Driving through Colorado reminds you about how complicated life can be. Those miles of rolling, undulating high plains give way to foot hills and suddenly the mountains jut upward and nothing is the same. Steep uphill and downhill grades as well as twists and turns along the way gradually seem normal, although they are very far from that. Our drive across Colorado to the Aspen Institute’s annual Ideas Festival, was courtesy of the Bush Foundation, making possible something that otherwise would probably not happen. We joined more than a thousand others who were eager to hear about many different topics many of which resembled the long climbs, steep drops and endless curves on our route there. Like those roads, the topics discussed were challenging, irregular, full of twists and turns and always interesting. At Aspen, there are actually two back-to-back Ideas Festivals, each lasting three days with a small overlap in the middle.
There are more than 500 presenters equally divided between the two festivals. There are usually four or five simultaneous program tracks, making it hard to choose between topics like “What’s going on in America?” “Making it in America” (a discussion about the importance of and the future of manufacturing), “Reclaiming our values” and “Taking aim at on-line hate” among scads of others, all of them pertinent to the way we live our community and civic life. It was a beggar’s banquet of discussions covering some of the most important and out-front topics and also some of the least known, but critical, bits of information about emerging economic and political trends. The presenters included several governors, U.S. Senators and Representatives, major city mayors, White House Cabinet Secretaries, U.S. diplomats, national political commentators, columnists, journalists, university professors, large and small corporate CEOs, musicians, and even comedians who make their living commenting on the irony of today’s politics.
Some of the discussions were about engaging young adults in what increasingly seems to be a caustic civic environment, at least at the national level and even on the state level. Along that line, there was much talk about the lack of civility and the apparent declining value of compromise in public sector decision-making. It was interesting to hear several commentators, most of them described as “conservative”, take aim at the behavior of our county’s president and many of his close advisors and staff. Nearly all of them said that poor behavior, careless language and the lack of respect shown for others by Donald Trump and his associates has “lowered the bar” for acceptability and has set a new, and very low, standard for public sector behavior. While they allowed that being a disruptor is part of the Trump persona and as such is a factor in much of the president’s support, these conservative commentators took very direct aim at the administration’s recurring carelessness with the truth and the sharp eroding of trust among the general public and our nation’s allies.
They also worried, out loud, about the long-term damage done by all of this and what effect it all may play in driving away potential leaders from community service and civic life. It was also said several times that there is a legitimate fear that this all may be giving new credence to the idea that it is okay to be intolerant of other ideas and thoughtful, reasonable discussion and dialogue. This all could have some very long-term negative consequences. There was also a fair amount of talk about social intolerance where Americans, especially in urban centers, increasingly seem to cluster in communities that resemble their own values and beliefs. That may seem okay and even reasonable on the surface. However, the dialogue and back and forth that comes with living alongside, or near, others that are not like ourselves is lost and, with it, an underpinning and great national need which is also the important lesson that public education has taught most of us over the years: Learning how to live with each other. One of the more memorable moments at the Ideas Festival came when Michael Gerson, the conservative columnist for the Washington Post, recounted reading John Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage and realizing that, in his book, Kennedy never mentions himself nor calls attention to his own experiences. Gerson went on to say that Kennedy’s other writings and speeches hardly ever made mention of himself either but instead looked on others’ experiences and gifts as something to be celebrated and learned from. That is quite a departure from what we see from our national leaders these days and we are all the lesser for it. Those discussions, like the road to western Colorado, were filled with ups and downs and twists and turns. Still, it was good to make the trip and good to hear those discussions. __________