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Although the war in Iraq was fought between bureaucrats over policy, the people of the country continue to define it, a progressive activist told students last night in Harvard Hall.
In a speech and discussion organized by the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice (HIPJ), Tom Cornell addressed an intimate gathering of students on a wide variety of issues, including the ongoing conflict in Iraq and personal anecdotes from his life-long career of political action.
Though a low turnout sparked an impromptu debate over a lack of political interest on campus, those who attended the talk said it turned out to be informative and thought-provoking.
“Tom represents someone who, rather than being an ‘expert’ on the subject of activism, has a lot of real-life experience,” said Susan E. McGregor ’05, who is herself a member of HIPJ.
Cornell, who is an active member of the Catholic Iraqi activism group Voices in the Wilderness, spoke about his pre-war trip to Baghdad, describing the sights he saw just before the outbreak of war.
“I found a child on the street at 11 o’clock at night crying to himself. His father was in jail because he was a thief. His mom worked at night,” he recounts.
Rather than political goals, he says, it is the children and adults whom he befriended during his three-week stay which represent for him the most compelling reason to return to the country.
“When we go to Iraq,” Cornell said, “we’re not just tourists, popping in and out of [Iraqis’] lives. When you make a friend it’s a commitment.”
During the course of his talk, Cornell also touched on the upcoming presidential election, issues facing African-Americans and the corruption of the media.
Responding to students’ voiced concerns over a potentially depoliticized Harvard community, the 70-year-old preacher offered his own life experience as inspiration.
“I started the first demonstration against the war in Iraq,” he said. “It had two people in it.”
Students took Cornell’s remarks as a challenge—that a political movement could be started by a few, motivated people—and offered their own perspectives on addressing local and global issues.
Gustavo Espada ’96 sparked heated debate when he said even a multilateral effort in Iraq would not have the interest of the middle- and lower-classes in mind.
“The ruling class has more in common with the ruling classes of other countries than with the common people of their own,” he said.
Though HIPJ members appeared eager to discuss solutions with Cornell, the activist said that more people had to be part of the conversation in order to have a real impact.
“What would it take to fill this auditorium?” Cornell asked as he peered out over the empty rows in the Harvard Hall lecture room.
The subject of political interest was prevalent at the event, with different people offering perspectives on what some called a “dead campus.”
Susan McGregor ’05 attributed the sparse interest in political events to “a fractionalized liberal movement” in which liberal groups overextend themselves by espousing a wide variety of issues.
But discussion is always a good start, audience members said. Joe Flood ’04, the HIPJ member who organized the event, said he was happy with how it went.
“We had a small setting and it’s rare that you have the opportunity to break down these issues with someone so knowledgeable,” said Flood, who is also a Crimson editor.
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