Bill Clinton urges LMU grads to seek out our common humanity

By Gary Walker

 Bill Clinton delivers his May 7 commencement address at Loyola Marymount University. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Bill Clinton delivers his May 7 commencement address at Loyola Marymount University. Photo by Ted Soqui.

The global economy. The digital universe. Persistent inequality.

“… What happens to you will in some measure be determined by what happens to other people, by how you react to it, how they treat you, how you treat them and what larger forces are at work in the world,” former President Bill Clinton told more than 1,600 graduates of Loyola Marymount University in a commencement address last Saturday.

“You can’t have shared prosperity and an inclusive community,” Clinton said, “unless we believe our common humanity is even more important than our incredibly interesting differences.”

Weaving multiple themes through the nexus of global interdependence, America’s first Baby Boomer president urged the class of 2016, most of them born while he was in office, to “set the world on fire with your imagination, not with your matches.”

At a little under 18 minutes, Clinton’s commencement speech after receiving an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from LMU was short by Clinton standards. Nonetheless, he managed to intertwine graduates’ futures and the complexities of geopolitics with messages of encouragement and perseverance.

Though Clinton didn’t explicitly comment on the divisive presidential race that may put his wife in the Oval Office, he struck a distinctly presidential tone in calling on “people on the left, the right, somewhere in the middle or somewhere out there” to empathize and communicate with members of disparate sociopolitical groups.

He also got a warm presidential welcome. The crowd of thousands erupted in applause when Bill and presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton — flanked by his brother Roger and nephew Tyler, an LMU graduating senior — appeared on large projection screens at the beginning of the ceremony.

The morning began with a light rain that left early arrivals damp and university officials scrambling to dry off thousands of chairs for the graduates and their families. But the sun broke through the clouds by the time Clinton began speaking, allowing him to reflect on his own graduation day at Georgetown University 48 years ago. That year an impending downpour limited then-Washington D.C. Mayor Walter
Washington to simply wishing graduates good luck.

“I learned then that the very finest commencement speeches are brief and highly relevant,” he quipped.

Speaking before Clinton, LMU Class of 2016 valedictorian Allison Marsden Swenson introduced the phrase “Set the World on Fire” — the official motto of the graduating class — on which Clinton later expounded.

“Take a moment to explore how this unique and engaged community on the bluff has changed you, and consider how you will move forward into the world with the flame of LMU’s influences still burning inside you,” Swenson, 22, told the crowd. “However this university has lit a fire in you, go forth, you wonderful people, without fear or hesitation, and share your piece of this special place with the rest of humanity. Set the world on fire.”

Swenson, who majored in psychology, said Clinton’s words resonated with her.

“I thought it was very relevant to the current political environment. I was very excited to hear him speak,” she said Monday. “I think the two themes of interdependency and setting the world on fire worked really well together.”

Opinions of other students were as diverse as some of the varying communities — including the Black Lives Matter movement, students organizing for immigration reform and coalminers who fear losing their livelihood to alternative energy — that Clinton described as players in “an ongoing battle to define the terms of our interdependence”:

“Are we going to expand the definition of ‘us’ and shrink the definition of ‘them,’ or should we just hunker down, in the face of uncomfortable realities and stick with our own crowd? It’ll be a bleaker future if you do that,” he said.

But Elizabeth Key-Comis, also a psychology major, said Clinton glossed over important issues of cultural identity.

“I thought a lot of what he talked about was in response to Donald Trump’s nativism, but I also thought it was a little simplistic and [symptomatic of] colorblind racism. I don’t think that it was intentional, and while we are interdependent to some degree, there are a lot of important differences between us — whether it’s ethnicity or sexual orientation — that should be celebrated,” said Key-Comis, 23.

LMU graduate Lauren Hill, 23, counted herself among many students opposed to having Clinton as their commencement speaker.

Hill said that some student supporters of Bernie Sanders had contemplated organizing a rally opposed to Clinton. (Some faculty had the same opinion: While presenting a student award, LMU English professor Theresia de Vroom wore a Bernie 2016 button over her gown.)

“This being a political year, I wished that he would have focused more on the university’s mission,” said Hill, who majored in psychology. “I feel like [having Clinton speak] was a little out of line in this political year.”

Hill and other students acknowledged that what they know of Clinton’s presidency comes largely from history books or his post-presidential legacy.

“I don’t think that he fit in with my generation,” she said.

On the other hand, 22-year-old aspiring super-lawyer Michael Erike found Clinton’s speech to be  “extremely heart-warming, altruistic, and unifying,” he said, “… because he spoke of our world’s interdependency — of relying on one another — as being a wonderful thing, not a crutch.”

Karis Addo-Quaye, outgoing editor of campus newspaper the Los Angeles Loyolan, said Clinton’s presence on campus was significant any way you look at it.

“Agree or disagree with this year’s keynote, having a former president of the United States and the [former] secretary of state in attendance was definitely a noteworthy moment for our university,” Addo-Quaye said. “However, the accomplishments of our graduates hands-down stole the show, and rightly so.”

On this, Clinton may agree.

“I can tell you after 48 years it doesn’t take long to live a life. But the journey can be utterly glorious. And I would give anything to be your age again, just to see what’s gonna happen,” Clinton told the graduates.

“I do believe that this will be the most prosperous, discovery-ridden, exhilarating period in human history,” he said, “if we decide how best to set the world on fire, if we keep expanding the definition of ‘us’ and shrinking the definition of ‘them.’

“So do well, do good, have a good time doing it; and remember it’s the journey that matters. Set the world on fire in the right way.”

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BILL CLINTON’S LMU COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS:

You are graduating in the most interdependent age in human history — interdependent with each other, within your community, your state, your nation and the world.

This campus’ theme “Global Imagination” and what you have all said today, “Light the world on fire,” both have to be defined. Because all interdependence means is that here we are, stuck together. We can’t get away from each other. Divorce, walls, borders, you name it — we’re still stuck with our interdependence.

And so whether we like it or not, for the rest of your lives, what happens to you will in some measure be determined by what happens to other people, by how you react to it, how they treat you, how you treat them and what larger forces are at work in the world.

The global economy, the Internet, mobile technology, the explosion of the social media have unleashed both positive and negative forces. The last few years have seen an amazing explosion of economic, social and political empowerment. They have also laid bare the power of persistent inequalities, political and social instability, and identity politics based on the simple proposition that our differences are all that matter.

At the root of it all is a simple profound question: Will you define yourselves and your relationship to others in positive or negative terms? Because if we are bound to share the future, it seems to me that it is clear that all of us have a responsibility, each in our own way, to build up the positive and to reduce the negative forces of our interdependence.

This applies to people on the left, the right, somewhere in the middle or somewhere out there. There are so many people who feel that they’re losing out in the modern world because people either don’t see them or they see them only as members of groups that they feel threatened by.

The young people pushing for immigration reform clinging to DACA and DAPA hoping to make their way in a country where their future is uncertain feel that way. The young people in the Black Lives Matter movement feel that way. But so do the coalminers in communities where their present is bleak, and they think their future is bleaker, and they think all of us who want to fight climate change don’t give a rip about the wreckage of their lives. It’s everywhere.

When we try to drift apart in an interdependent age, all we do is build up the negative and reduce the positive forces of interdependence. What does, “Set the world on fire,” mean anyway? It means you can set the world on fire with the power of your imagination, by the gift of your passion, by the devotion of your heart and your skills, to make your life richer and to lift others. Or it means you can set the world on fire. You have to decide, but because the world is interdependent you can’t take a pass.

I think the future begins by accepting the wonderful instruction of our very first Jesuit pope. Pope Francis has fostered a culture of encounter. Where my foundation works in Africa, in the hills of central Africa, nobody’s got any kind of wheeled-transportation, so everybody meets each other on foot. And when people pass each other on paths and one says, “Good morning. Hello. How are you?” the response translated into English is, “I see you. I encounter you. You are real to me.”

Think about all the people today, yesterday and tomorrow you will pass and not see. Do you really see everybody who works in a restaurant where you’ll go after here to have a celebratory meal? Do we see people that we pass on the street who may have a smile or a frown or a burden they can barely carry alone? When we passionately advocate for the causes we believe in, have we anticipated all the unanticipated consequences so that we can take everybody along for a ride to the future we imagine?

When Pope Francis tells us to engage in a culture of encounter, he’s thinking about the LMU students in this class who, since they were freshmen, have performed almost 200,000 hours of community service. That’s a fancy, elevated way of saying you saw a need and you stepped in to solve it, and you did it not only because it was the morally right thing for other people, but because it made your life more meaningful. That’s the way you want to set the world on fire.

The young people that were mentioned in my introduction who’ve been part of our global initiative community for university students made very specific commitments. They promised to mentor high school girls to help them overcome any preconceived notions of their own limitations. They promised to help the victims of domestic violence and violence against the homeless. They promised to provide more capital to small business people in Haiti through microcredit loans — something that means a lot to Hillary and me personally because for more than 40 years, since we took a honeymoon trip there, we’ve cared about them and believed in them. They promised an educational exchange with the National University of Rwanda. We can learn a lot from them because they lost 10% of their people in 90 days to genocide in 1994, and they came back because they refused to be paralyzed by the past. They joined hands across the lines that led to all that bloodshed to create a common future.

That’s what’s at the heart of your restorative justice program here. Instead of figuring out who to punish, figure out how to repair the harm. Instead of focusing on getting even for the past, focus on how we can share the future. It’s at the heart of your efforts here to improve the juvenile justice system. You without knowing it have often embodied the future of positive interdependence we hope to build.

You can’t have shared prosperity and an inclusive community unless we believe our common humanity is even more important than our incredibly interesting differences. And so I will say this again: On every continent think of the struggles in Latin America, think of the political struggles, and social and economic struggles in America, think of what’s going on in Asia, think of what’s going on in Africa, think of how Europe is dealing with this influx from the Middle East of the largest number of refugees since World War II, and all the conflicts within all these countries and whether they should keep Europe together. Every single one of these is part of an ongoing battle to define the terms of our interdependence. Will we do it in positive or negative terms? Are we going to expand the definition of us and shrink the definition of them, or shall we just hunker down in the face of uncomfortable realities and just stick with our own crowd? It’ll be a bleaker future if you do that.

So set the world on fire with your imagination, not with your matches.

Set the world on fire by proving that what we have in common is a million times more important than our admittedly utterly fascinating differences.

And finally I just want to say that this, all this is, this great struggle that will go on for several years now to define our relationships in an interdependent world, is for you the background of a real life — your life — the life in which you will write your own story, live your own dreams, suffer your own disappointments.

It is an empowering gift, this education you have. For most of human history adults had no choice about what they did with their waking hours. They got up and did what their forebears had done to survive, to feed, to propagate the species, to have children, to raise them, to go on in a more or less routinized way. If someone had said to them in whatever language they communicated in, “Your job is to set the world on fire,” they would have had no clue except maybe to try to put two sticks or stones together to be warm at night and cook food. But you can set the world on fire because of the empowerment of your education and the empowerment of your circumstances.

So here’s my last shot: There are no final victories or defeats in this life. You will make mistakes and you will fail. And if you keep trying, you will be glad you did. The only thing that matters is how quick you get up and how resolutely you go on. It is not given to us to win every battle, but to fight the right fights.

Mother Teresa once said it was far more important that she and her fellow nuns be faithful than that they always be successful.

I can tell you after 48 years it doesn’t take long to live a life. But the journey can be utterly glorious. And I would give anything to be your age again, just to see what’s gonna happen.

I do believe that this will be the most prosperous, discovery-ridden, exhilarating period in human history if we decide how best to set the world on fire, if we keep expanding the definition of us and shrinking the definition of them, if every day we all get a little better in seeing everyone we encounter physically or virtually, if we remember that in a very short life the things we share matter even more than the things about us that are special.

So do well, do good, have a good time doing it; and remember it’s the journey that matters. Set the world on fire in the right way. God bless you.