Press Release: Commencement Address

The Graduate Center of the City University of New York

May 26, 2005

I am deeply honored to receive this President's Medal and to be sharing this ceremony with you.

You have been working toward this occasion for a long time now and I am sure you are eager to feel that parchment in your hand and to head for the exit to celebrate, so I will make this brief. Not as brief, however, as the late comedian Bob Hope at another commencement some years ago when he stood up, looked out across the audience, and said: "Graduates, it's a cruel world out there - don't go." And then he promptly sat down.

It is a cruel world but you already know that.  When I was a young fellow in Washington back in the 1960s, I admired in particular an aging, wounded, and wise man - wise because of the wounds - who had come to town with Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. When I asked him what was the most important lesson he had learned over the years, he answered: "There is no justice in the world - now get on with it!"

I could stop there.  It is advice enough.  But I will take a few minutes to tell you why I wanted to be with you today.

I wanted to tell Mathilde Krim how grateful I am for the life she has lived and for the work she has done.  We have known each other a long time.  I have watched in awe her pursuit of knowledge in the service of healing.  Where there was suffering, she brought hope; where there was darkness, light.  She has shown us that science is the great antidote to superstition.   

I wanted to tell Harry Belafonte how much he has been part of my life - all the way back to the primal era of 78 RPMs.  Harry was sometimes my only companion on a lonely road in Texas in the 1950s.  Or at home in my study his music would often enfold my tired spirit and coax from it a fresh start.  "Yellow Bird" sings in my head to this day, and you haven't come awake until you have heard Harry Belafonte sing "My Lord, What a Morning."  In 1961 when I was one of the organizers of the Peace Corps - and then its deputy director - Harry was on our advisory board and I came to know the man as I had known the music.  During the March on Washington in 1963 I looked up and there, a dozen or so yards ahead of me, was....Harry Belafonte.  We go back a long time.

I wanted to meet Charles Tanenbaum today. I knew, of course, of his impressive collection of 18th century America documents and of his generosity in allowing students to actually hold and handle those precious materials in order to feel the reality of the past.  Charles Tanenbaum clearly believes the old Jewish proverb that says, "In remembrance is the secret of redemption." 

And I wanted very much to be here for President Horowitz's farewell.  We have met on occasion but always in a crowd and I have never had the chance to tell her how much I admire what she has done here.  My heroes are people like her who make public institutions work.  These are fragile contraptions and their leaders are always vulnerable to the fashions of the time, the perils of politics, and the presumptuous judgments of the uninformed.  It takes formidable skills, a resilient will, and deep tissues of character to leave a public institution stronger than when you came to it. 

My life was changed by public institutions.  When I was born in 1934 during the Great Depression down on the Red River between Oklahoma and Texas, my father was making $2 a day working on the construction of a new highway.  To pay for my delivery, he labored in his spare time carrying the stones for the doctor's new office building, which stands to this day in the little town of Hugo, Oklahoma.  He did common jobs all his life and before his retirement many years later my father's last paycheck, after taxes, was $96 and change.

 The life I have led would not have happened if it had not been for the public library in my hometown, public schools within walking distance, a small public college to which I hitchhiked nearby, and, finally, the state university in Austin.  

 At age eight I would never have come upon a free copy of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days.  Or at age 16 heard Inez Hughes standing in front of her 10th grade class - her shoulders high, her back straight and The Oxford Book of English Verse extended as far as her arms would reach - reading aloud Thomas Grey's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."  All these years later those rhythmic cadences march in my head:  "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power." "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen." "The paths of glory lead but to the grave."

I would have missed Selma Brotze whose first love was Shelley, Byron, and Keats but who drew the faculty lottery to supervise the school paper. Miss Selma taught us how to write a story and urged me to apply for a job on the local daily when I was just 16.

 As a freshman at the age of 18, I would have missed Eva Joy McGuffin describing Geoffrey Chaucer's gift at catching the rhythm of natural conversation and his early experiments with the dream-vision form in poetry.  I would never have seen in my mind's eye the characters she brought to life from The Canterbury Tales - the knight, prioress and nun, the miller, merchant and clerk - or imagined myself at Tabard Inn with them.  

Nor would I have heard at 20 Gilbert McAllister - "Dr. Mac" - striding back and forth in his introductory anthropology course at the University of Texas and recounting the years he had spent among the Apaches as a young graduate student.  They had taught him the meaning of reciprocity, he said.  In the Apache tongue the word for grandfather is the same as the word for grandson.  Generations are linked to one another in an embrace of mutual obligation.  And with that he was off, expounding on his conviction that through the ages human beings have advanced more from collaboration than competition.  For all the chest-thumping about rugged individuals and self-made men, Dr. Mac said, an ethic of cooperation inspired the imperative of compromise that is the bedrock of the social contract.

It was in these public institutions that I came to understand society as a web of cooperation joining individuals to family, friends, communities, and country, passing knowledge from one generation to the other and creating those "habits of the heart," in Robert Bellah's phrase, that hold us together in a rough fabric of trust.  It was in these public institutions that I came first to understand the meaning of the commonwealth, of the community as a shared project, of reciprocity as the essential engine of democracy.  Those institutions that shaped me had been paid for by the taxes of people I never met who had been committed to helping generations they would never meet.

That social cooperation provided the resilient environment for the making of America.  Yes, the record is stained by racism, cruelty, and violence. "Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," Americans dispossessed the Indian and nurtured slavery in the cradle of liberty.  Nevertheless, over time, individual initiative succeeded only when it led to strong systems of mutual support and we learned to move beyond the laissez-faire philosophy of "live and let live" to an active commitment of "live and help live."  Civilization, as we are constantly informed by the news of the day, is not a natural act; it is, rather, a veneer of civility stretched across primal human appetites.  Like democracy, civilization has to be willed and practiced, or society becomes a war of all against all, where "the strong take what they can, and the weak take what they must."

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether "we, the people" is a spiritual idea embedded in a political reality - one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all - or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

I don't have to tell you that the web of cooperation is under siege. A profound transformation is occurring in America as the balance between wealth and the commonwealth is threatened by that "winner take all" ideology.  From public schools and universities to public lands and other natural resources, from the media with their broadcast and digital spectrums to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs - and to politics itself - a broad range of the American commons is undergoing a powerful shift away from public responsibility and obligation to private control and exploitation.

I know statistics can cause our eyes to glaze over, but as a wittier fellow than I once said, "It is the mark of truly educated people to be deeply moved by statistics."

Let's see if you are moved by these statistics from reading I have done just in the past few days:
 

  • In 1960 the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20% and the bottom 20% in this country was 30 fold. Four decades later it is more than 75 fold.

  • Despite periods of immense growth in recent decades, the average real income of the bottom 90% of American taxpayers actually fell by 7% between 1973 and 2000. (See article by Joshua Holland on AlterNet.org, 4/25/05)

  • During 2004 and the first two months of this year, wages failed to keep pace with inflation for the first time since the 1990 recession. This meant working Americans effectively took an across-the-board pay cut at a time when the economy grew by a healthy 4% and corporate profits hit record highs. (Holland)

 

Believe it or not, the United States now ranks the highest among the highly developed countries in each of seven measures of inequality. Our GDP outperforms every country in the world except Luxembourg, but when it comes to fighting poverty we are dead last among the 20 most developed countries in fighting poverty. And, according to one survey, among industrialized nations we are at the bottom in functional literacy, even as only about a quarter of Americans graduate from college. (Holland)

The concentrations of wealth that exist in America today would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefiting proportionately. But that's not the case. As the economist Jeffrey Madrick reminds us, working families with middle and lower incomes have been losing ground under economic pressures that deeply affect household stability, family dynamics, social and political participation, civic life, and social mobility. Equality of opportunity is shrinking for people who live paycheck to paycheck and they are finding it harder and harder to get a good education, learn new skills, get good jobs, and pay their taxes.

On the eve of George W. Bush's second inauguration, The Economist - no  Marxist rag this - produced a sobering analysis of what is happening to the old notion that any American can make it to the top.  The editors pointed to "income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the first Gilded Age."  They  pointed to an "education system increasingly stratified by social class" in which poor children "attend schools with fewer resources than those of their richer contemporaries" and great universities "increasingly reinforcing rather than reducing these educational inequalities." They pointed to evidence that corporate employees are finding it "harder to start at the bottom and rise up the company hierarchy by dint of hard work and self-improvement."  They pointed to the yawning gap between pay for people at the top and for the people who work for them.  And from the evidence, the editors of The Economist concluded that, "The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society."

Call it the hijacking of America.   

Forty years ago President Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, predicted that "this country is going so far to the right you are not even going to recognize it."  President Nixon's Secretary of the Treasury, William Simon, set forth a blueprint for that transformation in a manifesto entitled A Time for Truth.  He declared that "funds generated by business...must rush by the multimillions" into a crusade against egalitarianism.  It was a trumpet sounded for financial and business elites to take back the power and privileges they had lost as a result of the Depression and the New Deal.  Soon they were waging a well-orchestrated, lavishly financed movement.  Business Week bluntly acknowledged the reality: "Some people will obviously have to do with less... It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more." The long-range strategy was to cut workforces and their wages, scour the globe in search of cheap labor, trash the social contract and the safety net that was supposed to protect people from hardships beyond their control, deny ordinary citizens the power to sue rich corporations for malfeasance and malpractice, and eliminate the ability of government to restrain what editorialists for the Wall Street Journal admiringly called "the animal spirits of business."

The right had set out to create their own dedicated countervailing network of institutions devoted to dismantling the philosophical, constitutional and fiscal underpinnings of liberal government.  To create the intellectual framework for this assault on public policy, they created conservative think tanks - funded corporations and wealthy individuals - that churned out study after study advocating their agenda.  To put political muscle behind their ideas, they created a formidable political machine amply endowed with money from big business political action committees.  And they built alliances with the Christian Right - Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, and now James Dobson's Focus on the Family - who waged a cultural war even as their corporate and political allies waged a class war.

It's a war they are winning.  In Daniel Altman's recent book Neoconomy, he describes a place without taxes or a social safety net, where rich and poor inhabit different worlds, and he says: "It's coming to America."  In creating the greatest economic inequality in the advanced world, the corporate, political, and Religious Right are saddling our nation, states, cities and counties with structural deficits that will last for generations, putting public institutions under permanent and growing stress.

So this is no ordinary time.  You are leaving here as the basic constitutional principles of America are under assault - an independent press and judiciary, the separation of church and state, progressive taxation, and the social contract. You are going to be needed if we are to recover America as a shared project.

That means a shared memory, remembering - as John Powers wrote last year - that "the freedoms and pleasures we enjoy weren't sent down from heaven or plucked from a tree. They were born of centuries of struggle by untold millions who fought and bled and died to assure that the government just can't walk into our bedrooms and read our mail, to protect ordinary people from being overrun by massive corporations, to win a safety net against the often-cruel workings of the market, to guarantee that workers cannot be compelled to work more than forty hours a week without extra compensation, to make us free to criticize our government without having our patriotism impugned, and to make sure  that our leaders are answerable to the people when they choose to send our soldiers into war."

It also means a shared vision.  Daniel Yankelovich, one of the foremost modern pioneers in studying the deep opinions and interests of the American people, reminds us that vision is a difficult word with many definitions, most of them too grandiose for comfort.  But he once provided a simple definition of vision that is relevant today.  A vision, he said, "Is simply a picture of what life would be like if we were able to reverse certain destructive trends."

That's what Martin Luther King did - he dreamed of a future free of racial hatred.  It's what we can do too. Surely we can imagine what America might be if we reversed the trend of inequality.  Regular people would then know that their kids had a fair chance to compete against the bipartisan elite of wealth and advantage. They would sense that they themselves were not going to keep falling behind.  And they could believe that the system is actually working for and not against them.

I confess that at a commencement exercise like this I wonder if a stranger from one generation can say much that is helpful to members of a generation poised on a different doorstep of time.  Half a block down the street I bought something that may help.  It's a bagel - and it represents perhaps the most important lesson I have learned over a long life in journalism.  Bread is the great reinforcer of the reality principle - that life is a social, not a solitary endeavor. We depend on bread for a host of others, most of them strangers, from the farmer to the baker to the deliveryman to the shopkeeper, and in this case, that vendor on the corner.  I grew up in a deeply Protestant culture in east Texas where my father's greatest honor, in his mind, was to serve as a deacon in the Baptist church.  When I hold this bagel in my hand I am reminded of all the times I heard that congregation joined in the Lord's Prayer.  It was of course always in the first person plural, "Give us this day our daily bread." 

Like life, America is a shared project. 

If we can keep it.

 

Submitted on: MAY 1, 2005

Category: Commencements, Press Room