It’s spring break. I’m actually writing this in advance, before I leave for 10 days of travel with my family (yes, we always take trips together; no, it’s not really relaxing, but if your six-year-old was as enamored of the National Park System as mine is, you couldn’t bear to ever leave him behind, either) to the Grand Canyon and points in between, including a rented RV (the twins’ dream, because they love fold-out beds).
So this is an intentionally uplifting post, even though it’s still pulled from inspiration from A Problem from Hell, and even though genocide is certainly the world’s least inspiring topic, under most circumstances.
But two of the most enduring portraits from the book, that I still think of pretty frequently, especially during this legislative session, are those of an advocate and an elected official, both using their respective roles and talents to combat one of the world’s greatest evils.
The author provides these two incredibly compelling images. First, Raphael Lemkin lobbying at the United Nations, and at the Nuremberg trials, working night and day to convince world powers of the need to specifically commit themselves to eradicating genocide. Those who saw him in that capacity “…recall the horror of many a correspondent and diplomat when the wild-eyed professor with steel-rimmed glasses and a relentless appetite for rejection began sprinting after them in the corridors, saying, “You and I, we must change the world”” (p. 51). Apparently, many UN delegates would eventually agree to vote for the genocide convention simply to stop Lemkin from cornering them for a long recitation of horror stories of genocide from history, in his attempts to persuade.
He was derided by many, who said that he was “doing his own cause harm” by not following supposed protocol…essentially, for believing that genocide was so horrific as to deserve priority attention, and refusing to bow to others’ protestations that he was moving too fast, or expecting too much, or being ‘uncouth’ in his insistence that others join him in this crusade.
After the UN adopted the genocide convention (but, of course, long before U.S. ratification), Lemkin was described in the New York Times as “that exceedingly patient and totally unofficial man” (p. 76).
We have similar, ‘unofficial’ advocates working for justice today–in environmental defense, anti-poverty policy, child welfare, and mental health–and their faithful witness to our collective failures is an indispensable part of the campaign for a better tomorrow.
Can anyone think of a better way to be remembered, than as a completely unreasonable champion of the greatest good?
The other profile is of a very different man, who nonetheless relief on similar tenacity and single-mindedness to leave a mark on public policy. Senator William Proxmire gave 3,211 speeches in the Senate every workday over 19 years urging ratification of the UN genocide convention. He used his speeches to educate and exhort, and his legacy is testimony to the fact that not all elected officials are just in it for power and prestige.
Politics is still an arena of social change and social action, and I need reminding of that about now, every year.
Proxmire spoke compellingly about the Cambodian genocide, using vivid language to make real the terror that Americans largely could not comprehend. He did it not because any of his constituents were demanding it, or because any interest group pressured him. Indeed, he ultimately lost his seat to a challenger who argued that he should spend more time working for the people of his state than for those whose lives were in danger around the world. He did it because it was right, and because he had the opportunity to use his position for good.
When the convention was finally ratified, Senator Patrick Moynihan said, “…I would like to salute the Senator, and say to him that he has enlarged the quality of this body, and certainly has made this Senator prouder still to be a member of it” (p. 167).
As a nonprofit lobbyist, I have often joked with elected officials that the only thing I can offer them (nonprofits aren’t much in for free concert tickets or fancy dinners out) is the satisfaction that comes from knowing they’re on the right side of history, and the opportunity to do a great thing.
Senator Proxmire serves as a reminder that, for some policymakers, that’s a powerful incentive, indeed.
If anyone has any other inspiring stories to share, of advocates or elected officials, in particular, whose stories have moved you, I’ll have Internet service at least sporadically in the mountains and the canyons, and I would love to be uplifted as I prepare to return.
We can all use a little inspiration.