Sharon September 8th, 2009
Note: At the last minute, President Barack Obama, bowing to pressure from the right, withdrew from his proposed speech to the nation’s schoolchildren. Many Republicans had correctly indicated that having the sitting president address schoolchildren was wholly unprecedented, something not done since the distant days of George W. Bush, when that president reminded schoolchildren that their president really prefers they not use drugs. President Obama, seeing their point that an exhortation to do your homework from the president really was the final step towards communism withdrew, and the White House frantically sought a non-controversial replacement, lighting, finally, on a nearly-unknown writer, farmer and blogger, famed for being non-controversial, unopinionated, and offering a glowingly optimistic view of the future. Here, then, is my speech to the nation’s schoolchildren. Upon receiving the text, the White House decided to go ahead with the original plan, for some reason. To see Obama’s, go here. I admit, I have no idea why they didn’t want me.
Good morning – how wonderful to see all these bright shining faces looking up at me. My own kids stayed out of school today, because Presidents talking to schoolchildren is a commie plot, but I’m glad you and the 14 school districts brave enough to stand up to Glenn Beck are all watching me, even if you are pretty disappointed that it is only me. I only wish I was President or Empress or something, or had ever done anything really interesting, because one wants to be inspiring in these situations.
Or maybe I can inspire you, at least in my own special way. The President was going to tell you to work hard – I, of course, am going to tell you to do that too, but unlike him, this is more of a “do as I say, not as I actualy did” sort of thing. But if you are going to grow up to be President, you definitely will have to work hard – or someone in your family will. For example, it is pretty much a pre-requisite these days to have gone to Harvard or Yale if you want to be President. To do that, you have to be either really smart and hardworking, like the President, or to have the convenient foresight of being born into one of those monied families that has a place reserved from birth. And in most cases, that money was made by someone working hard, at least way back in the distant past. Often doing not too savory things, but we won’t go into that, since you are still children. So what I’d definitely suggest is that you either work hard getting your parents to give you up for adoption, and getting one of those monied families with political legacies to adopt you, or work hard at school if you’d like to grow up to be President.
My own suggestion, however, is that you not aim for being President. It seems to me like a very tiring and stressful job – it does come with perks – you can order ice cream at 2am, order troops to invade any foreign country you want, and you get to address the nation’s schoolchildren, but it comes with a lot of downsides. There are a lot of other good jobs out there that don’t require you spend two years away from your family running for things, don’t make you an assassination target and don’t involve so much being polite to people you will never see again. Don’t get me wrong, if you really want to grow up to be president, or senator or national security advisor, I definitely hope you achieve your wish.
The problem is, that being a powerful political person, involves never really doing anything risky or too controversial for all the years leading up to it. That’s kind of boring. It also involves never letting on that you don’t believe in ”doing things the way they are done” – whether in party politics or in any other respect. And that can wear on a person. If you want to be president, you can’t get arrested demonstrating against injustice, you can’t espouse radical political opinions, like that we ought to restrain our use of resources, you can’t, unless you can pull off a Dick Cheney, swear much in public or say what you really think and you have to smile all the time. Me, I’d rather raise me some hell, and I suggest you’ll have more fun if you do too.
Now to be honest, I chose the slacker path all along, not just when I decided (and it was a very, very hard decision – I was really just about to declare my candidacy when I decided to take the “farmer and unknown writer path” to the future) not to be President. I didn’t work all that hard at school. In fact, I was pretty lazy. I cared a lot about learning, I read a lot and studied a lot of things on my own, but I didn’t like the part where we were all expected to parrot the same moral lessons or derive the same meanings from things. For every inspiring teacher who taught me something that I continue to value (and there were a number of them), I also had a teacher who had nothing worth teaching, or who had been so worn down by the idiocies of administrative life and dealing with annoying kids that they’d decided the power to torture the kids was the only compensation for having to put up with 20 years of this. For every creative and liberating educational experience there were a dozen repetitions of “recite the causes of the civil war…” It wasn’t until I was older, and actually had occasion to read a lot of books about the subjects, that I realized that through six repetitions of American History, all somehow spending 90% of the time on the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, I hadn’t really learned much of anything, except of course, that America was the sun, and the rest of the world pretty much revolved around it.
By the time I was a teenager, I did work hard – mostly at being a royal pain in the ass (am I allowed to say “ass” to the nation’s schoolchildren? Crap…note to self, no more swearing…. oh, and delete “craptastic” from latter portion of speech!) to my teachers and the administration. I had noticed already that a lot of what I was taught wasn’t really all the truth – and that a lot of what I was taught was, by necessity, basically an extended version of “sit down, shut up and become a good little consumer.” So I was an annoying teenager, forever pointing out that there was another viewpoint, or that something wasn’t true, or even constitutional . And while I genuinely feel bad for my teachers, many of whom were delighted to be rid of me (and some of whom were absolutely terrific, despite enormous pressure not to be), I think that one of the best possible futures for all of you to grow up questioning authority and being a pain in the ummm…tuchus as well.
You see, the President was going to tell you to do your homework, listen to your teachers and work hard, so you can go to college and become the best you possibly can be. I’m a big fan of hard work, but there’s a problem with this message – most of the people who mean it only imagine one path, and one story for your future. And that path and story might not be the best possible one for you. College usually involves a lot of debt. Getting a good job, and curing cancer is a great idea – but most people don’t cure cancer, they mostly work at WalMart, and that helps keep things like WalMart going. A lot of people out there have inspiring stories about the merits of working hard to get a better job. A considerable number of them could also tell you about working hard and ending up poor and screwed.
The President says we need you to cure poverty – well, honestly, we’ve been trying to cure poverty with social scientists and hoping that a little more money will trickle down to the poorfrom the rich for a long, long time and it isn’t working. Maybe it is more important if you ask what might work, or why the rich have to get richer for the poor to get richer? Can you see any just way to get the poor richer faster? Is there a chance that maybe all of us working hard to get richer might be a problem there? Can everyone in the world be rich? How about everyone in America? I’m just asking.
The President was going to say that our future is in your hands, and I agree – but the hands that have had it so far haven’t done such a hot job, and you should be somewhat skeptical of what we’re teaching you. Ask yourself – is it more important to get a job curing cancer, or is it more important to live a life that puts as few carcinogenic chemicals into the world as possible? I don’t know the answer – we need both, and how to have both together is one of the great challenges. We need better and newer answers, and while there’s a lot to learn from your teachers and parents and other people, don’t forget the fact that they not only don’t have all the answers, they’ve often not got any.
The President was going to ask you to serve your country – and I agree, that’s a great goal. But maybe ask yourself what the most important way to serve your country is – loving your country means wanting it to be a good and decent country, one that is worth living in and that is worth loving. That means being there to say “this is wrong” “this is unjust” “this direction is bound to failure.” A lot of “serving your country” looks a lot like being a pain in the…rear.
If I were going to set up a path for you to serve your country, it would be this – work hard. But don’t just work hard on the conventional path – everywhere you go, ask “is this the right way.” Don’t just work hard at doing what your teachers tell you (ok, this advice does not apply to my three homeschooled sons who should always do what their teacher (me) tells them…right guys? ;-)), work hard learning whether what they tell you is right and true. Don’t take what you are told on face value, even by the President, even by your teachers, and certainly by me – think it through and learn as much as you can and then you decide.
Work hard at what you care about – but make sure that what you care about actually makes the world better. You’ve been told to care about a lot of really wrong things by people who should be telling you better – the most important things you can do don’t involve owning a house, getting a good college education, being President or having a good job. The most important thing you can do is find a way to live that’s worth living, and help other people get there, to ask for more justice, and question whether the paths we’re on are worth continuing. The most important thing you can do is be contrarian, critical, obstinate, radical, thoughtful and angry - and a royal pain in the ass. So go to it.
G-d bless you, and you be a blessing to America. Lord knows, we need it.