Fareed Zakaria: Be Open, Be Optimistic, Speak Up

In a commencement address to the University of Oklahoma, Zakaria paints a picture of a thriving America

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Fareed Zakaria, TIME editor-at-large and host of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, delivered the following commencement address at the University of Oklahoma‘s graduation ceremony on Friday evening, in Norman, Okla. 

President Boren, Trustees, Members of the Faculty, Parents, Friends, and most importantly, Members of the Class of 2013, Congratulations. You made it and now we’re gathered here to mark the occasion and celebrate the moment. Congratulations.

And thank you. Thank you for inviting me to be part of these celebrations. I’m honored and delighted. I’ve been to a few of these back east but they tend to be somewhat smaller affairs. Everything seems bigger in the Great Plains.

You know, you might have invited me thinking that you were getting this global affairs guy with an exotic name and foreign background. In fact, I’m a local — of sorts. My wife’s grandfather, Marvin Dumas Henley, was born in Bluejacket, Oklahoma in 1897. He remembered attending the statehood parade in 1907.  He received two degrees from this university and practiced medicine in Tulsa until he died in 1972. My wife’s mother, Joan Henley Throckmorton, lived in many cities around the world. But for much of her life, she wrote a weekly column for the Tulsa World, keeping them informed of what was going on out there. So you see, I’m basically a Sooner — and very proud to have an association with this great state and this great school.

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Those of you who are entering the “real world” — I’m never quite sure why we call it that, as if reading and thinking and making friends isn’t real — may be apprehensive. This seems a tough time to leave the comfortable confines of university life. The American economy is in a sluggish recovery from a deep and wrenching recession. Unemployment remains high. And there is a widespread sense that we have entered a new world. Technology is making old jobs obsolete and foreign competitors are taking the new ones.  Meanwhile, our politics in Washington are broken, dysfunctional and divided. You might ask, “Is America going to slowly decline like so many great nations before?”

I worry a lot about these kinds of issues. So I can detail most of our problems. But in my gut, I believe that this country will face up to its challenges and thrive in this new world. Why? Well, it probably has something to do with my own life as an immigrant in America.

I grew up in India in the 1960s and 1970s. Towards the end of the 1970s, I started thinking about coming to the United States for college. I happened to meet an American who was visiting India and, when he learned of my interest, he said, “Are you sure you want to come to America? We’re going through hell!”

Looking back, I understand exactly what he meant. The 1970s were a terrible decade for America. The country was going through what was often called the worst economy since the great depression — a combination of high inflation and slow growth called stagflation. Abroad, the country had been through a humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam, a war that had torn America apart internally and weakened it externally. The Soviet Union was on the march across the world, from Central America to Africa to Asia. And if you think people don’t trust politicians today, cast your mind back to the late 1970s, to Watergate and Vietnam. That guy was right. America was going through hell.

But I wanted to get to America. From India, it still seemed the land of opportunity, the place where the future was being invented. For me, it was still the city on the hill. So I applied for scholarships to colleges and was lucky enough to get one at Yale. I arrived at the tail end of the worst recession since the Second World War. But things were changing. Recession was shifting to recovery and soon the United States was in the midst of a roaring economic boom, strengthening the country at home and abroad. By the end of the decade, America was revitalized and the Soviet Union had effectively surrendered — and then collapsed in a heap. America was on top of the world.

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But the mood of the country was more exhausted than triumphant. When the economy hit a recession in the early 1990s, everyone started worrying again. I was leaving graduate school in those years and job prospects seemed dim. One of the most popular lines from the presidential election of 1992 came from Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts: ”The Cold War is over — and Germany and Japan won.” Such was the anxiety that a sitting President was unseated by a then-unknown governor from Arkansas. But a couple of years later, another great boom began, this one particularly vibrant in that we saw productivity gains and broad-based increases in wages. The information revolution unleashed in America in the 1990s changed the world. Oh, and I did get a job.

The challenges facing America are real but we’ve faced problems before and overcome them. And we’ve survived and thrived because this country is strong at heart. We remain the most dynamic economy in the world, with a capacity for innovation that is the world’s envy. Even more so than 30 or 40 years ago, in the industries that will define the future — America is dominant. We continue to lead the world in perhaps the most fundamental industry of all — higher education, with the world’s greatest universities and research centers, like this one.

We remain the most dynamic society in the world, the only industrialized country that is demographically vibrant. We add 3 million people to the population every year. We take more legal immigrants into this country than the rest of the world put together.

We are open to people, of course, but also to goods, services, trends, ideas, and cultures — we let them all in, in the belief that openness creates a more vibrant and vital society. It’s not just a physical openness but an openness of the mind. Ronald Reagan once said, “Americans don’t care much about your origins, we care about your destination.”

Now this openness of the land and mind has never been easy and never without tension. People have worried about newcomers, about old ways being lost and about the dangers of changing too far to fast. From the earliest days of the republic, people were suspicious of Catholics, who they believed were plotting secret wars and violent rebellion. They angrily attacked the Irish and the Italians, who were seen as deeply alien to American society. They discriminated against Jews. And of course, they treated African Americans dreadfully for centuries. But over time, the fears abated and these diverse strands created a great American tapestry.

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