Notes for Remarks to Carleton University 2017 Convocation – June 15, 2017

Mr. Chancellor, Chair of the Board, Madam President, Graduates, Honoured Guests and Proud Parents …. This is an honour…. but also a little sad for me because I can’t help but think of my father, on his deathbed, asking me … “So, when are you going to finish your Phd?”

He had good reason to ask because he knew that ever since I was 13, all I wanted to be was a University professor. At 22, I arrived at Carleton with that goal firmly in mind, but for a variety of reasons, I got sucked into the vortex of Parliament Hill, and, to my great regret, never finished my Phd.

So today, I can finally say, ‘Dad, I got my Doctorate.’ I’m sure if he’s looking down this morning, he’s feeling pretty happy right now. So, thank you for that, Carleton.

The larger reason my Dad hectored me about finishing my PhD, is that he, like most parents of his generation, believed in education – something most did not have the luxury of pursuing themselves.

Born on the eve of the Great Depression and raised in the shadow of War, his generation deferred much of their own ambition to their children. Even if they had not achieved all that they had wanted, they believed that their children could and would. They held out this hope because they were steeped in a post-war ethos of progress – an unshakeable faith that the next car would be faster, the next paycheque fatter and the next house bigger.

This value system – and an experience that, for most, actually corresponded to it – created not only a sense of well-being but also a sense of good will. If the prospects of progress and success were limitless, then whatever success you enjoyed didn’t threaten what was available to me. This was what my father led me to believe, and the world that I inherited bore him out.

And in the last 50 years, my generation did a pretty good job with that progress thing. Literally billions have been lifted out of poverty, we’re living longer, healthier lives than ever before, and the world is connected in ways that were unimaginable when I was growing up.

However, I don’t think it comes as news to anyone here, when I confess that my generation also made a bit of a mess along the way. Our insatiable thirst for fossil fuel has generated carbon emissions that threaten our planet. Change has been slow for human rights and health care for many parts of the world. And here in the West, the growing gap between the very rich and the rest, has left many feeling ignored and marginalized. For them, progress means success for some, but not for all.

This brings us directly to the head-scratching US Election of 2016. A question posed in an exit poll from this historic election asked, “do you believe that the best years for the United States are ahead of us or behind us” – over 80% of Clinton supporters claimed the best years were ahead, and over 80% of Trump voters believed they were behind. In other words, voter choice in that election was driven not as much by straight-forward factors such as age, race or income, but more by a sense that things are either going to get better or that things used to be better.

Then we had Brexit providing yet more evidence that a nostalgic mindset was driving the “Leave” vote and people who expressed a yearning for a Britain of the past and feared the Britain of the present.

But in the same way that feelings of well-being tend to generate goodwill and compassion, it is equally true that feelings of threat and fear spawn envy and recrimination. The evidence of this now abounds … and it is both alarming and dangerous.

When large portions of the population believe that in the face of progress, they are being left behind and abandoned by the so-called elites, it seems understandable that they want a society like it used to be – however real or imagined. They are harkening back to a time when progress was inevitable and unlimited. But the comfort of the good old days that they seek, also happened to be a time when everyone was white and Christian; where women baked pies and changed diapers all day; when minorities were largely invisible, let alone catered to by these same elites. This was the nerve Donald Trump tapped into when he promised not just to “Make America Great” but to “Make America Great Again”. He was not the cause of this feeling, but he was the guy who gave voice and legitimacy to it.

The cultural conflict we’re experiencing now seems to come from the clash between those who believe progress is both possible and good and those who see today’s form of progress as a threat. One side sees the other as the definition of all that was wrong with the past – the things we needed to change and cannot return to; the other thinks of globalization, immigration, pandering to minorities and feminism as a major part of the reason they are being left behind. One side sees racism, intolerance, misogyny and nativism. The other feels ignored, mocked, and irrelevant.

The problem becomes toxic because we are segmenting ourselves into “us versus them” When this occurs, anyone with a vested interest in exploiting this rift can easily till that soil. So ‘division’ becomes the weapon of choice for opportunistic political leaders and autocrats. Why reach across the aisle when your base is entirely at odds with those other voters? To the contrary, it makes more sense to vilify these voters, as a way to motivate your own.

A vicious cultural wheel therefore is turned by a political one. A fearful, divided citizenry fights off uncertainty by protecting its own turf and blaming “the other” for their uncertainty; politicians exploit this division by validating their fears; and the population finds comfort in overly simplistic – and sometimes, draconian – solutions. Instead of trying to bridge differences through reasonable compromise, we have the escalating politics of polarization, over-torqued partisanship and ‘alternative facts’.

Now, you’re probably wondering why anyone would have invited Allan ‘Downer’ Gregg to celebrate your achievement with you. Let me apologize for being such a buzz kill. But, the fact is that you are the bright, young, talented people to whom the rest of us, are looking to fix this shitty mess.

I know that the prerogative of youth is optimism and you have every right and reason to believe that the best years are ahead of you. And you have every right and reason to be excited about the increasingly rapid power of technological innovation to change the course of history. Think autonomous vehicles, artificial Intelligence and robotics, new frontiers in health care, our growing capacity to make a real and necessary difference to climate change and environmental degradation. These developments offer exponential increases in our problem-solving capacity creating more productivity and growth. And they can make the world a better, safer, more sustainable place. Indeed, it is inescapable that these will be the tools of future progress.

But understand also however, that autonomous vehicles will put hundreds of thousands of taxi and truck drivers out of work; that the algorithms generated by AI will put an end to industries such as financial planning and securities trading; and that robotics will lead to more layoffs in an already declining manufacturing sector. When we pause in our rush to progress, you will have to reflect on the cost as well– the very real cost that these transformations can have for real people who don’t necessarily have the skills or the ability to jump on board the high-tech train – and you will need to approach ‘progress’ with compassion, understanding and tolerance. Something that clearly has been missing in the past.

My generation was pretty good at making things bigger. Your task will be to make things better. To recognize that growth for growth’s sake or for the sake of generating great wealth for some and great hardship for others, cannot be pursued blindly. To do so, puts us at risk of a society that is even more divided, and less civil. And more division and less civility, by any definition should not he considered progress. The progress you pursue must be accompanied by a parallel commitment to maintain tolerance, justice, empathy, and especially, equality. And not just in platitudes, but in policies and practices that are real and measurable.

That will not be an easy task. But my father was also fond of reminding me that “if it’s easy, they can ask anyone to do it, can’t they?”

I wish all of you great luck on this momentous journey you begin today. You have all the tools for success and all the ability to redefine a progress that benefits all, and in doing so, makes the world a better place. The burden is great, the task will be trying, but when you succeed, the rewards will be even greater.

Thank you.