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Outside Paradise

Kamaria Porter | Wednesday, August 25, 2004

When describing our Notre Dame student body, often the words “disengaged” and “apathetic” find their way in the conversation. The attendance of social justice activities and participation in campus demonstrations certainly support these descriptors, yet I feel this generalization may be too hasty. As people of consciousness and compassion, we all have something we care passionately about. The gamut of concern ranges from our own lives to the broader human community of this planet. While some show their passions more overtly, others hold back.

Yet, we are surely a community of overachievers. To be here at this prestigious university, ingenuity and diligence had to be a part of our characters. So, with such an able student body and injustice all around us to inspire oodles of moral outrage, why do Notre Dame students still get donned as uncaring automatons?

The more cynical view would suggest the achievements and eminent successes of many students have hardened their hearts to the worries of the outside world. Yet, this damning view only alienates the active crowds from everyone else. Perhaps a closer reflection may offer a better answer.

We all, as human beings, have something about which we are concerned. Whether it is family, friends, our future, or our descendants, we all have a reason to care for something beyond ourselves and beyond the present. The gap between caring and action that so many are weary of crossing then points to a sadder truth. Most people do not recognize their own power to change circumstances and are overwhelmed by the wrong they see in the world. This is understandable in such an individualistic and money-driven culture. As the robber barons and ruling classes of the present make decisions that dictate our freedoms and fortunes, it is hard to see how a group of compassionate people can influence the course of things.

Yet, all change and reform throughout history has been the result of countering power with power. Not the destructive power of violent force, for it only tears human bonds down and destroys lives. The appropriate description of power identifies two kinds in our culture – organized money and organized people. The latter – as seen in the legacies of the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage Movement and countless others – is the catalyst for real change of which we all can be a part.

It is important to recognize the power in a group of people organizing to change circumstances. More imperative, we must consider the influence inaction has on the course of things. Refusing to aid others in their struggle for justice does more to retard the process than the actions of their opposition.

Howard Zinn, activist, writer and historian, captures the context in which we should view our power and action in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.” The title comes from a phrase Zinn used often in his classes. For him, history is being made everyday. The course of things resembles a moving train, surging toward a foreseeable and sometimes negative end. The hope for preventing tragedy is inside us – also on the train. We all have the power to act, one way or another, to shift the course of history. Our success compounds when we form coalitions and organizations of concerned people to counter the powers of cynicism and self-interest with hope.

These are times that require us to act. Poverty, hunger and unemployment touch the lives of over 35 million Americans. Job growth is dangerously low, especially in this declared economic recovery. As high-paying manufacturing and technical jobs disappear from the American industrial landscape, people are faced with low paying, labor-intensive service-sector jobs. Many work full-time, yet still qualify for financial government assistance. State government budgets have cut funding to valuable social programs – especially education – to make up for ill-structured federal income and corporate tax cuts.

If you care about the well being of your peers and fellow citizens, you must be a part of a movement to change the course of our moving train. Without action, our collective fortunes will feature more people living without hope and the necessities for survival. We will never be the greatest society if the majority of our citizens struggle to gain the basic needs for life. We will never live up to our charter of freedom if we continue to stifle the voices of our citizens and declare their messages of hope to be unpatriotic. We will never be free from fear if we continue to be a dominating and unwelcome force throughout the world. We cannot secure the future for our descendants if we continue to exploit and pollute this planet.

From now to November, and for the rest of our lives, we must be on the side of active pursuit of justice. The activist in you exists where the concerns of your heart meet the injustice of the world. Do something.

Kamaria Porter is a junior history major. She spent the summer registering voters and would like to encourage everyone to register and vote this fall. Big cheers to NICWJ interns Mike, Brian, Leslie and Emily for their work this summer. She can be contacted at kporter@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.