Photo: Harvard University

By Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

Graduation speeches are often pablum – containing well-meaning advice and platitudes of wisdom that are easy listening but also easily forgotten.  This week I (Monica) heard not one, but two speeches that transcended the ordinary graduation fare, providing important perspective and inspiration that is most needed and welcome at this moment in time.

Former Vice President Al Gore gave the “Class Day” address for Harvard College on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his own graduation.  It was, not surprisingly, a sermon and a call to arms for the graduating class in which he decried “attacks on known facts, science, and reason as strongman-like tactics to gather power and weaken democracy.”

Most interesting was Gore’s sense that today is a more troubled time than the late 1960’s – the civic turmoil and polarization of the Vietnam War and the President’s dishonesty didn’t approach the challenges of today.   In his view, the checks and balances built into the U.S. government have weakened considerably since then, with more “compliant” judicial and legislative branches, and the viral speed of the internet and social media spread falsehoods and “alternate” facts in seconds.

In key part, Gore said, “Veritas — truth — is not only Harvard’s motto … but it is also democracy’s shield. And the right to pursue truth is the most fundamental right of them all, and that right is now at risk. And as a result, freedom itself is at risk, more so now than it was 50 years ago … We have to restore the role of reason and logic and rational debate.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a similar chord in her speech at the Harvard University-wide commencement in which she emphasized the importance of telling — and facing — the truth.  She said we must “be honest with ourselves.” And then Merkel said the most simple truth of all, “That requires us not to describe lies as truth and truth as lies,” she said to a standing ovation.  You had to wonder whether the President’s ears might be burning.

The Trump Administration’s decisions of late gave this message special urgency.  It became known this week that the Environmental Protection Agency granted a permit to build a new factory in Wisconsin based on the false conclusion that air quality in the region was good enough to allow another source of pollution unabated.  The Administration also required that future climate analyses performed by the government not take the long-term impacts of climate change into consideration. And they have pulled funding for studies of the long term health impacts of pollution on children and other sensitive populations so that we will not know their true toll on these citizens’ health and well-being.

This reminded me (Miro) of my mom’s accounts of working as an economist for the Soviet government in Ukraine and being asked to manipulate data so that her work fit the agenda of the government versus portraying reality. This was a common practice in the Soviet Union and demonstrates the danger of what happens when science and facts clash with politics.  Historically, despite which president or political party was in power in Washington D.C., the research and data of the United States government have always been trustworthy and relied upon by the rest of the world. We cannot allow our status as an arbiter of rigorous scientific information to be jeopardized in this era or any other.

And yet despite the dark times both described, Gore and Merkel were optimistic about the future.

Gore cited the power of technological advances that have made renewable wind and solar power cheaper than fossil fuels in the U.S. and in many parts of the world.  He recounted his deep faith in the power of people to change the world — even fundamental societal changes of the magnitude needed to slow global warming. And then he issued a challenge to Harvard to “face the truth” of the “moral choice” surrounding the University’s financial interest in fossil fuels, calling for divestment just as the University disinvested from South African companies during apartheid and from tobacco companies twenty years ago.  He spoke truth to power for all the students to see, with all the University’s leaders in attendance.

Merkel’s remarks were even more inspiring as she recanted how she felt when the Berlin Wall fell nearly thirty years ago, something that was unimaginable even months beforehand.  She learned from that experience that “anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.” And she told the students that even when they inevitably encounter seemingly impenetrable walls in their own lives, whether physical, social, intellectual, or cultural, they must work to break them down.

And as if describing the climate crisis as another kind of wall, Merkel said “ We can and must do everything humanly possible to truly master this challenge to humankind,” said Merkel.  And then, facing her own truth, she said, “each and every one of us must play our part (and), I say this with a measure of self-criticism, get better…. I will, therefore, do everything in my power to ensure that Germany, my country, will achieve the goal of climate neutrality by 2050.”

Merkel reminded the students that, “individual liberties are not givens. Democracy is not something we can take for granted. Neither is peace, and neither is prosperity,” Merkel said. “But if we break down the walls that hem us in, if we step out into the open and have the courage to embrace new beginnings, everything is possible.”  As she closed, Merkel implored the graduates to go out into the world and “tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, for nothing has to stay as it is.”

The challenges we face today, both with our government’s lies and the climate crisis it refuses to see, are just walls we must break down.  And if we do, anything is possible.