Thursday, May 28, 2015

Honors Talk on Brooklyn, Friendships and Democracy

Photograph by John Johnson, 
Warren "Warry" Fritzinger and Walt Whitman

My people have never been the honors students.  I’ve always been with the C students.  Nonetheless, I was invited to speak at the City Tech Honors Convocation as the Scholar on Campus.  They wanted me to give a short version of my talk on friendships.  Most of the jokes I found were about sex or unpaid internships, so I decided to drop them and spoke with everyone about the politics of friendship as something Whitman understood as the roots of a radical experiment in democracy.  It was hard to get my cadence down with such a wordy talk.  I borrowed lines from Anthony Weiner, Goethe, TS Elliot, and badly quoted Shakespeare, Whitman, and Ferlinghetti.  The talk was a mash of ideas from the upcoming Brooklyn Tides and Rebel Friendships book coming out next fall on Palgrave.  Here’s what I said.

Address to the Honors Students of the Class of 2015

Thank you so much for that kind introduction.  Its lovely to be here with you in the heart of our global borough.  Welcome class 2015.  Congratulations.

When my daughter asked me what to buy her friends for graduation presents. I suggested a bike  and bus passes.  So hit the road.
After all, the trip is just beginning everyone.  But now that you are about to depart, lets review where we’ve been and attempt to see Brooklyn again for the very first time.

In A Coney Island of the Mind, Laurence Farlinghetti writes:

“I once started out
to walk around the world
but ended up in Brooklyn.
That Bridge was too much for me.”

Life in this rapidly transforming space has included many things.
In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman remarks about this space:

I dream'd in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the
whole of the rest of the earth,
I dream'd that was the new city of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men (and women) of that city,
And in all their looks and words.

Through this city of friends, Brooklyn imagines itself as a radical experiment in democracy.  Here use and social ties are valued and seen as resources in which we all benefit.
This City of Friends takes shape every time people converge together in a garden or for a bike ride, to play a video game, or just hang out on the streets.  You see this everywhere you walk through this global borough that you’ve made a home for yourself.

Take Joel Bokiewicz, who benefitted from the local foods movement in Brooklyn and elsewhere.  Unable to make a living as a writer, he rented a work studio alongside 20 other entrepreneurs.  Recalling Whitman’s poem “I Hear American Singing,” he describes his colleagues: “all these people would be doing stuff they were just pumped to do.”  Rather than start companies with the aim of riches, many have turned to hand-made crafts for the human element modern industry has stripped away from manufacturing.  As Bokiewicz explains, “where the commerce is really rich is in the community, the friendships you develop, the fact you get to do what you want to do, for the most part, not to be bossed around.”[i]  His hand-made knives, each of which takes approximately 14 hours to make, are now in such demand that to get one, requires a one year wait.   At its best, Brooklyn has always been a city of friends, Whitman reminds us. 

This friendship offers us important insights for us about  our democracy.
Ethical Meanings take shape in Friendship, as  shared engagements and experiments in Living.
Aristotle (1934) suggests “[f]riends must enjoy one another's company, they must be useful to one another, and they must share a common commitment to the good.

Our congress could borrow a page from this lesson.

French philosopher Michel Foucault saw friendship as shared estrangement/ engagement. He saw a potential in this model for understanding not only social movements but the process of social change.
 You’ve seen a lot of this in you’re years here as you’ve watched Brooklyn being remade in front of your eyes.

Consider your four years at the college,
Occupying Wall Street your first year, reminding the world that inequality is the issue of our time.
Or rebuilding after Super Storm Sandy hit Brooklyn and you supported relief efforts, during your second year, reminding us that we have to fight climate chaos.
Or reminding the world that Black Lives Matter your senior year, taking part in the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.  And we see them today in the street protests taking place across our beloved Brooklyn Bridge.

Through your years, one wave after another hit our borough and you weathered them.

These storms recall William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  The play's storm forces characters to reflect on who they are.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
            As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
            Are melted into air, into thin air:
            And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
            The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
            The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
            Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this unsubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on.

There nothing wrong with such imagining and reimagining what our social worlds can look like, and how we can solve the problems we face. These are the conversations we have with our friends.
This is what rebel friendships are all about.  I’ve seen as a social worker and organizer.  They have gotten me through hard days, and helped me see new ways of being in the world.  They have also been there in quiet times, offering lessons and examples.
Life is about more than a job they remind us.  “You have to be able to lose a job and not your life,” a friend at work once cautioned.   

As you walk through the streets today, tomorrow, and the rest of your days, I know there will be a temptation to look forward to the day you reach the station, that final finishing line. But remember, that station really does not exist.  Life is not about the past or the future, as much as the ever flowing moment of the present.  Enjoy it and live it well.

My parents taught me a great deal about this.   In the summer of 1965, with war raging,  they hit the road to make friends, not war, traveling overland and sea from London to Istanbul and across the Khyber Pass, with stops along the way through Berlin, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Afghanistan and the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and India during that magic summer of 1965. Friendships cemented forever.   
Their trip reminded us that we can be a different kind of country.
Make friends not war. Get to know each other, listen to hear other, hear each other.

Facing the world, we could benefit from this lesson.  This is a disposition you’ve learned well in your days going to and from class, in the streets of this global borough.   It’s the conversations that makes being in Brooklyn so meaningful.

Look to it as you consider the problems that come your way.  Try to hear everyone out as you wonder about our economy, our city, and the world.
The challenges are many.   But so are the opportunities.
I’m sure you are up for it. We need you .
Wherever you go remember you are from Brooklyn.  This has been one of your homes.
And the experience in diversity and hudspah you’ve experienced, offers something of a lesson for the world.

We fight we make up, we listen and learn from and love of the conversations we have with people we do not agree with.  We do not destroy each other for it. It’s a lesson for the world. Take pride in that.
So later this summer or next fall, when you are  interviewing with people from MIT, and someone asks where you went to school, look up with some pride.  Pull up your shoulders, look your friends in the eye, and explain, “I went to New York City College of Technology, in the global borough of Brooklyn New York.”  And offer to shake their hand.  And never apologize for coming from Brooklyn.

Thank you.

[i]MadebyHand. Made by Hand is a short film series celebrating the people who make things by hand — sustainably, locally, and with a love for their craft.

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