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Commencement Address

From the July/August issue of the Tarrant County Physician.

I have never been asked to deliver a commencement address, but since most institutions of higher education are not going to be having commencement exercises this spring, I decided I would write one just in case a need arises.  
-Greg Phillips, MD

“Klaatu barada nikto”
(Helen to Gort in order to prevent the destruction of Earth.)

“The Day the Earth Stood Still”—1951 (Michael Rennie as Klaatu; Patricia Neal, Helen; Sam Jaffe, Professor Barnhardt) NOT 2008 (Keanu Reeves, Klaatu; Jennifer Connelly, Helen).

The world had survived World War II and was in the middle of the Korean War.  A spaceship lands on a baseball diamond in Washington, D.C.  A lone alien, Klaatu, in the form of a human being, and his robot, Gort, exit the ship and Klaatu asks to talk with the leaders of planet Earth.  Not surprisingly, the Washington politicians refuse his request and Klaatu embarks on a mission to circumvent them.  He ends up taking a room in a boarding house where Helen and her son, Bobby, reside and befriends them.  Since politicians will not listen to him, Klaatu visits the world-famous Dr. Barnhardt (an Albert Einstein look-alike) to get his support.  Despite Dr. Barnhart’s entreaties, Klaatu still is unable to persuade the world to take him seriously, so he demonstrates his resolve.  He stops all machine-related activities on the planet at the exact same time on the exact same day (sparing, of course, airplanes in the air and hospitals).  

Our United States government sees this as a threat rather than an indication of sincerity and issues an order to track Klaatu down. He is eventually shot and taken to a hospital, but Gort has instructions to destroy Earth if anything happens to Klaatu. The climax of the movie is Helen, racing to the baseball diamond as Gort is leaving the spaceship, saying the above phrase, “Klaatu barada nikto,” which aborts world-wide catastrophe.  Gort then retrieves Klaatu from the hospital, takes him back to the ship and restores his health.  Finally, politicians from all over the world gather in Washington to hear Klaatu’s message.

His proclamation is simple.  Other advanced civilizations in the universe have been keeping an eye on planet Earth for some time and are alarmed by our behavior.  They note that as we develop the capacity to travel off Earth, we will eventually begin to interact with them.  However, since we can’t seem to get along on our own planet, they fear our coming to their worlds.  Our hostilities toward one another cause other civilizations great concern.  So much so that Klaatu warns the leaders that if we don’t straighten up and fly right (like the song by Nat King Cole originally but covered by many others including Lyle in 2003), the peoples of the rest of the universe will have no choice but to eliminate life on planet Earth.

If this were my commencement speech, so that I could fill up the allotted time, I would list and discuss the many examples of how dysfunctional our world remains:

¬ Ongoing wars and conflict between nations

¬ Global terrorism

¬ Global warming and environmental risks

¬ Religious intolerance

¬ Trade wars

¬ Global poverty and malnutrition

¬ Global disease and pandemics

¬ Political intolerance even within the same nation

¬ Racism

One actually could give an entire commencement speech on each of these topics and still not cover them thoroughly.  While there have been some attempts over the decades to address these issues and while we have a United Nations, little has been done to bring us together as a Whole Earth.  The current/recent coronavirus pandemic clearly demonstrates that national and political priorities take precedence over the well-being of the citizens residing on our planet.  

Fortunately, Klaatu did not give us a deadline and, for whatever reasons, we have not been eliminated from the universe by outsiders.  In the past 70 years (and I have been around for all 70) the nations on planet Earth have not taken appropriate steps to reassure the rest of the universe that we care to get along.  If anything, we seem to have gone in the opposite direction!

On the other hand, maybe the citizens of the rest of the universe have continued to watch us and decided not to waste any time or energy on us.  It seems unlikely that any of us ever will be interacting with the peoples of the universe anyway and we’re well on the way to ending life on our planet by ourselves. 

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