Opinion | Hold On to Your Hats, America


Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. It’s commencement season, though at least a few ceremonies are being canceled on account of all the protests. If you were giving a graduation address, what would you say?

Gail Collins: Well, I’ve given a commencement address or two in my time, but even when things were troubled, I could tell that most of the audience was hoping I’d make them laugh. Just in a way that made them feel it was OK to celebrate their achievements by having a good time with their families and friends.

Bret: Last time I spoke to a graduating class, I tried to compare great arguments to great sex. Not sure how that one went over.

Gail: Wish I had been in the audience for that. Don’t know exactly what I’d say to the current graduates, except that I’d congratulate them for having made it through a time of international turmoil, where both presumptive presidential nominees were almost old enough to be their great-grandfathers.


Bret: I’d urge them to do everything they can to cultivate an inner life, especially since social media is always trying to suck it out of them. Commit great poems to heart, starting with those by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Recite them aloud on solitary walks. Compose dirty limericks in your head. Read more for pleasure, less for purpose. Read, immediately, Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian.” Imitate the writers or artists you most admire; you’ll find your own voice and style in all the ways your imitation falls short. Don’t post self-indulgent glam shots of yourself on Instagram, and please stop photographing your damn meals.

Gail: Unless you cooked them — if you’re being creative in the kitchen, it’s like trying to write a poem. Not that I’m any good at either.

Bret: Fair point.

Also: Think of TikTok as your generation’s cocaine and get off it. Work hard on keeping a few good friendships, not gaining thousands of followers. Eschew envy, cynicism and virtue signaling. Ponder the meaning of the word “hineni.” Make only enough money so that you don’t have to think about it much. Preserve an independence of mind and spirit, and nurture a contrarian opinion or two, especially if it goes against your own political side.

Gail: Go, Bret …

Bret: Reserve the right to change your mind — and really do it from time to time. Never join a cause if you aren’t fully familiar with the argument against it. Heed the words of Rabbi Hillel: “Where there are no men, be thou a man.” Or woman. Don’t equate success with fame or fame with happiness. Find your core satisfaction in a soul mate, not a career. Laugh more, mostly at yourself.

What have I missed?

Gail: That’s pretty damn good, especially the laughing part. But I’m not going to go so far as to suggest student protesting is a bad or silly idea. Maybe I’d say: Don’t ruin the day for your friends who’ve brought their parents over from Cleveland for one special moment they’ve been looking forward to for ages.

Bret: Because the Browns are punishment enough?

Gail: I probably told you I was a student protester at my college graduation time. My friends and I went to the ceremony, and they let us onstage, but we didn’t get presented diplomas — because we’d gotten an incomplete in Ethics of Journalism.

Not going any further with this story except to say that it was all about free speech and the effort my friends and I made to get the gay poet Allen Ginsberg the right to speak at our Catholic college.

Bret: I long for the days when campus protests were for the Jew.

Gail: Trillion years ago. We thought things were tough then but truly never had a Donald Trump on our horizon.

Any Trumpian thoughts during the Stormy Daniels … storm?

Bret: I’m trying to understand how the question of whether Trump wore a condom in the alleged encounter is relevant to whether and for what purpose he falsified business records. Or how the prosecution thinks that any of this hurts Trump legally or, most important, politically. Like Bill Clinton, he’ll gain sympathy from some voters for being the victim of prosecutorial overreach. He’ll also gain the sneaking admiration of other voters for, uh, having a stormy with Stormy. What do you think?

Gail: Find it hard to believe anybody who bothers to vote has learned anything new about Trump’s character. Although still kinda haunted by the vision of him lying on the bed in his underwear waiting for her to come out of the bathroom. And maybe as the abortion debate goes on and on, it’ll be useful to question whether a guy who has a lot of sex, at least some of which we now hear was unprotected, could not have a strong opinion on the right to terminate a pregnancy.

Bret: True, although I somehow doubt that an unwanted pregnancy was the main risk in that particular encounter.

Gail: Let’s move on to Congress, where I am increasingly unnerved by my appreciation for Speaker Mike Johnson. Truly, Bret, this was not in my plan for 2024.

Bret: It really says something about the state of the G.O.P. that Marjorie Taylor Greene, who should be a Republican embarrassment, has become a power player, while Mike Johnson, who should be a backbencher, is not only the speaker but also the voice of sense and moderation. Relatively speaking. Did I mention that I’m not a fan of the Antisemitism Awareness Act that passed the House the other week? It might surprise a few of our readers.

Gail: Tell why.

Bret: It embraces an expansive definition of antisemitism, known as the I.H.R.A. definition, after the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and effectively criminalizes a wide range of speech that is generally abhorrent but shouldn’t be criminalized. Much as I hate antisemitism, I also don’t think laws against “hate speech,” including against my own group, should be in federal legislation. And I don’t think conservatives who complain about campus speech codes should be in the business of writing those codes themselves.

Gail: I’m in awe of your analysis. Bowing down.

Bret: The best way to defeat antisemitism is first to understand what it is, to teach people why it’s evil and to call it out when it happens. That’s a job for civil society, not the government.

Gail: We’re agreeing a lot today. Let me take a guess I can change the tone by expressing my admiration for President Biden’s top economic adviser, Lael Brainard, who just called for reducing the budget deficit and extending tax cuts for middle- and lower-income families by raising taxes on the wealthy and the most profitable companies.

Bret: Terrible. Tax increases on companies are just passed through to consumers, in the form of higher prices; to employees, in the form of cost cutting or less hiring; and to shareholders, including a lot of people who hold stock through retirement accounts, in the form of lower profitability. And raising taxes on the so-called wealthy usually ends up thwacking the upper-middle class, including those who live in high-tax states, while the superrich always have the means to hire fancy accountants and lawyers to shield their assets in trusts, offshore accounts and other complex vehicles.

Gail: The government has a tad of cash itself, and an administration with the right priorities can fight to get those tax shields down. Won’t always work, of course, but it would push us in the right direction.

Bret: But wait, there’s worse! Every time Democrats raise taxes, they get clobbered at the polls — as they did in the 1994 midterms after Bill Clinton raised taxes in his first year and again in 2014 after Barack Obama did in his fifth. I know “taxing the rich” polls well, but a lot of voters fear those higher tax rates may soon fall on them.

Gail: Presidents generally get clobbered in the Congressional votes after the election. The fact that Biden fared pretty well, historically speaking, does show he knows a lot more about sending a message voters appreciate, including matters of economic fairness.

Although before you leap at it, I’ll admit the Democrats’ relative success had a whole lot to do with abortion rights rather than the economy. Abortion is an issue Biden’s been very consistent on despite his own private religious feelings. While Trump — yipes, where’s he at this week? This afternoon?

Bret: If Biden winds up winning in November — and I couldn’t be more anxious about his chances — the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, along with the awful restrictions so many conservative states have put on abortion rights, will have had a lot to do with it. Which would be … a pleasing irony.

Gail: I’ll take any irony that keeps us Trump-free.

Bret: Gail, before we go, I have to recommend Robert McFadden’s fantastic obituary for Mary Wells Lawrence (nee Mary Georgene Berg), the advertising genius who came up with the I ❤️ NY campaign and was the first woman to own a major ad agency. I especially loved this story:

In 1966, having several high-profile campaigns under her belt and feeling entitled, Ms. Wells Lawrence asked for the presidency of Tinker & Partners. Her boss, Marion Harper Jr., the president and chairman of Interpublic, told her that he would give her presidential authority but not the title — a woman, he said, could not win acceptance as president.

It was her moment of truth.

“He could see that I was feeling a red rage,” she told The Times in 2012. “And he said, ‘You wouldn’t want to ruin something you built.’ And at that point I just walked out the door. It wasn’t as though I wanted to be Betty Friedan. I just wanted my own agency.”

How marvelous. It’s another case of the right kind of chutzpah defeating the wrong kind of chutzpah.

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