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The Greatest Commencement Address of All Time: Joseph Brodsky’s Six Rules for Playing the Game of Life Like a Winner

“Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”

The exquisite commencement address is a special kind of art, necessitating in equal parts the vulnerability of sharing personal experience and the challenge of extracting from it wisdom of universal resonance. Among history’s most memorable are Neil Gaiman on making good art, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Judith Butler on the value of reading and the humanities, Oprah on failure and finding your purpose, Greil Marcus on the essence of art, Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions, Bill Watterson on creative integrity, and more fantastic speeches by Ann Patchett, Jacqueline Novogratz, David Foster Wallace, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos. But one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre came long before this art-form was a marketable “genre.”

On December 18, 1988, twenty-five years after his writing had been denounced as “anti-Soviet” in his native Russia and mere months after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature “for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity,” prolific poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940–January 28, 1996) took the podium at Ann Arbor and addressed the graduating class at the University of Michigan with one of the most beautiful and timeless commencement speeches ever given, offering six invaluable pieces of wisdom on good-personhood and the meaning of life. It lay dormant for nearly a decade, considered too provocative for publication, until it was finally transcribed and included in the 1997 anthology On Grief and Reason: Essays (public library) under the title “Speech at the Stadium.”

Brodsky begins:

Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the Holy Book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose.

After reminiscing about his own college days, Brodsky offers:

I am not totally oblivious to the pressures the so-called modern world exerts upon the young, I feel nostalgic for those who sat in your chairs a dozen or so years ago, because some of them at least could cite the Ten Commandments and still others even remembered the names of the Seven Deadly Sins. As to what they’ve done with that precious knowledge of theirs afterward, as to how they fared in the game, I have no idea. All I can hope for is that in the long run one is better off being guided by rules and taboos laid down by someone totally impalpable than by the penal code alone.

Since your run is most likely to be fairly long, and since being better off and having a decent world around you is what you presumably are after, you could do worse than to acquaint yourselves with those commandments and that list of sins. … But I am not here to extol the virtues of any particular creed or philosophy, nor do I relish, as so many seem to, the opportunity to snipe at the modern system of education or at you, its alleged victims. To begin with, I don’t perceive you as such. After all, in certain fields your knowledge is immeasurably superior to mine or anyone’s of my generation. I regard you as a bunch of young, reasonably egotistical souls on the eve of a very long journey. I shudder to contemplate its length, and I ask myself in what way I could possibly be of use to you. Do I know something about life that could be of help or consequence to you, and if I do, is there a way to pass this information on to you?

The answer to the first question is, I suppose, yes — not so much because a person of my age is entitled to out-fox any of you at existential chess as because he is, in all probability, tired of quite a lot of the stuff you are still aspiring to. (This fatigue alone is something the young should be advised on as an attendant feature of both their eventual success and their failure; this sort of knowledge may enhance their savoring of the former as well as a better weathering of the latter.) As for the second question, I truly wonder. The example of the aforementioned commandments may discourage any commencement speaker, for the Ten Commandments themselves were a commencement address — literally so, I must say. But there is a transparent wall between the generations, an ironic curtain, if you will, a see-through veil allowing almost no passage of experience. At best, some tips.

He goes on to offer six such tips on how to play the game of life like a winner:

  1. Now and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.
  2. Now and in the time to be, try to be kind to your parents. If this sounds too close to “Honor thy mother and father” for your comfort, so be it. All I am trying to say is try not to rebel against them, for, in all likelihood, they will die before you do, so you can spare yourselves at least this source of guilt if not of grief. If you must rebel, rebel against those who are not so easily hurt. Parents are too close a target (so, by the way, are sisters, brothers, wives or husbands); the range is such that you can’t miss. Rebellion against one’s parents, for all its I-won’t-take-a-single-penny-from-you, is essentially an extremely bourgeois sort of thing, because it provides the rebel with the ultimate in comfort, in this case, mental comfort: the comfort of one’s convictions. The later you hit this pattern, the later you become a mental bourgeois, i.e., the longer you stay skeptical, doubtful, intellectually uncomfortable, the better it is for you.

    On the other hand, of course, this not-a-single-penny business makes practical sense, because your parents, in all likelihood, will bequeath all they’ve got to you, and the successful rebel will end up with the entire fortune intact — in other words, rebellion is a very efficient form of savings. The interest, though, is crippling; I’d say, bankrupting.

  3. Try not to set too much store by politicians — not so much because they are dumb or dishonest, which is more often than not the case, but because of the size of their job, which is too big even for the best among them, by this or that political party, doctrine, system or a blueprint thereof. All they or those can do, at best, is to diminish a social evil, not eradicate it. No matter how substantial an improvement may be, ethically speaking it will always be negligible, because there will always be those — say, just one person — who won’t profit from this improvement. The world is not perfect; the Golden Age never was or will be. The only thing that’s going to happen to the world is that it will get bigger, i.e., more populated while not growing in size. No matter how fairly the man you’ve elected will promise to cut the pie, it won’t grow in size; as a matter of fact, the portions are bound to get smaller. In light of that, or, rather, in dark of that — you ought to rely on your own home cooking, that is, on managing the world yourselves — at least that part of it that lies within your reach, within your radius. Yet in doing this, you must also prepare yourselves for the heart-rending realization that even that pie of yours won’t suffice; you must prepare yourselves that you’re likely to dine as much in disappointment as in gratitude. The most difficult lesson to learn here is to be steady in the kitchen, since by serving this pie just once you create quite a lot of expectations. Ask yourself whether you can afford a steady supply of those pies, or would you rather bargain on a politician? Whatever the outcome of this soul-searching may be — however much you think the world can bet on your baking — you might start right away by insisting that those corporations, banks, schools, labs and whatnot where you’ll be working, and whose premises are heated and policed round the clock anyway, permit the homeless in for the night, now that it’s winter.
  4. Try not to stand out, try to be modest. There are too many of us as it is, and there are going to be many more, very soon. Thus climbing into the limelight is bound to be one at the expense of the others who won’t be climbing. That you must step on somebody’s toes doesn’t mean you should stand on their shoulders. Besides, all you will see from that vantage point is the human sea, plus those who, like you, have assumed a similarly conspicuous — and precarious at that — position: those who are called rich and famous. On the whole, there is always something faintly unpalatable about being better off than one’s likes, and when those likes come in billions, it is more so. To this it should be added that the rich and famous these days, too, come in throngs, that up there on the top it’s very crowded. So if you want to get rich or famous or both, by all means go ahead, but don’t make a meal of it. To covet what somebody else has is to forfeit your uniqueness; on the other hand, of course, it stimulates mass production. But as you are running through life only once, it is only sensible to try to avoid the most obvious cliches, limited editions included. The notion of exclusivity, mind you, also forfeits your uniqueness, not to mention that it shrinks your sense of reality to the already-achieved. Far better than belonging to any club is to be jostled by the multitudes of those who, given their income and their appearance, represent — at least theoretically — unlimited potential. Try to be more like them than like those who are not like them; try to wear gray. Mimicry is the defense of individuality, not its surrender. I would advise you to lower your voice, too, but I am afraid you will think I am going too far. Still, keep in mind that there is always somebody next to you, a neighbor. Nobody asks you to love him, but try not to hurt or discomfort him much; try to tread on his toes carefully; and should you come to covet his wife, remember at least that this testifies to the failure of your imagination, to your disbelief in — or ignorance of — reality’s unlimited potential. Worse comes to worst, try to remember how far away — from the stars, from the depths of the universe, perhaps from its opposite end — came this request not to do it, as well as this idea of loving your neighbor no less than yourself. Maybe the stars know more about gravity, as well as about loneliness, than you do; coveting eyes that they are.
  5. At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V-sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blame-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, a victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience. There is an entire victim-culture, ranging from private counselors to international loans. The professed goal of this network notwithstanding, its net result is that of lowering one’s expectations from the threshold, so that a measly advantage could be perceived or billed as a major breakthrough. Of course, this is therapeutic and, given the scarcity of the world’s resources, perhaps even hygienic, so for want of a better identity, one may embrace it — but try to resist it. However abundant and irrefutable is the evidence that you are on the losing side, negate it as long as you have your wits about you, as long as your lips can utter “No.” On the whole, try to respect life not only for its amenities but for its hardships, too. They are a part of the game, and what’s good about a hardship is that it is not a deception. Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels.
  6. The world you are about to enter and exist in doesn’t have a good reputation. It’s been better geographically than historically; it’s still far more attractive visually than socially. It’s not a nice place, as you are soon to find out, and I rather doubt that it will get much nicer by the time you leave it. Still, it’s the only world available; no alternative exists, and if one did, there is no guarantee that it would be much better than this one. It is a jungle out there, as well as a desert, a slippery slope, a swamp, etc. — literally — but, what’s worse, metaphorically, too. Yet, as Robert Frost has said, “The best way out is always through.” He also said, in a different poem, though, that “to be social is to be forgiving.” It’s with a few remarks about this business of getting through that I would like to close.

    Try not to pay attention to those who will try to make life miserable for you. There will be a lot of those — in the official capacity as well as the self-appointed. Suffer them if you can’t escape them, but once you have steered clear of them, give them the shortest shrift possible. Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you received at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists; most likely they are counting on your being talkative and relating your experience to others. By himself, no individual is worth an exercise in injustice (or for that matter, in justice). The ratio of one-to-one doesn’t justify the effort: it’s the echo that counts. That’s the main principle of any oppressor, whether state-sponsored or autodidact. Therefore, steal, or still, the echo, so that you don’t allow an event, however unpleasant or momentous, to claim any more time than it took for it to occur.

    What your foes do derives its significance or consequence from the way you react. Therefore, rush through or past them as though they were yellow and not red lights. Don’t linger on them mentally or verbally; don’t pride yourself on forgiving or forgetting them — worse come to worse, do the forgetting first. This way you’ll spare your brain cells a lot of useless agitation; this way, perhaps, you may even save those pigheads from themselves, since the prospect of being forgotten is shorter than that of being forgiven. So flip the channel: you can’t put this network out of circulation, but at least you can reduce its ratings. Now, this solution is not likely to please angels, but, then again, it’s bound to hurt demons, and for the moment that’s all that really matters.

He concludes by putting things — the things we so readily and habitually take for granted — in perspective:

I can’t divine your future, but it’s pretty obvious to any naked eye that you have a lot going for you. To say the least, you were born, which is in itself half the battle, and you live in a democracy — this halfway house between nightmare and utopia — which throws fewer obstacles in the way of an individual than its alternatives.

The complete speech, as well as more of Brodsky’s wisdom on everything from exile to cats to how to read a book, can be found in the timelessly excellent On Grief and Reason.

BP

The 7-Word Autobiographies of Famous Writers, Artists, Musicians, and Philosophers

John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.

Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far:

Tom Wolfe at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Tom Wolfe drops some delightful vintage lingo:

Ace daddy, gym rat, Balzolan reporter, Ph.D.

Cheryl Strayed at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Sarah Stacke courtesy NYPL)

The magnificent Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and is one of the best existential favors one can do oneself, goes for truth-by-way-of-its-opposite, offering “seven words that won’t define [her]”:

Reticent.
Boney.
Mahout.
Indifferent.
Tame.
Archipelago.
Republican.

Daniel Dennett, man of infinite wisdom and endlessly quotable insight:

Philosopher, professor, author, sailor, New Atheist

Jim Holt, whose Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story remains indispensable and who has previously shared some mind-bending insight on the nature of “nothing”:

Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.

David Byrne at LIVE from the NYPL, December 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

David Byrne, who knows a thing or two about how music and creativity work, appears blissfully oblivious to the 7-word-limit brief:

unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, underarms, underpants, unfrozen, unsettled, unfussy

Daniel Kahneman in conversation with Nassim Taleb at LIVE from the NYPL, February 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Daniel Kahneman, whose Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most insightful psychology books in recent history, compensates for Byrne’s excess with his own sub-quota answer:

Endlessly amused by people’s minds

Brian Eno at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Brian Eno, sage of timeless insight on art:

I like making and thinking about culture.

Andrew Solomon in conversation with Paul Holdengräber and Krista Tippett at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2010 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Andrew Solomon, whose meditation on horizontal vs. vertical identity and the power of love is a soul-stirring must-read, goes for something his mother used to say to him:

Good listeners: more interesting than good talkers.

Paul Holdengräber, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rem Koolhaas at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Hans Ulrich Obrist, legendary curator and art instigator:

Catalyst
Conversation
Curating
Curiosity
Junctionmaking
Protest against forgetting

Malcolm Gladwell, overlord of the contrarian:

Father said: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.

William Gibson in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, April 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

William Gibson, champion of “personal microculture” and a solid daily creative routine, offers an answer somewhere between Yoda and Gertrude Stein:

Postwar. Cold War. Stop the War. Later.

Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, May 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Elizabeth Gilbert playfully riffs off the title of her modern classic:

Eats/Loves too much…should Pray more.

Ed Ruscha in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Ed Ruscha, who does indeed have a soft spot for sign painting:

Lapsed catholic
Newspaper carrier
Hitchhiker
Sign painter
Printer’s devil
Daydreamer
Artist

Rufus Wainwright with Lucinda Childs at LIVE from the NYPL, September 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Rufus Wainwright, music god, rebels against humility with his characteristic charming irreverence:

According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter

Sherry Turkle in conversation with Steven Johnson at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Sherry Turkle stays true to her technodystopia:

Technology doesn’t just change what we do; it changes who we are.

Errol Morris in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Errol Morris, documentarian extraordinaire and bastion of photographic truth:

autodidact, necrophile, voyeur, filmmaker, opinionated writer, father

Don DeLillo at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Don DeLillo, who also abides by a rigorous writing routine, goes for a beautiful format:

       Bronx boy
wondering
       why he is here.

Madeleine Albright echoes Helen Keller:

Optimist who worries a lot; Grateful American

John Irving at LIVE from the NYPL, January 2013 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

John Irving, crusader against censorship, employs a strategic semicolon:

Imagined missing father; wrestled, wrote, fathered children.

Irving was apparently so delighted by the exercise that he took the liberty of writing a few more seven-word bios for other notables:

FOR DICKENS (THE WRITER):
Had many kids; wrote about unhappy childhoods.

FOR THE OTHER DICKENS, MY DOG:
Best dog ever — she had a family.

AND THOMAS HARDY:
Fate, the universe driver; stopped writing for idiots.

NATURALLY, I COULDN’T RESIST MELVILLE:
More than a postal worker; knew whales, too.

Edmund de Waal in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Edmund de Waal has some fun with it:

Actually, I still make pots you know.

Rem Koolhaas stays true to form:

Mystic rational sober baroque patient immediate

Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan in conversation at LIVE from the NYPL

Andrew Sullivan, who is one of the living reasons to love the internet and whose decades-long advocacy has been critical in the historic attainment of marriage equality, follows Strayed’s suit with anti-descriptive sarcasm:

French, straight, single, Anglican, diabetic, illiterate, slut.

Then comes Dan Savage, whose own tireless advocacy can’t be overstated:

asshole, blond, slut, shy, sunny, father, husband.

Anish Kapoor offers what’s arguably the most beautiful, in sheer poetics of language, answer:

As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain

Joan Didion at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

But my favorite comes from notebook-lover Joan Didion, who has a rare gift for wry self-awareness and unwavering self-respect:

Seven words do not yet define me.

Paul Holdengräber (Photograph by Jocelyn Chase)

And, of course, this omnibus wouldn’t be complete without Holdengräber’s own 7-word autobiography, as pointedly brilliant as the man:

Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.

See the full conversations on the LIVE from the NYPL Vimeo channel, treat yourself to one of the upcoming live events, and join me in supporting NYPL programming, which, like Brain Pickings, is made possible by patron donations.

BP

Maya Angelou on Freedom: A 1973 Conversation with Bill Moyers

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

In the early 1970s, revered interviewer Bill Moyers met Maya Angelou — beloved poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, civil rights activist, and one of the most influential literary voices of our time — at a dinner party in New York. As the two began talking, they realized they had grown up only a hundred miles apart in the South — he, a white boy in “the gentle and neighborly white world that opened generously to ambition and luck”; she, a black girl “in the tight and hounded other world of the South, whose boundaries black children crossed only in their imagination, and even then at intolerable risk”; “two strangers from the same but different place.”

This is what Moyers recalls as he sits down with Angelou on November 21, 1973 and proceeds to shepherd one of his legendary interviews, found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection Conversations with Maya Angelou (public library).

After Moyers, a true celebrator of his guests, enumerates Angelou’s many accomplishments and accolades in a short biographical introduction, he smoothly glides into the uncomfortable but necessary, asking the author about the parallel struggles of being both black and female “in a society that doesn’t know who you are.” Her answer comes as a vital reminder that “identity is something that you are constantly earning … a process that you must be active in”:

Well, one works at it, certainly. Being free is as difficult and as perpetual — or rather fighting for one’s freedom, struggling towards being free, is like struggling to be a poet or a good Christian or a good jew or a good Moslem or a good Zen Buddhist. You work all day long and achieve some kind of level of success by nightfall, go to sleep and wake up in the next morning with the job still to be done. So you start all over again.

President Barack Obama awards Dr. Maya Angelou the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on February 15, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (AP photo via NPR)

She addresses the laziness of stereotypes:

All you have to do is put a label on somebody. And then you don’t have to deal with the physical fact. You don’t have to wonder if they are waiting for the Easter bunny or love Christmas, or, you know, love their parents and hate small kids and are fearful of dogs. If you say, oh, that’s a junkie, that’s a nigger, that’s a kike, that’s a Jew, that’s a honkie, that’s a — you just — that’s the end of it.

When Moyers asks Angelou whether she sees the women’s liberation movement, reaching its most critical zenith at the time, as “a white woman’s fantasy,” she replies with a meditation on sociocultural history:

No, certainly not a fantasy. … A necessity. … They definitely need it. … [But it says] very little [to black women], I’m afraid. You see, white women have been made to feel in this society that they are superfluous. A white man can run his society.

[…]

The white American man makes the white American woman maybe not superfluous but just a little kind of decoration. Not really important to the turning around of the wheels.

Well, the black American woman has never been able to feel that way. No black American man at any time in our history in the United States has been able to feel that he didn’t need that black woman right against him, shoulder to shoulder — in that cotton field, on the auction block, in the ghetto, wherever. That black woman is an integral if not a most important part of the family unit. There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in black women. It’s as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet. And I believe that we have to thank black women not only for keeping the black family alive but the white family.

Later in the conversation, Angelou makes the curious assertion that Watergate is “the most positive thing that is happening in this country” (and it’s interesting to revisit her rationale four decades later, with a movement like Occupy), explaining:

I believe so. Because white Americans — you see, there was a period when white Americans were marching in Selma and marching to Washington, for the blacks they thought, you see. But the struggle due to Watergate is for the whites. It’s for their morality, for their integrity. It’s the first time since the early part of the nineteenth century that a great mass of whites have really been concerned about their own morality. In the early part of the nineteenth century there were whites who became Abolitionists and supported the Underground railroad, not because they loved blacks but because they loved truth. And not since that time — I mean all the World War II business, where we all got together and balled up string, and so forth, was for somebody else. It was for the Jews and Europe.

But suddenly — not so suddenly — in the United States the people are concerned about their own morality, their own continuation. … And that, I believe, will reflect in turn and in time on the black American struggle.

Presaging her timeless wisdom on home and belonging penned 35 years later, Angelou once again returns to the subject of freedom:

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

When Moyers asks Angelou what wisdom she’d share with a hypothetical young daughter — a question that would sprout the wonderful Letter to My Daughter more than three decades later — she offers:

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on. I would teach her to laugh a lot. Laugh a lot at the — and the silliest things and be very, very serious. I’d teach her to love life, I can bet you that.

Moyers asks Angelou how, despite the devastating events of her life, she managed to “stay open to the world, open to hope,” and she reflects:

Well, I think you get to a place where you realize you have nothing to lose. Nothing at all. Then you have no reason to bind yourself. I had no reason to hold on. I found it stupid to hold on, to close myself up and hold within me nothing. So I decided to try everything, to keep myself wide open to human beings, all human beings — seeing them as I understand them to be, not as they wish they were, but as I understand them to be. Very truthfully — not idealistically, but realistically. And seeing that if this person knew better he would do better. That doesn’t mean that I don’t protect myself from his actions, you know.

(Exactly twenty years later, Angelou would come to capture this ethos in her wonderful children’s book, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, illustrated by the great Jean-Michel Basquiat.)

The interview closes by coming full-circle to the question of freedom, on which Angelou offers one final, poignant, counterintuitive but profound meditation:

Being free is being able to accept people for what they are, and not try to understand all they are or be what they are. … I think one of the most dangerous statements made in the United States, or descriptive phrases, is that it’s a melting pot. And look at the goo it’s produced.

Find more of Angelou’s enduring wisdom in the rest of Conversations with Maya Angelou, which features thirty-one more remarkable and revealing interviews with the celebrated author and modern sage.

BP

The Politics of Homosexuality, 20 Years Later

“Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.”

On May 10, 1993, The New Republic published a seminal essay by Andrew Sullivan — the magazine’s then-editor, currently purveyor of some of the internet’s finest political and cultural commentary on The Dish — titled “The Politics of Homosexuality.” Based on a series of talks he had given on college campuses around the United States and later included in his fantastic 1996 book Virtually Normal (public library), the intelligent treatise was in large part spurred by the impending ban on openly gay soldiers serving in the military, which spawned the notorious Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and presages with remarkable lucidity today’s peaking debates about marriage equality.

Andrew Sullivan (Photograph: Victor G Jeffreys II)
Andrew Sullivan (Photograph: Victor G Jeffreys II)

Those of us who came of age in a culture that would rarely, if ever, entrap us in the pressure chamber of being “in” anything in order to come “out” of it, who have been free to live our lives with dignity and honesty and full ownership of our hearts, owe much of that privilege to Andrew’s tireless, paradigm-shifting advocacy over the past two decades.

He observes the “unnerving confusion of roles and identities”:

Where once there was only the unmentionable, there are now only the unavoidable: gays, “queers”, homosexuals, closet cases, bisexuals, the “out” and the “in”, paraded for every heterosexual to see. As the straight world has been confronted with this, it has found itself reaching for a response: embarrassment, tolerance, fear, violence, oversensitivity, recognition.

Presenting a taxonomy of the politics of homosexuality, Sullivan explores three main archetypes of relating to the issue — the conservatives, the radicals, and the moderates, all of whom engage in various and often conflicting forms of ghettoization and oppression — and offering a remarkably prescient admonition:

This fracturing of discourse is more than a cultural problem; it is a political problem. Without at least some common ground, no effective compromise to the homosexual question will be possible. Matters may be resolved, as they have been in the case of abortion, by a stand-off in the forces of cultural war. But unless we begin to discuss this subject with a degree of restraint and reason, the visceral unpleasantness that exploded earlier this year will dog the question of homosexuality for a long time to come, intensifying the anxieties that politics is supposed to relieve.

[…]

There are as many politics of homosexuality as there are words for it, and not all of them contain reason. And it is harder perhaps in this passionate area than in any other to separate a wish from an argument, a desire from a denial. Nevertheless, without such an effort, no true politics of sexuality can emerge.

He warns against radicalism’s particular brand of toxic paradox:

The trouble with gay radicalism … is the problem with subversive politics as a whole. It tends to subvert itself.

[…]

More important, the notion of sexuality as a cultural subversion distanced it from the vast majority of gay people who not only accept the natural origin of their sexual orientation, but wish to be integrated into society as it is. For most gay people – the closet cases and barflies, the construction workers and investment bankers, the computer programmers and parents — a “queer” identity is precisely what they want to avoid. In this way, the radical politics of homosexuality is caught in a political trap. The more it purifies its own belief about sexuality, the less able it is to engage the broader world as a whole. The more it acts upon its convictions, the less able it is to engage in politics at all.

This, Sullivan argues, is to the detriment of those most in need of an inclusive politics of identity:

“[Q]ueer” radicalism’s doctrine of cultural subversion and separatism has the effect of alienating those very gay Americans most in need of support and help: the young and teenagers. Separatism is even less of an option for gays than for any other minority, since each generation is literally connected umbilically to the majority. The young are permanently in the hands of the other. By erecting a politics on a doctrine of separation and difference from the majority, “queer” politics ironically broke off dialogue with the heterosexual families whose cooperation is needed in every generation if gay children are to be accorded a modicum of dignity and hope.

Despite the discussion of formal politics, in a sentiment that has been recently echoed, twenty years later, Sullivan argues that the most important political act a gay person can take is coming out:

Far more subversive than media-grabbing demonstrations on the evening news has been the slow effect of individual, private Americans becoming more open about their sexuality. The emergence of role models, the development of professional organizations and student groups, the growing influence of openly gay people in the media, and the extraordinary impact of AIDS on families and friends have dwarfed radicalism’s impact on the national consciousness. Likewise, the greatest public debate about homosexuality yet — the military debate — took place not because radicals besieged the Pentagon, but because of the ordinary and once-anonymous Americans within the military who simply refused to acquiesce in their own humiliation any longer. Their courage was illustrated not in taking to the streets in rage but in facing their families and colleagues with integrity.

In debunking the oft-cited similarity between discrimination based on ethnicity and discrimination based on sexual orientation, Sullivan points out that unlike skin color, which travels with the generations and thus offers an implicit bond of belonging, homosexuality occurs sporadically within the community and the family unit, and can thus produce even deeper isolation for the individual. He writes:

To reach puberty and find oneself falling in love with members of one’s own sex is to experience a mixture of self-discovery and self-disgust that never leaves a human consciousness. If the stigma is attached not simply to an obviously random characteristic, such as skin pigmentation, but to the deepest desires of the human heart, then it can eat away at a person’s sense of his own dignity with peculiar ferocity. When a young person confronts her sexuality, she is also completely alone. A young heterosexual black or Latino girl invariably has an existing network of people like her to interpret, support, and explain the emotions she feels when confronting racial prejudice for the first time. But a gay child generally has no one. The very people she would most naturally turn to — the family — may be the very people she is most ashamed in front of.

The stigma attached to sexuality is also different that that attached to race because it attacks the very heart of what makes a human being human: her ability to love and be loved. Even the most vicious persecution of racial minorities allowed, in many cases, for the integrity of the marital bond or the emotional core of a human being. When it did not, when Nazism split husbands from wives, children from parents, when apartheid or slavery broke up familial bonds, it was clear that a particularly noxious form of repression was taking place. But the stigma attached to homosexuality begins with such a repression. It forbids, at a child’s earliest stage of development, the possibility of the highest form of human happiness. It starts with emotional terror and ends with mild social disapproval. It’s no accident that later in life, when many gay people learn to reconnect the bonds of love and sex, they seek to do so in private, even protected from the knowledge of their family.

Arguing that anti-discrimination laws only scratch the surface of the problem rather than addressing its core, he writes:

They want to substitute for the traumatic and difficult act of coming out the more formal and procedural act of legislation. But law cannot do the work of life. Even culture cannot do the work of life. Only life can do the work of life.

But as insufficient as anti-discrimination laws may be, the notion of indoctrinating discrimination into the law is contrary to the very tenets on which a society claiming to be democratic is based:

The military ban is by far the most egregious example of proactive government discrimination in this country. By conceding, as the military has done, the excellent service that many gay and lesbian soldiers have given to their country, the military has helped shatter a thousand stereotypes about their nature and competence. By focusing on the mere admission of homosexuality, the ban has purified the debate into a matter of the public enforcement of homophobia. Unlike anti-discrimination law, the campaign against the ban does not ask any private citizens to hire or fire anyone of whom they do not approve; it merely asks public servants to behave the same way with avowed homosexuals as with closeted ones.

[…]

Its real political power — and the real source of the resistance to it — comes from its symbolism. The acceptance of gay people at the heart of the state, at the core of the notion of patriotism, is anathema to those who wish to consign homosexuals to the margins of society. [Even liberals] find it hard to fit the cause simply into the rubric of minority politics. For instead of seeking access, as other minorities have done, gays in the military are simply demanding recognition. They start not from the premise of suppliance, but of success, of proven ability and prowess in battle, of exemplary conduct and ability. This is a new kind of minority politics. It is less a matter of complaint than of pride; less about subversion than about the desire to contribute equally.

And yet, in another farsighted insight, Sullivan recognizes that the military ban is a microcosm of a much larger, much more deeply human concern — one currently on the precipice of a historic shift:

The critical measure necessary for full gay equality is something deeper and more emotional perhaps than even the military. It is equal access to marriage. As with the military, this is a question of formal public discrimination. If the military ban deals with the heart of what it is to be a citizen, the marriage ban deals with the core of what it is to be a member of civil society. Marriage is not simply a private contract; it is a social and public recognition of our personal integrity. Denying it to gay people is the most public affront possible to their civil equality.

Like a family engaged in the first, angry steps toward dealing with a gay member, the country has been forced to debate a subject honestly — even calmly — in a way it has never done before. This is a clear and enormous gain. Whatever the result of this process, it cannot be undone.

You can say that again, Andrew. No doubt in another twenty years, we’ll look back on these failings of democracy and human rights with the same profound cultural embarrassment that haunts our collective memory as it uncomfortably traces the issues that spurred Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement.

The move towards marriage equality between 1970 and 2012 via The Atlantic Wire

The heterosexuality of marriage is civilly intrinsic only if it is understood to be inherently procreative; and that definition has long been abandoned in civil society. In contemporary America, marriage has become a way in which the state recognizes an emotional and economic commitment of two people to each other for life. No law requires children to consummate it. And within that definition, there is no civil way it can logically be denied homosexuals, except as a pure gesture of public disapproval. . . .

In the same way, emotionally, marriage is characterized by a kind of commitment that is rare even among heterosexuals. Extending it to homosexuals need not dilute the special nature of that commitment, unless it is understood that gay people, by their very nature, are incapable of it. History and experience suggest the opposite. It is not necessary to prove that gay people are more or less able to form long-term relationships than straights for it to be clear that, at least, some are. Giving these people a right to affirm their commitment doesn’t reduce the incentive for heterosexuals to do the same, and even provides a social incentive for lesbians and gay men to adopt socially beneficial relationships.

The first couple to receive a same-sex marriage license in Washington state in December of 2012: Jane Abbott Lighty, 77, and Pete-e Peterson, 85, who have been together over 35 years. (Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

The law, thus, robs gay people of an essential human aspiration, making them keenly aware of the robbery, which takes place in broad daylight, at the public square:

Gay people always know this essential affirmation will be denied them. Thus their relationships are given no anchor, no endpoint, no way of integrating them fully into the network of family and friends that makes someone a full member of civil society. Even when those relationships become essentially the same — or even stronger — than straight relationships, they are never accorded the same dignity of actual equality. Husbands remain “friends”; wives remain “partners”. The very language sends a powerful signal of fault, a silent assumption of internal disorder or insufficiency. The euphemisms — and the brave attempt to pretend that gay people don’t need marriage — do not successfully conceal the true emotional cost and psychological damage that this signal exacts. No true progress in the potential happiness of gay teenagers or in the stability of gay adults or in the full integration of gay and straight life is possible, or even imaginable, without it.

These two measures — simple, direct, requiring no change in heterosexual behavior and no sacrifice from heterosexuals — represent a politics that tackles the heart of homophobia while leaving homophobes their freedom. It allows homosexuals to define their own future and their own identity and does not place it in the hands of the other. It makes a clear, public statement of equality, while leaving all the inequalities of emotion and passion to the private sphere, where they belong. It does not legislate private tolerance, it declares public equality. It banishes the paradigm of victimology and replaces it with one of integrity. It requires one further step, of course, which is to say the continuing effort for honesty on the part of homosexuals themselves. This is not easily summed up in the crude phrase “coming out”; but it finds expression in the myriad ways in which gay men and lesbians talk, engage, explain, confront, and seek out the other. Politics cannot substitute for this; heterosexuals cannot provide it. And while it is not in some sense fair that homosexuals have to initiate the dialogue, it is a fact of life. Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.

May 2013 New Yorker cover by Chris Ware, celebrating a Mother’s Day of equality with a two-mom family

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was signed into law seven months after “The Politics of Homosexuality” was published. It wasn’t repealed until 2011, three months after New York State passed its historic Marriage Equality Act allowing for gender-neutral marriage. On May 9, 2012, President Barack Obama declared his support for marriage equality.

Virtually Normal is excellent and enormously important in its entirety.

Today, Andrew writes about these issues and many more dimensions of contemporary culture, and is at the helm of yet another revolution, defying the broken model of funding journalism by breaking off from the media establishment and building an ad-free, reader-supported haven for intelligent cultural commentary. Join me in supporting him and his small team here.

BP

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