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Remarks at the 2012 Humanity in Action Benefit

Ron Chernow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, delivered special remarks at the the 2012 Humanity in Action Benefit honoring Patricia Barbizet, Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Ron Chernow. The benefit was held at the Consulate General of France in New York City on Thursday, November 8, 2012.

Dr. Judith Goldstein, Humanity in Action Executive Director, introduced Mr. Chernow with the following remarks. Mr. Chernow's full speech follows Dr. Goldstein's introduction.

Remarks by Dr. Judith Goldstein

"Mary Morgan who is sitting next to Ron Chernow this evening published a bold book, Beginning with the End last spring. At her book party last spring, she told her admiring audience that in addition to the pleasure of writing and publishing the book, it was a thrill that she could have made a book that might stand on a bookshelf next to one of Ron’s. I found this such a touching compliment to Ron. 

It is praise well deserved for this prolific and best selling author. It is rare that one has the good fortune to know a writer who has created an oeuvre that will be read for hundreds of years.  Ron has done that over the past twenty years. He has already established himself as one of the very few—maybe a group of 5 at most--of great American biographers and historians who demand of themselves prodigious research, profound insights and beautiful writing. 

There are other characteristics that make Ron’s work unusually distinguished. One is his underlying concern, especially in the biographies of Rockefeller, Hamilton and Washington—and the one on Grant which is in the making--about that elusive but ever powerful concept of the our public good. Through his biographies Ron plunges into that confounding American mix of aspirations, ideals, political and economic challenges—a mix that has produced astounding American achievements as well as destructive impulses and tragedies that still mark our contemporary society. 

I suspect it is equally rare to find a great writer who is a lovely human being: curious, concerned with others, fun, game for adventure and a dear friend. Ron is that as well. How honored we are to honor him for his achievements—both literary and personal."


Remarks by Ron Chernow 

"Thank you Judy for that lovely introduction. You know, I’m always happy to promote the work of Humanity in Action. At a time of political gridlock and partisan sniping, it’s inspiring to see what one person, blessed with vision and determination, can do. I have followed Judy’s progress from the earliest days when she bravely operated Humanity in Action out of her own apartment. And I am astounded that, from such modest beginnings, she has now brought forth an international community of twelve hundred activists, spanning seven countries, and growing each year. It is just a stupendous feat and I am proud to call her my friend.

I don’t know quite how to describe my admiring relationship to Humanity in Action. A groupie, deadhead, fellow-traveler, hanger-on. Take your pick. This summer I was fortunate enough to attend the Humanity in Action Conference in Sarajevo and it was not only a thrill to meet so many people versed in the byzantine complexities of Balkan politics and to actually visit a war crimes tribunal—not exactly an everyday occurrence—and to tour the city with the Bosnian general who had been assigned to defend it during the protracted siege.

But arguably the biggest thrill was simply to meet so many dazzling young Humanity in Action fellows. I confess that to my world-weary eyes they all seemed bright and charming, beautiful and idealistic, capable and determined. In a world bogged down in crises, they left me feeling that powerful forces for change are surging through the younger generation. Even in the haunted and somber precincts of Sarajevo, the Humanity in Action Conference left me feeling totally uplifted.  

Now the young people who pass through the Humanity in Action program are all committed to change and social justice. And so I found myself wondering what lessons I, as George Washington’s most recent biographer, could pass along to them? What are the essential ingredients for deep, sustained change? The question seems to cry out for timely answers as many Middle-Eastern countries struggle to shape new democracies after the fall of their authoritarian regimes. 

You know, Americans tend to pinch themselves with wonder when they contemplate the American Revolution and how we managed to throw off the domination of a distant imperial power. At the time it seemed inconceivable that thirteen small colonies, clinging to the eastern seaboard of North America, could defeat the British army and navy, then the world’s most powerful military machine, and create a thriving new government from scratch. How on earth did we find the leadership to do that? 

Well, the constitution created in 1787 mandated a census every ten years. The first census, in 1790, showed a nation of only three million people—in other words, fewer people than the combined populations of Brooklyn and Queens today. Yet in that tiny group we had simultaneously active in American politics George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. The American all-star team. In 2010, by contrast, the most recent census revealed a population of 308 million people—about a hundred times greater than at our founding. And yet we would all be hard pressed to name a single political figure today of the stature of any of the seven men I just named. Even Barack Obama, for all his many political gifts, doesn’t rank quite that high. Yes, there are plenty of bright people around nowadays, but we are unlikely to find them in Washington.

So how did we get so lucky back then? At the time, many religious people attributed our good fortune to divine providence. For them, god hovered anxiously over every revolutionary war battlefield. God sat intently through every session of the constitutional convention. But being a secular historian, I searched for other answers. And the theory that I came up with is that under ordinary circumstances, creative and intellectual people are shunned in the political arena. They’re simply too subversive, too unsettling, too outspoken. But when you suddenly have a war to fight, a constitution to craft, a federal government to forge—suddenly these brilliant but often difficult people are swept into the very center of political life. A vacuum opens up that needs to be filled with fresh ideas. John Adams said that the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have given anything to be alive in the 1780s and 1790s. And indeed, both in America and in France, the best minds of the time were all powerfully drawn into politics.

During revolutionary periods, the personal becomes intensely political. Take the case of George Washington, an absolutely improbable revolutionary. As a young man, he craved status and power. He yearned to mingle in the elite world of the Virginia gentry. The young Washington had a long list of purely personal grievances against the British: they had denied him a royal commission in the regular army; they sold his tobacco for inferior prices in London and then turned around and sold him shoddy goods in return; they banned settlement west of the Allegheny mountains at a time when he was avidly amassing real estate there. But then, with the stamp act and other oppressive taxes, he suddenly realized that the deck was stacked, not just against him, but against all of the colonists and that his personal grievances merely reflected larger political problems. And voila, a political star was born.

One of many things that I love about Humanity in Action is that it gives these young fellows the practical tools to foster change. The workshops, conferences, and study groups deal with pressing political issues, yes, but they also center on how to create communities of activists. The fellows are all first-class networkers and I mean that as a compliment. You see, real change occurs in history when the poetry of ideas is mingled with the prose of organization. The American Revolution, like its French counterpart, resonated with soaring rhetoric and ringing words. Give me liberty or give me death. These are the times that try men’s souls. Etc. Etc.

But delve deeper into the moment and you find an absolute mastery of organization. Boy did these people love committees and congresses, papers and petitions. There was the First Continental Congress, the Second Continental Congress. The Confederation Congress. The Constitutional Convention. The Constitutional ratifying conventions. For every group of rabble-rousers like the Sons of Liberty, there was an active committee of correspondence, busily scribbling letters to other colonies and coordinating actions. (We saw this the other night with the Obama get-out-the-vote organization.) General George Washington was not some utopian ideologue, but a superb organizer and administrator. He had to juggle fourteen political masters: the Continental Congress and thirteen state governors, all of whom drove him absolutely crazy, and he was more than equal to the task.

You see, in trying to control their colonies, the British had committed a major blunder by having schooled the colonists in self-government. Like Washington, most of the American revolutionary leaders had served for extended periods in colonial assemblies and on royal councils. They weren’t political amateurs. And not surprisingly, they got the foolish notion in their heads that they didn’t need the King of England and could govern themselves perfectly well. The British, thank god, made the identical blunder in Africa and Asia, imbuing their colonists with the very ideals and training that would then be turned against them. Remember, the American colonists rebelled against their British masters in the name of violated British liberties.

Now, I can imagine that a bright group of Humanity in Action fellows, sitting here tonight listening to my presentation, would object, but Mr. Chernow, we are not living through revolutionary times. The conditions you describe don’t apply. Well, in response, I will try to draw one final lesson from my reading of revolutionary history. A lot of the hard intellectual labor occurs, not during revolutionary times, but during the quiet periods that precede them. As a young writer, I was very influenced by Arthur Schlesinger’s great trilogy about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He showed that during the 1910s, when everyone else was fighting, or during the 1920s, when everyone else was partying, original thinkers, often working in obscurity, were developing the seminal ideas that would germinate and be seized upon during the new deal.  At such moments, the long years of grass-roots activism and spirited policy debate were suddenly brought to startling life. As William Shakespeare said, the readiness is all. And that insight makes me feel that as the years go by, we will increasingly appreciate the importance of all the hard intellectual work going on today inside Humanity in Action. Judy, I know that my time is limited, but let me pay one final tribute to you and your magnificent organization. Thank you."


Closing Remarks by Dr. Judith Goldstein 

Dr. Goldstein gave the following remarks at the end of the evening to close the special event.

"I have the great pleasure of thanking Patricia, Corinne and Ron for making this benefit so special.  Now, what does one give to these people as a token of thanks. Certainly not a plaque or great bottle of wine such as Chateau Margaux and Chateau Latour or a signed copy of the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington! I have turned instead to David Willis, a young artist from the west coast who makes the most beautiful glass sculptures. They are usually Chelsea-gallery size but that wouldn’t work for us. So he has made something to fit in the hand, easily wrapped for the trip back to Paris or Brooklyn, and provide pleasure to look at and touch. It is a pristine piece, simple, clear, even sensual, and I hope a pleasure for you to have. It is clear glass in the form of a teardrop. David didn’t sign the piece since he thought it would take away from the purity of the whole but he has included a card with the piece: “Water is the most precious substance binding us together with all life on this planet. Tears are exclusive to humans.” Since the storms last week and yesterday, we are so conscious of the power of water and also tears for so much that has been lost. 

I would also like to thank John Rossant and Ezra Suleiman for their introduction. If I might say so, they are the real architects of the evening. Their interest and support for Humanity in Action is of such importance to us. 

As you may have noticed this benefit is not typical for New York benefits: we don’t have a video presentation about the organization and a cast of hundreds with the press. That might be nice, but not what we do. Instead, we wish to convey to you the rather intimate scale of the organization and the high educational quality that we aspire to. 

We have tucked information about Humanity in Action into your program so that you may learn about our mission, programs and successes.  Let me highlight a few of the successes, taking into account that the average age of our Fellows is around 27: after the Humanity in Action Fellowship, Fellows have become Rhodes, Marshall, Watson, Truman and Fulbright Fellows; one is an elected member of the European parliament; several sit on city councils in Denmark and the Netherlands; 10 are in the State Department, already high up in the legal and Middle East Departments; several have published dissertations, books and made films. They are in law, international diplomacy, development, medicine, education, public health, government, public health, ngos the clergy and rock bands. They are engaged and active public citizens, vigilant in protecting diversity.

It is always difficult for us to describe the programs that are complex in structure and programmatic content.  The elevator pitch is something we haven’t conquered yet despite some coaching!

Let me share a few thoughts about our goals. 

  • Educating emerging leaders, first drawn from the university population and mentoring them through the development of their professional careers. 
  • Building a dynamic and ever expanding senior fellows network or in the current parlance: a social network.
  • Focusing on diversity issues as the key to social stability in democratic societies.  One crucial test of a democracy is how it constructs the relationships among minority and majority populations, how it confronts the human proclivity to divide into groups with some trying to dominate others.
  • Connecting past and present to inform all of Humanity in Action discussions which means exploring the history of the Second World War and Holocaust or Shoah in European programs and racial and immigrants issues on the US.
  • Finally, believing that while we are bedeviled by the complexities of our times and societies, we have the obligation to invest the best we have in younger generations.

Going into our 15th anniversary year, we thank all of you—consul general Bertrand Lortholary, our three honorees, donors, board members, Humanity in Action directors, Fellows, staff and professional colleagues such as those from the Council on Foreign Relations and the New School—for helping us to continue this important work."  

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