Bill Moyers

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COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS

Bill Moyers


      I'm very fortunate to be here tonight for the first millennial class ever to graduate from the University of Texas. It's an honor to be part of this historical occasion. And I intend to repay you by being brief. I know you are eager to get out of here because on Monday morning each of you has to select a board of directors by 10:00, issue an IPO by noon, and open a bank account by 3 with your first million. In that endeavor nothing I say will be of much help to you, but I wish you well.

      I must seem an alien to you. I come from the old country, the past. You can't get there from here. Our generations hardly speak the same language. When I was here fifty years ago bunnies were still small rabbits and rabbits were not Volkswagens. A "chip" was off the old block, hardware meant a hammer and nails, and software wasn't even a word. We didn't know of FM radio, tape decks, artificial hearts, word processors, or dot.coms. Fast food was what the Catholics on campus ate during Lent, and 'making out' referred to how we did on our exams. Grass was mowed, Coke was a cold drink, and pot was something you cooked with. I come from a foreign country; I come from the past.

      But although you and I are separated by half a century of experience, we do have in common this university, which others built for us. I say it every time I come back -- perhaps I keep coming back just to say it: This university is a living thing. All the men and women who have been part of this campus -- student and faculty, security guard and secretary -- breathed something of themselves into it. The Tower soars above us tonight because all those before us secured its foundation on solid ground. That may be the most important thing I learned here -- that nothing lasts that isn't well-grounded: Love, marriage, friendship, sanity, knowledge, institutions, democracy -- without deep roots, they perish.

      I graduated from the university just about at midpoint between your millennial class of 2000 and the first centennial class of 1900. This place was a frontier 100 years ago. The entire enrollment consisted of 582 students, wearing coats and ties or long dresses down to their ankles. They arrived here by train or on horseback to a campus that was a thicket of trees and wild weeds crisscrossed by cattle trails. Some carried guns. When one student missed his homework assignment because of illness, his professor insinuated that he was lying. The student promptly pulled his pistol and demanded the professor take it back. He did.

      Like you, the class of 1900 graduated with great expectations. The turn of the century crackled with optimism. It was, as one writer describes it, "the heyday of a liberal civilization that had seemed to spread steadily and grow stronger for most of the 19th century. Its articles of faith were that science and technology were the sources of a prosperity without limits, that the free market would spread the new abundance across boundaries and nations, that liberty and democracy were gaining ground everywhere." (Jonathan Schell, Harper's Magazine, January 2000).

      Sure enough, the 20th century brought extraordinary progress. Between the class of 1900 and yours, the life span of Americans increased by more than 30 years. Only a third of bachelor's degrees went to women in 1900, compared to well over a half today. No one in that class had heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Seuss, Earth Day, hot running water, Amnesty International, Gay and Lesbian Pride, paperback books, transatlantic air traffic, Rocky and Bullwinkle, sticky note, the zipper or the personal computer.

      But just look at us now. Roughly three out of four American homes have air conditioning, and none did then. Over half of our homes have dishwashers, and none did then. Ninety-eight percent have television and two-thirds have cable. Nearly half of our homes have one or more computers, and more than 40 percent of American adults use the Internet. Impressive.

      Of course this is not the whole story. If the class of 1900 couldn't peer into a crystal ball and see the coming achievements of science and technology, neither could they see what else the future had in store. They couldn't see the mass extermination ahead -- the blood and muck of the first Great War when a million men would die in a single battle. They couldn't see the smoke of human fodder rising from the ovens of Buchenwald and Dachau. They couldn't see Dresden lighted at night by incendiaries failing from the sky like sparkles from a fairy wand. And they couldn't see the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The future is a blank. We never know if it's going to turn out a fit place to be, because we can't be sure how humans will fill it in. The 20th century brought an epidemic of life; it also brought a plague of death. During my time at the university in the 50's, one of my English teachers told us that if we learned nothing else, she hoped we would learn from the poet Rilke "To assume our existence as broadly as we can, in any way we can. Everything, even the unheard of, must be possible in this life. The only courage demanded of us is courage for the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter."

      Right now our encounter is with an explosion of technology and wealth that boggles the mind. Records are broken and new milestones reached every day. Dot.com billionaires sprout like bluebonnets in the hill country, and in just one decade the number of millionaires has quadrupled from two million to eight million. (Robert Reich, The American Prospect, May 2000).

      You begin to think it will last forever, lifting the boats on Lake Austin and the yachts on the ocean to one height after another. But every now and then a message arrives unexpected, like a bottle washing up ashore, and we're suddenly startled by the unthinkable.

      Bill Joy sent us one message the other day. Bill Joy is a giant of the computer revolution -- the cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems. Beginning as a graduate student inventing new worlds inside machines, he moved from workstations and personal computers to the creation of advanced microprocessor technologies and Internet techniques such as Java and Jinni. This man is no Luddite. He values the scientific search for truth and the ability of engineering to improve life. But in a remarkable article this spring in Wired magazine, Bill Joy confesses to deep concerns over the unintended consequences of 21st century technologies. He acknowledges that the most compelling of them -- robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnologies -- can significantly extend our average life span even further, conquer diseases, and increase crop yields. But robots, engineered organisms, and nanobots also share a dangerous and amplifying factor. They can replicate themselves. One can become many, and the many take on a life of their own, leaping beyond our control.

      Look at the history of antibiotics, he says -- with the emergence of antibiotic and much more dangerous bacteria that go on reproducing themselves despite our efforts to kill them.

      Earlier in his career Bill Joy doubted we could create an intelligent robot that can evolve copies of itself and function on its own. No longer. Now he believes that by the year 2030, when you are still younger than I am now, we are likely to be able to build machines, in quantity, a million times more powerful than the personal computer of today. Such machines, operating according to their own nature, could lead to our extinction, he says: "We may well not survive the encounter with a superior species of machines that occur when we download ourselves into our own technology."

      Moreover, these 21st century technologies are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, these accidents and abuses will be widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not -- unlike atomic and nuclear weapons -- require large facilities or rare raw materials, or be under the control of nation states. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them. Thus, "we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge enabled mass destruction hugely amplified by the power of self-replication. I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.

      "The thrust of his message is this: The nuclear, biological, and chemical technologies used in 20th century weapons of mass destruction were and are largely military, developed in government laboratories. In sharp contrast, the 21st century technologies -- with science as their handmaiden -- are delivering a series of almost magical inventions that are the most phenomenally lucrative ever seen, have clear commercial uses, and are being developed almost exclusively by corporate enterprises. We are aggressively pursuing the promises of these new technologies within the now unchallenged system of global capitalism and its manifold financial incentives and competitive pressures. Instead of our course being determined by our collective values, ethics, and morals, we are being propelled forward with no plan, no control, and no brake. The 21st century -- your century -- will be, he says, "the century of danger."

      That's the message from Bill Joy. What a challenge to democracy!

      The Love Bug sent another message. "I Love You," said the message on my computer. But it could have been the inscription our pilots and bombardiers used to scribble on the nose of the bombs they dropped in Europe and Asia. "I Love You" -- BOOM! As we have since learned, the bug that brought some of the world's most sophisticated computer networks to a halt was apparently hatched in a noisy inner city neighborhood in the Philippines where residents live under corrugated steel roofs in grubby concrete apartments and students go to a computer school in an old warehouse without flush toilets. As the New York Times put it, "The fact that the world's most infectious computer virus to date could have such origins illustrates how vulnerable the Internet's global sprawl has made it to disruption coming from even the most remote technological backwaters." (NYT, May 17, 1000).

      You and I don't think much about the world that spawned the love bug. But a few days after the virus hit, a friend, who used to live in Austin, sent me an e-mail which he said more-or-less put things in perspective. It contained a model of the earth's population shrunk to a village of precisely one hundred people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same. Of the hundred people, 57 would be Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 would be from the Western Hemisphere (North and South), and eight would be from Africa. 52 would be female, 48 would be male. 70 would have skin of color, 30 would be white. 70 would not be Christian, 30 would, 80 of the 100 would live in substandard housing. 70 would be unable to read. 50 would suffer from malnutrition. Only one -- yes, one -- would have a college education. And only one would own a computer. Finally, of the 100 people in our single global village, six would possess 59% of the entire world's wealth, and all six would be from the United States.

      Astonishing, isn't it? So much wealth - in the hands of so few? It got me to thinking about some other things that should be astonishing but seem not to shock us.

      More children are growing up poor in America than in any other industrial nation.

      Millions of workers are actually making less money today in real dollars than they did twenty years ago, and can't afford homes where middle class families once thrived.

      This should astonish: More than two million people work in nursing homes -- bathing and feeding frail elderly people, cleaning their bedsores, lifting them out of bed and into wheelchairs, changing their diapers -- for a salary, on average, between seven and eight dollars an hour. (Reich).

      And this: Over two million Americans work in childcare centers or as nannies. They feed the children, calm their fears, bandage their bruises, sing and read to them -- for a median wage of $6.60 an hour, usually with no benefits.

      And this: More than 700,000 social workers attend to individuals and families suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness. They make between $8 and $15 an hour.

      Forty-three million Americans have no health insurance. One million people have lost their coverage every year for eight straight years now -- during the most prosperous decade in our history. And medical expenses have become the major cause of personal bankruptcy. Why doesn't that astonish us?

      Some of you may have seen our documentary on PBS last month called "Surviving the Good Times."We filmed it over ten years in the lives of two families in Milwaukee ... the Stanleys and the Neumanns ... one white, one black. The breadwinners in each family were laid off in the first wave of downsizing in 1991. We reported then on how they were coping with the wrenching changes in their lives, and we stayed with them over the next ten years as they tried to find a place in the new global economy. We used to call these people "the salt of the earth." They love their kids, care about their communities, go to church every Sunday, and work hard all week. Both mothers took full-time jobs to make ends meet. Though they've been running hard they've been falling behind. During our time with them the fathers in both families became seriously ill. One had to stay in the hospital for two months. When he got out the family was $30,000 in debt because they didn't have adequate health care. If you watched the film you saw the bank starting to foreclose on the modest home of the family that couldn't meet the mortgage payments after the dad lost his factory job. Like millions of Americans, the Stanleys and the Neumanns play by the rules and still get stiffed.

      What turns their personal travail into a political tragedy is that they are patriotic. They love this country. But they no longer believe they matter to the people who run the country. When our film opens both families are watching the inauguration of Bill Clinton on television in 1992. They wouldn't do that today. They don't believe their concerns will ever be addressed by the political, corporate, and media elites who make up our political class. They are not cynical. They are deeply religious people with no capacity for cynicism. But they know the system's rigged. And they're right.

      You would think a rich, dynamic nation with the most powerful economy in the world would be putting its house in order -- making sure we are not only a prosperous society but a just, good, and fair society. It's not happening. And it's not happening because money has a stranglehold on democracy. Politics has become an arms race, with money doing the work of missiles. Federal elections cost $2.2 billion dollars in 1996 and could double this year. Most of that money comes from a relative handful of wealthy individuals, organizations, and interests. Dominant among them are the financial and corporate elite who want no rules to govern the social and economic behavior of investors and multinational corporations, including those that will control the technologies described by Bill Joy; who want government to serve only as the protector of their power and privilege; who want to hold to the barest minimum the wages and salaries of people whose should otherwise share in the profits of industry; who seek subsidies and tax breaks they want you to pay for; who fight tooth-and-nail against universal health care; who pour money into both parties in order to deprive voters of any real political choice. These are the people whose money largely determines who runs, who wins, and how they govern.

      Some of them we don't even know. The Washington Post reported last week that huge sums of cash are pouring secretly into politics from groups and individuals seeking to influence the elections without disclosing their identity. Some of these slush funds are controlled by members of Congress -- including powerful members of your own Texas delegation who take your votes and do their donors' bidding. They -- your elected officials -- are benefiting from huge donations from those who want favors from them. And you have no way of knowing who they are. Our politicians are selling us out and we can't hold them accountable because they are doing it in the dark.

      Remember Roger Tamraz? He should have been your commencement speaker. He could really tell you how the system works. Roger Tamraz is the wealthy oilman who paid $300,000 to get a private meeting in the White House with President Clinton. He wanted help in securing a big pipeline in Central Asia. This got him called before congressional hearings into the financial excesses of the 1996 campaign. If you watched those hearings on C-Span you heard him say he didn't think he had done anything out of the ordinary. When the senators pressed him he told them; "Look, when it comes to money and politics, you make the rules."

      One senator then asked if Tamraz had registered and voted, and he was blunt in his reply. "No, Senator, I think money's a bit more than the vote."

      You may find this is hard to swallow. They don't teach it in your political science courses. You didn't get it in high school civics (if you even. got high school civics.) But this is how the system works, and it's why we can't put things right for the people who don't share in America's prosperity. The great Justice Learned Hand said it well: "If we are to keep our democracy there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice." But justice is rationed today. You get it if you pay for it. Your political worth is now determined by your net worth.

      The private and now secret financing of public officials has made a mockery of the whole notion of "one person, one vote." It is so pernicious and pervasive that if left unchallenged it will ultimately destroy our democracy. Rich people should be able to buy more homes than anyone else. They should be able to buy more cars, more vacations, and more gizmos than anyone else. But they shouldn't be able to buy more democracy than anyone else.

      This isn't a partisan issue. Senator John McCain -- the conservative Republican -- said during his campaign (before he was overwhelmed by money) that both parties are selling our elections to the highest bidders. And just listen to Barry Goldwater. That's right -- Barry Goldwater, patriarch of the conservative movement in the Republican Party. Here is what Senator Goldwater said ten years ago:

      "The fact that liberty depended on honest elections was of the utmost importance to the patriots who founded our nation and wrote the Constitution. They knew that corruption destroyed the prime requisite of constitutional liberty, and independent legislature free from any influence other than that of the people. To be successful, representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe their vote counts. Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups who speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community."

      Why am I haranguing you about this on your day of your graduation? Because you've got to do something about it. Our generation has left you with unfinished business. America needs a new politics of justice and you have to lead it. I know, I know: your generation has other fish to fry, you have other things on your mind. I've just finished reading a new book by a bright young woman in her 20s who says your generation considers politics to be "something our parents did. As for our generation, we are going to make it where it counts -- not in creed or controversy but in shares and silicon, venture cap, options, startups, hedge funds, broadband, plug-ins, 401 (k)s -- those are our buzz words. The 'Bill' we love is Gates, not Clinton. Our centers of power are where Madison Avenue meets Silicon Valley and Wall Street bumps into Hollywood -- what does politics have to do with me? I'm smart, I'm educated, and I'm mobile. If the nation goes to hell, I can pack up my laptop and move to New Zealand, where the taxes are low and the climate temperate. Right?"

      Perhaps. New Zealand is certainly a beautiful country. But the Stanleys and the Neumanns can't go there. Nor can the millions of people like them who are lost in America. And frankly, while all of you are indeed smart, educated, and mobile, New Zealand would bore you. You belong here, fighting the good fight. Surely they taught you here that life is not just about you -- it's about all of us. The world doesn't end at the border of the self. Let me read you a letter from a woman -- a Czech woman -- who survived the concentration camps under the Nazis, only to watch in increasing dismay as the postwar communist government, hailed with such hope, degenerated into corruption and brutality."Still," she wrote, "I did not feel like getting involved in politics; I kept saying to myself, 'All I want is an ordinary, quiet life.' But I came to realize that a quiet, simple life is neither ordinary nor easily attained. In order to be able to live and work in peace, to raise children, to enjoy the small and great joys life can offer, you must not only find the right partner, choose the right occupation, respect the laws of your country and your own conscience but, most importantly, you must have a solid social foundation on which to build such a life....You cannot build a happy private life in a corrupt society anymore than you can build a house in a muddy ditch."

      So there's your task, my young Texas friends. There's the unfinished business. Go to it!

      Thank you for enabling me to be here with you tonight, to share the happiness, excitement and high hopes of this moment. In the words of that old Transcendentalist benediction: "May God keep you safe until the word of your life is fully spoken."


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31 May 2000
The University of Texas at Austin
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