Monday, June 04, 2007

Grad Bag

One of the last bastions of traditional oratory is the time-honored custom of the commencement address. The Internet has transformed even graduation speeches, in that the text can circulate and be ascribed to different authors and associated with different institutions. For example the imagined commencement address of Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich was circulated through the Internet, where it was misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut at an MIT graduation. Later, of course, it was recorded by Baz Luhrmann as "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)," so it had a second life as an oddball hit on alternative radio stations in the late nineties.

Now Mark Danner's commencement speech to Berkeley rhetoric grads, "Words in Time of War," is being similarly exchanged via e-mail and message boards. Despite comparable personal politics, I'm actually not crazy about many aspects of Danner's speech, particularly his choice to start off with a porn star analogy that risks alienating at least half his audience. His decision to spend so much time rhetoric-bashing and only use the word's negative connotations also seemed oddly inappropriate to the occasion and the group being honored. Although he criticizes President Bush, he ignores the fact that the Chief Executive also uses the word "rhetoric" disparagingly as a political weapon.

When it comes to controversy, however, it's hard to beat my pal Simpsons writer Mike Reiss for entertaining shock lines. His Ashley Hall Commencement Speech to a girl's school in Charleston, South Carolina, which is now posted in five parts on YouTube, may be digitally reverberating for a while. Reiss has already been commemorated in Wikipedia for his comments at the event, where he lambasted grad Barbara Bush and her son the sitting president, who Reiss described as "Satan with a learning disorder."

Update: It's also worth pointing out that commencement speeches still had reverberations for traditional news media this year. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Linda Greenhouse stirred up controversy with her speech on "10 things I learned covering the Supreme Court" at Harvard. Excellent NPR coverage of the fallout is here.

(Thanks to Patricia Hartz, Denise Reiss, and Vivian Folkenflik for the links.)

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