Choose Right Now

This now the fourth year I've been given the chance to speak at the Bodine High School for International Affairs' commencement. It's such an honor and a joy.

For the last three years, I've told your classmates that yours is the most important generation in human history, that you stand as the bridge between the adolescence and the potential for the adulthood of humanity.

And this remains true - you are a unique cohort, the first in all of time to have a significant chance at living part of your lives during 3 centuries, and the one which may, which should, be the makers of and the witnesses to the realization of dreams people have had from the beginning of time - the end of absolute poverty, the universalization of access to clean water, to electricity, to modern medicine. The cures to cancer and other afflictions - you should live to see those days. The blind will regain sight, the paralyzed will walk - truly you could live in the age of miracles. People living and working routinely in space - maybe even the first contact between humanity and some of the ETs who are almost certainly out there. Truly momentous times.

Let me read you how the creator of Wired Magazine says it:
"Right now, today, in 2016 is the best time to start up. There has never been a better day in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a netter time with more opportunities, more opening, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute. This is the moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, 'Oh, to have been alive and well back then!'...But what's coming will be different, beyond, and other. The things we will be constantly, relentlessly becoming something else. And the coolest stuff of all has not been invented yet.
It is the best time ever in human history to begin.

But you, the class of 2016, will be remembered as having graduated in a year with dark clouds hanging over all of those opportunities for bright days ahead.

It's been a long time since the world was this unstable, and since more nations and groups have actively sought to harm our country -- from Putin's Russia, to the surging Chinese military, to Iran's ruling Mullahs, to North Korea's insane dictator with nuclear weapons, to the slaughterhouse of Syria, to the global terrorist reach and utter depravity of ISIS, the Taliban, and other Jihadi groups. Some fear that the world of your graduation year, 2016, is too much like 1913, the year before the barbarism of World War I began, the year in which the conditions for a firestorm existed, just ready for a spark to ignite the blaze.

But I want to tell you today that the choice between the great promise and the great peril of this moment, whether the world will make it across that bridge to the adulthood of humanity, or watch it burn and fall into some dark ravine, remains mostly in the hands of the United States of America, remains largely to be decided by who we Americans decide we are and want to be, and what role we play in the wider world.

It's this moment, here in our country, more even than all the dangers in the world, that I believe will decide the future of the world.

Alas, this doesn't make things feel all right, right now.

Why are so many Americans angry, so focused on grievances, when we have so much to be thankful for?

Why do we look in our popular culture, our media, mass and social media, for dark clouds around silver linings, instead of the other way around?

Let me give you just one of so many possible examples of how our culture has turned perversely despairing, as if we are trapped wearing goggles that show us only a virtual unreality.

Every presidential candidate this year, all 20 of them when we started, from the most conservative, to self-described socialist, Bernie Sanders, has agreed on a problem, a crisis even, threatening the very foundation of the American experiment in democracy and opportunity--a shrinking middle class. All twenty invoked a statistic that, in 1970, kind of the peak of post-WWII U.S. domination of the whole world's economy, 61% of U.S. adults lived in middle income households. By 2014, that had dropped to 50%.

Wow, an existential crisis--maybe we need to turn to socialism and have a political war on the rich, or maybe we need to build walls and throw up trade barriers and pledge allegiance to a leader who promises to "make America great again."

But, wait, here are the actual facts below the dumbed-down headline--of the 11% of Americans who left the middle class since 1970, only 3% dropped into lower income. By a ratio of almost 3 to 1, the middle class got smaller because an improving American economy (measured in decades, not individual year) lifted people into upper income households, six figure income households, and all categories--lower, middle, and upper income - experienced double-digit income gains in each of the 3 decades from 1970 - 2000. This includes in all racial groups.

I'm old, so believe it or not, I can actually remember the 1970s and my family was very much middle class. In those days, a middle class home didn't have air conditioning or a dishwasher or a microwave. It had one TV and one car in the driveway - a car which would kill you in a 25 mile per hour crash. Going out to eat meant McDonalds or KFC and that was a special Sunday night. Today, of course, most of that has changed, improved, for most of the middle class and all of the larger upper class, not to mention all the things most of us have that no one, not even the very richest, had then, because they didn't exist yet.

Why, then, do we seem to be despairing, many of us, who aren't in that 3% who took a hit, and to be embracing political extremism?

Well, the Great Recession did pause the progress, and erased some of the gains for many folks, but nothing has shut down the upward trend of living standards for the great majority of Americans. For jobs "lost", through trade, technological disruption, or even corporate greed and stupidity, many more jobs exist today and typical household income is more than one third higher that it was in that supposedly golden era, around 1970.

Our sensationalist media culture and sensationalized political culture have, perhaps deliberately, mischaracterized what history tells us was a temporary setback as permanent stagnation.

Why would 20 candidates for president who otherwise have so little in common all push a message that is substantially untrue? Because he or she can't be the savior who will fix something if there's nothing critically broken. But, in a free country, convincing many millions that things are broken, breaks them.

So, we come back to the importance of this year, your emblematic year, and the importance of you and your generation--whether you are willing to learn to divide facts from spin, to participate, look for and work towards the common good, to serve and when necessary, to sacrifice.

Yes, there is danger. We could be living in 1913. We could squander the greatest opportunity in human history for transformational progress, and see instead untold destruction and regression.

But I see silver linings in many places, not just the fundamentals of our economy, including in you.

Even in this crazy year in politics, remarkable things happened. My favorite is that Bernie Sanders, the crotchety old Jewish guy from a nearly all-white state, won the only places in America, various towns in Michigan, that have a voting majority of Muslims.

Think about that, think about that in the context of the larger world, that in America, American Muslims voted by a wide margin for the first serious Jewish candidate for president.

Let me quote from President Obama, at the Howard University graduation:
"If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn't know ahead of time who you were going to be--what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you'd be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you'd be born into--you wouldn't choose 100 years ago. You wouldn't choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You'd choose right now."

"Choose right now," yes, and choose correctly now.

When I worry too much about your future, I remember other times of great danger to the American experiment, and how we have not only prevailed these 240 years, but improved.

I leave you with something I saw on live TV as a kid, much younger than you are now, which I have never forgotten--powerful words of hope by a leader in the scary days of Watergate, when we had a severe test of our Constitutional system:

Here is Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas.

"Thank you Mr. Chairman. Earlier today we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: 'We the People...' It's a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that 'We the People'. I felt somehow, for many years, that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in 'We the People'.

Today, I am an inquisitor, and hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total, and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the devolution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution."

And neither should you. Don't buy what the peddlers of depression and division are selling. Choose right now.

Thank you and congratulations.