Commencement Address, University of Hawaii at Hilo 2003

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I am old enough to remember when the University of Hawaii at Hilo was founded in 1947, amidst intense political pressure from the Hawaii Territorial Legislature. At the time, there was little money, and the enthusiasm was limited to those on this island. It was not shared by those in Honolulu. I guess some things change, and some things don't.

Many of the early faculty that appeared on the scene represented dissenting voices, in need of new assignments – Hilo became known to some as the Siberia of Manoa. Now this has definitely changed.

Hilo is no longer a faraway college with little to offer. Quite the contrary. There is a fine faculty and leadership – committed and dedicated to its students.

Your campus is growing, not only in the number of students – which this year exceeded 3,000 – but also in terms of facilities, both on the campus and in the adjacent Tech Park.

I cite three areas which have great potential for the Hilo campus.

  • the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center – $59 million facility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to house scientists with expertise in our tropical crops. Design is complete and construction will begin shortly on Phase I. Parallel funds are already being provided to Hilo and Manoa to build expertise as a three-way partnership with USDA.
  • the Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center – $28 million facility to provide a venue to engage our astronomers with our school children and community, as well as to share the power of the cultural practices of Mauna Kea. The design and creative work has been completed. I look forward to the groundbreaking sometime this year. The sharing and learning will hopefully spark in our young students an interest in science and astronomy, and a drive to continue their education in reach of the stars.
  • the College of Hawaiian Language is a leader not only in Hawaii, but across Native America. Many tribes are looking to UH Hilo for guidance in perpetuating their native language. If I am not mistaken, Native Hawaiian is the only native language whose usage has gone up in both the home, as well as in academic settings. This is a very wise federal investment.

These are only three areas, but just imagine their potential for research and scholarship, and for jobs and professions for our young people. There are many other areas, such as in the health care field – nursing, and I hope pharmacy, in the not too distant future. The potential for UH Hilo has gone way beyond what was envisioned when the doors of this campus were opened 56 years ago.

You should be very proud of the degrees you are receiving today. You have earned them, and you have earned them from a first-class institution.

In my time remaining, I would like to answer a question many have asked which is especially pertinent this day: What sort of future is ahead of us?

In the conduct of our nation's foreign policy, I am only one member of the Congress. However, in my years of service and experience, I have reached certain conclusions.

First, many in our globe are uncomfortable with our clear superpower status. One would think that other nations would be pleased. After all, we are a democracy and not a dictatorship. While they may admire our democracy — after all, it has allowed a person like me to attain unheard of opportunities — they resent it being forced upon them. In doing so, we convey to others that they are inferior. That their form of government is not on par with ours.

Second, is our use of the term "regime change." Many are uncomfortable with the term and so I use it advisedly. This world is ruled by regimes, not all necessarily in our own image. In fact, many are ruled in ways that we would not approve. But then again, is it our place to pass such judgment?

And if we do strongly disapprove, should we go into these places to "liberate" them? Places like Iran, Syria, Cambodia. There are those who would ask, "Are we next?" We must work to dissuade the perception that we are looking to take over.

Third, people are not comfortable with power and might. Why? Because it makes us unequal. Our nation must go out of its way to extend a hand of friendship, especially to those that are, and have been our allies.

During these last few months, harsh words have been thrown about at France and its decision not to join us in the war against Iraq. Everything from calls to change "french fries" to "freedom fries," to a push to boycott French wine. Before any country enters into war, it must decide whether it is in its national interest to do so. It was not for us to question France, or any other country that has had to make this tough decision.

France has been with us in Afghanistan, as well as in other conflicts because they saw it as being in their national interest. If one recalls history, during World War II, when France fell under the heel of the Nazis, we sent our condolences. When the buzz bombs devastated London, we sent our condolences. We even knew, as I later learned, of the existence of the concentration camps and extermination of the Jews, but we did nothing. Only after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7th did America enter the war. It was deemed to be in our national interest.

For these reasons, we should respect others, especially our allies. We cannot remain in an "either you are with us, or you're against us" posture. We sound like bullies, especially when we are not talking about lifetime enemies. We are talking about our friends.

Lastly, patriotism. It is defined as "love and devotion to one's country." But, oftentimes, it takes as much, if not more courage to speak out against our government. It is that love of country that compel some to speak out and oppose our government's actions.

More recently, there were those who questioned the wisdom of entering into war with Iraq. It is a part of the freedoms we all enjoy. And, it did not mean that they wished our brave men and women on the front lines any ill will. In fact, I know that many said prayers for their safe return home. Their questioning should be viewed no less patriotically than those who waved the American flag.

The ability to criticize and question our leaders is at the essence of democracy. If we did not permit dissenting views, and those who would confront and bruise our collective conscience, how much longer would we have had slavery? How much longer would the Vietnam War have dragged on? And would Japanese Americans interned during World War II still be waiting for redress?

I hope that the mistakes made and suffering imposed upon Japanese Americans nearly 60 years ago will not be repeated against Arab Americans whose loyalties are now being called into question. Their profile is being drawn to resemble what the "enemy" looks like. They are being threatened and harassed. [Dearborn, Michigan, for example.] Let us not repeat history.

I leave you with 35 words that have been my guiding principle throughout my years of service. Follow them, and you will never go wrong in whatever life path you choose:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).