Pomp and commonsense

Published May 30, 2024

By Tom Campbell

It’s graduation season and in school after school you hear “Pomp and Circumstance” being played. Most of us can’t remember who delivered our commencement address, much less anything said, but you and I might benefit from some current commencement messages.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld spoke at the Duke Commencement. He shared his “three real keys to life.” They are, “Bust your ass. Pay attention. And Fall in love.”
Astronaut Zena Cardman spoke at UNC, saying “It can be tricky to stay present while also looking forward to an imminent future, but I’d encourage graduating seniors to think about what’s right in front of them, here and now. Who will you carry with you into this next stage? What do you value? What do you want to improve for others? The answers to these questions can be found in the present and will carry through a lifetime.”
Nobel prize winner, chemist David MacMillan, gave NC State grads three admonitions. “Learn from others, but always follow your own path. Failure is just another word for experience. Laugh every day; you don’t always have to take yourself too seriously.”
Mandy Cohen, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, admonished Wake Forest Grads to embrace the school’s motto, “Pro Humanitate,” (For Humanity).” “In this increasingly complex world that makes it too easy to believe the illusion that we live in a binary world of us and them, I hope you will see people, all people. Listen. Seek understanding, and not just with those who think like you.”
Ronnie Barnes, ECU alumni and head athletic trainer of the New York Football Giants, spoke at the Greenville commencement. “Resilience is not is not reserved solely for the gridiron or the playing field,” Barnes said. “It’s what enables us to pick ourselves up when we stumble, to push through the pain when it seems insurmountable and emerge stronger and more resilient on the other side.”
Graduates of North Carolina’s Institute of Political Leadership heard former Senator Richard Burr and former Congressman David Price.
Price told the group to think of themselves as part of something greater than the sum of its parts. “It’s one thing to win an election,” Price said. “It’s quite another to another thing to make institutions work. That’s the real test of democracy.”
“Politics has always been a contact sport,” Burr said. “When elections were over David and I put the gloves in a drawer. We didn’t bring them out until the next election time came. Today, the gloves stay out. It’s hard to find consensus when it’s a perpetual fight.”
Burr continued, “Imagine you go to class. A professor every day has to say to the class, and ask by unanimous consent, that we actually do something today. And one student says, ‘Nahh, I don’t think so.’ That’s the United States Senate. We’re taught the rules are 60 votes to get something done. No, the rule is nobody objects.”
But the address attracting the most attention came from filmmaker Ken Burns, who spoke at the Brandeis University graduation. 
Burns told the audience that we have inherited a nation that is great and good, but in recent years we have incubated, “habits and patterns less beneficial to us: our devotion to money and guns and conspiracies, our certainty about everything, our stubborn insistence on our own exceptionalism blinding us to that which needs repair, especially with regard to race and ethnicity. Our preoccupation with always making the other wrong at an individual as well as a global level.
“Everything is either right or wrong, red state or blue state, young or old, gay or straight, rich or poor, Palestinian or Israeli, my way or the highway. Everywhere we are trapped by these old, tired, binary reactions, assumptions, and certainties. 
“I have had the privilege for nearly half a century of making films about the US, but I have also made films about us. That is to say the two letter, lowercase, plural pronoun. All of the intimacy of "us" and also "we" and "our" and all of the majesty, complexity, contradiction, and even controversy of the US. And if I have learned anything over those years, it's that there's only us. There is no them.”
Burns violated the tradition that commencement addresses should be apolitical, saying, “There is no real choice this November. There is only the perpetuation, however flawed and feeble you might perceive it, of our fragile 249-year-old experiment or the entropy that will engulf and destroy us if we take the other route. 
“The presumptive Republican nominee is the opioid of all opioids, an easy cure for what some believe is the solution to our myriad pains and problems…. Do not be seduced by easy equalization. There is nothing equal about this equation. We are at an existential crossroads in our political and civic lives. This is a choice that could not be clearer.”
Let those who have ears listen.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.  Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com