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Questions On Authenticity And Activism With Michael D. Higgins, President Of Ireland

President Higgins speaking in Rotunda on Thursday.

Even with the protests on campus, many people found themselves in the tightly-packed Rotunda in Low Library. Yesterday, Managing Editor Victoria Arancio had the privilege to hear Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, speak about student activism, climate change, academia, and more. 

Yesterday, the Columbia World Leaders Forum invited Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, to speak at Columbia University. Although a ceremonial position in nature, President Higgins preparedness and eloquence was evident throughout his address. While he primarily focused on multilateralism (the idea that supports nations coming together for a shared goal), His Excellency stood in front of his young audience, bringing his understanding of the United States, and more specifically, New York City into his hour-long address. Higgins addressed relevant issues between the youth and politics, as well as spoke of the political divisiveness on the global stage.

President Higgins, a poet, academic, and former broadcaster, demanded the undivided attention of the audience in the overheated Rotunda. With his academic career leading him away from University College Galway to the United States at Indiana University, it was clear that Higgins strongly values the connection between the United States and Ireland. Calling often on the events that unfolded on campus just over 50 years ago, Higgins recalled some of the most influential people during that time, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and referencing Robert Kennedy in an address that he hoped would inspire the youth and push for discourse in the academic community.

Higgins first started his speech addressing the graduate student worker protests happening just outside of Low Library. Speaking in defense of student and worker activism, President Higgins acknowledged their demands to be recognized and agreed that the graduate students should have the right to join a union. Poetically, Higgins added that in 1968 and today, students have the “right to read, write and form respectful dialogue with people of difference.” In addition to Columbia University, the University of Paris and Cambridge University have also asked for diversity in thought with different perspectives from writers and economists from all over the world demanding change in what students learn. Encouraging the idea of the global community, President Higgins praised the protests and petitions that were circulating, demanding more the academic experience.

Speaking broadly, Higgins acknowledged the diversity of the 1968 protests. Demanding economic, social and environmental justice, youth movements swept the globe, demanding above all else, peace. Nothing could match the power and strength that was found with the youth protesters, said Higgins. With a new global community together in solidarity, nations and generations sought new purpose in the postmodern era. Leaders like Bobby Kennedy, who, as an “unusual pragmatist,” saw purpose in renewal of US foreign affairs. Today, with the United States adopting more policies that align with isolationism, Higgins turned to question the authenticity of the United States and their global commitments to reduce climate change.

After the United States backed out of the Paris Agreement, Higgins said that the United States was “not ready to take on the sacrifice” that came with global renewal. The United States, a nation that emphasizes the importance of democracy, turned inward when they “greatly disappointed” the other countries involved in the Paris Agreement. Quoting Pope Francis, Higgins pointed to increased indifference as a reason for many global issues. With the UN Security Council acting in its best interests, it is difficult for other countries like Ireland to be heard, and more importantly, creates barriers for necessary change for a sustainable future.

There is authenticity with the youth, Higgins notes. With the renewal of international discourse with other powerful countries, perhaps there can be an economic, environmental, and social renewal within the American political system.2015 was a moment of hope, but now, we have entered a period of darkness and uncertainty, as our nation and others begin to see instability, sparking international protests. Today, we live in a world interwoven with contrasting identities and strict dichotomies, but Higgins urges us as the youth to challenge the limits of our society. 1968 brought political disruption, human rights activism, and hope for a world that could learn from its past mistakes. Today, Higgins hopes that we too can learn, building global solidarity through inclusiveness.


Image via Victoria Arancio 

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