Filmmaker Ken Burns Urges Stanford Graduates to Defeat Trump & the Retrograde Forces Threatening the U.S.

This time of year, we see graduation speeches popping up all over the web. The commencement address as a genre focuses on the opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities graduates will face post-college, and often espouses timeless life lessons and philosophies. But this year, as you may have seen, esteemed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns took the opportunity of his graduation speech, presented to the 2016 class at Stanford University, to address the timeliest of issues: the upcoming presidential election and the threat of "an incipient proto-fascism." The graduation just happened to fall on the same day as the deadliest mass-shooting in recent American history.

Voters are angry at the system, we're told again and again, and frankly the overwhelming majority of us have every reason to be. But anger can be intoxicating, and the segment of the electorate that carried Donald Trump to power seems drunk with rage and hostility. The promise of Trumpism puts me in mind of historian and critic Richard Slotkin’s classic study of U.S. mythology, Regeneration Through Violence, which describes the nation's compulsion to purge the country of threatening others in order to restore some myth of lost innocence. "I will give you everything, I'm the only one," the candidate vows, while scapegoating group after group for the country's problems.

In his Stanford commencement speech on Sunday, Burns decried “the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises and terrifying Orwellian statements." The Republican candidate for president is "a person,” Burns said in his impassioned speech, “who easily lies, creating an environment where truth doesn’t seem to matter.”

As a student of history, I recognize this type. He emerges everywhere and in all eras. We see nurtured in his campaign an incipient proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothing-ism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African-Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber-rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong. These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past. But they now loom in front of us again — all happening at once. We know from our history books that these are the diseases of ancient and now fallen empires. The sense of commonwealth, of shared sacrifice, of trust, so much a part of American life, is eroding fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started.

We no longer have the luxury of neutrality or “balance,” or even of bemused disdain. Many of our media institutions have largely failed to expose this charlatan, torn between a nagging responsibility to good journalism and the big ratings a media circus always delivers. In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior. Hey, he’s rich; he must be doing something right. He is not. Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago. He is an insult to our history. Do not be deceived by his momentary “good behavior.” It is only a spoiled, misbehaving child hoping somehow to still have dessert.

And do not think that the tragedy in Orlando underscores his points. It does not. We must “disenthrall ourselves,” as Abraham Lincoln said, from the culture of violence and guns. And then “we shall save our country.”

The words of Lincoln that Burns quotes come from the president’s annual remarks to congress in 1862, in which Lincoln made the case for the Emancipation Proclamation, one month before signing it. (A document, ironically, that Slotkin says "radically expanded the existing powers of the presidency" in its pursuit of a just cause.) In his address, Lincoln makes a forceful moral argument, all the more eloquent for its characteristic brevity.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us.

Likewise, Burns—addressing future leaders at an elite institution—makes his case for heeding the lessons of history, considering posterity, and rejecting Trump, independent of partisan interests: “This is not a liberal or conservative issue, a red state-blue state divide. This is an American issue.” He also implores "those 'Vichy Republicans' who have endorsed him to please, please reconsider." The horrific mass murder in Orlando has further inflamed what Burns calls “the troubling, unfiltered Tourette’s of [Trump’s] tribalism”---with renewed calls for bans on all Muslims, more inflammatory insinuations that the president colludes with terrorists, and bizarre allegations that a Clinton aide is a Saudi agent.

Trump did not invent this rhetoric of bigotry, conspiracy, and paranoia, but he has manipulated and exploited it more effectively than anyone else, to potentially disastrous effect. "The next few months of your 'commencement,'" Burns says, "that is to say, your future, will be critical to the survival of our republic." He urges the graduating Stanford class to take action: “before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process.” Those processes may already be deeply compromised by moneyed interests, but destroying the edifice on which they're built, Burns suggests, will hardly restore any supposedly lost "greatness." Watch Burns' full commencement speech above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Harvard Dean Lists the 5 Essential Questions to Ask In Life … Which Will Bring You Happiness & Success

And now for a different kind of graduation speech.

Most commencement speeches provide answers of sorts--pieces of wisdom you can carry with you, life strategies you can use down the road. Above James Ryan, Dean of Harvard's School of Education, offers something else--not answers, but questions, the five essential questions to ask as you move through life. He elaborates on each above:

1.) Wait, what?

2.) I wonder, why/if?

3.) Couldn't we at least?

4.) How can I help?

5.) What really matters?

Bonus question: And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?

You can watch Ryan's complete commencement speech here.

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How Leonard Cohen’s Stint As a Buddhist Monk Can Help You Live an Enlightened Life

There is a certain kind of thinking that the Buddha called "monkey mind," a state in which our nervous habits become compulsions, hauling us around this way and that, forcing us to jump and shriek at every sound. It was exactly this neurotic state of mind that Leonard Cohen sought to quell when in 1994 he joined Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles and became a monk: "I was interested in surrendering to that kind of routine," Cohen told The Guardian in 2001, "If you surrender to the schedule, and get used to its demands, it is a great luxury not to have to think about what you are doing next."

There at Mt. Baldy the journalist and cosmopolitan raconteur Pico Iyer met Cohen, unaware at first that it was even him. In his short Baccalaureate speech above to the 2015 graduating class of the University of Southern California, Iyer describes the meeting: After showing him fond hospitality and settling him into the community, Iyer says, Cohen told him that "just sitting still, being unplugged, looking after his friends was… the real deep entertainment that the world had to offer."




At the time, Iyer was disappointed. He had admired Cohen for exactly the opposite qualities---for traveling the world, being plugged into the culture, and living a rock star life of self-indulgence. It was this outward manifestation of Cohen that Iyer found alluring, but the poet and songwriter's inward life, what Iyer calls the "invisible ledger on which we tabulate our lives," was given to something else, something that eventually brought Cohen out of a lifelong depression. Iyer's thesis, drawn from his encounter with Leonard Cohen, Zen monk, is that "it is really on the mind that our happiness depends."

Iyer refers not to that perpetually wheeling monkey mind but what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi called "beginner's mind" or "big mind." In such a meditatively absorbed state, we forget ourselves, "which to me," Iyer says, "is almost the definition of happiness." Cohen said as much of his own personal enlightenment: "When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you." After his time at Mt. Baldy, he says, "there was just a certain sweetness to daily life that began asserting itself." Iyer's short speech, filled with example after example, gives us and his newly graduating audience several ways to think about how we might find that sense of repose---in the midst of busy, demanding lives---through little more than "just sitting still, being unplugged" and looking after each other.

Note: You can watch a European documentary on Cohen's stint as a buddhist monk here.

via BoingBoing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Lynda Barry’s Graduation Speech; Give a Shout Out to the Teachers Who Changed Your Life

The University of the Arts’ most recent grads are lucky ducks to have had a speaker as engaging as cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry delivering their commencement’s keynote address.

Speaker Barry was also made an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, an award that occasioned the ill-fitting tam seen in the video above, as well as a new title---Doctor Nursey---conferred by pre-kindergarteners with whom she works at the University of Wisconsin. (Previous aliases include Professor Chewbacca and Professor Old Skull)

Barry kept things lively by mixing in some tried and true material from other public appearances, including her Filipino grandmother’s belief in the aswang, a poem set to music (here “Cotton Song” by Harlem Renaissance poet, Jean Toomer) and the story of the collaborative cartoon, “Chicken Attack by Jack.”

This last anecdote contains a strong indictment of contemporary society’s screen addiction, and it is heartening to see the graduates---members of the last generation to pre-date the Internet---listening so attentively, no one texting or tweeting as the camera pans the crowd.

When Barry exhorted them to shout out the names of their three most inspiring teachers on the count of three, most did!

For me, this was the most thrilling moment, though I also appreciated the advice on the best time to schedule oral surgery, and a blissful untruth about Evergreen State College’s application process circa the mid-70s.

Not your typical commencement speech… those lucky, lucky ducks!

Readers, we invite you to get in the spirit and celebrate the Class of 2015 by “shouting” the names of your most inspirational teachers in the comment section below.

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John Waters’ RISD Graduation Speech: Real Wealth is Never Having to Spend Time with A-Holes

Robert De Niro Tells Graduating NYU Arts Grads, “You Made It… And You’re F*cked”

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Congratulations, graduates, especially the members of NYC’s most freshly forged theater company, Rascal Arts. Follow her @AyunHalliday

John Waters’ RISD Graduation Speech: Real Wealth is Never Having to Spend Time with A-Holes

John Waters' rollicking commencement speech at The Rhode Island School of Design offered up some good one-liners and a few pearls of wisdom, though phrased, quite naturally, in an irreverent way. Ready for some sage advice on what really counts as wealth? And what career choices will make you truly wealthy? Mr. Waters has this to say:

Uh, don’t hate all rich people. They’re not all awful. Believe me, I know some evil poor people, too. We need some rich people: Who else is going to back our movies or buy our art? I’m rich! I don’t mean money-wise. I mean that I have figured out how to never be around assholes at any time in my personal and professional life. That’s rich. And not being around assholes should be the goal of every graduate here today.

It’s OK to hate the poor, too, but only the poor of spirit, not wealth. A poor person to me can have a big bank balance but is stupid by choice – uncurious, judgemental, isolated and unavailable to change.

I’m also sorry to report there’s no such thing as karma. So many of my talented great friends are dead and so many of the fools I’ve met and loathed are still alive. It’s not fair, and it never will be.

Like I said, irreverently phrased. But when stripped down to their basics, some very good principles to live by.

Watch the speech above; read the complete transcript here.

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via Dangerous Minds

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Robert De Niro Tells Graduating NYU Arts Grads, “You Made It… And You’re F*cked”

I’ve attended my share of graduations and hence my share of graduation speeches—from politicians more interested in stumping than inspiring their audience; to local TV personalities assuring graduates they too could become local TV personalities; to the real Patch Adams, who wasn’t nearly as funny as Robin Williams in his less-than-funny turn as Patch Adams. My experience has taught me that graduation speeches generally suck.

But not for the most recent batch of graduates of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, who got both bracing honesty and career validation from a speaker most likely to give it to you straight. With his trademark foul-mouth gruffness, De Niro told the graduating class what every aspiring artist needs to know: “You made it,” he said, “and you’re f*cked.” The world, De Niro told his audience, is not opening its arms to embrace art school grads. For all our pop cultural celebration of creativity, the so-called “creative class”—as we’re told again and again—is mostly in decline.




Of course it’s never been an easy road for artists. De Niro knows this full well not only through his own early experiences before superstardom but from his upbringing: both his mother and father were bohemian painters with turbulent, fascinating lives. And so he also knows of what he speaks when he tells the NYU grads that they “didn’t have a choice.” Where pragmatic accounting grads may be “passionate about accounting,” De Niro says, “it's more likely that they used reason and logic and common sense to reach for a career that could give them the expectation of success and stability.”

Not the arts grads, the famous actor says: “You discovered a talent, developed an ambition and recognized your passion." Their path, he suggests, is one of self-actualization:

When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You aren't just following dreams, you're reaching for your destiny. You're a dancer, a singer, a choreographer, a musician, a filmmaker, a writer, a photographer, a director, a producer, an actor, an artist. Yeah, you're f***ed. The good news is that that's not a bad place to start.

Maybe not. And maybe, for those driven to sing, dance, paint, write, etc., it’s the only place to start. Granted, NYU students are already a pretty select and privileged bunch, who certainly have a leg up compared to a great many other struggling artists. Nevertheless, given current economic realities and the U.S.’s depressing aversion to arts education and funding, these grads have a particularly difficult road ahead, De Niro says. And who better to deliver that hard truth with such conviction and good humor?

h/t @sheerly

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Carr Gives 10 Pieces of Work & Life Advice to UC Berkeley Graduates

David Carr took seven years to get through college. He didn't have a Master's degree or a PhD. Before he made it big writing for The New York Times, he spent time in rehab and on welfare. David Carr didn't fit the profile of your average commencement speaker.

And yet Carr, who died in the Times newsroom on Thursday nightearned his spot speaking before the 2014 graduating class at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Known for his insightful reporting on changes in publishing, television and social media, Carr understood the world these young journalists were entering. And when he offered 10 pieces of graduation advice, you know the students took note. You should too:

1.) Someone who is underestimated will be the one who changes the world. It’s not the person everyone expects. It might be you.

2.) “Do what is front of you." Focus on the small steps ahead of you.

3.) Don’t worry about achieving a master plan, about the plot to take over the world.

4.) Be a worker among workers. It’s more important that you fit in before you stick out.

5.) Follow the "Mom Rule." Don’t do anything you couldn’t explain or justify to your mom.

6.) Don’t just do what you’re good at. Get outside of your comfort zone. Being a journalist is permission for lifetime learning.

7.) Be present. Don’t worry about documenting the moment with your smartphone. Experience it yourself.

8.) Take responsibility for the good and the bad. Learn to own your failures.

9.) Be honest, and be willing to have the difficult conversation.

10.) Don’t be afraid to be ambitious. It's not a crime.

He says it's a listicle that won't appear on Buzzfeed. But it fits perfectly on OC. David, we're so sorry to see you go.

Dan Colman is the founder/editor of Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox.

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