Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Where art thou, O Brother of the 60's?

In December of 1969, when 25-year old Denis Hayes is hired by U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson to direct a country-wide “teach-in” on environmental issues, he leaves his graduate studies at Harvard University and gathers a small gang of college graduates to plan what will become the first Earth Day. By the time that day arrives on April 22, 1970, some 2,000 colleges and universities and 10,000 primary and secondary schools join the movement. It is estimated that 20 million participate across the country, keeping alive the memory and the legacy of Rachel Carson, who is credited as the creative spark behind the modern environmental movement. Though Carson passed away just two years after her book Silent Spring was published in 1962, (she had been suffering from breast cancer and its painful treatment while also facing opposition to her work, with accusations of being a “peace-nut” and a communist) her compelling work created enough momentum to eventually eradicate the use of DDT in pesticides. But during this time, young men and women from the West begin to actively embody the phrase “to live is to participate” even outside America. Decades ago, roadside chai stalls in Pakistan and Afghanistan were frequented by shaggy and shabby Westerners along what came to be known as the “Hippie trail.” What the locals in Peshawar or Kabul or Tehran must have thought of these goras I can hardly imagine; the scene is several stretches of the imagination away from the unfortunate reality of today.


I have been reading on the phenomenon of Bohemianism for a while and am particularly fascinated by the people of the 60s for their part in a long history of dissent and their contribution to social change. So, at the Writers Festival event “Campaigning for Justice” with Jo Becker, when the Development Director of the Writers’ Festival mentions he is a child of the 60’s, I am instantly hooked, even though I was completely absentminded a moment ago and thus didn’t catch his name. That decade was a time of social upheaval and it laid the ground for several movements today. The activism of the 60’s took place, as Neil Wilson says (I catch his name when I meet him after the talk), in response to “a world that was out of whack with what we felt.” He introduces Jo Becker to the stage to discuss her book Campaigning for Justice , an examination of several important human rights campaigns and the new emerging tools employed in campaigning.


In speaking with activists, Becker finds something affirming, a fairly common element that speaks to our oft asked question, “Well, what can I do?” A number of the persons she speaks with are “accidental activists,” people who found themselves in their respective positions without ever having really known that they would be there, or how. Becker, who has been with the Human Rights Watch for the last 16 years, identifies herself as one of these accidental activists. During college, she was interested in the area of human rights, and her current work grew out of an internship position in New York. When she was asked to teach a course on campaigning for human rights at Columbia University and began to assemble a reading list, she quickly realized how much of the material on the subject focused on theory and law, but little on advocacy. I myself have seen some of this material that seeks to address those perennial issues of poverty and education in the undeveloped world through the machinations of progress.


In her book, Becker lists a number of factors or tools that give an advocacy campaign its legs—a better chance to succeed. The first one, research, is not only the starting point but, I believe, also the road you get on and stay on till the end. It’s all about knowing your facts and having them straight. In one instance, research was a critical component in the campaign against life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders, a sentence that contravenes international law but is endorsed by certain states in the U.S. The campaign uncovered that 60% of the offenders who receive this sentence are actually first time offenders, and that many of them were not even directly involved, but rather complicit in the act, at times even unknowingly.


Another tool is the advantage of broad based alliances, bringing together different voices in the campaign. The example Becker presents is that of NGOs working together with U.S. Congressional allies in the case against former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Taylor had been charged with several counts of war crimes, counts of crimes against humanity—including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and mutilation—and one count of a serious violation of international law on account of recruiting and using child soldiers. When Taylor finally steps down from power in 2003, he flees to neighbouring Nigeria where he is granted comfortable asylum. However, Interpol issues a Red Notice and the newly elected President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, submits a request of extradition to Nigeria. The Nigerian government agrees to release Taylor but—and no, as likely as it may seem, this is not a Robert Ludlum novel, or is it?—a few days after that agreement, Taylor “disappears.” However, less than two days after Taylor goes missing, Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo is scheduled to meet with then-U.S. president George Bush. The campaign against Taylor quickly directs its strength toward pressuring and convincing Bush to deny meeting with Obasanjo until he gives up Taylor. Bush agrees, the demand is made, and less than 12 hours before the scheduled meeting, Charles Taylor is “found.” When he is finally tried, Taylor is sentenced to 50 years’ imprisonment. To make a long story short, though we need the long stories of campaigns because they are made up of continuous effort and struggle and should not be trivialized and forgotten, it is the constant deliberation and action of the campaign along with its spread-out alliances that provide it the strength to act effectively. The reference to alliances also reflects on another tool that Becker mentions, which is the use of multiple points of leverage and multiple strategies, which are important because human rights advocacy, as she mentions more than once, is not so much a science as an art.


Listening to Jo Becker speak about the case against Charles Taylor, and reading about it afterwards, begins to answer a question prompted by my reading on Bohemianism: “What happened that dampened the spirit of the 60s and the 70s?” Likewise, at the start of the event, Neil Wilson reiterates his son’s question to him: “Where are you guys from the 60s now?” Did the voices of dissent become disillusioned and turn to despair instead? Perhaps. Though we might be missing the fervour of that time, and might have more than our fair share of “slacktivists,” and often times just simply don’t know what we can do, one person I met after the event helped to turn the tide of apathy and complacency we are all liable to give in to. The lady, in response to a question I had asked the speaker, invited me to a forum in Toronto which discusses issues of activism and encourages corporations to act with social justice. I was pleasantly surprised; I had only heard of how people meet in such events and form these alliances, as Jo Becker herself had mentioned. “We’re trying to do our part” she replied, in response to my surprise. Anyone got a VW van they want to get rid of?