It is May. The season of commencement addresses and graduation parties is upon us! Truth be told, I’ve always hated this stuff. Most of the time I find it self-indulgent, spurious, and pointless. Then again, the majesty and awe of ceremonies and rites-of-passage have never resonated with me.
But amid a sea of putrid “congratulations, now buckle up for the real world” speeches from semi-famous alumni and public figures there is occasionally a lesson worth hearing. President Obama’s address to the 2016 graduating class of Rutgers University certainly qualifies.
The whole thing is worth listening to, but I’d like to highlight and expand on a few things Obama said. Starting with his history lesson on the “good old days.”
Point number one: When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” take it with a grain of salt. (Laughter and applause.) Take it with a grain of salt. We live in a great nation and we are rightly proud of our history. We are beneficiaries of the labor and the grit and the courage of generations who came before. But I guess it’s part of human nature, especially in times of change and uncertainty, to want to look backwards and long for some imaginary past when everything worked, and the economy hummed, and all politicians were wise, and every kid was well-mannered, and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world.
Guess what. It ain’t so. (Laughter.) The “good old days” weren’t that great. Yes, there have been some stretches in our history where the economy grew much faster, or when government ran more smoothly. There were moments when, immediately after World War II, for example, or the end of the Cold War, when the world bent more easily to our will. But those are sporadic, those moments, those episodes. In fact, by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago. (Applause.)
Obama is right, of course. The United States is better off by almost every measure and for almost every demographic group. There is no point in time where Americans have been safer, lived longer, had more opportunity, or more guaranteed rights. We are living in a golden age. And he didn’t just mean compared to our “ancient” history of the antebellum nation with its slave economy or the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ fever dreams white conservatives bloviate about where women knew their place (at home) and people of color were legally excluded from public spaces and society. He was talking specifically about my lifetime (est. 1981).
Crime is down. Way down. Ask people who lived through the 80’s in a place like New York City. They may speak wistfully about the old arcades, the gritty “authenticity” of the city, and lament the gentrification of the city or the “Disneyfication” of Times Square, but few (if any) of them would like to return to the world Steven Siegel captured here (these photographs are amazing, by the way).
New York City during the good old days.
Teen pregnancy is down. So is tobacco use. Not surprisingly, life expectancy is also up. The notion of the lazy, spoiled, mouthy millennial is just generational posturing. More young Americans than ever have earned college degrees– a near necessity if you want to compete in the global labor marketplace. They speak more languages, are better at math, participate in more clubs and activities, have healthier attitudes towards work, life, and sex than any of the generations recently preceding them.
The world is also a better place. We no longer fight proxy wars the world over with our Superpower rival. We are not engaged in a nuclear arms race. The racist apartheid system of South Africa is gone. Health and life expectancy are rising in many parts of the world. There is way more freedom in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union. China has become an important trade partner. We’ve eradicated many diseases, like polio– you know, as long as crazy people don’t stop immunizing their children.
Hell, I had my life saved after being hit as a pedestrian by a full-size truck– I’m dead at 20 in the good old days.
Life is good.
Obama attributes this to understanding that change is constant. He is right. Inertia is impossible. The world must keep moving. Obama softened his familiar use of Martin Luther King Jr’s “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” quote, adding that it only does so because of human action. I’ll go further. There is no linear arc. There is simply an unbroken line that represents the linear progression of time. And it goes up and down. It has trended up in the Western world for several hundred years, but that does not mean it always must. Indeed, Obama hints at this later when he directly addresses our contemporary political climate.
But if you were listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from. (Applause.) So, Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be. In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. (Applause.) It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. (Applause.) That’s not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. (Laughter.) That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about. (Applause.) And yet, we’ve become confused about this.
Look, our nation’s Founders — Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson — they were born of the Enlightenment. They sought to escape superstition, and sectarianism, and tribalism, and no-nothingness. (Applause.) They believed in rational thought and experimentation, and the capacity of informed citizens to master our own fates. That is embedded in our constitutional design. That spirit informed our inventors and our explorers, the Edisons and the Wright Brothers, and the George Washington Carvers and the Grace Hoppers, and the Norman Borlaugs and the Steve Jobses. That’s what built this country.
“It’s not cool to not know what you are talking about.” Talk about a line for our times. This sentiment is prevalent across the political and cultural spectrum. Donald Trump’s anti-PC rants are uninformed nonsense. So too are the cynical claims that there are no differences between the two parties (there are and they are extensive). As are notions that America faces grave and perilous challenges around every corner. This is not pragmatism or realism– it is stupidity.
Obama is right to remind us of the Founders and their Enlightenment beliefs. These, not some mystical Christian values, are the core philosophy at the heart of our democracy. They argued for a government by the people not out of divine inspiration, but from the logical conclusion that legitimate government required the consent of the governed. They believed, Jefferson most of all, that an informed citizenry made for the wisest and prudent guide for policy. These were highly educated men who valued knowledge and rational thought over faith and emotional responses.
From there Obama transition into some of the names we associate with the technological and economic development of our nation. Our history is one of brilliant, bold, and fortuitous people who see solutions where others see roadblocks. They did so with hard work and applied intellect, not blind rage or an opposition to change.
This comes to a head in the President’s final point.
Point four: Have faith in democracy. Look, I know it’s not always pretty. Really, I know. (Laughter.) I’ve been living it. But it’s how, bit by bit, generation by generation, we have made progress in this nation. That’s how we banned child labor. That’s how we cleaned up our air and our water. That’s how we passed programs like Social Security and Medicare that lifted millions of seniors out of poverty. (Applause.)
None of these changes happened overnight. They didn’t happen because some charismatic leader got everybody suddenly to agree on everything. It didn’t happen because some massive political revolution occurred. It actually happened over the course of years of advocacy, and organizing, and alliance-building, and deal-making, and the changing of public opinion. It happened because ordinary Americans who cared participated in the political process.
Obama, the Hobbesian Optimist.
This is a point far too many from my generation seem to have forgotten. The right has been more egregious in this– the downright refusal to participate in the sort of compromise necessary for a democracy to function is all the proof you need– but the left is certainly not blameless. Indeed, the Occupy Wallstreet and many elements of the current Bernie Sanders movement have the stench of Tea Party-like obstructionism to them. Rather than seeking to win over the public by exposing hard truths to them and forcing them to confront the ills of their world, as Progressives did with child labor, food quality, or women’s suffrage or the Civil Rights movement did with black voting rights and desegregation in the mid-20th century, these movements seek to change America through fiat. Grab control of the levers of power, refuse to compromise, and force the change you know America needs.
Democracy cannot work this way. Electing a charismatic strongman who promises to do what must be done, regardless of the courts, laws, or legislative bodies is fundamentally unAmerican behavior. It is the downward arc of history.
Obama hammered it home by bringing up Rutgers students protesting a commencement address invitation to Secretary Rice several years ago.
And if participation means voting, and it means compromise, and organizing and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don’t agree with you. I know a couple years ago, folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement. Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration. But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to say — I believe that’s misguided. (Applause.) I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other. (Applause.) I believe that’s misguided.
If you disagree with somebody, bring them in — (applause) — and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. (Applause.) If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. (Applause.) Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words. And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments. And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything. And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe. Either way, you win. And more importantly, our democracy wins. (Applause.)
Prove it wrong. For all the noise I hear about “safe spaces” on college campuses, this phrase has always ruled the day in the places I have worked. Don’t like something someone said? Prove it wrong. Our campuses, even more so than our society, are truly competitive marketplaces of ideas. None of us have a monopoly on the truth. Listening and engaging is where real learning takes place. And more often than not, the best idea presented is the one that wins out.
We’d all be wise to heed President Obama’s advice to the graduates of 2016. The “good old days” were never that great. And despite what you have heard, things today have never been better. Obama is right: “Cynicism is so easy, and cynics don’t accomplish much.” Be positive. See the world for all its faults, but don’t overlook its successes and promises. Making the world better is not easy. It requires a hell of a lot more than bullying and standing defiant against facts and logic. It takes hard work, thoughtfulness, and sacrifice. Not just of others– be they workers, soldiers, or the rich– but of all. It takes years of learning and application, being wrong time and time again. And doing this until you get it right. That is how expertise is made. And expertise, more than anything else, is what made the modern world.
So reject the easy, lazy path of the cynic. Be bold and dream. Put in the work. Trust the process. Listen to other ideas and change when you are bested. Compromise to further your progress, rather than cutting off your nose to spite your face. This is the American way.