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Eli Pariser Commencement Address

Eli Pariser delivered the Bard College at Simon's Rock Commencement Address on May 14, 2005. Below is the full text of the Commencement speech.

Hello! We're outside! Friends, countrymen, and rockers in the five years since I graduated, and might I add BA program in the house, I've had the opportunity to address many M&M personages from the Dixie Chicks, to Bruce Springsteen, to Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, the former Vice President Al Gore. But I have to tell you, you guys have got me more intimidated than any of them because all those other people are powerful, but Simon's rock students, man can rip a bad argument apart. I told Pat about my trepidation and she “At least you'll remember what the students are like. At least you'll remember who your audience is.” I was like, exactly, but this is a community that I love and I'm so proud and so grateful and so humbled that you would ask me back to speak, today.

Friends, rockers, we stand together on the cusp of a moment of truth. If you're anything like I was in the heat of the finals and the last minute papers, you've almost forgotten that a momentous moment was approaching and now it's very nearly here. You'll get your diploma, you'll shake Mary's hand, you'll stand outside blinking in the sunlight and you'll realize nothing will ever be the same. The clock is ticking toward that moment. Time is moving inevitably forward like the waters of Green river move toward the sea, but now you have a last few minutes to get your bearings, to examine where you are and where you're going and how the heck you get there. You're offered one last pause. My mission, today is to report back from the world that lies out beyond the perimeter of this tent; a world that we'll enter in about half an hour, maybe a little longer and to try and answer some of the questions that were on my mind back in 2000 when I sat where you're sitting now. I remember I had a lot of questions on my mind. “Am I gonna have to get a job,” I wondered?

"How is life out there different from Simon's Rock,” I asked myself. I had a feeling that I might be naïve, but in what way was I naïve? That was the tricky part. I had some guesses. It was my expectation that reason governed the world that I was about to enter, that … I really did. Maybe this isn't you, but that someone made the institutions and structures in a certain way because that was the best or most efficient way for them to be. Maybe not for everyone, but at least for that someone. Sitting where you sit now, I believe that there were masters of this hidden logic, by which the world operated and it was my job for the next few years to seek them out, to become an acolyte, to apprentice myself to the experts and learn from them the forces that made the world work. That way, someday, if I was lucky and worked really hard, I could be one of those people; a big kid. I thought I was naïve because I didn't yet know who those masters were and what the rules were, that my naivety was a result of a lack of information.

Donald Rumsfeld once said, “There are no knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are no unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things that we do not know, but there are unknown unknowns; things that we don't know that we don't know,” and I'm talking today about these sort of Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns. For me, it boiled down to this, that the world is not designed intelligently, that there are no hidden masters or experts that understand it all, no Peter [inaudible] out there, I'm afraid. No Barbara Resnicks, no Don Rotars. I was wrong. As James Dean said, “It's just us chickens.” Let me explain how I came to that conclusion, and while I'm at it, how I ended up here on this stage. On September 11, 2001 I was 20 years old, a year out of college and when the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I was horrified, like we all were. I felt I needed to do something, but I had called my friends. I knew they were okay. I had offered to give blood, but the blood bank was full, so I couldn't figure out what to do.

As I thought about it, I became concerned that that tragedy would become compounded, that it would exploited, that it would become a jumping off point for foreign policy aimed at wreaking revenge rather than seeking justice and ending terror. What I knew how to do at that point was make websites, so I put together a little website and when a friend forwarded me a petition written by a student at the University of Chicago, I put it on my website and got in touch with him. It was a simple petition. It called for multilateralism, for ending Al Qaeda in the long term rather than scattering it in the short term. I sent the website to a few of my friends and I really figured at that point that I had done what I could, that I had done my job. A few days later, I woke up and because I'm a geek, the first thing that I did was a went to my living room to check my email. I remember it just kept coming and coming. I really couldn't figure out what the heck was going on. 2,000 messages, 3,000 messages. It didn't stop. Then, I got a call from my friend who had agreed to host the website for me.

He was in a panic. He said, “Eli, Eli, the server's crashing. What are you doing? Where are all these people coming from?” I had no idea. Then, I checked that petition and almost overnight, about 49,000 people had signed the petition. Then, while I was still in my pajamas, the BBC called and they said, “We'd like to speak to the director of this website.” I said, “I think that must be me.” What happened is that the email that I had sent out struck a chord, so my friends sent it to everyone they knew and they sent it to everyone they knew, so that a Romanian journalist who called me a week afterwards said she'd received the same email from five different people. The numbers kept growing. My website became one of the top 500 sites on the internet suddenly and by two weeks later, over 500,000 people from 192 countries had signed on. The point at which it got really scary was when they started emailing me and saying, “What are we going to do next.” That's when I knew I was in it for the long haul. That's how I got roped into this work, by accident in a way.

I realized I couldn't keep doing this out of my living room, so I merged that group with Move On, which was born in a similar way. Since then, those 500,000 people have seeded things that were much bigger, a movement against a war in Iraq and the political juggernaut that is Move On, today; an organization of three million people that I find myself leading. In the course of that work, I've had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people who I figured were supposed to know what's going on. I visited hip hop impresarios, I've ended up on conference calls where the top posters and strategists formulated campaigns. I found myself meeting with presidential candidates and CEOs. In these circumstances, there's usually a lot of formal ideas about the right way to do things and it fell to me, as the young guy in the room, to ask why we were doing things the way that we were. I just didn't get it. I figured it was something I was missing, that I was an amateur. Sometimes there was a perfectly good reason why things were done that way. Blue looks better on TV or saying one's opponent's name makes you think of the opponent or something like that, but a lot of the time my question was met with silence.

Then, maybe a grin. Then, a, “Gee, I don't know,” or a, “I think it's because.” Frankly, I was shocked. I had believed the things that were happening this way for an order, but I've come to believe that the case for the present, for the way that things are today is weaker than it appears. Weaker than I could have imagined. Some things people do used to make sense, but they don't anymore. Circumstances have changed, but their behavior hasn't. Sometimes, they're doing things the wrong way for the simple reason that no one stopped to consider if there was a better way to do it and sometimes they're doing things the wrong way because they've got so much invested in the path that they're pursuing that imagining there's a better way to do things is painful. Anne O'Dwyer taught me about cognitive dissonance; the psychological discomfort that occurs when you're confronted with a set of facts suggesting that what you're doing or believing is irrational or stupid. You pay $10 to go to a movie and the movie is pretty bad, but rather than you admit that you wasted $10, not to mention a few hours of your life, there's a tendency to say, “It wasn't really so bad. The acting was kind of impressive. The special effects looked a little realistic,” whatever you need to do to convince yourself that this was money well spent.

You want to feel like you're not a sucker and we paper over the cognitive dissonance in much of what we do. The fact that this clearly isn't the best way to be ordering a society to be living a life because we've got an awful lot invested in the route that we've been pursuing. To admit it's flawed, would be too much to handle. Too much dissonance to handle and this means that hindsight in some ways isn't really 20/20. The case that the way that we do business is weak and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to seel you something. Some of them are merely people who benefit from stasis, people who have found a nest for themselves in the machinery of the clock tower and don't wish to be jostled by the turning of the gears, but then there are powerful people and people who are in power seek to magnify their importance and there's no greater way to do that than to paint the present as an outstanding victory. The happy ending to a long, harrowing story. Why does this matter? It matters because if there's someone competent in the driver's seat, then we can sit back and relax and watch the scenery go by, but if the world we're given is flawed, we've got to do something about it.

If we're in a car that's headed over a precipice and there's no one at the wheel, someone had better grab the steering wheel before we go over the edge. We come to the question of who's gonna jump into the driver's seat and save the day? If the world doesn't run in an orderly fashion, one might conclude that it's just the wrong people who are in charge. I'd say that with minimum partisan implications. Someone needs to make sure that the trains are running on time and we need to find that person and tell them to stop, too, but that person isn't coming. There are no experts out there, no heroes. It really is just us chickens. I've had the opportunity and the honor over the past four years to meet some of the great political leaders of our time; men and women who have spent decades fighting injustice and winning. By their accomplishments, they are extraordinary and I do not believe that it dismisses them or diminishes them to say they're also quite ordinary. They are, everyone of them, normal people. People who have strong suits and weak suits, good days and bad days. We fool ourselves about this sometimes.

We don't want to see our heroes in the bathroom and when we confront the great and mighty Wizard of Oz, the billows of smoke and the flashing lights and the noise may confuse us, but when we peek behind the curtain, we find the wizard is just a man. “You're a very bad man,” Dorothy says shocked in the movie and the wizard replies, “Oh, no my dear. I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard,” and so it goes with leaders. They're like us and they know it, but they tend not to advertise it. Our world is governed by a fellowship of amateurs and for those of us who have pursued the hard sciences and are feeling a bit smug, I'll remind you that this is not a problem limited to the softer disciplines like my own. After all, in 1931 Kurt Goodall demonstrated in his incompleteness theorem that within any logical system there would always be some problems that could not be proven true or false using the rules of that system. In other words, even if we forget about the experts and their human fallibilities, the fact remains that we are constricted by systems of thought that are themselves, incomplete.

The complete set of rules is forever elusive. We will forever have something to learn, and so I've come to believe and here I certainly include myself, that nobody knows exactly what they're doing. It's a relief and in an absurd way, it's a great equalizer. We're united in our relative cluelessness. It's a little unnerving to believe that people who make the big decisions, the politicians who scramble the fighter jets and send out the medicare checks and the industry titans who swallow economies like they were breakfast, that these people are just normal like you and me. Normal, but the somewhat unnerving idea is what democracy and liberty are all about. Our founders theorized a government of, by, and for the people because they recognized that there was no greater authority than all of us together. Writing this speech, I kept coming back to Marla, a woman I knew who died recently in Iraq. I met Marla at a rally in the end of October of 2002. I must be the only person who bought my first suit to attend a peace rally, but there I was suited and a little out of place among the throngs of protestors waiting to talk to press outside the speaker's area.

Marla was a friend of a friend. She was about my age. She seemed at first glance like a lot of other peace mates that I'd met. A little starry eyed, a little naïve maybe, a backpack with a lot of buttons, talking about partying and doing what she could to stop the war, but when bombs started dropping on Baghdad, Marla kicked into action. She had a great conviction that our government had a duty to stand by the families of the innocents who were killed. She lobbied congress herself showing up in congressional offices day after day, pounding the pavement, making people listen to her through sheer persistence. She attended a hearing of Donald Rumsfeld and when he didn't talk about civilian casualties, she walked right up to him and all the way from the DS, down the hall and to the door of his car, she talked to him about our duty to the victims of war and Marla won. Tens of millions of dollars were set aside to support the families of Iraqi civilians who were killed and when Marla found out that no one was keeping track of the number of civilians who died in Iraq, that no one was taking responsibility for reaching out to those families, she went to Iraq and began to do that work herself.

She threw parties at the hotel pool in Baghdad at night and during the day, she went door to door counting the dead and counseling the grieving families. I haven't seen Marla again and I won't see her again because on Saturday this last April, Marla, and her colleague Faiz were killed in a car bombing. She was killed and I miss her even though I barely knew her, but she's made so many people's lives so much better. Going door to door, she rescued hundreds of families from the brink of starvation, of disease, of despair. Just Marla. She was a goodwill ambassador to thousands of Iraqis, just herself and through her lobbying efforts she provided for tens of thousands of the most needy, the most overlooked victims of this conflict. The journalists who knew her were touched, too because in a war zone, it's not often that you come across someone with a big heart, a clarity of purpose and the courage to see it through. As Robert Kennedy put it, it is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current, which can sweep down the mightiest walls of injustice and oppression and resistance.

I'm not saying, by the way, that we all have to throw ourselves into war zones and I'm not saying that we must be martyrs for our causes. I would have far preferred that Marla lived to a rich, old age, but I am saying that no one else is going to stand up, if not us and Marla understood that, that no one else was going to take responsibility if she didn't. It was that simple revelation that was at the core of her bravery and her courage and her heroism. It may be that we never get to be Superman, that we are all of us fallible, that we are all of us imperfect, but we all have a shot at Marla's heroism. The heroism that exists in taking a look with open eyes at the world as it is and acting on what we see. That truly is within our grasp. You see, if the case for how we do things is weak, if we rationalize behaviors and systems that don't actually make sense and if there are no experts and no super heroes, if no one knows what it's doing, if it really is just us chickens, then we each possess the power to change everything and there may be no one better qualified to make the difference that you want to make, than you.

It's reasonable enough to assume that we should wait until we understand how the car's constructed before we try to change the carburetor, but sometimes getting in under the engine and messing around is the only way we can get on the road. If the systems of culture and law and politics, if the systems of science and medicine and philosophy were fully understood, we can resign ourselves to an oligarchy of high priests who would know all there is to know about them and meet in secret to make the big decisions, but if the game's wide open, if no one really knows what they're doing, then it might just be you who jumps in to save the day. It might just be you who has the answer that no one else has. If it's just us chickens, you may be the chicken that you're waiting for. I can still remember the time when I believed that my parents were gods. My dad with his long beard even looked like something out of the Sistine Chapel. As a kid, when I questioned my mom incessantly, I remembered how she could answer any question I threw at her. I believed that they were wise beyond comprehension. Powerful beyond measure, and when I goaded my younger brother, their justice was mighty like a river.

Now, I know some parents as friends and with apologies to the parents in the audience, and I mean this sincerely, they aren't quite like that. They don't possess infinite wisdom. They aren't all powerful. The moment dawns when you realize that they're kinda normal, but at the same time they're not because in the process of having a baby and accepting responsibility for that baby, which is totally dependent on them and loving your fiercely, they elevated themselves. They found the power to protect you from harm. They found the wisdom they needed. They found the answers to the questions that they didn't know they possessed. In their love, they found their way. I believe the world is neither a ticking watch perfectly ordered and mechanical nor a black hole, which swallows up all information and meaning. The world is a baby. Our baby. We've got to love it. We've got to take care of it. We need to know that when it spits up on us, it's nothing personal. Together, through our love we'll find a way to bring it up. I know having that responsibility is kinda scary, but while it may not feel like it, you're prepared to meet the challenge of nurturing and growing and remaking the world as anyone.

You've received a fine set of tools, the tools of discrimination, of humility in the face of an incomprehensible universe. That's what this last few years was all about. That's why your professors ask constantly, incessantly, “What do you think?” It's annoying, but it has a point. That's why they push you to stare at the incomprehensible in the face and ask it, “What are you? How do you work? What do you mean?” It's why the first book we read was Socrates, which says, “A wise man is he who knows he knows not.” You've got everything you need on this day, in this hour, at this moment to accept responsibility for the world and I am here today to ask you not to wait, not to hold back because the world needs you. The world needs you to ask the questions that we feel too sheepish to ask, the questions to which no one knows the right answer. The world needs you to reconfigure the pieces in a way that's against the rules. The world needs you because you can recognize the gears that are grinding, which others over time have come to rationalize and accept. The world needs you to see it with fresh eyes. With a fellowship of amateurs leading the way forward, we can depend in the end only on our mutual responsibility to each other. It's all we have, but it's enough. Good luck.