• Former Secretary of State John F. Kerry took the stage at Old Whaling Church Thursday night.

John Kerry Rebuts Isolationism, Calls the Vineyard Home

  • Saturday, July 29, 2017 - 6:45am

Former Secretary of State John F. Kerry regaled a packed house in Edgartown Thursday evening with humor and gravitas in a speech that was a pointed call to political arms and citizen activism.

Mr. Kerry outlined what he called interconnected global issues. — Mark Lovewell

It was also a spirited rebuttal of the current trend toward American isolationism, with remarks clearly aimed at President Trump.

“Many people are again drawn to the fool’s gold that tempts people with the promise that if we just retreat within our borders, loosen our ties to each other and to the rest of the world, we can actually somehow do better going it alone and focusing on our own societies,” Mr. Kerry told a sell-out crowd at the Old Whaling Church.

“History tells us starkly, that, what I just described, is not how you make America great. That is how you make America cut off, alone, and vulnerable to threats that have no respect for borders. How sad it is and disturbing it is for me to see people who know better turning their backs on the realities of what’s happening day to day in our nation’s capital. Good people are not speaking out for what they know is not normal, is not right, is not appropriate. They seem to be more concerned about power and party than they are about nation and values.”

He spoke as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center Summer Institute series. The event was moved to the Old Whaling Church to accommodate the large attendance. Every seat in the church was filled.

Now 73, Mr. Kerry served as Secretary of State from 2013 to 2017 under President Obama, succeeding Hillary Clinton. Prior to that he served five terms in the U.S. Senate representing Massachusetts, from 1985 to 2013, and was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for president in the 2004 election. He was Massachusetts lieutenant governor in 1983.

Born in Colorado, he graduated from Yale University and Boston College Law School. He enlisted in the Navy and served in Viet Nam, where he earned medals for valor. He later became a noted opponent of the Viet Nam War.

He is currently affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as the organization’s first visiting distinguished statesman, working in the areas of conflict resolution and global environmentalism.

He is also a new homeowner the Vineyard. In March he and his wife bought a house at Seven Gates Farm in Chilmark. Mr. Kerry’s change of address was the subject of humor, applause and one of the evening’s more poignant moments.

Sellout crowd gave more than one standing ovation. — Mark Lovewell

“The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote prophetically, ‘you can’t go home,’ and I’ve experienced a few moments and places where perhaps that’s proven true,” Mr. Kerry said. “But I want you to know that after four years on the road and 1.5 million miles as Secretary of State, I can tell you right here, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, it is really good to be home.”

Mr. Kerry framed his address with four global challenges which he said would shape the world for future generations. He referred to his daughter and young granddaughter sitting in the front pew of the spare old church as he outlined what he called distinctly interconnected global issues.

“The first thing we have to do is actually do a better job of organizing a global response to defeat the forces that seek to impose a radical violent extremism on people everywhere,” Mr. Kerry said. “We’re going to defeat DAESH, I’ve said that consistently. [The former Secretary of State used the Arabic acronym DAESH when referring to ISIS, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq.]

“We can see it on the battlefield today, but there will be different kinds of DAESHs that reemerge. If we don’t do a whole bunch of other things, then fighting them is only the beginning of what we have to do. We have to strike more effectively at the root causes of extremism. People need to understand that that old song from World War I doesn’t have relevance today. It’s not over there. Over there is here, here.”

The second challenge Mr. Kerry singled out was the growing pace of technology which allows information and commerce to outpace government, leading to an oversimplified view of globalization.

“In country after country ideas are moving faster. People are moving faster, the marketplace is moving faster,” he said. “The only thing that isn’t coming at us faster is the ability of governments worldwide to respond. Our civil discourse is anything but civil. Bombastic, destructive, and destructive through the example we’ve set as a democracy in the world. It’s no wonder that so many people would like to just stop globalization, and stop the world and get off. But you can’t do it.”

The former U.S. Senator called for a laser-like focus on economic growth. He said politicians are exploiting people by making promises of a return to a manufacturing economy which they cannot keep. He advocated a shift from viewing technology as a job killer to viewing it as a way to open new fields of employment.

“Many people who were hurt in the 2008 economic implosion, particularly here in our country, they’re still feeling the pain,” Mr. Kerry said. “Here in the United States your average family suddenly found their house worth half its value. But guess what, they’re stuck with 100 per cent of a whopping mortgage. That is a pretty simple recipe for a lot of anger. Yes, technology is transformative, but if it was your job that disappeared, guess what, you’re not going to be finding much comfort in the fact that the same technology that stole your job, gives you the ability to sit at home with a smart phone and binge watch a future that’s completely out of reach of you and your children.”

After traversing the globe, former Secretary of State said it was good to call the Vineyard home. — Mark Lovewell

Finally, Mr. Kerry issued a scathing denunciation of President Trump’s recent decision to abandon the Paris accords, a voluntary set of standards and goals to reduce the effect of climate change agreed to by nearly every nation in the world. His signature is on the document. He noted that though the United States is no longer part of the accord, 37 U.S. states have committed to continue meeting the environmental standards to reduce climate changing pollution.

“President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement is an unprecedented forfeiture of American leadership,” Mr. Kerry said. “It is not only not based on any fact or any science, it is based on a lie to the American people, that somehow Paris imposed a burden on America that was intolerable, when in fact it imposes no burden on anybody. We are already halfway to Paris. We will not only meet Paris, we will exceed the goals of Paris. Trump may pull out of Paris, but the American people will not.”

Dressed in casual blue slacks and an open-collar white linen shirt, Mr. Kerry spoke for nearly an hour, then took questions for about 30 minutes. He received multiple standing ovations.

He interspersed his address with humorous anecdotes. The one which drew the most laughter was about a climate change fact finding mission to Antarctica, also at the expense of President Trump.

“On the day of the election,” he said, “I was winging my way to Antarctica, and when the results came out the next day, I felt like staying there.”

He ended the evening with an impassioned plea for citizen activism, speaking directly and bluntly to the receptive crowd. He called “citizen” one of the most important words in our language.

“Nobody here has a right to sit on their rear end and not be engaged politically and actively as a citizen,” Mr. Kerry said.