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Michael R. Bloomberg Honored at the Old North Foundation’s Lantern 2022 Event

Mike Bloomberg delivered the following remarks April 13, 2022 in Boston, MA at the Old North Foundation’s 2022 Lantern Event

There’s no way to say thank you enough. I wonder what my parents would think if they were alive today.

Governor, thank you for all the great work you’ve done here in Massachusetts. The state really is lucky to have you – and also for that very kind and overblown introduction. Although I will say you gave it exactly the way I wrote it, so thank you.

In fact, the Governor’s words were so kind that I’m not even going to mention last weekend’s Red Sox-Yankees series. The truth of the matter is, I’ve always been very careful when the Celtics come to town – no matter which end somebody puts a basket in, I don’t crack a smile.

I also wanted to thank Maddy Rodriguez, the Chair of your board, for everything that she’s done. And Nikki Stewart and the entire team here at the Old North Foundation for this honor.

And I especially want to thank the kids for their fun poem. Where were they when the campaign trail was going on?

As I was listening to them, I really did have to pinch myself because it brought many of the memories of me growing up in Medford. I was a graduate of Medford High School, 1960, just to show you our age difference. I was born at St. Elizabeth’s in Brookline. And then when I was four years old we moved to Medford. And I have nothing but great thoughts. And if you call my house, my sister and my house, my mother – who died 12 years ago at age 102 – will answer the phone. She is still on the answering machine.

When I was young and about the age of those kids, I was asked to read “Paul Revere’s Ride” at the Patriots’ Day celebration in Medford Square. I can picture it to this day: it was a raised platform in front of Gaffey’s Funeral Home – the same house where Revere supposedly hitched his horse to wake up Isaac Hall, a captain of the Minute Men.

Hundreds of people were looking on with excitement. A man on horseback was re-enacting the ride of Paul Revere. A brass band blared John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” And there I was as a Cub Scout in my Cub Scout uniform amazed that I had a chance to be part of such an important occasion.

It was, I’m sure, the first time that I ever spoke in front of more than five people. It was one of the most exciting things of any young man’s life, and certainly it was mine. But also at that time, it’s probably what inspired me to pick up a novel set in colonial Boston, entitled Johnny Tremain. I must have read that book a hundred times. In my bedroom. On the bus. I even took it on the T – although it wasn’t called the T in those days – when I would go to the North End to see Revolutionary War sites.

I pictured myself as the heroic Johnny, walking in his footsteps – and helping the Sons of Liberty take on that mean old tyrant King George III. Never would I have believed that some day I’d be honored by the very church that set my imagination on fire and lit the dawn of the American Revolution – and I can assure you that my teachers wouldn’t have believed it either.

So this night really is a special night for me. And I want to thank everyone at the Old North Foundation for taking such good care of this sacred place – and for keeping it alive for new generations, especially for our children. The educational work that happens here at the church really is so important because it’s not just about the history of the American Revolution. It is about the history and the future of the American Experiment. Tonight, I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about a serious threat looming over that future – a breakdown in our most vital civic traditions – and how we can overcome it.

As a child, I didn’t know that Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” written in 1860 was to rally public support for the Union against secession and slavery. And I didn’t know that Esther Forbes wrote Johnny Tremain after hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor, to rally public support for the young soldiers and sailors going off to war. Both writers used history to inspire a new generation of Americans to believe in the ideals that gave birth to our nation – so that they could propel us forward.

Those ideals were captured in a single sentence that began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The truths may have been self-evident back when those words were written, but how to apply them was not. The founders certainly fiercely debated that question, and so has every generation of Americans since. That never-ending debate – over the meaning of equality, and of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – lies at the heart of the American experience. In that debate, we can see all of our nation’s greatness – and all of our failures, as well.

We can see the slave owner – and Frederick Douglass. We can see women’s subjugation – and Susan B. Anthony. We can see the Trail of Tears – and Chief Joseph. We can see Jim Crow – and Martin Luther King Jr. We can see signs “No Irish Need Apply” – and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. We can see Asian exclusion – and Mayor Michelle Wu. We can see Mexican exploitation – and Cesar Chavez. We can see the assassination of Harvey Milk – and the marriage of Barney Frank. And we can hear Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic radio program – just as we can hear a song written by a Jewish refugee, Irving Berlin, called “God Bless America.”

We can see and hear all of that – and so much more – in the argument that it’s been carried on for the last 246 years about the meaning of those words “self-evident.” We have settled many of the arguments, thankfully – but never without a long and hard struggle. But many more remain – and always will. Because this is the calling of Americans I think: to engage in this debate – civilly, democratically, and peacefully – not as enemies, but as fellow-citizens.

It is our birthright – our civic duty – and our most sacred tradition. But sadly, I must stand before you tonight and say it is being jeopardized by one of the gravest dangers any democracy can face: righteous intolerance.

In our ongoing debate over self-evident truths, American history has always been contested ground. On every issue, each side has always claimed to be the true voice of America’s Founding Fathers and its founding ideals. In recent years, the debate has taken a turn. More and more, there are people who look at U.S. leaders from earlier generations and see flaws that should disqualify their statues from places of honor. To continue to honor them, these critics say, is to condone racism. Or sexism. Or homophobia. And they believe that we should cleanse our public spaces from them.

On the other side, there are people who look at the same leaders and see virtues that should shield them from criticism. To call attention to their flaws, they say, is to hate America, and they are trying to cleanse our schools of books that might make our students feel uncomfortable if they were to learn about those flaws and other dark chapters in our history.

Each side scorns the other with righteous intolerance. But I think most of the world would agree that there is a reasonable middle ground. Because the fact is: we can honor a person’s good deeds and be critical of their failings. It’s not one or the other. It is both that is a matter of national survival – because a nation that shares no heroes will not long be a nation. And a democracy that demands blind devotion to heroes will not be a long democracy.

We are not a perfect country. Never have been, never will be. But while we aren’t batting a thousand, we’re still doing better than Ted Williams ever did, which isn’t too shabby. And every time we face up to our mistakes and failures, we grow stronger – because patriotism doesn’t require perfection from the past. It requires honesty in the present.

It’s great to see the Old North Foundation acknowledging the fullness of its history. Not just the light of freedom in the steeple – but the darkness of slavery in the wood that surrounds us, which was logged by people held in bondage. Talking about history doesn’t diminish the sacredness of this place. It deepens our understanding of it.

The same is true with the story of Paul Revere’s ride. Neither Longfellow nor Forbes mentioned what Revere told us he saw as he rode from Charlestown to Medford on that famous night, and then onto Lexington and Concord: the skeletal remains of an enslaved man, who had been hanged from a tree years earlier. Revere went galloping past – just as freedom would gallop past generations of Black Americans to come. That doesn’t mean we should stop reading Longfellow’s poem, or Forbes’s novel. It just means that we should create our own poems and novels – for our time.

Each generation is called upon to refresh the story of America. Not to rewrite history – but to revisit it, and recast it, and reclaim it, and pass it down to the next generation, by teaching them about civic foundations, cracks and all, so that they can continue the work of building a more perfect union.

Sadly, there is growing evidence that we are failing to meet that responsibility – and we can see the failure on both sides of the political aisle. And again, the problem is the same: righteous intolerance.

Today, there are militant groups that harken back to the American Revolution, with names like “The Oath Keepers” and “The Three Percenters.” They see themselves as the heirs to the Sons of Liberty, even though their anti-government and often racist ideologies have far more in common with the old Confederates.

There will always be extremists in politics, but before January 6th, 2021, we had never seen a mob storm the Capitol to block the peaceful transfer of power after an election. And what happened in the days and months that followed was no less disturbing. Far too many people in the former president’s party downplayed the attack, as if it were just another peaceful protest march. There have been important exceptions to that in Washington – including a former Massachusetts Governor, Senator Mitt Romney, and one of the strongest voices of all has been your great current Governor, Charlie Baker. We should all say thank you to him.

Nevertheless, polls show that the majority of Republicans believe not only that the 2020 election was stolen, but also that the members of the mob that stormed the Capitol were actually protecting democracy – rather than attempting to overthrow it.

My fellow citizens, this is a five-alarm fire, and it is burning with the kind of fuel that can consume a democracy: anger, distrust, and conspiracy. When righteous intolerance is expressed in apocalyptic terms, like “the end of liberty” and “the end of America,” it can become a justification for doing well, anything – no matter how extreme or how awful. Unless we do more to extinguish this raging fire, the flames will spread. And instead of the torch of liberty that shines from the New York harbor – lit from the same flame that appeared here in the steeple – we will again see the torches of mobs, just as we saw in Charlottesville five years ago.

In that same city of Charlottesville, we can also see how the righteous intolerance threatened our democracy as a bi-partisan problem.

Yesterday, former Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech at the University of Virginia over the objections of the student newspaper, which argued that he should not be allowed to speak. Now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of you that the former Vice President and I don’t agree on just about anything. But that’s exactly why it’s my obligation I think, and it should be yours too, to defend his right to speak. Because when we do not uphold the rights of our political opponents, we should not be surprised that they fail to uphold ours.

To their credit, the university’s leadership stood up and ensured that the lecture could go on. But the problem of intolerance for free expression and the civil exchange of ideas has gotten much worse since 2014, when I gave a commencement speech on this very topic across the river at Harvard. And it has spread far beyond college campuses.

Today, in addition to academics and students, people of all walks of life are increasingly afraid to speak their minds. They fear that they might say something that could be taken the wrong way – leading them to be publicly humiliated, socially ostracized, and even fired from their jobs. That’s another form of mob rule. And while the danger is not of the same magnitude as a mob attacking the Capitol to overturn an election, it is born of the same spirit of righteous intolerance.

In both cases: the populist wings of our parties are taking a page from the Salem Witch Trials. They are convinced that they know what justice requires based on their own morally absolute views – heretics be damned. And sadly, many elected officials in both parties quietly go along with them, to preserve their political careers.

Although neither side wants to admit it, the challenges to democracy from the right and left are closely related. Because the spirit of righteous intolerance that silences speakers is the same spirit that bans books, and even bans certain words and topics. The impulse to nullify other people’s speech is the same impulse that has led people to try to nullify an election. Because when people can cancel opinions, they begin to think they can cancel votes, too.

In all its forms, left and right: “cancel culture” is a cancer on our democracy – and all of us in both parties need to stand up and fight it.

The human tendency to suppress free expression reminds me of a scene from Johnny Tremain. As Johnny looked on at a Sons of Liberty meeting, one of the senior leaders – James Otis Jr – asks the others why they might go to war.

To free Boston from the Red Coats, said one. To prevent taxation without representation, said another. For the right of Englishmen the world over, said a third.

No, said Otis. They would fight for a much simpler idea: “Only that a person can stand up.”

To stand up. And be heard. And be counted. And be free to pursue their ambitions and express their beliefs. That has always been America’s fight, and it’s why those “self-evident truths” have changed so much since 1776. Because every generation has fought to stand up – to expand the definition of equality and liberty. And time and again, we have supported other nations in their fights to stand up, including the courageous people of the Ukraine, who have inspired the world.

Our commitment to the good fight – the fight against tyranny and intolerance in all of its forms – is why America has always been the place where people come when they vote with their feet – including, I will note, Paul Revere’s father.

He was born Apollos Rivoire, and whose family was among the many Huguenots who fled France to escape persecution. His family sent him here as a child, so he would have the chance to stand up. His story is as much of America’s story as his son’s. And it’s just as important that we teach that story to our children – of refugees and immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity – because it is impossible to understand the genius of America without it.

The last time I was in Medford, shortly before the pandemic, I passed by Gaffey’s funeral home – and I was surprised to see that it had closed. But the building was still there. And right next to the rock with the historical plaque about Paul Revere hitching his horse at that spot, there was a sign for the building’s new occupant: the Islamic Cultural Center of Medford – the community’s first mosque.

So the house where the son of a religious refugee sparked the American Revolution is now a house of worship for another religious group that has faced intolerance here. And whose members are making their own important contributions to their community and country. If that isn’t the quintessential American story, I don’t know what is. I couldn’t be prouder to say that just a mile down the road from the William and Charlotte Bloomberg Jewish Community Center there is now a mosque.

The legend of Paul Revere endures because the fight for freedom and equality for all has never ended. In 1967, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr said: “We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand.” It was true then. And it’s true today. And it will be true tomorrow.

And just as we need Paul Reveres, we need leaders who hang lanterns high for all of us to see, and citizens who rouse from their slumbers when liberty is threatened, and young people – like the students here tonight – who see that the next chapter in the story of America is theirs to write as they carry on the tradition of debating those “self-evident” truths, and putting their faith in their fellow citizens, even when they passionately disagree, because that is the essence of democracy, and the obligation of patriotism.

I didn’t realize it when I was a boy, but Johnny Tremain wasn’t about the American Revolution. It was about the American character and the values that form our identity. It was about inspiring children to work hard, dream big, be creative, never give up, serve others, and to love and defend freedom, and to respect and honor those who have won it and protected it with their lives.

Along with the Boy Scouts, and especially my mother and father, who would be as proud of this Third Lantern I’m getting as any honor I have ever received, Johnny Tremain taught me what it means to stand up – for ourselves, for others, and for our nation. At the close of the book, as Johnny stands on Lexington Green and watches the militia walk by, he sees a new day, and a new nation that is, “green with spring, dreaming of the future.”

That is what America is about. I’ve believed that since I was a boy, and that is the America that I want to leave to my family and future generations of school-children. I don’t know if they will read Johnny Tremain, but my greatest hope is that the light that still shines from this old church will one day inspire them, as it did me. And they will carry in their hearts that one simple idea that ignited the American revolution – which will always be worth fighting for: only that a person can stand up.

Thank you. And may God’s light always shine upon – and from – this church. God bless.

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