Mr. Ben Goes to the (M) UN

Secretary General, Honorable Chairs, Delegates, Sponsors, Guests:

It is an honour to address such a talented and dedicated group. Model United Nations is one of the bright lights in education today. Sessions like the one you have participated in provide real opportunities to experience diversity’s potential, real opportunities to engage with issues and develop solutions across differences in ideology, religion, and culture. During the sessions this weekend, the issues you debated and made proposals to address are issues not just of national or international importance, but of human importance. You have experienced the necessity of international-mindedness in the architecture and implementation of policy not just for a single people or nation but also for the planet and for all of us.

My first exposure to the United Nations was not like yours. When I was young we drove across the mid-western United States on family vacations. We passed many barns where the shingles on the roof were laid to spell out slogans. I remember asking my father, why so many said Get US out of the UN . He gave me a lecture on American history that carried us across Illinois and Indiana. We have come a long way since then in learning that nations on their own cannot solve global problems, and that narrow coalitions of common interests cannot resolve issues that cross all borders and boundaries. A great deal has changed since then but even with all the changes and perhaps because of some of them, it is not an easy time for young people to feel empowered and engaged.

The news is full of stories that seem too big to be solved. Supersized issues dwarf sound-byte-sized solutions and even the experts seem unable to separate cause from effect. In the info-scape of mega-issues there are plenty willing to exploit the situation by squeezing complex situations to fit onto simple bumper stickers, and profiting by the popular confusion. Our progress in communications and technology has not made the situation any easier to navigate. We live in a time when political opinions are based on photoshopped images, and superstition, prejudice, pseudo-science, and even voodoo-science are viewed as equal partners in an anything goes game of discredit-your-rival. These days, cleverly staged events go viral disguised as candid found-footage, and we treat celebrity and fame as though they were equal substitutes for conviction and integrity. This is a time of manifesto by Tweet, a time when debates are barrages of sound bites hurled en masse in hope that some will stick. A time when followers are the currency of social media while leaders stay comfortably behind the scene. Today, positions and even facts are abandoned when they become inconvenient or uncomfortable. In this climate, ethics, become determined not by what OUGHT to be done, but by what can be gotten away with, truth becomes what sells, what gets the most subscribers, the most thumbs up. In this environment there is no moral compass, there are no fixed points.

The summer of the Watergate hearings I turned 17, my father, an American legal History professor was glued to the radio. He was in his element, this was history broadcast live. The highest Court and the highest officers of the land were on stage without rehearsal and without a script. That summer, politics came out from behind closed doors and the strengths and the excesses of the American political system were dissected in public, one witness on the stand at a time. In some ways it was a testament to the strength of the balance of power between the different branches in government, but the legacy has been and continues to be a mistrust, a fundamental and abiding disbelief in political office holders and official organizations, a deep cynicism as a central and prominent feature of the political and legislative landscape at every level.

When I was a kid I resented the gravity of history. I felt it locked us into doing things the way they had always been done. I think differently now. Now I believe we need gravity to give us direction and stability. Without gravity there is no up or down, without reference points there is no sense of time or movement. History grounds us, without it we cannot make sense of events and cannot place ourselves to apply effort to resolve issues and change direction, without a firm foot to pivot on, we cannot change direction. Boxers know that impact is grounded, a strong punch is always grounded in the feet. Leverage is a product of a sure stance. And make no mistake, there has never been a time in the great flow of history that requires leverage for change more than now.

In this landscape you and the work you have practiced are as piercing and welcome as a blue sky in a season of darkness. The structure and tone of your debates, the development of clear and measured positions on issues through research and inquiry, the willingness to take on other perspectives and points of view as your own, and, maybe more than anything, the time spent actually listening to one another. These give me great hope. Thank you for your optimism, your dedication, your energy, and your motivation this weekend and all the days and weeks that lead up to it. I hope this optimism, advocacy, and sense of empowerment is what you will carry away with you and use to create a great light for all our futures. Thank you for making history your story.

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