June 25, 2018
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A critic is a doer: Thoughts on Tony Blair’s commencement speech

By Jody Spear, Special to the BDN

I had the graduating seniors very much in mind as I stood in protest on the Colby College campus a week ago, listening to graduation speaker Tony Blair. Today’s students have activist models of principled leadership who were unknown to me at the time of my own Colby commencement nearly 50 years ago — influential figures such as Howard Zinn, Wendell Berry, Ralph Nader, Chris Hedges, Bill McKibben and other outspoken reformers who denounce the corrupting influence of corporate polluters and military strategists.

Holding a sign reading “globalization kills,” in solidarity with others whose banners demanded “Bring our war dollars home,” I wondered how the students and faculty felt about the commencement speaker. They had no role in choosing him; the invitation was issued by a personal friend of Blair’s, Robert Diamond, chair of the Colby board of trustees and father of a graduating student. Diamond is CEO of Barclays Capital of London, which, after its acquisition of Lehman Brothers in 2008, is on the way to becoming the world’s premier investment bank.

Tony Blair delivered the usual bromides: “Never stop learning.” “Be optimistic.” “Have fun along the way.” But some advice was nuanced: “Be a doer, not a critic.” “…[T]he 20th century belonged to us … Are we an empire that’s fading?” (Who are “we” — the G-8 empire?) “Despite the perils of globalization, graduates should embrace it.”

The subtext is: “Don’t let the 21st century belong to some other [third-world] imperialist … We [the Western powers] must remain No.1, so don’t challenge authority.”

While the former British prime minister’s complicity in interventionist wars around the world is well known, less discussed (and downplayed in the Colby address) is the conflation of religious faith and globalization, which are the talking points of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

In a speech given in London in 2008, Blair said: “Faith makes globalization work … Faith can transform and humanize the impersonal forces of globalization and shape the values of the … economic and power relationships of the early 21st century … Faith can help unify around common values what otherwise might be a battle for dominion.”

Really? Sounds like New Age appeasement. Faith in what? What values? Little wonder that critics are calling the Blair initiative a messianic plan for world domination, being hatched in collusion with Yale University and other rich world power brokers — the 1 percent.

The Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz warned a decade ago that globalization was making rich nations richer and poor nations poorer. As a result, he was forced out of his position as World Bank chief economist. More recently, in defense of the Occupy movement, he said, “The best government that money can buy is no longer good enough.”

Instead of continuing the downward spiral of death and destruction caused by the international corporate power structure in the name of “progress,” I suggest that we need another way, articles of faith to live by, all grounded in the precautionary principle: nonviolent conflict resolution, not fouling our nest with any more industrial pollution, the creative economy (the renewing power of art and music), small local economies, organic agriculture.

The problem is that green values are in conflict with industrial objectives, and we lack a voice in high-level policy decisions, which are made by corporate profiteers.

Today, when graduates’ job opportunities are diminished and no thinking person doubts that human-caused global climate disruption threatens every life form, the challenge of mere survival is greater than ever before in history. It will take more than “faith” to make a decent living in this world, and it will take a moral compass that is not to be found in any of Tony Blair’s pieties.

Here’s the best advice I’d offer to the class of 2012: A critic is a doer. Speaking out to expose high crimes is to prevent greater harms from occurring — another article of faith to live by. As we saw last week, it takes only six individuals to send a story virally around the world — five to howl in protest and grab the headlines, one to stay silent until the press shows up to pose questions. We need a new generation to speak truth to power and to do it with persistence, repeatedly, using every form of mass communication to get the word out.

The demonstration at Colby was not a theoretical exercise targeting an arch villain in international politics. Attention must be paid to specific threats from globalization that impoverish us all. So graduates, if you care that this beautiful place should remain a respite from the industrial wastelands elsewhere, seize the day: Get involved.

Jody Spear is an art-history editor living in Harborside.

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