Have you seen Michael Bloomberg’s commencement address at Rice University? Watch, or read it here:
. . . As a New Yorker, I was surprised to learn that an act of dishonor in my hometown almost blocked Rice from coming into existence. William Marsh Rice was murdered at his home in Manhattan, just a few blocks from my company’s headquarters, by two schemers who tried to re-write his will.
They were caught, his money went where he wanted it to go, the university was built, and fittingly, an honor code was created that has been central to student life here from the beginning.
And ever since you arrived here on campus, on nearly every test and paper you submitted, you signed a statement that began, ‘On my honor.’ But have you ever stopped to think about what that phrase really means?
The concept of honor has taken on different meanings through the ages: chivalry, chastity, courage, strength. And when divorced from morality, or attached to prejudice, honor has been used to justify murder, and repression, and deceit. But the essence of honor has always been found in the word itself.
As those of you who majored in Linguistics probably know, the words ‘honor’ and ‘honest’ are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the Latin word ‘honestus’ can mean both ‘honest’ and ‘honorable.’
To be honorable, you must be honest. And that means speaking honestly, and acting honestly, even when it requires you to admit wrongdoing — and suffer the consequences. The commitment to honesty is a responsibility that you accepted as an Owl. It is also, I believe, a patriotic responsibility.
As young children, one of the first things we learn about American history is the story of George Washington and the fallen cherry tree. ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ young George tells his father. ‘I cut it down.’ That story is a legend, of course. But legends are passed down from generation to generation because they carry some larger truth.
The cherry tree legend has endured because it’s not really about George Washington. It’s about us, as a nation. It’s about what we want for our children — and what we value in our leaders: honesty.
We’ve always lionized our two greatest presidents — Washington and Lincoln — not only for their accomplishments, but also for their honesty. We see their integrity and morals as a reflection of our honor as a nation.
However, today when we look at the city that bears Washington’s name, it’s hard not to wonder: What the hell happened?
In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was ‘post-truth.’ And last year brought us the phrase, ‘alternative facts.’ In essence, they both mean: Up can be down. Black can be white. True can be false. Feelings can be facts.
A New York Senator known for working across the aisle, my old friend Pat Moynihan, once said: ‘People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.’ That didn’t used to be a controversial statement.
Today, those in politics routinely dismiss any inconvenient information, no matter how factual, as fake — and they routinely say things that are demonstrably false. When authoritarian regimes around the world did this, we scoffed at them. We thought the American people would never stand for that!
For my generation, the plain truth about America — the freedom, opportunity, and prosperity we enjoyed — was our most powerful advantage in the Cold War. The more communists had access to real news, the more they would demand freedom. We believed that — and we were right.
Today, though, many of those at the highest levels of power see the plain truth as a threat. They fear it. They deny it. And they attack it — just as the communists once did. And so here we are, in the midst of an epidemic of dishonesty, and an endless barrage of lies.
The trend toward elected officials propagating alternate realities — or winking at those who do — is one of the most serious dangers facing democracies. Free societies depend on citizens who recognize that deceit in government isn’t something to shrug your shoulders at.
When elected officials speak as though they are above the truth, they will act as though they are above the law. And when we tolerate dishonesty, we get criminality.
Sometimes, it’s in the form of corruption. Sometimes, it’s abuse of power. And sometimes, it’s both. If left unchecked, these abuses can erode the institutions that preserve and protect our rights and freedoms — and open the door to tyranny and fascism.
Now, you might say: There’s always been deceitful politicians and dishonest politicians — in both parties. And that’s true. But there is now more tolerance for dishonesty in politics than I have seen in my lifetime. And I’ve been alive for one-third of the time the United States has existed! I know, you find that hard to believe. So do I, but if you do the math, that’s what it is.
My generation can tell you: The only thing more dangerous than dishonest politicians who have no respect for the law, is a chorus of enablers who defend their every lie.
Remember: The Honor Code here at Rice just doesn’t require you to be honest. It requires you to say something if you saw others acting dishonestly. Now that might be the most difficult part of an honor code, but it may also be the most important, because violations affect the whole community.
And the same is true in our country. If we want elected officials to be honest, we have to hold them accountable when they are not — or else suffer the consequences.
Now, don’t get me wrong: honest people can disagree. That’s what democracy is all about! But productive debate requires an acceptance of basic reality.
Take science for example: If 99 percent of scientists whose research has been peer-reviewed reach the same general conclusion about a theory, then we ought to accept it as the best available information — even if it’s not a 100 percent certainty.
Yes, climate change is only a theory — just like gravity is only a theory. And the fact that Newton’s theory of motion didn’t take into account Maxwell’s observations on the speed of electromagnetic waves as a constant and that Einstein’s special theory of relativity better described motion when things move very fast — doesn’t mean that if I let go of this pen it won’t fall to the ground.
That, graduates, is not a Chinese hoax. It’s called science — and we should demand that politicians have the honesty to respect it.
Hard though it is to believe, some federal agencies have actually banned their employees from using the phrase ‘climate change.’ If censorship solved problems, today we’d all be part of the old USSR, and the Soviets would have us speaking Russian.
Of course, it’s always good to be skeptical and ask questions. But we must be willing to place a certain amount of trust in the integrity of scientists. If you aren’t willing to do that, don’t get on an airplane, don’t use a cell phone or microwave, don’t get treated in a hospital, and don’t even think about binge-watching Netflix.
Scientific discovery permeates practically every aspect of our lives — except, too often, our political debates.
The dishonesty in Washington isn’t just about science, of course. We weren’t tackling so many of the biggest problems that affect your future – from the lack of good jobs in many communities, to the prevalence of gun violence, to the threats to the economy and threats to the environment — because too many political leaders are being dishonest about facts and data, and too many people are letting them get away with it.
So how did we get here? How did we go from a president who could not tell a lie to politicians who can not tell the truth? From a George Washington who embodied honesty, to a Washington, D.C. defined by deceit?
It’s popular to blame social media for spreading false information. I for one am totally convinced that Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber are still dating, but the problem isn’t just unreliable stories. It’s also the public’s willingness — even eagerness — to believe anything that paints the other side in a bad light. That’s extreme partisanship — and that is what’s fueling and excusing all this dishonesty.
Extreme partisanship is like an infectious disease. But instead of crippling the body, it cripples the mind. It blocks us from understanding the other side. It blinds us from seeing the strengths in their ideas — and the weaknesses of our own. And it leads us to defend or excuse lies and unethical actions when our own side commits them.
For example: In the 1990s, leading Democrats spent the decade defending the occupant of the Oval Office against charges of lying and personal immorality, and attempting to silence and discredit the women who spoke out. At the same time, leading Republicans spent that decade attacking the lack of ethics and honesty in the White House.
Today, the roles are exactly reversed — not because the parties have changed their beliefs — but because the party occupying the Oval Office has changed.
When someone’s judgment about an action depends on the party affiliation of the person who committed it, they’re being dishonest with themselves and with the public. And yet, those kinds of judgments have become so second nature that many people — in both parties — don’t even realize that they are making them.
Now, I know it’s natural to root for your own side — especially when the other side is the Houston Cougars. But governing is not a game.
When people see the world as a battle between left and right, they become more loyal to their tribe than to our country. When power — not progress — becomes the object of the battle, truth and honesty become the first casualties.
You learned here at Rice that honesty leads to trust and trust leads to freedom — like the freedom to take tests outside the classroom. In democracy, it’s no different. If we aren’t honest with one another, we don’t trust one another, then we place limits on what we ourselves can do, and what we can do together as a country.
It’s a formula for gridlock and national decline — but graduates, here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be that way.
When I was in city government, I didn’t care which party proposed an idea — and I never once asked someone his or her party affiliation during a job interview, or who they voted for. As a result, we had a dream team of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. That diversity made our debates sharper, our policies smarter, and our government better.
Arguments were won and lost on facts and data — not parties and polls. That was why we had success. And it’s been great to see other mayors around the country taking that same kind of approach. But at the national level, in Washington today, partisanship is everything. And I think the dishonesty that it produces is one of the greatest challenges that your generation will have to confront.
Of course, partisanship is not a new problem. George Washington warned against it in his Farewell Address. He referred to the ‘dangers of parties,’ and called the passion that people have for our parties, quote, ‘worst enemy’ of democracy — a precursor to tyranny. Washington urged Americans to, quote, ‘discourage and restrain’ partisanship. Sadly, in recent years, the opposite has happened.
There is now unrestrained, rabid partisanship everywhere we look. It’s not just on social media and cable news. It’s in the communities where we live, which are becoming more deeply red or more deeply blue. It’s in the groups and associations and churches we join, which increasingly attract like-minded people. It’s even in the people we marry.
Fifty years ago, most parents didn’t care whether their children married a member of another political party, but they didn’t want them marrying outside their race or religion, or inside their gender.
Today, thankfully, polls show a strong majority support for inter-racial, inter-religious, and same-sex marriage and that is progress. But unfortunately, the percentage of parents who don’t want their children marrying outside of their political party has doubled and the more people segregate themselves by party, the harder it becomes to understand the other side, and the more extreme each party grows.
Studies show that people become more extreme in their views when they are grouped together with like-minded people. And that’s now happening in both parties. And as a result, I think it’s fair to say the country is more divided by party than it has ever been since the Civil War.
Last month, legislators in South Carolina — which was the first state in the Union to secede back in 1860 — introduced a resolution that contemplated a debate on secession. Now it’s easy to dismiss that as a fringe idea — and let’s hope it never happens. But in like-minded groups, fringe ideas can gather momentum with dangerous speed – just remember Germany in the late 1930s.
If that continues to happen here, America will become even more divided, and our national anthem may as well become the Taylor Swift song: ‘We are never, ever, ever, getting back together.’
So why do I bring this up as you finish your time at this great university?
Well, I’m hoping you graduates will draw more inspiration from a song by a different artist: Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey: ‘Why don’t you just meet me in the middle? I’m losing my mind just a little.’
Bringing the country back together I know won’t be easy. But I believe it can be done — and if we are to continue as a true democracy, it must be done, and it will be up to your generation to help lead it.
Graduates, you’re ready for this challenge. Because bringing the country back together starts with the first lesson you learned here at Rice: Honesty matters. And everyone must be held accountable for being honest. So as you go out into the world, I urge you to do what honesty requires.
Recognize that no one, nor either party, has a monopoly on good ideas. Judge events based on what happened, not who did it. Hold yourself and our leaders to the highest standards of ethics and morality. Respect the knowledge of scientists. Follow the data, wherever it leads. Listen to people you disagree with — without trying to censor them or shout over them. And have the courage to say things that your own side does not want to hear.
I just came yesterday from visiting an old friend in Arizona, who has displayed that kind of courage throughout his life: Senator John McCain, who is currently fighting brain cancer.
Now, John and I often don’t see eye to eye on issues. But I have always admired his willingness to reach across the aisle, when others wouldn’t dare.
He bucked party leaders when his conscience demanded it. He defended the honor of his opponents, even if it cost him votes. And he owned up to his mistakes — just like that young kid with the cherry tree.
Imagine what our country would be like if more of our elected officials had the courage to serve with the honor that John has always shown on the battlefield, in Washington and in his personal life.
Graduates, after today, you will no longer be bound by the Rice honor code. It will be up to you to decide how to live your life — and to follow your own honor code.
This university has given you a special opportunity to learn the true meaning of honor to base that code on. And now, I believe, you have a special obligation to carry it forward — into your work places, your communities, your political discussions, and yes, into the voting booth because the greatest threat to American democracy isn’t communism or jihadism, or any other external force or foreign power. It’s our own willingness to tolerate dishonesty in service of party, and in pursuit of power.
So let me leave you with one final thought: We can all recite the inspiring words that begin the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident —
But remember that the Founding Fathers were able to bring those truths to life only because of the Declaration’s final words: ‘We mutually pledge to each other, our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.’
That pledge of honor and that commitment to truth is why we are here today. And in order to preserve those truths, and the rights they guarantee us, every generation must take that same pledge, and it’s now your turn.
Earlier today, I told President Leebron that I’d like to make a donation to Rice. His eyes lit up! But I said, ‘No, not a financial donation.’ I told him I’d like to donate a cherry tree to be planted here on campus with a plaque that reads: ‘In Honor of the Class of 2018.’
And when you come back to campus as alumni, if you pass by the tree, I hope you’ll remember why it’s there — and what it represents to our great country. And throughout your life, when you chop down a cherry tree, as we all do from time to time, admit it — and demand nothing less from those who represent us.
Graduates, you have earned this great celebration. So tonight, have one last Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit. And tomorrow, carry the values of this great university with you, wherever you go.
You will never regret it. I make that pledge to you on my honor.
Congratulations — and go Owls!
Have a great long weekend.
Along with the hot dogs and beer, remember the brave Americans who died defending our great democracy, its Constitution — the truth — and the rule of law.