President Obama advised Rutgers University graduates to take anyone talking about the “good old days… with a grain of salt” because “the ‘good old days’ weren’t that great.”
“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,” Obama said during Sunday’s commencement address. “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.”
“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.”
Obama specifically said the 2016 grads should “set aside life in the ‘50s, when women and people of color were systematically excluded from big chunks of American life.”
“…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.”
Speaking of current problems, the president warned of failing states that can 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,” Obama said in a reference to Donald Trump. “Building walls …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 — that is not just a betrayal of our values, 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?”
At this point an audience member shouted “four more years,” to which Obama replied, “Can’t do it.”
He also advised the graduates that “in politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue — it’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about.”
“That’s not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about. And yet, we’ve become confused about this,” he added. “…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.”
Obama also took a shot at Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe without mentioning the Oklahoma Republican by name.
“A while back, you may have seen a United States senator trotted out a snowball during a floor speech in the middle of winter as ‘proof’ that the world was not warming. I mean, listen, climate change is not something subject to political spin. There is evidence. There are facts. We can see it happening right now,” he said.
“So it’s up to you to insist upon and shape an informed debate. Imagine if Benjamin Franklin had seen that senator with the snowball, what he would think. Imagine if your 5th grade science teacher had seen that. He’d get a D. And he’s a senator!”
Obama called Rutgers “misguided” for its 2014 commencement incident in which former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was invited to speak but backed out after protests.
“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,” he said, receiving applause. “I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other. I believe that’s misguided.”
“If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. 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.”