“Thank you very much. It means a great deal to me. Dean Rakesh Khurana, Catherine Zhang, and all of the members of the committee the alumni association, and let me also give a shout out to my fellow members of the class of ‘69, so many whom are here for our 50th anniversary. We’ve had a lot of fun. And of course I can’t help but think back to the time 50 years ago when we sat down in these very same seats when our country was going through a tumultuous time politically and socially and there was public anger and outrage fueling activism and protests.
Harvard was steeped in the Vietnam War protests. The administration building was occupied. You’ve probably heard a great deal about some of those events with all of the remembrances on the anniversary, but we had a president who flouted the law, was hostile to norms, exploited division and hate. Our society and political dialogue were mired in tribalism and polarization and it felt sometimes like the challenges would be really difficult to overcome. But we did overcome them. And it’s useful to think back about that time because the time we’re in right now and I’m going to say a little bit about that in this talk, but I do want to begin by saying to your parents to your families to the faculty and staff but most of all, the members of this class — congratulations!
This is a wonderful wonderful occasion and tomorrow will be as well. And you know I was paying attention when Nicholas said there’s always a popular vote and the electoral college. And I actually think of the difference between Class Day and Commencement in those terms. There was a popular vote to select your speaker here today. Thank you very much. But I can’t give you your diplomas. You’ve got to come back for the true authority on Commencement tomorrow, but congratulations to all of you.
The last time I spoke during Commencement week, was 25 years ago, I was Vice President — and someone asked me, “what is the best thing about being Vice President?” I said well, there’s the great seal of the Vice President of the United States. And if you close one eye and turn your head just right, it says President of the United States.
I want to say a few serious words today because you’ve given me an opportunity and an occasion to do so. Again, my deep, deep gratitude.
Veritas – truth – is not only Harvard’s motto, emblazoned on so many of these banners here today but it is also democracy’s shield. And the right to pursue truth is the most fundamental right of them all. That right is now at risk. And as a result, freedom itself is at risk, more so now than it was 50 years ago.
Earlier this week one of my distinguished classmates Robert Post, professor and longtime former dean at Yale Law School, warned us that in America today we are witnessing what he called, and I quote, “an attack on the authority of knowledge.”
Of course, what we think of as “knowledge” is always based on our best efforts in the past to establish what is more likely than not to be true, but it is inevitably combined with a legacy of accumulated error sanctified by repetition, and we have learned that our constant asymptotic progress toward Veritas requires that reason be used to subject the authority of knowledge to continuous challenge. It is our shared respect for the authority of what we accept mutually as knowledge that undergirds the principle that we are a nation of laws, not men or women.
My faith tradition teaches “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” And other traditions teach the same truth in other words.
Faith in the power of reason—the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available — instead of on the basis of the exercise of raw power—was and remains the central premise of American democracy and it is precisely that premise that is under assault in our country today.
The principal alternative to democracy throughout history has been the consolidation of virtually all state power in the hands of a single strongman who enlists a small group of henchmen to exercise power without the informed consent of the governed. It was in revolt against just such a regime, after all, that America was founded. And when Abraham Lincoln declared, at the time of America’s greatest challenge, that the ultimate question being decided in the Civil War was “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure,” he was not only saving our Union, but he was also recognizing the fact that democracies are rare in history. And they often do not last. And when they fail, as they did in Athens and the Roman Republic upon both of whose designs our founders drew heavily, what emerges in their place is another strongman – a “dictator,” as the Romans called him — with an aspiration to dominance, which necessitates a constant focus on power.
What makes totalitarians – and would-be totalitarians — so profoundly dangerous is that their hunger for power leads them always to try to establish themselves as the final authority as to what is and is not accepted as knowledge. They want to displace reason as the means to test ideas for their validity.
That is why throughout history they have so frequently labeled the free press as “the enemy of the people.” That is the meaning of the phrase “alternative facts.”
We often say that “no man is above the law” — although the U.S. Justice Department’s current policy carves out an exception to that principle for one, and only one, person. We should also affirm that “no person is the sole arbiter of the truth,” and to that there must be no exception. However, totalitarians seek to make themselves both above the law and the sole arbiter of truth.
That is why we hear threats today to prosecute as criminals those in our law enforcement agencies who have sought to protect our democracy. Supporters of authoritarianism define loyalty to America’s core principles as treason against its new would-be sovereign.
This explains the appeal to would-be autocrats of multiple “bromances” with extreme authoritarians, at least one of whom in our current time has been allowed to sink his teeth into America’s democratic electoral process and play with it like a chew toy.
Zealous would-be autocrats are also dangerous for our country because of their willingness to do serious damage to the structure and norms of our American democracy in order to satisfy their lust for domination of all three branches of government in order to enact their dogma as policy.
Supporters of authoritarianism in America have long sought an all-powerful executive using a weakened and obsequious legislative branch to fashion a compliant judiciary in its own image. They endeavor to break down the separation of powers. And in place of the current system, they seek to establish a system in which power is unified in the service of a narrow ideology serving a narrow set of interests. It is truly power that is key to understanding the cynical manipulation of facts and the assault on reason.
Aristotle once wrote that virtue is one thing. Similarly, respect for the rule of law is one thing; it is indivisible. And as long as it remains indivisible, so will our country. But if those making decisions in our democracy are ever so beguiled by a lust for power that they abandon this unifying principle, then the fabric of our democracy will tear.
When the decision-making process is no longer dominated by reason, it quickly becomes far more vulnerable to outcomes determined by the use of raw power, and the temptation to corruption grows accordingly.
When reason and logic are removed from the process of democracy—when there is no longer any seeming purpose in debating or discussing the choices we have to make—then all the questions before us are reduced to a simple question: Who can exercise the most power in its rawest form? The system of checks and balances that has protected the integrity of our American system for more than two centuries has already been dangerously eroded.
If dogma and cultish devotion to a strongman rush in to fill the vacuum left by reason’s departure, they allow for the exercise of new forms of power more arbitrary and less derived from the consent of the governed. In simple terms, when fear and anxiety play a larger role in our society, logic and reason play a diminished role in collective decision making. And unfortunately the new expressions of power that surface in such circumstances often spring from the deep, poisoned wells of racism, ultra-nationalism, religious strife, tribalism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, sexism and misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, discrimination and abuse of the disabled.
Would-be autocrats ignore the warnings of their own experts, forbid dissent, and refuse to test assumptions against the best available evidence. They demonstrate contempt for the basic tenets of rational decision-making, defined as one in which an honest emphasis is placed on obtaining the best evidence and then letting good facts drive good decisions. Instead, the hallmarks of those who are drawn to authoritarianism is a systematic effort to manipulate facts in service to the strongman, who advocates a totalizing ideology that’s felt to be more important than the mandates of basic honesty.
It may be that the legacy of the twentieth century’s ideologically driven bloodbaths has also included a new cynicism about reason itself — because reason was so easily used by propagandists to disguise their impulse to power by cloaking it in clever and seductive intellectual formulations.
In an age of propaganda, education itself can become suspect and that can lead would-be authoritarians to profess love for those they call “the poorly educated.”
When ideology is so often woven into alleged “facts” and delivered in fully formed and self-contained packages, people naturally begin to develop some cynicism about what they are being told. When people are subjected to ubiquitous and unrelenting mass advertising, reason and logic often begin to seem like they are no more than handmaidens in the constant selling process. And when these same techniques dominate the political communications sent by candidates to voters, the integrity of our democracy is placed under the same cloud of suspicion. And now, social media, with its filter bubbles driven by surveillance capitalism, enhances cynicism and magnifies divisions.
Moreover, when middle-income families have seen virtually no increase in take-home pay for more than 40 years – while the wealthiest have become wealthier still and inequality has risen to levels profoundly dangerous to egalitarianism and American Democracy, it is no wonder that self-professed experts are regarded with more cynicism than ever.
So this is also the meaning of the present assault on science, science which is now being cynically slandered as a conspiracy based on a hoax. The subordination of the best scientific evidence to the cynical greed of those buttressing the power of a would-be autocrat is yet another strategy for controlling policy by distorting and suppressing the best available information.
So the ideology of authoritarianism is now not only a threat to democracy in America. Now, because of the attacks on climate science, it has become a threat to the survival of human civilization as we know it, and even, potentially, to the capacity of the human species to endure.
I learned about climate science as a student here in this university from a great scientist and teacher named Roger Revelle, who designed the first experiments to measure the accumulation of C02 in the Earth’s atmosphere. I went, by the way, to the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth and learned in my research that he as a young man, the same age I was when I first heard him, had been so inspired his life was transformed. It caused me to wonder how many chains of inspiration stretch back in time. And as you and the class of 2019 think about the professors who have inspired you, carry with you an obligation to conduct yourselves as citizen leaders of our society in ways that will inspire others. We have to restore the role of reason a logic and rational debate.
Thomas Jefferson would have recognized the linkage between the absence of reason and absurd tragedy. As he wrote to James Smith in 1822, and I quote, “Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder, is the sport of every wind.”
Speaking of wind, the winds are increasingly destructive in our world. Yesterday was the 13th day in a row when multiple tornados touched down in the United States 500 this month. Hurricanes have become much stronger. Every day, we are putting 110 million tons of man-made heat-trapping global warming pollution into the sky as if it is an open sewer. And the accumulation of all of that man-made pollution now traps as much heat energy every day as would be released by 500,000 Hiroshima size atomic bombs exploding on earth every 24 hours. This extra heat energy is disrupting the water cycle causing massive historic, downpours, rain bombs, massive floods interspersed with deeper and longer droughts, threatening crop failures and food shortages, shortages of fresh potable water, melting the ice masses on the land of Greenland Antarctica, and raising sea-level dramatically, new health risks, climate refugees destabilizing liberal political systems, the sixth great extinction threatening the loss of all the living species with which we share this planet in this century on our watch.
So I’m here in response to your invitation, grateful for the opportunity to speak with you but I am also here to recruit you. We have work to do all of us. We must see the seriousness and the historic nature of this challenge and I tell you that there is an abundance not only of danger but an abundance of hope. We are seeing surprising, even startling and historic, advances in the technologies of renewable energy. The cost of electricity from solar and wind has been plummeting so fast that it is now cheaper in most geographies than electricity from burning fossil fuels. Electric vehicles are increasing in number and popularity.
Batteries are becoming much more affordable. Regenerative agriculture is replacing the industrial and factory models of the past, not quickly enough but it is happening. Sustainable forestry and circular manufacturing must be adopted. The fastest growing job in the United States of America is solar installer. For the last five years, it has grown six times faster than all other jobs. The second fastest growing job is wind turbine technician. Fossil fuels can no longer compete.
The largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, in Norway, financed completely by oil and gas revenues, has started divesting from fossil fuels, and so should Harvard University. That is one of the remaining challenges for this university. I want to make it clear this is a moral issue. It was immoral to continue investing in Apartheid. In the 1980s, when I was in the United States Senate, the student activists of that day at Harvard recruited me to run as one of their candidates as a candidate for the Board of Overseers in order to help push the university past its resistance to divest of Apartheid stocks and stop supporting that racist system in South Africa. Now, fortunately, the student activists recruited someone else to run with me on that ticket, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. So I did not have to do much heavy lifting. But the University did respond as they responded when they realized it was immoral to invest in tobacco stocks.
Well, let me tell you the oil companies and the gas and coal companies today have been following the same strategy innovated by the tobacco companies years ago when they decided to undermine the authority of knowledge. They wrote in a famous phrase, and I quote from the tobacco industry documents, “doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public.”
The fossil fuel companies adopted the same playbook, the same strategy, hired many of the same PR strategists and technicians. Last week another new study found that our country has a much higher percentage of people who deny the climate crisis is real than any other nation and it’s no wonder why, because the American people have been the targets of a massive well organized and lavishly funded campaign of disinformation designed to spread doubt and confusion and prevent the formation of a political consensus necessary to adopt new policies to save the future of human civilization. Why would Harvard University continue to support with its finances an industry like this that is in the process of threatening the future of humanity?
Ladies and gentlemen, we have to change. We cannot continue on our present course and in order to solve the climate crisis, we must solve the democracy crisis.
So I said earlier I’m here to recruit you but I want to close by underscoring the existence of an abundance of hope. We have to change, but we can change. We have the ability to change and the obstacles to change can be overcome, but it will require a decision on the part of you in this graduating class and all of those who are part of your networks of family and friends to decide that it is important enough to do but do not give up hope.
Just as Apartheid was ended, just as the Civil Rights movement profoundly changed this country, even though much more change is needed, just as women’s suffrage was finally achieved even though much more needs to be done, just as gay and lesbian rights have now finally reached the point that gay marriages is accepted and legal and celebrated and supported in all 50 states of the United States. Many thought that would never occur, it would not be possible.
But all of these reforms were achieved when the underbrush was cleared away to reveal a central choice between what is right and what is wrong. And when that central choice is thus revealed the outcome is foreordained because of who we are as human beings. I refuse to believe that we as human being do not have a sufficient capacity to make changes of the magnitude that are now necessary to save our future.
And if you doubt for one moment that we do have the ability to change or the will to change, please always remember that the will to change is itself a renewable resource. Thank you and congratulations."