not only by reading Shakespeare or Chaucer or Joyce or Woolf or Zora Neale Hurston but by refusing, in the face of overwhelming pressure, to answer that question. Whether they acknowledge it or not—whether they know it or not—and whatever they eventually decide to do with “that,” they see developing the moral imagination as more important than securing economic self-justification.
Such an attitude has never been particularly popular in this country. It became downright suspect after September 11, 2001—and you of course are the Class of September 11, having arrived here only days before those attacks and the changed world they ushered in. Which means that, whether you know it or not, by declaring yourselves as questioners, as humanists, you already have gone some way in defining yourselves, for good or ill, as outsiders.
I must confess it: I, too, was an English major…for nineteen days. This was back in the Berkeley of the East, at Harvard College, and I was a refugee from philosophy—too much logic and math in that for me, too practical—and I tarried in English just long enough to sit in on one tutorial (on Keats’s “To Autumn”), before I fled into my own major, one I conceived and designed myself, called, with even greater practical attention to the future, “Modern Literatures and Aesthetics.”
Which meant of course that almost exactly twenty-five years ago today I was sitting where you are now, hanging on by a very thin thread. Shortly thereafter I found myself lying on my back in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reading The New York Times and The New York Review—very thoroughly: essentially spending all day, every day, lying on my back, reading, living on graduation- present money and subsisting on deliveries of fried rice from the Hong Kong restaurant (which happened to be two doors away—though I felt I was unable to spare the time to leave the apartment, or the bed, to pick it up). The Chinese food deliveryman looked at me dispassionately and then, as one month stretched into two, a bit knowingly. If I knew then what I know now I would say I was depressed. At the time, however, I was under the impression that I was resting.
Eventually I became a writer, which is not a way to vanquish existential dread but a way to live with it and even to earn a modest living from it. Perhaps some of you will follow that path; but whatever you decide to “do with that,” remember: whether you know it yet or not, you have doomed yourselves by learning how to read, learning how to question, learning how to doubt. And this is a most difficult time—the most difficult I remember—to have those skills. Once you have them, however, they are not easy to discard. Finding yourself forced to see the gulf between what you are told about the world, whether it’s your government doing the telling, or your boss, or even your family or friends, and what you yourself can’t help but understand about that world—this is not always a welcome kind of vision to have. It can be burdensome and awkward and it won’t always make you happy.
I think I became a writer in part because I found that yawning difference between what I was told and what I could see to be inescapable. I started by writing about wars and massacres and violence. The State Department, as I learned from a foreign service officer in Haiti, has a technical term for the countries I mostly write about: the TFC beat. TFC—in official State Department parlance—stands for “Totally Fucked-up Countries.” After two decades of this, of Salvador and Haiti and Bosnia and Iraq, my mother—who already had to cope with the anxiety of a son acquiring a very expensive education in “Modern Literature and Aesthetics”—still asks periodically: Can’t you go someplace nice for a change?
When I was sitting where you are sitting now the issue was Central America and in particular the war in El Salvador. America, in the backwash of defeat in Vietnam, was trying to protect its allies to the south—to protect regimes under assault by leftist insurgencies—and it was doing so by supporting a government in El Salvador that was fighting the war by massacring its own people. I wrote about one of those events in my first book, The Massacre at El Mozote, which told of the murder of a thousand or so civilians by a new, elite battalion of the Salvadoran army—a battalion that the Americans had trained. A thousand innocent civilians dead in a few hours, by machete and by M-16.
Looking back at that story now—and at many of the other stories I have covered over the years, from Central America to Iraq—I see now that in part I was trying to find a kind of moral clarity: a place, if you will, where that gulf that I spoke about, between what we see and what is said, didn’t exist. Where better to find that place than in the world where massacres and killings and torture happen, in the place, that is, where we find evil. What could be clearer than that kind of evil?
But I discovered it was not clear at all. Chat with a Salvadoran general about the massacre of a thousand people that he ordered and he will tell you that it was military necessity, that those people had put themselves in harm’s way by supporting the guerrillas, and that “such things happen in war.” Speak to the young conscript who wielded the machete and he will tell you that he hated what he had to do, that he has nightmares about it still, but that he was following orders and that if he had refused he would have been killed. Talk to the State Department official who helped deny that the massacre took place and he will tell you that there was no definitive proof and, in any case, that he did it to protect and promote the vital interests of the United States. None of them is lying. I found that if you search for evil, once you leave the corpses behind you will have great difficulty finding the needed grimacing face.
Let me give you another example. It’s from 1994, during an unseasonably warm February day in a crowded market in the besieged city of Sarajevo. I was with a television crew—I was writing a documentary on the war in Bosnia for Peter Jennings at ABC News—but our schedule had slipped, as it always does, and we had not yet arrived at the crowded marketplace when a mortar shell landed. When we arrived with our cameras a few moments later, we found a dark swamp of blood and broken bodies and, staggering about in it, the bereaved, shrieking and wailing amid a sickening stench of cordite. Two men, standing in rubber boots knee-deep in a thick black lake, had already begun to toss body parts into the back of a truck. Slipping about on the wet pavement, I tried my best to count the bodies and the parts of them, but the job was impossible: fifty? sixty? When all the painstaking matching had been done, sixty-eight had died there.
As it happened, I had a lunch date with their killer the following day. The leader of the Serbs, surrounded in his mountain villa by a handful of good-looking bodyguards, had little interest in the numbers of dead. We were eating stew. “Did you check their ears?” he asked. I’m sorry? “They had ice in their ears.” I paused at this and worked on my stew. He meant, I realized, that the bodies were corpses from the morgue that had been planted, that the entire scene had been trumped up by Bosnian intelligence agents. He was a psychiatrist, this man, and it seemed to me, after a few minutes of discussion, that he had gone far to convince himself of the truth of this claim. I was writing a profile of him and he of course did not want to talk about bodies or death. He preferred to speak of his vision for the nation.1
For me, the problem in depicting this man was simple: the level of his crimes dwarfed the interest of his character. His motivations were paltry, in no way commensurate with the pain he had caused. It is often a problem with evil and that is why, in my experience, talking with mass murderers is invariably a disappointment. Great acts of evil so rarely call forth powerful character that the relation between the two seems nearly random. Put another way, that relation is not defined by melodrama, as popular fiction would have it. To understand this mass murderer, you need Dostoevsky, or Conrad.2
Let me move closer to our own time, because you are the Class of September 11, and we do not lack for examples. Never in my experience has frank mendacity so dominated our public life. This has to do less with ideology itself, I think, than the fact that our country was attacked and that—from the Palmer Raids after World War I, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the McCarthyite witch-hunts during the Fifties—America tends to respond to such attacks, or the threat of them, in predictably paranoid ways. Notably, by “rounding up the usual suspects” and by dividing the world, dramatically and hysterically, into a good part and an evil part. September 11 was no exception to this: indeed, in its wake—coterminous with your time here—we have seen this American tendency in its purest form.
One welcome distinction between the times we live in and those other periods I have mentioned is the relative frankness of our government officials—I should call it unprecedented frankness—in explaining how they conceive the relationship of power and truth. Our officials believe that power can determine truth, as an unnamed senior adviser to the President explained to a reporter last fall:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.3
The reporter, the adviser said, was a member of what he called “the reality-based community,” destined to “judiciously study” the reality the administration was creating. Now it is important that we realize—and by “we” I mean all of us members of the “reality-based community”—that our leaders of the moment really do believe this, as anyone knows who has spent much time studying September 11 and the Iraq war and the various scandals that have sprung from those events—the “weapons of mass destruction” scandal and the Abu Ghraib scandal, to name only two.
What is interesting about both of those is that the heart of the scandal, the wrongdoing, is right out in front of us. Virtually nothing of great importance remains to be revealed. Ever since Watergate we’ve had a fairly established narrative of scandal. First you have revelation: the press, usually with the help of various leakers within the government, reveals the wrongdoing. Then you have investigation, when the government—the courts, or Congress, or, as with Watergate, both—constructs a painstaking narrative of what exactly happened: an official story, one that society—that the community—can agree on. Then you have expiation, when the judges hand down sentences, the evildoers are punished, and the society returns to a state of grace.
What distinguishes our time—the time of September 11—is the end of this narrative of scandal. With the scandals over weapons of mass destruction and Abu Ghraib, we are stuck at step one. We have had the revelation; we know about the wrongdoing. Just recently, in the Downing Street memo, we had an account of a high-level discussion in Britain, nearly eight months before the Iraq war, in which the head of British intelligence flatly tells the prime minister—the intelligence officer has just returned from Washington—that not only has the President of the United States decided that “military action was…inevitable” but that—in the words of the British intelligence chief—“the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” This memo has been public for weeks.4
So we have had the revelations; we know what happened. What we don’t have is any clear admission of—or adjudication of—guilt, such as a serious congressional or judicial investigation would give us, or any punishment. Those high officials responsible are still in office. Indeed, not only have they received no punishment; many have been promoted. And we—you and I, members all of the reality-based community—we are left to see, to be forced to see. And this, for all of us, is a corrupting, a maddening, but also an inescapable burden.
Let me give you a last example. The example is in the form of a little play: a reality-based playlet that comes to us from the current center of American comedy. I mean the Pentagon press briefing room, where the real true-life comedies are performed. The time is a number of weeks ago. The dramatis personae are Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and soon to be promoted) General Peter Pace of the Marine Corps; and of course, playing the Fool, a lowly and hapless reporter.
The reporter’s question begins with an involved but perfectly well-sourced discussion of Abu Ghraib and the fact that all the reports suggest that something systematic—something ordered by higher-ups—was going on there. He mentions the Sanchez memo, recently released, in which the commanding general in Iraq at the time, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, approved twelve interrogation techniques that, as the reporter says, “far exceed limits established by the Army’s own field manual.” These include prolonged stress positions, sensory deprivation (or “hooding”), the use of dogs “to induce stress,” and so on; the reporter also mentions extraordinary “rendition” (better known as kidnapping, in which people are snatched off the streets by US intelligence agents and brought to third countries like Syria and Egypt to be tortured). Here’s his question, and the officials’ answer:
Hapless Reporter: And I wonder if you would just respond to the suggestion that there is a systematic problem rather than the kinds of individual abuses we’ve heard of before.
Secretary Rumsfeld: I don’t believe there’s been a single one of the investigations that have been conducted, which has got to be six, seven, eight or nine—
General Pace: Ten major reviews and 300 individual investigations of one kind or another.
Secretary Rumsfeld: And have you seen one that characterized it as systematic or systemic?
General Pace: No, sir.
Rumsfeld: I haven’t either.
Hapless Reporter: What about—?
And, as the other reporters laughed, Secretary Rumsfeld did indeed ignore the attempt to follow up, and went on to the next question.
But what did the hapless reporter want to say? All we have is his truncated attempt at a question: “What about—?” We will never know, of course. Perhaps he wanted to read from the very first Abu Ghraib report, directed by US Army Major General Antonio Taguba, who wrote in his conclusion
that between October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility, numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted…. This systemic and illegal abuse was intentionally perpetrated…. [Emphasis added.]6
Or perhaps this from the Red Cross report, which is the only contemporaneous account of what was going on at Abu Ghraib, recorded by witnesses at the time:
These methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information or other forms of co-operation from persons who had been arrested in connection with suspected security offenses or deemed to have an “intelligence value.” [Emphasis added.]7
(I should note here, by the way, that the military itself estimated that between 85 and 90 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had “no intelligence value.”)
Between that little dramatic exchange—
Rumsfeld: And have you seen one that characterized it as systematic or systemic?
General Pace: No, sir.
Rumsfeld: I haven’t either—
—and the truth, there is a vast gulf of lies. For these reports do use the words “systematic” and “systemic”—they are there, in black and white—and though the reports have great shortcomings, the truth is that they tell us basic facts about Abu Ghraib: first, that the torture and abuse was systematic; that it was ordered by higher-ups, and not carried out by “a few bad apples,” as the administration has maintained; that responsibility for it can be traced—in documents that have been made public—to the very top ranks of the administration, to decisions made by officials in the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense and, ultimately, the White House. The significance of what we know about Abu Ghraib, and about what went on—and, most important, what is almost certainly still going on—not only in Iraq but at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and other military and intelligence bases, some secret, some not, around the world—is clear: that after September 11, shortly after you all came to Berkeley, our government decided to change this country from a nation that officially does not torture to one, officially, that does.
What is interesting about this fact is not that it is hidden but that it is revealed. We know this—or rather those who are willing to read know it. Those who can see the gulf between what officials say and what the facts are. And we, as I have said, remain fairly few. Secretary Rumsfeld can say what he said at that nationally televised news conference because no one is willing to read the reports. We are divided, then, between those of us willing to listen, and believe, and those of us determined to read, and think, and find out. And you, English majors of the Class of 2005, you have taken the fateful first step in numbering yourselves, perhaps irredeemably, in the second category. You have taken a step along the road to being Empiricists of the Word.
Now we have come full circle—all the way back to the question: What are you going to do with that? I cannot answer that question. Indeed, I still have not answered it for myself. But I can show you what you can do with “that,” by quoting a poem. It is by a friend of mine who died almost a year ago, after a full and glorious life, at the age of ninety-three. Czeslaw Milosz was a legend in Berkeley, of course, a Nobel Prize winner—and he saw as much injustice in his life as any man. He endured Nazism and Stalinism and then came to Berkeley to live and write for four decades in a beautiful house high on Grizzly Peak.
Let me read you one of his poems: it is a simple poem, a song, as he calls it, but in all its beauty and simplicity it bears closely on the subject of this talk.
A SONG ON THE END OF THE WORLD
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.
“There will be no other end of the world.” I should add that there are two words at the end of the poem, a place and a date. Czeslaw wrote that poem in Warsaw in 1944. Can we think of a better place to put the end of the world? Perhaps Hiroshima 1945? Or Berlin 1945? Or even perhaps downtown New York in September 2001?
When Czeslaw Milosz wrote his poem in Warsaw, in 1944, there were those, as now, who saw the end of the world and those who did not. And now, as then, truth does matter. Integrity—much rarer than talent or brilliance—does matter. In that beautiful poem, written by a man—a poet, an artist—trying to survive at the end of the world, the white-haired old man binding his tomatoes is like yourselves. He may not have been a prophet but he could see. Members of the Class of September 11, whatever you decide “to do with that”—whether you are writers or professors or journalists, or nurses or lawyers or executives—I hope you will think of that man and his tomatoes, and keep your faith with him. I hope you will remember that man, and your own questioning spirit. Will you keep your place beside him?
June 23, 2005
See my essay, “The Erotic Pull of the Strange,” Zoetrope All-Story, Summer 2003. ↩
See Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004. ↩
See Defense Department Briefing, March 29, 2005. ↩
Major General Antonio M. Taguba, “Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade” (“The Taguba Report”); collected in my Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York Review Books, 2004). ↩
See “Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the Treatment by the Coalition Forces of Prisoners of War and Other Protected Persons by the Geneva Conventions in Iraq During Arrest, Internment and Interrogation,” February 2004; collected in Torture and Truth. ↩