Tenth annual Anita Houston Memorial lecture tackles corruption
NEW CANAAN — Ten years after her death, longtime New Canaan resident Anita Houston’s interest in international relations and support for the United Nations is still remembered.
“She was well known for listening to Charlie Rose every night,” said Pete Runnette, co-chairman of the New Canaan United Nations Committee. Houston was an active member of the committee. “She couldn’t get enough of discussion about issues and policy positions. She was a lot of fun. She was very outspoken, very interested and interesting.”
For over 50 years, from the early days after the group was founded in 1952, until her death in 2007, her interest in global politics never faded, Runnette said, speaking after the 10th annual Anita Houston Memorial Lecture, which took place on Sunday at the New Canaan Library.
“As Anita aged, we in the committee decided it would be a great salute to her memory to set up this lecture series,” he said.
While with the committee, Houston helped raise money to remove land mines from a town in Cambodia and to support schools for girls in northern Afghanistan. She also created her own U.N. Study Group that focused on international affairs, foreign policy and issues that affected both the U.N. and the United States, according to Runnette.
In an official town proclamation in 2002, Houston was named New Canaan’s Ambassador for the World on her 90th birthday.
In the spirit of Houston, the New Canaan U.N. Committee hosted guest speaker Sarah Chayes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of 2015’s “Thieves of State,” for a lecture on “The Dangers of Corruption, Abroad and at Home.”
Prior to her work at the Carnegie Institute, Chayes was a special assistant to Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; covered the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan for NPR and then opted to remain in the country from 2002 to 2009 to help in its rebuilding, settling in Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban government, until 2001.
In a lecture that often circled back to America’s current political climate, Chayes spoke about several trends she has observed in her work, including the aging of rich populations, the changing nature of warfare, climate change as an increasingly important factor, the likelihood of persistent slow economic growth in the short-term future and a shift in the way we assess value.
“It seems to me that since the 1980s there has been a trend of the reduction of the notion of value to exclusively material terms,” Chayes said. “I’m feeling a collapsing of the types of things that one can be admired for in society, increasingly toward the amount of money one has.
“Elites around the world, in developed and developing countries, across party lines, across ethnic lines, across religious lines, are doing two things: They are rewriting rules, and they are selectively enforcing rules in ways that favor their interests,” she said.
Chayes said, rather than viewing growth as the key measure of success, it’s more beneficial to focus on the structure of that growth and the ways in which it is distributed.
“In a human body, when you have unchecked growth, it’s called cancer, and it’s fatal,” Chayes said.
It was a lecture that drew nearly a full house on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day and one that Runnette hoped would provoke thought in the audience.
“Anita would’ve been fascinated by her erudition, by the breadth of her interest and knowledge and the specific subject itself,” Runnette said of Chayes. “I think the audience found themselves challenged by some thoughts that maybe hadn’t occurred to a lot of people for a lot of years.”