Stone: How many bright ideas does it take to screw in a dim bulb?
A Stone’s Throw
I have a sneaking suspicion that this column will wind up being about the Aspen Ideas Festival by the time I’m done, but it’s hard to be sure. Let’s just wait and see what happens.
Wherever we may wind up, we’re going to start out sitting in a traffic jam on Highway 82 — because, after all, no matter where you’re going in Aspen these days, you have to start by getting stuck in a traffic jam on Highway 82.
This particular traffic jam was last week, and I was stuck, not quite past the airport, almost to Owl Creek Road, part of a community (Aspen’s a community!) of cars sitting at a dead stop (Aspen’s a community at a dead stop!) in a line stretching as far as the eye could see.
I looked to my right and watched a traffic jam of private jets on the taxiway. There was, I believe, a Gulfstream Triceratops and, just behind that, a Learjet Tyrannosaurus, Lear’s beloved classic, the Model T-Rex, impatiently waiting their chance to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of whatever passes for God in those lofty circles.
Their traffic jam cleared a lot more quickly than the one I was in, and as the Triceratops thundered down the runway, I figured that plane might well be in Paris before I got as far as the Hotel Jerome.
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Well, if not Paris, then Cleveland anyway.
Like everyone, I have been ogling all the heavy metal parked at the airport this week. The Aspen Air Force is an impressive array of power that any small nation without oil wells would be proud to call its own.
That hardware was here, of course, for the Aspen Ideas Festival (told you we’d get around to it), and thinking about that made me laugh at the idea of “Aspen” and “ideas” being joined in the same sentence.
The traffic jam I was sitting in was proof in and of itself — ipso facto, as Clyde down at the gas station used to say — that Aspen is pretty much brain-dead when it comes to having any actual, you know, ideas.
The traffic jam is a problem that has been bad and getting steadily worse for decades, and we have failed consistently to find the intelligence or the willpower to solve it.
(I wrote about this same mess recently, so forgive me if I don’t repeat myself in detail, but the oft-touted “four-lane straight shot into town” is not a solution at all. Too many cars are the problem and you don’t solve that problem by simply getting all those cars into town more quickly. That just moves the problem from the outskirts into the heart of Aspen. Four lanes is a reflex, not an idea.)
This is apparently the new version of the Aspen Idea: Build a vast array of shiny, glittering things we don’t need, and ignore our basic problems.
And so, how sad — no, make that how shameful — it is that we bring all these high-powered people into town and insist on greeting them with our biggest disgrace and intellectual failure. We don’t just show it to them; we rub their noses in it.
“Welcome to Aspen! World-class resort and home to deep thinkers who are going to solve the planet’s problems! Now settle down into our super-deluxe traffic jam for the final 3 miles into town. Your fancy jet may whisk you across the continent at 600 miles an hour, but here in Aspen, we think 5 miles an hour is just about as fast as a person ought to go.”
Boy, I bet they are just so impressed.
On the other hand, it is amusing that these hot shots, these mega-important world-class bigwigs, get stuck in exactly the same traffic jam as the rest of us.
It is perhaps the last — and truly delightful — vestige of true democracy in this town of vast, and ever increasing, inequality.
I have long wondered when the billionaires are going to build their own private highway from the airport into town — with armed guards as required — but until that glorious day, we’re all stuck in the same traffic jam.
Which brings me to my next thought: Why haven’t any of these brilliant “Ideas” people come up with an answer to the problem?
It’s as if you were having a conference for EMTs and ER doctors and they all casually strolled past a man lying on the sidewalk having a heart attack — and completely ignored him, stepping over his writhing body on their way to lunch.
The answer, I fear, is that they don’t have any ideas, either. No new ideas, anyway — about our traffic jam or anything else, for that matter.
Honestly, looking at the bigger picture, I suspect that the Aspen Ideas Festival needs to be renamed the Aspen Same Old Ideas Festival.
This is not a hotbed of wildly innovative thinking and iconoclastic breakthroughs. If you want that kind of stuff — real ideas, new ideas — you’ll have to head over to the Aspen Physics Center. Odds are you won’t understand what they’re talking about, but those people have great big, genuine ideas.
Meanwhile, the essence of the Ideas Festival was captured by a newspaper headline that said this was “A banner year for big names.”
That’s exactly the problem.
Big names don’t get you big ideas. They get you a series of lectures, sometimes by very smart, very knowledgeable people — or sometimes by Newt Gingrich explaining the virtues of Donald Trump.
I suspect that not a single idea was expressed here that hadn’t been expressed before by the same person at many previous events.
That’s why they were invited here, because they’re already famous for the ideas they have lectured on so brilliantly before.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s great entertainment. It’s a great draw for Aspen as a quasi-intellectual tourist mecca.
But when it comes to brand-new ideas? Well, I’m afraid those world-class hot shots are … well, stuck in the same traffic jam as the rest of us.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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