The Bully’s Pulpit

Susan J. Douglas

It is, alas, the season for commencement addresses, when graduates are offered advice about how to succeed and are given visions of the kinds of futures they might help to create. I am recovering from what surely was this year’s most ghastly and embarrassing speech – by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who on April 30 spoke at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I teach.

I am recovering from what surely was this year's most ghastly and embarrassing commencement address, by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder is one of the pack of Republican governors determined to screw working families and the poor while further enriching corporations and the wealthy. Snyder sold himself as a nonpartisan problem solver” and nerd,” but now intends to cut education funding by 15 percent – including $200 million from higher education. He also wants to tax pensions and impose on municipalities emergency managers” who could then terminate collective bargaining agreements, all while cutting corporate taxes by about 80 percent, or $1.8 billion.

In his speech, delivered with all the flair of a zombified box turtle, Snyder reminisced about his own exceedingly uninteresting experiences at the university, gave a shout-out to his wife and family, and referred to his career in the private sector” (tax attorney, venture capitalist), his current work in public service” and his desire, once he’s done with all the giving back, to teach.

The commencement was especially poignant for me because my daughter was graduating. Naturally, I was reflecting on my hopes and anxieties about her future. Those anxieties are not insignificant, given the selfish, short-sighted and destructive agendas of guys like Snyder and the Republicans in Congress. 

It is a difficult agenda to understand, even if you are a plutocrat. Do the wealthy believe that somehow they will not be affected by the ravages of climate change? Do they believe that our society can remain relatively stable if millions and millions more see their paychecks and pensions cut, their healthcare made worse and even less affordable, their educational system further ravaged? Do they really believe that further undermining women’s health and reproductive choices – when we already have an embarrassing world ranking on infant mortality and child poverty rates – will make us a stronger country?

Snyder’s speech was typical GOP fare: narcissistic (he focused on himself, his past and his future) and lacking a collective vision. 

Yet I must remain hopeful for my daughter. For baby boomers like me, what defined us, what gave us our voices – both individual and collective – is that we stood for something. And just as important, we stood against things: the Vietnam War, gender discrimination, racial segregation, pollution. Thankfully, the Tea Party” – with its now-obvious agenda to take from the poor (and middle class) and give to the rich, to attack women’s reproductive rights, to deny climate change and resist what we must do to reverse it, to thwart gay rights, to further dismantle public education and to attack public workers who make our safety and security possible – appears to have provided the target against which this new generation of graduates can define itself.

I was proud of our Michigan grads as they laughed at and reviled Snyder and his speech. So let’s urge today’s young people – our children and grandchildren – to take on, with gusto, these right-wing efforts to reduce us to a third-world plutocracy. 

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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