Governor Deval L. Patrick
Mount Wachusett Commencement
May 17, 2007
I am really pleased to be with you here this evening at The Mount.
I want to congratulate each of the graduates here today and your families. Whether you followed a straight line to this day, or came here by detours or an unconventional path, whether you are 19, 20, or 50 (like my sister who finished her undergraduate -who is 50, so am I- degree last year), those of us hereon this riser appreciate more than you may realize just how much effort, sacrifice and anxiety has produced today's milestone. I commend you for pushing through and for taking this step in a lifelong process of learning.
In a very real sense, you are here this evening because someone believed in you. No one succeeds alone. And it's thanks to the faith in you of your teachers, your friends and your family that you are well prepared to be the nurses, technicians, business leaders, researchers, teachers or whatever else for which you have studied. And that is a very good thing. Because, Lord knows, we need you. There is work to be done.
But there is something else we need of you. Something beyond your technical training, but for which you have also been well prepared here. And that is your citizenship, your engagement in your own and your neighbors' civic life. For there is work to be done here, too. Profound work.
I want to tell you why. Earlier this year I went to a conference in Washington of all the Nation's governors, Democrats and Republicans, and one of the presenters asked by a show of hands how many of us felt that our standard of living was better than our parents' was. I think every hand in the room went up.
Then he asked how many of us felt certain that our children's standard of living would be better than our own. And in response to that question, very, very few hands went up.
That struck me. Here was a room of people with an unusual ability to influence and enable great changes. Yet, there was a pervasive sense that little change could be made. A pervasive sense that there was little to hope for in terms of improving - or even securing - the world that generations to come will inhabit.
I believe that our purpose - not just as public officials or educators or students, but as citizens - is to pass on to the next generation a reason to hope. And yet here was a room of some of the most influential people in America unable to imagine a better way for you.
I think fear is at the root of some of this. Let me explain here what I mean.
In 1956, when I was born, the Nation was gripped by fear. We were in the midst of the Cold War, in the shadow of what was called "the Communist Threat." Thousands of missiles were pointed at us ready to launch at a moment's notice. A few of us here remember being taught in school in the event of a nuclear attack to hide under our desks. I still remember the air raid siren that went off every weekday at 10:30 from the roof of the fire station across the street from where we lived. It was a mechanical test, of course; but it was also a daily reminder that we believed that an atomic blast was a real and present danger.
Surrounded by fear, and perhaps in spite of it, active citizens stood up to power. That's the story of the civil rights movement, of the so-called "war on poverty," of the opposition eventually, to the War in Vietnam. The contributions of active citizens helped expand freedom for poor and Black people, for women and other minorities in the midst of a period of fear. America not only survived the Cold War, but won it -- because America remembered who she was.
Active citizenship is essential to successful democracy. Active citizens - well-educated, engaged in their own civic communities, steeped in the inherent optimism of the American experiment - have been critical to our progress over the years. We count on such citizens to approach problems not just with passion, but with reason and courage; to bring the power of reason to bear, not just on their own issues, but on the issues that we face as a community.
The role has deep, deep roots in America.
John Adams, one of our founders and a son of Massachusetts, as you know, took up the unpopular defense of British soldiers in 1770 in the wake of the so-called "Boston Massacre." Despite outraged fellow colonists and the condemnation of such figures as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, John Adams successfully argued that the soldiers had acted in their own self-defense, and won acquittals for all but two of them.
His son, John Quincy Adams, another great statesman and lawyer, took up the unpopular defense of the African mutineers aboard the slave ship Amistad in 1841, and won their freedom. Here again is another early example of an active citizen tempering the passion of the time with reason and with courage.
The willingness to face down passion and fear with reason and courage -- and to speak truth to power -- is the hallmark of the active citizen. It represents a deep and honorable tradition in our country.
That's your tradition, each one of you. That's what you are also prepared to do - and what we must ask of you today. Because fear - as a device to manipulate and even to govern - is at large again in our own times.
The events of September 11, 2001 were horrific, you know that. They disrupted individual families and our collective sense of security and well-being. It was a "wake-up" call to our own vulnerability. And it represents a catastrophic failure of human understanding. In its wake, I believe we have been governed by fear.
Fear is what drove us to round up people of Arab descent, many of them American citizens, and to hold hundreds without cause or charge.
Fear led us to lose focus on a known enemy in Afghanistan and invade Iraq instead.
Fear justified what I believe to be the greatest assault on personal freedoms (in the Patriot Act) and the greatest aggregation of Presidential power in much of our history.
Fear created the Guantanamo detention center, where the very rule of law that has made our democracy an envy of the world has been set aside.
Just a few months ago in a radio interview, a senior Pentagon official, Charles "Cully" Stimson, named some of the law firms providing free representation to the Guantanamo detainees and suggested that corporate America make those law firms - and I quote - "choose between representing terrorists and representing reputable firms." He attempted to mark these lawyers as enemies of society. There was no subtlety in his message.
Speaking about this post-9/11 phenomenon, former Vice President Gore observed that, "Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction." He quoted former Justice Brandeis, who said that, "'Men feared witches and burnt women.'"
The Vice President, I think, captured the spirit of the active citizen in the heat of danger when he said, "The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hanged as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk. Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the Bill of Rights."
Like me, he wonders: "Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol?"
Fear is treacherous.
The politics of fear is by no means limited to the area of national security. It is increasingly the political weapon of choice to overcome a position that has reason and fairness on its side.
When the Supreme Judicial Court announced its decision in Goodridge four years ago, recognizing the right of gay men and women to marry, it upset a lot of people. It challenged a convention that a lot of us thought was with us and would be with us indefinitely. But in effect, it simply reaffirmed the old principle that people come before their government as equals. It did not require a change in religious doctrine or church practice. It didn't require anyone personally to approve of such unions. It just said consenting adults cannot be denied the same marriage license that I got.
Yet there was a groundswell of opposition drummed up by the fear that this private freedom represented a threat to everyone else's marriage. Several years and many marriages later, the institution of marriage has thankfully survived. But the fear-mongering persists and so do efforts to amend the state constitution in a manner that would, for the first time in history, take civil rights away from some people. Never mind that these are the same threats to civilization that were leveled forty years ago -- in my lifetime -- when the Supreme Court struck down prohibitions on Blacks marrying whites.
In response to the surging number of shootings in Boston, we filed legislation to limit the purchase of guns in Massachusetts to one gun per month, twelve guns a year. Yet, even in the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech the gun lobby urges hunters and other law abiding citizens to resist such measures as a threat to sport. Never mind that no one uses a semi-automatic to hunt birds, and law abiding citizens rarely, if ever, buy guns in bulk.
Even on economic issues, impassioned pleas about dire consequences too often take the place of reasoned argument based on fact and fairness. For example, to relieve the pressure we know is out there on residential property taxes, we have proposed to end a 92-year-old law that exempts the phone company from paying the same property tax the rest of us have to pay. The phone company has mounted a campaign now claiming that if they have to pay property taxes our phone rates will go up and the folks in Western Massachusetts in particular will never get the broadband service they need. Never mind that our phone rates have gone up 30% in the last few years while the phone company's total tax burden has gone down 46%. Never mind that the phone company has not delivered broadband service in Western Mass. even with decades of the benefit of this tax break, and has no plan to do so. Never mind that in other states that have already ended this exemption, business is booming and rates are lower.
Compared to the experiences of our founders or the lawyers who have stood up for Guantanamo detainees, perhaps these are all trivial examples. But my point is that fear - raw, emotional and compelling - is the pervasive means today by which to ignore fact and to overlook and suppress the better angels of our nature.
The division, cynicism and pessimism emanating from all over the political spectrum and from all sectors of society in recent years have challenged our hope. Far too often what passes for politics today are half-truths and deflections instead of any real appreciation of or conversation about the larger impact and context of the issues under debate. The result is an entrenchment and combative stance that leaves little room for any belief in our ability to create a better world. We have gotten into this poisonous politics that says "We have to agree on everything before we can work together on anything."
With the education that each of you graduates have received here (and that I hope you will continue), you must assume your special role in our democracy as active citizens and use the power of reason to overcome the politics of fear. Saying "never mind" to facts and to fairness is not OK. Your job, as informed and educated citizens, is to remind our community of this, and to keep America true to who she is.
Many of you have come here because this is the best path to more stability, to a better job, and to stronger financial security, perhaps. Those things are worthy, no doubt about it, and I wish them for all of you. But I want you also to see that in the process of improving your future prospects you acquired the ability to shape your own destiny and that of others. And with that comes responsibility.
Our history has seen periods of great national purpose - like the civil rights movement, the Cold War, September 11th and its aftermath - that called upon our idealism and confronted us with a challenge of conscience. And in fits and starts of courage and pain, we responded to that call and reached across our differences, if only for an instant, to seize our common humanity.
Today, as in all other times, the human spirit is the same. Even in the bleakest corners, people still hunger for a reason to hope. What should we offer them? Who will nurture their idealism? Who will set discouragement and cynicism aside long enough to light a fire of purpose under someone else? Will history say of the legacy and the challenge that you pass on that yours was the generation (or that mine was) and the time that gave up on and lost interest in trying to build a better common community?
The challenge today is not about the right versus the left. The challenge today is not just one of race or of gender or of ethnicity or of religion. It is not even just a challenge of economics or crime or education. It's a challenge of citizenship. It is the need to reclaim American ideals and refresh our commitment to honor them.
Mankind "holds in his mortal hands," as President Kennedy said, "the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life." That is still the choice before us all. Choose wisely.
God bless you all. Thank you for having me.