May 17, 2004
by Eric Schlosser, '68
Now I'd like to say that the commencement speech at my college graduation was full of timeless wisdom that I carry with me to this day.
But that would be a total lie.
The truth is, I can't even remember who gave my commencement speech -- or a single word that was said. I just sat there impatiently, waiting for my freedom.
So those of you who are here today, with headaches and bleary eyes, if you find your thoughts drifting away during my speech, don't worry, I've been there.
It is a real honor, a real honor and a privilege for me to be here today. My book, "Fast Food Nation," is largely set in Colorado Springs. I've spent years here since I was a little boy. I love this city -- I really love this city -- and I can't stand some of the things that are happening here. For me, Colorado Springs serves as a fine symbol, as an excellent metaphor for so many of the things that are happening in the United States. Of course, the good outweighs the bad. But lately, the margin between them is shrinking.
Today is a day of celebration, and yet I'm going to introduce some dark notes into it, not to spoil the party, but maybe to encourage you to soak up every bit of it. This is a glorious day, and I don't want to diminish your joy at all.
I'm going to introduce some of the outside world and what's happening in the outside world here today and then when I'm done, you can go back to just purely, purely celebrating today. It's glorious, and I take this day to be a very good omen for all of you.
We are living right now in extraordinary times. I think this year may prove to be one of the most important years in American history -- a turning point. Or a point of no return.
I'm sorry, but that's the world that you're heading into.
I feel a little reluctant to tell any of you how to live or what to do. My generation, my generation bears a lot of responsibility for the mess, the terrible mess that we're in right now. I'm not sure if I have any right to give any of you advice.
But I'm going to do it anyway.
I'm 44, and my generation came of age during the Reagan/Bush era -- the first Bush, the father. And the values that my generation wholeheartedly embraced have now come around to haunt us.
Most of us had a very narrow view of success. What did success mean to my generation? What did we want out of life?
Well, first of all -- money. And second of all, more money. And after that, well, power, status, designer clothes, fast cars, buns of steel.
I can hardly think of a more self-absorbed generation than mine. We have displayed an overabundance of personal ambition -- and a profound lack of interest in anything or anyone else.
Worse than a lack of interest, we have actively pursued denial -- a denial of what's really been happening at the bottom of American society and at the margins of our empire.
We didn't want to hear about it. We didn't want to see it. We didn't want to deal with it. So instead, my generation hid behind cynicism and irony. Those are the two traits for which we will be remembered: cynicism and irony.
And by "we," I mean a very specific group, I mean the lucky ones of my generation, the privileged few who got to attend the best colleges and the best grad schools, and who had every kind of opportunity set out right before them.
Just like you do, now.
My generation is in power, running the machinery right now. And look at what we've done. I think in many ways American society is more corrupt today, more unjust, more reckless in war, more contemptuous of peace, than it has been in a hundred years.
A century ago, the gap between rich and poor was growing in the United States. A handful of corporations controlled every sector of the economy. American politics was totally corrupted by money. In the name of freedom we fought an imperial war in the Philippines that was supposed to be over quickly but instead lasted for years, and it killed thousands of innocent civilians, and that did not end in freedom or democracy.
In many, many ways things were worse a hundred years ago. But in one crucial respect, it's worse today.
I fear that some of the battles in today's war are going to be fought right here in the United States, not thousands of miles away in a distant land. That is a very new and unsettling twist.
I love my country dearly, but I'm ashamed by how my government is behaving now, and by the arrogance, by the arrogance that we are showing to the rest of the world.
I hope that all of you can come up with a broader definition of success, a much more complex and nuanced view of what you want out of life, one that includes compassion and tolerance and humility, one that rejects violence, and chooses war always and only as a last resort.
My generation has really helped to make a mess of things.
So it's up to you.
Every great change that has transformed this country for the better, came about because of people like you.
The civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, the environmental movement, all of these great changes were caused by smart, committed young people like you.
As you get older, you tend to get more conservative and scared. You have a lot more to lose.
So now is the time.
Now is the time to take risks and make mistakes on behalf of some good cause.
I'm not saying that you have to give away all your worldly goods and work tirelessly only on behalf of the poor.
I'm not saying that you have to be motivated entirely by the spirit of self-sacrifice.
Although that would be admirable, I haven't done it.
I'm just saying that whatever path you may choose -- whether you become a doctor, or a lawyer, or an artist, or a writer, or an architect, or a banker, or a filmmaker -- you can no longer afford to live in denial. You can no longer pretend that these other harsh realities don't exist.
You have to open your eyes.
Because if your generation makes the same mistakes that mine did, there will be no gated community in this country with gates high enough to protect you, no rural community remote enough to avoid the trouble, the really big trouble that will be coming our way.
I'm sorry if I'm sounding apocalyptic. Things are bad right now. They are as bad and dark and dangerous as they've ever been in my lifetime.
But I'm optimistic, I really am, I'm optimistic. I have spent time with some of the poorest, most exploited people in this country. I'm writing a book about prisons right now, and visiting prisons, and you can't come up with a grimmer subject. But I am optimistic.
Why? Well, I'll give you just three reasons. Here are three reasons to be cheerful:
One: Most of the things I've written haven't been set in New York City, or Washington, D.C., or Chicago or Los Angeles, the centers of power. I've traveled all over this country, and I'm constantly struck by the kindness and the generosity of the ordinary people that I've met, of the American people. That sounds really corny, but it's true. And that American spirit really helps me put the problems that I get involved in into the right perspective.
Two: I've visited a lot of college campuses in the past few years, and I think your generation is smarter, and wiser, and more awake and more alive already than mine was.
I think most of you aren't buying into this program. So your generation, so far, really gives me grounds for hope.
Three: I don't think any of these problems was inevitable. I don't believe in any of the theories that you hear, on the left and on the right, that claim somehow that world events are unfolding according to some plan, that all this is inevitable.
And if things aren't inevitable, if these things aren't inevitable, then things don't have to be the way they are.
That's a very liberating thought.
I have absolutely no patience with people who say you can't change the world.
Of course you can.
Look at what's happening right now in Washington, D.C. I happen to disagree with our president on almost every issue -- and he was not elected -- but he's changing the world. He and his friends have caused momentous changes worldwide in just three and a half years.
So, if you don't change the world, somebody else will. Somebody who believes it can be done, who isn't apathetic, and you may not like what they do. So you better do it instead.
When I was born, African-Americans couldn't use the same drinking fountains as white people in much of the United States. Think about that. When I was born, the blacks of South Africa were trapped in a modern form of slavery, while the people of Eastern Europe and Russia were enslaved by Marxism, Leninism.
Today segregation is legally gone, Apartheid gone, the Soviet Union gone.
These terrible, terrible things didn't just vanish. People got rid of them.
So you are entering the world at a particularly dark time. But I would argue that darkness provides you with all sorts of opportunities to make a difference.
I'm going to end my rant by quoting a line by one of my favorite poets. He was an eternal optimist and a devout believer in the essential goodness of ordinary Americans. He had faith in the basic life force.
He wrote these words not long before the Civil War, well aware that thousands of young American men might soon die in such a conflict:
"There will never be any more perfection than there is now. Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now."
Anything is still possible.
I wish every single one of you good luck and happiness and great success. And I hope you have an excellent time tonight.
You deserve it.