I’m not sure how it’s possible, but President Obama just keeps getting better and better all the time — it’s truly amazing (I just wish he could run for a third term). Check out Obama’s commencement address a little while ago to the Rutgers University Class of 2016. There’s so much great stuff in this speech, it’s hard to know where to start, but here are some highlights (bolding added by me for emphasis), followed by video. Enjoy!
1. Making progress is not “smooth or steady” or “in a straight line,” it’s difficult and contentious and “sometimes bloody.” Sometimes it feels like “for every two steps forward it feels like we take one step back.”
2. The arc of our nation and the world does not bend towards freedom, justice or equality on its own — “it depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history…”
3. “Class of 2016, you are graduating at such an inflection point…horrific terrorist attacks and war and the Great Recession…economic and technological and cultural shifts that are profoundly altering how we work and how we communicate…The pace of change is not subsiding, it is accelerating; and these changes offer not only great opportunity but also great peril.”
4. We need to make the right choices to move away from “fear and division and paralysis and towards cooperation and innovation and hope.”
5. Obama mocked the concept (hinting clearly at Donald Trump’s ridiculous “Make America Great Again” crap), of “look[ing] backward and long for some imaginary past when everything worked and the economy hummed and all politicians were wise and every child was well mannered and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world.” According to Obama, “It ain’t so…The good old days weren’t all that good.” In fact, today, “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” (e.g., in the 1950s, “women and people of color were systematically excluded from big chunks of American life”).
6. “The world is more interconnected than ever before,” and (another shot at Trump), “building walls won’t change that.” In fact, the “biggest challenges we face can’t be solved in isolation.”
7. Obama made a strong case, given the interconnected world economy, for trade deals that press other countries to raise their environmental, labor and human rights standards.
8. Another shot at Trump: “Isolating and disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently…that is not just a betrayal of our values…a betrayal of who we are, it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism.”
9. Yet another well-deserved shot at Trump: “Suggesting that we can build an endless wall along our borders and blame our challenges on immigrants, that doesn’t just run counter to our history as the world’s melting pot, it contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the globe; that’s how we became America, why would we want to stop it now???”
10. A well-earned shot at the entire Republican Party these days: “Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science, these are good things, these are qualities you want in people making policy…” Where has “this strain of anti-intellectualism” come from? “In politics and in life, ignorance is NOT a virtue; it’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about…that’s not challenging ‘political correctness,’ that’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.”
11. Today, we have tremendous access to information, but ironically that hasn’t necessarily made us “more discerning of the truth,” but in some ways has simply “made us more confident in our ignorance.” “We assume whatever’s on the web must be true…opinions masquerade as facts, the wildest conspiracy theories are taken for gospel.” “When our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as ‘elitists,’ then we’ve got a problem.” If we get sick, we want the doctor to have gone to medical school; if we get on a plane, we want the pilot to actually be able to fly the plan; but in our public life we don’t want someone who knows what they’re doing?
12. “The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science, that is the path to decline.” The “debate around climate change is a perfect example of this.”
13. Obama mocked climate science denier Sen. James Inhofe for bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor during the winter as “proof” that there’s no global warming. To the contrary, “climate change is not something subject to political spin, there is evidence, there are facts, we can see it happening right now…Imagine if Benjamin Franklin had seen that Senator with the snowball…Imagine if you’re 5th-grade science teacher had seen that — he’d get a “D”; and he’s a Senator!”
14. A critique of Donald Trump AND Bernie Sanders? “Have faith in Democracy; I know it’s not always pretty…but it’s how, bit by bit, generation by generation, we have made progress in this nation…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…because ordinary Americans who cared participated in the political process.”
15. “If you want to change this country for the better, you’d better start participating.” When people don’t vote, as happened in 2014, “apathy has consequences.”
16. Another critique of Sanders? “The system isn’t as rigged as you think, and it certainly is not as hopeless as you think…If you vote and you elect a majority that represents your views, you will get what you want; if you opt out or stop paying attention you won’t…It’s not that complicated.” And no, there’s no excuse for cynicism or expecting things to change overnight — it can take decades of hard work and also compromise; “that’s how democracy works.” “You have to be a citizen full time all the time.”
17. Democracy also means listening to people you don’t agree with. Obama criticized Rutgers students for trying a couple years ago to block and/or shut out former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “I believe that’s misguided; I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other…If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions...make them defend their positions…engage it, debate it, stand up for what you believe in, don’t be scared to take somebody on, don’t feel like you have to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities, go at ’em if they’re not making any sense.”
18. You have to be persistent…”I always tell my daughters, ‘better is good’…that’s how progress happens…Certainly don’t let resistance make you cynical…cynics don’t accomplish much…as a guy named Bruce Springsteen once sang, ‘they spend their lives waiting for a moment that just don’t come…don’t waste your time waiting.”