Culture: June 2003 Archives

It's graduation time, and our thoughts turn to the commencement ceremony. Three weeks ago I was at my cousin's high school graduation, where we listened to the superintendent urge the graduates to register to vote and elect legislators who would shovel more money into the schools. 17 years ago, at my college graduation, we all sat in heavy rain for an hour while we listened to the World's Most Boring Commencement Speaker (William R. Hewlett) read, in monotone, a speech that he was apparently seeing for the first time as he stood at the podium. It was a litany of his company's engineering achievements, recited in excruciating technical detail. I have a photo of me, looking like a drowned rat, taking my diploma from Paul Gray, MIT's last good president, and not coincidentally, its last alumnus to serve as president. Gray's charge to the class (continued on this page) was actually pretty good, although we were all too wet to notice. Gray delivered the only funny line of the day, which came from a parent:

"After the soaking I've take from this place for the past four years, what's a little rain?"

Here is a much shorter, much funnier, and much more inspirational commencement speech. It's three years old, but I just came across it, thanks to a link today from Jonah Goldberg on The Corner. Conan O'Brien addressed the Harvard class of 2000, on the 15th anniversary of his own graduation from the red brick schoolhouse up Chuck River from MIT. In an inspirational speech, he prepared the students for a lifetime failure and ridicule:

So what can you expect out there in the real world? Let me tell you. As you leave these gates and re-enter society, one thing is certain: Everyone out there is going to hate you. Never tell anyone in a roadside diner that you went to Harvard. In most situations the correct response to where did you go to school is, "School? Why, I never had much in the way of book larnin' and such." Then, get in your BMW and get the hell out of there.

You see, you're in for a lifetime of "And you went to Harvard?" Accidentally give the wrong amount of change in a transaction and it's, "And you went to Harvard?" Ask the guy at the hardware store how these jumper cables work and hear, "And you went to Harvard?" Forget just once that your underwear goes inside your pants and it's "and you went to Harvard." Get your head stuck in your niece's dollhouse because you wanted to see what it was like to be a giant and it's "Uncle Conan, you went to Harvard!?"

He went on to tell the story of his post-Harvard career, marked by low-paying jobs and bad career moves, like leaving SNL to write a sitcom that never made it to air. Even taking the Late Night post looked like a bad move at first, as he suffered a barrage of negative reviews. He winds up by telling the graduates not to fear failure:

Needless to say, I took a lot of criticism, some of it deserved, some of it excessive. And it hurt like you wouldn't believe. But I'm telling you all this for a reason. I've had a lot of success and I've had a lot of failure. I've looked good and I've looked bad. I've been praised and I've been criticized. But my mistakes have been necessary. Except for Wilson's House of Suede and Leather. That was just stupid.

I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.

I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.

So, that's what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.

That's a gem -- buried in the laugh lines, something these graduates really needed to hear. If you've gone to a school like Harvard or MIT, you either succeed big or you never get over the sense that you could have done more with your opportunities. And a fear of big failure can keep you from taking the risks that could lead to big success, so you settle instead for middling security.

Conan and I started college the same year. I could have been his classmate, as I had an offer from Harvard, but declined it for MIT's offer because I figured an engineering degree would give me a better chance at a job after graduation. (Yes, there is a difference between being smart and being savvy.) Some night, when I'm feeling especially rueful, I'll tell the story of what went into that decision. Don't get me wrong -- I made wonderful friends at MIT, I got a solid education, and I have many happy memories. And MIT is a great choice if you are in love with science or engineering. I chose MIT because it promised a career that would provide a secure future in comfortable surroundings, not necessarily a career that I would love.

Looking at my job history and Conan's circa 1990, my choice of MIT and engineering looked pretty sound -- I had been continuously employed, my salary had gone up every year, and I had received job offers from competing companies. Since 1990, I've stayed on a linear track. Conan took risks, was doing something he loved, and after a slow and bumpy start his rise was exponential. Of course, his career track may just as easily have followed a spectacular downward curve, but at least he'd be failing while doing something he loved.

The Bible reminds us that neither earthly success or earthly failure are permanent:

So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.

In light of this reality:

A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

My advice to my graduating cousin? Understand and delight in your God-given abilities and inclinations. Find a job you will love. Use college to help you get there. Don't play it safe.

UPDATE: Steve Young has written a graduation address with a similar theme, which begins, "THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR TO SUCCESS IS FAILURE!" Citing the examples of Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Walter Cronkite, Young writes:

All these people share one thing in common. They ignored the "experts." They refused to let hardships stop them on the road to victory. They learned that every triumphant discovery resulted from many unsuccessful experiments; that every home run has been tempered by a multitude of missed swings; that every great script was built on the back of endless rewrites; that every top performer has been humiliated by more than one performance; that failure is part of the process that breeds success.

In case someone just happens to be checking the site at this moment, a talk by Adam Nicholson, author of God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, is being broadcast by C-SPAN 2 -- 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. If this talk ends up on their website, I'll post a link to it later from this entry.

UPDATE: C-SPAN 2 has posted the video of the talk on its BookTV website. It should be there for a couple of weeks.

Nicolson spoke of the predecessors to the KJV: the anti-monarchical Geneva Bible of the Puritans ("king" is always translated "tyrant" in the Old Testament) and the Bishop's Bible, which Nicolson describes as "pompous, obscure, and often laughable." He lays out the spirit of the age as King James takes the throne of England. He describes the committee structure that produced the translation and tells us some personal anecdotes about the translators. These were men of the world, not cloistered monks, and Nicolson believes that made the King James version a better translation than many that followed. Nicolson compares Psalm 8 in the KJV, Milton's metrical translation, written nearly half a century later.

I didn't get to see the whole thing -- I'll try to watch it all tonight. Here's an article written by Nicolson for The Age last year prior to publication of his book.

An interesting fact about Nicolson -- he owns three small islands in the Hebrides, a gift from his father on his 21st birthday.

As the New York Times continues its credibility meltdown, we learn of a remarkable memo written by Los Angeles Times Editor John Carroll to his section editors, criticizing the bias evident in a story by LA Times reporter Scott Gold on the "Women's Right to Know Act" recently passed in Texas. (A similar bill in Oklahoma, requiring information about the development of the fetus and potential health risks to be presented to a woman prior to an abortion, was killed when pro-life Senate Democrats cast party line votes to avoid putting a controversial issue on Gov. Brad Henry's desk.)

Here's the whole thing, for posterity.

I'm concerned about the perception---and the occasional reality---that the Times is a liberal, "politically correct" newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today with the front-page story on the bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

Let me know if you'd like to discuss this.


Because it's likely to disappear soon, I've put the original LA Times article on the extended part of this entry. You will notice that the version on the Baltimore Sun website omits both the sneering reference to Corte's profession and any reference at all to Baruch College endocrinology professor Joel Brind, who affirms the link between abortion and breast cancer.

George Neumayr of the American Spectator has more to say about the Carroll memo and media bias, pointing out another trick often used by reporters to express an opinion while pretending to report:

Scott Gold's article contained other tricks of bias that Carroll didn't mention. Take a look at this one: "…critics say the law is a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate, frighten and shame women who are seeking an abortion." Who are these "critics"? Do they include by chance the Times reporters huddled around Gold's desk?

The "critics say" trick is a familiar one in the Times. In a story questioning the Pentagon's embedded reporters policy, they trotted out the phrase to advance their own assertion: "Some critics say these policies raise questions about the balance and sensitivity of wartime media coverage…"

"Some critics say" is the Times's euphemism for "Our opinion is…"

Readers of the Tulsa World will be familiar with this technique. In today's edition, Randy Krehbiel uses a related phrase in an article about welfare reform reauthorization:

Most observers seem to agree that whatever the details of the new rules, the effect will be tougher eligibility and less benefits.

Who qualifies as an observer, and how many are included in this universe? How many observers constitute "most"? This seems to be shorthand for "I think this is true, but I'm on deadline and I don't have a quote that makes this point as directly as I would like."

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Culture category from June 2003.

Culture: May 2003 is the previous archive.

Culture: August 2003 is the next archive.

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