Commencement Address to the Boston University Class of 2000

by Tom Wolfe, 5/21/2000

[Note: When Boston University presented Tom Wolfe with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, Chancellor John Silber and President Jon Westling also presented him with a red-trimmed, white academic gown, to go along with his customary white suit. Mr. Wolfe was suitably surprised.]

I'm telling you [looking down at the white gown that now surmounts his white silk suit] this is a total surprise. I knew something had irresistibly drawn me to this moment—and there you have it! This is absolutely...well—there is no university to which I would rather have been invited on this day in this May, whose hood I would rather wear and, as it now turns out, whose raiment I would rather wear, than Boston University. Thanks to a couple of Johns, John Silber and Jon Westling, and to a brilliant faculty, some of whom we've met at this podium this morning, this university has been a shining lighthouse of independent thought and of liberal democracy in the classical meaning of "liberal" as John Silber has so wonderfully defined it over the years. I choose the image of a lighthouse very carefully, John and Jon, because lighthouses are built to stand alone and to bear the brunt of the storm, no matter what that storm may be.

Having said that, I want to offer my congratulations to the class of 2000 and to their families. As someone who grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s, I know that a commencement is a family triumph. Forget money. Aside from love, the cardinal virtues, and time, there is no greater gift parents can give a child than an education at a place like Boston University.

I feel a little bit like Sigourney Weaver, who gave the commencement address at my daughters high school a couple of years ago. It's an all-girl school and Sigourney Weaver said, "My intention this morning was to talk to you girls about boys. But the headmistress informs me I only have fifteen minutes. So instead I'm going to tell you the meaning of life."

Unfortunately I don't remember what the meaning was, because she kept me in stitches for fifteen minutes, and I forgot. So in the few minutes I have with you, I'm just going to tell you one thing that I wish that somebody had told me when I was in your shoes 49 years ago, graduating from college. (Actually, to be a graduate of the year 2000 has a much better ring to it than to be a graduate from the class of 1951. We did the best we could, but, what can you do with "1951"?) And this one thing is even more virulent today than it was half a century ago. It's the fact that we live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion - and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode.

Let me give you an example: there's a very fashionable idea right now that each people, each culture, has its own integrity, has its own validity, which must be respected and must have its day in the sun. I don't think anybody will bother to argue with that. But what I think you're going to find fairly soon, as you head out into the world, are two things: first, that it's irrelevant, and second, that it leads to what I think of as "pernicious enlightenment."

Consider this specific case, which is reasonably local: Seven years ago the mayor of New York City came to Boston. He hired away your police commissioner, William Bratton, and brought him to New York to see if he couldn't do something about crime in New York, which had reached horrendous proportions. William Bratton did a very daring thing. He reversed the usual procedure. He said, "We will reduce the incidence of major crimes by going after the so-called quality of life crimes, misdemeanors that have been considered so minor in the face of shootings, muggings, beatings, stabbings, that police departments are barely paying attention to them anymore. We are going to create and establish a sense of order in New York City. We are going to take back the streets. And that's going to have consequences you can't even imagine." And that was what happened. Overnight, William Bratton engineered the most dramatic reduction in crime in any large city in the history of the United States.

How? For one thing he started enforcing laws against truancy that hadn't been enforced for 75 years. Police started picking up thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-year-old children who were out on the streets in the middle of the day and they told them, "You're supposed to be in school." In two months the rate of juvenile delinquency in New York City dropped 75 percent. Because what do you do if you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, you're not in school, you're out all day? You dream up mischief and get into trouble, that's what you do. Bratton decided to enforce the law against riding the subways for free by jumping the turnstiles. If you've ever been on a New York City subway, you know the turnstiles are about the same height as one of those leather horses you use in gymnastics. By 1993 a whole generation of young people in New York were vaulting turnstiles. They had become absolutely Olympic about it. I mean, many, many would vault and do a flip in the air. That was cool. I saw a kid one day do a one-and-a-half gainer. I am not exaggerating! A one-and-a-half gainer! That's fun and games, but what is the impression this makes on everybody else? "I'm an idiot. I obeyed the law. I'm an idiot. The subways belong to the lawless. The city is unraveling." The police began arresting them—and this had an unanticipated dividend: 30% of the jumpers had outstanding warrants for more serious crimes.

Well, now we get to the boom boxes. Under William Bratton the New York City Police Department identified 227 boom box hot spots. Now, when I talk about boom boxes, I'm not talking about these radio and CD players that you see boys carrying on their shoulders—nothing that simple. These hot spots had to do with cars. Boys would take the back seat out of their cars, put in a piece of plywood from the base of the front seat right up to the rear window and put in two 20-inch speakers. Twenty-inch speakers create so much heat they would have to take everything out of the trunk and put in fans to cool off the equipment. I got curious and I went out, and I've been in these cars when they are going full blast. The typanum will make your ears flap! I'm not kidding you.

All right, so here you've got the set up. Now, here's the kind of song that would come booming out at midnight in 227 residential neighborhoods in New York. The words are a bit crude about the edges, but to give you the flavor I have to use them. This is a song called "Death on the Installment Plan" by a group called the Child Abusers:

     "Nine to five you park yo' butt beneath the bitch box on the wall
     And lap up all that crap inside the rut they make you crawl.
     So yo', go buy yo' own death, bro, and die on the installment plan,
     'Fo they cut yo' nuts and hang you from the necktie on the bald man."

Now, you have to imagine that being sung not by me but by four bawling 20-year-olds with electric guitars, electric bass and reverbo-amped drums over 20-inch speakers in somebody's neighborhood at midnight, one, two, or three in the morning. So the police started cracking down on that, and one young man fought the case in court and lost. He then appealed, and the appeals court reversed the decision with the following logic: "What is too loud in one culture is not too loud in another." Now, think what that means. I do not know that boy's background, but all I can say is, how condescending can you get? What sort of pernicious enlightenment leads a panel of judges to assume that somebody's culture finds it acceptable to listen to the Child Abusers singing "Death on the Installment Plan" at 180 decibels in their neighborhoods in the middle of the night?

The truth is that there is a common bond among all cultures, among all peoples in this world...at least among those who have reached the level of the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush. And that common bond is that much-maligned class known as the bourgeoisie—the middle class. These people are to be found not only in Boston, they are to be found in Bombay, in Benin City in Benin, West Africa, in Bonn in what used to be called West Germany, in Beirut, in Bermuda, in Barcelona. They are all over the world, in every continent, every nation, every society, every culture, everywhere you find the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush; and wherever they are, all of them believe in the same things. And what are those things? Peace, order, education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, creativity, cooperation, looking out for one another, looking out for the future of children, patriotism, fair play, and honesty. How much more do you want from the human beast? How much more can you possibly expect?

I say that the middle class around the world—and it certainly flowers in this country—is the highest form of evolution. The bourgeoisie!—the human beast doesn't get any better! The worldwide bourgeoisie makes what passes today for aristocrats—people consumed by juvenility who hang loose upon society—look like shiftless children.

And we writers spent the entire 20th century tearing down the bourgeoisie! The great H.L. Mencken, probably the most brilliant American essayist of the 20th century, started it with his term "the booboisie." Then Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio presented us with the oh-so proper, oh-so twisted mid-western preacher who in fact is a Peeping Tom. That formula has now been ground out and ground out and ground out until it takes the form of movies like "American Beauty." We in the arts have been complicit in the denigration of the best people on earth. Why? Because so many of the most influential ideas of our time are the product of a new creature of the 20th century, a creature that did not exist until 1898: and that creature is known as "the intellectual."

Now, we must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement, who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early 20th century, for the first time an ordinary story teller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely—this fascinates me—conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual.

I'll give you an example right across the river (I think I'm pointing in the right direction [points over shoulder to the northeast]; I'm standing right near where Pete Suder used to play second base for the Boston Braves). Anyway, right across the river there is the amazing figure of Noam Chomsky. Noam Chomsky on his own did an extremely brilliant thing. He's a linguist, he's a scientist, and a scholar. He figured out on his own that speech, grammar, and the human capacity to record in memory are literally, physically, built into the human nervous system. It is not something learned; it is built in. That is why a child can take a new word like "chair" and immediately drop it into a sentence at the age of two and say, "My doll fell off the chair," a whole sentence with a subject, a predicate, an object. It's only in our time, the end of the 20th century, the beginning of the 21st, that neuroscientists have the instruments by which they are beginning to prove that Noam Chomsky was right. A brilliant, brilliant human being. Did anyone call him an intellectual merely because he was one of the most brilliant people in the United States? No. When did he become an intellectual? When he finally spoke out concerning something he knew absolutely nothing about: the war in Vietnam. When he denounced the war in Vietnam, Chomsky put on the requisite display of utter ignorance and thereby became a leading American intellectual.

One of the things that I find really makes it worth watching all the Academy Awards, all the Emmys, all those awards ceremonies, is to see how today's actors and television performers have discovered the formula. If you become indignant, this elevates you to the plane of "intellectual." No mental activity is required. It is a rule, to which there has never been an exception, that when an actor or a television performer rises up to the microphone at one of these awards ceremonies and expresses moral indignation over something, he illustrates Marshall McLuhan's dictum that "moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity."

Another rule without a single exception is that the intellectual always averts his eyes from the obvious when the subject is the United States. This country, in our time, has fulfilled the dream of the utopian socialists of the 19th century, the Saint-Simons, the Fouriers. This is the first country on earth in which the ordinary working man has the political freedom, the personal freedom, the free time, the money, the wherewithal to express himself in any way that he may want; so that you may be sure that today, as we convene here in the former Braves Field—Pete Suder Land—now Nickerson Field at Boston University—you may be sure that your cablevision linesman or your air conditioning mechanic or your burglar alarm repair man is right now in Puerto Vallarta or Barbados or Saint Kitts, and he's there with his third wife (they're expensive, divorces are), and right now the two of them are out on the terrace of some resort hotel. He's wearing his Ricky Martin cane cutter shirt, open down to the sternum, the better to allow the gold chains to twinkle in his chest hairs, and he and his wife have just ordered a little round of Quibel sparkling water...because Perrier and San Pelegrino are so tacky by now, you know...One can't even use the old term "working class" anymore, much less "proletariat." Your plumber, your electrician, is now part of the highest form of the evolution of the species, the bourgeoisie American-style.

Here we are on the verge of a second American Century. We've just completed the first American Century, in which we achieved a power that would have made Julius Caesar twitch with envy. And ours has been a largely benign power. We saved the world from two bands of slave-hunting predators, the German Nazis and the Russian Communists, two barbaric hordes who made the Huns and Magyars of yore seem whimsical by comparison. At the same time we opened our arms to people from all over the earth, from every country, every culture, every religion, every conceivable background. Why don't we build a second Statue of Liberty? What we did in the 20th century was fantastic. People from Eritrea, from Ethiopia, from Guyana, from Cambodia, from Vietnam, refugees from all over the world—we welcomed them! The thing about the Elian Gonzales case—forget the central drama of it for a moment and think of the context: Why is it such a big issue in this country? Because this is the only country in the world in which refugees, people of a totally different background from the dominant population of the country, could come to a nation and take over, in one generation, a large city like the city of Miami. No matter what happens in the denouement, the Gonzales case already illustrates the glory of American democracy. This is the only country in the world where such a triumph of first-generation immigrants could take place, and God bless us for the fact that we are this open to the people of the entire world.

We are in the beginning of what may be a Pax Americana, the equivalent of the Pax Romana that began two millennia ago. This may be the second century of a thousand years of rule in the world by a benign liberal democracy. I think we should rejoice in this. And I feel so much better knowing that there are people like yourselves, members of the class of 2000 at Boston University, who have developed the independence of thought to judge the world strictly by the evidence of your own eyes. You're not going to find many traditional judges who can lead you any longer, since they now wander helplessly, bemused by the willful ignorance of that bizarre 20th century organism, the intellectual. You're going to have to make the crucial judgments yourselves. But you are among the very handful of those who can do it. You are graduates of one of the two or three greatest universities in America. You have been raised in, you have been developed in, a tradition of straight thinking and straight talking. You have been taught to lead your lives in the tradition of those who, in the great phrase of a great writer and a great leader, John Silber, are straight shooters.

God bless you all, and best of luck, and thank you so much for letting me be a part of the commencement of Boston University's Class of 2000.