by Eric Schlosser
2012 Commencement Speaker
Whitman College Commencement
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Thank you for inviting me to give this speech and for giving me this degree from Whitman College.
I’m very honored to be here today. But I’m also very glad that nobody invited me to give the commencement speech here a few years ago. I don’t know what I would’ve said. As markets tumbled and our great real estate bubble burst, I would’ve been tempted to say to the graduating class – don’t take the diploma. Run back to your dorms and hide. Find some way to flunk a class, find some way to spend another year or two in this beautiful place. Things are too terrible out there.
But today I feel differently. Things are still bad – really bad – in this country. But they are slowly getting better. And you now have a great opportunity to help them get better.
During the past year we’ve heard a lot about the One Percent – the one percent of Americans who get to keep almost one-fifth of this country’s annual income.
Class of 2012, you’re about to become members of an even more elite group. Out of the roughly 311 million people living in the United States, only 14,000 have earned a degree at Whitman College. The moment that President Bridges shakes your hand and gives you a diploma, you’ll become a member of the 0.0045 percent. That’s a pretty select group. Not as wealthy, maybe as the One Percent. But not doing too badly, I’m sure. And a lot better looking.
Just by earning a college degree in the United States, you become part of an elite. About 70 percent of the people in this country will never get a college degree. And for those who do earn one, things generally go pretty well. Their health is likely to be better than that of most Americans. Their life expectancy is longer. And their income is a lot higher. Right now, only 4 percent of the college graduates in the United States are living in poverty. And you know who they probably are – the English majors and Theatre majors and poets, the ones who stubbornly, often happily chose a different path.
I’m sure that many of you seniors are feeling anxious about the future. Many of you are leaving here burdened with debt. But the odds are in your favor. The odds are, things will work out. When you get your diploma today, you will join a privileged group in American society. And with that privilege come great opportunities – and a responsibility to those less fortunate. As the Bible says: unto whom much is given, much is required.
I first visited Whitman in January, 2002. I didn’t come here to talk to students or sit in on classes. I passed though here to attend a meeting, an hour away, in Pasco. It was a union meeting for workers at the Tyson slaughterhouse near there. And the young meatpacking workers in that room – some of them the same age as the seniors graduating here today – told me stories of another America, one that’s hard to reconcile with the quiet beauty of this campus.
These workers spoke about an industry that, within two decades, had cut its wages by almost fifty percent. They spoke about the unrelenting pressure to get meat out the door, about line speeds that caused mistakes and lacerations and all sorts of serious injuries. They spoke about a daily life so different from the one lived here that it seemed to belong not only to another country, but to another century. Their stories of hardship and exploitation seemed to belong in a novel by Upton Sinclair. And that union meeting in Pasco ended much like it would’ve in the year 1902. A gang of big, tough guys walked into the room and broke the meeting up.
So that was my first experience of Whitman and Pasco, two very different worlds, just an hour apart. And I came back here a few years later to attend a rally in support of Maria Martinez, the courageous union leader at the meatpacking plant. The rally was held on this campus. And I’d like to tell you that the story had a happy ending. But it didn’t. Tyson Foods pushed the union out of the plant, and Maria lost her job. And during the same period that Tyson was cutting the wages of meatpacking workers and reducing their benefits, the company was almost tripling the salary of its chief executive. In 2004, while claiming that money was too tight to pay workers anything more, John Tyson got paid $20.9 million.
What happened to the workers whom I met in Pasco is emblematic of what’s happened for the past thirty years to workers throughout the United States. The gap between the wealthy and the poor in this country is wider today than it has been since the late 1920s. Half a century ago, when Michael Harrington wrote his classic book, “The Other America,” about fifty million people in this country lived below the poverty line. Today, about 46 million live in poverty. The proportion of Americans who are poor is lower now than in 1962. But 46 million – that’s still a hell of a lot of poor people.
I mentioned the meatpacking workers just an hour away from here and some of the hardships they face. But the poorest workers in this country are migrant farm workers. And they are also the poorest workers in this state. Every year between 100,000 and 150,000 farm workers pick the grapes and the apples and the cherries in Washington state, they harvest the asparagus and onions.
It’s incredible that the people who feed us are now faring the worst. Especially when you consider how much money some other people in our society now make. Last year, the average income of America’s leading hedge fund executives was $576 million – each. And that was a 35 percent pay cut from the previous year.
The top executive of the top hedge fund in the United States was paid a total of $8 billion dollars in 2010 and 2011. Let me say that again: one man was paid $8 billion for two years of work. He may be a very nice, hard-working, well-intended man. But it seems hard to comprehend one man being paid at least four times more money than all 150,000 farm workers in the state of Washington will earn this year.
A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt criticized the widening gulf between those who have more than they deserve – and those who deserve so much more than they have. At the time, he was a Republican candidate for president. Roosevelt called for a ban on corporate donations to politicians, a decent wage for every American worker, and freedom from “the sinister influence...of special interests.”
The older I get, the more I realize that life isn’t fair. It just isn’t. But as a society, we must strive to be fair.
The problem that Roosevelt addressed, the gap between rich and poor, threatens the future of the United States. And the Class of 2012 will have to confront this reality. It has become inescapable.
You cannot have a functioning democracy, when tens of millions of Americans live in poverty, possessing little, while a handful of Americans possess more than they could ever hope to use or spend.
Those of us who have privilege and access to power, those of us who have the education denied to most Americans, those of us fortunate enough to enjoy these things must work hard to fulfill the pledge that we made, with hand over heart, as schoolchildren – liberty and justice for all.
It may seem hard to believe, but I’m genuinely optimistic about this country. We have tremendous problems, yes. But our problems aren’t as bad as those in almost every other country on earth. Another America, an even better one, is still within reach.
To solve these problems, you don’t have to give away all of your worldly goods and devote your life solely to helping the poor. That would be an admirable thing to do. But I haven’t done it, and I can’t tell anyone else to do it. I don’t claim to be perfect or pure on any of these issues.
Instead of trying to be perfect or pure, we need to be aware. We need to be compassionate. And then we need to take action.
Some of the best advice on all of these things comes from one of my favorite writers. Walt Whitman was a lifelong opponent of bigotry and intolerance and injustice, a champion of American democracy.
I know this college was named after Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. But it would’ve been great if Walt Whitman could’ve given today’s Whitman college commencement speech, instead of me. His speech would’ve been more eloquent than mine – but a lot longer. And here’s the advice that I think Mr. Whitman would’ve given to the Whitman Class of 2012:
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
That’s awfully hard to do. But it’s worth a try.
I wish each and every one of you good luck.