The Washington Times - June 18, 2010, 09:02AM

High school graduations are comparable — spiritual sisters, really — to World Cup matches: three hours of sleep would probably be more productive. Unless Justice Antonin Scalia delivers the commencement address. Then you could learn something!

Thursday afternoon, Scalia spoke to the Langley High School graduating class at DAR Constitution Hall (his granddaughter was graduating, like seven of his children did, from Langley). He worked up an unconventional conceit:

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“My problem with platitudes (at graduation),” Scalia said, “is not that they are old and hackneyed, but that they are wrong.”

Citing Commencement Speech Bingo — when graduates make up cards of platitudes and, okay, it’s self-explanatory, play bingo with them (this actually happened to Tim Russert in 2005) — Scalia methodically shot down gag-inducing platitudes. He livened up graduation, and that’s Captain America work.

“You face unprecedented challenges,” “To thine ownself be true,” “The United States of America is the greatest country because it is the freest” (wait for the transcript, you’ll see) and “This is not the end, it’s the beginning” all got the Scalia lasers. A taste:

“The second platitude I want discuss comes in many flavors. It can be variously delivered as, ‘Follow your star,’ or ‘Never compromise your principles.’ Or, quoting Polonius in ‘Hamlet’ — who people forget was supposed to be an idiot — ‘To thine ownself be true.’ Now this can be very good or very bad advice. Indeed, follow your star if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star.

“Indeed, never compromise your principles. Unless, of course, your principles are Adolf Hitler’s. In which case, you would be well advised to compromise your principles, as much as you can.”

But what really separated Scalia’s speech from conventional fare, however, was the respect for his audience. He didn’t tell you his lesson. He didn’t suggest all the graduates would or could succeed, or become good people. Instead, underlying all the platitude decimation, the speech described a hard world, where the external can deceive, where life’s problems and challenges never really change and where goodness is a chief concern — where being good means more than a simple disposition.

So, it was an okay speech, I guess. If only President Obama could have spoken.

No, it was awesome, clearly. Below, I have 85 percent of the transcript (a tremendous failure, I know), picking up where Scalia blasts “You face unprecedented challenges” to pieces, and the audio is on the way is below. Apologies for the low volume, we were in deep centerfield there at DAR.

“Today, to be sure, we have the capacity to destroy the entire world with the bomb. I suppose you could consider that a new problem, but it is really new in degree, rather than in kind. If you were a teenager graduating from the Priam Memorial High School in Troy about 1500 BC, with an army of war-like Greeks camped all around the city walls, and if you knew that losing the war would mean — as it did — that the city would be utterly destroyed, its men killed, its women and children sold into slavery, I doubt that that prospect was any less terrible to you than the prospect of the destruction of the world. It was all the world you ever used anyway. Your country, your family, your friends, your entire society. The thought that other societies, at least, would go on was probably of no more comfort to the Trojans, or later to the Carthaginians, who were also utterly destroyed, or to the Campbell clan, which was massacred at Glencoe, than it is of comfort to you, that if this world is incinerated, well, it’s good to know there may be others.

“The challenges faced by different societies at different times, take different forms. Defending against the longbow, versus defending against the S4 missile — but in substance, they are always the same. Number one, the forces of nature: How do we assure our continuing supply of clean air and water, food, fuel, shelter and clothing? And number two, the forces of man: How to get along with one another, or defend against those we cannot get along with.

“It is important that you not believe you face unprecedented challenges, not only because you might get discouraged, but also because you might come to think that the lessons of the past, the wisdom of humanity — those are a couple of good platitudes — which it is the purpose of education to convey, is of not much use. I occasionally give a little talk about the Constitution, in the course of which I discuss some of the writings of the founding fathers in the Federalist Papers. They knew they were facing a great challenge in seeking to establish, in one at the same time, a new federation and a democracy. They did not think for a moment it was an unprecedented challenge. If you read the Federalist Papers, you will find that they are full of examples to support particular dispositions in the Constitution. Examples from Greece, from Rome, from Medieval Italy, from France and Spain. So if you want to think yourselves educated, do not think that you face unprecedented challenges.

“Much closer to the truth is a quite different platitude: There’s nothing new under the sun.

“The second platitude I want discuss comes in many flavors. It can be variously delivered as, “Follow your star,” or “Never compromise your principles.” Or, quoting Polonius in “Hamlet” — who people forget was supposed to be an idiot — “To thine ownself be true.” Now this can be very good or very bad advice. Indeed, follow your star if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star.

“Indeed, never compromise your principles. Unless, of course, your principles are Adolf Hitler’s. In which case, you would be well advised to compromise your principles, as much as you can. And indeed, to thine ownself be true, depending upon who you think you are.

“It’s a belief that seems particularly to beset modern society, that believing deeply in something, and following that belief, is the most important thing a person could do. Get out there and picket, or boycott, or electioneer, or whatever. Show yourself to be a committed person, that’s the fashionable phrase. I am here to tell you that it is much less important how committed you are, than what you are committed to. If I had to choose, I would always take the less dynamic, indeed even the lazy person who knows what’s right, than the zealot in the cause of error. He may move slower, but he’s headed in the right direction.

“Movement is not necessarily progress. More important than your obligation to follow your conscience, or at least prior to it, is your obligation to form your conscience correctly. Nobody — remember this — neither Hitler, nor Lenin, nor any despot you could name, ever came forward with a proposal that read, “Now, let’s create a really oppressive and evil society.” Hitler said, let’s take the means necessary to restore our national pride and civic order. And Lenin said, let’s take the means necessary to assure a fair distribution of the goods of the world. In short, it is your responsibility, men and women of the class of 2010, not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. Not merely in their ends, but in their means. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person person begins with being a wise person, then when you follow your conscience, will you be headed in the right direction.

“The next platitude I want to address is perhaps the most common one, especially at graduation addresses, and most especially at graduations in the Washington area. I refer to the phrase, “The United States is the greatest country in the world.” Now, I do not intend to contradict that platitude, because I think it to be true. What I would like to explore with you a little bit, what it is we mean when we say we believe it.

“A few possible things could be easily rejected. We don’t mean, certainly, the most physically beautiful country in the world. Acre-for-acre, Switzerland has it all over us. Even if you take the total number of scenic wonders, I’m not sure we would come out first, at least you couldn’t be sure unless you traveled everywhere.

“Nor do we mean, by the greatest country, the most powerful country. Because then, we would have to think that next to living in the United States, we would like to live in China or Russia, which I doubt is the case.

“Perhaps then what we mean when we say our country is the greatest is that it best satisfies both the physical and spiritual desires of its people. But no, we couldn’t mean that, because on that analysis the nation of Atila the Hun could be considered great. It certainly satisfied the physical desire of its people — to take everything in sight — and the principled spiritual desire of its people — to dominate others.

“Perhaps then we think it to be the greatest because it is the freest. Now there is a real possibility. In fact, I think that is the platitude derivative of the one I am now discussing; mainly, we are the greatest because we are the freest. I’ve heard that very often, as I suppose you have. But is it really true? If so, then I suppose the really greatest nation in the world would be the one where there were no laws, where chaos prevailed. The Wild West, perhaps, in the days before the law arrived, when a fellow could shoot up a town unless somebody bigger could stop him. No, that can’t be the answer either.

“Not to keep you in suspense, let me tell you what I think the answer is. We are the greatest because of the good qualities of our people. And because of the governmental system that gives room for those qualities to develop. I refer to qualities such as generosity. Americans are there not only when their neighbors need help, but even when strangers on the other side of the world do. Qualities such as honesty. Americans are by and large people you can trust. George Washington and the cherry tree, Abe Lincoln returning the book in the snow storm, are part of our national tradition. Qualities such as constancy. Americans can be counted on. They’re not quitters, even when things look bleak. Valley Forge, and Bull Run are part of our tradition, too. Qualities such as tolerance. Americans believe in things, and believe deeply. But they’ll try to persuade others to their way of thinking, and not coerce them. The first amendment, and the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom are part of our national tradition, too. And I could go on; self-reliance, initiative, civility — these are also qualities we take pride in and regard as especially American, characteristic of our great country. These are what make us the greatest.

“The point I’m driving towards, and maybe it’s taking me too long to get there, is that not only is it not true that we are the greatest because we are the freest, rather precisely the opposite is true: We are the freest because we have those qualities that make us the greatest. For freedom is a luxury that can be afforded only by the good society. When civic virtue diminishes, freedom will inevitably diminish as well.

“Take the simplest example. Many municipalities do not have any ordinances against spitting gum out on the sidewalk. As far as the law is concerned, you are free to do that. But that freedom is a consequence of the fact that not many people are so thoughtless as to engage in that practice. And, if that behavior becomes commonplace, you can be absolutely sure that an ordinance will be passed, and the freedom will disappear.

“The same principle applies in larger matters. The English legal philosopher Lord Acton had it right when he said, “That society is the freest, which is the most responsible.” The reason is quite simple and inexorable, legal constraint — the opposite of freedom — is in most of its manifestations a cure for irresponsibility. You are familiar with Madison’s famous passage in No. 51 of the Federalist Papers, “What is government itself but the greatest reflection upon human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The same can be true of the product of government, which is laws, and the constraints upon individuals which those laws establish. Law steps in, and will inevitably step in, when the virtue of the society itself is inadequate to produce the needed result. When the society is composed entirely of criminals, only the strict regimentation of a prison will suffice.

“If I am right that we are the freest because we are the greatest, the message for your lives should be clear: Do not go about praising the Bill of Rights and the wonderful liberties we enjoy without at the same time developing within you, yourselves, and within those whose lives you touch, the virtue that makes all that possible.

“The last platitude I want to mention is appropriately last, because it usually comes towards the end of a commencement address, goes somewhat like this, “Graduates, this is not an end, it is a beginning.” I want to tell you that is not true. There is more sudden end, no more significant rite of passage in our society, no more abrupt termination of a distinct age of your life than the graduation from high school and the departure from home that soon follows.

“You have been living up to now in the moral environment that could be closely supervised by the people who love you most in the world, your parents. They got to know your friends, your teachers, your school, and did what they could to change or improve them, when they thought that was for your own good. Most of you will be going off to college, which is not a place where your parents can control the influences upon your character, and which is not, by and large, a place where anybody serves to exercise that control as well.

“From here on out, you are much more than you have ever been — I’m hoping for a platitude to convey the thought — captains of your own ship. Masters of your own destiny. Your moral formation, what makes you a good person, or a bad one, a success in all that matters, or a failure, is now very much up to you. As a parent who has sent off nine children from high school, away from home, and into a world that has a lot of wisdom, but also a lot of folly, a lot of good, but also a lot of bad, I assure you that if you are not at all worried about the prospect, your parents are.

“But there comes a time to let go. And that is now. I have high hopes for the Langley class of 2010, because I know some of them, I know some of their teachers, and I know the quality of education in knowledge as well as in goodness that Langley has provided. Good luck, and let’s see, I had one last platitude I was going to — oh, yes: The future is in your hands.

“Bingo.”