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A community of free minds

Paul Andersen

After seeing Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” I was overcome by deep despair. Moore’s film, a probing colonoscopy of America’s vaunted power elite, left no doubts as to what Moore discovered in the nation’s deepest recesses.When I left the theater, I was too heartsick to vent at the “enemy” and instead sought a means of healing. This is atypical of opinionated, left-wing columnists, but the bile had been drained out of me and communication suddenly became more important than condemnation.For ideas, I turned to the Great Conversation, the first volume of the Great Books of WesternCivilization, a handy little 54-volume digest of 2,500 years of human history, literature and philosophy. The Great Conversation, which promotes open, respectful dialogue, has been the underpinning of The Aspen Institute’s seminar programs for half a century. I’ve taken a few of those programs, and they work wonders bringing together disparate viewpoints.The Great Conversation is a healing salve, and has been since the start of the Cold War. Its architects at Encyclopedia Britannica knew that by engaging in a synthesis of Western culture, mankind might distill a better civilization.”We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking,” wrote Great Books editor Robert Maynard Hutchins more than 50 years ago. “We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation.”The Aspen Institute brought those voices to the seminar room because they provide a vital link to our intellectual and philosophical roots. They provide the commonality necessary to blur the labels we often attach to one another.Even as deepening ideological rifts in America escalate into a bitter, domestic cold war, the voices in the Great Conversation speak for unity. Even as fear reduces our civil discourse to banal niceties and bland dismissals, the Great Conversation beseeches us to break down the barriers of ideological isolation.The editors at Britannica believed that without free civil discourse, there could be no tolerance for diversity and no unifying principle for man. The Great Conversation became a bridge that could span the widening gulf of our differences, a bridge that is regularly destroyed by political opponents who hurl incendiary bombs at one another.When Dick Cheney recently told a member of Congress to “f… himself,” the vice president defined the tenor of the times. “Fahrenheit 9/11” achieves the same caustic result. Instead of dialogue, we have polarization.The presidential election of 2004 may become one of the most divisive in memory, an ideological Civil War that will determine not only the future of America, but the future of nations around the world.Hutchins foresaw it all in 1951 when he wrote: “Any military moves made by the U.S. will be made in the conviction that they are necessary for the defense of this country. But this conviction may be mistaken. It may be hysterical, or it may be ignorant. We can easily blunder into war.”Hutchins believed that only through the Great Conversation could America prevent costly, irrevocable blunders. Only by educating ourselves to the wisdom of the past could we become worthy leaders in the future.”The Great Conversation symbolizes the Civilization of the Dialogue,” explained Hutchins, “which is the only civilization in which a free man would care to live. The community to which it contributes is the community of free minds.”Paul Andersen wonders if America can achieve that kind of freedom. His column appears in Monday’s Times Daily.


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