Category Archives: Democracy

Foreign Policy Experts Nance, Stavridis Warn of Global, Domestic Threats to Democracy as Authoritarians Rise

Malcolm Nance (left), a renowned counter terrorism and intelligence consultant for the US government’s Special Operations, Homeland Security and Intelligence Operations, and 4-star Admiral James Stavridi (right)s who was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, engage in a dialogue on foreign policy moderated by Errol Louis, a political anchor at NY1 News, took place at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck, Long Island on March 18, 2018. © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, News & Photo Features

A dialogue between Malcolm Nance, a renowned counter terrorism and intelligence consultant for the US government’s Special Operations, Homeland Security and Intelligence Operations, and 4-star Admiral James Stavridis who was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, senior military assistant to the Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense, moderated by Errol Louis, a political anchor at NY1 News, took place at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck, Long Island on March 18, 2018. It proved to be a seminar on foreign policy, with some tough words for the need to defend democracy against a tide of anti-democratic, authoritarian forces both domestic and foreign. “We have to solve this –at the ballot box.” 

Here are highlights from the provocative discussion:

Errol Louis: Moderator: Both of you were at the Pentagon on 9/11; Nance was even an eyewitness. With the rise of terrorism, how safe are we? 

Malcolm Nance: Since 9/11, we went for a short while in the correct direction in counterterrorism, bringing the world together to confront global threat. Unfortunately the invasion of Iraq in 2003 broke the mechanisms in Mideast that were functioning – poorly, but indigenous – strongman dictators. Once we invaded, we unleashed demons we could not foresee. The ebb and flow of regional solutions all went out the window.

Before, the hardest problem was people trying to solve Palestinian problem. That’s nothing compared to radical Islam. You can negotiate with Palestinians, even Hamas, groups in Iran.

We have a bigger problem: just keeping the democratic norms in the world, not just US. Democracy as an ideology is now under attack, every day.

Admiral James Stavridis: I agree. Go back 100 years – 1918. The world is coming out of World War I, Spanish influenza pandemic sweeping, 40% of world’s population were infected, 20% of those will die. US walking away from Europe, isolating ourselves, rejects the League of Nations, erects enormous tariff barriers – cracked the global economy. You can drop a line from that to the rise of fascism and World War II. That is a dark global picture.

We have mechanisms to deal with many of the challenges but agree [with Nance] that the whole ideology of democracy is wrapped up in great power politics, the rise of two authoritarian figures- Putin [just “re-elected” to a fourth term]. President Xi Jinping isn’t even putting on faux election, he declared himself the new emperor. These authoritarian systems are a challenge to democracies in ways we haven’t dealt with in 100 years.

We have two other concerns: a new pandemic – don’t spend much time thinking – but every 100-200 years of human history, a pandemic rises, despite fact of enormous advances in medicine. We are due for one – ability to manipulate genome can allow dark dark work. [Consider how Trump has cut funding to the CDC, and would likely not step in to stop a new outbreak of Ebola or Zika outside the US.]

Our vulnerability is in cyber. We are utterly dependent on massive cyber systems. We are at great risk – that’s where the two strains – cyber vulnerability and way authoritarian regimes will come after us – those streams are crossing – we have work to do, tools,

So, how safe are we? We have challenges, but I am cautiously optimistic. The question is whether our democracy will put in the right people.

Louis: Pointing to [Trump’s] new direction in foreign policy [and the fact that the State Department is considering removing ‘human rights’ from its mission statement], why is it to our advantage to fight for democracy and human rights and why is this not a form of international charity? 

Nance: NATO, after World War II [was devised] to stop wars by creating a grand alliance – to spread that ideology around the world., not just American democracy, but allow others to develop their own form of republic, democratic governorship, whether a constitutional monarchy or a republic like France. That is under attack. Democracy is in retreat. ‘Democracy’ has been removed from mission statement of the State Department.

When we were struck on 9/11, it hurt me deeply – I spent my life in worst parts of world getting back. Now, that threat is from within – people in our country do not believe in democracy; autocracy, as being pushed by [Putin] former director of KGB, is better alternative to liberal democracy and European parliamentary democracy-Iit’s all under attack.

It is not a charity – America doesn’t do this as charity. We invented globalism – in WWII –we literally dropped it out of airplanes; people wanted our products at the end of war. Now people believe our system of economy is fundamentally wrong, NATO should be disbanded, the European Union should go away and every country in Europe should be its own autocracy with Moscow as polar center. There are people in US government who believe that.

Admiral Stavridis: “Why does democracy work? It’s not simply the value system. There’s a pragmatic element. With democracy, people [who are disaffected, aggrieved] get to change government peacefully – a safety value.” © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Stavridis: Why does democracy work? It’s not simply the value system. There’s a pragmatic element. With democracy, people [who are disaffected, aggrieved] get to change government peacefully – a safety value. That’s why we worry about authoritarianism –eventually [discontentment] will blow, and when that happens [authoritarian regimes] will go in search of monsters abroad, look for scapegoats, combat operations. We ought to be very concerned about authoritarianism.

What do we do about it? What’s our move? A couple of different things can do – continue to rely on a system of alliances – that’s why we should worry about tariff barriers, and walking away from NATO, that take global structures apart. We need to rely on those. We need to get vastly better at strategic communications, explaining our ideas. War of ideas? It’s a marketplace of ideas. We have to compete – democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, education, assembly, racial and gender equality – we execute them imperfectly but they are the right ideas. We have to communicate that in ways that get beyond ‘We have the right answer.’ Lay it out pragmatically: why it works. Because there are forces pushing against it.

Louis: Trump’s statements about NATO alarmed people, [yet] US deployed troops to Poland as part of NATO task force exercises. Is his rhetoric worse than reality?   

Stavridis: Candidate Trump said NATO was obsolete and he would consider pulling out altogether. Fortunately, on this subject, he [appears to have] listened to General Mattis, the Defense Secretary; General McMaster, National Security Adviser [so far], Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (oops). But on NATO, I am cautiously optimist he has gotten the message that NATO really works.

Nance: NATO is 28 nations, 52% of world’s GDP, 3 million troops under arms, 24,000 combat aircraft, 800 warships, 50 early warning aircraft – it is the richest, most powerful alliance in human history. US spends $600 billion/year on defense, the Europeans $300 billion. To put that into perspective, Russians spend $80 billion, Chinese $150 billion. We outspend in part because of our European allies – they should spend 2%, and are on track to do so in next 3-5 years. The alliance remains fundamental to US – it is pragmatic value for US to be in alliance.

Where did this idea come into Trump’s head that NATO wasn’t a good value, that US was connected to countries not paying their fair share? In November 2013, Trump went to Russia for the Miss Universe pageant and while he was there, he was brought to a private 2 hour meeting arranged by Aras Agalarov, [a billionaire Russian real estate mogul with ties to Putin] who funded the pageant, in a restaurant owned by Galaroff. [Trump] came out of that meeting spouting the Kremlin party line – anti-NATO, anti-globalization, anti European Union, anti treaties and alliances, believing that Russia is the premiere superpower. The only thing we don’t know is whether he believed it or whether some inducement got him to believe – he said it during campaign. Now he seems to have some change of view. NATO [which Admiral Stavridis once commanded] unilaterally evoked Article 5 after [the US was attacked on] 9/11 – for 10 years they gave their blood and treasure to defense of this nation. This is the single greatest force for good since world War II. Russia wants to do away with NATO – they call us Atlanticist, globalist – their philosopher Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin [who holds fascist views] convinced Steve Bannon, almost the Goebels of the anti-democratic movement, goes around the world, trains, help foster other countries to believe the Atlantic alliance is the problem in the eastern and western hemisphere.

Stavridis: Why NATO matters: 1) The values we share. We will never see another pool of partners who have these values. It is no coincidence because [the Founding Fathers] got them from Europe, from the Enlightenment. 2) The geographic position of Europe matters – why we need those Cold War bases in Europe – those are forward operating stations in the global war on terror 3) It’s the economy and trade between US and the NATO countries.

Also, when I commanded 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, the nation that lost the most on a per capita basis was Estonia. Number 2 was the Netherlands. The US was number 3. They were with us in that fight because we had been attacked on 9/11. This is an alliance that stands and delivers for us. (applause)

Louis: What does [Trump’s] firing of [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson mean in the broader sense. Is it deliberate, a competence question, a larger crisis, an administration not executing?

Stavridis: When Secretary Tillerson got the job, I thought it was a good choice –a  global businessman, contacts all over the world, quiet, laconic, very serious Texan, tough minded. I thought it an interesting choice, it might turn out well. But Tillerson simply was not a very effective Secretary of State. He couldn’t gain real connectivity in the White House – in a state of constant chaos. How can you be Secretary of State for a president who one minute, says, ‘We will solve Korea with fire and fury like never seen – a preemptive declaration of war –and three months later, be ready to go and cut ‘the deal of the century’ – a defensible policy choices but not for same person. So to be Secretary of State trying to articulating that –the work of Sisyphus, boulder rolling down. As a result, morale in the State Department cratered, applications for foreign service are down 50% in the last 2 years. You don’t get that back –you  lose a generation if you can’t fill those slots, let alone, not filling crucial ambassadorships [including South Korea]. This is as bleak a moment for American diplomacy. A chaotic inexperienced White House that sadly doesn’t seem to be getting better in 14 months (feels like 14 yrs).

Malcolm Nance: “Trump thinks diplomacy is a big stick. His way of negotiating is threatening..A generation [of diplomats] is gone. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams –our first 3 ambassadors – must be spinning in their graves.”
Nance: It appears diplomacy has shifted over to war fighters. Trump thinks diplomacy is not speaking, thinks diplomacy is a big stick, and if everyone sees us as a big stick nation, there will be no communications. The acting Secretary of State is technically Ivanka Trump –Trump is using Ivanka and Jared as an alternate State Department because Trump doesn’t know what the state department is, what diplomacy is. His way of negotiating is threatening –he sees no value in the institution or maintaining. [He is defunding the State Department, institutes]. But the institutes (nongovernmental) are there to help foster democracy and republicanism within countries. They brought about change in countries that would otherwise become a dictatorship – gone. A generation [of diplomats] is gone. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams –our first 3 ambassadors – must be spinning in their graves.

Louis: Will the opening of US embassy in Jerusalem bring about a cataclysm?

Nance:  It could happen. What’s happening in Mideast – so much change, dynamics. You can even see in how the Israeli-Palestinian problem is pushed off – rise of Iran, Syria, Turks invading northern Syria and setting up against the entirety of Kurds (who we fund), Yemen. Palestine-Israel conflict is the ‘good ol days.’. When the deed is done, and US embassy is moved, Saudis may give head tilt to that. I don’t know if there will be another intifada – the strings were cut after the Iraq invasion.

Stavridis: These kinds of conflicts – religious with a geopolitical overlay – are very dug in, and go on and on. The really bad news is that in middle is our greatest friend and ally in the region, Israel.

What should we do? Four things: stand with Israel – (applause)- the reasons are pragmatic, values, all the same things that make us want to be in NATO, should energize our alliance with Israel – 2) Need to work closely with Sunnis (Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan). The Saudis are giving head nod on the peace plan, drawing closer to Israel, willing to exchange information, intelligence, missile defense, early warning. Why? because both are concerned about Iran (which is Shi’a). We ought to understand the Iranian self-view: we think of them as mid-size power, they think of themselves as inheritors of the Persian Empire which 2000 years ago, dominated the region. That’s what they want to reconstruct. Working with Israel, alliances, better in cyber, insuring missile defense strong, stand with Israel.

Louis: How to address the humanitarian disaster in Syria, knowing Russia is smack in the middle?

Nance: We had the opportunity to crack this nut in 2012 after Assad’s chemical attack. I advocated then to destroy the Syrian air force utterly – that’s the strategic advantage Syria has over the allies. Then you have put Israel in powerful position; limits Iranian involvement (because they won’t have a runway to land), and gives opportunity to show Arab States here is a chance to use ground forces to do humanitarian intervention. Arab League, Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis have enough forces to be in Damascus in 72 hours out of northern Jordan. But so long as Russia backed and Syria can resist, won’t do it.

Stavridis: We last saw a problem like Syria in the Balkans, 20 years ago: Yugoslavia blew up – forced migrations, 100,000s killed – like Mideast – Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbians and Muslim Bosnians – a religious war with geopolitical overtones that was ultimately solved by partition. Yugoslavia was  broken apart and created sub-states. That was imperfect but at the end of the day, that is what will happen in Syria – it is broken now, and won’t go back- that’s 3-5 years away.

Why is Iran in Syria? Iran wants a land bridge so it can move missiles and fighters from Tehran to Lebanon because that endangers Israel. That’s why we need to move to international solution that somewhat marginalizes Iranian influence – can do with leverage over Russia – the White House needs to get tough on Russia. 

Louis: China. The notion they now have a president for life there, with no mechanism to change leadership – if there are internal problems, if there is a falling out within society or economy or ideology in a bad place, what happens?

Stavridis: The good news is that China will continue to grow at 5%. If they do, the population will stay relatively quiescent. But China’s road gets rough in out years- demographics – an aging population, the imbalance between men and women created by the One-Child policy which led to killing baby girls. We’ve never seen a society as ill balanced. Plus, China’s environment is disaster, requiring billions if not trillions to remediate. The housing market is overheated (reminiscent of 2008 in US). With no democracy, there is no way to relieve the pressure. Xi will have smooth run for awhile, but it gets rough in 5-10 years. That’s when we should worry about Chinese foreign policy that is nationalistic, seeks to find a scapegoat outside, and look for conflict in South China Sea. (See the movie, “The Last Emperor,” about Puyi and read Robert Kaplan’s, Asia’s Cauldron”.)

Errol Louis: What is Putin’s end game? © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Louis: What is Putin’s end game?

Nance: Putin has imperial goals – Atlantic Alliance between Washington and European states has since WWII brought economic, cultural influences Russia cannot stand – They believe it has marginalized Russia’s limited economic power.  All the good that has come from NATO, the EU single market, the US flow of traffic across Atlantic does no benefit to Moscow. Putin realizes that 75% of Russians live in the European part (75% of land in Asia). He believes Russia should be the pole in which Europe should do trade – EurAsianism. He is ruling more like Czar Nicolas I – religious orthodoxy, nationalism, autocracy (while France was creating fraternity, liberty, equality). Russia is buying every conservative, neoNazi group in Europe – owned, lock stock and barrel by Moscow.

Last march, for the second time in American history, France saved democracy – had Marine Le Pen won, France would have withdrawn from NATO,broken up the European Union and aligned France with Moscow, bringing along everyone to Moscow.

Stavridis: Putin’s end game: H will be the dominant force in Russia until the day he dies, and Russians accept it. This is Russian custom, history, culture.  Read literature- Dostevsky, Pushkin – how Russians look at powerful male leaders. Sometimes they get a Peter the Great, the next time Ivan the Terrible; sometimes get Stalin, but then get a Gorbachev – they are willing to roll the dice. But the dice have landed on Putin, he will not give up power. We have to deal with this operative. I met Putin a couple of times. Bush Jr. met Putin and was completely taken –he said, ‘I looked into his eyes and saw his soul. We can work with Putin.’ McCain, a true war hero, met with Putin  and said, ‘I saw 3 letters: K-G-B.’ I think McCain got that one right – and that’s what we will deal with.”

Q&A

Is climate change a national security issue?

Stavridis: Climate change is a significant national security threat. Because of global warming, ice is melting in the Arctic, opening up shipping lanes and hydrocarbons, creating a great power competition – on one side is Russia, on the other side US, Canada, Iceland, Norway – they are all NATO; 2) Rising sea levels gradually affect our ports, our ability to operate in major naval bases and ports 3) Global warming will impact our ability to operate globally because of cost – we will have to mediate against environmental concerns, which will put downward pressure on defense budgets 4) What should worry us most is that as oceans heat up, photosynthesis is diminished affecting oxygen in the atmosphere. Vice President Gore called the Amazon the lungs of the earth; Nope, 70% of oxygen comes from photosynthesis in oceans, and we are abusing them. These are major national security concerns.

What if in the next few months Trump abrogates the Iran Nuclear Treaty?

Stavridis: I expect Trump to abrogate the Iran Nuclear Treaty. 1) That will have chilling effect on negotiations with North Korea – they are unlikely to enter into grand bargain having just witnessed the abrogation of the Iran treaty. 2) Iranians will almost immediately restart their nuclear program – they are probably in primed position to do so. 3) The treaty is not perfect but ending it will put Israel at greater risk because of re-energization of the Iranian nuclear program 4) Allies will be furious, it will put enormous strains on the NATO alliance, and probably not lead to European allies walking away, so US will become even more of an outlier. I wasn’t a fan initially – it isn’t a good/bad deal, it is a done deal, the best we could have at this point.

Nance: I spoke with a senior briefer at CIA who briefed Obama on the details that convinced Obama to sign the Iran Nuclear Treaty: The way the agency assessed, Iran was 6-12 months away from developing an atomic bomb, but with the treaty, Iran gave up all components, 90% of its enriched nuclear material and was pushed back 15 years We do not want a war with Iran. Why would we put ourselves in a position to give Iran the ability to have a nuclear weapon? There is no limit to the mischief that would create. And if [unleashed], Iran would go straight to North Korea with $ millions to buy a nuclear weapon.

Malcolm Nance, Errol Louis, Admiral James Stavridis and Rabbi Stephen S. Widom who hosts the Cultural Arts events at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck, Long Island © Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

How to solve the humanitarian disaster that is Syria?

Stavridis: A combination of defense, diplomacy, development – hard and soft power. [This was shown to work in Colombia, after a 60-year insurgency that destroyed the fabric of the country; and the Balkans.] You don’t have to choose hard or soft  power. So often, the long game is combination of all those tools – development, diplomacy and defense when need it – to get balance right, requires leadership. We are very good at launching missiles. We need to get better at launching ideas. We can do both. (Applause)

Nance: That’s smart power. We are a global force for good but have to be global force for diplomacy.

Considering the hollowing out of our diplomatic forces to the benefit of Putin, [possible collusion] in cyberwarfare, why is there reluctance to use the word ‘treason’ in regard to Trump?

Nance: There is a legal definition – Article 3 – to ‘treason.’ You literally have to be at declared war with an enemy and give aid and comfort to enemy. That is rarely invoked – we have sent people to prison for espionage, divulging secrets but the last time anyone was tried for treason was the Rosenbergs. I don’t think that word applies legally – from what we’ve seen.  Where the president violated his oath of office,  you can use ‘treason’ rhetorically if you feel betrayed, or ‘treachery’. I don’t think will be able to use ‘treason’ in legal sense . this investigation started as national counter intel – a spy hunt – still a hunt for citizens in direct communications with foreign intel officers.

What check is there on this president who many think is a madman, is the military prepared to step in and save democracy? 

Stavridis: ‘I solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic – no expiration. The military isn’t going to step in and solve this. We have to solve this –at the ballot box. In 1840, Alexis de Toqueville wrote about this strange new phenomenon of democracy. He was largely laudatory, but the punch line: ‘the tragedy of democracy is that in the end you elect the government you deserve.’ We need to own this problem. No one will solve it for us. We need to get out in November, and again two years later, and we can solve this problem.

Nance: We have entered the greatest period of political activism – I believe it will even eclipse the Vietnam era – 1968. But since World War II, we have gotten fat and lazy and enjoy fruits of democracy.

We have guardrails – you have 246 days to solve part of this problem – but to do that you have to bring yourself and everyone who has not voted in last election.

The military is not designed for coup d’etat. We would really be a third world banana republic. But we can stop stupid – unlawful orders.

Emperor Xi. China building pipelines through Africa into the Stans, helping China, become #1 in world, developing 5G. How will that affect us?

Stavridis: China historically has not had global ambition, but 16 months ago, President Xi gave a “coming out speech” at Davos for China in the 21st century: One belt, one road philosophy – using economic power to further the interests of China. China just built its first overseas military base, at the Horn of Africa. China is on the move. When historians 300 years from how write about the 21st century, how that story comes out will be US and China and the rise of India. We need to be mindful of China, align with India, hold close our global allies, help develop this hemisphere to the south of US. That ought to be our strategy. And China should be top of the list to watch.

Nance: If this administration would understand strategy: China is brilliant. Go to sub-Saharan Africa –that used to be the land of the Land Rover, then Toyota, now you see Chinese Long March and Running Deer pick ups – they are $2000-$5000 but are everywhere. China is colonizing the sub-Sahara economically– buying whole sub-sections of countries to ship food to China. If China develops 5G cell telephone networks before the US gets it into Manhattan, China can export worldwide and own global communications. China is building wind plants, is now the world’s largest producer of solar panels (an industry we used to own). Without a strategy, where you think about where we are, where we will go and put together government resources to get there, we are dead in water. And that requires diplomats.

To what do you attribute Iran’s vitriolic hatred for Israel?

Nance:  Iranians love America –they are held down by an authoritarian regime using Islamic fundamentalism which the bottom 20% believe, not the people who used to run the country or could be, not the youth who all want what all in the Mideast want – a 2018 Toyota Corolla – they want trade, to be involved with world. Hatred for Israel is a schtick.  They don’t really care – they care about religion, family and to be left alone to do what they want. If they see a threat to Al Aksa mosque, they will respond. Palestinians smartest arabs in mide, most educated – everywhere but Palestine – if I were them, would work out public-private partnership to rebuild Palestine as moderate state, so don’t get Islamic cultism of ISIS. If that happens, will be zombie scene, walk into guns. Hopefully Saudi Arabia will focus away from ‘Death to Israel.’

What is impact of Erdogan of Turkey turning his back on western values toward Islamic fundamentalism?

Stavridis: President Erdogan, an authoritarian, is consolidating power rapidly, the most accelerated of all the authoritarian leaders in having taken his nation from functioning secular democracy to one man rule in 5 years. Extraordinary. The bad news is that Turkey is vital to Europe, to US. We need a stable western-looking Turkey – now drifting out of our orbit. We should pay attention, show respect, send high level missions, but behind closed doors, convince Erdogan the trajectory he is on will isolate his nation,. He will never have cozy relationship with Russia or Iran – that won’t work for Turkey. Turkey understands that at a fundamental level. We need to work with Europeans to exert pull on Turkey also. Turkey is more than a bridge (between Asia and Europe), it is a center of power – its population will exceed Russia’s. Turkey is on the move. We need to keep them in our orbit.

The intel community wanted the $120 million appropriated by Congress to fend off cyberattacks on our electoral system. Homeland security issued an alert that Russians already in our computers that run powerplants, and now could turn off electricity. What do we do about that?

Stavridis: We need to reveal more about what we know, to underpin the argument for retaliation –so we can be more aggressive in how we retaliate. We need better private-public cooperation. Government can’t solve this by itself – all our electric grids are intertwined. We have got to get government agencies working together on cyber – agriculture, interior – nobody is focused on cybersecurity.

Considering the rise of authoritarians, what happens If in the next 3 months, Trump fires Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, and a new one fires Mueller. Will Trump be impeached? 

Nance: Trump won’t be impeached before November. But we have guardrails. John Dean said that the day after Nixon fired Watergate investigators, the rest were still at work, he just fired the leadership. If Trump fires [Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein] (and [Special Counsel Robert] Muller), he would have sealed his doom about obstruction of justice and the investigation will continue

Stavridis: I believe Congress, including enough Republicans, would respond – not impeach, but there would be a [Constitutional] crisis and the guardrails would kick in.

In the present nuclear environment, is the doctrine of mutually assured destruction still relevant?

Stavridis: Yes.

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Lessons From the Historic Women’s March: How to Counter Trump

The Capitol Building still draped in flags for Donald Trump’s inauguration the day before, 750,000 crammed the National Mall to stand up for Women’s Rights and Human Rights © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Capitol Building still draped in flags for Donald Trump’s inauguration the day before, 750,000 crammed the National Mall to stand up for Women’s Rights and Human Rights © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, News & Photo Features

It’s already begun. The unraveling of eight years of progress under Obama. Contrast their first actions: Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Act so women can have a legal remedy for pay equity. Trump signed  an executive orders to dismantle Obamacare and to withhold funding from any NGO anywhere that funds abortions.

Donald Trump doesn’t care that more than twice as many people came out to protest his illegitimately gained presidency, his morals and his agenda than came out to support his inauguration (I was at both. I saw despite the lies that Trump is spewing.) His warped ego will probably take it as a matter of pride that more than 500,000 people descended on Washington from all over the country while millions more filled out gargantuan protests in NYC (400,000), Los Angeles (750,000), Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis – indeed, all across the US – plus cities in 50 countries including Paris, London, Sydney.

Nasty Canadian Women at the Women’s March on Washington © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Nasty Canadian Women at the Women’s March on Washington © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

They came out to declare: Women’s Rights are Human Rights, women are not chattel, a mere vessel (vassal) to harbor an embryo. And so women and their men and children were standing up for reproductive rights, access to health care, gun safety, climate action, immigration reform, criminal justice, pay equity, public education, voting rights, campaign finance  – all those things that together constitute “women’s issues”. Economic justice, climate justice, criminal justice, social justice, political justice, national security and peace in the world are all “women’s issues.”

“From the shores of Sydney, Australia to the tundra of Kodiak, Alaska we marched. Signs held high, our voices carried across Little Rock, Arkansas and Nashville, Tennessee, Phoenix, Arizona and Lansing, Michigan. Pink knit hats stretched as far as the eye could see in London, England, New York City, Los Angeles, California and Washington DC,” writes Heidi L. Sieck, Co-Founder/CEO,  #VOTEPROCHOICE.

We Can Do It © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
We Can Do It © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

In fact, this was the single largest political demonstration day of protest in US history and most certainly the largest outpouring of opposition at the opening of a new administration. Trump, who lost the popular vote by 2.6 million and carried only 42% of The Women’s Vote, comes into the White House with the lowest favorability rating probably since Lincoln, and 20 points lower than the outgoing president, Barack Obama.

And if Trump would actually have listened to his own nonsensical, dystopian, bizarre inaugural speech, he would realize that the women, men and children who protested rightfully have the political power that Trump said no longer resided in Washington.

“January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again,” Trump intoned. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now…. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.”

Scream so he hears you! Donald Trump turned a deaf ear to the protesters, making sure they couldn’t get near the White House. But the nearly million strong roared loud enough to shake the venerable buildings © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Scream so he hears you! Donald Trump turned a deaf ear to the protesters, making sure they couldn’t get near the White House. But the nearly million strong roared loud enough to shake the venerable buildings © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

And yet, Trump managed to turn a deaf ear to the roars from the Women’s March that literally shook buildings with its force (yet he had to see them because his motorcade drove through twice on his way to the CIA).

In his first 100 days, what Trump vows to do would undo the progress of 100 years, violating the will of the vast majority of Americans.

But here it is: Trump managed to resurrect a militant feminism that, frankly, was dormant during the election campaign when Hillary Clinton could have, should have (in fact did, were it not for the Electoral College), break that ultimate glass ceiling to run the White House. Women of all ages, all races and creeds, and men and children, marching together in solidarity. A man carried a sign saying “I can’t believe we’re still fighting for this”.

I’m With Her © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
I’m With Her © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Now what will those who marched do? What will happen? Will that energy and activism be sustained against the forces of disillusionment, frustration, paralyzing despair and self-preserving apathy? Or will they return home feeling vindicated and affirmed that their fears and concerns are real and they are not to be silenced? I think they will return empowered, invigorated with a mission, with a voice, a language to articulate grievances and a clarity of purpose. Indeed, the Women’s March organizers are posting 10 action items for the first 100 Days at womensmarch.com.

Also, there are ways and avenues and organizations to channel that rage and turn it into strategic, well articulated constructive action, in order to fight against the despair that will come when we aren’t able to immediately stop the steamroll of anti-democratic, regressive initiatives that come from the Trump/Republican camarilla.

Donald Trump may not care about the protests, feeling somehow above and immune in his bubble of sycophants. In a creepy way, he probably drew orgasmic delight that 4 million people around the world focused their attention on him, no matter that he was the target of their contempt, disdain and hatred.

Women’s Marchers in numbers hard to ignore by Congressmen, Senators, State Legislators© 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Women’s Marchers in numbers hard to ignore by Congressmen, Senators, State Legislators© 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But Congressmen know. Senators know. State legislators know. And they should be quaking in the reverberation of the marchers. And that’s where the focus has to be. This is Day 1 of the 2017 campaign to take back state offices. This is Day One to take back the House and/or the Senate in 2018. Because taking just one house would cut Trump’s Presidency to 2 years instead of an excruciating 4.

That is, if he isn’t impeached first for his corrupt business practices and likely collusion with Russia (not likely with a Republican Congress that clearly doesn’t care about actual illegalities like blatant violations of emoluments clause of Constitution and conflicts of interest that go against the national interest). He is more likely to be removed by a military coup when he orders bombing civilians, repopulating Guantanamo with prisoners snatched up with bounties, reopening black sites in order to torture, or, as he told the CIA, getting a second chance at taking Iraq’s oil because, you know, he learned as a boy “to the victor belong the spoils.”

Marching Forward We Won’t Go Back © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Marching Forward We Won’t Go Back © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Individually, we feel powerless, but collectively we have power. And it starts with pressing our village and city mayors, town and county supervisors, state representatives, governors and Congressmen need to be bold – like the San Francisco and New York mayors vowing to repulse Trump’s attack on sanctuary cities, governors like Cuomo in New York State standing up for a climate action agenda and protecting women’s reproductive rights; generals vowing to reject an order to bomb civilians or torture terror suspects. It’s newspapers being willing to lose privileged “access” and risking lawsuits to publish investigations. It’s government workers with the courage to be whistleblowers.

By these measures, the simple act of voting would seem an easy way to counter Trumpism, yet a disgraceful number don’t even do this; people need to start early to get registered to vote and vote in every election, especially local and state elections and not just the presidential.

But all of this requires us to stay active. We have to resist being immobilized by despair (that’s their strategy) and take action. If it seems too overwhelming with everything being thrown at us, just pick one or two issues to stay on top.

How to counter Trump?

Just a smattering of the signs left by the 750,000 Women’s Marchers, wanting to leave a message for Washington policy makers © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Just a smattering of the signs left by the 750,000 Women’s Marchers, wanting to leave a message for Washington policy makers © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Conflicts of Interest: Support Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s legislation that would require Trump to disclose his business holdings and require him to disclose his tax forms. Investigate – after all, what is Government Oversight Committee for, beyond investigating Benghazi and Clinton’s emails? Sue for violations of the emoluments clause, for Trump Hotel in Washington violating the law that prevents an elected official from leasing property from the federal government. Impeach Trump and any of his lackeys for their self-serving, self-dealing conflicts of interest.  Boycott Trump’s business holdings and the corporations that enable him, including Trump Hotels and golf courses, “Celebrity Apprentice,” and Fox News.

Cabinet appointments: Democrats will be unable to stop Trump’s appointments, thanks to the hypocritical Republican lapdogs. But Senate Democrats have a duty to expose their self-interest conflicts, their ineptitude, their extraordinary lack of qualifications so that they will be put on notice that their actions will be scrutinized.

“Through cutting-edge reports, social media, newspapers, radio and TV, and much more, we’re going to highlight this rogues’ gallery’s history of law-breaking, how their corporate ties will corrupt policymaking, and how their reactionary views will harm everyday Americans.” says Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen (citizen.org).

Dissent is patriotic © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Dissent is patriotic © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

What should Senate, House Democrats do? Oppose with every tool and tactic they can the anti-Democratic principles, including using the Republican tactics against them like the filibuster, holds on nominations, lawsuits, articles of impeachment  (though McConnell and Ryan will likely take away the very tools they used to unprecedented degree). That isn’t the same thing as opposing for opposing sake, to make the president fail, as Republicans did even as Obama was trying to keep the country from economic collapse. But Democrats are obligated to fight back where the agenda destroys progress. What Democrats should not do? Try to appeal to the pseudo-populism and the mythical “poor” “underserved” “voiceless” white working class, as if they are the only “real Americans” who matter. And yes, they should sue the Trump Administration just as the Republicans sued Obama over DACA and Obamacare. If Republicans don’t offer any means to compromise or impact policy, Democrats should go nuclear.

When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty© 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty© 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Support the Fourth Estate – the journalists who fulfill their function of investigating and being a watchdog on government and powerful interests. Be vigilant in calling out falsehoods, fake news and propaganda. That means that when the economy goes down, unemployment  goes up, tens of thousands die without access to health care and Trump and the Republicans blame Obama and the Democrats, that The Media hold them to account. Write letters to the editor, comments online. Alert news media to issues. Defend journalists who are doing their job. Cultivate social media networks to counter the right-wing propaganda machine. The success of the Women’s March to rally support solely through social media shows these networks have taken root.

Fight the rabidly regressive agenda that Trump/Republicans will steamroll through in the first 100 days. The more that Republicans refuse to accept compromise or allow Democrats to participate in forming policy, the more militant the opposition has to become. Boycott, strike, protest, rally. Use your body, your voice, your pen.

Respect Existence or Expect Resistance© 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Respect Existence or Expect Resistance© 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Sue. Sue. Sue. “Presidents do not rule by fiat,” declared Mitch Bernard, Chief Operating Officer, for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Donald Trump may not simply undo international agreements, overrule enacted laws, or violate environmental regulations on his own say so. If — when — he ignores environmental laws, NRDC will meet him in court. And we’re gearing up to give him the fight of his life.”

The Trump/Republican strategy (copied from Karl Rove and the Bush/Cheney debacle) is to have so many outrages coming so fast, deflecting attention and paralyzing any action, and more significantly to normalize the destructive actions simply by being equivalent or (imagine) not as bad as the previous outrage.

Putin$ Puppet. © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Putin$ Puppet. © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“In the face of Trump’s parade of horribles,” says Robert Reich of MoveOn.org, “it would be easy (and understandable) for people to get numb, hunker down, and pray that they’ll make it through the next four years. But human history teaches us of the perils of complacency and fear in response to political extremism and violence.”

If it is too paralyzing because of all the issues that are infuriating to your core, pick one, two or a few to focus on – keep active and aware of what Trump and his collaborators in the Congress and the Cabinet are doing. Write, call, visit, rally at representatives’ offices. Speak up to family, friends and neighbors. Go to town halls and civic meetings. You cannot be a Silent Majority.

I’m With Mommy © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
I’m With Mommy © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Support key organizations – give what you can – because they will need money to lobby, sue, organize protests and petition campaigns, can offer language for legislation and expose facts about the impacts of overturning regulations allowing corporations to pollute the air and water; repealing the Affordable Care Act, (losing 3 million jobs, adding billions to the budget deficit, depriving 18 million newly insured people of access to health care, instead of saving 87,000 lives, seeing 36,000 die needlessly for lack of health care); of the public health, environmental, economic, international repercussions of rolling back climate action. (Caveat: Organizations can’t just seize on the latest outrage to fundraise without actually doing something.)

Some worthy organizations that have outlined effective strategies to beat back the forces of darkness include National Resources Defense Council (NRDC.org), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF.org), League of Conservation Voters (LCV.org), MoveOn.org, EmilysList.org, WomensMarch.com, PlannedParenthood.org, Public Citizen (citizen.org), just to list a few.

Standing up for women’s rights © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Standing up for women’s rights © 2017 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“Together, we must resist the Trump Dynasty with everything we’ve got — starting with marches all over the country today,” declared Robert Weissman of Public Citizen. “It won’t be easy. We can be honest about that. The fights that matter most rarely are. But with all of our vigilance, all of our acumen, all of our strength, we can — we will — prevail over greed and hatred and corruption.”

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© 2017 News & Photo Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. For editorial feature and photo information, go to www.news-photos-features.com, email editor@news-photos-features.com. Blogging at  www.dailykos.com/blogs/NewsPhotosFeatures.  ‘Like’ us on facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures, Tweet @KarenBRubin

Obama Addresses Rutgers University Commencement: ‘You’ve got the tools to lead us’

President Obama gets standing ovation after addressing the 250th anniversary Rutgers University Commencement © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
President Obama gets standing ovation after addressing the 250th anniversary Rutgers University Commencement © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It’s commencement season. Speakers typically offer bromides to the newly minted graduates, about to take their first independent steps into an uncertain future, outside the protected confines of these lofty institutions. But President Obama’s commencement speech at Rutgers University was not like that. It was a sober reflection formed from the wisdom and experience of nearly eight years at the pinnacle of power – his own valedictory address. It was meaningful and important and real. And in the end, optimistic.

Rutgers was the perfect place for his address – not just because it was celebrating its 250th anniversary of its founding in 1766 – but that it has become one of the largest universities in the country, with 67,000 students (15,000 graduating on this day, alone) and arguably, the most diverse and more importantly, inclusive. These students left their own neighborhoods that formed the boundaries of a world view and entered this United Nations of ethnicities and backgrounds and found they could live together, learn from each other, create a new community.

Indeed, Rutgers is the worst nightmare for the brand of Know Nothingism, nativism, America Firstism that has taken hold of presidential politics.

“You’re not only better educated, you’ve been more exposed to the world, more exposed to other cultures,” he said. “You’re more diverse.  You’re more environmentally conscious.  You have a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom…. You’ll look at things with fresher eyes, unencumbered by the biases and blind spots and inertia… So you’ve got the tools to lead us.”

Obama’s speech was a lesson in civics, in democracy, in personal responsibility. He called for critical thinking, participation, civil discourse. Fitting for a university founded before the Revolutionary War, he evoked the Founding Fathers, steeped in the Enlightenment, “rational thought and experimentation, and the capacity of informed citizens to master our own fates.”

President Obama gives the commencement address at Rutgers University, May 15, 2016.
President Obama gives the commencement address at Rutgers University, May 15, 2016.

Obama was warmly welcomed to Rutgers – indeed, the school lobbied him for three years to come, and he was the first sitting president to visit the university – and his speech was frequently interrupted with applause and cheers.

Here are highlights from his address:

Today, you join a long line of Scarlet Knights whose energy and intellect have lifted this university to heights its founders could not have imagined.  Two hundred and fifty years ago, when America was still just an idea, a charter from the Royal Governor — Ben Franklin’s son — established Queen’s College.  A few years later, a handful of students gathered in a converted tavern for the first class.  And from that first class in a pub, Rutgers has evolved into one of the finest research institutions in America.  (Applause.)

This is a place where you 3D-print prosthetic hands for children, and devise rooftop wind arrays that can power entire office buildings with clean, renewable energy.  Every day, tens of thousands of students come here, to this intellectual melting pot, where ideas and cultures flow together among what might just be America’s most diverse student body.  (Applause.)  Here in New Brunswick, you can debate philosophy with a classmate from South Asia in one class, and then strike up a conversation on the EE Bus with a first-generation Latina student from Jersey City, before sitting down for your psych group project with a veteran who’s going to school on the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  (Applause.)

America converges here.  And in so many ways, the history of Rutgers mirrors the evolution of America — the course by which we became bigger, stronger, and richer and more dynamic, and a more inclusive nation. 

But America’s progress has never been smooth or steady.  Progress doesn’t travel in a straight line.  It zigs and zags in fits and starts.  Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and sometimes bloody.  It remains uneven and at times, for every two steps forward, it feels like we take one step back.

But progress is bumpy.  It always has been.  But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.  I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  (Applause.)  It bends towards justice.  I believe that.  But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own.  It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs. 

And, Class of 2016, you are graduating at such an inflection point.  Since the start of this new millennium, you’ve already witnessed horrific terrorist attacks, and war, and a Great Recession.  You’ve seen economic and technological and cultural shifts that are profoundly altering how we work and how we communicate, how we live, how we form families.  The pace of change is not subsiding; it is accelerating.  And these changes offer not only great opportunity, but also great peril. 

Fortunately, your generation has everything it takes to lead this country toward a brighter future.  I’m confident that you can make the right choices — away from fear and division and paralysis, and toward cooperation and innovation and hope.  (Applause.)  Now, partly, I’m confident because, on average, you’re smarter and better educated than my generation..You’re not only better educated, you’ve been more exposed to the world, more exposed to other cultures.  You’re more diverse.  You’re more environmentally conscious.  You have a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom.  

So you’ve got the tools to lead us.  And precisely because I have so much confidence in you, I’m not going to spend the remainder of my time telling you exactly how you’re going to make the world better.  You’ll figure it out.  You’ll look at things with fresher eyes, unencumbered by the biases and blind spots and inertia and general crankiness of your parents and grandparents and old heads like me.  But I do have a couple of suggestions that you may find useful as you go out there and conquer the world.

President Obama gives the commencement address at Rutgers University, May 15, 2016 © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
President Obama gives the commencement address at Rutgers University, May 15, 2016 © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Point number one:  When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” take it with a grain of salt.  (Laughter and applause.)  Take it with a grain of salt.  We live in a great nation and we are rightly proud of our history.  We are beneficiaries of the labor and the grit and the courage of generations who came before.  But I guess it’s part of human nature, especially in times of change and uncertainty, to want to look backwards and long for some imaginary past when everything worked, and the economy hummed, and all politicians were wise, and every kid was well-mannered, and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world. 

Guess what.  It ain’t so.  (Laughter.)  The “good old days” weren’t that great.  Yes, there have been some stretches in our history where the economy grew much faster, or when government ran more smoothly.  There were moments when, immediately after World War II, for example, or the end of the Cold War, when the world bent more easily to our will.  But those are sporadic, those moments, those episodes.  In fact, by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago.  (Applause.)

And by the way, I’m not — set aside 150 years ago, pre-Civil War — there’s a whole bunch of stuff there we could talk about.  Set aside life in the ‘50s, when women and people of color were systematically excluded from big chunks of American life.  Since I graduated, in 1983 — which isn’t that long ago — (laughter) — I’m just saying.  Since I graduated, crime rates, teenage pregnancy, the share of Americans living in poverty — they’re all down.  The share of Americans with college educations have gone way up.  Our life expectancy has, as well.  Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks in business and politics.  (Applause.)  More women are in the workforce.  (Applause.)  They’re earning more money — although it’s long past time that we passed laws to make sure that women are getting the same pay for the same work as men.  (Applause.)

Meanwhile, in the eight years since most of you started high school, we’re also better off.  You and your fellow graduates are entering the job market with better prospects than any time since 2007.  Twenty million more Americans know the financial security of health insurance.  We’re less dependent on foreign oil.  We’ve doubled the production of clean energy.  We have cut the high school dropout rate.  We’ve cut the deficit by two-thirds.  Marriage equality is the law of the land.  (Big applause.)    

And just as America is better, the world is better than when I graduated.  Since I graduated, an Iron Curtain fell, apartheid ended.  There’s more democracy.  We virtually eliminated certain diseases like polio.  We’ve cut extreme poverty drastically.  We’ve cut infant mortality by an enormous amount.  (Applause.)   

Now, I say all these things not to make you complacent.  We’ve got a bunch of big problems to solve.  But I say it to point out that change has been a constant in our history.  And the reason America is better is because we didn’t look backwards we didn’t fear the future.  We seized the future and made it our own.  And that’s exactly why it’s always been young people like you that have brought about big change — because you don’t fear the future. 

That leads me to my second point:  The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day.  Building walls won’t change that.  (Applause.)

Look, as President, my first responsibility is always the security and prosperity of the United States.  And as citizens, we all rightly put our country first.  But if the past two decades have taught us anything, it’s that the biggest challenges we face cannot be solved in isolation.  (Applause.)  When overseas states start falling apart, they become breeding grounds for terrorists and ideologies of nihilism and despair that ultimately can reach our shores.  When developing countries don’t have functioning health systems, epidemics like Zika or Ebola can spread and threaten Americans, too.  And a wall won’t stop that. (Applause.)

President Obama gives the commencement address at Rutgers University, May 15, 2016 © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
President Obama gives the commencement address at Rutgers University, May 15, 2016 © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

If we want to close loopholes that allow large corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, we’ve got to have the cooperation of other countries in a global financial system to help enforce financial laws.  The point is, to help ourselves we’ve got to help others — (applause) — not pull up the drawbridge and try to keep the world out.  (Applause.)

And engagement does not just mean deploying our military.  There are times where we must take military action to protect ourselves and our allies, and we are in awe of and we are grateful for the men and women who make up the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  (Applause.)  But I worry if we think that the entire burden of our engagement with the world is up to the 1 percent who serve in our military, and the rest of us can just sit back and do nothing.  They can’t shoulder the entire burden.  And engagement means using all the levers of our national power, and rallying the world to take on our shared challenges. 

You look at something like trade, for example.  We live in an age of global supply chains, and cargo ships that crisscross oceans, and online commerce that can render borders obsolete.  And a lot of folks have legitimate concerns with the way globalization has progressed — that’s one of the changes that’s been taking place — jobs shipped overseas, trade deals that sometimes put workers and businesses at a disadvantage.  But the answer isn’t to stop trading with other countries.  In this global economy, that’s not even possible.  The answer is to do trade the right way, by negotiating with other countries so that they raise their labor standards and their environmental standards; and we make sure they don’t impose unfair tariffs on American goods or steal American intellectual property.  That’s how we make sure that international rules are consistent with our values — including human rights.  And ultimately, that’s how we help raise wages here in America.  That’s how we help our workers compete on a level playing field.  

Building walls won’t do that. (Applause.)  It won’t boost our economy, and it won’t enhance our security either.  Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country — (applause) — that is not just a betrayal of our values — (applause) — that’s not just a betrayal of who we are, it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism.   Suggesting that we can build an endless wall along our borders, and blame our challenges on immigrants — that doesn’t just run counter to our history as the world’s melting pot; it contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the globe.  That’s how we became America.  Why would we want to stop it now?  (Big cheers, applause.)   

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT:  Can’t do it.  (Laughter.)

Journalist Bill Moyers receives honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Rutgers President Robert Barchi © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Journalist Bill Moyers receives honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Rutgers President Robert Barchi © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Which brings me to my third point:  Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things.  (Applause.)  These are qualities you want in people making policy.  These are qualities you want to continue to cultivate in yourselves as citizens.  (Applause.)  That might seem obvious. (Laughter.)  That’s why we honor Bill Moyers or Dr. Burnell.  We traditionally have valued those things.  But if you were listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from.  (Applause.)  So, Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be.  In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.  (Applause.)  It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about.  (Applause.)  That’s not keeping it real, or telling it like it is.  (Laughter.)  That’s not challenging political correctness.  That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.  (Applause.)  And yet, we’ve become confused about this.    

Look, our nation’s Founders — Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson — they were born of the Enlightenment.  They sought to escape superstition, and sectarianism, and tribalism, and no-nothingness.  (Applause.)  They believed in rational thought and experimentation, and the capacity of informed citizens to master our own fates.  That is embedded in our constitutional design.  That spirit informed our inventors and our explorers, the Edisons and the Wright Brothers, and the George Washington Carvers and the Grace Hoppers, and the Norman Borlaugs and the Steve Jobses.  That’s what built this country. 

And today, in every phone in one of your pockets — (laughter) — we have access to more information than at any time in human history, at a touch of a button.  But, ironically, the flood of information hasn’t made us more discerning of the truth. In some ways, it’s just made us more confident in our ignorance. (Applause.)  We assume whatever is on the web must be true.  We search for sites that just reinforce our own predispositions. Opinions masquerade as facts.  The wildest conspiracy theories are taken for gospel. 

Now, understand, I am sure you’ve learned during your years of college — and if not, you will learn soon — that there are a whole lot of folks who are book smart and have no common sense.  (Applause.)  That’s the truth.  You’ll meet them if you haven’t already.  (Laughter.)  So the fact that they’ve got a fancy degree — you got to talk to them to see whether they know what they’re talking about.  (Laughter.)  Qualities like kindness and compassion, honesty, hard work — they often matter more than technical skills or know-how.  (Applause.)

But when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.  (Applause.)

You know, it’s interesting that if we get sick, we actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to medical school, they know what they’re talking about.  (Applause.)  If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane.  (Laughter.)  And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, “I don’t want somebody who’s done it before.”  (Laughter and applause.)  The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science — that is the path to decline.  It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who graduated high school here in New Jersey — (applause) — he said:  “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

The debate around climate change is a perfect example of this….climate change is not something subject to political spin.  There is evidence.  There are facts.  We can see it happening right now.  (Applause.)  If we don’t act, if we don’t follow through on the progress we made in Paris, the progress we’ve been making here at home, your generation will feel the brunt of this catastrophe. So it’s up to you to insist upon and shape an informed debate…

Look, I’m not suggesting that cold analysis and hard data are ultimately more important in life than passion, or faith, or love, or loyalty.  I am suggesting that those highest expressions of our humanity can only flourish when our economy functions well, and proposed budgets add up, and our environment is protected.  And to accomplish those things, to make collective decisions on behalf of a common good, we have to use our heads.  We have to agree that facts and evidence matter.  And we got to hold our leaders and ourselves accountable to know what the heck they’re talking about.  (Applause.) ..

President Obama gives the commencement address at Rutgers University, May 15, 2016 © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
President Obama gives the commencement address at Rutgers University, May 15, 2016 © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Point four:  Have faith in democracy.  Look, I know it’s not always pretty.   Really, I know.  (Laughter.)  I’ve been living it.  But it’s how, bit by bit, generation by generation, we have made progress in this nation.  That’s how we banned child labor.  That’s how we cleaned up our air and our water.  That’s how we passed programs like Social Security and Medicare that lifted millions of seniors out of poverty.  (Applause.)

None of these changes happened overnight.  They didn’t happen because some charismatic leader got everybody suddenly to agree on everything.  It didn’t happen because some massive political revolution occurred.  It actually happened over the course of years of advocacy, and organizing, and alliance-building, and deal-making, and the changing of public opinion.  It happened because ordinary Americans who cared participated in the political process.  

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Because of you!  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, that’s nice.  I mean, I helped, but — (applause.)

Look, if you want to change this country for the better, you better start participating.  I’ll give you an example on a lot of people’s minds right now — and that’s the growing inequality in our economy.  Over much of the last century, we’ve unleashed the strongest economic engine the world has ever seen, but over the past few decades, our economy has become more and more unequal.  The top 10 percent of earners now take in half of all income in the U.S.  In the past, it used to be a top CEO made 20 or 30 times the income of the average worker.  Today, it’s 300 times more.  And wages aren’t rising fast enough for millions of hardworking families.  

Now, if we want to reverse those trends, there are a bunch of policies that would make a real difference.  We can raise the minimum wage.  (Applause.)  We can modernize our infrastructure. We can invest in early childhood education.  We can make college more affordable.  (Applause.)  We can close tax loopholes on hedge fund managers and take that money and give tax breaks to help families with child care or retirement.  And if we did these things, then we’d help to restore the sense that hard work is rewarded and we could build an economy that truly works for everybody.  (Applause.)  

Now, the reason some of these things have not happened, even though the majority of people approve of them, is really simple. It’s not because I wasn’t proposing them.  It wasn’t because the facts and the evidence showed they wouldn’t work.  It was because a huge chunk of Americans, especially young people, do not vote. 

In 2014, voter turnout was the lowest since World War II.  Fewer than one in five young people showed up to vote — 2014.  And the four who stayed home determined the course of this country just as much as the single one who voted.  Because apathy has consequences.  It determines who our Congress is.  It determines what policies they prioritize.  It even, for example, determines whether a really highly qualified Supreme Court nominee receives the courtesy of a hearing and a vote in the United States Senate.  (Applause.)    

And, yes, big money in politics is a huge problem.  We’ve got to reduce its influence.  Yes, special interests and lobbyists have disproportionate access to the corridors of power. But, contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the left as well as the right, the system isn’t as rigged as you think, and it certainly is not as hopeless as you think.  Politicians care about being elected, and they especially care about being reelected.  And if you vote and you elect a majority that represents your views, you will get what you want.  And if you opt out, or stop paying attention, you won’t.  It’s that simple. (Applause.)  It’s not that complicated.

Now, one of the reasons that people don’t vote is because they don’t see the changes they were looking for right away.  Well, guess what — none of the great strides in our history happened right away.  It took Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP decades to win Brown v. Board of Education; and then another decade after that to secure the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  (Applause.)  And it took more time after that for it to start working.  It took a proud daughter of New Jersey, Alice Paul, years of organizing marches and hunger strikes and protests, and drafting hundreds of pieces of legislation, and writing letters and giving speeches, and working with congressional leaders before she and other suffragettes finally helped win women the right to vote.  (Applause.)

Each stage along the way required compromise.  Sometimes you took half a loaf.  You forged allies.  Sometimes you lost on an issue, and then you came back to fight another day.  That’s how democracy works.  So you’ve got to be committed to participating not just if you get immediate gratification, but you got to be a citizen full-time, all the time.    

And if participation means voting, and it means compromise, and organizing and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don’t agree with you.  I know a couple years ago, folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement.  Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration.  But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to say — I believe that’s misguided.  (Applause.)  I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other.  (Applause.)  I believe that’s misguided.

If you disagree with somebody, bring them in — (applause)— and ask them tough questions.  Hold their feet to the fire.  Make them defend their positions.  (Applause.)  If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong.  Engage it.  Debate it.  Stand up for what you believe in.  (Applause.)  Don’t be scared to take somebody on.  Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities.  Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words.  And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments.  And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything.  And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe.  Either way, you win.  And more importantly, our democracy wins.  (Applause.) 

President Obama greets Rutgers University class president Matthew Panconi at the 250th anniversary commencement © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
President Obama greets Rutgers University class president Matthew Panconi at the 250th anniversary commencement © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

So, anyway, all right.  That’s it, Class of 2016 — (laughter) — a few suggestions on how you can change the world. Except maybe I’ve got one last suggestion.  (Applause.)  Just one.  And that is, gear yourself for the long haul.  Whatever path you choose — business, nonprofits, government, education, health care, the arts — whatever it is, you’re going to have some setbacks.  You will deal occasionally with foolish people.  You will be frustrated.  You’ll have a boss that’s not great.  You won’t always get everything you want — at least not as fast as you want it.  So you have to stick with it.  You have to be persistent.  And success, however small, however incomplete, success is still success.  I always tell my daughters, you know, better is good.  It may not be perfect, it may not be great, but it’s good.  That’s how progress happens — in societies and in our own lives. 

So don’t lose hope if sometimes you hit a roadblock.  Don’t lose hope in the face of naysayers.  And certainly don’t let resistance make you cynical.  Cynicism is so easy, and cynics don’t accomplish much. 

Is it any wonder that I am optimistic?  Throughout our history, a new generation of Americans has reached up and bent the arc of history in the direction of more freedom, and more opportunity, and more justice.  And, Class of 2016, it is your turn now — (applause) — to shape our nation’s destiny, as well as your own.  

So get to work.  Make sure the next 250 years are better than the last.  (Applause.)

Good luck.  God bless you.  God bless this country we love.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

See slideshow of Rutgers University’s 250th anniversary commencement

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