President Spar, Remarks

Good afternoon.  And congratulations.

It is an honor to be with you all today, and a bittersweet pleasure to send you off into that adventure known as life.

During your time on campus, the Barnard Class of 2016 has already experienced – even provoked – a fair amount of adventure; more I think than the average graduating class.

You arrived smack in the middle of the headwinds that would become Sandy, the greatest storm to hit New York in over seventy years.   You sailed through the hurricane with string cheese and aplomb, opening your energies – and rooms, when necessary – to those hit harder by the storm.  You survived the Blizzard of the Century, the Mysteriously-Moving Magnolia, and – still – the Election from Another Planet. 

As a class and as individuals, you led the campaign to open Barnard to transgender students and were hugely active across the university in fighting to prevent sexual violence and support its survivors.  You advocated on behalf of Black Lives Matter and in favor of fossil fuel divestment.  In your spare time, you made snow angels on the sundial and graffiti’ed the last-standing walls of Lehman Library.  

It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that your time in Manhattan coincided with that of another phenomenon, a small, obscure musical called Hamilton, created by the magnificent Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Like you, Mr. Hamilton was hatched into adulthood by a hurricane.  Like you, he channeled the energy around him, and rode it into his future, using words to press for change.   

Sadly, I do not have the cast of Hamilton hidden anywhere on this stage.  I can’t even get tickets to the show anytime this millennium.

But I do have the words and, with your permission, I will quote from the song Hurricane:  

When I was seventeen a hurricane
Destroyed my town
I didn’t drown
I couldn’t seem to die

I wrote my way out
Wrote everything down far as I could see
I wrote my way out
I looked up and the town had its eyes on me

They passed a plate around
Total strangers
Moved to kindness by my story
Raised enough for me to book passage on a
Ship that was New York bound…

I wrote my way out of hell
I wrote my way to revolution
I was louder than the crack in the bell
I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell
I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well
And in the face of ignorance and resistance
I wrote financial systems into existence
And when my prayers to God were met with indifference
I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance


Let me repeat those last words, the words of a revolutionary hatched in a hurricane:  “When my prayers were met with indifference, I picked up a pen and wrote my own deliverance.”

That’s you, the Barnard Class of 2016.  Hatched in a different century’s hurricane, you, too, have picked up your pens – or, okay, your MacBooks – and written your own deliverance.  “Louder than the crack in the bell,” you have found your voices and made yourselves heard.

Now, I will confess.  As one of the people who was frequently stuck at the receiving end of your voices, I did, from time to time, find them a little bit louder than I might have preferred.  They were sometimes more insistent than I might have suggested.

But you have made your points, and caused them to be heard, and pushed your world to change.

This is part of what you have learned at Barnard; part of what you will take with you when you walk through our gates for the last time tomorrow.  Fighting for change – “writing your way out of hell” – has become part of who you are and what you will share with society for the rest of your days.

But before you leave, and as you begin the complicated, intricate, frustrating and beautiful process of figuring out how you will leave your mark on the world, I want you also to think about the difference between protest and advocacy, and between opposition and engagement.

I want you to think about power, and what it means to grasp and grapple with it.

Today, we live in a world that has become famously flat, and in which it has become harder to see where power actually lies.

Hierarchies that once marked and defined society – structures such as religious orders or royal families controlled who could say what, or do what, or be what – have now evaporated from all but the most isolated corners of the globe.

Technologies that once preserved and upheld the ranks of the powerful – things like industrial plants, broadcast television, printed newspapers – have been replaced by those that widen access and remove boundaries. 

In 1780 – heck, in 1980! – the only way to publish an idea or publicize a revolution was to pass through  the filters of established media such as the New  York Times or the Washington Post

Today, every one of you (or at least those of you sitting in the first rows of this theater) post regularly to Snapchat, or Instagram, or Facebook, and movements around the world are being launched from your smart phones.

When I went to college in the 1980s, I think I met the President of my university once, and never would have dreamed of addressing him – good Jesuit that he was – as anything but Father Healy.

Today, many of you email me directly, usually under the salutation of, “Hey dspar!”  (Not, of course, that I don’t find that charming in its own way…)

Yet here is the rub, the crucial rub:  which is that the technological flattening of hierarchy doesn't necessarily flatten power or make it any more accessible. 

On the contrary, technology can actually obscure and mask power, making it harder to find and grapple with the real thing.

Technology can provide a false sense of agency, enabling activists blur the line between words and action -- between communication and engagement -- far too easily.

Because what – tangibly, politically – is a Facebook protest?  What’s a hashtag?

Clearly, they are not empty structures, because words have meaning, and voices – especially those that are raised persuasively and collectively – do get heard. 

To have true impact, though – the kind that creates and sustains change; the kind that, quoting Hamilton again, writes a revolution  – words and symbols of protest have combined with  strategies for actual, tangible, old-fashioned political engagement; the kind that includes actual conversations – with actual, arguing people.

I feel like a Luddite even saying this.  But it's important. 

Because politics matters.  Power matters.  And gaining access to power means engaging with politics and the political system.  It means not just issuing demands via social media, but showing up for meetings, and drafting boring things like agendas and proposals. It means actively disagreeing with those you oppose or seek to convince, not just swiping left.  Politics – despite what you may have heard recently – is not in fact about the art of the deal but rather the art of the compromise.  

Because power does not come simply from claiming rights or exerting authority.  It comes from defining rights, arguing on their behalf, and making the kind of painful and detailed trade-offs that arc, over time, towards the good.  

Hamilton understood that.  And indeed, his two greatest historical legacies – the defining arguments of the Federalist papers and the creation of the United States banking system – were both negotiated settlements; complicated bundles of compromise struck with former adversaries, and under a considerable amount of duress. Neither the U.S. nor the Constitution nor the U.S banking system were pure in their theoretical foundations, or ideologically neat.  Instead – like most great political triumphs – they were hatched and wrangled and refined through a distinctly political, exceedingly messy process.

Or as Hamilton himself expresses it in Federalist No. 1: “Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.” 

The musical version of this insight is more succinct: 

“Winning was easy young man,” Washington says to Hamilton.  “Governing’s harder.” 

Which isn’t to say, of course, that you should ever give up on the winning, or the fighting.   Because you have learned – each and every one of you – how to fight; how to muster evidence for a cause or theory you believe in; how to rally support behind an idea or an event; how, like Hamilton, to use your brains and your words to write your own revolutions.

Don’t ever stop doing that.  But remember, amidst the inevitable hurricanes and other storms of life, that the biggest fights, and the most important fights, don’t end with victory.  They endure, instead, through solutions; through the messy, murky process of figuring out how to make things work.

In Hamilton (the musical) the evil King George bids farewell to his revolutionaries with some fairly cynical words:

You’re on your own, he sings.
Awesome.  Wow.
Do you have any clue what happens now?

Well, I have a clue.  Because I have known the Barnard Class of 2016, and I have seen your predecessors march across this stage and into their own futures.

Here’s what will happen. You will have a first job that you don’t really like.  You will have a second job that’s probably even worse.  You’ll throw your energies into causes that disappoint you, and maybe a few relationships that will break your hearts.  And along the way, you will hone your skills and build your resilience as the months and years unfold.  

You will find your passion – possibly where you least expected it – and evolve into the next version of you.  You’ll settle down, and rise up, and decide where your own hurricanes will wander next.  You will write your own revolutions – each and every one of you.  You will raise your voices and leave your marks on whatever corners of the world you choose to call your own.

And we will watch you from afar, reveling in your joys, your fights, and your successes, grateful to count each and every one of you as Barnard’s own.  

So write your way out now.  Write your way out.  And tell the stories you were destined to tell.   We will be watching, and wishing you all the love and luck in the world.