In one of the most hypocritical graduation speeches in recent memory, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson launched a thinly veiled but scathing critique of President Donald Trump.
“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” the former Exxon CEO told Virginia Military Institute graduates Wednesday.
Media coverage focused on the “veiled rebuke of President Trump,” who is “prone” to lying and exaggeration, as the New York Times put it.
But we must remember that the lies of ExxonMobil are unique in the annals of climate and corporate history (see here and below). And they have been as destructive to the future of America as any of Trump’s lies.
Let’s start with the speech, in which Tillerson argues, “An essential tenet of a free society, a free people, is access to the truth.” He repeatedly invoking the biblical saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
This leads to his core message:
If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom. This is the life of nondemocratic societies, comprised of people who are not free to seek the truth.
Tillerson asserts, “It is only by fierce defense of the truth and a common set of facts that we create the conditions for a democratic, free society, comprised of richly diverse peoples, that those free peoples can explore and find solutions to the very challenges confronting the complex society of free people.”
Those words are indisputably true. It’s also indisputable that this was a thinly veiled rebuke of President Trump. After all, it was Trump’s Counselor, Kellyanne Conway, who infamously uttered the phrase, “alternative facts,” in January 2017.
But it is also indisputable that ExxonMobil has been a leader of the anti-science disinformation campaign aimed at destroying a common set of facts on climate change. Exxon, to use Tillerson’s words, was thereby undermining “the conditions for a democratic, free society” to “explore and find solutions” to one of America’s greatest challenges.
Tillerson worked for ExxonMobil his entire professional life, starting at age 23 in 1975. So for as long as Tillerson worked there, Exxon has known its product posed a serious threat to a livable climate.
But like any morally bankrupt corporate villain, the company decided to become the biggest financer of false information and alternative reality on climate science and climate solutions, rather than warning the nation about this potentially catastrophic — but quite preventable — threat to humanity.
Since 1997, Exxon spent more than $30 million funding dozens of groups that spread climate misinformation. Tillerson himself held senior executive positions at the company since 1999, becoming senior vice president of the whole corporation in 2001. He was then elected president and a member of the board in March 2004, and finally became CEO on January 1, 2006.
Not only did Tillerson lead Exxon during its misinformation binge, he was in charge during one of its biggest lies. In its Orwellian-titled “2007 Corporate Citizenship Report,” Exxon asserted, “In 2008, we will discontinue contributions to several public policy research groups whose positions on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.”
Despite that promise, Exxon never stopped funding such groups. Those were just vague words, as slippery as oil — ab alternative reality — designed to mislead the public and the media.
In 2015 alone, Tillerson’s company gave more than $860,000 to such science-denying groups as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), American Enterprise Institute, National Black Chamber of Commerce, and Manhattan Institute of Policy Research. And let’s not forget the $5,000,000 Tillerson gave to the anti-science U.S. Chamber of Commerce from 2014–2018.
Yet without a trace of irony, Tillerson told the VMI graduates:
A responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what the truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not, and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness, and demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking; not hopeful outcomes made in shallow promises; but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges.
By his own standard, Tillerson has been one of the most irresponsible American citizens in recent memory.