Governor Brown Delivers Commencement Address at UC Berkeley


5-20-2013

BERKELEY – Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today delivered the commencement address to the University of California, Berkeley's political science graduates.

Text of the Governor's remarks (as prepared) is copied below:

First of all. Congratulations to all you graduates. It is not an easy or trouble free path that you pursued to arrive at this moment. It takes intellectual work and a lot of persistence. And, my congratulations also to your family and friends who helped you. No one does it alone.

I can remember my own graduation 52 years ago. It took place on the field in Memorial Stadium on just as beautiful a day. Clark Kerr was president of the University and my father—who was governor—stood next to him. I don’t recall what anyone said. But, I did feel some unease as my father began his short talk. At that point in my life, my head was full of clean abstractions and political talk sounded a bit discordant, a little too obvious. And it was kind of embarrassing that my father was handing me my degree.

Later, as I walked for the last time through the campus, I looked around at the buildings and the vast spaces, the view of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. I felt a real sense of loss. I knew that a very special time in my life was over. I didn’t know then how many more adventures—and surprises—were to come.

It is good that you took political science because politics and the political are desperately in need of fresh minds—minds that actually understand some science, that appreciate knowledge and clear thinking.

My degree was in Latin and Greek but I did take one political science course: 116B, the second semester of Sheldon Wolin’s political theory class. Another one of his students, Professor Wendy Brown, is the person who asked me to join you today—probably because she knows I like political theory. It is more coherent than political practice.

Professor Wolin wrote a book that was published in 1970. It was called “The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond—Essays on Politics and Education in the Technological Society.” I want to quote from the Introduction. Keep in mind—these words were written more than 40 years ago.

“The campuses are disturbed because American society itself is in profound crisis… It is a crisis of both values and power… America’s success in pursuing certain means has become America’s failure. Having become the richest and most powerful nation in history, we can begin to see our poverty and weakness… Ours is also a crisis of power in which the mightiest nation in the world, having passed some fatal limit, now watches its power grow ever less effectual in coping with the human environment and ever more destructive in dealing with the natural environment.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, the politics on and off campus were raucous with Civil Rights and fierce opposition to the war in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan, who was governor, bemoaned what he called the “beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates.” And—although we didn’t know it at the time—J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the F.B.I., was keeping close watch on the campus.

Now the issues are less stirring but they are more deeply imbedded both in the economy and our political system. Today, we think of Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq; or of the breakdown of our vaunted banking system and the millions of people who lost their homes and their jobs as a result; or of unprecedented and growing inequality; or perhaps of one trillion dollars in student debt.

All the while, Washington is polarized and bogged down in empty political combat.

All these problems are serious and count as some kind of crisis. But even more threatening is the report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s monitoring station in Hawaii. On May 9th of this year, the agency reported that the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming—carbon dioxide—averaged 400.03 parts per million.

It was at least three million years ago that CO2 levels were ever this high. Then, the polar ice caps were much smaller and sea levels were 60 feet higher.

If that happened today, the airport runways in Oakland and San Francisco would be under water. Our view of the ocean from the Greek Theater would be scenic but very alarming.

Of course, the changes in our climate are not happening in political time. By Twitter standards, the pace is very slow but inexorable and, most troubling, soon to be irreversible.

That’s the world you face. But you have the skills and the knowledge and a sense of the good. You can make change. Soon you will go into business or government or academia or perhaps a non-profit. Many have told you to get ready for the pressures of the marketplace, for global competition. I tell you: get ready to be an active citizen.

You have studied political science because you know that beyond consuming and competing, there is governing, there is the political domain of free people.

Professor Wolin coined the term “fugitive democracy” to indicate that the power of a people—democracy—is episodic, not continuously present. But at key moments, bureaucratic and corporate power gives way to an aroused citizenry.

Look how the hostility to immigrants expressed in the passage of Proposition 187 in 1994, gave way to what is now a majority in California who support immigration reform.

Today, in Washington, key Republican and Democratic leaders are working to fashion real changes in our immigration laws. Obviously they saw the power of Latinos in recent elections but they were also moved by the actions of energized people all across the country. The Dreamers—they also have had a huge impact.

Another example: For years, the State of California was spending more than it collected in taxes until it was forced to finally cut back. For the university, this meant tuition increases year after year. But then, a million Californians signed petitions to place Proposition 30 on the ballot. Despite the pundits and their predictions of defeat, Proposition 30 passed with 55% of the vote.

You helped make that happen, as did so many others in colleges and schools across the state. And, lo and behold, voter surveys indicate that many more people in California feel good about the direction of their state.

For an important moment, Democracy came alive. The power of ordinary people, joining together, made a profound difference.

I am not saying that the big issues are going to be settled easily, that greenhouse gasses will soon be curbed or that inequality will be quickly reversed. But I do affirm, based on my experience, that people can exercise power wherever they are in society. Certainly not on every occasion but, at crucial moments, imaginative and bold people make a difference.

You have studied political science. You have had the special privilege of being here on the Berkeley campus.

As you leave today, never forget what the graduates before you did and what you can do when the moment calls on you.

You have the intellect. Make sure you have the will.

The grizzly bear is on our California flag. It portrays strength and determination.

Take that with you.

Go Bears!

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