The shirtless young anti-war protester in this photo is Frank C. Plada. He later died in Vietnam.
Category Archives: Life
At this time of year, across the northern hemisphere, graduands are preparing to leave their alma maters and go out into the world as my friends and I did less than a year ago. As tradition dictates, there will be, at nearly all of these ceremonies, a guest who will speak to the graduates and impart advice on what best to do with the lives they are about to embark on. These guests tend to be politicians, notable citizens or community leaders. My favourite ever speech of this kind is the one given by author J.K Rowling to Harvard’s Class of 2008 about the fringe benefits of failure. The remarks given by these speakers, many of which are now filmed and appear in newspapers and on blogs around the world, are an almost endless source of good life advice, not just for young people standing on the brink of adult life but for all people.
This year, in the US, several notable people were invited to speak at various commencement (as they are known in America) events. Here are a few which I thought were worthy of of my readers’ attention.
Aaron Sorkin, one of my favourite media figures, who wrote The West Wing, A Few Good Men and The Social Network spoke to his alma mater, Syracuse University in New York, telling the graduates:
“You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance—and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy”.
Barack Obama spoke to the graduating class at Barnard College, a private liberal arts women’s college and member of the prestigious Seven Sisters. There, he told the women:
“Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”
A commencement speech was also given by First Lady Michelle Obama to the graduating class at Virginia Tech, site of the 2007 massacre – the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in US history. She spoke of the school’s tradition of service to others being the key factor in their healing process and beseeched the audience to continue to defy those who tried to define them. It was simple and beautiful and carried the best advice of all.
British film director Sir Ridley Scott launched a global film making contest for aspiring directors. It’s titled “Tell It Your Way”. There were over 600 entries.
The film could be no longer than three minutes, contain only 6 lines of narrative & be a compelling story. The winner was “Porcelain Unicorn” from American director Keegan Wilcox.
It’s a story of the lifetimes of two people who are totally opposite, yet, very much the same – all told in less than 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, presumably in an effort to boost the local economy, a website called DublinTown has been launched. An initiative between Dublin City Business Improvement District and local small business owners, the site highlights all that ‘Town’ has to offer both to locals and to tourists. It’s beautifully laid out and the video for the launch has been doing the rounds on social networking sites. It does make me miss the Dublin between the canals.
This week, the Catholic Church once again made headlines for its antediluvian rhetoric when it publicly reprimanded America’s largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns for promoting what it called: “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
Putting aside the eyebrow-raising assertion here that the Church sees itself as incompatible with the equality of women, let us take a look at what exactly the group (the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) was promoting. This from Reuters: “the Vatican reprimanded [the LCWR] for spending too much time on poverty and social justice concerns and not enough on abortion and gay marriage.” Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters, said that she was stunned. “I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.” To remind any readers who are a little rusty on their Gospel, Jesus spent his life talking about poverty, social justice and our duty to the poor, as exemplified in this passage:
“21Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. 22And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.” – Mark 10:21-22.
Meanwhile, regarding the issues of abortion and gay marriage, so much more fascinating to the Vatican than boring old poor people, Jesus said: nothing.
The Church has announced that it is appointing Archbishop J. Peter Sartain as delegate to ‘oversee reform initiatives’ in the LCWR. In other words, a man is being sent to rein the crazy women in.
This incident, on the greater scheme of things, is unimportant. There have and will continue to be many like it and nobody is too surprised that the Catholic Church appears to be out of touch. However, it is an exemplary portrayal of a Church which most Irish people (especially younger generations) feel no longer represents their beliefs. Indeed, a Church which, they feel, has abandoned them completely.
Concurrently, statistics are telling us that Irish people are moving further and further towards a secular consensus. More than eight in every ten Irish people want the church and state to be totally separate, 65% strongly agree that this should happen, and less than three in ten have quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in religious groups.
Nevertheless, this is not to say that Irish Christians have stopped believing. The results of Ireland’s 2011 census showed that 90.5% percent of people still identify as Christian, the vast majority being Catholic. While observers and pundits in other parts of the Western World proclaim a kind of Great Atheist Arrival, where atheism has become almost completely ordinary in the mainstream, I do not believe this is the case in Ireland. I think many young Irish people want to be Christian, they want to believe in God, in a higher power and in system of life based on faith in a divine creator.
Whether this desire is instinctive or socialised, it is nonetheless there. I know very few Irish people of my generation, or any other generation, who describe themselves as atheist. In some cases, they will call themselves agnostic. The vast majority will describe themselves jokingly as ‘lapsed Catholics’ or as ‘dirty Prods’. That is still an identification with a system of belief. My contemporaries still believe in God.
The long-running weekly hour-long radio program This American Life, produced by WBEZ in Chicago and hosted by Ira Glass, is broadcast across America by Public Radio International. Primarily a journalistic non-fiction program, it has also featured essays, memoirs, field recordings, short fiction, and found footage. Basically, for an hour every week, it gives America a compressed version of BBC Radio 4.
Last year, it invited the author and columnist Dan Savage (founder of the It Gets Better campaign) to speak about his relationship with Catholicism, one which had lain dormant for years until it was resurrected by the death of his mother from cancer. It is both hilarious and upsetting. It is as close a description of my generation’s feelings towards religion as I could think of. A deep, strong desire to be part of a greater, familiar community of belief. An inability to reconcile that desire with a Church that says condoms spread AIDS and protects rapist priests.
If you had the chance to write to your 16 year-old self, what would you say?
In 2009, the Elton John AIDS Foundation asked this question to a number of celebrities with a view to compiling their letters in a book. This is exactly what they did, and some of the results were terrific. Reading the advice that other people would give to themselves at that age seems to emphasise the bittersweetness of the adage: ‘youth is wasted on the young’.
The absolute show-stopper is, however, the letter Stephen Fry wrote for the book. It was reproduced in The Guardian newspaper at the times of the book’s publication and everyone in my flat read it one after the other:
I hope you are well. I know you are not. As it happens you wrote in 1973 a letter to your future self and it is high time that your future self had the decency to write back. You declared in that letter (reproduced in your 1997 autobiography Moab Is My Washpot) that “everything I feel now as an adolescent is true”. You went on to affirm that if ever you dared in later life to repudiate, deny or mock your 16-year-old self it would be a lie, a traducing, treasonable lie, a crime against adolescence. “This is who I am,” you wrote. “Each day that passes I grow away from my true self. Every inch I take towards adulthood is a betrayal.”
Oh, lord love you, Stephen. How I admire your arrogance and rage and misery. How pure and righteous they are and how passionately storm-drenched was your adolescence. How filled with true feeling, fury, despair, joy, anxiety, shame, pride and above all, supremely above all, how overpowered it was by love. My eyes fill with tears just to think of you. Of me. Tears splash on to my keyboard now. I am perhaps happier now than I have ever been and yet I cannot but recognise that I would trade all that I am to be you, the eternally unhappy, nervous, wild, wondering and despairing 16-year-old Stephen: angry, angst-ridden and awkward but alive. Because you know how to feel, and knowing how to feel is more important than how you feel. Deadness of soul is the only unpardonable crime, and if there is one thing happiness can do it is mask deadness of soul.
I finally know now, as I easily knew then, that the most important thing is love. It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether that love is for someone of your own sex or not. Gay issues are important and I shall come to them in a moment, but they shrivel like a salted snail when compared to the towering question of love. Gay people sometimes believe (to this very day, would you credit it, young Stephen?) that the preponderance of obstacles and terrors they encounter in their lives and relationships is intimately connected with the fact of their being gay. As it happens at least 90% of their problems are to do with love and love alone: the lack of it, the denial of it, the inequality of it, the missed reciprocity in it, the horrors and heartaches of it. Love cold, love hot, love fresh, love stale, love scorned, love missed, love denied, love betrayed … the great joke of sexuality is that these problems bedevil straight people just as much as gay. The 10% of extra suffering and complexity that uniquely confronts the gay person is certainly not incidental or trifling, but it must be understood that love comes first. This is tough for straight people to work out.
Straight people are encouraged by culture and society to believe that their sexual impulses are the norm, and therefore when their affairs of the heart and loins go wrong (as they certainly will), when they are flummoxed, distraught and defeated by love, they are forced to believe that it must be their fault. We gay people at least have the advantage of being brought up to expect the world of love to be imponderably and unmanageably difficult, for we are perverted freaks and sick aberrations of nature.They – poor normal lambs – naturally find it harder to understand why, in Lysander’s words, “the course of true love never did run smooth”.
Sexual availability, so long an impossible dream in your age, becomes the norm in the late 70s and early 80s, only to be shattered by a new disease whose horrors you cannot even imagine. You would little believe that I can say to you now across the gap of 35 years that we are the blessed ones. The people of Britain are happy (or not) because of Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartists, infantry regiments, any number of ancestors who made the world more comfortable for them. And we, gay people, are happy now (or not) in large part thanks to Stonewall rioters, Harvey Milk, Dennis Lemon, Gay News, Ian McKellen, Edwina Currie (true) et al, and the battered bodies of bullied, beaten and abused gay men and women who stood up to be counted and refused to apologise for the way they were. It has given us something we never thought to have: pride. For a thousand years, shame was our lot and now, turning on a sixpence, we have arrived at pride – without even, it seems, an intervening period of well-it’s-OK-I-suppose-wouldn’t-have-chosen-it-but-there-you-go. Who’da thought it?
I know what you are doing now, young Stephen. It’s early 1973. You are in the library, cross-referencing bibliographies so that you can find more and more examples of queer people in history, art and literature against whom you can hope to validate yourself. Leonardo, Tchaikovsky, Wilde, Barons Corvo and von Gloeden, Robin Maugham, Worsley, “an Englishman”, Jean Genet, Cavafy, Montherlant, Roger Peyrefitte, Mary Renault, Michael Campbell, Michael Davies, Angus Stewart, Gore Vidal, John Rechy, William Burroughs.
So many great spirits really do confirm that hope! It emboldens you to know that such a number of brilliant (if often doomed) souls shared the same impulse and desires as you. I know the index-card waltz of (auto)biographies, poems and novels you are dancing: those same names are still so close to the surface of my mind nearly four decades later. Novels, poetry and the worlds of art and ideas are opening up in front of you almost incidentally. You spend all your time in the library yearning to be told that you are not alone, and an unlooked for side-effect of this just happens to be a real education achieved in a private school designed for philistine bumpkins. Being born queer has given you, by mistake, a fantastic advantage over the rugger-playing ordinaries who surround you. But those rugger-playing ordinaries have souls too. And you should know that. I know you cannot believe it now. They seem so secure, so assured, so blessedly normal. They gave Cuthbert Worsley the Kipling-derived title of his overwhelmingly important (to you) autobiography The Flannelled Fool: “these are the men that have lost their soul/ The flannelled fool at he wicket/ And the muddied oaf at the goal”.
You look down at the fools almost as much as you fear them. The ordinary people, whose path through life is guaranteed. They won’t have to spend their days in public libraries, public lavatories and public courts ashamed, spurned and reviled. There is no internet. No Gay News. No gay chatlines. No men-seeking-men personals. No out-and-proud celebs. Just a world of shame and secrecy.
Somehow, as you age, a miracle will be wrought. You will begin by descending deeper into the depths: expulsion, crime and prison – nothing really to do with being gay, but everything to do with love and your inability to cope with it. Yet you will, as the Regency rakes used to say, “make a recover” and find yourself at university, where it will be astonishingly easy to be open about your sexuality. No great trick, for the university is Cambridge, long a hotbed of righteous tolerance, spiritual heavy-petting and homo hysteria. You will emerge from Cambridge and enter a world where being “out” is no big deal, although a puzzlingly small number of your coevals will find it as easy as you to emerge from the shadows. Before you damn anyone for failing to come out, look to their parents. The answer almost always lies there. Oh how lucky in that department, as in so many, you are, young Stephen.
But don’t kid yourself. For millions of teenagers around Britain and everywhere else, it is still 1973. Taunts, beatings and punishment await gay people the world over in playgrounds and execution grounds (the distance between which is measured by nothing more than political constitutions and human will). Yes, you will grow to be a very, very, very, very lucky man who is able to express his nature out loud without fear of hatred or reprisal from any except the most deluded, demented and sad. But that is a small battle won. A whole theatre of war remains. This theatre of war is bigger than the simple issue of being gay, just as the question of love swamps the question of mere sexuality. For alongside sexual politics the entire achievement of the enlightenment (which led inter alia to gay liberation) is under threat like never before. The cruel, hypocritical and loveless hand of religion and absolutism has fallen on the world once more.
So my message from the future is twofold. Fear not, young Stephen, your life will unfold in richer, more accepted and happier ways than you ever dared hope. But be wary, for the most basic tenets of rationalism, openness and freedom that nourish you now and seem so unassailable are about to be harried and besieged by malevolent, mad and medieval minds.
You poor dear, dear thing. Look at you weltering in your misery. The extraordinary truth is that you want to stay there. Unlike so many of the young, you do not yearn for adulthood, pubs and car keys. You want to stay where you are, in the Republic of Pubescence, where feeling has primacy and pain is beautiful. And you know what … ?
I think you are right.
We all have hopes and dreams. Some of the best art is the art that makes you see yourself in a new light.
Candy Chang is a Taiwanese-American public installations artist, designer and urban planner who has worked all over the world in places as far flung as Nairobi, Helsinki and Vancouver with organisations such as The New York Times, where she was a creative director, and Nokia.
Now living in New Orleans, Chang’s latest installation is called ‘Before I Die’.
“Before I Die transforms neglected spaces into constructive ones where we can learn the hopes and aspirations of the people around us. It turns out this entire process (including obtaining official approval from many entities) has been a great lesson, experience, and project in itself – more on that later. If you’re in New Orleans, stop by the corner of Marigny and Burgundy (900 Marigny Street) to add your thoughts to the wall and see what matters most to your neighbors. It’s a question that has changed me in the last year, and I believe the design of our public spaces can better reflect what’s important to us as residents and as human beings.”