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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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.

(VIDEO: Notable Commencement Speeches of 2012)

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.

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