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Cindy Halpern - Baccalaureate

Cynthia Halpern

Audio Transcript

President Smith, Distinguished Guests, Parents, and Students,

I am very happy to be here with you today to get to say good-bye. Look around you at this glorious place -- the trees, the light filtering through the leaves, the creek that flows to the Delaware, the birds singing, and the sun shining in this beautiful place upon earth that has been my home, and home to so many Swarthmore rites of passage dear to us. This is my last graduation, and I’m heading out, as you seniors are, into a much larger world, full of wonder and challenge. It’s both daunting and exciting, and it thrills me, and you all, too, I hope, to jump into the new and the unknown. It also invites a healthy skepticism about what the moral climate of the world out there is like.

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We have been deeply educated here at Swarthmore to think long and hard about the unexamined assumptions of the world we live in; the intellectual, spiritual and political commonplaces of our time. We have learned history, biology, and the aesthetic meanings of the multitude of interpretations that inform every action we take and every challenge we face. And things are looking a little bit chaotic at the moment. We have learned to analyze critically, but that may seem inadequate to the mounting chaos confronting us. There are some strange, and frankly unimaginable, actors on the stage at the moment. And not only politically, but environmentally, things aren’t looking very stable. I am going to talk today about some of the grave issues we face -- about the political and spiritual tasks that faced my generation, what we accomplished and failed to accomplish, in order to appreciate the unprecedented perils your generation faces, even more  urgent and life-threatening than ours were.

I will be 70 years old in September, which is astonishing to me. People keep saying that I don’t look 70. I feel 70. I belong to a previous age. We are the last of the print generation, the age of books, which is becoming extinct. The age that is dawning is more and more beyond my ken. It is literally a new world of technology and communications and interconnections that I can only vaguely imagine.

You do not think, when you are 20, that some day you will be 70, looking back over your life. I was 20, in 1966 and we were in the middle of the Vietnam War, in the middle of a real, down and dirty, in-the-streets, in-your-face, often violent, revolution. The 1968 Democratic Convention had riots in the streets, and we were the rioters. After the death of Robert Kennedy, the Democratic Party nominated Hubert Humphrey, as opposed to Eugene McCarthy, who was the Bernie Sanders of our time. I was born in Miami and attended entirely segregated schools there. I was very active in the Civil Rights Movement in the south in the '60s. I had begun marching in Ban the Bomb rallies when I was 14. I went to Tulane University in New Orleans for college, and we desegregated every lunch counter and café in the city, and got arrested for it. On every campus, traditions 100 years old were discarded. I canvassed for LBJ and the Voting Rights Act, recently gutted by the Supreme Court. We lived in the middle of a giant, volatile, frightening and thrilling political movement, informed by the violence of three assassinations – John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, the leaders of our time, murdered. I have always wondered what things would have been like if they had lived. With Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, the question of violence and nonviolence rippled through our lives. It took me a long time to conclude that non-violence is the only revolution that works, that all you need is love.

This great movement of the 1960s and 1970s led, inevitably, but not smoothly, in overlapping stages, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Anti-War Movement, to the Women’s Rights Movement, and ultimately to the Gay Rights movement -- each powerful cause enlisting millions of people in a multi-pronged and unrelenting drive toward justice. It changed its names and its foci, it split and re-gathered, but it was a sweeping tide of change in the direction of greater equality, inclusion and justice. But it was not peaceful. Poor black neighborhoods were burning by the end of the decade.

But it was also a time of great joy. We were young and free and alive with the untold possibilities of the new postwar world and its prosperity and hope. The music alone, live, freshly invented rock and roll totally seized our consciousness and transformed it. From Dylan and Joan Baez to Led Zeppelin, the range of sounds and feelings were indescribable. I will never forget seeing Janis Joplin sing in New Orleans and I will never forget her face, her music, or her death. My friends and I experienced the joyous opening up of sexuality for women, after millennia of repression.  We no longer had to be “ladies.” We dared to express ourselves in ways we never had before, and it was a way into a future we were only beginning to imagine. We marched together, people of all ages, races, and beliefs, gathering in the same rallies, singing the same songs, united in solidarity and the passionate conviction that innocent people, far from here in their own country, and near to here in ours, should not be oppressed and massacred. We didn’t yet think of the earth and the destruction being delivered there, although Napalm gave us a big hint.

For me, the Civil Rights Movement was the most urgent and obvious, the one worth going to jail for and getting beaten up over. It grew out of our childhood. I went to entirely segregated schools; I was “raised by” three generations of black women, from one family: Pinky, Dorothy, and Daisy. I don’t know their last name, of course. It’s a cliché, but I loved them. Daisy was my age by the time I was in high school and we used to run off and get into trouble together and get yelled at by my mother. Daisy was not going to be a maid; she was going to work in a bank. We both agreed on that. Once we opened our eyes, it was self-evident that black people should be free to eat at any restaurant, go to any school, vote for any candidate, have any career, live their own lives. Black Americans were not really people to those who denied, enchained, and oppressed them, and I identified with them. It was obvious that we had to fight to change those conditions and consciousness. And we did make progress. African-Americans are now in Congress and in colleges and universities at all levels, if not yet in fair or elevated enough numbers. They are doctors and lawyers and even President of the United States. Our generation began that work, but it remains still to be accomplished. African-Americans are also massively over-represented in the nation’s prisons. Mass incarceration, and the police brutality that generates it, constitute the most obvious and harrowing version of American slavery, and it should be screaming out for action, as it was 50 years ago. But the resistance of 50 years ago is still with us.

The anti-war movement was necessary and compelling. They were killing millions of people, unjustly and horribly, and they were sending us, our brothers and fathers and lovers, to kill or be killed. We were napalming villages and devastating the landscape and decimating the population, in another country. We ended the war, and a Presidency, but peace was short-lived. We have been at war in Afghanistan longer than all the other wars combined, and we are still bombing villages, from even farther away. Twenty-two combat veterans in America kill themselves every day.

The most important cause for me was the women’s movement. Women were coming awake after a thousand years. For all of the history of western civilization, we had been silenced. We were owned, controlled, protected, abused, imprisoned, used for whatever a man wanted, and not allowed out in public. With few exceptions, half the human race had not been allowed to speak, to earn a living, to own property, to have any place at the table when the decisions about their lives, their towns, their countries, cities, hospitals, courts, markets were being made. We had been silenced forever.

We decided and declared that this was over. We were all human beings, with equal rights and equal voices. We fought for our places in the world, inserted ourselves into the conversation, seized the honors and the failures, the offices, the privileges that are the prizes and costs of life in this society. We were entitled to a place, to power and to a voice, because we are human beings, like African-Americans, native Americans, LGBT Americans, agnostic Americans, and immigrant Americans. Like white men. We moved eventually to non-human animals and to all sentient life, to ecosystems themselves, to open a space for the respect and rights that they deserve, for the perspectives they bring, which indigenous peoples often already knew.

I cherish the memory of the slow movement of consciousness as it opened in me -- the slow tide of dawning recognition as we began to understand what it meant that we had been excluded from all public life for all of history. Why? It grew out of physical dominance and violence. But that is not an adequate answer for 5000 years of erasing. It is a question we still can’t answer. But now we could change it.

It was not an easy fight. Do not think that it was easy. We had to go to jail, we had to fight with all our might -- our brains, our bodies, our lives. We had to put up with all the insults and refusals, the ridicule, the assaults and the sheer denials. When I went to college there were no women professors, and no professors of color anywhere in the university. I went to Princeton to get my Ph.D., after I spent two years in London at the height of the international student movement – we shut down The London School of Economics for 6 months -- Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger were there, too. When I got to Princeton, they had just admitted women for the first time the previous year.  My sister-in-law Jeannie went to Boston College law school, and only 10 percent of students in the law school were women. We were the beginning.

When I got my first teaching job, at UNC Chapel Hill, as my students must get tired of me telling them, I was the only woman, the only woman, in a 40-man department of political science, the only woman in a seven story building, housing political science, history and economics. Joan Scott says that she was also there, hiding on the 7th floor. I was handled, pushed, touched, and verbally harassed by the men in that department in every way you could conceive of; I was their daughter, their lover, their sister, their mother, their team mascot. I was anything but an equal intellectual colleague. I eventually gave it up and went home to get married -- the ultimate cop-out, it was thought then. But I came back.

Please remember that we are only one generation away on these changes. We are an inch deep and an inch wide into the fight for justice in this country and the world. That fight is yours to continue. And as you can see, the opposition is alive and strong. Racists, and bigots, sexists and nationalists are the enemy for me, and have been since they killed JFK.

Do these words – sexist, bigot, racist, nationalist -- call anyone in particular to mind?  I am not consumed by hatred or by rage, which is tempting in these times. But I have a clear, deep determination to fight until my last breath those who sacrifice the lives and wellbeing of others for power and greed. It doesn’t have to be loud or savage. It just has to be heartfelt, firm, and full of the strength of will. You will face the same challenges, and worse ones, and I hope that we have given you the tools for developing your own determination to see what in the world needs to be replenished, rejuvenated, transformed and healed, and the strength to do it.

We did accomplish some important things in my lifetime.

We fought against the Vietnam War because our survival was at stake, and that threat penetrated our elite bubble and grabbed our attention. But we also fought because we had the tools, confidence, and the responsibility from our privileged position to take on the fight.  Each generation has to do its part. You also face a fight for survival, and you also have the tools, confidence, and responsibility to take on the fight. We have bequeathed to you the multitude and variety of consequences of the wars of race, class and gender that began 50 years ago. We accomplished much of what we set out to do, and yet so much remains undone.

Women, blacks, Latinos, queers, and immigrants are in every profession, except high finance capital. They are in the law courts and the Supreme Court, in the hospitals and medical schools and research labs, in the universities and colleges, in Congress, in the military and in the high worlds of culture, art and fashion. We were not in any of these places when I was growing up.

I look at my classes, and more than half the people in them are minorities of one sort or another, which means that all of them are, and they struggle with all the complexities of meeting each other and coming to terms with their differences and their histories of domination and suffering. There have been some almighty arguments in my classes, and that is all to the good. My Ethics class asked to include a week on sex and violence this semester, and they found the readings they wanted to read, and a film. There were some pretty good stories from that week. Talking about what is hard to talk about is the first step. It’s important that you all know that you are breaking new ground here, and that it is not expected to be easy. We do not know all the answers as to how to represent ourselves or speak for our people, whoever they are. But we are learning how to do so. The whole world is at the table now, taking part in the great decisions of our time, at least in theory. In practice, of course, billions of people lack water, sanitation, food, housing, the internet and a voice. We have achieved a salutary diversity at Swarthmore, but Swarthmore is a small island of relative enlightenment, a small part of a vast continent of division, inequality and violence.

We accomplished the beginnings of the establishment of equal justice in my time, but you are reaping the unfinished work of making it real and consolidated. And much more dangerous, you are facing the organized, well-financed backlash -- the hatred and rage of those who are being replaced, and won’t go quietly. They have found their leader, it seems. He very well might win. With the perspective of 40 years of teaching political science, I say to you that fascism is raising its head high in America right now. It has marshaled its forces, amassed billions of dollars, built institutes and think tanks, endowed chairs, and bought political candidates in order to further a deeply racist, sexist, armed, incendiary, business-as-usual capitalist agenda built on the fear of displacement and the profits from fossil fuels. (I’ll get back to that in a minute). We cannot turn our faces away. We cannot pretend that deportations are not around the next corner. If we have to choose whom to defend, whom to help, we have to remember what deportations can lead to.

It is easy to look back and think all that we accomplished was bound to happen. There had to be women and people of color, all races and cultures included in the American flux. But it was not bound to happen. It did not happen for 2000 years. The oldest institution on the planet, the Catholic Church, gentle Pope Francis notwithstanding, is still all men talking to all men. Wall Street is virtually the same. The centers of real power have remained the exclusive domains of white men. It is important to understand that what has been gained in a generation can be lost in a generation. You have to know the history you are sitting in. You have to be aware how precarious is the justice that you take for granted and want to improve.

It is right that people at Swarthmore care deeply about preventing rape and sexual violence on campus, will no longer tolerate the disrespect, the abuse and harassment of some of the people surrounding them. But you are not the victims of the college or the time. You are experiencing the continuation of the ancient domination of women and people of color that has always existed, and continues to gather strength. You are wholly enmeshed in the fight. You were born into it and maybe, like my generation, it will take all your lifetimes to accomplish something lasting. It will take time and effort, compassion and perseverance. You are doing the work. You have the capacity to do all that you can envision. And you have been raised up to the responsibility to do it.

You can start with the greatest challenge you face – the greatest challenge any generation has ever faced.  As I say in my classes, “The seas will rise for 1000 years, and there is nothing that can change that now.” Climate change is the greatest threat the human species has ever encountered. We encounter this threat on behalf of all species living on this planet. Some of you are already devoting your lives to this question. Some of you know all this in your hearts, but don’t know what to do about it. And same of us are afraid even to think about it. All of us share these attributes.

Since the industrial revolution, we have been pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and it is warming the temperature of the planet, starting at the poles. It is changing the face of the earth as we know it forever. We are facing what the scientists are calling The Sixth Extinction, an event characterized by the loss of between 17,000 and 100,000 species each year. The last great extinction of this size occurred 65 million years ago. Last month was the hottest April on record in the world, by the largest margin ever, continuing a record-breaking trend. Ocean fish, salt-water fish, will become extinct by the year 2050. Also around 2050 come the climate launch dates for major capitals around the world. That’s the date when the record high temperature for that place becomes the average temperature for that place. That year will be 2047 in Philadelphia. We are facing the poisoning of the oceans and the despoiling of the land. Precious ecosystems of the biosphere are in turmoil. And as I said to one economist friend of mine, the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the biosphere. If the biosphere fails, the economy fails.

We need only look at the weather that has battered our nation all spring – the massive and unprecedented tornadoes over the heartland, the floods, as in Miami, where I am retiring, the droughts, as in Berkeley, California, where my son lives, the endless rain, and the fires. Over 650 million acres of Canadian boreal forests have burned just this month, with comparable burns in the northwest, in Russia and Alaska in the last couple of years. These forests were sinks for carbon dioxide, absorbing some of the greenhouse gases spewing into the atmosphere. Now they are burning and turning into even greater sources of these gases. The permafrost in the arctic is melting, releasing methane, the most toxic of all greenhouse gases. The fires and smoke contribute to the melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and the Antarctic southern ice sheet -- warming the oceans and making them more acidic -- also making them rise. It is all interconnected. All of us are downstream from somewhere. The greatest myth that afflicts our society is the myth of separation. There is no separation.

Climate scientists now predict that the seas will rise three to six feet by the end of the century. That would pretty much wipe out the east coast. By July 4, 2076, the 300th anniversary of the United States, even Independence Hall will be under water -- not submerged entirely, but challenging for a parade. And the bad news is that all this weather, all this dying of the oceans, is the effect of the greenhouse gases spewed into the air 30 years ago, before our graduates were born. There is a 30-year time gap between the emissions and their effects. What will be the effects of the emissions we are spilling out now, 30 years from now? We are fast reaching numerous tipping points. What are we going to do with all the people who live on the coasts of America? What about all the people who live on all the coasts all over the world?

I do not have the answers to that. I am retiring to Miami and looking for a condo. I trust that all of you will be aware of these questions and of these emerging events and that you will grow into the answers. That means opening our consciousness to encompass both the time scales of history and of evolution, of cosmic time and geologic time, which also means holding together both the celebration of what we have accomplished and the grief of what still lies beyond our grasp. We have to learn to hold the big picture and the small together. This is an example of our opening, awakening consciousness, which is a product, after all, of the universe and the planet, which raised us. Consciousness was embedded in the universe from the first moment of time, the big bang, from the tiniest microbes up through the big technology of photosynthesis in plants, turning sunlight to food, a nifty trick, and through the animals who play and share and hunt together and live ferocious and tender lives. We are among them.

One of the joys of living in this time is the abundance, the knowledge, the wide span of consciousness that circles the globe. Music, the rock and roll of my day, has become a million different genres with incredible new instruments, electronic sounds and images, sharing, blending, inventing new forms, a joy of sheer eclecticism, the mixing of all times, cultures, rhythms and sounds. It is also the time of the joy of a myriad of tastes, the shared and mixed cuisines of all the cultures of the world, a fusion of styles and tastes and objects that proliferate in our homes and public spaces. We have a huge knowledge of the medicine of plants and the body itself, understanding health in molecular ways, and reaping all the learning of ancient and faraway sources. We have, perhaps above all, the accumulated knowledge and learning of every culture that has ever lived on the planet. We have the ability now to read and look at the artifacts and texts, the images and the maps of all the greatest books, the greatest art, that the world has ever produced, and we can hold the wisdom of human beings and non-human beings in our hands. We have access to knowledge and discovery that is beyond human imagining. You will have ways to think and depict reality that I cannot even begin to fathom. We have among us, as humans, all that humans have ever been and can be. We can truly be responsible for all of human history, and non-human history too.

The world as we know it, the beaches and the forests, the small towns and the great cities, the grassy plains and the wild marshlands, the oaks and maples and pines, the woods we walk through every day, they are all gone, gone, even though we have not recognized or acknowledged it yet. Look around you at the world as you walk through it, as you watch the sunsets and the rain, and cherish it, hold it close in your heart, engrave it in your mind, knowing that it is already passed. Your children will not live in this world, your grandchildren may not even be able to find a habitable place to settle. It is already too late to stop the massive dying of numerous species and delicate ecosystems. We, and all species, will have to adapt to a world we have never experienced.

But it is still here now. The earth is still alive and vital, and there will always be those, and more and more I hope, who are loving and fighting on it’s behalf. Life itself calls us to its side. Hope is something you do, not something you have. We are witnessing solidarity over vast temporal and global domains. We can see ourselves as a part of a larger movement, arising all over the world.

For the sake of life, of life itself, give your strength and your brilliance, your beauty and your creativity, your brains and your energy to saving what’s left of our planet. It takes consciousness and sharing large and small shifts in attention and perspective, every day, that ripple out like waves to the ends of the universe.

I ask my classes sometimes, “What is it that all the people of the world have in common?” They look at me blankly. “Oh, come on, what is it that all the people of the world have in common?” They stare at me, blankly. Someone says, “There’s nothing. There’s nothing that all the people of the world have in common.” We are intellectuals. I say, “Yes, there is. All the people of the world have the earth in common. They have the stars and the moon and the sunlight and the forests and the rain. Every creature of the earth has walked on the earth in the night, looked at the stars, and felt the light and warmth of the sun in the day, and the cold of the rain. This we all share. We are creatures of the earth.” I always expect them to fall off their chairs with astonishment. But they just look chagrined. They knew that. Saving this earth, as much as you can, is the task the universe has set for you. It is the most formidable, frightening task I can think of. And I have utter faith, because I know you, that you will be up to the task.

Thank you very much.