2004 Commencement Address at Pomona College
Quite some years ago I gave a commencement address at Brandeis University which I thought was rather successful — possibly even brilliant. But I received a letter shortly thereafter from a distinguished alumnus of that University. He chastised me for not being more optimistic — for not inspiring the graduates with my hopes for the future into which they were venturing.
I pondered the criticism and was concerned that I had, somehow let that graduating class down. And then I came to my conclusion: It was certainly true that I had not given them a rousing pep talk but, what the devil — I knew I had spoken the truth as I saw it. The speech was given at the depths of one of the most tortured decades in American history. It was the decade of the 1960’s — almost as divisive as the Civil War a century before — a nation torn by the battles for civil rights and women’s rights — the assassinations, the Vietnam war — an economic slump. There wasn’t much to be optimistic about.
Well, here we are at Pomona , almost a half century later, and as we look around us, the world into which you are moving doesn’t look very much brighter.
We are plagued with the Iraq war — a possibly improving economy — but still a tragically large population of unemployed or under-employed — and an environmental crisis that threatens the Earth . Here at home we have a collapsing infrastructure of aging bridges and dams — and a highway system badly in need of repair — and, perhaps worst of all, an inadequate educational system (not including Pomona , of course). Incidentally, those educational failures in our lower schools could be vastly reduced by a wage scale for teachers that would lure more of the best and brightest to the profession. And all of this as we face a national deficit that will hobble us through your generation — and very likely that of your children and even grandchildren.
We have an administration in Washington that has brought us to this condition — and we have a Democratic candidate presumptive who so far has proposed few remedies that offer any specifics that, to this observer at least, promise the necessary new deal in Washington . On the most critical issue, for instance, surely a Democratic brain trust could come up with a peace plan for Iraq that — at least– would give us hope for a reasonably early dignified withdrawal.
But the Kerry camp may well have been buffaloed by President Bush’s oft-repeated pledge that we won’t “cut and run” from Iraq . We all – and that includes this speaker – when we hear that – double up our fists and say “right on, right on!”
Of course we don’t want to be seen as a nation of cowards, abandoning the fight we have started when the going gets tough. But let’s examine the proposition more closely. Nobody has seriously proposed that we “cut and run.” That is purely a jingoistic slogan of an administration intent upon playing the patriotic card to camouflage its lack of a plan to extricate us from its errors.
Is it possible that the “cut and run” stigma has so intimidated the Democratic candidate that he can’t muster the courage to acknowledge that we must leave Iraq and to offer a plan to expedite the departure with honor?
If that is a sound analysis — the nation can only hope that Senator Kerry soon regains his political courage and offers the electorate an alternative to the administration’s failed Iraq policy.
So, with all these problems — am I supposed to stand here today and give you a message of unqualified hope for our immediate future? I’m sorry, but that would be outright dishonest. However, let me now render that inspirational message that is expected of commencement speakers.
All those problems I enumerated before can be solved — or at least mitigated — by an enlightened population and courageous leadership. You — this class of ’04 — are particularly qualified by the education you have received here, to provide both.
Almost certainly the problem of the most imminent danger is that of the rising threat of terrorism. Military defense is essential, of course – but equally — or perhaps more important — is the job of removing the source of the terrorists’ increasing strength. That source is the envy and the bitterness that the deprived peoples of the world hold for the richer nations — of which we are the foremost.
Television, incidentally, is to a large degree, responsible for that state of affairs. Around the globe — in their hovels — the impoverished people watch television. Not infrequently — an entire village gathers around a single set run by a bicycle-powered generator.
And what do they see? To a large part — reruns of American shows depicting a people who want for nothing – not food, clothing nor shelter — a people who live an opulent life beyond imagination. Can we wonder that the jealousy of those villagers — that their discontent — is fodder for radical leaders / who know only violence as a means to even the scales.
Some might suggest that the solution is to get rid of television. That possibly has some merit, — but I find it a little difficult to agree. The challenge is to bring hope to the world’s depressed people — and thus diminish this source of their unrest.
The soldiers in this great campaign to achieve a lasting peace — will be those of your generation. Some of you will serve in the rear echelons – the headquarters of those organizations — eleemosynary and profit-oriented — that will be organizing the building of these capitalist and democratic nations –building the power plants, the railroads, the factories that will provide the economic revolution raising the standard of living around the globe.
Others of you will choose the more challenging and perhaps more adventuresome roles in the front lines. You will choose the course of volunteerism — a civic function of which we Americans are noteworthy. You will go to the world’s far corners to teach others the American philosophy and know-how. For the most part, by your knowledge — so much of it received right here at Pomona — you will inspire the people of the depressed lands.
All of you, certainly, have been thinking long and hard of your future careers. Many of you, of course, will go on to advanced degrees in law, medicine, business, education. It is my conviction that you can have both — a period of rewarding public service and a successful professional career.
In fact, the odds are high that you can gain immensely by participating in the campaign for peace — an experience that will profit you handsomely in the work-a-day world. The glory, though, is in playing an important role in history. I urge you not to believe that this dream of peace — and the way to achieve it — is without reality or a solid foundation.
You will be among those making a major contribution toward achieving what realists would say is impossible – a permanent peace among the peoples of our globe. I happen to believe we’ve got to put idealism on at least an equal footing with practicality. We’re going to make it, we human beings — if we cling to the belief, — if we work for, bringing to reality the achievement of peace.
Let us think big. An Orwellian thought perhaps – but why not rename the Department of State – that is a meaningless title anyway – why not make it the Department of Peace , to emphasize the identify of a whole new American effort — a full court press toward a new destiny. That destiny, of course, is the establishment and keeping of the peace.
If we can appropriate so much of our treasure, — those billions and billions of dollars annually, — in developing more efficient means of killing people — surely we should be able to appropriate funding for an equal effort to keep the peace.
Success in that noble objective will depend on those of your generation who have had the opportunity of an education that equips you to take a leading role in our future – a role that you may begin, and possibly continue, in the public service of our country. And that could include elective office. The biographies of our future leaders may well include the notation….graduated from Pomona College , 2004.
There is hope for the future, — and to a great degree it rests with you.
May you have great success in your future endeavors. We wish that for you, and for the future of America – and all humankind.