Iranian American stand-up comic and actor Maz Jobrani championed free speech – even for conservative provocateurs – and took swings at anti-immigrant sentiment in an alternately funny and serious speech to thousands of graduating seniors and their families at UC Berkeley’s May Commencement. (Video of Jobrani’s speech below.)
“Today, I stand in front of you giving the commencement speech at one of the top universities in America, if not the world,” said Jobrani, whose family fled Iran during that country’s 1978 revolution. “I am the American dream.”
Regaling an audience of more than 45,000 at California Memorial Stadium that included native speakers of Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin, Farsi and Hindi, among countless other languages, Jobrani seemed to feel right at home.
Inside the sun-parched stadium, more than 5,500 UC Berkeley graduating seniors, decked out in black caps, gowns and colorful variations thereof, marched onto the field to “Pomp and Circumstance,” smartphones in their hands, to celebrate a hard-earned rite of passage.
Amid a sea of visibly relieved-looking parents clutching floral bouquets was Jorge Colonia of San Jose, whose son, David, was graduating, having majored in both legal studies and economics.
“I’m very proud. He is our only son,” Colonia said. “Not a lot of people in our family went to college. We had financial challenges, but he worked hard, and it was worth it.”
In his welcoming remarks, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks drew applause as he described the graduates’ soon-to-be alma mater as “not only the best university in the world,” but also the most important for the values it upholds.
He also lamented the threats the campus faces such as stagnant state funding and reduced federal funding for research.
“We’re under fire,” he said, reminding graduates that “as life takes you beyond Sather Gate, Berkeley itself still needs you.”
Also addressing the crowd was top graduating senior Grant Schroeder, an integrative biology major and extreme athlete. Using a triathlon as a metaphor, his speech took his peers through the steps of “questioning, vulnerability and orientation” that he navigated in order to graduate. (Watch Schroeder’s speech below.)
Like other speakers, Schroeder, a native of Goleta, in Santa Barbara County, cited the challenges of balancing free speech against public safety, and how the debate may never be resolved.
“There is no clear answer to this question, yet our dedication to wrestling with pressing issues is why the rest of the world watches us,” he said. “Free speech is not dead, and Berkeley is not a bubble.”
Jobrani, a founding member of the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour who is currently starring in the CBS sitcom “Superior Donuts,” warned of the dangers of censorship, even in the case of provocateurs who skirt the edges of hate speech.
“If we limit free speech from the right, then we sound hypocritical when we criticize Trump for trying to delegitimize our free press,” Jobrani said. “Let’s not be the ones attacking free speech, but the ones defending it.”
He also touched on another of his signature themes on the comedy circuit: immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment. For one thing, he recounted his shock at the travel ban in January that targeted the citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, including his native Iran.
“That woke me up,” he said.
Winding down, Jobrani urged UC Berkeley graduates to travel, not to the usual tourist destinations, but to the Muslim world.
“You will see that Muslims are not out to get you. They just want you to buy a rug,” Jobrani quipped. “Never pay full price for a rug. Always negotiate.”
As for his final tip: “Kiss your parents every time you see them, especially if they’re immigrants, because, you never know, tomorrow they might be deported,” he said to the laughing crowd.