June Opinions: At the Court and In Commencements

Justice Scalia was not on the bench last Thursday, when the Supreme Court, nearing the end of its term, handed down five decisions. When I inquired, I discovered that he had been at Langley High School in McLean, Va., to speak at the graduation of a grandchild. I was curious about his remarks, especially because I had just given the commencement address to graduates of the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. 

My audience at the all-girl private high school was different from Justice Scalia’s and my approach more personal. I didn’t expect much overlap in the speech themes, yet I was curious about what Justice Scalia had said and the voices of wisdom he drew on. 

Justice Scalia opened with his signature brand of humor: “Giving a commencement address is not as safe an enterprise as it used to be. I am told that the graduating classes in some schools, to while away the time as the speaker drones on, have devised a kind of contest, with an appropriate prize, to see who can write out in advance the greatest number of the platitudes that the speaker will deliver.” He said the exercise has been likened to playing Bingo. 

Justice Scalia then sought to debunk several platitudes, beginning with that students today face “unprecedented challenges.” Not true, he said. Things have always been pretty bad. “Today, to be sure, we have the capacity to destroy the entire world with the bomb. I suppose you can consider that a new problem, but it is really new in degree rather than in kind. If you were a teenager graduating from the Priam Memorial High School, in Troy, about 1500 B.C., with an army of warlike Greeks encamped all around the city walls; and if you knew that losing the war would mean, as it did, that the city would be utterly destroyed, its men killed, its women and children sold into slavery – I doubt that that prospect was any less terrible to you than the prospect of the destruction of the world.” 

My remarks were specifically addressed to young women about to make their way in the adult world. I invoked the experiences of Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other “firsts” I’ve known in law, publishing and academia. While I reminded the graduates of the sex discrimination that still exists even in 2010, there probably was little I said that would have been deemed cynical. (I have to admit that I did find a way to work in one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, one that captures the zero-sum-game attitude of Washington. In it, one dog says to another, “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.” This, I heard later, amused the lawyer-parents in the audience.) 

Justice Scalia quoted English philosopher Lord Acton and, from the Federalist Papers, James Madison. I gave the most air time to some thoughts from the late lyricist and Broadway producer Oscar Hammerstein, whose essay from the original “This I Believe” series I’d recently heard on the radio. Hammerstein opened his essay this way: 

“I have an unusual statement to make. I am a man who believes he is happy. What makes it unusual is that a man who is happy seldom tells anyone. The unhappy man is more communicative. He is eager to recite what is wrong with the world, and he seems to have a talent for gathering a large audience. It is a modern tragedy that despair has so many spokesmen, and hope so few.”

Having experienced the death of loved ones and much despair about his work, Hammerstein said he could easily present a case to prove he was not happy.

“I could,” he said, “but it would be a false picture, as false as if I were to describe a tree only as it looks in winter. I would be leaving out a list of people I love, who have not died. I would be leaving out an acknowledgement of the many successes that have sprouted among my many failures. … I would be leaving out my faith that the goodness in man will triumph eventually over the evil that causes war.”

Hammerstein earned a law degree from Columbia University. But fortunately the man who went on to produce such shows as South Pacific, Carousel, and Showboat left the law for the theater. He gets the last word.