Remarks As Prepared For Delivery By Al Gore
University of New Hampshire, Durham
Saturday, May 22, 1999
President Leitzel; faculty and staff; family and friends; fellow honorees I want to thank you for bestowing this honor on me today. And congratulations to you, the distinguished Class of 1999.
This is a time of extraordinary economic opportunity for New Hampshire. When I came here seven years ago in the election year 1992, New Hampshire was losing more than 10,000 jobs a year. Today, our economy is the strongest ever with more than 16,000 jobs created here each year.
We are meeting our economic challenges. But amid all of our prosperity, we find new challenges to the strength of our families. We find new challenges to our common purpose and values.
Family life in America is changing. In seven out of ten households, both parents are at work all day. Only about half of all families eat together every day far less than two decades ago. And to often, even when they are under the same roof, a television set or a video game comes between parent and child.
Lacking guidance from parents, some children fall prey to a culture of chaotic values a culture with too much meanness, and not enough meaning.
This morning, across the country, there is another graduation ceremony taking place at Columbine High School. I know all of our hearts and prayers are with them. We are still trying to understand, as a nation, why there are empty chairs at that graduation ceremony.
As you prepare for careers and families of your own, this may be the one of the most important national conversations we could have. What can we do, all of us, to build a future in which all children choose good over evil? A future in which all children feel loved, connected, and embrace the right values?
Of course, we must teach our children right from wrong and when we see early signs of trouble, we must act. We must do more to get guns away from criminals, and away from children, and away from those who act from anger and anguish, not from reason. This week, I was proud to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to require simple background checks at gun shows, to prevent felons and fugitives from buying guns without inconveniencing hunters and law-abiding citizens. I respectfully urge the House of Representatives to now also pass the bill.
We must demand more responsibility from parentsand give them help in meeting that responsibility.
And above all, we must choose. What kind of country do we want? What kind of families? What kind of values?
To start with, we all share a responsibility for changing a toxic culture that too often glorifies violence and cruelty.
There are those who argue that violent images have hardly any impact on children. If that's so, why did R.J. Reynolds spend over $70 million to advertise Joe Camel? Why did Budweiser spend over $33 million to advertise the Budweiser frogs and lizards?
Do they believe they have wasted their money, and that these images have no effect on behavior?
The average child now sees 20,000 simulated murders before graduation from high school. Of course, most children are not moved to commit acts of violence because of all those images. But I'm convinced that some are. And I'm convinced that others are made numbdeprived of the shock they ought to feelwhen real violence in their community echoes the violence they have witnessed as entertainment.
In my religious tradition, there is a story known as the parable of the sower.
When you sow seeds by hand, you carry a sack over one shoulder, and you reach down and form an opening between thumb and forefinger and scatter the seeds on the ground.
What is that process called? It is called "broadcasting." In fact, the term broadcasting, as we use it today to describe radio and television, comes directly from the word we used to describe to the sowing of seeds by human hands.
Human hands made the programs that are cast broadly through the airwaves into the minds of America's children.
In the parable of the sower, some of those seeds fall by the wayside some fall on the rocks, some on barren land, some on land already clotted with thriving plants. But some fall on open, fertile soil, where they take root, and bear fruit.
There is no question in my mind that some portion of those 20,000 simulated murders sown in the minds of each child bear bitter fruit.
There is no question that images not only of violence, but of explicit sexuality, of inappropriate behavior, even glorified images of young women who are so thin as to be unhealthy have a powerful effect on children's minds.
What is the solution? Of course, we need more parental responsibility. But that is not enough.
We used to have a problem in this country of children being poisoned by aspirin; it was a leading cause of poisoning death in children. Pediatricians and others worked to combat this problem, mostly by focussing on parental education. They enlisted physicians, they enlisted civic groups, and parents were given all the tips to keep their children safe. But until the industry was forced to use child-proof safety caps the problem was not solved. In part because of the new packaging, aspirin poisoning dropped from 25 percent of the poisoning deaths to about 1 percent today. Parents need help.
It is unreasonable to assume that working parents are going to sit and monitor every minute of the programs their children watch. And it is unreasonable to unplug the television and throw it out of the house. We know there is a better way: to give parents the tools to allow their children to watch the good programming without being polluted by the bad.
I'm proud that we are helping to provide these tools. Soon, half of all TV sets sold in America will come with V-Chips: devices parents can use to screen out sex, violence, or any program they don=t want their children to see. Together with voluntary TV ratings, they will enable parents to make informed choices about what their children watch.
And soon, with just the click of a mouse, 90 percent of all Internet users will be able to make offensive web sites off limits to their children.
Now it is time for the entertainment industry to do its part, as well: by accepting more responsibility and exercising more self-restraint, by more strictly enforcing movie ratings, by taking a close look at violence in its own advertising, and by determining whether the ratings system is allowing too many children to see too much violence and cruelty.
We need to find new ways to help parents balance work and family so you will have time to pass on the right values to your children.
Of course, for all the many contributing causes to tragedies such as Columbine, we are still left with a basic question of good and evil.
In my faith tradition, I am drawn to the story of the first murder. Cain's offering was rejected, whereas his brother Abel's was accepted. God asked him: "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."
On the street-corners of America's cities today, we often hear the word "disrespected." Cain felt "dissed" by God. Those boys at Columbine, according to all the available evidence, and despite all the privileges they had, felt disrespected. Disconnected. Not accepted. Rejected.
Sin came to their door, whether through Nazi hate literature, or violent video games, or a culture of death and destruction. They still had a duty to resist it and master itbut its desire was for them, and they were vulnerable to it because they felt disrespected.
That is why this is a battle we must wage in every American family, and in every human heart.
We must make the children of this country less vulnerable to sin by making sure that they feel connected. By nurturing in them a set of values that allows them to find self-respect, self-discipline, and the appreciation of those who care about them.
If a high school is too big, kids get lost.
If parents don't feel welcome in their children's schools and if schools don't reinforce basic values, discipline, and character then it becomes harder for working parents to instill the right values.
If a community is too spread out, with no sidewalks or parks or meeting places, neighbors don't know one another, and can't look after one another.
If a family does not even share meals together if a parent and child must communicate across a blaring TV setthen that child is less likely to feel relevant.
And if that child does not feel that he or she has respect or meaning, he or she is less likely to want to be connected in the first place.
Schools are one of the places where those connections can be forged. At the beginning of this week, I laid out my ideas for revolutionary change in American education for smaller schools and smaller classes, for more individualized attention and learning, and for more summer school and after school care. I also called for a renewed focus on character and values in our schools and more parental involvement.
But we must recognize that the country as a whole bears a responsibility for providing that sense of meaning, and belonging.
For some of the most powerful lessons are never spoken in words. What we say is usually far less important than what we communicate in the way we live our lives.
For example, there is a theory of crime prevention called "broken windows." It says that if there is a community with broken windows, and litter on the street, and graffiti on the walls, that sends a powerful unspoken message: if you want to commit a crime, then you've come to the right place. We tolerate disorder here.
As a nation, we can't allow broken values any more than we can allow broken windows.
Our unspoken civic values form what Yeats called "the ceremony of innocence."
If we tolerate violence in our culture and silence in our families, we're telling our children it's OK to despair.
If we tolerate selfishness in our hearts and hopelessness in our souls, we're telling our children it's OK to believe life has no meaning.
If we tolerate a decline in the number of people voting in elections, and a decline in the number of parents visiting their children's schools we're telling our children: it's OK to withdraw, to drop out of our body politic, to recoil from the community we seek to build.
The resulting cynicism can transform a normal, healthy balance of faith and skepticism into a stubborn, unwavering disbelief in the possibility of good.
It drains us of the will to improve; it diminishes our public spirit; it saps our inventiveness; it withers our souls. There is nothing new under the sun, the cynics say. They have not only seen everything; they have seen through everything.
I believe, in the words of C.S. Lewis, that "if you see through everything, then everything is transparent. A wholly transparent world is an invisible world, to 'see through' all things is the same as not to see."
The philosophical school we know as Cynicism was actually born in the 4th century B.C. The Cynics had no respect for the common values of the community, and they wanted everybody to know it. The root of the word "cynic" is the same as the Greek word for "dog," and some scholars say the Cynics got their name because they barked at society.
Literally barkedlike dogs.
You might consider it an early version of the Jerry Springer Show.
Then, as now, cynicism represented a secession from society, a dissolution of the bonds between people and families and communities, an indifference to the fate of anything or anyone beyond the self.
Replacing that cynicism with a belief in our common purpose taming that bark before it turns into a bite may be the greatest challenge you will face in the years to come.
You are the last graduating class of the 20th Century. And you may have the greatest opportunity of any class in this century to shape a future of freedom, of justice, of purpose and values.
Sooner than you think, you will be raising children of your own and worrying about their college education. Sooner than you think, you will be in charge of this country. I want it to be a country that is not just better off, but better, in every way.
We must strengthen the web of meaning in all of our lives with values that are not merely proselytized, but lived.
I want to conclude by sharing some of the personal values that have shaped my life.
I believe in hope over despair, striving over resignation, faith over cynicism.
I believe in the power of knowledge to make the world a better place.
I believe in fulfillment through family, for the family is the true center of a meaningful life. It is in our families that we learn to love.
I believe our communities' purpose is to be there for families the way families are always there for each other.
I believe in serving God and trying to understand and obey God's will for our lives.
Even though it's often hard to remember, I know that God's will is for us to do right by the least among us.
I believe in working to achieve social justice and freedom for all.
I also believe there is revelatory power in our world.
I believe in protecting the Earth's environment against an unprecedented onslaught. For we are part of God's earth not separate from it.
I believe in balance between contemplation and action, between individual concerns and commitment to the community, between love for the natural world and love for our wondrous civilization.
I believe in America. Almost everywhere in the world the values that the United States has proclaimed, defended, and tried to live are now rising.
And above all, I believe in you. When I look out at all of you, I see 2,400 of the greatest reasons for faith and optimism we could ever know.
Thank you, God bless you, and I wish you every blessing as you start the journey.