The Aspen Ideas Festival

For the second year, The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute collaborated in July to host the Aspen Ideas Festival, which gathers scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, religious figures, and others for a week of conversation and debate. Participants contribute provocative ideas from their fields, and discuss the world, both as it is and as it might become. Following are some excerpts from this year's discussion.
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Sandra Day O'Connor
on judicial independence

The retired Supreme Court justice decried the increasing criticism of judges, and the attempts by legislatures to exert control over the judicial process.

I’ve lived a long time now. And in my lifetime, I’ve never seen such very alert criticism of judges as I have seen in the last few years. And we’ve seen proposals, both in Congress and in state legislatures, that are very surprising in terms of proposing specific action in retaliation against judges who make a decision … which the legislator doesn’t like … such as impeachment of any federal judge who might cite an opinion of a foreign court, or the appointment of inspectors general for judges to make sure they didn’t make a trip to Aspen that was paid for by somebody, and provisions to cut the budgets of federal courts in retaliation for certain decisions …

We have a proposal in South Dakota, you may have read about, to change the constitution in that state to remove judicial immunity for actions by judges, jurors, and witnesses in cases and to allow disgruntled litigants to then sue the judges, jurors, and witnesses—and even put them in jail, if need be. It’s called JAIL 4 Judges …

I hear clapping for JAIL 4 Judges. Well, maybe so. But my concern is that the Framers of our Constitution thought it was of critical, critical importance, in establishing three branches of government, that we have an independent judiciary, at least at the federal level; and all the states copied that model. Their thought was that without that, the provisions of the Constitution … couldn’t be enforced.

And look back in history. For in­stance, the decision of the Supreme Court in the 1950s, which was unanimous at the time, to strike down segregated public schools, schools segregated on the basis of race. That was a very unpopular decision in many parts of this country. If judges had consulted public opinion … we would still be operating with segregated schools.

Rob Riemen
on kitsch and the crisis of the West

Riemen, a Dutch intellectual, argued that the West is in the grip of a cultural crisis, driven by relativism and subjectivity, that threatens to swamp us with kitsch.

Now, imagine a society in which we ignore the best, in which there is no longer a place for those spiritual absolute values, in which … there is no longer a place for a kind of spiritual identity. The very first characteristic is that, by definition, you get a total subjectivity because nothing is absolute. So everything is immediately reduced to my individual self or your individual self … It’s about how I feel, who I am, what my feelings are. It’s total[ly] ego centered … And you also get a kind of noncritical attitude—that’s to say, you have to respect my taste, and that this is my opinion … And these are my emotions, so please respect them …

In this total subjectivity, and with this lack of spiritual identity, the next consequence—again, by definition—is that an identity becomes completely [dependent] on material things. And so here is where all those yelling advertisements [come] in and are telling us, “You cannot be this or that if you don’t buy this car. And you cannot be this or that if you don’t buy this watch. And you cannot be this or that if you don’t go on holiday to that place,” and so on and so forth. So, literally, an identity is something you can buy …

[R]eligion is … about uplifting my religious feelings—I want to be in harmony, I want to be in peace with myself, I want to be in peace with nature, I want peace, blah, blah, blah. But it is not the encounter with God … [I]f you still have the Bible, you can go to the Old Testament, read a little bit about the prophets. They had an encounter with God, and they can tell you, it’s not a very pleasant one.

Part of the total subjectivity is also that if I’m the measure of everything, then also—by definition—everything can mean anything, right? So language is no longer the transmission of truth and meaning, but it literally becomes chatter, it becomes talk. And here is where we get our talk shows, right? …

What will happen to art? Art is still important to us, but not as a value in itself, but as … a good investment, [a] kind of commodity. Relationships, also … No real friendship is any longer possible, because the intrinsic value of friendship no longer [exists]. It’s all about mutual interest …

What you get is the total utilitarian society. It’s all about economics, what is measurable, and material values.

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