Transcribed by Donna L. Jackson
Registered Merit Reporter, Federal Certified Realtime Reporter
Thank you very much. Thank you all very much; and President Joan Hinde Stewart, thank you for your very generous and kind introduction. Philip Stewart; Jeff Little, Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees; the board members; other honorary degree recipients: Patsy Couper, Paul Lieberstein and John Sexton. To the faculty, to the staff, to the families here and, of course, most of all, to you, the class of 2011.
May I also say a very special word of thanks to one of my closest friends and one of your alumni and my business partner, David Blood, who to me exemplifies the values, the character and the deep learning that graduates of this institution acquire. May I also note that David was influenced not only by his own time at this institution, but by the experiences gained here by his father, I mention, who also graduated from Hamilton. And I mention that in order to deliver a short message about the extreme importance of institutions like Hamilton over many, many generations. I am a great admirer of this Institution. I am very proud that this is my second opportunity to make remarks here.
And on my way here, I spent a moment reflecting on the position of a commencement speaker; and, in doing so, I reflected on my own graduation so many years ago. And I tried to remember who the commencement speaker was, and I have to acknowledge to you that I have no idea. And I dare say that years from now, unless I've just tricked you into remembering it, you will have absolutely no idea who gave this speech. You will remember that your families were here. You will remember your friends. You will remember the parties this evening. You will remember a great deal about this institution, but very little about this speech. So, humbled by that recognition, I will nevertheless go forward.
It is traditional on an occasion like this for the commencement speaker to convey something about the circumstances in the world that you are about to enter as graduates. Now, of course, our world is in a period of tumultuous change, and those of you who are about to enter the job force are naturally thinking about the state of the economy.
I asked one of your economics professors last evening how he felt about the economy, and he said, "I feel fine." And that reminded me of a story that I first heard some 30 years ago when I was a young congressman representing a rural district in middle Tennessee.
And after a day of town hall meetings, I was driving home late one Saturday evening, listening to the Grand Ol' Opry on the radio. And in those days, the Grand Ol' Opry had a great comedienne named Cousin Minnie Pearl.
And some of the older attendees may remember her. She wore a straw hat with a price tag still dangling from the hat. She was actually a learned woman, but her character Minnie Pearl was as country as country could be. And she told a story that evening that stayed with me. It was about a farmer who had been involved in an accident, and so he went to court and sued the other driver for damages. And the lawyer representing the other driver put this farmer on the witness stand and, during his cross examination of the farmer, he asked, "Now isn't it true that immediately after this accident you said, 'I feel fine'"? And the farmer said, "Well, it's not that simple. You see, I was taking my cow to town in the back of my truck, and this fellow came driving across the center line."
And the lawyer said, "Wait a minute, Your Honor. We're in the middle of a trial here. We don't want to hear a long story. Just answer the question yes or no. Did you or did you not say immediately after the accident, 'I feel fine'"? And the farmer said, "Well, I was leading up to that. You see, I was taking my cow to town in the back of my truck, and this fellow came driving across the center line and ran right smack dab into my truck and knocked it over, threw me out, threw the cow out. I was on one side and the cow was on the other. And the policeman came up and took one look at the cow and said, 'Mmm. She is suffering,' pulled out his gun and shot her right between the eyes. Came around my side of the truck and said, 'How do you feel?' So I said, 'I feel fine.'"
And at least on a comparative basis you should feel fine, because the recognition that you are receiving here today as graduates is accompanied by your acquisition of an ability to live a fruitful and fulfilling life; but, of course, the most relevant choices will be yours. We are living, also, in a time of other challenges; and some of you might be surprised if I did not make mention of the climate crisis. It is a challenge that in my opinion is the most serious challenge that our civilization has ever faced. And because we live here, most of us -- I know this graduating class has students from not only in the United States, but from other countries around the world.
But for those of us who live here in the United States of America, I truly believe it is a challenge that is unprecedented. It is a struggle for the soul of America. And I say that because it is a test of our ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false. To determine, more accurately put, what is more likely to be true than not.
When this Institution's predecessor academy was founded in 1793, it was during the birth of the United States of America. And our Nation was founded in the period known as The Enlightenment. Indeed, our Nation was the fullest flower of The Enlightenment. In the dozen generations following the introduction of the printing press, a public conversation of democracy began that was easily accessible by every literate individual. And as the wave of literacy spread from Northern Europe south and in other parts of the world, a similar expansion took place: The old oligopolous power of the feudal lords and its monarchies and the Medieval Church which relied on an exclusive possession of knowledge that was not distributed to the common citizenry. All of a sudden, individuals were able to displace power based on wealth and force of arms with influence based on facts, and the old sovereigns were displaced by a new one: The Rule of Reason.
And when this institution was formally founded in 1812, it was really on the basis of the Rule of Reason. And throughout much of American history, we have made, I believe, better decisions than any other nation in the history of the world, because in our democracy, individuals were available to take part in a collective effort to find the best available evidence tested in reasoned discourse and then express their opinions in ways that influence the public mind.
We have seen a change in the nature of that conversation of democracy. In the age of television, the most important conversations are those that take place over this medium that is largely a one-way medium. The citizenry has been transformed into the audience. Voters are often called consumers today, and the 30-second television ads which dominate our politics have very little resemblance to the writings of Alexander Hamilton, Elihu Root, or other members of the founding generation. And as a result, the conversation of democracy is now challenged.
Our ability to accurately determine together what is more likely to be true than not is challenged in what sometimes resembles a propagandistic repetition of ideological formulations that substitute preferred versions of reality for the one that is best discerned in a free democratic discourse. Let me give two examples and then conclude with the climate crisis itself.
When our nation was debating the wisdom of invading Iraq, public opinion polls showed, at the time the Senate took its vote, more than three-quarters of the American people genuinely believed that the person primarily responsible for the attacks of September 11th, 2001, was Sadam Hussein, the then ruler of Iraq. Whether you agreed with that invasion or not, I believe that all should agree that it is dangerous for a great nation to base important decisions on facts that are manifestly false because decisions by great nations can have long lasting consequences.
William Faulkner wrote, "The past is not dead. Indeed, it is not even past." Because of that decision, based on a false understanding of reality, we are still in Iraq today. And because so many troops were diverted from Afghanistan during the search for Osama bin Laden and used to invade Iraq, we are still in Afghanistan today.
The second example. Because of the influence of special interests, the government of the United States decided to legalize gambling in what are called financial derivatives; and the complexity of these instruments grew in size and volume to the point where the sub-prime mortgage fiasco triggered the collapse of the international credit system and led to the great recession, which in turn framed the joke about the economy being such that we can feel fine about it today. It is recovering, by the way; but the consequences of those mistakes are still with us with the teetering Eurozone. A risk that is difficult to quantify of a double-dip recession. I think we will avoid one.
But again, decisions made on false understandings did not serve our nation well.
Similarly, today we have a debate in our nation about whether or not the climate crisis is real. Every national academy of science of every major nation on the planet says it is. Every professional scientific association in every field related to the study of climate says it is. Ninety-eight percent of all climate scientists say it is.
Mother Nature has weighed in.
If you will think about the events of the last 12 months, 20 million people were displaced in a nuclear armed country when Pakistan suffered the largest flood in its history. Australia was flooded in an area the size of France and Germany combined. The Mississippi Valley is now experiencing the largest floods in history. My home city of Nashville one year ago had a 1,000-year rainfall that flooded out thousands of homes and businesses, the owners of which had no flood insurance because areas effected had never experienced floods in all of history.
Today, most of Texas is facing an extreme or, is in the highest category of drought. Last month, of the 242 counties in Texas, 202 of them were on fire simultaneously. Last August, in Russia, the largest drought, followed by the largest fires in their history, resulted in the removal of all the grain from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan from world markets, leading to the historic all-time spike in food prices. These events have been just within the last 12 months.
And the scientists are now in a shift; theoretic saying that, if you ask the question, would these events have occurred in the absence of manmade global warming, the answer is almost certainly no. But how are we in our democracy supposed to establish the reality of the climate crisis with sufficient resolution to justify the bold and difficult steps that must be taken in order to solve the climate crisis? Though some damage will be difficult to unwind, there is no doubt that we can, if we choose to, solve the climate crisis.
I would argue, in conclusion, that the true solution depends upon exactly the kind of learning that you have acquired here and, more precisely, the traditions that you have acquired here to use the Rule of Reason, search out the best available evidence, and then engage as citizens in a fair and reasoned discourse that searches for the best solutions.
Renewable energy technologies are spreading faster than ever before, the grass roots movement in support of solving the climate crisis is the most powerful in the history of the world; but it will be the generation of you in this graduating class that really brings about the change.
When I was a young boy of 13 years old, I remember listening to an historic speech 50 years ago this spring when President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States of America to put a person on the moon and return him safely within 10 years. And I remember hearing so many who said, "That's impossible. That was an unwise challenge." But eight years and two months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the surface of the moon; and in the instant they did so, there was a great cheer that went up in the Control Room at NASA's headquarters in Houston, Texas. The average age of the systems engineers cheering in that moment was 26,
which means their average age when they first heard that challenge was 18.
We have the capacity; you have the knowledge. We, as Americans, have the tradition and the resolve to do whatever we choose to do. There is an old African proverb that says, "If you wish to go quickly, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together." We have to go far quickly.
We have everything we need to succeed, and now we have the graduating class of 2011. The only thing we need is political will; but always remember that in the United States of America, political will is a renewable resource.