(The following speech was given at the 2012 Indiana University Graduate School Commencement, where Ambassador Carden was the keynote speaker. To see the video of Amb. Carden’s speech, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gZ6WJVVzVk).
President McRobbie, Distinguished Faculty, Graduates, Parents, Family members, Partners, friends, all those who helped organize this wonderful gathering, good afternoon and thank you for giving me the honor of speaking to you today.
Before I begin there’s something I want to ask you to do. Not one of you came to this moment alone. You were helped on your way by many people. Some are here today. Those who have helped bring you to this place and time, include your parents, families, friends, the wonderful faculty members sitting behind me and countless others. Please take a moment to thank everyone who has contributed to the wonderful success that we are celebrating with you today.
Like all of you, I’m from both here and away. I was born in Speedway, Indiana and attended DePauw University about 50 miles from here, and the Indiana University School of Law, where I graduated in 1976. I practiced law for 34 years all over the world. I’ve spent time in dozens of countries and lived for sustained periods in Athens, Chicago, New York, Rhode Island, London, Hamburg, Naples, Paris, San Juan, Monaco and Jakarta, Indonesia, where I live now with my wife, Rebecca Riley, who is here today. So too is our remarkable son Dylan, who is receiving an MBA degree, his wonderful Elizabeth, who is receiving a Master of Science in Health Promotion, our incomparable daughter, Meredith, who is a spectator here today but assuredly is not a spectator in life, and my brother, Doug. All helped me on my way.
Currently I’m Ambassador at the United States Mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or as it is usually called, ASEAN. ASEAN is a multilateral grouping of ten countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Six of the ten ASEAN countries are represented among you today. I’ve told President McRobbie I hope one day soon every ASEAN country will be represented at Indiana University.
I was last in Assembly Hall on Feb 3, 1974 for a Bob Dylan concert. We were asked to bring candles to the concert that night, which no doubt violated multiple University fire codes and safety regulations. Dylan asked that we light the candles during the last song, which was “Blowin’ in the Wind”. We did, each of us lighting our own from our neighbor’s.
We listened a lot to Dylan in those years. We organized ourselves to protest things we didn’t think were right or fair or which we thought needed to be changed. We made some mistakes. But I think we did some things that needed to be done. I know we tried. And we ourselves and the world were changed by what we did.
People still listen to Dylan, but in the years since I was at De Pauw and IU, there have been fewer protests. That may be changing. There seems to be a feeling among some that things have gotten out of hand. A very old man, famous in his home country, was asked recently at an event in Jakarta where he was speaking how he stayed so young. “Because I’m so angry,” he replied. Everyone in the room understood what he meant. They knew some things need to change.
At Mission ASEAN we work for change in a part of the world many of you may not know. It is a place where countries are attempting to emerge in the midst of fearsome and global forces that affect us as well. They are on the front lines of the Ring of Fire, managing the eruptions, earthquakes, and social and economic changes few could have expected only a few years ago.
To help prepare for and manage these dramatic changes, ASEAN is embarked on an experiment in multilateral cooperation. Despite their different cultures, languages, religions, and levels of economic development, these ten countries are trying to set aside age old differences and fashion a region unbound by their own borders and histories. They are working together to find a shared future. The United States is there to help because we understand we are more than an observer; we’re also a stakeholder in their success; and because it’s also the right thing to do.
As we gather today to celebrate your success, I want to talk about some things I have observed during my time as Ambassador about why it is so difficult to change the world. I want to talk about how to change the way we live in this world so we can create the new one we need. These are big subjects, but at Mission ASEAN we deal with them every day.
Our agenda makes it clear why. It includes most of the borderless opportunities and problems that will shape our world and will define yours. They know no geographical limits. Here are some of them: responding to climate change and reversing the degradation of the planet; healing our ocean and preventing the unsustainable exploitation of its resources; managing the transition to an equitable and rules based global economy; preparing for and responding to pandemics and natural disasters; anticipating and responding to water and food scarcity; redressing the effects of corruption and lack of institutional development; solving the many problems created by poverty; facing the challenges of our cities and population growth; meeting the issues arising from an aging population and abandoned houses and towns throughout the world; refusing the past limitations we have accepted concerning inadequate education; promoting human rights; managing conflict and developing architectures to facilitate its resolution; promoting the importance of our most valuable resource, our human capital; defusing religious tension; preventing deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity; saying no to the heartbreak of human and wildlife trafficking, to mention a few.
Said most broadly, we at the Mission are engaged in the effort to assist ASEAN in protecting and developing the natural and human systems upon which its 600 million people depend. Southeast Asia’s problems and opportunities are our problems and opportunities. The solutions they seek are the solutions we also need. To realize them, there is broad agreement that some things will have to change. There is less agreement that change must begin with us and how we live.
From Bob Dylan, I refer you now to another Midwestern poet, Wendell Berry, writer and farmer who lives not far from here, who wrote:
“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”
To Berry’s wise observation about how we need to change our relationship with the planet, I’d add one of my own. Too many of us have lived our lives as though what is good for us and our families is good for the world. We, too, have been wrong. We need to change our lives to make it possible to live by a contrary assumption; that what is good for others will be good for us. This requires us to know others and understand what they need.
At Mission ASEAN we’ve identified a few things that have helped us better know the world and what we all need. They are obvious, although all too often, they are ignored. There are five which I’d like to highlight today.
1. We don’t have a right to our own facts;
2. We have to earn the right to have opinions when they affect others;
3. We must do the hard work necessary to understand how everything is related to almost everything else;
4. We should care for people, especially those we don’t know or who can’t take care of themselves. Their anonymity and poverty is an accident of birth.
5. And, finally, as Mr. Berry said, “Do unto those downstream as we would have those upstream do unto us.” Which means simply act as though the future depends upon the present, because it does.
First: We don’t have the right to our own facts.
I live now in a region of the world that is very vulnerable to rising sea levels. For example Vietnam, with a population of almost 100m, is one of the countries believed by some to be most at risk. Salt water intrusion into the Mekong and Red River deltas would affect food production. The same possibility threatens the great delta of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. Rising sea levels already have claimed scores of islands in Indonesia and the Philippines. Climate change is predicted to diminish rainfall in the region and perhaps even disrupt the monsoon upon which the people in Southeast Asia and billions elsewhere rely for their food and water. The consequences of these changes would be catastrophic.
It is not my intention to talk today about what is driving climate change. Rather, I use this specific global challenge as an example of ways we should develop our own opinions on it or any other subject.
Abundant data has been collected and reports written by the world’s leading scientists that points to human contribution to the climate change that is driving rising sea levels. I’ve read them. Many people have not. Whether read or unread, the data and reports often are dismissed by those who don’t like their conclusions. “Why” they are dismissed is a question worth asking. Perhaps it’s because the uninformed opinions we sometimes develop are designed to defend places we find comforting. Perhaps we sometimes lack the political courage to see past our own re-elections. Perhaps we’re conflating self interest with science, or seeing science as inherently unallied with our faith. Or perhaps we simply listen to others we think know the facts about climate change because we agree with them about something else. In short, we all too often don’t see things as they are, but rather as we are or want them to be.
This has to end. We must refuse to be satisfied by opinions offered by those who aren’t in a position to know; who are pursing agendas made modest by ignorance, bias, self interest or prejudice; who don’t offer counter arguments and ignore science and learning; who offer no or few facts to support their position, citing only that the opposition hasn’t made their case; who seize on scientific mistakes as evidence of broad conspiracies.
We need to push back hard against those who don’t know but say they do and try to tell others what needs to be done. You’ve been well trained to do so. We need you to do it. The next time someone offers an opinion on a subject, ask them what they base it on; ask with whom they’ve spoken; ask them what they’ve read.
Second: We have to earn the right to our own opinions when they affect others.
It’s become increasingly hard to convince anyone of anything. The internet is full of advice and information that has emerged from the eccentricities and ignorance of people we don’t know. Encyclopedias are written by people often researching their entries by relying on others doing the same thing. Scholarship is cloistered. We all believe everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. But it’s time we realize we should earn the right to have opinions about those things that affect us all.
Said another way, the burden of proof concerning climate change, illegal fishing, deforestation, environmental protection and hundreds of other challenges to our natural and human systems shouldn’t be on the planet. It should be on all of us who want its riches. To meet our burden we need to do the hard work necessary to determine what is good for the earth, not guess at it, rely on others equally uninformed or worse. If we do, the result will be good for the planet and for us.
So if we are going to offer our views on a subject, we should know why we have them. Habit, customs and conviction are greater enemies to the truth than lies. We don’t have to become experts. But we need to do something substantive to justify our beliefs. We have to earn them.
Third: We must do the hard work necessary to understand how almost everything is related to almost everything else.
People all too often only focus on what they do without understanding what is necessary for them to do it. To illustrate my point, I’m going to talk about some of the things that have or will affect the sale of cars. Automobile manufacturers want to sell cars to the new middle class in the developing world. For this reason, cars need an educated populace with higher paying jobs in sustainable economies. But economies with low paying jobs requiring predominantly unskilled labor will not produce middle class consumers who can buy cars.
But to build cars in the region, automobile manufacturers also need skilled labor. Skilled labor requires education. So cars need schools.
Car and trucks presume the existence of roads upon which to drive the cars that are built and bought. For this reason, the construction of large scale infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges are of obvious importance to car manufacturers. So cars need roads.
Infrastructure needs to be financed. But capital is a coward, and the enormous sums of money that need to be brought to bear in the region cannot be fully deployed unless investor protections are in place, including legal systems that provide for the fair resolution of disputes and bankruptcy protection when things go wrong. So cars need laws and reliable courts.
Few connect the many issues that affect our businesses and our lives. Too many think that we only need to do what we have been trained to do; to build, sell, teach, lend, entertain, or feed the world. We are wrong. We all need to think broadly to know how to act narrowly to the benefit of our common cause. We need to create opportunities and incentives for us to do so. Doing our own jobs is not enough.
Fourth: We should take care of people, especially those we don’t know or who can’t take care of themselves.
A wonderful man who works for us in Jakarta recently became ill. We told him to go home and get well. After a day or so we checked up on him and discovered he had gotten much worse, so over his objections we took him to the doctor. Otherwise, he would not have gone since he couldn’t afford it. You all would have done the same thing.
He had a virulent form of pneumonia. It took a month for him to recover. The doctor who treated him told us that we saved his life for under $200.
It is a moving and powerful thing to save a life, especially when you know the person whose life you’ve saved. It is personally very compelling.
But why should our generosity only be animated by proximity. In January, I opened a concert in Phnom Penh for 45,000 Cambodian teenagers who came out to protest human trafficking. They understood trafficking is a tragedy that must be stopped. Whether they knew anyone who had been trafficked or not, was irrelevant to their support.
We need to cultivate the impulse to care for those we don’t know because by caring for others we help the world. Those we save, those we cherish, are then able to contribute to their families, to us and to the effort to make our shared future. Human capital is global capital. It’s time we all realized we depend upon the health and well being of one another.
Fifth: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
Of course Mr. Berry’s aphorism has both a literal and metaphorical meaning. Water is food. So it’s quite true that the 60m people in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, who rely on the Lower Mekong River to survive, are at risk when those upstream dam the river and divert its waters. Asia, with 35% of the world’s population, has only 15% of its water, so there’s likely to be scarcity ahead. But time is a river, too, and our exploitation of the planet today will impact those we love in the years ahead. It is wise to remember this when we are deciding how to protect what we were given.
Ideas of real merit must be defended by our ideals and our analysis, not sacrificed to short term thinking that often makes our problems more acute. We must summon the personal, social and political courage to push beyond the impulse to forget that the present is in the future, just as the past was in the service of our own times. Which simply means, act as though the future depends upon the present, because it does.
My wife, Rebecca, was at the Dylan concert in Assembly Hall on that February night long ago, although I didn’t know it then. We learned later we both lit candles during “Blowin in the Wind”. We both remember how bright we made a dark world that night when everyone acted together.
I’m pretty sure that for us Assembly Hall was one of the places where we began to be what we became. I think in small ways we’ve both helped make the world a better place. I hope so. I know we’ve tried.
You probably know that “Blowin’ in the Wind” asks the question: “How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see.” The years since and the problems we’ve made for ourselves suggest the answer has been “too many”.
You all know what you need to do. Be restless. Be curious. Ask questions. Challenge answers. Listen to those who know more than you do. Help them make their cases to the world. Ask others to listen to you when you know more than they do. Ask for their help in making your case to the world. Find the intersections among yourselves. Remember that the arts and sciences share the sacred responsibility of fashioning the future for all of us and our children. Share with the world the things you’ve learned and those things you love in yourself. I’ve been out there, and I can tell you the world needs you. Remember, you all were made more by the thousands of journeys taken by those who came before you. To their labors and love contribute your own.
I’m going to end by asking you to introduce yourselves to one another before you leave today. Find someone from another program. Be in touch. Perhaps some of you might find time to send a note now and then to the whole lot of you about his or her work. I assume you can get everyone’s email address.
I tried to get candles for all of you, but it seems they’ve tightened up security since I last was here. But you still can light an imaginary candle off the one that has been lit here for you. I promise if you do, it will make a lovely light. Thank you.