postcard-from-l-a: Tim Cook’s commencement speech from a cynic’s view

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks to graduates during George Washington University's commencement exercises on the National Mall.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks to graduates during George Washington University’s commencement exercises on the National Mall.

(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Ironically, corporations now scare me as much as communism once did. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I find fault — and a disingenuous slant — in a major chief executive’s recent commencement comments.

In an address at George Washington University, Apple’s Tim Cook urged grads to tune out the cynics.

“There will always be cynics and critics on the sidelines tearing people down,” he said.

OK, Cookie. And where do I send the thank-you note and a small gift?


Keep in mind, there is nothing as excruciating as a graduation address. Steve Jobs famously nailed a Stanford commencement in 2005, but most graduations mean prolonged suffering in airless arenas. What do they ask grads and trustees to wear? Heavy robes. In May, no less. Right there, you know some sort of punishment is at hand.

Hey, kids, welcome to the real world!

Doesn’t help that graduation advice always seems to come from someone so successful that he or she will never need to balance a checkbook again, or worry that the car will hold out or learn how to care for an aging mother who keeps setting her stove on fire in the home she swears she’ll never leave.

It’s understandable that commencement planners pick speakers of means and accomplishment. They’d be better off picking cynics, those wandering minstrels of a vibrant nation.

Thomas Jefferson. Bob Dylan. Jon Stewart. To this day, our nation’s greatest global achievement was the 1st Amendment, based in part on French philosophers who spent lazy, liquored afternoons figuring out ways to provoke politicians and afflict the affluent. Such ornery subversives are as necessary as rain. A little fragrant under their robes, perhaps. But that’s what democracy smells like sometimes.

Our country doesn’t produce philosophers. What we have is late-night talk-show hosts, who do a pretty reasonable job, with a soapbox Voltaire or Diogenes would’ve envied.

That greatest of cynics, David Letterman, retired recently, a setback for cranky truthfulness in general. That he will be missed more than most presidents is a tribute to the appeal of his honest rants. Letterman was our Will Rogers, our H.L. Mencken, a witty and real Sultan of Snark. Miss him already.

I miss the late Christopher Hitchens as well. It was Hitchens who once noted, of children: “It’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body.”

Or: “I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information.”

So see, Mr. Cook, we need our wry and fearless cynics, not corporate types who can’t help but plug the product, as you shamelessly did in your commencement address. After all, your hero Jobs was a cynic at heart, a different and artful drummer, a philosopher in the first degree.

I love millennials, have several myself, and recommend them to everyone. It is in their honor that I’m developing a nav system for cars that sniffs out pockets of hypocrisy and deceit around L.A. Early indications are that Beverly Hills seems rife. The Fox lot too. Avoid them just in case.

To keep relevant, I listen often to the concerns of millennials, hear their crazy schemes and appreciate their smirky smiles. Their eyes are the crystal balls for the next 50 years.

In his address, Cook also told these millennials, “Don’t shrink from risk.”

That’s a musty old standard for commencement addresses: Find your passion, follow your dreams, take some risks, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah …

It cannot be lost among the most discerning grads that these commencement tips are coming from a generation that left them with crushing student debt, a wobbly job market, unaffordable real estate and cities increasingly ablaze. In the ‘70s, we’d have jeered them from the stage.

What I do sense from my encounters with millennials is that they prefer authenticity over everything else. I worry that they don’t find much of it in music anymore, or movies, or pop culture in general, so influenced those industries are by global sales.

Hence, young people go to each other for honest reflection. It’s a mass reflection, troublingly tribal, full of too many tweets about lousy sex and pretty sunsets. But at least it’s unfiltered and of the moment. Only they control it, in an era that seems beyond anyone’s grasp.

So please grasp at least this: In a world that over-worships corporate bottom lines, grads should be encouraged to embrace the healthy cynicism we all require to survive. A skepticism — mixed with hope — that is organic to our unassailable national spirit.

God bless them all.

Twitter: @erskinetimes


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