Earth movers

Author: Anthony DePalma

When I spoke to Bill Moyers about his life and work several years ago, he took pains to describe the one thing he believed had most set apart his work on public television from the kind of journalism practiced by other commentators and reporters. All journalists can be divided into two basic groups, Moyers told me: those who explain the world, and those who strive to change it.

I think he actually used the phrase “those who are content to explain the world,” but putting it that way comes across as a bit contemptuous, and I don’t think he meant to put down anybody else’s work like that. He was simply pointing out a fundamental difference in the way he, a Baptist from southern Texas who attended the Southwestern Theological Seminary, saw this confusing, conflicted, gray-colored world.

Moyers clearly counted himself a member of the change squad. No one who is familiar with the kind of programs he has produced over several decades would deny that he viewed it as his personal duty to make this world a better place by criticizing, critiquing and exposing the foibles of government and corporate power brokers.

In an age when partisanship and ideology are worn like designer labels, this world view eventually got even Bill Moyers into trouble. His brand of objective truth came under attack by right-wing conservatives who had grabbed the reins of the Public Broadcasting Service. Moyers’ weekly news program, NOW, was studied for traces of liberal bias, each instance dutifully branded a violation of the public trust. They were tallied up, and Moyers soon was gone, at least temporarily, from the public airwaves.

Moyers had already announced that he was planning to leave the program to work on a book, but he knew he had been sandbagged, and he didn’t like it. He told the Associated Press: “I’m going out telling the story that I think is the biggest story of our time: how the right-wing media has become a partisan propaganda arm of the Republican National Committee. We have an ideological press that’s interested in the election of Republicans, and a mainstream press that’s interested in the bottom line. Therefore, we don’t have a vigilant, independent press whose interest is the American people."

I suspect we haven’t heard the last of Bill Moyers. Once engaged in the battle of ideas, it is hard to retreat and even harder to contemplate surrender. Moyers, in fact, had come to that kind of crossroads before. Although best known for his role as a critic of government, Moyers had earlier worked very much inside government. He was Lyndon Johnson’s special assistant for several years and later served as presidential press secretary. Moyers believed then that working within the system was the most effective way to bring about change, and he was immersed in the Great Society and the War on Poverty. In fact, he had been a deputy director of the Peace Corps, the ultimate 1960s symbol of trying to change the world by working within the system.

When LBJ declined to run for re-election, Moyers decided he could more effectively help reshape American society by fighting for change from outside the system. He switched to journalism, becoming publisher of Newsday on Long Island. A few years later he launched his public television career.

Moyers’ dramatic transition from government spokesman to government critic offers a keen insight into the entire concept of advocacy, or fighting for a better world. It seems to be made up of two legions: those who attempt to improve society by working within the system, and those impatient, idealistic, restless and sometimes unrealistic souls who are content only when they are raging against the system from outside in order to make it change more quickly, more dramatically, more profoundly.

Both sides have their figureheads. Such insiders as Winston Churchill, Pope John XXIII, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Gates and Jonas Salk brought about great change by working within the established arenas of their own realms. Outsiders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Nader, Steve Jobs, Lech Walesa and the Berrigan brothers fought, and sometimes raged, against the system in their own ways until they ultimately changed it.

Each side has had its victories; each has tasted bitter defeat. Much energy has been wasted pursuing failed ideas in support of or opposition to the established rules. Many believe that insiders, when they are successful, accomplish more in the short run, while outsiders have the chance to make changes that, in the long run, can turn out to be more profound. But no one can say with certainty which is right and which is misdirected.

Each approach has had its day. In the 1950s, and now again in the early years of the 21st century, dominated as they have been by terror, war and pressure to conform, working within the system has seemed to dominate. These days, “conformism has risen to new levels as capacities for self-criticism have eroded, both institutionally and individually,” says Eugene Halton, a professor in Notre Dame’s sociology department. In his view, college campuses have become far more conservative places, the views of students reflecting a watchful embrace of the system and a desire to work within its established rules. University administrators worry that too many students pursue business degrees, hardly a path of activism. There is security in being part of the system, and that system offers the possibility of effective, albeit incremental, change.

It wasn’t always so. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, starting in the rebellious 1960s, the established order was suspect. The struggle for social change spilled over into civil resistance, street demonstrations, anti-establishment attitudes and a wholesale rejection of the established order. Outsiders vowed to change the world forever.

A change in attitude?

The question then becomes: have social consciousness and attitudes about bettering society really changed, or did the rebels of the 1960s simply transform themselves into good soldiers of the new order by the time they, and their children, entered the 21st century? Even those who have been on the cutting edge of change find these times confusing. “I consider myself an insider,” says Halton, a blues harmonica player and author of Bereft of Reason. “But I find that the University has turned so much more closed, so much more bureaucratically conformist, and so remote from the real intellectual interests I hold that I feel much more like an outsider looking in from time to time."

Has the pace of technological and social change accelerated so much (Walkman one day, podcasting the next) that expectations of the value of individual action have diminished? Are there so many more choices today that activism has become institutionalized? Is it enough today to strive for economic justice by investing in a socially responsible mutual fund? Can the environment be saved if we just buy toilet paper made from recycled material? Is idealism dead?

For those who lived through the last few decades, it is tempting to answer yes, idealism is dead, or at least comatose. Consider how many ground-breaking ideas have been refuted or abandoned: The 1960s dream of building a world where “All You Need Is Love” ran smack into reality long before the death of 2,726 workaday people on an achingly clear September morning in 2001 was being justified as a settling of accounts. The Theology of Liberation so powerfully enunciated by Gustavo Gutierrez, now at Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies, had once promised to sweep away centuries of injustice in Latin America with a promise of new options for the poor. But the more conservative views of Pope John Paul II and a backlash against the violence triggered by liberation theology turned many people from it. And not everyone wept when it was gone.

I got to see firsthand the damage that the misguided application of Liberation Theology could wreak. While I worked in Mexico as a foreign correspondent, certain impoverished tribes of Maya Indians who had been emboldened by Catholic missionaries, organized by non-Indian 1960s radicals from northern Mexico and led by a mysterious green-eyed, pipe-smoking philosophy professor from Tamaulipas who called himself “Subcomandante Marcos” declared war on the Mexican government on the very day in 1994 that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect. The Indians who marched out of the Lacandon jungle of southern Mexico’s Chiapas state clearly had been encouraged by the bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Samuel Ruíz, whom they called Tata, or father. Soon after the armed Indian rebels appeared with their battered .22 rifles and pitiful rubber boots, the Mexican Army responded with tanks, missiles and bombs.

Shortly after, I asked Bishop Ruíz if he felt any personal responsibility for the violence. If he had been sitting at his window and happened to see two cars speeding toward the same intersection where they crashed, he answered cryptically, was he to blame for the deaths of the occupants of those vehicles? Ruíz became an active participant in the peace negotiations, but he never regained the full confidence of Mexican society because of the lingering suspicion that he had urged the Indians to change their world with rifles.

Marcos and the Indian leaders were protesting their exclusion from any of the economic benefits that modern Mexico enjoyed and the pending trade agreement, which they called a “death sentence” for Mexico’s poorest. Their short-lived war managed to rivet the attention of the Mexican government, and the romantic mystery of Marcos captivated idealists around the world. But in the three years that I covered their struggles, I saw little in the way of real progress that could have justified the deaths of at least 57 people. The rudimentary schools that had been inadequate before the fighting started were closed all together during the violence. The meager tourism trade that brought Europeans and a few Americans to such Mayan sites as Palenque in Southern Mexico dried up, reducing one of the only steady sources of income. And the young Indian men who joined the Zapatista rebel army, either by conviction or because they were forced, often returned after a year or two with the “army” with little more than a plastic poncho and, if they were lucky, the beat-up hunting rifle they had carried when they first left home.

Nonviolent action

Violence is an extreme form of working from outside the system. Sometimes—as in the Polish shipyards that Lech Walesa organized in the early 1980s—the hardest thing is convincing people that it is not the only option. Today, says George Lopez, senior fellow and professor of political science at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, many more forms of nonviolent action exist, even if revolutionary groups choose to ignore them.

“The weapon of choice for any social movement today is the laptop,” he said. “The great advantage of government before now was that it had a monopoly on information. But the information revolution turns out to be a great equalizer.” Statistics, reports and findings that a government might once have tried to keep secret are readily available on the Internet. Access to the media world, once tightly controlled in authoritarian regimes such as Communist China and Mexico under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, is no more than a few computer clicks away.

The Zapatistas in Mexico were one of the first revolutionary groups to test the power and reach of the Internet. But for all the attention Subcommandante Marcos received during those years, the real change taking place in Mexico was being led by a soft-spoken Mexican academic who rarely made headlines. Sergio Aguayo was a security analyst at the prestigious Colegio de México and an activist working to accelerate Mexico’s transition to democracy. His work started with the devastating 1985 earthquake that killed up to 10,000 people in Mexico City. The powerful tremors flattened 400 buildings, some of them multistory apartment houses that a decade later still entombed victims, and revealed the bankruptcy of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which proved incapable of handling the emergency. But the government’s very inadequacy was the catalyst for a surge of civic involvement.

In the absence of local, state or federal government assistance, residents turned to each other for help and realized they were capable of working together. From that chaos emerged a spirit of civic involvement that Aguayo and others seized upon. By the time I met him, Aguayo was in charge of a large and growing organization called the Alianza Civica. It worked strictly within the legal confines of the system, but in ways the government never imagined. Shamed by public pressure and the international scrutiny that came with NAFTA, the government made small concessions on electoral openness. The Alianza exploited those concessions and established its own troop of poll watchers to limit electoral fraud. They used their growing power to force candidates to campaign honestly and to live up to their promises.

By the historic elections of 2000, after 15 years of chipping away at the longest ruling party in the world, the opposition in Mexico finally was strong enough to wrest the presidency from the PRI, which gave up power without a fight. The first peaceful transition in modern Mexican history had been achieved entirely within the law, a model of success for working inside the system to bring about change.

By then I was no longer living in Mexico, having been transferred to the other end of America where I was covering Canada just as the map of North America was being redrawn for the first time in half a century.

On a frightfully frigid night in April 1999, when the temperature in the ice-cloaked city of Iqaluit on the tip of Baffin Island, not far from the Arctic Circle, was a skin-blistering 45 below zero, I stood next to Paul Okalik, an Inuit lawyer. As the clock struck midnight, the frozen landscape all around us and for a thousand miles to the west officially became what the Inuit had always known it as—Nunavut, the land of the people. The Northwest Territories of Canada had been split in two, and the easternmost part, about the size of Western Europe and covered in snow, became a separate territory, with Okalik its first minister.

Inuit represented 85 percent of the population of 27,000 people. Therefore, under the law, they took a majority of the seats in the new territorial assembly. In essence, it was their own land, and they had won it after a long struggle of words, arguments and legislation. Not a drop of blood had been shed; there had been no demonstrations or violence. Okalik and others had persistently, even stubbornly, made their case within the Canadian system that they should control their own destinies. It had taken an entire generation. The first meek demands dated back to 1976. The law calling for the creation of Nunavut was finally passed in 1993. And the territorial legislature was not seated in the legislative building, which is shaped like an igloo, until 1999. Still, it was a stunning example of working within the system.

And it seemed an even more notable achievement a few days later when I had to travel from Toronto to Tirana, Albania, and from there make my way over bombed-out roads north to the Yugoslav border province of Kosovo. Like the Inuit, the Kosovars believed they should have the right to control their own destiny. The governing Serbs were unwilling to give up control over the province or to live peacefully with the Kosovars, most of whom are Muslim. Out of desperation, the Kosovars had formed the Kosovo Liberation Army. The Serbs began a campaign of terror to force the Muslims out. Soon a long line of tractors streamed over the lone bridge connecting Kosovo with Albania. Each one pulled a hay wagon loaded with all the belongings the families could gather in the few minutes before they were forced to flee.

I jumped onto one of the tractors and, with the help of a translator, listened to the tragic story of Ymer Behrami, who had been run out of his home in Prizren at the end of a Serb gun. I was with him and hundreds of thousands of people like him for two months, listening to the gunshots and the bombings. In contrast to the Inuit, the Kosovars had tried to change their world by working from outside the system. Given the rigid Yugoslav government in Belgrade, they felt they had no choice but violence. I couldn’t help but think of how different they were in that regard from the Inuit and yet how similar. Their goals were identical; their approaches radically different. Was the split warranted? In Kosovo, only violence seemed sufficient to overcome the hatred of ethnic and religious rivalries stretching back centuries. It was difficult to imagine the Kosovars achieving their goals by working with Slobodan Milosevic.

Certainly, in cases such as these, it is desperation that drives people to battle the system rather than to work with it, a violence begat by violence, a blindness triggered by blindness. Rationality can sometimes be at a premium when dealing with nation states and madmen. Most of us will never have to make such a choice.

Choices today

Given such opposing views of the world and the two separate crusades for social betterment, what kind of guidance is there for young people facing the same choice today? Insider? Outsider? Violence? Nonviolence? Some individuals are so certain of what needs to be done to improve the world that they experience no hesitation at all.

Jill Carroll is a young reporter who, when the war in Iraq was launched, realized it was unlikely that she’d have the chance to participate in the biggest story of her life from home. More than that, she didn’t want to just parachute into Iraq, spend a few weeks embedded in a U.S. Army division, and then return with bylines and bragging rights. She felt that in order to make a difference she had to embed herself in Iraqi culture, eat what they eat, listen to what they listen to, see the world the way they see the world. “Covering the war gives journalists an opportunity to recall the noblest tenets of their profession,” Carroll wrote last year in the American Journalism Review. These are the words of an idealist.

So she went to Iraq on her own accord, selling her freelance articles to whichever publication was willing to pay to print them. Soon she was contributing regularly to the Christian Science Monitor. She dressed in a burka to better blend in, and she learned enough Arabic to get along. She felt that she was helping resolve the crisis by not only explaining this crazy world at war but also attempting to change the world with advocacy journalism. “The sense that I could do more good in the Middle East than in the U.S. drove me,” she wrote.

Early in 2006 she was kidnaped as she was on her way to interview an Iraqi official. Ironically, it may be her kidnaping, more than anything she wrote, that does the most to bring both understanding and change to Iraq. A few weeks after she was abducted, Iraqi television began running spots urging that she be released. It was the first time the Iraqi system had attempted to intervene in that way, and it may someday mark a turning point in which the new post-Saddam Hussein Iraq manifested a new culture. Had she been content to work within the confines of the system, it would not have happened.

Most people though do not follow so direct a path as Carroll, who was released by her captors March 30. More often, it is a meandering trek over bumpy terrain, and the final destination may never be reached. That is the kind of journey taken by two men named Steve whom I have come to know. I admire both tremendously for the work they do, but mostly it is the moral compass within them that makes me see them, and the world, in a different way.

I have known Steve Valero, a Boston lawyer, since we both were teenagers in the same Catholic high school in New Jersey. Valero started out studying to be an engineer, then took a radical turn, switched schools, got involved in campus politics and went on to an arduous joint law/ Ph.D. program in Buffalo. When he finished up his studies he went to work for a small neighborhood organization, intent on improving the lives of the less fortunate. Soon it was clear that his sights were higher than that. In time he turned his back completely on the “normal” life of a lawyer. He joined a legal aid group in Boston, and he has worked there in the area of housing and homeless advocacy for almost two decades, often hauling the city and state governments into court to force them to change boneheaded and sometimes malicious regulations that punish the powerless. Some see his work as advocating from outside the system, but Valero disagrees.

“There is nothing more inside than the legal system,” he told me. Rather, he sees progressive lawyers as “equalizers” who can bring balance to the lopsided power relationship between landlords and poor tenants. “All I really seek are things like equal treatment under law, everyone treated with respect and dignity, a fair shake, “ Valero explains. “And I interpose whatever skill or will that I have into situations to effectuate this. If this is ’radical’ in a society that purports to be founded on these principles, so be it. The main point is that while I, as a lawyer, am technically an ’insider,’ the people I represent are without a doubt ’outsiders.’"

The other Steve is Steve Reifenberg, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1981 with degree in philosophy and a head full of ideas about changing the world. He boldly decided to go to Chile to work as a volunteer in an orphanage in a poor neighborhood of the capital city, Santiago. But at the end of two years he realized any contribution he had made there “paled in the face of so much poverty, repression, violence and need."

The neighborhood in Santiago where he worked may not have changed at all, but Reifenberg had, and the experience had a profound effect on his life. Working outside the country and outside the system, he learned that the world was far more complicated than he had imagined. But he also realized that understanding the extent of that complexity was “a critical piece of making a difference.” He learned the strength of optimism, and the reach of idealism. In the end, although he didn’t consider his work in Chile a success in the traditional sense, he learned it is not necessarily a bad thing to have big dreams, even if they fall short of the mark.

Reifenberg returned to the United States, got a master’s degree in journalism and one in public policy at Harvard, where he went to work in the area of Latin American affairs. In 2002 he returned to Chile with his family. He now runs Harvard’s regional office for South America. He helps students on semester-abroad programs in Latin America (including some from Notre Dame who find their way to him) and he places dozens of idealistic Harvard undergrads who, like himself 20 years ago, yearn to make a difference.

He is not sure whether he is working from inside the system or outside. “Much of the most important things I do are not part of my job description,” Reifenberg says. “I have worked for Harvard for a very long time, and that is definitely ’inside’ the system. But even within the university, very much of what I do is new for the university, a work in progress.” He often finds himself creating spaces for people with different, often conflicting ideas, so they can get to know one another and work together.

“So it is using my role from ’inside’ an institution like Harvard to reach outward to build bridges and create spaces to bring together people to see new possibilities that might have been difficult without such a safe place,” he says. This is similar to the approach that George Lopez counsels: If you’re going to be fighting the system from outside, first make sure you have allies who can carry the fight “inside."

Based on the students Reifenberg sees, the ones he calls “outlyers” because they are willing to take so many chances, he does not think idealism is dead. “I often feel I am dealing with young people who are much more sophisticated than I was at their age,” he says. “The ones that I see down here are more willing to ask me hard questions than I would have ever done. Many are more analytical. Many have traveled widely, and have studied and are knowledgeable about specific policy areas such as health reform or educational policy, and they ask systemic questions . . . all things I did not do or know at their age."

Reality of making changes

Both Steves show how what begins as a yearning to do something positive can collide with the reality of how difficult it is to make anything change for the better. And that, over time, can lead to frustration, then cynicism, and finally apathy. Some take that first step and never look back, while many others find themselves, on a cold Friday night in winter, wondering about vacations and taxes and what happened to that urge to change the world. Individual decisions, tough to make, are even tougher to keep.

“I have seen countless folks starting out wanting to change the world, but they get frustrated and burn out,” Valero said. “While everyone certainly has to set their own goals, from where I sit, many of these folks went about it the wrong way. From the beginning, it was obvious to me that I was never in a million years going to change the world.” Rather, he said, his goals have always been modest—and kid-sized. He focuses on the children. “My role is to try to be sure they have a roof over their heads and can go to school, “ he says. “I need these kids in my office, on my lap. I need to look into their eyes, see their tears, feel the pain, but see the potential."

Valero says a quote from Sydney Smith (1771¬–1845), the English minister and defender of the oppressed, guides him: “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little."

Now, as I watch my own children try to find their version of the world, I am loathe to give advice, for I know that exploration and detours are part of the process of discovery. I am certain they will find their own way to blend ideals and practicality, bridging the system from inside and from outside. Aahren ’04 has gone on to law school, and Laura Felice (Tufts ’05) is exploring the business world. But when the youngest, Andrés (Duke ’07), asks me about his future, and all the tough choices he will be forced to make, I find that there is only one reliable bit of advice I can offer, based on what I’ve seen in 20 years as a reporter and correspondent around the world. It is remarkably like the advice Reifenberg offers the starry-eyed undergrads who come to see him in Santiago. He tells them, “Simply start somewhere. Start in an area you are interested in. Listen. Explore. Learn. Try to help out. You won’t ever make a contribution if you don’t start somewhere."

I tell my own kids that their first steps after graduation put them on a track but do not lock them into a direction. What I tell them is that no one can force you to stay on that same path, no one but you. Be open to the world, consider all options and always keep your sights high, whether you choose to work within the system or to rage with clenched fists against it. But whatever you choose, be guided always by the moral compass that is embedded within the living tissue of your heart.

Anthony DePalma is a writer with The New York Times and the author of The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times.