The Supernova Is Coming

The following was the commencement address for Columbia College, held June 1, 2003.

Thank you for this beautiful honor, and thank you for freeing me from the dark cave I've been sitting in all week -- and by dark cave I mean a theater, I've been in the dark all week watching a director and designers and singers and crew try to put together an opera double bill for which I provided the English-language libretti.

Thank you for releasing me for the afternoon from that dark and anxiety-filled cavern of illusion and bidding me welcome to the bright daylight dazzle of your commencement, your impressive achievement: Forget going oversees to fight in Bush's infinite war against terrorism, the really heroic thing in this country is managing against so many odds to get yourself educated.

Thank you for letting me share, even though it's unearned, a little of the reflected effulgence of the brilliant sun of your aspirations, your intentions, your ambitions, thank you for sharing with me your faith in the future.

I was trying to decide what to say to you today. It's never a problem that there isn't much to talk about but rather that there is so much to say and such a short time. I was told I should speak for three to seven minutes, and all week long I've been pondering the mystical significance of those numbers, three and seven, prime numbers, the Holy Trinity and the number of days it took God to make the world?

Last night after sitting all day in the dark, in the cab afterwards, heading back to the hotel and my midnight tech week ritual of eating eleven Hershey bars (11, another prime number!) before passing out in front of more awful nightmare news on CNN -- last night it was footage of Dubya and Laura touring Auschwitz, Dubya apparently saying only two things while he was in the concentration camp, "Look at the baby shoes" and, to the tour guide, "Does anyone ever challenge your statistics?" -- in the cab back to the hotel while I was trying to figure out what to say to you, the cabbie volunteered, with no prompting -- and I have noticed that Chicago cab drivers are much more philosophical than New York cab drivers, which I think has something to do with the superior condition here of the surface of the roads -- the cabbie said, and I'm not making this up, "If there's a supernova 60 light years away from here the world will be totally wiped out, we don't stand a chance."

I asked him if there was any hope that this might happen before next Wednesday, which is the opera's opening night.

He doubted it.

But he gave me something to think about, namely the fact that life, each individual life and our collective life on the planet is a teleological game, it is not infinite, like Bush's justice, it has an ending, and so the future you put your faith in is not, in fact, limitless; and given the catastrophic failure here and abroad of the Kyoto global warming accords, given our newfound post 9-11 imperialist exuberance, given the sagging of the world's economy and the IMF-directed refusal to see any solutions beyond making poor people suffer even more than they always do in the hopes of reviving a market that only ever revives long enough to make the rich even richer, given the eagerness in Washington to explore new and tinier kinds of nuclear bombs, well, it's sort of optimistic to believe it's a supernova that's going to get us, when it's clear that what's much more likely to get us, if we are got, is our present condition of living in a world run by miscreants while the people of the world have either no access to power or have access but have forgotten how to get it and why it is important to have it.

And this is what I think you people have gotten your education for.

You have presumably made a study of how important it is for the people -- the people and not the oil plutocrats, the people and not the fantasists in right-wing think-tanks, the people and not the virulent lockstep gasbags of Sunday morning talk shows and editorial pages and all-Nazi all-the-time radio ranting marathons, the thinking people and not the crazy people, the rich and multivarious multicultural people and not the pale greyish-white cranky grim greedy people, the secular pluralist people and not the theocrats, the metaphorical imaginative expansive generous sensual rational people and not the sexual hysterics, the misogynists, Muslim and Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, the hard-working people and not the people whose only real exertion ever in their whole parasite lives has been the effort if takes to slash a trillion plus dollars in tax revenue and then stuff it in their already overfull pockets -- whatever your degree, you have presumably read history and thought about justice and freedom and the relationship between ideas and action ...

... and you know how important it is for the sizable community of decent, sane, just, egalitarian people, comprising many minority communities, constituting if not a majority then a plurality, a substantial, smart, let's-say-40-percent-plurality community, more than large enough in a pluralist democracy -- which for the time being the United States still is -- if it uses its brains and works together to wield decisive power ...

... power for enfranchisement and economic as well as racial justice and gender justice and sexual political justice and environmental sanity and in the name of a real globalism, a real internationalism, a real solidarity with all the peoples of the world, to wield power infused with the knowledge that democracy is created not by military machines, not by MOAB bombs and smart bombs but by smart peaceable people, fed people, educated people; democracy is created by making an aggressive, determined and long-term effort at eradicating the real axis of evil: poverty, homelessness, no health care.

You have read and studied and thought and argued and you all know that it is important for the people to have power and now you must go out into the world and get it, snatch it back from where it lies, tangled in the bushes, and then use it well, for the community, for the common good. That's the next bit of bravery we demand from you heroic people.

When the supernova comes to get us we don't want to be disappointed in ourselves. We should hope to be able to say proudly to the supernova, that angel of death, "Hello supernova, we have been expecting you, we know all about you because in our schools we teach science and not creationism, and so we have been expecting you, everywhere everyone has been expecting you, except Texas, and we would like to say, supernova, in the moment before we are returned by your protean fire to our previous inchoate state, clouds of incandescent atomic vapor, we'd like to declare that we have tried our best and worked hard to make a good and just and free and peaceful world, a world which is better for our having been here, at least we believe it is."

Years ago I wrote a children's play and in it there's a poem of which I was reminded by the cabbie's information about the supernova. I want to conclude by reciting it for you.

The universe exists because of opposites and tension,
a fact we sometimes overlook, but here deserves a mention.
For every action there's another action to oppose it:
It's common sense, for life is tense, and everybody knows it.
The white-hot heart of every star, its radiant extrusion
explodes as atoms, cracking up, cause thermonuclear fusion.
Hydrogen to helium -- a force that pushes out:
Ten Billion Years Of Blowing Up is what a star's about.
The star could not exist, it would be blown to smithereens,
With so much inside pushing out lest something intervenes,
And something does, for pulling in is gravity, of course,
Which does the trick of holding in the thermonuclear force.
So one force pushes out, while one is pulling in,
And let's all thank our lucky stars that neither one can win!
For when the tension ceases and the totter doesn't teeter
We'll all be painfully aware we've lost our solar heater.
We will either freeze to death or get blown to Jehovah �
Depending if the sun becomes a Black Hole or a Nova.
And on that day I'm sad to say all life abruptly stops;
but there's five billion years before it shrivels or it pops.
So don't despair; instead reflect upon the stellar state
and on the fundamental fact that stars illuminate.
From grains of sand to giant stars all things share one condition:
the world we see would never be, except for opposition.

And now I must get back to my cave. Thank you again for showing me the light! Your light! And a million billion mazels to you all.

The supernova is coming, but let's not rush things. Go forth and be powerful. Change the world.

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