A few ideas about ideas
Last week, I had the good fortune – through family connections and sheer dumb luck – to stumble into a session of the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas Festival.Now, I do have to say that “festival” seems like a strange word to use for this event. Woodstock was a “festival,” with headliners like the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Wavy Gravy. Last week’s Aspen extravaganza boasted names like Alan Greenspan, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright – and discussion topics including “America in the World Economy: 2010”; “The Private Sector as Change Agent for Social Good”; and “Order, Law, and Governance in the 21st Century.””Festival”? I think not. Perhaps the institute should have returned to its roots in the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial and called this affair a “convocation.”But let’s put quibbles aside, because the session I attended was a glorious example of Aspen at its best.In the course of an afternoon in the Music Tent, I heard Alan Greenspan, two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, a physics professor, an evangelical minister, a terrorism expert, a leading candidate to be the next U.N. secretary-general, and a trio of top Hollywood writers and directors.We got civics and ethics and physics, and even a bit of literature. I was reminded of the Aspen Institute’s original programs – humanities seminars for big-time business executives who had been so eager to start making lots of money that they had skipped over that “soft stuff” in college.It was brilliant, wide-ranging and – appropriately enough – wildly uneven.Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor offered a painfully shallow, off-handed defense of her vote to award the 2000 election to George W. Bush. Alan Greenspan said that, as far as he was concerned, the invasion of Iraq was indeed all about oil.Justice Stephen Breyer gave an eloquent explanation of how the Supreme Court views the U.S. Constitution as a whole. The recently retired chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service declared that in the war against terrorism, the West must “reclaim the moral high ground.”I heard a brilliant extemporaneous sermon on faith and a quick explanation of why space and time are nothing like we think they are – and may not even really exist. And I listened as several of Hollywood’s best and brightest thrashed, floundered and sank as they tried to explain what they do, how they do it and why.In short, there was depth and shallowness, comfort and distress, brilliance, insight, unexpected truth and some first-rate ducking and dodging.I have to admit that, on the way into town, I was reminded of some of the things I hate about what Aspen has become. I battled through heavy traffic, stuck in a line of diesel-belching dump trucks, threading through endless construction zones.But perhaps that was a perfect prelude to being reminded of some of the things I have long loved about this town.It is hard to encompass it all in a single embrace: the grace of intelligence and deep thought; the disgrace of overdevelopment and greed; the beauty of the mountains and the explosion of a sudden summer storm that rattled on the tent and almost drowned out the speakers; the echoes of that convocation in an empty meadow more than half a century ago and of concerts past and future on this very spot, surrounded by million-dollar mansions.For at least a little while, it made me set aside my cranky complaints about how wonderful things used to be and how terrible they may yet become … and remember one more time what an extraordinary place this is.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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