Here’s the text of the commencement speech I gave yesterday at the University of New Mexico Department of History Commencement. It was a ridiculously windy day today – east winds gusting over 40mph, and given that I think the packed courtyard appreciated the brevity. And, before pasting the speech in, I will say that this was one of the strangest writing exercises I’ve ever engaged in. How many commencement speeches are given every May? It was very difficult to avoid the trite, to speak to today, and to be upbeat. I hope I pulled that off.
On Being Historically Conscious
Thank you, Dr. Gauderman – and to Pat Risso and the rest of the UNM Department of History Faculty and Staff for having me here this semester and to talk with you all on this windy, yet important day of celebration. And thank you, as well- to all of you graduates who chose to pursue history, if not as a vocation, then at least as a foundation for your education, for your approach to this life and this world that irrevocably find ourselves in. And to your families, who tolerated that decision to pursue history at the undergraduate, masters, or doctoral levels. Your graduates are proof, as it were, that homo economicus may not be the highest order of evolutionary development. And for that I’m grateful.
I love New Mexico. As a historian of Latin America, I have always felt at home here, felt the same pasts and presents in this state that I do in the Andes- the region I research, write, and teach about. It is difficult to walk the streets of Santa Fe, to drive the long way to Taos and pass through the many pueblitos of Northern New Mexico, to wade through the ruins of Chaco or Bandelier, even to gamble at our local casinos and not be conscious of history. We are fortunate to live in one of the few places in North America where history, culture, and environment conspired together to enhance preservation.
New Mexico is a place often described as rich in culture. I’ve always felt that there is an inverse relationship between culture and development— the more likely a guidebook is to say that a place is rich in culture, the more likely it is not rich in much else. But, in the current set of circumstances in which this world finds itself, I’d like to suggest to you today that the cultures of New Mexico, their endurance, and the historical consciousness they can provide are of real import indeed.
In thinking about my comments today I did what we all do now when faced with an information question. I turned to Google. And of course, in searching for commencement speeches I came across, again and again, the same sets of cliches:
Follow your passion.
Be true to yourself.
The future is in your hands.
You have an unprecedented opportunity.
You can do whatever you want.
Make a difference.
You’re the future.
This is not the end but a beginning!
Oh the places you’ll go!
I think you get the drift….
There is a kernel of truth somewhere in the cliches, but their triteness seems to me to be heightened in the economic, and to a certain extent, political circumstances in which we, as a country and a world, find ourselves. I’m sure the last thing I need to do today is to remind you, you who are about to be thrust into the world of the job search, what the state of our economy is. And I’m not going to dwell on the debt, financial insecurity, unemployment, and global instability that form the doormat to the entryway of your post graduation.
I do, however, want to talk a few minutes about how we got where we are, and why you— and people like you— are so important to all us now. We find ourselves in this current situation because of a dearth of historical consciousness, a lack of temporal— of specifically historical— critical thinking. The commitment on Wall Street, in Washington, and in the board room to instrumental thinking and immediate profit have brought us to the greatest socio-economic crisis in 80 years. And, I would argue that the depth of that crisis is directly proportionate to the hubris of the ahistoricity of our financial and political leaders.
In the summer of 2002 Ron Suskind, the pulitzer prize winning journalist and author of A Hope Unseen, The Price of Loyalty, and The One Percent Solution, had an uncomfortable meeting with a senior white house advisor who wanted to chastise Suskind over an unflattering Esquire Magazine article. Suskind recounted,
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community” which he defined as people who “believed solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
The audaciousness of this statement for the historian is only over shadowed by its riskiness. As students of history, you all know that the phenomena of human experience exist at the crossroads of structure and agency— that agency exists only within the confines of structure. The contingencies of History exist in this confluence. And yet, for decades now, the financial and political leadership of our country increasingly have dedicated their actions to an ahistorical audaciousness that minimized its inherent riskiness in obfuscation— in fulfillment of the hubris of a freemarket fundamentalism obsessed with what they saw as the beauty of the violent erasure of the structures of sociability in the name of profit and freedom.
Two of the largest domestic and international failures that we now face are the result of ahistorical thought and action.
First, Economic and religious fundamentalisms led us into a war in which the assumption of its planners was of that we could shock the slate clean, and build anewa free market democracy on a place and a people without history. This in one of the original cradles of civilization. Things went poorly, and we are just now beginning to account the costs in torture and dignity, lessons re-learned repeatedly by the US at least since the occupation of the Philippines.
The Iraq War was the consequence of ahistorical thinking.
In our financial sectors, the drive to deregulate, to model and game instantaneous securities trading to profit on the immediacies of market fluctuations, and to create new mathematical models to financialize risk was rooted in the same form of ahistorical hubris. The physicists and the mathematicians who took hold of Wall Street in the 1990s and 2000s went foraging the halls of MIT for algorithms of increasingly complexity aimed at isolating the instantaneous. They bet on both sides of the equation, created new forms of credit default insurance, and exploded the real estate market with monies they convinced themselves were as good as guaranteed. The tranche, the credit default swap, the mortgage backed security obscured risk and encouraged the financial sector to realize immediate gain at the price of sanity. The mortgage industry from top to bottom – from the local appraiser to the highest paid banking executive acted together to promote a financial system that operated beyond history.
The particularities of this global recession are the consequence of ahistorical thinking.
And yet, there are people like you, who have decided that 20 years on, Francis Fukuyama was wrong. We were not at the end of history, and the Last Man’s rejection of historical consciousness has imperiled us all.
So, what I want to say to you today is that we, as a country, as a human community, need above all else people like you with the capacity for critical historical thought not only to help find solutions to our current crises, but to the see the next ones coming— not in form of Isaac Assimov’s psychohistorians, but as citizens of the world continually engaged in the judicious study of reality.
One of the most intrinsic characteristics of modernity is the capacity for self-reinvention. As you leave here today, and immerse yourselves in the next of a number of moments of self-reinvention, promise me that you will hold on to the capacity for critical historical thought, that you will evangelize that consciousness, and that you will bring it to bear on your own corners of the world. Your accomplishment is admirable, your skills are valuable, and I congratulate you. Let the winds of New Mexico blow your seeds of historicity to take root throughout our society and beyond. Oh, the places you will go!