A Frenchman, Hector St. John de Crevecouer, saw this mechanism at work right at the start. In 1782 he asked, “Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” So as we fear newcomers from new lands and cultures today and as worry about changes in our social institutions, like marriage, keep in mind that for centuries America has been reaching out and bringing more and more people into the mainstream. And this process has always strengthened us.
Now you may think that this version of American history doesn’t apply everywhere, that there are parts of the country that were not as open and that stayed isolated and removed from the currents of cosmopolitanism. Well, here is the first census of Oklahoma after it became a state — in 1910. More than 8% of the population was African American, 4.5% was Native American, almost 3% was foreign born and 6% had foreign parents. These people came from everywhere: Germany, Russia, Ireland, Austria, even Canada. There were more immigrants from Mexico than from Scotland those days. There were even people from Syria and Turkey.
Enough about the past; the world is changing fast and many nations are catching up in various ways — building great companies, investing in research, putting up high-speed rails and awe-inspiring airports. This is good for them and for us; it means their people are escaping poverty. It is good for us because it means more economic activity and opportunity for all.
But I still think that the United States retains unique advantages because it is a unique place. I am always struck that when I talk to other immigrants they see this reality more easily than those who have always been here.
I read a story recently about a female academic from a European university who chose to settle down in America. When asked why, she explained that, in France, as a woman and a junior researcher, she wasn’t encouraged to push her ideas and to challenge her senior faculty. So she was moving to America — from another very rich country — to be free; free to express herself, free to challenge authority. So when I look at the great universities being built in Asia, I admire them but I still think that America has a crucial advantage, one that will be hard to replicate by building labs and hiring faculty. It sits somewhere in the DNA of this country.
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Part of that DNA is we allow a person to be whoever he or she wants to be, to reinvent himself. That’s why The Great Gatbsy — about a man who does just that — is the essential American novel. It’s author, F Scott Fitzgerald, once said, “There are no second acts in American life.” On that point, he was profoundly wrong. In America you can fail in school or college or at your first job or anytime — and still come back. This is the land of second and third acts. And if you are willing to go on Oprah and repent, there is even the prospect of a fourth act.
If you want to see a picture of the future, of an America than can thrive in this new world, you don’t have to go very far. Look at Oklahoma. For decades experts were sure that the Great Plains could not compete in a post-industrial age, that they were becoming wastelands. But Oklahoma and its neighbors have had a remarkable recovery in the last decade. The Great Plains has seen an economic and population boom well above the national average, as people from other states have been moving here for economic opportunities. Oklahoma has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Oklahoma City has grown three times faster than San Francisco over the last decade. Its revitalization is seen as a model in Urban Studies programs across the country. And it has a basketball team that is the envy of any major metropolitan area in America — well, maybe excepting Miami.
How did this happen? Well, the new global economy created new markets for agriculture, which has spurred the agricultural production of this region. New technologies — and smart government regulation — allowed for a new energy boom in oil and gas. And good education and investments — public and private, especially to state universities — produced well-trained managers and workers, who could staff offices and factories, like the new Boeing facility that moved from California to Oklahoma last year.
The revival of the Great Plains touches on another hopeful sign in America. We all believe that America’s politics is broken. And it is — if you’re looking at Washington. But all politics is local, and at that level, there is a revolution brewing, what the scholars, Jennifer Bradley and Bruce Katz term, in their book, a “Metropolitan Revolution.” Cities and counties across the country are getting over political divides, partnering with the private sector, and revitalizing America. Look at Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious plans for Applied Sciences in New York, Rahm Emmanuel’s Infrastructure Trust in Chicago, Denver’s transit system, and the $7 billion in public and private investments that have transformed Oklahoma City. The Metropolitan Revolution is a much-needed reminder that America works from the bottom-up and that roar you hear is the sound of a wave of energy moving from its cities.
And, perhaps it takes an immigrant to remember, if Washington looks utterly messed up, other countries have their political problems too. In some of these places, things look much better on the surface. But underneath, there is the rot of corruption and mismanagement. In America we wash our dirty politics in public — often on cable television 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the short term it is not always an edifying spectacle, but it’s better to have a vigorous and open discussion of all our problems — and to get solutions from high and low — than to create a false façade of stability.
What does this mean for all of you graduating today? I hope it gives you a greater measure of optimism about the world and this country — for there is so much to be optimistic about. The writer George Will once told me that it made more sense to be a pessimist because pessimists were usually right — and when wrong they were pleasantly surprised. But I remain an inveterate optimist because I have seen so much of the world — and for me, this is still the city on a hill — a city that in my lifetime has become more inclusive, more dynamic, and more diverse.
But to all those who point to America’s problems — and that would include me at times — I say, please keep it up. Only by worrying about decline can a country avert it. Let’s take every challenge seriously, so it ultimately goes away.
I think there is a lesson from our national experience for each of you. Be open, be open to people, ideas, and influences from all over the world, from high and low, rich and poor. Don’t shut yourself off. The world has changed so much and is changing so fast; be open to understanding and learning from that change. If you fight it, the world won’t stop moving, but you will stop growing.
I have one final piece of advice that I have given before but I believe it’s worth repeating. When I was a young man I thought that intelligence and knowledge were everything and experience was nothing — a somewhat self-serving view for a young man with little experience. I have, of course, come to a different view. There is a wisdom gained from living life that is difficult to find in books or even on YouTube.
So let me give you a piece of advice in that vein. To all of you young graduates out there, trust me when I say this, you will never understand the love that your parents have for you until you have children of your own. You simply cannot understand their anxiety; the phone calls, the emails until you start making them yourselves. So on this your big day — and two days before mother’s day — make sure you give them a huge hug and tell them you love them.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Class of 2013. Godspeed.