Bhatia to Princeton University graduates: Live with integrity, verify information, fight the disease of ‘alternative facts’

Eduardo Bhatia, minority leader and former president of the Senate of Puerto Rico,
addresses members of Princeton University’s Class of 2018. Photo: Princeton University Office of Communications by Denise Applewhite.

In the current polarized political environment, the United States needs people of integrity who will challenge misinformation, lies, and ‘alternative facts,’ said Eduardo Bhatia on Sunday in a speech at Princeton University.

Bhatia, a 1986 graduate of Princeton, the minority leader and former president of the Senate of Puerto Rico, addressed graduating seniors at the university’s baccalaureate service, one of the school’s oldest traditions.

“We need to wake up and confront the culture of lies. There is no time to waste,” Bhatia said. “The voices of reason, of honor, integrity and honesty need to be heard.”

He talked about the history of Princeton University’s honor code, and urged graduates to adopt “a national honor code” grounded in integrity and a quest for the truth. Citizens should seek verifiable sources to confirm news from all sources, conservative and liberal. Letting lies and rhetoric dominate bolsters authoritarian regimes, Bhatia said.

“Political discourse is losing contact with reality. When we let public speech be dominated by discrimination, factionalism, fanaticism, authoritarianism, demonizing the other, the cult of personality, and religious intolerance, the consequences are nefarious,” Bhatia said, citing the history of India, Weimar’s Germany, Mao’s China and Chile.

“I don’t know about you, but I am starting to hear too much of the same poisonous rhetoric that led in the past to heinous consequences,” he said. “This public discourse based on so much information that is simply not true makes me question whether a government of the people, by the people and for the people may actually perish if we don’t do something about it. ”

A lack of integrity has serious consequences for democracy, he said, citing the recent history of Puerto Rico, which filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and has been in an economic depression for the past 12 years.

Bhatia said many of Puerto Rico’s problems stem from decades of deceit and dishonesty by Wall Street, and irresponsible fiscal and tax policy decisions by both the government of the island and the federal government.

“We are now seeing the enormous consequences of bond rating fabrications, ignoring experts’ warnings and simply looking the other way when serious, verifiable data was available. Our citizens are now paying the price,” he said. “Draconian austerity measures are being imposed, as we speak, by the local government and an undemocratic oversight board imposed by Congress. Hundreds of thousands of people have left the island.”

Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, the most powerful hurricane to make landfall over the island in more than 100 years. “We did not have energy or running water for months.There are some families still waiting. Up in the mountains, children died of leptospirosis after drinking contaminated water,” he said. “The bureaucratic response by federal and state authorities was has been not only shameful but reprehensible and immoral. Many people were left to survive on their own. Yet Puerto Ricans have been United States citizens for over 100 years.”

Bhatia cited quotes by President Donald Trump, who declared in November that Hurricane Maria was not a “real catastrophe” and complained that the storm had thrown the “budget a little out of whack.” Trump announced in San Juan that the official death toll from the hurricane, allegedly 16 at the time, was the true measure of the government’s response. “ ‘We saved a lot of lives,’ he boasted, and then flew back home,” Bhatia said. “It was his way to scale back on emergency federal help and minimize the magnitude of the crisis after tossing around paper towels.”

The official hurricane death toll from the government of Puerto Rico is 64 deaths. “Then truth kicked in just this past week. The New England Journal of Medicine published a shocking report last Tuesday by Harvard’s School of Public Health. It estimates that 4,645 people died after Hurricane Maria,” Bhatia said. “The newly released study was conducted without the collaboration of Puerto Rico’s government, which the researchers said refused to provide data to them. A real catastrophe indeed that stems from government inaction, lying to the people, posturing, and being blind to reality. These are all symptoms of the ‘alternative facts’ culture.”

Bhatia said Puerto Rico’s electric utility is a monopoly, and 98 percent of the island’s power generation comes from burning fossil fuels. Less than 1 percent of the energy comes from solar power. “”We are hostages of an oil cartel of sorts, and yet, for decades the political leadership and the government of the island knew it but tolerated and even celebrated this culture of dishonesty and deceit,” he said, adding that when one challenges the monopoly, it means confronting angry interest groups. “From the left and the right; conservatives and liberals — the world of false stories and alternative facts is not confined to one ideology,” he said.

“In this climate of confusion, misinformation and lies, nothing is more powerful than the inconvenient truth of real facts, the strength of honor and the persistent sound of our voices, he said. “But let me warn you —  it can get very lonely out there in the wild forest of righting wrongs, and instilling honesty in public service.”

He challenged graduating seniors to “fight the alternative facts disease wherever you are, wherever you go, before it is too late” and told them to follow the principles of the honor code Princeton students created 125 years ago.

Democracy needs a commitment to personal integrity, he said. “Verify the sources of information, ask the hard questions, and educate others to do so,” he said. “You have had the best education in the world, and your generation has more access to technology and social media than any other before you. That comes with a responsibility to spread the truth.”

People need to speak up, hold others to high standards, and to take action, he said.

“Look around America today. There are fighters out there confronting the culture of lies and alternative facts, telling the truth and reporting violations of vital principles and values, just like Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movement did in the 1960s. Choose your cause and make your honest argument,” he said.

“We urgently need you to foster a national honor code to stop this ‘alternative facts’ disease that is weakening democracy,” he said. “Show the world what having honor is about, what an honor code is and how it works. You must become the generation to restore honor in America and the world. There is nothing more honorable than making people have hope in democracy again.”