Samantha Power was a child when she moved to the U.S. from Ireland with her family in 1979. Since then, she’s been a war correspondent in Bosnia, National Security official, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and an academic. And in her new memoir, “The Education of an Idealist,” the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the William D. Zabel ’61 Professor of Practice in Human Rights at Harvard Law School chronicles the complications of her life, work, and times. She recently spoke with the Gazette about the importance of trying to make a difference.
GAZETTE: Is it possible to thrive in government and still be an idealist?
POWER: Yes. I think many many people who go into government do so because they don’t like what they are seeing around them. And to me, idealism is simply a word for wanting to try to make positive change. So if you don’t like the fact that our planet is warming, if you don’t like the economic inequality in our society, if you don’t like seeing women working on behalf of human rights being locked up around the world, government is one place you can try to make a difference. There are a set of weighty gravitational pulls toward the status quo that can be frustrating to encounter, but at least what my experience shows is that people with a resilient temperament and rigorous disposition, and perhaps a bit of stubbornness thrown in, can make a profound difference.
GAZETTE: What about journalism? Did your stint as a war correspondent make you hopeful that reporting can be a tool for positive change?
POWER: People can’t change what they don’t know about, and they can’t change what they don’t care about. So what journalists have done from time immemorial is bridge the distance between the lived experience of individuals who may live far away with readers and viewers and others living very, very different lives. I think journalists continue today, despite all of the attacks on the press, to do absolutely essential work for our democracy and continue to hold people accountable, continue to be fact-bound and dedicated to the pursuit of truth at a time when facts and truth are under unprecedented assault. So I think journalists can make an essential difference.
GAZETTE: Why is it so difficult to move people to care about faraway events, even genocide?
POWER: What I hope the book does is show the value of caring, that it’s not a wasted emotion, that to see the individual dignity of people far away or people right up close is an essential prerequisite to ultimately seeing our society head in a more productive and humane direction. I start from the premise that people who are experiencing great difficulty far away are in some sense connected to us. For example, where there is an Ebola epidemic in West Africa, someone can get on an airplane and bring that into our own communities. We’re connected because when someone is burning coal in rural China, that affects our planet in the same way as if someone is burning coal in one’s neighborhood. That doesn’t mean I’m calling on anybody to privilege the lives of people far away more than those of their own loved ones, but I think to recognize that we often have a shared fate is critical to looking out for our loved ones as well.
GAZETTE: You talk about the gulf between the expression “Never again” and the reality that we often do so little to prevent genocide. Is that gulf narrowing?