On May 19, 2017, Michael R. Bloomberg received an honorary degree and served as Commencement Speaker at the 2017 Villanova University Commencement Ceremony. These are his remarks as delivered.
Thank you, and good afternoon everyone. Father Peter and Provost Maggitti, thank you for this honor – and Beth, thank you for that overdone but greatly appreciated introduction.
Good afternoon, Nova Nation! I’m honored to have been asked to speak to the great class of 2017. Before I offer a few words of wisdom, I did want to dispel a rumor: my coming here had nothing to do with Villanova’s undergraduate business school being named number one in the country by the Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. I can assure you: I had nothing to do with it. And that is not fake news.
Now, if you are sitting out there thinking to yourself: O.M.G., when today is over, what am I going to do with my life? Don’t worry. When I graduated from undergraduate school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do – and after I graduated from business school, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.
But I ended up taking a job that paid about 40 percent less than another firm was offering – because I thought it would be a better fit. And it was one of the best decisions that I ever made – even though I got fired from that company after 15 years.
So don’t worry about making some grand long-term plan, is my advice to you. And don’t take a job based on salary. Take the job that you’ll enjoy working at – and then work like crazy. Given how much time you’ll be spending in your life making a living, loving your work is a very big part of loving life.
Now, I’m the first to admit: I’ve had a lot of luck along the way. But there is only one country in the world where my story would be possible. Sure, we have problems here – like every other country. Too many families are trapped in poverty, too many communities are being ravaged by drugs, too many people are struggling with a labor market that is automating traditional jobs out of existence, and too many schools are failing our children.
But when people vote with their feet from around the world, they still come here to the 50 states. Why? Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today.
Personally, I’m tired of politicians running down our country for their own political purposes. No nation offers greater freedoms, or greater opportunities, than the United States of America. Make America great – again? Let’s get real. When you take the full measure of our nation, America has never been greater than it is today.
Our economic power has never been stronger. Our standards of living have never been higher. And we remain the only real superpower on the global stage. The challenge we face is not restoring a mythical past, but building a brighter future – so that all people, in all regions of the country, of all backgrounds, have a fair shot at living out their American dream.
In preparing for today, I was reminded that this beautiful campus lies halfway between two of the most important sites in American history: Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted, and Valley Forge, where George Washington’s troops spent a long winter during the Revolutionary War.
It occurred to me that the two sites are bound together by a powerful idea that matters as much today as it did back in the 1770s. That idea can be summed up in a single word. But the trouble is it’s perhaps the most abused, exploited, and misunderstood word in the English language.
As a country, when we allow this word to be disconnected from Independence Hall and Valley Forge, we lose our way. What’s the word I’m referring to? Maybe you’ve already guessed it: it’s patriotism, and I’d like to share a few thoughts with you today on what it means to me – and why I think it matters to all of us.
When people hear the word ‘patriotism,’ they often think of the 4th of July. But eating a hot dog while wearing red, white, and blue while posting a selfie on Instagram does not a patriot make. And neither does rooting for a certain team that keeps winning the Super Bowl, except of course when they play the New York Giants.
So what is patriotism? Some people think it means unconditional support for government policies: ‘My country, right or wrong,’ they say. Or, they think patriotism means nationalism that pits ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ or that it requires us to buy American, or that it’s about passing tax cuts and spending more on defense.
But real patriotism isn’t mindless, it isn’t divisive, and it isn’t about our pocketbooks. Patriotism is about how we respond when our founding values – the values that defined Independence Hall and Valley Forge – are tested.
What are those values? Well, I arrived on campus today, and I stopped into the St. Thomas of Villanova Monastery to see one of the university’s prized possessions: the sister bell to the famous Liberty Bell.
Like the Liberty Bell, the sister bell has hung at Independence Hall and it was there on July 4th, 1776 – and it remained there for more than 50 years. It was eventually sold to a nearby church – St. Augustine’s.
But in 1844, two years after this university was founded, anti-Catholic rioters set fire to the church. Those rioters considered Catholics a threat to America, and they wanted to bar them from entering the country. If only they could’ve seen the parade for Pope Francis in Philadelphia.
The rioters managed to destroy the church, but not the bell. The Augustinians saved it, repaired it, and sent it here for safe-keeping. The bell is now retired, but it’s much more than a relic from Independence Hall, or a remnant of anti-Catholic bigotry. It, like Villanova, is a living reminder that the struggles to defend our founding values never ends.
In 1928, when the Democratic Party nominated a Catholic, Al Smith, for President, many Protestants strongly opposed him on religious grounds. They believed that Catholics were not really Americans – and that Al Smith would take his orders from Rome. It was the new version of the ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs that used to hang in store windows and appear in job listings.
When I entered college in 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was running for president – and many Americans still thought that Catholics were less than fully American, and unfit for the presidency. Now think about the following: Today, if you replace the word Catholics with the word Muslims, that same sentence is no less true.
During my time as mayor, I saw that discrimination firsthand. When a local developer proposed building a mosque near the World Trade Center, the media whipped people into a frenzy. Polls showed that a majority of Americans in both parties opposed the new mosque.
They considered it an unpatriotic – it was insulting to those killed in the attacks of 9/11 – never mind that there was already a mosque even closer to the Trade Center that had never bothered anyone. They wanted me to stop the new mosque from going forward – but they could not have been more wrong, and I didn’t hesitate to say so.
Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, Muslims fight and die for our nation in our military, Muslims serve in our communities. But really, all that matters is this: Muslims are Americans who are just as free to practice their faith as anyone else. And discriminating against them is just as un-American and un-patriotic as discriminating against Catholics or anyone else.
We should all be worried and even ashamed that this discrimination – like lingering anti-Catholicism discrimination – exists here. Today, as Muslims face new threats of discrimination, it is up to us, all of us, to stand up for their rights. And as the beneficiaries of a great university, whose early graduates felt discrimination themselves, you have a particular responsibility to be the first in line to do so.
When we don’t stand up for the rights of others, eventually we pay the price ourselves. Patriotism requires ethics. And ethics are at the heart of America’s power and purpose. Now I know, prejudice against other groups will probably always be with us. And far too often in our history, we have tolerated it – and even legislated it. But the reason America grew into such a great country is that, in times of crisis, the values that inspired our Declaration of Independence have been our North Star.
When our nation divided over those values back in 1860, we fought for Lincoln’s new birth of freedom.
When a Great Depression tested those values, we struck a New Deal with Franklin Roosevelt.
When tyrants threatened those values, we joined John Kennedy in pledging to pay any price, and bear any burden, to assure their survival.
When segregation debased those values, we marched with Dr. Martin Luther King to let freedom ring from every mountainside.
And when those values were denied to the LGBT community, a new generation – your generation – led the way in declaring ‘love is love.’
In each case, there were false starts, half-measures, and setbacks. And there were always those who wanted to take the easy way out – by tolerating secession, poverty, isolation, and discrimination. But in every generation, most men and women here understood that putting America first means putting American values first.
That, I believe, lies at the heart of patriotism. And that is how you graduates – in your own lives, in your own communities, in your own ways – can make this great country greater still, no matter who sits in the Oval Office and Congress.
When someone tells you that patriotism simply means love of country, just remember this: the nativists who burned down St. Augustine’s, the Klan that burned crosses in black communities, the protesters who tried to block the construction of a mosque, all loved America – and all acted in her name.
But they were not acting as true patriots because they all made a critical crucial mistake: they feared that the values that gave rise to America – liberty, equality, openness, tolerance – would weaken us instead of understanding that those values they make us stronger. That understanding isn’t something we should expect people to come by naturally. It’s something that has to be taught in schools.
When I was growing up, I was taught to love this country not because America was infallible, but because ‘We the People’ were always working towards perfection. That idea – that we are engaged in a constant struggle for a ‘more perfect union’ – is what makes America an exceptional nation.
It’s imperative that we pass that idea from generation to generation – and yet today sadly, there is a terrible lack of civics education in our schools. Now some of the parents here might actually remember taking a class called civics. Civic education teaches us about the history behind our values, what it means to be a citizen in our democracy, and what obligations that imposes on us.
People spend time debating whether the pledge of allegiance should be recited. But we should be less concerned with whether students recite the pledge than we are with them learning why we recite it. And we should focus less on what name is on a building and more on the values that are taught inside it, including tolerance for opposing viewpoints.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘A well informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.’ Today, it is easier than ever to be well-informed – and, at the same time, harder than ever. By following only liberal or conservative news outlets, or by getting trapped in social media’s echo chamber, we become less able to discern fact from spin, truth from lies. And we become less willing to listen to anyone who challenges our beliefs.
The best protection we have against this kind of political segregation is to ensure that we all share a common understanding of civic values. When we don’t, we are more likely to nominate and elect people who don’t respect those values, and the institutions that protect our rights.
It is easy to take our rights for granted. But remember: America is an experiment. An experiment in democracy and multi-culturalism. It’s an experiment that a free people will remain informed, debate civilly, and choose leaders who respect the checks and balances of the Constitution. And if they do not, the Constitution gives us the authority to hold them accountable for their actions to ensure that no man or woman – no matter how powerful – is above the law.
The great American experiment has no guaranteed outcomes. Every generation tests the experiment – and every generation is tested. Your responsibility – your test – is to preserve the experiment, and renew it, for the next generation. This is no small task – but I believe it starts with a small step that each of you can take in your communities: demanding that your local schools do more to teach what it means to be a citizen and a patriot.
But that’s not all. To take the full measure of patriotism, we must honor not only the ideals that inspired statesmen at Independence Hall, but also the sacrifices that soldiers made at Valley Forge.
In the winter of 1777 through 1778, some 2,500 soldiers died from disease and starvation at Valley Forge. Those who survived did so shivering and hungry, often without winter clothing, blankets, or shoes. The vast majority of those soldiers – graduates – were your age: early twenties, or younger. Many were immigrants. And they endured misery on a scale that few of us can even imagine.
The sacrifices those young men and women made at Valley Forge, the courage they showed, and the unity they maintained preserved hope for a nation of united states. Today, they are a reminder that age is no barrier to commitment and sacrifice when a principle – or a goal – is worth fighting for.
That’s as true for the young as it is for the old – and there is no better example of that than one of my fellow honorees on this stage: Irwin Medway. Irwin, congratulations once again.
Today, patriotism doesn’t require us to endure starvation or extreme deprivation – and let us hope it never will again. But it does require a volunteer army – and right now, there are men and women your age putting their lives at risk for our country and safety.
Perhaps tonight as you take a last look in the mirror before going to bed, you might reflect, say a prayer, blow a kiss to them, for ensuring your ability to have arrived at this wonderful milestone in your life. Many around the world are not so blessed.
Just as importantly, realize that freedom isn’t free. Patriotism requires all of us to have the courage to do not what is easy, but what is hard. Not what is comfortable, but what is uncomfortable. Not what is safe, but what is right.
What does that mean? Well, like Irwin Medway, it means having the courage to keep studying new subjects throughout your life. It means having the courage to listen to those on the other side of an argument with an open mind – instead of retreating into safe spaces with trigger warnings for micro-aggressions.
It means having the courage to re-examine our beliefs when data and science contradict them. It means having the courage to stand up to members of your own party when you believe they are wrong – or when their actions put our great American experiment at risk. And it means having the courage to accept the results of an election – even when, and especially when, you deplore the results.
Since last November, one of the most popular protest slogans has been: ‘Not my president.’ I understand the reasons to protest this president, and I said my piece about the recent election last summer before it took place. So don’t get me wrong: protest is an essential part of patriotism, and I would encourage all of you to speak out, call your legislators, and get involved in public issues.
But at the same time, the fate of our American experiment rests upon the principle that the losing side accepts the legitimacy of the winning side – and works in cooperation with it for the good of the country, rather than fomenting a revolution. That is what distinguishes us from so many other countries that routinely experience coups and military dictatorships. And it’s what has allowed the freedoms that were declared on July 4th, 1776 to be preserved and extended ever wider.
True patriots, as Washington explained in his Farewell Address, serve country ahead of party, and put our national unity above their personal opinions. At Independence Hall in 1787, the delegates to the Second Constitutional Convention haggled over everything from the power of states to the status of slaves. Some who did not like the compromises left Philadelphia in protest. Other critics remained, and their opposition threatened to sink the Constitution’s chances for ratification.
But before the final vote, the delegates heard a speech by an aging Ben Franklin. Franklin acknowledged his own misgivings about the Constitution, but he urged every opponent to ‘doubt a little of his own infallibility.’
Doubt a little of your own infallibility. Seven words of advice that would be hard to improve upon in any commencement address. Those seven words are credited with helping to ensure adoption and ratification of what has proven to be a true work of genius.
As you graduates make your way in the world, and get involved in public issues in one form or another, I hope you will always carry those words with you.
When Ben Franklin left the Convention, a woman came up to him and asked: ‘Well doctor, what do we have: a monarchy or a republic?’ He replied: ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’
Generations have kept it, and now, graduates, it is your turn to keep it.
Keep it by standing up for the values that drove the patriots at Independence Hall and Valley Forge.
Keep it by inspiring and teaching others to be informed citizens.
Keep it by getting out of your comfort zone and doing what is difficult.
And keep it by remembering that the future of this great nation of ours depends upon your participation in its civic life.
Congratulations and best of luck!