Commencement speakers usually call on graduates to embrace the future. But I’m going to call on you to do something else: I am going to urge you to embrace the past. I want you to remember who you are.
I want you to remember who we are.
We are Americans… And I – hopefully, we – want you to appreciate what that demands of you in the face of the daunting crises that confront us. Bluntly stated: It is time for you to make history as our greatest generations have made history.
Echoing what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told my parents’ generation in 1936: I firmly believe that this Generation – your Generation – has a Rendezvous with Destiny.
True: We do not suffer a Great Depression… True: We do not confront foreign enemies as powerful as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan… And yet: We do face crises no less challenging.
Think about it. For the past forty years we have subordinated the public good to corporate priorities and private greed. And we have seen our industries decline, our infrastructures decay and collapse, and our environment go haywire.
For the past forty years we have subjected ourselves to ever-widening inequalities and ever intensifying insecurities. And we have watched the middle class erode, politics and public life decay, and democracy surrender to plutocracy.
For the past forty years we have denied our own democratic impulses and yearnings. And we have witnessed direct, devastating, and too often deadly assaults on the rights of workers, women, and people of color.
But perhaps worst of all, we seem to have forgotten who we are… And it has made us fearful – as if we were deer caught in headlights – the headlights of history.
Well, enough of that!
It is time that we started remembering. But we need to do more than remember… We also need to act. We need to act both courageously and determinedly.
It is time for you and your generation to transform this nation as generations of Americans did in the 1770s – the 1860s – and the 1930s and 1940s – not to mention the 1960s.
What did those generations do?
They rejected fear and gave real historical meaning – indeed, historic and transcendent meaning – to our finest ideals and aspirations:
To Thomas Paine’s argument in his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again”
To Thomas Jefferson’s phrases in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal… endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights… among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”
To the Founders’ words in the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”
To Abraham Lincoln’s lines at Gettysburg in 1863 proclaiming “a new birth of freedom” and insisting upon a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”
To Franklin Roosevelt’s call in 1941 to create a nation and a world marked by four fundamental freedoms “Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear”
And to Martin Luther King Jr.’s pronouncement on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “I have a dream…”
Yes, they were terribly flawed generations.
Nonetheless, for all of their faults and failings, for all of the tragedy and irony that marked their lives, and for all of the exploitation and oppression that they left in place, each of those generations – in all of their marvelous diversity – found it in themselves to rise up, to deal head on with the daunting challenges they faced, and to make America both stronger and richer than ever before.
But that’s just the half of it.
The most amazing thing about those generations; the thing that made each of them great; the thing that made America truly exceptional; the thing which we sadly have forgotten – or, have been made to forget – is that they actually succeeded in doing all of that NOT by giving up or suspending their finest ideals and aspirations, but by harnessing the powers of democratic government and making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.
In the 1770s, Americans – both native-born and immigrant – not only fought a war for independence. They also rejected kings and aristocrats and created an historically unprecedented democratic republic.
In the 1860s, farmers, workers, and the slaves themselves not only defeated the traitorous Southern Confederacy and sustained the Union. They also redeemed the Declaration’s promise by bringing an end to black bondage.
In the 1930s – in the shadows of the Great Depression, the worst economic and social catastrophe in U.S. history – working men and women mobilized. They mobilized not only to reform government, provide relief, pursue economic recovery, transform the American landscape, and rebuild the nation’s public infrastructure. But also to fight.
They mobilized in labor unions, housewives’ campaigns, and civil rights organizations – to fight for their rights as American citizens against the economic royalists, reactionary politicians, and white supremacists who sought to deny them their rights.
And in the 1940s, they not only went “All Out!” to beat Fascism by turning the country into the Arsenal of Democracy, by creating a military force of 16,000,000 men and women, and by shipping overseas to fight for the Four Freedoms. They also continued to fight for those Four Freedoms at home in the United States.
Moreover, they would not only go on to sustain a Cold War against the Soviet Union, make the United States the most powerful and prosperous nation in human history, and create the American middle class; but also – when challenged by their own children to live up to the promise for which they had fought – set themselves to trying to do so.
In the course of the 1960s: They enacted the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. They reformed the nation’s immigration laws to once again make America an “asylum for mankind.” They expanded Social Security to include Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. They empowered public employees to organize and bargain collectively. They passed laws that made the environment, the marketplace, and the workplace safer for all of us. And they vastly expanded educational and cultural opportunities for all Americans – which included creating this University, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, fifty years ago.
Take a moment: Consider how we have tragically failed to sustain their hard-fought-for legacy of prosperity and political, social, and industrial democracy…
Surely, whether you are a liberal or a conservative, you can see that the time has come – the time has come to act as the greatest Americans of the past have acted in the face of mortal crises.
It is time to get up, harness the powers of government, and dramatically – indeed, radically – enhance American democratic life.
As our greatest democratic poet Walt Whitman put it: “There must be continual additions to our great experiment of how much liberty society will bear.”
Or as the Progressive journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote in 1900: “The price of liberty is something more than eternal vigilance. There must also be eternal advance. We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children.”
I will repeat that: The price of liberty is something more than eternal vigilance. There must also be eternal advance. We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children.
So, not just for your sake, but for the sake of all of us, I urge you to embrace the past – the past that you may not readily recall, but which I know you carry in your deepest memory and imagination.
EMBRACE AMERICA’S PAST.
REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE.
MAKE AMERICA FREER, MORE EQUAL, AND MORE DEMOCRATIC.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (FSG) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye.