John Kerry issues a call to action

Former Secretary of State John Kerry talks about the current political climate at the Summer Institute Speaker Series.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the the sold-out crowd at the Old Whaling Church. —Brittany Bowker

The Island welcomed one of its newest additions on Thursday night. Former Secretary of State John Kerry was met with a standing ovation as he took the stage at the Old Whaling Church for his first speech on-Island as a Martha’s Vineyard homeowner. He and his wife have purchased a home in Chilmark.

Recently Mr. Kerry served as the Secretary of State under President Barack Obama. Before that, he ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2004 against George W. Bush. He then continued his career in the Senate until Mr. Obama nominated him for the position of secretary of state in 2012. He is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as its first visiting distinguished statesman.

Part of the Summer Institute Speaker Series, Mr. Kerry’s talk gave context to the current political climate through his own life experience as a baby boomer. “I grew up smack in the middle of the cold war,” he said. “There was a visceral understanding of how close the world came to chaos.” He recounted his grandfather returning to his home in France after the withdrawal of the German troops and finding only “a stone staircase and chimney going up into the sky.” The rest was ashes.

“We can’t rely on the greatest generation and their legacy. Every generation must strive to be the greatest generation, and not lose connection with the fragility of peace,” said Mr. Kerry.

His talk echoed the drumbeat of the post-election liberal cause. “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 at it alone and focusing on our own societies,” he said. He called for a greater recognition and validation of the deep frustration that President Trump used as a springboard to launch himself into the Oval Office, which was compounded by the “arrogance and ignorance” of the dismissal of this frustration.

This honest reflection was not only turned on the electorate; politicians also caught some reproach from the former familiar face in Washington. “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,” said Mr. Kerry. “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 also took the opportunity to sound a rallying cry around issues that the Trump administration has taken in a different direction than his predecessor. “We can’t have four years where we’re not involved in Paris or the U.N.,” he said. America has to help organize a global response to extremism. “We have to strike more effectively at the roots,” he said. In his talk, he offered few concrete plans on how to do this.

Remembering a trip to Antarctica, where he was on election day, he called for greater focus on environmental issues, calling the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords “an impressive forfeiture of American leadership.” Morale was raised, however, when Mr. Kerry said that 37 states representing 80 percent of the population have committed to the Paris accords on their own. This is the type of citizen activism that Kerry seemed to hold dear while reminiscing about his days protesting the Vietnam War.

In addition, he paid homage to the changing times and innovations that require an adjustment to how governments operate in the world around them.

He said the rise of technology is changing the face of foreign policy. “Ideas are moving faster, and governments can’t respond,” he said. “It’s no wonder people want to just stop globalization, but you can’t stop people’s thirst for knowledge.”

This undermines one of Mr. Trump’s main campaign promises. “It’s technology, not trade, that takes away jobs,” said Mr. Kerry. There has to be “a laser-like focus on economic growth that lifts everybody.”

With the conclusion of his talk, Mr. Kerry earned another standing ovation. He united the Whaling Church around liberal ideals and emphasized that now is the time to take action.