All along, frankly, I’ve been wondering how he does ithow he manages his relentlessly peripatetic, highly networked, multi-tasking existence. The charm is clearly part of it, along with a striking precocity and seemingly boundless energy and self-confidence. In what he calls his “day job,” Halvorssen, 32, is the founder and president of the Human Rights Foundation, which runs undercover missions to Cuba and adopts “prisoners of conscience” throughout Latin America. But Halvorssen is also a movie producer and “chief inspirational officer” of the Moving Picture Institute, a film company he founded that specializes in anti-Communist, libertarian, and conservative documentaries. The two pursuitsfilm and human-rights advocacyare synergistic. Says Halvorssen, who describes himself as a “classical liberal,” heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill: “Everything in culture has a political message of sorts: You either affirm freedom as a value, or you don’t.”
The central thread in Halvorssen’s career has been his advocacy of freedom from tyranny, whether it’s the life-threatening or merely mind-numbing sort. Several MPI films (Hammer & Tickle, The Singing Revolution, Freedom’s Fury) focus on East European efforts to throw off Communist rule, while Indoctrinate U entertainingly assaults what writer/director Evan Coyne Maloney sees as the ongoing scourge of left-wing “political correctness” on campus. “What surprises me,” Halvorssen says, “is that other people aren’t interested in these issues. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the most important thing there is.”
As a freshman at Penn, Halvorssen organized a successful international campaign to secure the release from prison of his father, Thor Halvorssen W’66 WG’69, a businessman and Venezuela’s former anti-drug czar who had been unjustly accused of involvement in a bomb plot. “My father was going to die. They were going to kill him,” Halvorssen says. “The moment we raised our voices and started screaming bloody murder they realized they can’t get away with it.” The case was chronicled in detail in a November 1994 Gazette article. (Download a PDF.)
In 1999, Halvorssen served as the founding executive director and, later, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), best known for challenging university speech codes [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb 2000]. He stepped down in 2004 and started the Human Rights Foundation two years later.
Halvorssen combines a dizzying capacity for work with a knack for endearing himself to powerful people across the political spectrum. Rob Pfaltzgraff, executive director of the Human Rights Foundation, calls his boss “a force of nature.” In pursuit of his ideals, Halvorssen travels constantly140,000 air miles in 2007, he saysand maintains apartments in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Miami. En route, he turns out elegantly written commentary pieces on his BlackBerry. It’s a career on speedthough Halvorssen eschews even caffeine.
He does nothing halfway. Asked for a few people who can talk about him, Halvorssen supplies a laundry list of famous names. The well-known pollster Frank Luntz C’84 [“All Things Ornamental,” July|Aug 2007] befriended Halvorssen partly by accident: Luntz accepted his invitation to meet a Venezuelan presidential candidate in New Yorkbut only because he thought Thor was a congressional aide he knew. When he realized his mistake, he says he thought: “What could this kid ever do for my business?”
Now, he raves, “Thor is Bill Gates circa 1978.”
“What makes him unique,” continues Luntz, is “a combination of charm, brilliance, intensity, and youthful exuberance.” Halvorssen, he says, is “at the nexus of business, politics, and Hollywood,” with “the ability to break out in all of them.”
Edwin Meese 3d, a U.S. Attorney General under Ronald Reagan now affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, calls Halvorssen “one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial young people on philosophical issues that I know.” Faith Whittlesey, former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and chair of the American Swiss Foundation, describes him as “very articulate and very passionate about his beliefs.” She notes that “he’s also very deferential to people who might hold another point of view.”
“I think Thor is an honest person,” says Michele Goldfarb, director of the Penn Women’s Center, “and he’s a very hard person to categorize, which I like about him. I think his politics are very different from mine, but he was always interested in a well-grounded argument, not just polemic.” The two met during Halvorssen’s undergraduate years, when she ran what is now the Office of Student Conduct and he was a student adviser. “He was very challenging of adults and authority, but in a way that was very well thought out,” she says. They still argue amicably over lunch.
Thanks in part to their friendship, Indoctrinate U is scheduled to have its Philadelphia premiere this semester at the Women’s Center, in tandem with a panel discussion. The pairing is rife with irony, since the film mocks the concept of a women’s centernot to mention what it views as the academy’s pervasive intolerance of conservative dissent.
Goldfarb describes the film as “a little heavy-handed,” but adds that it “raised incredibly important points.” While she says she doesn’t believe that the university is the “greatest offender” when it comes to intolerance, “these are conversations that need to be had, and we shouldn’t shy away from themwe should welcome them.”
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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/02/08