Saturday, January 31, 2009

Power of the Pen

Samantha Power, the Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard (pictured at the left), was recently elevated to a senior foreign policy position in President Barack Obama’s administration. This appointment was presumably a reward for her close work with him during his time in the Senate and on his presidential campaign. Samantha Power is an inspiring example of what it means to be a public intellectual in the 21st century. She grounds her theories in secular reasoning rather than in religious moralizing. Born in Ireland, she has nevertheless become a strong voice in American foreign policy. Determined to achieve social justice on many levels, Power goes beyond the function of a public intellectual in her ability to not only criticize, but to offer solutions.

In her 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, she severely and thoroughly critiqued U.S. foreign policy, stating that the U.S. acts selfishly in the international arena and has often failed to take advantage of opportunities to prevent mass human rights violations. At the same time she appeals to the self-absorbed tendencies of Americans and explains that if the U.S. took pro-active measures in pre-crisis situations it would save our country billions in humanitarian aid and prevent the proliferation of terrorist breeding grounds that often emerge in violent,traumatized areas. Power's approach can be compared to running a business with a social conscience -i.e. everyone wins.

Her carefully stated explanations cite evidence in a spirit of dialogic neutrality, that is without using religious terminology. But that makes some of her stances unpopular with religious factions, especially her opinions on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The Commentary Magazine, a neoconservative monthly publication written from a Jewish perspective, is one of her biggest critics. In contrast with a widely reported faux pasthat forced her to resign from Obama's campaign, she usually doesn’t descend to name-calling, as she recently did when dubbing Hillary Clinton a monster but normally rather enjoys the challenge of a good counter argument.

In fact, Power has taken the job-description of a public intellectual one step further than those normally accorded that lofty title tend to do. Instead of merely criticizing, she also suggests solutions; and she is concerned to prevent extremism by increasing people's exposure to what she calls information serendipity. She is convinced that increasing public exposure to opinions from all across the spectrum will increase awareness and acceptance of diversity.

Now that the Professor Samantha Power has gone to Washington, will a succession of White House dinners blunt the edge of her criticism as writer and analyst Stephen Mack has asserted is a danger to public intellectuals who cozy up to that they should be evaluating? Hopefully Power’s pen will continue to “prod, poke, and pester the powerful institutions” that shape our lives, true to the duty of a public intellectual.