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President Bill Clinton's commencement address at the University of Michigan, April 28, 2007

BY COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN NEWS SERVICE

Published February 11, 2010

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you very much. I am delighted to be here and delighted to be given this degree by the University of Michigan's first female President. That has a great ring, I think.

I have had a wonderful time already. I have so many memories and associations with this university. When we were walking in, I told President Coleman that we were marching to William Walton's great coronation march, "Crown Imperial," which I first heard played on an old-fashioned LP record by the University of Michigan Band in 1963. I still own that record. And it’s still a great band.

The President mentioned my great friend, the late Eli Segal, who loved the University of Michigan and is smiling down on me today. He used to kid me that maybe someday I could get a degree from a real law school. There is another member of my cabinet here today, my former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who runs the Motion Picture Association now. He also went to Michigan Law School. Lieutenant Governor Cherry, I thank you for being here. Congressman Ron Klein from Florida is here. I have many friends in this audience.

I am particularly grateful to the students who were mentioned who worked in Rwanda in our project where we're trying to help the country rebuild. There are 11 other Michigan students who went all the way to Papua New Guinea to help set up our AIDS project there, and that's an important little example of something I want to talk about today, because half of all the languages still spoken on earth are spoken in the small country of Papua New Guinea -- more than 300 of them. That's an example of how involved you are with the larger world.

I also couldn't come to Michigan without echoing what the President said about President Ford. He and I became great friends after we were both out of the White House. We spent two memorable days playing golf together in 1993. We lied to each other about sports stories. He was a truly wonderful man.

I'd also like to acknowledge, since I'm here in the football stadium, which I have watched on television a hundred times, that this is the first graduation to occur after the passing of Coach Bo Schembechler, who as most of you know, was quite an ardent Republican. As I walked in here today on university soil, I considered a philosophical question that I had never before considered, which is whether it is possible still to switch parties in the afterlife and whether it would be moral to pray for such a result.

I want to say how inspired I was by what Jolene Pemberton and Abdul El-Sayed had to say and also how impressed I was by the previous remarks of Provost Sullivan, Dr. Smith, and the twin messages of Dean McDonald and President Coleman exhorting you not only to be successful, but to be good citizens.

I want to take just a few minutes today to ask you to think about how you're going to define your citizenship of your nation, your community, and the world, and how will you reconcile that with all your various identities, your national citizenship, your gender, your race, your religion, and all the various things that distinguish you from one another.

We celebrate today, as has already been said, the completion of your academic journey. This is largely, I believe, a time of joy, pride, gratitude, and relief. We celebrate the beginning of the rest of your life. How will you define your citizenship? This is one of the most exciting times to be alive in all of human history. It is exploding with opportunity, yet marred by inequality, insecurity, and clear unsustainability. It is bursting with knowledge, increasing at an exponential degree. Just in the last week, we have learned that several new genetic markers have been identified which are high predictors of diabetes, and that there is a planet going around a star, one of the 100 closest to our planet, that may have an atmosphere enough like ours that life is possible. And yet at the same time, much of our common life and much of the world's politics are shaped by religious, political, even psychological fundamentalism that requires people to dehumanize those who disagree with them and ignores evidence whenever it is inconvenient, the total antithesis of what you were taught to do here.

This is an amazing time of cultural creativity. I mean, look at this campus. You have people from every state, from 80 foreign nations, from every race, every faith, every political persuasion, every walk of life, yet we live in a popular culture in America that often richly rewards people who make a living just putting other people down, demeaning them, defining them by their very worst moment. For a while in New York, the tabloids told me more about the current length of hair on Britney Spears' shaved head than what was going on in Iraq or the debates over economic policy in Washington.

In order for you to make the most of your education and your aspirations, you have to be able to answer a few basic and fundamental questions about what kind of citizen you're going to be, and I'll give you short answers, because I know what you're really interested in today. But this is important.

First, what is the fundamental nature of your world, the 21st century world? Most people say globalization. I far prefer "interdependence," because this is about more than economics, travel, and even information technology. This is about the increasing web that binds us together, the increasing diversity within all rich countries, and interdependence has no necessary value content. It simply means we cannot escape each other. Divorce is not an option.

Second question: is this world basically good or bad? My answer is both; more good than bad, but both. Its benefits are self-evident here. I don't want to embarrass your senior speaker, but I wish every person in the world who believes that we are fated to have a clash of civilizations and cannot reach across the religious divides could have heard you speak today. I wish every person in the world could have heard you speak today.

So there is a lot of good here, but the world you live in is, I will say again, unequal, unstable, and unsustainable. Half the world's people live on less than two dollars a day, a quarter of all the people who died this year will die of AIDS, TB, malaria, and infections from dirty water, and 80 percent of them will be under five years of age.

In America, we've had five years of economic growth, productivity growth, and a 40-year high in corporate profits. Median wages are stagnant. There's been a four percent increase in the number of people working full-time who have fallen below the poverty line and a four percent increase in the percentage of working families working full-time who have lost their health insurance. It's an unequal world.

It is also an unstable world, because while I think it is highly unlikely that the 21st century will claim as many lives from political violence as the 20th did, this time we all know it could be our life. But think about it. The 20th century claimed 9 million lives in World War I, 12 million in World War II, 6 million in the Holocaust, 20 million in the purges in the former Soviet Union between and after the wars and after World War II, an untold number in China in the Cultural Revolution, 2 million in Cambodia, and millions in the African wars. I think it's unlikely that this new century will claim that many people from political violence. The difference is, when you pick up the paper and you read about somebody in London thinking about putting an explosive liquid in a baby bottle to make it look like formula to evade the airport inspectors, you think about you being on an airplane. In my case, I think about my daughter.

It's important to remember that on 9/11, there were 200 Muslims and people from 70 other countries murdered. So we all feel somewhat insecure. The prospect that weapons of mass destruction could be spread around by non-state actors makes us feel insecure. The prospect of having a global epidemic of avian influenza, where the mortality rate is still about 60 percent and we don't have a vaccine or a cure, makes us feel insecure.

Perhaps most important, this world is unsustainable because of climate change and resource depletion, which is not as much talked about, but may bite your future even before the most severe aspects of climate change. The erosion of drinkable water, of topsoil, of trees, the disappearance of plant and animal species at the most rapid rate certainly in human history, and perhaps for hundreds of thousands of years before, all of this will happen at a time when the world's population is projected to grow from 6.5 to 9 billion people by 2050, and almost all of that growth will occur in countries least able economically to support new people. That is the world you will live in. It's going to be great for you, but you have to try to change it, because it's unequal, unstable, and unsustainable.

So the third question is: how would you change it? My answer is that we should move from interdependence to integrated communities locally, nationally, and globally that have three characteristics that all successful communities have: shared opportunities to participate, a shared sense of responsibility for the success of the outcome, and a genuine sense of belonging. Unless we make our societies more equal and unless we all feel responsible for their success, then sooner or later it won't matter how well educated you are or how wealthy I've gotten in my old age after having the lowest net worth of any President in the 20th century. It won't amount to a hill of beans.

Maybe the most important thing is easiest to say but hard to do: a genuine sense of belonging. You had a man and a woman speaker, a Muslim and a non-Muslim. You have Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Confucians in the audience.

For the purposes of your being here today, what makes you a community? Not the fact that you're wearing a uniform and all kinds of interesting things underneath, like running shoes and things like that. Why did you feel the need to applaud and shout and cheer when your speaker was talking about what it meant to be here at Michigan? Because you think your differences are important. They matter. But on this special day, what you have in common matters more. That is the ultimate simple test of humanity's future. Are our important differences or our common humanity more important? You have to decide. You have to decide for our common humanity, and that's why you have to define your citizenship in an active, engaged, and inclusive way.

Fourth question: how are we going to make these communities? We're going to have to have a security policy, of course, but security alone will never be enough in an interdependent world, because you cannot kill, jail, or occupy all the people that aren't with you, and when you can't, you have to value cooperation over unilateralism, and you have to try to spend more time, more money, and more effort making a world with more partners and fewer adversaries.

Every time you do anything to give a poor village a clean water well, help children get basic health care, or offer an education in a poor country where just one year of schooling is worth another 10 percent of income per year for life, you help to make more partners and fewer adversaries.

We know how to put all the kids of the world who don't go to school in school, 130 million of them. We just haven't done it. We know how to build adequate health systems to deal with AIDS, TB, malaria, tropical diseases, and maternal and child health. We know how to give people the means to work themselves out of extreme poverty. And we know something else. It's all much cheaper than going to war. It is the least expensive thing you can do to build a better world.

So we live in an interdependent world that's good and bad. We need to build integrated communities, and we have to do it with security, with cooperation, with more partners and fewer adversaries, and finally, with constant attention to home improvement in our communities and our nation. America will never be able to support what it ought to do unless we can get rid of this rampant trend toward inequality here, unless we can do our part on climate change, unless we can solve the health care problem.

Those are the three things that I think are most important now: building more broadly shared economic opportunity, solving the health care crisis, and doing something meaningful about climate change, which I believe will launch the greatest explosion of new jobs for college graduates and non-college graduates this country has seen in 30 or 40 years if we got serious about it. But you have to care about that.

And the last point I wish to make is this. It is not enough to vote and pay your taxes. It is not enough, because private citizens have more power to do public good today than ever before. Citizen service has an old tradition. Benjamin Franklin organized the first volunteer fire department in America before the Constitution was ratified. When de Tocqueville came here in 1835, he said the remarkable thing about our country is that when we have a problem, we just roll up our sleeves and solve it if we possibly can.

Now there are millions of non-governmental groups all over the world that give people of very limited means the power to change the world. The Internet means you don't have to be rich to have a financial impact. When the tsunami hit South Asia, Americans gave over a billion dollars. Thirty percent of our households gave, and over half gave over the Internet. The median contribution was less than $60. But together people with good hearts and fine minds who understood the interdependence with their fellow human beings could move the world.

So whether you leave here as a scientist, a writer, an engineer, a business person, or an artist, remember this: you must be a citizen. And it's more important now than ever before, but it has always been the truth that the world you live in is interdependent. You do not exist as a totally separate being in a society.

In South Africa, where I do a lot of work, they have a wonderful word for it: ubuntu. It means, in English, "I am, because you are." In another part of the continent where we work, where most people walk and never ride anything, when people meet on trails in the north central highlands, one says, "hello," and the response is not hello. The response is, "I see you." Think how many people there are in your home, in your community, in your country, and in the world who never get seen by anybody. If you see them, if you know that you are because they are, if you understand that you have more power and, therefore, a greater responsibility to move our common enterprise forward than any previous generation of young people, then sure, climate change is a problem; sure, religious and political discord is a problem; yes, Darfur is an atrocity; yes, we have to do something about all these problems in America; yes to all the things you say, but none of those problems is beyond the reach of our common endeavor. All we have to remember is that it is our common endeavor.

God bless you and good luck.


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