John Braxton '70

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At the 2010 Commencement, President Chopp bestowed upon labor leader and educator John Braxton '70 the degree of Doctor of Laws.

John Braxton, you are a long-time Quaker activist and labor reformer, and founder and co-chair of the Philadelphia Jobs with Justice Coalition. Your long history of advocating for social and economic justice and your tireless efforts to campaign against the proliferation of American military power in the Third World have helped to reshape policies and institutions from the local to the national level.
President Chopp's full introduction.

It is almost exactly 40 years ago that I walked across this amphitheater and received my bachelor's degree from Swarthmore. It almost didn't happen for me. It was 1970. The men in my class were looking nervously at the future to find out if their next years would be in graduate school or in Vietnam. Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers — and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese — had already died in the war. Mohammed Ali had defiantly refused to be inducted into the army. Martin Luther King had been shot two years before.

And then President Nixon officially announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Campus protests exploded everywhere. Swarthmore, less than two years after a sit-in by African-American students, was approaching the deadlines for final papers and final exams. The College was almost totally disrupted as students tried to figure out how to graduate and how at the same time to live a life of integrity and speak out against the outrageous acts of our own government.

But by May of 1970, I was one who didn't have to worry about the draft — I had already been to North Vietnam to deliver medical supplies in an act of civil disobedience, and I had seen enough of the war to know that my path was to join thousands of others who were resisting the draft that made the Indochina War possible. As I proudly walked across the stage, wearing this omega button symbolizing resistance, I was fortunate that the wheels of the Justice Department turned very slowly. But seven months later, I was in jail, and I would be there for the next 17 months.

What do those turbulent times and my experiences since then have to inform this beautiful gathering here today? From my vantage point as teacher of ecology and as an activist in the movements for peace and social justice, the maxim from the environmental movement is a good place to start: "think globally, act locally." First, get the big picture clearly in focus, and then figure out what particular niche we each want to work in.

My big picture perspective has six points — my own synthesis of ideas borrowed from many people. This may be controversial, but my main message today is that we have to face the difficult realities of the world we live in and not ignore them, even if they make us uncomfortable. I hope that these ideas will challenge your thinking because what you to do with your life can make a big difference in the world.

  1. There is a major economic and ecological crisis looming, and the lives of literally billions of people depend on our solving these problems. The curvature of the crisis is exponential and the nature of exponential problems is that they are hard to take seriously until it is nearly too late.

    As an analogy, consider a frog on a four-inch lily pad in a lake one-half mile in diameter and assume the lily pad doubles in size every week. At the end of week 13, the lily pad occupies just over half of the lake. To the frogs sitting on the edge of the pad, there is so much open water they can't see the shore. By the end of week 14, however, the lily pad occupies the entire lake surface, causing the entire lake community to collapse.

  2. The magnitude of the problems that we face is so huge, most of us go numb. In the process of going numb, we lose a piece of our humanity. Not far below the surface, we are outraged, terrified, and grief-stricken by the state of the world. To stay hopeful while we face these global issues, we have to find trusted friends and unload the feelings that we suppress. If we don't share the tears, we get hardened, bitter, and short-sighted. If we face the tears and the fears, we can keep moving forward with our humanity intact, and we can have lives filled with joy and meaning.
  3. We live in the center of an empire. Our government may not seek territories today the way it did when we took Guantanamo and Puerto Rico and Guam and Midway and Hawaii, but what else do we call it when we have hundreds of bases in scores of countries around the world? Just as it is not possible to understand the unity and diversity of living organisms without seeing them through the lens of the theory of natural selection, it is not possible to understand our many interventions from Iran to Vietnam to Guatemala to Afghanistan without seeing it from the broader perspective of the needs of an economic/military empire. To truly honor the men and women who fought and died in our wars — and 1,000 have now died in Afghanistan — we need to bring the rest of our troops home alive.
  4. The empire is dominated by corporations whose goal is to maximize relatively short-term profits. Short-term profits and the common good are all too often like oil and water — and we see every day in Louisiana how well they mix!
  5. The problems we face today are not the fault of human nature. We are not frogs! We can see a long way beyond our lily pad and we have a tremendous ability to cooperate with each other to bring peace, economic security, and sustainability to everyone on the planet. Instead, our government insanely spends nearly one trillion dollars per year on lethal military power to defend the empire.
  6. Capitalism is deeply implicated in the problems we face and seems unable to solve them. But capitalism is only a recent development and I think we can improve upon it! That may seem quixotic, but consider how short-term is our dependence on fossil fuels. We clearly need to replace fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. To solve the problems of war, social justice, and the ecological crisis, we also need to build an economic system that puts people before profits.

To sum up, we face problems on a scale that we have never faced before — but they are solvable if we don't ignore them. The solutions require building powerful social and political movements — and people do find a way to do that even in the darkest times. Today, we have the tools to guide this process more intelligently and nonviolently. The moral arc of the universe does bend towards justice — if we harness ourselves and help it to bend. So I urge you to look straight in the eye of the biggest problems our society faces and then decide which piece of that we can each tackle. If we all do our part, we can preserve this beautiful planet for generations of humanity to come.