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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 — Houston, TX

Commencement Speaker Rupp emphasizes global service

5/15/08 7:00pm

Thank you very much, David, for the very warm introduction, appropriate on a day when -- I don't know if you've noticed, but the word "warm" has been used by virtually every speaker so far. As David mentioned, Nancy is here with me and we are both delighted to be back on the Rice campus, and in particular to be assembled with you in this place, surely one of the most remarkable academic quadrangles in the world. I am pleased as well that y'all have decided to be here rather than in Crawford for Jenna Bush's wedding. As David has indicated, this occasion is a wonderful time to celebrate for you, the graduating students, for your families, friends who have provided support and for the faculty, staff and board who have worked with you in this achievement. So, graduating students, please raise a resounding cheer for your mentors and teachers, for your families and cherished friends. Let's hear applause for them.That was pretty limp. Again, the warm weather, I guess.

We all celebrate this happy occasion, but you, the members of the class of 2008, are appropriately the focus of our attention. On behalf of all of us, I will therefore address you directly in my remarks.

A feature of our public life during your years here at Rice has been the steady erosion of the standing of the United States in the view of friends and foes alike around the world. Global opinion polls confirm what those of us who travel abroad know from personal experience. Whether our journeys are to Latin America or Western Europe or Asia or Africa, we hear often stridently anti-American voices. The charges range widely: Members of more traditional communities attack what they see as our immoral hedonism and our irreligious secularism. Cosmopolitans, in contrast, are offended by what they take to be our self-righteous moralism and religiosity that lead to unilateral actions, even as we abandon long-held commitments to openness and generosity and respect for human rights.

I will not pretend to respond to this litany of often-contradictory charges. I mention it because I am convinced that becoming more aware of how others view us can help us to see ourselves more clearly. As we seek to learn from the charges leveled against us, I propose the hypothesis that, underlying the allegations in all their varieties, is an illuminating set of questions about how we as individuals relate to the communities in which we participate.

To test this hypothesis, I invite each of you then to picture yourself in a series of concentric circles as a way of representing your participation in increasingly inclusive communities. You are the center of this series - in effect, the smallest circle. There are those who concentrate almost all of their attention on this central point. In your studies here, you have learned of the enormous power of individualism as it is developed in the West, but you have also learned to question the brand of unbridled individualism that focuses on the self as separate from the various communities in which we participate. So consider the first circle beyond the individual, the communities with which you personally identify most closely. Here's a sampling: A partner, your family, a neighborhood or village or town that you call home, an ethnic group that you embrace as your own, a religious tradition or a secular tradition that you affirm even if you also at times quarrel with it. Such communities are crucial for defining the identity that each of us appropriates, makes our own, in the course of our lives.

But we also know that none of these communities stands alone. In this place of increasing diversity, you've had the opportunity to learn from each other. Happily, many of you have made the most of this opportunity. We can hope that as a result, you will never be able to even think of yourself as completely separate from the other communities around you. The temptation to think of ourselves as separate from our communities also confronts universities.

When I first arrived at Rice, there was a deeply-ingrained tendency to contrast life on campus with what was beyond the hedges. In the intervening decades, Rice has become more connected to Houston and to the larger world. RSVP, the Rice Student Volunteer Program, which was started during my first year, is one example. Rice cooperation with the Houston Independent School District is another. A more recent instance is the Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees, PAIR, which I've only very recently come to know about and was only started in 2006, but encourages Rice students to volunteer with refugee children here in Houston.

Rice has also increasingly reached out to international partners. The pattern of relating more and more, both to Houston and to the global civil society, hearkens back to the founders of Rice. Edgar Odell Lovett, the first president, was in office for 38 years - David, remember that, 38 years - had affiliations to educational institutions worldwide, many of whom gathered in this setting when Rice was launched in the very early years of this century. And Captain James A. Baker, trustee extraordinaire for 50 years, and the grandfather of the James Baker whom we will be honoring this evening, he also had in his case unsurpassed connections but here, within Houston. Still, the lessons learned here are only the beginning of what will be a lifelong need to resist the allure of separation from others.

Many of you come from privileged families. All of you now have the benefit of an elite education. As a result, most of you will become, or already are, members of the most socioeconomically advantaged stratum of this or any other society.

One of the most troubling trends in this county is the increasing elective isolation of the most affluent of our citizens. In the face of inadequate investments in public goods and services, the privileged retreat into private clubs and gated communities. As you commence from this place and the opportunities for leadership ahead of you, remember one of the lessons you have learned here: We enrich our lives through the experience of multiple traditions and we impoverish ourselves if we attempt to retreat behind the hedges.

Beyond our most immediate communities - families, home neighborhoods, ethnic group, religious traditions, campus, gated community - are larger circles. A big cluster comprises our various nations, and the one that is the most in danger of thinking of itself as self-subsistent, as enclosed in a circle that has the capacity to be self-contained, is the country that prides itself on being the only remaining superpower.

Recent years, the years while you have been at this university, provide incontrovertible evidence against this proposition. No country, even if it can seem to dominate an entire continent, can be complete in itself. The United States, in the end, is connected not only to Canada and Mexico, but also to South America and Europe, Asia and Africa. We are involved with it, whether or not we have our national interests narrowly construed. Latin America has increasingly asserted its independence in ways that certainly respect the United States. The Balkans are not only a concern of Europe. Relations across the divided Korean peninsula affect us, whether or not we have a workable antiballistic missile system. In the long run, we are not insulated from the AIDS pandemic, or civil war or famine in Africa. In whatever might have seemed plausible a decade ago, even those who routinely practice denial are now aware that we cannot unilaterally declare global warming to be an issue that can safely be allowed to heat up on the back burner.

Even if we recognize the need to move beyond our nationalisms, the next concentric circle is less-than-sharply defined. The global reach of transportation and communication systems and the economic power of multinational corporations indicate that worldwide networks are more than simply nice ideas. At the same time, the allegiance to the more-than-national, or even university human commands much weaker loyalty than our more particular loyalties, as is evident in the very limited authority granted to institutions of international governments.

The ideal of the human race, humankind, humanity as a whole has fascinated visionaries for millennia. It is often shrouded in a mist of wishes, or a fog of ideology or the mystery of religious symbolism, but this ideal of the human as such may still provide leverage over against our provincialism. As David indicated in his introduction, I spend a lot of my time in countries that are struggling with the aftermath and, often, the continuing impact of violent conflict. Most recently, I've been in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jordan, Syria, and I'm about to leave for Liberia

and Cote d'Ivoire.

My colleagues and I in the International Rescue Committee go to places where large numbers of people have been uprooted by war in order to provide emergency relief and then also to stay and work with individuals in communities as they rebuild disrupted lives. This work provides a perspective on the provincialism of our usual view of the world and leads to channeling those of us in the United States to closer to our fair share of the investments in agriculture, basic health care and education, especially of women and girls, investments that are crucial for sustaining development worldwide.

This is the set of issues in which the self-deception of Americans is staggering. Polls consistently show that most of us think that we as a nation are more generous than other countries in providing economic aid to the developing world.

In fact, of the 22 developed economies, we rank near the bottom in percentage of our gross national product devoted to assistance, about two-tenths of one percent. To bring that dry statistic to life, two-tenths of one percent, think of our country's gross national products as a ten-dollar bill. Of that ten dollars, the most generous nation, Norway, gives a dime in development assistance, while we contribute two cents. And even if we add all the non-governmental donations, personal contributions, corporate gifts, foundation grants, that amounts to, at most, another two or three cents. For a nickel - for five cents out of ten dollars - not out of one dollar, but out of ten dollars. That is disgraceful, especially in the light of our own past performance.

I'll give you one data point, not picked at random. In the late 1940s, at the height of the Marshall plan, the federal government committed 18 percent of its budget to foreign assistance; 18 percent - an astonishingly large proportion. It no doubt underlies our national self-perception of American generosity, because at that level, we were generous, and generous to our former enemies. By the early 1960s, this percentage had dropped from 18 percent to three percent, and today it is under one percent, less than one-third of the level in the early 1960s and a twentyfold decline - a twentyfold decline - since 1948. To his credit, President Bush, at the outset of his term, expressed to increase publicly-funded foreign assistance, in particular through his initiative to counter HIV/AIDS. For a few years, the commitment of the United States to humanitarian aid increased as a percentage of gross national product. We even rose from dead last of the 22 most developed countries to second-to-last. But with recent budget pressures, the percentage has again declined. We as a nation can surely do better than that if, in our affirmation of our national citizenship, we also identify with a larger circle, a community that is not confined to a single country.

Yet even if the ideal of the human as such provides some leverage against the provincialism tried in nations, it also points to still more inclusive communities. For too many centuries, in too many traditions, we have celebrated the human as in some sense above the natural. We now know that here, too, our connections with the larger world are crucial, and that our ignorance of those connections threatens the viability of the earth as an ecosystem. We must therefore move not only beyond vigilism and communalism and nationalism, but also beyond humanism and even humanitarianism.

In this way, each circle points beyond itself and cannot be self contained. Not the individual, not our closest communities, not our nations, not humanity as a whole. This recognition shapes both our ideas and our actions.

So I invite you to participate vigorously in the communities that elicit your belonging, to exercise your citizenship and provide the leadership to which you will be invited, to work together for the ideal of humanity as a whole, so that it may become the reality we hope for, we anticipate, we ever-so-imperfectly embody. But be aware as well that in all of your activity, you are part of a larger reality in which we live and move and have our being, which we may venture to trust and which invites our allegiance.

As you commence from this wonderful university, stretch your minds, your imaginations, your sensitivities, for some larger loyalty and more-encompassing commitment. That you will apprehend, appreciate, affirm, participation in increasingly inclusive communities, is a hope I express for each one of you as you move on from this university. May it afford you the liberation from the prism of self-preoccupation.

As for all of you individually, so also for the United States as a nation, we will gain traction in countering those who attack us out of either anger or sadness if we embrace the multiple communities in which we participate. To do so counters the charge of self-indulgent individualism that repudiates shared values. It also issues the self-righteous confidence or moralistic servitude that allows an easy or early recourse to unilateralism. And finally, it reaffirms core American commitments to openness, generosity and human rights.

As you are awarded your degrees from this wonderful university and as you participate not only in the communities closest to you but also in the increasingly inclusive communities that you will unavoidably encounter, I wish each one of you all the best for all of our sake.

Thank you very much and congratulations.

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