By Leah Levinger

This year’s annual Human Rights Film Series, “Justice and/or Reconciliation,” opened on Sunday, January 25th with a screening of Vietnam, Long Time Coming. This film documented a 16-day bicycle expedition through Vietnam that brought together disabled and able-bodied Vietnamese and American veterans. The screening was followed by a discussion with the film’s producers, Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn, who attended the University of Chicago prior to founding Kartemquin Films and producing several documentaries, including the well-known Hoop Dreams.

Blumenthal and Quinn were students at the U of C in the 1960s, during the thick of the Vietnam conflict. Since that time, they said, a lot has changed. They recalled taking part in the 1964 student protest on campus, when student activists attempted to take over the administration building to protest the war. The takeover attempt was repeated en masse in 1968, successfully. Many of the participants in the takeover were subsequently expelled from the University, which, according to the filmmakers, expelled student protestors at higher rates than any other American college. Blumenthal and Quinn described the students who attended the University of Chicago in the 1960s as “radical,” inordinately politically aware, and active. They said, with some mixture of laughter and disappointment, “things have quieted down since then.”

Things have quieted down since then—or at least one would assume so from the way many, if not most, students talk about life here. The University of Chicago definitely has a reputation for being concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with theory rather than practice, with the abstract rather than the concrete, and with a life of contemplation rather than a life of political or social activism.

Perhaps this reputation is deserved, but perhaps it is not. There are, after all, other forms of activism than protests, marches, and takeovers—forms that are less heavy-handed but not necessarily less effective or meaningful. Is activist life largely absent from the U of C, as students and community members alike assume, or rather, is it present, but in a quieter and less exhibition-oriented way than in the past?

Cristina Moon, the organizer for this year’s Human Rights Film Series, is one student whose activist work on campus could easily go unnoticed. In addition to her behind-the-scenes work in putting together the film series, which holds screenings and discussions of selected human rights documentaries every Sunday night from January 25th to February 22th, Moon has been working on organizing a 15-person human rights delegation of University students and faculty to the Thai-Burma border since this past November. The delegation, which for safety reasons cannot actually enter Burma, will spend two weeks next September meeting with regional scholars, local activists, and members of the Thai, Burmese, and American embassies to gain a better understanding of what kinds of action and scholarship would be most useful in addressing, understanding, combating, and remedying the human rights violations that have become so common in Burma since the most recent military junta took power in 1988.

The junta, which ironically stylizes itself as the State Peace and Development Council, seized control via a military coup following the National Democratic Uprising and has remained in power by slaughtering, imprisoning, or exiling members of the National League for Democracy who were elected in the 1990 free democratic elections. Moon, who says that Burma has accumulated one of the world’s worst human rights records, characterizes the current junta as one of the most brutal and oppressive military regimes. She cites atrocities committed against political activists and prisoners; the junta’s widespread use of forced labor against civilians, which the International Labour Organization has called “a modern form of slave labor”; and the pervasiveness of its military intelligence which experts estimate is more extensive than even the KGB ever was.

Moon says that, for good reason, “In Burma, people don’t share information; they’re very secretive about what they do, what they think about the government.” The problem is worsened by the fact that, because there is a history in Burma of democratic political movements starting in universities, the junta has closed Burmese universities, high schools, and even middle schools. “How do you create a safe space in which people can share and learn, [when] even International Aids Workers or international activists don’t share what they do?” Moon asks. Creating this safe space will be one of the biggest challenges for a delegation already beset by the challenges of finding sponsorship and funding, maintaining security, and ensuring the safety of its participants—and it is one of the most fundamental issues upon which the delegation’s success depends.

Students like Moon, of which there are quite a few on campus, undermine the standard characterization of University students as being politically and socially apathetic, inactive, and interested only in abstract, theoretical studies and pursuits.

It is quite possible, in fact, that this characterization of University of Chicago students is mainly, if not wholly, false, and says more about the person doing the characterizing than it does about the University. It is, after all, a general truth that people see only what they are looking for.

But true or not, it is a characterization that must hit home at least with some of us, considering how much many of us feel the need to joke about it.

Laughter is a curious phenomenon in general, and our own laughter is no less curious. Humor is, in fact, worthy of some reflection, considering that the same situation or story can make one person fall on the floor laughing but not affect another person at all, which seems to indicate that what a person finds funny actually reveals a lot about him or her personally. If cultural anthropologists are right in claiming that people tend to laugh when presented with something that is a secret source of anxiety for them, and that studying what a specific person or group of people laugh about is a way of coming to know what their secret anxieties are, then the fact that we laugh at the U of C about how theory-oriented we and our education are seems to indicate that we have some anxieties about the value of the type of education that we are getting here. Perhaps our laughter, is the outward sign of an underlying internal tension—and in our case, it seems to indicate that we aren’t so very sure that we can justify our studies. We have doubts about what we’re doing here that our laughter tries, but fails, to wholly allay.

It seems, then, that the value of theory, scholarship, and academic life needs some kind of critical evaluation in our own eyes. Can the “life of the mind” really be an end in itself, or are theory and research only justified and valuable insofar as they both inform our personal commitments and give us the tools to realize them—or work towards realizing them—in our real, everyday, social, political, and personal lives? If we have, as a University, indeed put theoretical or speculative pursuits ahead of an active political, social or ethical life, then have we lost sight of the real or proper goals of a liberal arts education? Or are we, in contrast, somehow nonetheless aligned with these goals?

For more information, or to get involved with the Delegation, contact Cristina Moon, cmoon@uchicago.edu. The delegation’s website, “www.burma-border.net”:http://www.burma-border.net, will be launched in the near future.