Michael Bloomberg delivers a college commencement speech worth hearing
While it is true that a generation of university students – the product of our therapeutic culture and “you can’t say that” attitude to political debate – is now being indoctrinated into the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics with alarmingly little resistance from the educational establishment, there is at least one graduating class which has been sent out into the world with a rather more inspiring (and small-L liberal) message ringing in their ears.
Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was invited to address the University of Michigan’s graduating class of 2016, and from the first word of his speech he tore into the culture of safe spaces, trigger warnings and all of the other illiberal symptoms of this new orthodoxy.
From Bloomberg’s speech:
The most useful knowledge that you leave here with today has nothing to do with your major. It’s about how to study, cooperate, listen carefully, think critically and resolve conflicts through reason. Those are the most important skills in the working world, and it’s why colleges have always exposed students to challenging and uncomfortable ideas.
The fact that some university boards and administrations now bow to pressure and shield students from these ideas through “safe spaces,” “code words” and “trigger warnings” is, in my view, a terrible mistake.
The whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations — not run away from them. A microaggression is exactly that: micro. And one of the most dangerous places on a college campus is a safe space, because it creates the false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views.
We can’t do this, and we shouldn’t try — not in politics or in the workplace. In the global economy, and in a democratic society, an open mind is the most valuable asset you can possess.
Think about the global economy. For the first time in human history, the majority of people in the developed world are being asked to make a living with their minds, rather than their muscles. For 3,000 years, humankind had an economy based on farming: Till the soil, plant the seed, harvest the crop. It was hard to do, but fairly easy to learn. Then, for 300 years, we had an economy based on industry: Mold the parts, turn the crank, assemble the product. This was hard to do, but also fairly easy to learn.
Now, we have an economy based on information: Acquire the knowledge, apply the analytics and use your creativity. This is hard to do and hard to learn, and even once you’ve mastered it, you have to start learning all over again, pretty much every day.
Keeping an open mind to new ideas is essential to your professional success — just as it’s crucial to our collective future as a democratic society.
Note the loud booing quickly drowned out by cheering when Bloomberg talks about the inherent intellectual and academic danger of a “safe space” – while his remarks were warmly received, there is clearly a very vocal group of students who did not want to hear this message, and who will step forth from the University of Michigan with very warped views about how political debate (and even ordinary interpersonal relationships) should be conducted.
Bloomberg then turns his attention to the presidential race and the state of American democracy in general:
Democracy in action can actually produce a lot of inaction, which we see every day in Washington and other levels of government, too. When governments fail to address the needs of the people, voters in both parties get angry and some politicians exploit that anger by offering scapegoats instead of solutions.
If we want to stop demagogues, we have to start governing again, and that requires us to be more civil, to support politicians who have the courage to take risks, and to reward those who reach across the aisle in search of compromise.
Here, Bloomberg is almost channelling Andrew Sullivan, who makes his incredibly welcome and sorely needed return to political commentary in the New York magazine with these words:
An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.
(I’ll be blogging a response to Andrew Sullivan’s piece separately in due course).
Bloomberg closes with this warning:
Think about this: In 1960, only 4 to 5 percent of Democrats and Republicans said they would be upset if a member of their family married someone from the opposing party. In 2010, one in three Democrats and one in two Republicans said they would disapprove of such a marriage. In 1960, most people would never have believed that interparty marriage would attract such resistance, while interracial and same-sex marriage would gain such acceptance.
For all the progress we have made on cultural tolerance, when it comes to political tolerance, we are moving in the wrong direction — at campaign rallies that turn violent, on social media threads that turn vitriolic, and on college campuses, where students and faculty have attempted to censor political opponents.
As durable as the American system of government has been, democracy is fragile — and demagogues are always lurking. Stopping them starts with placing a premium on open minds, voting, and demanding that politicians offer practical solutions, not scapegoats or pie-in-the-sky promises.
This is a message which many students will not want to hear, but which needs to be transmitted nonetheless – and not only by commencement speakers, refreshing though it is to hear the likes of Bloomberg take up the cause.
University administrators and professors must also absorb and embrace this message and change the way they approach issues of free speech and academic freedom, for while they are not entirely responsible for the censorious and emotionally fragile nature of new students entering their institutions, they do represent the last and best hope of turning those students into robust and resilient young citizens by the time they graduate.
Michael Bloomberg delivering a crowd-riling, viral-ready commencement speech just as students are about to graduate cannot be our only firewall against the onslaught of this new illiberal movement. We must erect meaningful defences and interventions much earlier in the learning process – rather than simply bowing to the excessive demands and exaggerated sensibilities of perpetually offended students – if we wish to prevent our workplaces and government from going the same way as our university campuses.
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