UC Riverside Commencement 2011- Remake This America: It Needs It

Remake this America: It Needs It

UC Riverside, June 12, 2011

Congratulations, Graduates! Today you are … commencing! Commencing what? Well, if you are anything like I was — and I was sitting in precisely your place precisely thirty years ago -- you have absolutely no idea what you're commencing. I certainly didn't. The fact is, in June 1981, when I was sitting in those chairs, I could not even see. I had been up ungodly late the night before celebrating and awoke after an hour or so of fitful sleep to find my eyes so red and swollen I could not quite put in my contact lenses — which is to say, I succeeded, finally…in putting them in the wrong eyes. To take part in the grand processional to my seat that morning, I was forced to place my hand on the shoulder of an obliging friend in front of me, who in truth was not that much better off, and stumble along behind him, tripping over my regalia all the way to my chair... Once there I listened to a profound speech by a titan of industry — after whom, and not coincidentally, a quite grand building at my university is now named — and not a word of that profound speech do I now remember. Not a word. 


     What I do remember, and vividly, is the mixture of feelings bubbling in my heart, a mixture that I haven't felt before or since. Excitement, oh yeah. Pride, absolutely. Relief, certainly. But also, and perhaps most vividly, bewilderment and a kind of… vague dancing anxiety. Why? Because like you — and god bless you for it! — I was, and I remain, a humanist! Yes, yes, I look down the list of departments represented here today — Art and Art History, Comparative Lit, Creative Writing, Dance, English, Ethnic Studies, Media and Cultural Studies, Hispanic Studies, Interdisciplinary Programs and Liberal Studies, Music, Theatre — oh yes, you are my compadres and god bless you. I mean that literally: Standing here before you is a fellow who was, successively, a philosophy major — lapsed. A religion major — lapsed.  An English major — lapsed. And finally — and I think this was mainly because I ran out of time — a proud graduate in a "special concentrations" — this would be the equivalent of your "Interdisciplinary Programs and Liberal Studies" — in (and this is what is written on my diploma) "Modern Literatures and Aesthetics." Oh yeah. 


     Which means that by the time I was sitting where you are now, I'd heard many, many times, from my parents and friends alike that dreaded question that always came immediately after I confessed to being a "Modern Literatures and Aesthetics" major: "Well, what are you going to do with that?" 


     Now I've forgotten precisely what I used to mutter in surly response to that predictable question but I understood by then, even if I might not have articulated it, that I was a humanist, and that being a humanist had at least two distinct parts. There was the positive part: which is a moral and joyful commitment - to engage with the best the culture had produced and to think and to write and to create, to make something beautiful and important. Together with that came a negative part, which is a sober but determined refusal — to let the broader American culture do what it always wants, what it increasingly insists, on doing: define us solely, or primarily, as economic beings, beings classified by how we make money and how much of it we make.


     For you parents, as for my parents, this can be a tough distinction to swallow. For you this is a glorious day, a day on which, thanks in good part to your efforts, you see your child climb into that small part of our society — 22 or 23 percent, less than a quarter — that hold a bachelor's degree. It is an extraordinary achievement, not least for those forty percent of families here who are watching, for the first time, one of your own graduate from college. I salute you all.


     At the same time I recognize that parents of humanists in particular on this glorious day find themselves sitting on a kind of island: behind you is that stormy sea that you have just navigated, with all the perils of a steadily, and in recent years, dramatically rising tuition and other costs. Having managed to make your way through that, you now see looming in front of you, and in front of your humanist offspring, the even stormier sea of nine percent unemployment — seventeen percent for young people — of record foreclosures and a devastated economy that finds its parallels nowhere so vividly as in the Great Depression of eight decades ago. 


     I ask you to ignore for a moment that stormy sea in front of you, to tamp down whatever anxiety you feel, and recognize that, as you will indeed find a paying job, and quite possibly — and this is part of being a humanist, too — in a calling that you can scarcely now imagine. Though many of us persist in believing we can carefully plan our lives, the truth is that life is full of serendipity, and it is humanists — broadly trained, open minded, flexible and resourceful, cultivating a deep curiosity about and joy in the world - who are best situated to benefit from serendipity's delightful influence.


     What I want to talk about today is your real job, what your underlying mission in life should and must be — as humanists, as people who are trained to examine the world carefully, to analyze minutely, to read closely — to look beneath the surface and really see.  To see through, as well.  See through the fog, the obfuscation, the confusion, the doubletalk, the half-truths, the lies. To see through politics, in a word. To see the truth.


     That's what your education as humanists should have taught you, and that is the mighty tool you must wield as you "commence" this day, as humanists and as educated citizens, into the bright, shining world.


     For in truth it is a world, and a polity, that is in a very bad way — in a crisis, to use a word much beloved by, and overused by, journalists. Behind the fog of lies and obfuscations, behind the circus of carnival barkers and bearded ladies sold to you by cable news as the headlines of the day — you know what I'm talking about: the latest Congressman who "sexted" photographs of his underwear to a constituent — behind all this carnival blather lies an American Republic in very deep trouble, in a moral crisis such as it hasn't faced for a half century. The country that stood for egalitarian growth, for a population where social mobility and growing equality were the norm and the pride and joy, has become increasingly stratified and unequal, coming to resemble in its social structure the oligarchies of Mexico or Brazil, with their private opulence and public squalor, much more than the open societies of Holland or Canada. And in international affairs the country that stood for human rights and the rule of law is now identified with torture, assassination by drone attack and preemptive war. 


      That is the country, as you commence your lives in it this day as citizens and as humanists, you inherit. One that you, and only you, must fix. This may seem a bum deal. I agree it is. When I was sitting where you are now, three decades ago exactly, I could have the happy impression that I was inheriting an America still luxuriating in a grand expansive liberal era.  We still felt ourselves to be in the backwash of the Sixties, an era of great controversy and conflict, true, but an era in which Americans — including many young people like you - had protested an endless foreign war and finally put a stop to it, an era when a corrupt and lying president had been forced from office, an era when the Great Society would shelter the poor and rise them up to the middle class, when the middle class would see its fortunes steadily rise, and when Social Security and Medicare both would ensure that every American would have health care and a bearable retirement. It was still possible to believe, in 1981, that Americans soon would live in a society in which no one would go hungry, no would die for lack of health care. A society where, and this is critical, the dramatic divisions between rich and poor would be gradually — gradually — narrowed. At the heart of this America was an implied promise: No matter where you started, you could expect to do better than your parents, and you could expect your children would do better than you.


     And this belief was not some idealistic fantasy: This had been the movement of history of the West, and particularly America, for a century, and dramatically so for the previous three decades. This movement was no accident but was created by politics, notably by the three great periods of political reform of the last century, the periods we know today as the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society. Powered by the establishment of Social Security, the minimum wage, progressive taxation, the expansion of union representation, the GI Bill, and, not least, the growth of proud public institutions like the University of California, for Americans the years since World War II had brought not only unprecedented growth and prosperity but a steadily increasing equality, with the gains in the nation's wealth fairly apportioned and in some years slightly favoring the poor. These were the years, from 1945 to 1975, of the true American dream.


     As I sat in your place thirty years ago, with my swollen red eyes — though I did not know it - that era had already come to an end, and a rapid, unprecedented counter-revolution had begun. Like the revolution that it set out to undo, this counter-revolution was no act of god but the expression of politics and of government policy. It began here in California, in 1978, with Proposition 13, which destroyed the fiscal foundations of the state, and it had dire consequences with which our governor and legislatures are to this day still struggling to cope.  Most notably, California's public schools, which had then long been the best in the nation, began their precipitous slide to their current ranking of 46th among the 50 states. And tuition in California's justly famous public universities, as I don't need to tell you, began to rise dramatically. 

     The counter-revolution took power in Washington in 1981, with a series of tax cuts that overwhelmingly favored the well-to-do and began the nation's retreat from progressive taxation which, after further even steeper cuts by George W. Bush during the last decade, has helped mire the country in a permanent fiscal crisis. 


     We are told, of course, that the real problem is "government spending." That the solution to this problem is to cut more and more of the very programs that delivered the prosperity in the first place. We are told that the Great Recession of 2008, the result of a mania of speculation on Wall Street that began with a massive real estate bubble — we see its devastation in the form of foreclosed homes all around us — in fact is owed to government spending, and not to the reckless deregulation of the banking regulations that had originally formed the bedrock of the reforms of the New Deal. We are told the only solution is to cut more and more: to cut government programs for the poor, to cut Social Security and Medicaid, to cut — indeed, to abolish — Medicare, to cut student loans — and finally, and predictably, to cut, once again, taxes. Which means, of course, to cut taxes on the wealthy. This is the essential message of the notorious Ryan Plan introduced by the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives: to cut Medicare — to make it a voucher plan for the private insurance industry — and to cut still more taxes on the wealthy.


     Let me ask you, as my fellow humanists, to take a moment to look beneath the surface, to ignore the sturm and drang of the televised political ranters and take the measure of how we live now. In 1974 the top one percent richest Americans earned nine percent of the income of the country. Today the top one percent richest Americans earns nearly twenty-four percent. In 1979, those households earned $337,000 after taxes; today — this is in constant dollars — those households earn $1.2 million. That is, the income of those top earners — again, in constant dollars - has nearly tripled.  As for the top tenth of one percent, their incomes increased seven fold, from more than a million dollars a year thirty years ago to more than seven million dollars a year. Meantime the tax rates of those top one percent went down, by nearly a third; the rates of the top tenth of one percent went down by a half.


     And during those thirty years, while the top one percent tripled their income — it went up by 260 percent, to be precise - the poorest fifth saw their incomes rise by… eleven percent.  So, over thirty years, 260 percent at the top, eleven percent at the bottom. As for those in the middle — well, if you add in the increased hours they work, including the entry of most women into the work force, their incomes over those thirty years hardly increased at all. 


     Now I have nothing against people doing well in our society — and no objection to people growing rich; indeed, some of my best friends are rich. And I hope lots of you get rich as well (though I realize humanists aren't really about that). But what is striking about these numbers is that it is clear that the United States, from serving as a beacon of an egalitarian society, where everyone benefited, has become an exemplar of what might be called "trickle up economics." That is, instead of the benefits of these massive tax cuts for the wealthy "trickling down" to the rest of us, as they were supposed to do, the wealth has in fact been trickling up from the rest of us to the rich. Indeed, according to research in the excellent book Winner Take-All Politics, from which I draw many of these numbers - according to this study, if growth in America had continued for the last three decades as it had during the three decades before — that is, if we had all seen our incomes improve at about the same rate — then those in the middle fifth of earners, the vaunted middle class, who now make an average of $52,000 a year - would now be making about $64,000 dollars a year, twelve thousand more. 


     Even more interesting, in this imagined world of equal growth, those in the top one percent, who now make $1.2 million a year, would now be making nearly $700,000 less. Which is not to say they would have done badly: over those three decades, their incomes would have risen from $335,000 a year up to $506,000, after all — a pretty hefty increase. But the income of the richest wouldn't have tripled, for the ninety-nine percent of the rest of us would have shared in their gains — like the middle earner who now makes $52,000 but would, in our world of equal growth, be making $64,000.


     I apologize to you for quoting all these numbers. But I think it is important to realize a bit about the society you are now entering and to understand how different it is from the America I knew as a graduate thirty years ago — and how far the country has strayed from its ideal of egalitarianism and equal growth. Though Americans persist in seeing their country as a paragon of equality and social mobility, the facts are stark and indisputable: We now live in the most unequal society in the West, far more unequal than Canada not to mention Germany and Northern Europe, and the least socially mobile. The only country close in these categories is the United Kingdom. The cherished idea that it is in America above all that a person can pull herself up by her bootstraps is simply no longer true.


     Now this may seem a bit of a distressing message to deliver to those embarking on a life of work and achievement but I want to hasten to emphasize one glaring and important fact: the world I have described is not a fact of nature but a product of politics. There is no Law of the Market being expressed here. Instead, these facts about what America has become during the last three decades are the result of policies enacted by our leaders, policies that severely cut taxes on the wealthy, that dramatically lowered corporate taxes, that undermined unions and collective bargaining, that made possible the creation of  banks that were "too big to fail" and allowed those banks and their executives to loot the public treasury to let us rescue them from their own greed and recklessness, that allowed the minimum wage to stagnate and fall far behind the rate of inflation — in effect, reducing salaries at the bottom of the ladder - and let other bedrock social legislation lapse or weaken. Just as it took the policies of far-seeing leaders to craft the world of equal growth and shared prosperity that was ending as I sat in your place thirty years ago, so it took determined and skillful politicians to undo this world and create the "trickle up" economy that we see around us today. 


     If you want a tangible demonstration of this world you need only take a drive around the Inland Empire and look at the hundreds of empty houses, foreclosed on by the very banks that the US Treasury rescued. These "too big to fail" banks, having been made flush with trillions of taxpayers' dollars, now prosper under a de facto government guarantee — a guarantee that socializes losses but keeps all profits private. Today Wall Street bonuses have exceeded the levels attained before the crash. None of these executives has gone to jail; very, very few have even lost their jobs. The great majority of them are flourishing. On Wall Street bonuses in the tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars are common. Indeed, the average bonus of the top twenty-five hedge fund managers was $350 million; the five at the top brought home more than a billion dollars each — money that is taxed at a top rate of 15 percent. Meantime almost nothing has been done to help the millions of Americans who have lost their homes, or whose homes, greatly diminished in value, are "under water" and worth much less than the mortgages they are still struggling to pay.


     The good news is that if government policy has largely made this world of inequality, government policy can unmake it.  The bad news is that these are policies you must press and fight to see enacted, for as I stand here today the political system has proved unequal to the task. Indeed, one could say that for the last three years, in the wake of the greatest economic collapse since 1929, we have witnessed a kind of controlled experiment to answer the following question: does our government control the financial markets or do the financial markets control our government? The answer thus far — when we look at the weakness of the reforms enacted, the permanence of "too big to fail" as a principle of our banking system, the lack of prosecutions or true investigations — the answer thus far seems to be that at this point in our history the financial markets control the government. 

     And the dominant political message that is being broadcast is one of — there is no other word for it — lies. We are told that government spending is just too high. We are told public services must be cut. Instead of trying to restore tax rates on the wealthy to where they were under President Clinton to try to begin to fill this fiscal hole — a step Senator Obama campaigned on — we are told that only cuts in those public programs that average people rely on can restore us to fiscal health. Government spending is the problem. Increased revenues "are off the table," as the saying goes — even though poll after poll shows that anywhere from sixty-five to eighty percent of Americans favor higher taxes on the wealthy.


     It is important to see these two policies — tax cuts for the wealthy, cuts in public services to pay for them — as two sides of the same coin. Years ago President Reagan described this policy to Senator Moynihan. Big government, Reagan said, is like a free-spending teenager and the only way to stop its free-spending ways, he went on, was to "cut off its allowance." That is, first you cut taxes, creating deficits; then you insist on cutting services, to bring the budget back into balance. Conservatives call this "starving the beast." 


     But of course it is those at the top of the income scale who enjoy the benefits of the tax cuts and those at the bottom who suffer most from those cuts in government services. It is not too much to say that it comes down to your paying higher tuition in order to pay for someone else's tax cuts — someone much better off than you are. And so we move as a society from the ideal of social democracy of the New Deal and Great Society to the skewed and privileged societies of the Latin American oligarchies. Private wealth, public squalor.  

          This, alas, is the world you are entering — the world in which, today, you commence to take your place. What can you do about it? Well, I don't expect all of you humanists to become politicians — though it is certainly not out of the question that some of you might. What I hope all of you will become is informed citizens — which is to say, citizens in the sense that Thomas Jefferson had in mind. Citizens who focus not on the ranters and the ravers spouting lies about where the President was born or what politician of the moment is acting like an adolescent pervert but on the true world of political economy that our rulers have been shaping these past few decades. I hope you will hold dear the conviction that politics is not something distant and alien but something intimate and real, something as near and important as your last tuition check. Whether you know it or not, that check may well be helping to pay for someone else's tax cut. And that tax cut was accomplished through the determined efforts of those who not only cherish a particular view of our Republic and how it should function but who are willing to do whatever it takes to put that view into concrete reality.


      In many ways — in ways obvious and not so obvious — it is a difficult time to take one's first step into public life, as you are doing today. I do not recall a time that has been more dominated by public mendacity and obfuscation. I do not recall a time when trivial and salacious scandal was more apt to obscure true issues of vital public concern. I do not recall a time when the divergence between the magnitude of the problems and the small-mindedness of the discussion of solutions was so great. As we gather here today, our country is engaged in fighting three wars — in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya — yet the second two are little discussed and the first, the Iraq War, fought as it was in the cause of eliminating weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, is mostly, and in some embarrassment, ignored. Torture, which Americans employed during the last decade to interrogate hundreds of detainees, has now been "prohibited" by President Obama, though in truth a president lacks the power to prohibit what is already illegal in international and US law, just as he lacks the power to order it. Those who did order "enhanced interrogation" applied to prisoners, from the former President and Vice President on down, proudly recount their decisions in their memoirs and go on publicly advocating the use of torture.  For his part, President Obama tells us we must "look forward, not back." 


     The rest of world is not quite so obliging. Just as the ideal of the egalitarian America has passed into history, remaining vibrant only in our dreams, so the America that was a leading light in the advocacy of international law — that led in the drafting and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention and the Convention Against Torture and so many others — has passed into history, its reputation deeply tarnished by its actions in the War on Terror.


     Who is there to wipe that tarnish away? Who is there to bring back the America of equal growth and fairness, of social mobility? Who is there to restore the America that stood for international human rights? Who is there to do what needs to be done to reinvigorate an America of equality, social justice, fairness and human rights? All these are ideals, certainly — ideals that were always aspired to, never achieved. Government programs were wasteful and ineffective, human rights were trod upon in foreign wars. But the ideals remains and we have traveled far from them these last few decades, in the years since I sat where you are sitting now. I am astonished by where we have traveled. My last paper before I graduated was a study of Argentina's "dirty war" and took up a disgusting Argentine torture called el Submarino. This is the Argentine name for waterboarding, and I never dreamed as I wrote that paper, my first effort to write about human rights, that three decades later I would be writing about el submarino as an approved practice of my own government. I never dreamed it, and yet that is what I have done. 


     I wish my generation had done better. The frightening and exciting truth of the matter, though, is that it is your turn now. You are the humanists, you are the thinkers, you are the young people who have taken it upon yourself to look and to study and to see. You are the best among us. Find fulfilling work. Follow your curiosity. Learn, explore, argue, create. All the while, though — and I make you this charge: all the while, it is up to you, as humanists, to be public citizens, to ignore the ranting and the half-truths and to look beneath the surface, and to make, tenaciously and steadily, with faith and determination, a world that it is better — a world that accords, at least a bit more closely, with our ideals and our hopes of what America can truly be. Given the grim picture I have painted here today, that may well seem to be a bum job, but that is the one that you find yourselves commencing today. The grim and happy and simple truth is this: there is no one else to do it. 


     I look at you, fellow humanists, in all your health and enthusiasm and wisdom and vigor, and feel a wave of faith and happiness as I confer this wounded America into your hands. This America will be what you make of it. Be ambitious. Be strong. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid. God bless you in your efforts.

Mark Danner speaking at the humanities commencement for the University of California, Riverside. 

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