Class Day 2004
Tony Kushner '78 drew
cheers from graduates and dignitaries with his Class Day address.
PHOTO: EILEEN BARROSO
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner '78 delivered a
2004 Class Day address noteworthy for its impassioned call to action,
its often self-deprecating humor and the rapid pace at which it
was delivered. Kushner, whose work includes Angels in America, Homebody/Kabul
and the Tony-nominated Caroline, or Change (currently on Broadway),
told the graduates to "heal the world, and in the process, heal
yourself, find the human in yourself by finding the citizen, the
activist, the hero." A streaming video of Class Day is available
By Tony Kushner '78
I'm incredibly honored to have been invited to speak to you today.
I've been asked to limit my remarks to eight minutes. I'm not sure
what the significance of eight minutes is, it seems a little arbitrary,
though I'm sure it only seems so.
I'll move along to the substance of my eight-minute speech but
first I feel I have to clear the air. A few weeks back, some helpful
person e-mailed me a link to an article in the Columbia Spectator.
It was an article announcing that I was to be your Class Day speaker.
A few paragraphs in, I found this:
"[Khalid] Ali ['04] said that deans in the Office of Student Affairs
had presented the class council with a list of potential speakers,
and that the council had narrowed the list down to five possibilities.
The group's first choice was comedian Jon Stewart, who hosts the
Comedy Central talk show The Daily Show, but Stewart turned down
the Columbia offer in order to speak at Princeton University, which
had extended an earlier invitation. Stewart's brother is a Princeton
"The council also considered billionaire investor Warren Buffett,
Business '51, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Law
'59. But Ali said that an agent for Buffett declined the invitation,
and Ginsburg's office did not return phone calls."
So in other words, I am your fourth choice. We can get through
this, but it will take a few of my eight minutes to do so.
I think I should begin by acknowledging your disappointment that
I am not Jon Stewart. Think how I feel. Your disappointment that
I am not Jon Stewart will last one morning; I am disappointed at
not being Jon Stewart every morning of my life. Instead of speaking
to you, Jon Stewart is speaking at Princeton. The joke's on Jon
Stewart, because I've heard that all Princeton graduates wind up
working for the CIA - whereas, as everyone knows, Columbia graduates
don't wind up working for anyone.
Members of the Class
of ’04 march onto the stage at Class Day to receive
their class pins.
PHOTO: EILEEN BARROSO
Your No. 2 guy, Warren Buffett, well, of course we're all disappointed
we're not Warren Buffett. Most of us would be very happy being the
interest on one of Warren Buffett's household accounts. He would
have been a cool speaker: He might have told us about his conversations
with Arnold Schwarzenegger during the course of which Buffett suggested
telling Californians that if they wanted to correct the debt-strangled
dysfunctional mess they call their state economy they were going
to have to raise taxes, which conversation occasioned Schwarzenegger
stuffing Mr. Buffett in a burlap sack for the rest of the recall
election. Perhaps it was this revolutionary idea of raising taxes
that inspired you to ask Mr. Buffett to speak to you today, or perhaps
you're just greedy and you wanted to be near all that money. I don't
blame you. It's swoony, all that money. Your parents will be interested
to know that Mr. Buffett has told his children they won't be inheriting
his vats of money to do with as they please. They will have to work!
Perhaps Mr. Buffett would have come to tell your parents that they
should disinherit you. So maybe you're lucky he declined the invitation.
Although again, this is Columbia, not Princeton, so most of you
probably won't inherit very much.
What would Ruth Bader Ginsburg have to say? I've heard her speak,
she's very impressive, though she's not very dishy. On the other
hand, she wouldn't sic U.S. marshals on Columbia Spectator reporters
who were trying to record her speech, unlike her fellow associate
justice and her former weekly dinner partner, Antonin Scalia. Maybe
Justice Ginsburg could talk about the rumor that since the Florida
election steal . I mean decision . friendly relationships between
the more-or-less progressive justices and the Reactionary Troika
have curdled (Justice Ginsburg is progressive, but she has or used
to have a slightly Scalia-inflected slant against Roe v. Wade),
and maybe now she's decided she doesn't find the prospect of a meal
and bridge game with the states-rights-putschist recusal-refusenik
duck-hunting homophobe quite as appetizing as formerly it was, and
maybe she'd talk about that. She didn't return your calls, Columbia
Class of 2004, so we'll never know. Don't take it personally. Justice
Ginsburg doesn't speak as rapidly as I do, maybe she heard about
the eight-minute limit and it scared her off.
Mazel tov and get busy, your work awaits you, the world
awaits you, the world is impatient for you, it made you for
I'm very, very honored to be here, though I have to say that I'm
here only because I didn't have to cross a picket line. If the teaching
and research assistants at Columbia had not voted to call a hiatus
in their strike against my beloved alma mater, I wouldn't be here.
I was very worried, I didn't want to be rude, and I wanted to come;
some people might have refused, learning they were No. 4 - what
would Jon Stewart have done in my shoes, I wonder? - but I'm a playwright,
I'm easy, as long as I don't have to cross a picket line. I spent
a lot of my time as a student here on picket lines. So I’m
thankful to the Graduate Student Employees Union for making it possible
for me to be here, and I know Columbia will want to respond to their
considerateness in kind, free the ballot box, break with the Bush
administration’s anti-union tactics, and recognize the GSEU.
Is anyone timing this?
I’ve heard a rumor that choice No. 5, Donald Rumsfeld, was
very disappointed that I accepted. He’s having a lonely spring.
I’m not entirely sure what goes on at Class Day. I missed
mine, I was on a picket line, so I’m sort of guessing as to
what it is you want me to do this morning, apart from saying mazel
tov, mazel tov, to all of you, and I do say it, mazel
tov, mazel tov, it’s very exciting, a whole
new bunch of Columbia College grads ready for the world, for the
public conversation, for the work of repairing the world and repairing
the public conversation, ready and able and, dare I say, eager to
elevate the terms of the vast public debate in which you, American
citizens, have a place prepared if you will claim it, you with your
heads and hearts as full of fierce and fiery ideas fresh as they
are ever likely to be, you who are not, by virtue of the superlative
education you have received and its concomitant openness, engaged
skepticism and reckless curiosity, you who are not the sort of grim
careerists and ideologues and boodle-minded misadventurers who have
seized the public debate and garbled it and reduced it to babble
and run with it straight to the ninth circle of hell, dragging behind
them the glory of our republic — you will rescue us from these
dreadful, dreadful people, and we who are old are deeply grateful,
and deeply proud, and, well, scared shitless, so mazel tov and get
busy, your work awaits you, the world awaits you, the world is impatient
for you, it made you for this purpose — and I don’t
want to usurp the role your parents had in you, in getting you to
this day, they too made you, the world made them so they could make
you, and make the sacrifices they’ve made to get you to this
point — my cherished B.A. in English literature from Columbia
College, the entirety of the four most valuable and profitable years
of my intellectual life, cost my parents less than one year of your
time here, and I’m still paying student loans! — mazel
tov to your parents, too, and by the way, if you haven’t gotten
a graduation present yet, I have a musical running on Broadway and
the number is 1-800-telecharge.
HELP! HELP! HELP! The world is calling, heal the world
and in the process heal yourself, find the human in yourself
by finding the citizen, the activist, the hero.
I really was more excited than honored to speak to you today, thrilled
to get to meet you, you redeemers and rescuers, because this spring,
unlike, let’s say, the past spring, or the spring before that,
or the spring before that, this May I sense hope in the air, and
urgency, and as has so often been the recent case, terrible danger,
and so the urgent need of the world is about to snatch you, ready
or not, from this most beautiful brick and stony womb and begin
its demanding: HELP! HELP! HELP! The world is melting, the world
is darkening, there is injustice everywhere, there is artificial
scarcity everywhere, there is desperate human need, poverty and
untreated illness and exploitation everywhere, there is ignorance
everywhere, not native to the species but cruelly enforced, there
is joylessness and hatred of the body and slavery masked as freedom
and community disintegrating, everywhere, racism, everywhere, sexism,
everywhere, homophobia, everywhere (though a little better for the
moment in Massachusetts!), everywhere the world is in need of repair.
Fix it, solve these things, you need only the tools you have learned
here, even if you didn’t pay as much attention as you should,
even if you’re a mess and broke and facing a future of economic
terror — who isn’t, who doesn’t? HELP! HELP! HELP!
The world is calling, heal the world and in the process heal yourself,
find the human in yourself by finding the citizen, the activist,
the hero. Down with the boodle-minded misadventurers, after them,
you know where they are, I figured this speech should be nonpartisan
in case there are any, you know, Republicans in the audience but
even if you are Republican, after them, down with the boodle-minded
misadventurers, up with the Republic. Duty calls, the world calls,
get active! No summer vacation, no rest for you, we have been waiting
too long for you, we need your contribution too desperately, and
if they tell you your contribution is meaningless, if they tell
you the fix is in and there’s no contribution to be made,
if they tell you to contribute by shopping your credit card into
exhaustion, if they tell you to surrender the brilliant, dazzling
confusion your education should have engendered in you, to exchange
that quicksilver polyphony for dull monotone certainties, productive
only of aggression borne of boredom and violence borne of fear borne
of stupidity, they’re lying, don’t trust them, get rid
of them, you know who they are and where they are to be found and
they’ll all be happier back on the ranch in Crawfordsville.
Eight minutes doesn’t intimidate me, I just ignore it. I’m
This is the Columbia dialectic, the New York City dialectic, all
this spectacular symmetry, all this Euclidean geometry, all this
rational griddage is a lattice entwined with floribund, uncontrolled
and uncontrollable vines, shoots, roots, fruits, leaves, bees, busily
cross-pollinating. This box, this machine, this is a crystal incubatory
whence comes the fluid, the protean, the revolutionary, the non-mechanical,
the non-commodified, the non-fetishized, the human. The air this
morning is electric. You have fed, you have sated, you’re
ready; and every step you take from this point on counts. This is
your Code Orange: Life and its terrors, terrible and splendid, awaits.
I know I speak for Jon, Warren and Justice Ruth — seek the
truth; when you find it, speak the truth; interrogate mercilessly
the truth you’ve found; and act, act, act. The world is hungry
for you, the world has waited for you, the world has a place for
you. Take it. Mazel tov. Change the world.