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Simon's Rock College Commencement Address by Eli Pariser, '96 on May 14, 2005 (video and audio recordings).

Simon's Rock Commencement Address
by Eli Pariser, '96
May 14, 2005

Commencement Video (Quicktime 5 or later required)
Please Note: Running time is almost 24 minutes, and video file size is large (40 MB)
For a dial-up Internet connection, the Audio Only file (MP3 - 16.4 MB) would be a quicker download.

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 eminent personages—from the Dixie Chicks to Bruce Springsteen to Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid to former Vice President Al Gore.

But I have to tell you, you guys have got me more intimidated than any of them. All those other folks are powerful, but Simon’s Rock students, man, can rip a bad argument apart. I told Pat Sharpe about my trepidation, and she said, “At least you’ll remember what Simon’s Rock students are like—at least you’ll know who your audience is.” I was like: exactly.

But this is a community that I love. And I am so, 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 finals and last minute papers you’ve almost forgotten that such a momentous moment was approaching, and now it is 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 few last 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 beyond the perimeter of this tent—a world we’ll enter in a half an hour, maybe a little longer—and to try to answer some of the questions that were on my mind back in 2000 when I was sitting where you are now.

And I remember that I had a lot of questions on my mind. “Am I going to 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. And I had some guesses.

And sitting where you sit now, I believed that there were masters of this hidden logic by which the world operated, and that 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 make the world work. And in that way, some day, if I was lucky and worked really hard, I could be one of those people—a big kid.

I thought that I was naïve because I didn’t yet know who these masters were, and what the rules were—that my naiveté was a result of a lack of information.

Donald Rumsfeld once said, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. And we also know there are known unknowns, that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns— things we don’t know that we don’t know.”

I’m talking today about these sort of Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns. To me, they boiled down to this: The world is not designed intelligently. There are no hidden masters or experts who understand it all—no Peter Cockses out there in the big wide world, no Barbara Resnicks, no Don Roeders. 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 the heck I ended up on this stage.

On September 11th, 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 all of us were. I felt like I needed to do something, but I had called my friends to make sure they were safe, and called and found out that the local blood bank was full, I couldn’t figure out what to do. And as I thought about it, I became concerned that the tragedy would be compounded, that it would be exploited, that it would become a jumping off point for a foreign policy aimed at wreaking revenge rather than ending terror.

What I knew how to do, at that point,was make Web sites. So I put together a little Web site, and when a friend forwarded me a petition written by a student at University of Chicago, I put it on my Web site too. It was a simple petition, calling for multilateralism, for ending al Qaeda in the long term rather than scattering it in the short term. I sent my

Web site to a few friends, and I really figured at that point that I had done everything I could do.

A few days later, I woke up and, because I’m a geek, the first thing I did was to go to the living room in my pajamas to download my e-mail. And I remember it just kept coming and coming—I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on. 2,000 messages. 3,000 messages. It didn’t stop.

And then I got a call from a friend who had agreed to host the Web site for me. He was in a panic. He said, “Eli, Eli, the server’s crashing. What the heck are you doing!? Where are all these people coming from?”

I had no idea.

And then I checked the petition, and almost overnight 49,000 people had signed the petition. And then, while I was still in my pajamas, the BBC called and they said, we’d like to speak to the director of this Web site. And I said, “I think that must be me.”

What had happened was that the e-mail that I had sent to my friends had struck a chord. And 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 told me she’d received that same e-mail from five different people.

And the numbers kept growing. My Web site 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. And the point at which it really got scary was when they started emailing me asking, “What are we going to do next?”

That’s how I knew I was in it for the long haul. That’s how I got roped into this work—by accident.

I realized that I couldn’t keep doing this out of my living room, so I merged that group with MoveOn, which was born in a very similar way. And since then, those 500,000 people helped in seeding things that were much bigger—a movement against a war in Iraq, to begin with, and then the political juggernaut that is MoveOn 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’ve visited hiphop impresarios; I’ve ended up on conference calls where the top pollsters and strategists formulated campaigns; I’ve found myself meeting with presidential candidates and CEOs.

In these circumstances, there were 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 we were. I usually figured that I was just missing something—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. And then maybe a grin. And then, sometimes, a “Gee, I don’t know.” Or a weak, “I think it’s because…” Frankly, I was shocked.

But I’ve come to the belief that the case for the present—for the way we do things—is weaker than it appears; weaker than I could have imagined.

Some things people do used to make sense, but don’t any more—circumstances have changed, but their behavior hasn’t. Sometimes they’re doing things the wrong way for the simple reason that no one’s stopped to consider if there’s 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 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 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 impressive, the special effects looked really realistic— whatever you need to tell yourself to convince yourself that you got your money’s worth. You want to feel like you’re not a sucker.

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 we’ve been pursuing. To admit that it’s flawed would be too much dissonance to handle. And this means that hindsight isn’t really 20-20.

And so the case for the way we do business in the present is weak, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Some of them are simply folks 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 the 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 and harrowing story.

And why does this matter? It matters because if there’s someone competent in the driver’s seat, then we can sit back, relax, and watch the scenery go by. But if the world we’re given is flawed, we’ve gotta 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.

And so we come to the question of who is going to 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 that the wrong people are in charge. I say that with minimal partisan implications. Someone needs to make sure the trains run on time; we need to find that person and tell them to step to.

But that person ain’t coming. There are no experts, no heroes. It really is just us chickens.

I’ve had the opportunity and the honor, over the last five 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 it diminishes them to say: they’re also quite ordinary. They are, every last one 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 bellows of smoke, the flashing lights, 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. 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 just 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 you who pursued the hard sciences and are feeling a bit smug, I’ll remind you that this not a problem limited to the softer disciplines like my own.

After all, in 1931, mathematician Kurt Godel 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.

I have 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 are united in our relative cluelessness.

It’s a little unnerving to believe that the 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 all these people are just normal. Like you and me normal.

But it is this somewhat unnerving idea that is what democracy and liberty are 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 Ruzicka, a woman I knew who died recently in Iraq.

I met Marla at a rally at the end of October, 2002. I must be the only person in the world who actually bought my first suit to attend a peace rally, but there I was: suited and a little out of place among the throngs of protesters, waiting to talk to press outside the speakers’ area.

Marla was a friend of a friend. She was about my age, and she seemed, at first glance, like a lot of other peaceniks 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 do to stop the war.

But when the 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’s, and when he didn’t talk about civilian casualties she walked right up to him, and all the way from the dais, down the hall and to the door of his car she talked to him about our duty to the victims of this 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 were dying 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 a Saturday in April—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 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 good will 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, 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 sometimes 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 actually just don’t make sense. And if there are no experts, no superheroes. If nobody knows what they’re doing; if it’s 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.

And if the systems of culture, and law, and politics, if the systems of science, and medicine, and philosophy were fully understood, we could resign ourselves to an oligarchy of high priests who 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 may just be you who jumps in to save the day. It may just be you that 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 from the Sistine Chapel. And as a kid, when I questioned my mom incessantly, I remember 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.

And I now know some parents as friends. And with apologies to the parents in the audience, and I mean this sincerely, they’re not quite like that. They don’t possess infinite wisdom. They aren’t all-powerful. The moment dawns when you realize that parents are kinda normal.

But at the same time, they’re not. Because in the process of having a baby, and accepting

responsibility for that baby that was totally dependent on them, and loving it fiercely, they elevated themselves. They found the power to protect it 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.

And so the world is neither a ticking watch, perfectly ordered, mechanical, nor a black hole which gobbles 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 are as 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 examination, of humility in the face of the universe. That’s what these last few years were all about. That’s why your professors asked constantly, incessantly, “What do you think?” That’s why they pushed you to stare the incomprehensible in the face and ask it, “What are you? How do you work? What do you mean?” And it’s why the first book we read was Socrates, who 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 over time others 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. That is all we have. But it is enough.

Good luck.


Photo Copyright 2005, Aram Kailian, and used with permission; Videography by Chet Cahill. Copyright © 2005, Simon's Rock College. All Rights Reserved.