Fellow Americans, and Fellow Citizens of Our Shared Earth –
More than two hundred years ago, the shores upon which we stand were blessed to provide home to an unusual outcropping of men and women who contained within themselves remarkable quantities of wisdom, energy and courage. These are qualities that are alone rare in anyone, and spectacular when combined.
They did the impossible – not once or even twice – but at least three times in their lives. They imagined a better way to live – free and equal – in ways we take for granted today but were altogether foreign in their time. A mere cognitive act, one might say of this first heroic turn, but given their context in the middle of the eighteenth century a nevertheless powerful and brave thing that we can only begin to appreciate, and one which was a predicate for all to follow.
They did the impossible again, when they assembled a rag-tag scrabble of an army under an inexperienced commanding general and proceeded to defeat the world’s greatest military power of the time in a long and arduous struggle against guns, weather, poverty and demoralization, for the prize of freedom and the opportunity to start anew.
And still they were not finished for, having won the war, they also won the peace by concocting a remarkable piece of governmental engineering that remains to this day our society’s foundational contract, the Constitution of the United States.
This exceptional generation of thinkers and doers were leading lights in arguably the most important social movement of human history – the aptly named Enlightenment – which rescued humanity from the chains of irrationality, prejudice and immaturity, and called upon us instead to think for ourselves, to trust our observations and our analyses, and to share a spirit of discovery and honesty that has opened fantastic doors of well-being for succeeding generations in every domain of our experience as human beings.
We Americans were fortunate indeed to have these Founders as the creators of our society, for rarely do a collection of people possessing such a remarkable combination of attributes ever come together in one place and one time, to such a remarkable effect.
Our Founders did their best to leave us something very much better than what they themselves had inherited, and their success in doing so was dramatic. They left behind what they actually described as an experiment, so unsure were they that this radical set of new ideas could work. And they called upon succeeding generations not to perform miracles – let alone three miracles at a time – but rather just that each live up to its potential, that each fulfill its obligations and promise, and that each preserve the gift the Founders had left to us.
My fellow Americans – my fellow stewards of the Founders’ gift – it is time for us to engage in an honesty of discourse which in this country has become sadly all too rare in our public sphere, to the point of near extinction. And that honest, frank dialogue must begin with an overt declaration that this generation – born into freedom, security and prosperity, truly the most fortunate humans ever to walk the planet – this generation has failed in its responsibility to honor and preserve the gift given us by America’s Founders, and by the succeeding generations who kept that gift alive, nourished it and improved it.
We, instead, have lived off the achievement of those forebears. We have not only failed to contribute to its improvement, but we have depleted the investment principal handed to us. We are eating the seed corn.
And worse – for if we’re to be truly honest with each other we’d admit that we have debased the precious gifts of freedom, democracy, prosperity and reason which it was our great fortune to inherit. Lulled to sleep by a combination of our own greed and indolence and the importunings of the worst amongst us who have encouraged ever more of such abrogation of responsibility – while often stooping to dressing their debasements in the ill-fitting suit of patriotism – we are the first generation of Americans to leave our children less enriched in any respect.
But, in fact, we have left them less enriched in every respect. Their material prospects look to be less rewarding than those of their parents. The freedoms which are the core of their American identities have been defiled and tattered beyond recognition. Our breathtaking arrogance has created an international ill-will which they are forced to inherit. And we have stood by, not only silently watching the environmental destruction of the only home we have, but in fact actively blocking the efforts of others on this shared planet to save it from our foolish depredations.
It could indeed rightly be asked of us now, not whether we’ve taken leave of our senses, but rather why.
Those are difficult words, but please understand that I did not come here today to lecture. I did not come here to assert my moral superiority, of which I claim none. I did not come to hector or humiliate. And least of all did I come here to wrap myself in the flag or the achievements of the great Americans who bequeathed this nation to us.
I came here, instead, to speak the truth, so that we might restore hope. I came here to remind us all of the potential for greatness which lives within each of us individually, and collectively as a nation. I came here to rally us to the purpose of meeting our responsibilities, like every generation before us has done when they were called. And I came here to implore us to do and to be more than that, to aspire to something better than that, to ask that we believe in ourselves again in ways that have become foreign to this generation of Americans.
We have enormous potential as a country to produce stunning achievements in education, in the arts, in science and engineering, in medicine and humanitarian relief, in human rights and in global political leadership for mutual peace and prosperity. We have enormous capacities unrivaled across the globe, and until recently, we had a wisdom and humility that often matched those, such that many people of good will in this world were not resentful or jealous of our capabilities, but rather happy and grateful to see us lead.