Middlebury

William Jefferson Clinton, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters

 

Middlebury College Commencement
Middlebury, Vermont
May 27, 2007

 

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you very much, President Liebowitz, Mr. Fritz, and the members of the board. My fellow recipients of honorary degrees. As I was listening to the other people getting degrees, I leaned over and said, "I wish all of them were speaking. I could learn more." I congratulate them. Vani Sathisan, you gave a great speech. You look better without your mortarboard. Don't worry about it. Let's give her another hand. I thought she was terrific.

 

I would also like to acknowledge a person who served in my Administration as Ambassador to Switzerland, former Governor Madeleine Kunin. Thank you for being here. Middlebury's ambassador in the White House when I was President, Andrew Friendly, who was my personal aide, I thank you for being here today.

The first person who introduced me to Middlebury was Ron Brown, who was my Commerce Secretary. He grew up on the streets in Harlem and found a home at Middlebury. He served on the board until his untimely death in 1996, while leading a delegation of Americans to the Balkans to try to help people put their lives together again after we ended the horrible Civil War in Bosnia. I loved Ron Brown. He was an unbelievable human being and like a brother to me, but his eyes would just light up every time he talked about Middlebury. I hope that all of you, for the rest of your lives, however long they may be, will feel some of that, because I can see that he found here what I want for everyone in the world. A kid who grew up in a hotel in Harlem found a home here, because there's a community here in the best sense, and that's really what we have to build in the world.

 

Every successful community has three things, whether it's a university, a sports team, a business, an orchestra, a family; you name it. They all have three things: a broadly shared opportunity to participate; a broadly felt responsibility for the success of the enterprise, whatever it is; and a genuine sense of belonging. That's what Ron Brown felt at Middlebury when he became the first African American member of his fraternity, and then his fraternity had to choose between kicking him out and being kicked out of the national fraternity. They chose him. Good for you, by the way.

 

Look around here. This is a much more interesting student body than it would have been if I had come here 30 years ago to speak. It's more diverse racially and religiously. Sixty-two percent of you studied overseas. You've got students from 74 countries here. You had a commencement speaker from Singapore of Indian heritage. You doubtless have Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and perhaps Shintos, Confucians, Jains, and goodness knows what else. But you're still in a community.

 

Now, the world has lots of problems. We have the existential problem of climate change, and you're on the cutting edge of that, and I congratulate you on your commitment to become carbon neutral in the next few years. We have the problems of resource depletion all over the world, unprecedented loss of topsoil, water, trees, plants, and animal species, just at the time when the world's population is expected to grow from 6.5 billion to 9 billion, almost all of it in the countries least able to take care of themselves today. Only Brazil and Argentina have significantly increased grain production in the last 10 years, because they still have more than 20 feet of topsoil. That's a huge problem. For all the people down in Washington who are so exercised about the problem of illegal immigration, you haven't seen anything yet if we go from 6.5 billion to 9 billion people on earth and our capacity to grow food is reduced, not increased.

 

We have legitimate problems with terror, weapons of mass destruction, and the potential spread of them. Our interdependence has made us more vulnerable than we have been since the end of World War I to a global epidemic like avian influenza, which is why you can turn on the evening news and see stories about chickens competing with Britney Spears' shaved head. First you see the local crime story, then maybe the fight over the remains of poor Anna Nicole Smith, and then I've seen stories about chickens in Romania, India, and Indonesia. Why? They all have avian influenza. It has a 60 percent mortality rate in people, and we don't have a vaccine or cure yet. It's a good story to be on the news, certainly more important than the other ones.

 

We have problems because the world that is now yours to command with your imagination is so beyond the reach of half the people on this planet. Half the world's people still live on less than $2 a day; a billion people live on less than $1 a day. A quarter of all deaths on earth are from HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, and infections related to dirty water.

 

Even within rich countries, there's a real struggle to maintain anything like a sense of social cohesion as inequality in America runs rampant. We're now in our sixth year of an economic recovery. We have a 40 year high in corporate profits, the stock market reaching record levels, increasing productivity of people every year, but median wages are flat and poverty and the lack of health insurance have both gone up among working families. We're becoming more and more unequal.

 

So there are plenty of problems out there. Why would I come to you and ask you to think most about community? Because I believe questions of community and identity, personal identity, will determine our collective capacity to deal with all the problems. The most important thing you've got coming out of this Middlebury education is the understanding of the elemental value that makes all communities possible in an interdependent world, which is that our differences are really neat, they make life more interesting, and they aid in the search for truth. But our common humanity matters more.

 

So much of the world's difficulties today are rooted in the rejection of that simple premise. Think about all the political, the religious, almost psychological fundamentalism that drives the wars and the conflicts and the demonization in the world today. All of it is premised on the simple fact that our differences are more important than whatever we have in common. When the terrorist bombings hit London not so long ago, the most traumatic thing for many British citizens was that the people who set the bombs off were British citizens. It was in no sense an invasion. They felt somehow violated and disoriented, and I read painful article after article where people were saying, "I just don't get it. I work with these people. They're nice people. I don't understand it. My kids played with their children. We went to sporting events on the weekend. We had all this contact." What happened? The people who set the bombs off did not feel they belonged. They believed that their differences were more important than what they had in common.

 

Even though they lived and worked and sometimes played with other people, the same people somehow became less human to them. All this may seem completely alien to you, but we are all guilty at various points of doing the same thing. I'll give you a little test. When I was President, I strongly supported the sequencing of the human genome, which was completed in 2000. Lots of wonderful things have happened because of that. Just last week, we learned that the two genetic markers which are high predictors of diabetes were found. This is a huge discovery because of the rampant growth of diabetes along with childhood obesity in the United States. We have for the first time statistically significant numbers of young people with what we used to call adult onset diabetes. A lot of other great things have happened. We found the markers for breast cancer. We're getting close with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

 

But the most important thing I learned was that, genetically, all human beings are 99.9 percent the same. That is astonishing. Look at each other. Every difference you can see of gender, skin color, hair color, eye color, height, weight, you name it, everything you can possibly observe about another that seems different is rooted in one-tenth of one percent of your genetic makeup.

 

But most of us spend 90 percent of our time focused on the one-tenth of one percent, don't we? I'm 60 years old. Well, at least I'm not 80. I'm 10 pounds overweight. Well, at least I'm not 40 pounds overweight. I did a terrible thing, but at least I'm not as bad as she is or he is. How many times have you done that?

 

I met Rush Limbaugh the other night, and I was tempted after all the terrible things he said about me to tell him that we were 99.9 percent the same. I was afraid the poor man would run weeping from the restaurant, and so I let it go. On the other hand, a few weeks from now I'm going to South Africa, as I try to go every summer around the time of Nelson Mandela's birthday. He'll be 89 this year, and I try to share his birthday with him every year. I can't believe that he and I are 99.9 percent the same, because he's so much greater in every way than I could ever be. But it's true. So on the one hand, what you do with that one-tenth of one percent of you that's different makes all the difference, but if you think that it's more important than what you have in common, then the problems that bedevil the world are likely to overwhelm all the wonderful things that you might otherwise do.

 

If you think about what it would take for your grandchildren to be sitting here on a day like this 50 years from now, we have to deal with climate change and resource depletion; we have to reconcile the world and move it away from terror and the maniacal spread of lethal weapons; we have to develop cooperative systems to deal with disease; and we cannot continue to have this spreading inequality. We have to widen the circle of opportunity within and beyond national borders. And it all starts with questions of community and identity and the elemental knowledge that what we have in common is more important than what divides us.

 

I do a lot of work in Africa, as the President said, with my AIDS project. We sell medicine at the cheapest price in the world in 66 countries, and we have health projects in 25, and I never cease to be amazed by the intelligence of people with no money, no education, nothing, just lots of observation and received wisdom. In South Africa, in Mandela's tribe language, Xhosa, people discuss the idea of community in a fundamental, almost existential way. They use a word which was used as the motto of the youth service project he and I started for black and white kids in South Africa: "ubuntu." It simply means in English, "I am because you are." Our differences cannot be as important as our common humanity, because we couldn't even exist in any meaningful sense without each other.

 

A little north of there, in the central highlands, when people meet each other walking along paths and one person says, "hello, how are you, good morning," the answer is not "I'm fine, how are you?" The answer, translated to English, is "I see you." Think about that. Think about how empowering that is. Think about the difference between that and a world of people obsessed with concentrating power instead of empowerment, with control instead of freedom, with imposed ideology instead of reasoned evidence. "I see you."

 

Most of you don't have a racist bone in your body. Most of you don't have a sexist bone in your body. Most of you are probably as free of artificial categorical bigotry as any group of young people has ever been, but you have gifts. The gift of a fine mind, the gift of a chance to be here, the gift of all the choices you have when you leave. So the bigotry you will have to work hard to avoid is not seeing everyone else. When we leave here today, somebody's going to have to come in and fold up all these chairs and clean this place up, and a lot of people who do that work think no one ever sees them. They have to be involved in the fight against climate change too, or the fight against income and equality. They have to have chances in life.

 

If there's one thing I've learned traveling the world, it's that intelligence and effort are equally distributed; organization, investment, and opportunity are not, and so too many people remain unseen.

 

I believe you will live in the most interesting, peaceful, prosperous time the world has ever known. Even if we have to deal with terror for a few more decades, they're going to have to really work to kill as many innocent people as were killed from political violence in the 20th century in two world wars, the Holocaust, in the purges in the Soviet Union, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and all the tribal wars in Africa. You're going to have a better time of it, but only if, with all of our scientific advances, we can drive home the elemental requirement of community that will lead all of us to serve, whether we're in office or just in private life.

 

Our common humanity is more important than our differences. We must see everyone. That is what I wish for you. As you save the world, remember all the people in it. If you see everyone, if you believe that we are because others are, if you serve in that spirit, your grandchildren will be here 50 years from now, and it will be even better, because you will have fulfilled humanity's first obligation, to honor what is holy about it and to pass it on.

 

Thank you and God bless you.