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Virtue as an obligation, not a choice

John Sandberg | Monday, September 5, 2011

Over the past 10 days there has been fighting, not over the urgent business and weighty content of a political speech and debate, but rather the scheduling of said speech and debate.

Football fans followed the story of a running back threatening not to work (that is, take the ball and run) because the millions he previously earned for playing the game (er, doing his job) was insufficient. Many observed the restless sociopolitical climate of Libya and others surveyed the footage of the damage done by the flooding of Tropical Storm Irene.

One month ago, a famine in Somalia unfolded with intensity equal to that of the tumult in Libya or the storms that wreaked havoc on the Atlantic coast.

We followed Anderson Cooper through the stifling cluster of shoddy tents that formed the largest refugee camp in the world. Most arresting of all in these disheartening broadcasts was our realization of the inability to deliver relief.

For each instance in which we were informed of humanitarian agencies accepting money, we were equally informed of the grim prospects of that aid actually arriving, due to a blockade enacted by militants in the region. Thugs with guns were locking food away from the starving. And we were half a world away, unable to stop it.

Soon enough, news shifted to a Republican straw poll in Iowa. The economy overtook headlines in Washington. Anderson Cooper was back in New York. Frank Gore was still playing football in San Francisco, and still upset with his $6.9 million.

Unfortunately, the end of a news cycle does not the termination of a crisis make. The UN Refugee Agency regards malnutrition of one percent of children in an area to be “alarming.” As of Sep. 2, one refugee camp along the Ethiopia-Somalia border screened 19 percent of arriving children as being afflicted with severe acute malnutrition. The crisis rages on — broadcast into our homes or not.

For clarity, I’ll first state that I do not believe Washington is the cause of a humanitarian disaster, nor do I feel job creation is a petty issue.

I do not believe Anderson Cooper prays on crises for journalistic purposes. (In fact, I find Cooper to be one of the most sincere reporters in his business). I do not underestimate the significance of the uprisings in Arab nations, nor do I take lightly the effect that Irene will have for years to come.

I am not lamenting the revolving door that is the modern media news cycle. Despite the absurdity of annual preseason holdouts, I am not asserting animosity against Frank Gore or the National Football League (big things coming from Cutler and Da Bears in 2011 … ).

However, we cannot allow the major issues that Somalia presents fizzle away. The matters must be confronted, not folded into oblivion like the story itself. There should be no other option. As a college student familiar with the tired challenge to “change the world for the better,” my hope is to persuade you with a more practical approach to our education. It may mean nothing, it may motivate someone for a day, or it may do something else. In any case, here goes nothing.

If Notre Dame students don’t alleviate the world’s poverty and injustice, who will? This is not a rhetorical question. For most of us who believe this is the greatest university in the world, there is no other answer. In every discipline, there should be a motivating sense of the virtue that Provost Thomas Burish illustrated as “value that advances the cause of the human family.” Poverty can be abolished by those who truly buy into this message.

The virtue is seen in international relations and political science majors who examine the factors that let neglectful government maintain power.

It is seen in students of science and medicine striving to unearth better treatments. It is seen in the desire of engineers and architects who make the world a more livable place. It is in the humanities students who study the effect of language and culture in a troubled world.

For those rolling eyes that are still reading this — thanks for sticking around! I ask you not to focus on the voice or the clichéd message, but the benefactors of the message. I don’t expect you to approach your work with renewed ambition because a no-name Observer columnist encouraged you to do so.

But I ask you to consider the virtue that this school stands upon and to think of those who desperately await the results of that virtue. Once this is done, we will not be discouraged or hopeless or dejected. Rather, we will be persistent, resolute and unwavering in knowing that there is not a more qualified assembly to attack the problems than us.

John is a sophomore English major from Littleton, Colo. He is a fan of the Chicago Cubs, Dave Matthews Band and good Mexican food. He can be reached at jsandbe1@nd.edu

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