Billed as a festival of daring ideas, the Courage Forum featured visionary and brave individuals who had overcome personal circumstance or the social status quo to blaze a trail that challenges contemporary thinking and inspires others.
When I was growing up, both my father and my grandfather always talked to me about the power of the individual in shaping society, that people of passion and conviction could and should shape the destiny not just of their own lives but of those around them and even shape history.
They subscribed to Immanuel Kant's view of history: he believed it is shaped by strong individuals whose ideas and values and voices stand out from the rest. Contrary to what Hegel argued later (that society inevitably develops ideas whose time has come), Kant, as well as my father and grandfather, thought that it was the duty of the individual to make brave and groundbreaking ideas salient and fight to bring them to society, leading by the example of our own moral choices.
My grandfather was an entrepreneur who survived the Nazis, the Soviets and then military juntas to set up a successful conglomerate and then a university and a charitable foundation that gave underprivileged individuals the tools to lead the lives they wanted. My father, of a more artistic bent, used his passion for politics and photography to produce Charlie Rose-style interviews with global leaders. He was the last person to interview both Anwar Sadat and Moshe Dayan before they died, recording their final views for posterity.
So when I was invited to the American Business Council's Courage Forum at MoMA last week, it was an invitation I could hardly resist.
Billed as a festival of daring ideas, the Courage Forum featured visionary and brave individuals who had overcome personal circumstance or the social status quo to blaze a trail that challenges contemporary thinking and inspires others. Just the list of speakers was itself inspirational and the conference's motto was: “The strong and the weak are both scared, but the strong overcome their fear.”
Bob Simon, the legendary war correspondent who spent 40 days kidnapped and tortured by the Iraqis during the first Gulf War of 1991, gave the perfect opening remark when he said that there's physical courage, but also moral and intellectual courage, but “if you don't think it's worth the risk, you don't get into the game.” While going into a war zone takes courage, he said, being a captive did not. “Once I was captured, it didn't take courage, just hope.” When he got out, not only did he write a book about his experience, entitled Forty Days, he founded the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Bob Simon was not the only war correspondent featured. The other one was John Lee Anderson, the international investigative reporter for The New Yorker who also wrote the definitive and bestselling biography of Che Guevara. For him, reporting on wars is a compelling moral duty, because, he said, there are two certainties: there will be more wars, and all wars leave lasting wounds. “But all wars must be chronicled, which is why I go to wars… To tell the story of our times, a journalist has got to go to wars — or at least a journalist interested in the world has to go to wars.”
Speaking of wars, there were also two former child soldiers from the war in Sudan. Lopez Lomong and Emmanuel Jal were both Lost Boys of Sudan; both were kidnapped (Lopez Lomong at age six), beaten, drugged and forced to kill. Lopez Lomong managed to escape one day, reach humanitarian aid and was eventually adopted by an American family. “We crawled through a hole in the fence and then ran and ran.”
At home, he said, he ran to survive; here in America, he ran for fun, as part of a team — the US Olympic team, to be exact. He was selected as the US Olympic team flag bearer in the 2008 Summer Olympics, and he has since used his life story and his fame in the US to tell people about life in Sudan and what has happened in Darfur.
Emmanuel Jal, on the other hand, was rescued by a British aid worker who took him to safety in Nairobi, where she raised him as her own and gave him an education. He has since penned an autobiography called War Child (which has been made into a documentary that won the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival) and become a renowned hip-hop star. He now sings about his savior, Emma McCune, and encourages everyone to adopt and save children and give them an education so that they can shape their own lives.
Another fought a political system to create a record of his colleagues's atrocities so his country could start to heal. Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre was the Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army between 2002 and 2006 and began the Truth and Reconciliation process that brought to light the tortures and murders committed under Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.
He thought it was critical to assume responsibility for what happened in the past. He rejected secrecy, sought and submitted evidence and subjected the military to civil tribunals, all in an effort to heal the rift between the Chileans and their military. It is his firm belief that the military had to form part of the society they were chartered to defend and had to gain their trust. “People are the root of the army and the army must not lose contact with that.”
For some, the battles are closer to home and usually urban. José Junior is the founder of Afroreggae, a program that encourages children of Rio's favelas to get involved with music rather than drugs or violence. Afroreggae currently helps 17,000 kids and has 74 projects in Brazil and abroad, including 2 circus acts, a theater, bands and a record label.
Isabel Miranda de Wallace is an anti-kidnapping activist in Mexico who started her personal crusade when her own son was kidnapped, following in a long Latin American tradition of political activist mothers, like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Argentine mothers of the “disappeared” in Argentina's “Dirty War” from 1976 to 1983. As a result of her struggle to find out what happened to her kidnapped son Hugo, she set up an organization to offer victims of kidnapping the psychological and legal assistance they need.
She is indeed a brave woman: when she asked the head kidnapper about her son, he took a gun out and pressed it to her forehead. “Yes, I am afraid, but fear won't hold me back. I use my fear to go forward to find out what happened with my son Hugo. In the process, I uncovered and confirmed four more kidnappings by the same group… We don't know what we're capable of because we don't have the impetus to develop these abilities, which only come to the fore when we are forced to develop them in difficult circumstances.”
Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the co-founder of Greenpeace, found his difficult circumstance at the end of a harpoon, when, after reading too much Gandhi, he thought it might be a good idea to place his body between it and a whale he was trying to save.
Capt. Watson waxes lyrical when he speaks of whales, a species he openly respects more than humans. “If the oceans die, we die. It's as simple as that… I measure intelligence by the ability to live in harmony with the ecosystem. By that measure, we are not an intelligent species.” So it's no surprise he views his boatload of volunteers as righteous revolutionaries, but thinks history is on their side: “All of the world's social revolutions have been due to the passion of small groups of people.”
Well, one not-so-small group is the Virgin Group, and its head, Sir Richard Branson, was the final speaker of the day. His story of how he started Virgin Atlantic Airways (when he was stranded in the BVIs and had to charter a flight to Puerto Rico and then sold seats to the other stranded passengers at the gate) illustrated his renowned motto: “Just screw it, let's do it,” an approach that has of course made him immensely wealthy.
But he views his work as part of a moral construct, each business endeavor as a moral choice. “With great wealth comes great responsibility. If you sell a company, the money should not stay rotting in a bank account, but go into something that changes the collective, start a new business.” After all, Sir Richard says: “The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.”
Out of all the speakers, the one who stares death regularly simply for fun and aesthetic sensibility, not profit or survival or a higher cause such as saving the planet, is Philippe Petit: the high wire walker immortalized in the Oscar-winning film Man on Wire for his walk between the Twin Towers. He held the stage like a rockstar, riveting the audience with his discombobulated lively chatter and artistic approach. But for more on him, you'll have to wait to read my interview of him in the next issue of Spear's.