Andersen: Tough love at the Aspen Institute |

Andersen: Tough love at the Aspen Institute

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Socrates asked the hard questions, and he was censured for making seditious acolytes of the youth of Athens. For his sins he guzzled a hemlock daiquiri and gave his life to the pursuit of truth. Hard questions bear a price, especially when they challenge the prevailing culture and the values of those who benefit most from it.

Hard questions made for tough love at the Aspen Institute this summer when Anand Giridharadas, an Aspen Institute Henry Crown fellow and New York Times columnist, probed the collective conscience. Anand, a bold Socratic exemplar, began by asking forgiveness from his peers at the Institute’s Action Forum, a global-leadership program.

“After I have spoken, I will need your forgiveness. … I want to suggest that we may not always be the leaders we think we are,” he said.

Anand’s speech was met with a standing ovation that revealed more than acknowledgment of his truth. It recognized a brilliant work of oratory that made some squirm and others take pride in the Aspen Institute for inviting Anand’s poignant inquiry. Ultimately, Anand questioned himself and his own values in an act of humility and profound insight. His words rang a clarion bell.

Anand urged his peers to become “traitors to our class” by challenging the integrity of a predominant financial system that sustains injustices from which many elites have benefited. Those injustices, he said, have intensified from a recent consolidation of global wealth engineered through rules made by “the winners,” often at the expense of “the losers.” He called for an embrace of moral principles through sacrifice, saying, “We are a community that seeks justice and claims that we are in the service of something bigger than ourselves.”

“We live in a world,” he said, of “partitioned lands with thriving here and wilting there, … a gilded age where many watch as their lives get worse, sometimes so that ours can get better.” He said, “Our deliberations here in Aspen are sponsored by the extreme winners” in an institution “founded by stalwarts of capitalism. We are deeply enmeshed and invested — all of us — in the establishment and systems we are also supposed to question.”

Anand described what he called the “Aspen consensus,” which he said is based on the mutually shared principle of social justice and which foments enlightened leadership based on the rigors of philosophical inquiry. That inquiry, however, has sidestepped some of the deeper, personal conundrums.

“The winners of our age,” Anand reflected, “must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm. The rough edges of capitalism must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must never be questioned.

“The Aspen consensus says to give back, but amid the $20 million second homes and $4,000 parkas in Aspen, … giving back is a Band-Aid that the winners stick on the system that has served them in the hope that it will forestall major surgery to that system, surgery that might threaten their privileges.”

Anand stated that “generosity has become a substitute for the idea of justice,” that the Aspen consensus agrees to “soften the blows of the system, but to preserve the system at any cost, … the Aspen consensus says, ‘Do more good,’ not, ‘Do less harm.’” Anand warned, “We may not be as virtuous as we think we are, and history may not be so kind to us as we hope it will.”

Anand’s words were courageous because he addressed them to peers, those he honors, those who form a community he respects and loves. In doing so, he manifested the highest ideals of the Aspen Institute, where frank inquiry is seen as a boon to any worthwhile institution — whether born by a policy, an ideology or a physical infrastructure of Bauhaus seminar rooms.

Anand’s speech was a defining moment that clarified the institute’s purpose by allowing one of its own to risk censure for expressing the institute’s core values. A long tradition of civil dialogue gave license to it, and Anand acted on it unflinchingly.

Anand asked forgiveness, but he deserves gratitude.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached at (Google the speech: “Anand Giridharadas: The Thriving World, The Wilting World, and You.”)