An Alternative Commencement Address

I have a column / op-ed / thing up on the latest issue of the Justice. Take a look.

Full text :

Graduates, congratulations on getting your degrees! Now, I’m no Cory Booker, but I figured I’d take a crack at delivering my own sort of mini-commencement address.

You know, it’s weird. Why wait for a long speech giving life advice until after you graduate? If there was something particularly important to say, it should have been said four years ago. What advice is important to college graduates that isn’t equally useful for people 10 years their senior? And who am I to advise people two years my elder? Let’s compromise. I’ll write about what I know: Louis Brandeis, his life, his work and social justice.

A name like Brandeis must be “earned,” as the man himself might say, “by effort, earned by a persistent, active desire to have and to hold that which lies before us.” OK, well, what does that mean? We students-and alumni-must follow Louis Brandeis’ greatness and ideals. Well, since Louis skipped undergrad and graduated a year early as valedictorian of his law school class, maybe we can’t quite follow his impressive greatness. We also can’t create new sections of U.S. law, like a right to privacy or sociological jurisprudence.

In today’s times, we might take a look back at Brandeis’ groundbreaking work, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It. In this book, he refers to the financial oligarchy, not an oligopoly. Brandeis was, at heart, a political reformer who “fought bigness in the cloak of monopoly.” In Boston, he dealt with the Gas Combine, Elevated Railway Company and life insurance businesses. In the case of the gas and insurance industries, he devised a plan so that business would be more efficient and benefit workers, owners and the public. When the Elevated Railway Company resisted reform, he simply fought for public control of its destiny.

Heed his example. In life, there will always be corruption and violations of our social compact of good governance and public spirit. Stick to your values; remember what is important. The Gas Combines of today may ask the Massachusetts legislatures for permission to create mergers and monopolies. There’s a place for opposition, yet the Brandeis spirit transcends and encompasses activism. Brandeis, throughout his life, sought to understand these sorts of problems so well that he could come up with a solution equitable to everyone.

One of Brandeis’ closest clients, Edward Filene, especially impressed Brandeis with his own version of blending his business’ financial interests with the goals of worker self-determination. The Filenes built up a merchant empire but, just as importantly, “demonstrated that the introduction of industrial democracy and of social justice is at least consistent with marked financial success.” Filene’s system of industrial democracy included a minimum wage for women, a system of arbitration between individual employees and management and employees’ rights to veto management decisions and determine their own work conditions.

We, too, can resolve the inherent conflict between doing good and doing well. We must always take care of those underneath us, because while social justice opposes systems of oppression, mitigating systems of oppression is important as well. Our common humanity demands that we measure our moral worth by the ways in which we treat those whose destinies are in our hands. “Politically,” Brandeis once said, “the American workingman is free-so far as law can make him so. But is he really free? Can any man be really free who is constantly in danger of becoming dependent … for his subsistence upon somebody and something else than his own exertion and conduct?”

Louis Brandeis defined his career by working to ensure the strength of democracy in the face of the new industrial system of the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the dawn of a new era, the challenges to ensuring a democratic polity still exist, albeit in newer guises. Like Brandeis, we must champion freedom from a tendency to make ideological enemies and remember that “men are not free while financially dependent upon the will of other individuals.” But let’s toss aside politics. Let’s toss aside big issues of state, country, policy and economy. Freedom, too, involves remembering to make time for family and to free oneself from duty and obligation enough to stroll in the park.

Look. It’s a staple of commencement addresses to urge you both to follow your dreams and remember to contribute to your community. It is easy to tell recently minted college graduates to make sure they act as public citizens. Too easy. Brandeis built up his law practice before he started getting tangled up with his “Public Franchise League.” Too often we forget that if we don’t look out for ourselves, no one will. Too often we forget to live the change we want to see, perhaps working long and hard hours so that others may have a better life. That’s great. But remember, you’re not doing anyone favors when you grind yourself down in the quest to hopefully lift others up. Inside each of us is a dancing star, a shining soul straining to enjoy the wonders of the universe. In your journeys in life, remember to let it out sometime.


3 thoughts on “An Alternative Commencement Address”

Comments are closed.