On May 17, 2019, Michael R. Bloomberg served as Commencement Speaker at the Washington University in St. Louis University commencement ceremony. These are his remarks as delivered.
“In composing my remarks, I thought about the fact that Wash U. was originally named Eliot Seminary after one of the founders, Reverend William Eliot. Apparently, he was uncomfortable naming things after himself. So the board of trustees at the time changed the name of the school to honor George Washington.
“I can appreciate what Reverend Eliot was thinking. I hate it when people name things after themselves – we had a story about that recently on Bloomberg Television and Bloomberg Radio, maybe it was in Bloomberg Businessweek or Bloomberg News, who knows.
“In all seriousness, the board back then made an inspiring decision to choose Washington. And anyone who thinks this school is in D.C. or near Seattle clearly hasn’t been paying attention.
“It seems fitting that an institution named for Washington has played such an important role in presidential elections in recent decades. Wash U. has hosted a number of nationally televised debates including the last one you saw in 2016.
“Hosting a presidential debate is an experience that few schools or students get. But I can’t stand here and tell you it provided a great civics lesson. I wish I could.
“Instead of focusing on the critical issues facing the country, that debate was more about locker room talk and lock her up. Lincoln-Douglas, I think it’s fair to say, it was not.
“That brings me to the topic du jour. It would be easy to blame the candidates or the moderators for the poor quality of that debate. But the problem runs much deeper.
“All across America – at family gatherings, in social settings and workplaces, on college campuses, and certainly on social media, Americans are losing the ability to conduct civil and productive dialogue with those who hold different political views.
“That has profound implications for our ability to function as a society. After all, when you can’t talk with one another, you can’t understand one another. When we can’t understand one another, we can’t work together. When we can’t work together, we can’t do anything. At least not anything big and important.
“We face a lot of hard challenges in America today – from climate change, to gun violence, to failing schools, to the opioid epidemic, and on campuses from the frightening trend toward racism, sexism, hatred, anti-Semitism, and intolerance of unpopular views and opinions.
“To have any hope of overcoming these challenges, we have to start by reclaiming our civic dialogue from those who are debasing and degrading it – and preventing us from getting things done.
“All of you can help do that – no matter what your politics are and no matter what line of work you pursue later on. Maybe your passion is science or the environment. Or the arts or education. Or medicine or health care. Or business. There is not a single issue that isn’t affected by political debates. And there is not a single issue that isn’t threatened by the breakdown in our civic discourse.
“So even if you hate politics – and there are a lot of reasons to hate politics these days – you will have to engage in political dialogue, if only to survive Thanksgiving dinner with your crazy uncle. And you will have to judge the arguments made by candidates if you are going to vote intelligently.
“The question I hope you will ask yourself is: on what basis will you make those judgments?
“It would be natural to think that a degree from one of America’s top colleges has prepared you as a skilled judge of political debates. But unfortunately a recent study found that the smartest and most knowledgeable voters can actually be the worst judges. And the reason is they are most likely to make judgments based on which party is making the argument rather than on the argument itself.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘I would never do that,’ you say. But it happens unconsciously all the time. People have a tendency to assume the worst about those on the other side of the aisle. And when it comes to those on your side, they tend to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. That’s why educated and knowledgeable people excuse these actions that are ethically wrong and defend statements that are blatant lies.
“Of course, some people say defending the indefensible is just politics as usual, but I don’t accept that – and I hope you won’t either.
“When extreme partisanship replaces reason, logic, facts and data, the country suffers – and special interests win. I’ve seen it time and time again, on issue after issue: gun violence, education, public health, and even one that threatens life as we know it: climate change.
“Yesterday, I stood with Wash U.’s next Chancellor, Andrew Martin, and the President of Ohio State University to announce that Bloomberg Philanthropies will help sponsor the first-ever climate summit of Midwestern universities next year right here on this campus.
“We were joined by your mayor here, Lyda Krewson, because St. Louis, like Wash U., has always been a real leader on climate change.
“Last year, this city was one of the winners of a climate competition my foundation ran. And we are now providing about $2.5 million of resources to help St. Louis increase energy efficiency and expand solar power – a goal that Wash U. is helping the city to achieve. Thank you very much.
“Universities have a critical role to play in helping our country tackle this challenge, and I want to thank everyone at Wash U. who has been part of that work.
“There really is no time to waste. The problems driven by climate change are getting worse – and that’s something you’ve seen right here during your lifetime.
“The recent Mississippi River floods have affected life in St. Louis and they have devastated farmers across the Midwest. Those types of natural disasters will continue to get more severe with climate change, according to the best scientific data.
“The trouble is too many politicians aren’t interested in hard science. They’re only interested in political science and winning their next election. So they ignore the data, they try to cut funding for climate research – because they know it will undermine their political argument. Sometimes, they even try to block public employees from uttering the words climate change.
“You can’t make this stuff up. You just have to wonder, what are they trying to hide? The only conclusion I have drawn is that they’re either hiding their own ignorance or their own bad faith.
“Either way, when government tries to gag scientists and censors our conclusions watch out and speak up.
“America’s progress depends on a dialogue that treats these issues not as pawns in a political battle, but as problems to be solved. Ignoring data and facts – and defending indefensible positions – happens in both parties. But during your time on campus, it has enabled new levels of dishonesty and wrongdoing and it has reached a point that, I believe, no democracy can long sustain.
“Our democracy – as the Founding Fathers understood – relies on more than just votes. George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address, ‘Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.’
“If the spring runs dry, democracy withers away – and the rights that we hold dear disappear.
“Graduates, that spring of virtue is now yours to protect. And make no mistake, it is more polluted with toxic dialogue than it has ever been in modern history.
“The good news is the way to clean up the pollution can be found in the three words written on the cover of your diploma. It’s the motto of this great university: Per Veritatem Vis – Strength Through Truth. And it’s a motto that fits perfectly with a university named for George Washington.
“In 1794, during President Washington’s second term, there was a faction ginning up support for secession. Washington recognized the threat it posed – and he was confident that it would not succeed. He wrote in a letter, and I quote, ‘It is not difficult by concealment of some facts, and exaggeration of others to bias a well-meaning mind, at least for a time.’
“But, he continued, ‘Truth will ultimately prevail where pains is taken to bring it to light.’
“Now, I know the phrase ‘pains is taken’ probably just horrified every English major here. As kids we were taught that Washington never told a lie, but they never told us he had trouble with subject-verb agreements.
“In fairness to George, ‘pains is taken’ is the way they spoke back then. Today, Washington would probably say take pains.
“But really, Washington’s point, and Washington U.’s motto, are principles I hope that all of you will take to heart: truth will prevail where pains are taken to bring it to light. And with truth comes strength.
“The pains that every generation has taken to bring truth to light are why secession didn’t succeed in 1794 or 1861. The pains taken by abolitionists, and suffragettes, and civil rights marchers, and marriage equality advocates brought America’s core truth to light: that all people are created equal.
“Today, the necessity of taking pains to bring truth to light is greater than ever because the tools for spreading lies are more powerful than ever.
“Since the dawn of democracy, there have always been those – to paraphrase Socrates – who try to make the weaker argument appear the stronger and who care more about winning debates than being truthful.
“In ancient Greece, these were called Sophists – and they would have loved Twitter and Facebook.
“Social media has given rise to a new golden age of sophistry – aided and abetted by blind partisanship. The only way to overcome it – the only way to lift our national discourse out of the gutter – is to heed Washington’s words and take pains to bring truth to light.
“Those pains are the burden of citizenship in a democracy. And a great education does not relieve them. It intensifies them. This is especially true, I believe, for graduates of a university bearing the name Washington.
“All of you have been part of this institution’s long tradition of advocacy and activism. Don’t leave it behind. Carry it with you, and take on this challenge to bring truth to light.
“To help you get started, let me offer some quick advice for dealing with modern-day sophists who try to obscure – and deny – truth.
“When those in the political arena engage in name-calling and other schoolyard chants, and are trying to distract your attention away from the real issues and from their inability to address them or their unwillingness to put forward practical solutions – don’t be distracted.
“When they tolerate attacks on minority groups, especially those who profess a faith that some find threatening, they are empowering those who traffic in hatred – don’t tolerate it.
“When they denounce journalists as ‘enemies of the state,’ and declare any critical coverage to be ‘fake news,’ and dress up lies as ‘alternative facts,’ they are trying to fool you into trusting only the news that comes from their mouths – don’t be fooled.
“When they exaggerate the risks we face from immigrants without talking about all the benefits they have brought to our country they are preying on people’s fears – don’t let them get away with it.
“When they try to tell you who you can love, or even who you can be, they are either pandering for votes or playing God – don’t put up with it.
“When they promise you a free lunch, or free college, free medical care, or free income, remember that a bill always comes due – don’t let them pass the buck.
“When they prevent speakers from being heard, by shouting them down or creating spaces where differing opinions are not permitted, they are trying to win arguments by bullying and censorship instead of facts and reason. Don’t let them suppress free speech even when you find that speech to be deplorable. Protecting their right to speak is the only way to protect your right to speak.
“When people romanticize the past, just remember something my mother who lived to 102 told me: the good old days were never that good.
“And finally, when leaders wrap themselves in the flag, or the national anthem, and try to make you think that critics of your government don’t love and respect our country, real patriotism isn’t about honoring symbols. Real patriotism is about bringing truth to light, and when action is required standing up and taking action.
“In other words, real patriotism is about taking pains. So if you remember nothing else from today, remember that phrase.
“Graduates, as you leave this great university I hope you will take the pains that are necessary to preserve and extend our democracy. Take pains to understand the other side. Take pains to expose lies. Take pains to reject scapegoating and xenophobia. Take pains not to fall for easy answers. And take pains to hold our leaders accountable for their words and their deeds.
“If you do that I have no doubt that truth – and America – will prevail. And my generation will be able to say as we pass the leadership torch to yours the same words that Washington spoke with his last breath: ‘Tis well.
“So tonight, have one last drink, maybe at T’s, dance to your own beat, and tomorrow, get to work. The world needs you more than ever.
“Congratulations, and good luck.”