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Changing the world with ice cream

By Casimir Wierzynski

Some people express themselves best in poetry; others prefer songs. Ben Cohen likes to express himself in bumper stickers. "Do we fear our enemies more than we love our children?" he asked, citing his favorite as the cornerstone of his philosophy of life. A balding, roly-poly college dropout, Cohen charmed a full-house in 10-250 on Wednesday with his talk on "Peace, Politics, and Ice Cream" that kicked off the Fifth Annual Alternative Jobs Fair.

Cohen started with a description of how he and his partner, a medical school reject, found themselves at the helm of a multi-million dollar business without sacrificing their flower-child, property-is-theft ideals. They started out with an American College Guide and a Farmer's Almanac, looking for a rural college town with a warm climate to place their home-made ice-cream shop, but settled on Burlington, VT, when they discovered that all the warm towns had already been spoken for.

The ice cream sold like crazy and the business expanded until one morning when Ben and Jerry woke up and discovered they were no longer shopkeepers but businessmen. This was very distressing. How could children of the Sixties face the world knowing they were bourgeois exploiters of the masses? Haunted by the specter of profits and double-breasted blazers, they resolved to sell the business. No one rushed to buy, and meanwhile one of Cohen's friends gave him advice that would change his life: don't sell Ben and Jerry's -- change it.

The business world has always been preoccupied with profit, says Cohen, so he resolved to instill some "values" in order to make Ben and Jerry's "socially responsible." He put his company on the auction block against the advice of his accountants in Vermont's first public stock offering. With a minimum buy of $126 he attracted the attention of everyday folks rather than professional speculators, which was the idea, so that one Vermont family in 100 currently owns "a scoop of the action."

But Cohen is not content with changing the face of his business; he intends to change the world -- a world, he claims, that is more concerned with destruction than with feeding its young. He trotted out the usual statistics of how many times we can blow up the world and how staggering the defense budget is, as well as the cliched story of "I've been to Russia and they're just like us," to buttress his central thesis that the United States should ear-mark one percent of the defense budget for "peace through understanding" activities.

Cohen described one of his "socially responsible" ventures in Brazil, where he has started a company to buy nuts from Indian tribes and produce ice-cream tentatively named "Brazil Chill." Three quarters of the profits go to restoring the Amazon rain forests (which the Indians may start destroying in order to plant more nut trees?). Cohen's "values" also find their way into his "Peace Pops," which feature ice-cream enveloped in Vermont "aw-shucks" peace propaganda. He also mentioned his attempts at a joint ice-cream venture in the Soviet Union. Progress in "ice-cream diplomacy" has been slow, he explained, because of the language and time zone barriers: "When it's day here it's night over there. And you pick up the phone and they talk Russian."

The mission of the Alternative Jobs Fair is to acquaint seniors with jobs outside the military-industrial complex, and Cohen advised his captive audience that they should choose to work for organizations, be they for profit or not, whose "values" jibed with their own. His mission, should MIT students choose to accept it, is to "start integrating our values with our worklife." Cohen, who drives a SAAB, reminded students that the world has the resources to end suffering and that everyone should pitch in: "I kept wondering why somebody doesn't do something. Then I realized I am somebody." To conclude his applause-riddled talk, he scratched his beard, tugged on his dangling shirt-tails, and offered everyone a Peace Pop.