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.
Madeleine Albright
on diplomacy

The former secretary of state called for dialogue—if indirect—with America’s enemies.

I don’t believe that we are involved in a clash of civilizations. But I do believe that we are involved in a battle of ideas. And that is a very important distinction, because it requires us to really put forward what we believe in and engage in a dialogue.

Now, when President Ahmadinejad wrote to President Bush, it was a horrible letter, and I never thought that President Bush and [the] president of Iran should become pen pals. But I do think, if you look at the letter, in addition to all of the terrible language and saber rattling, there were some very important points—about social justice, about America’s role, a variety of issues.

And even as I was at the rather peculiar meeting we had at the White House, between the president and the “former people,” as I call us … I did suggest to the president that somebody at a very high level needed to give a speech to respond to what was in that letter.

Dana Gioia
on awakening to art

Gioia, a poet and the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, discussed his boyhood introduction to art.

My mother … was the daughter of Mexican immigrants in a working class, never had much education, but she loved poetry. And she had been educated in the public-school system at a time when they still made people memorize poems, and her own father had liked poetry—he was a vaquero. And so she had all these poems by heart.

And I think my earliest awakening—in an ugly, poor neighborhood in Los Angeles—to what art was, was just to hear my mother recite these things. For years I didn’t understand that sometimes by reciting them, she was telling me something about her life she couldn’t tell me directly; she was expressing the sorrows of her life, in a way.

But the poem of hers that I remember most vividly her reciting was “Annabel Lee.” And I just hear,

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee …

And this opened up … a kind of hunger on one hand, and an awareness on the other, that probably took me twenty, thirty years to understand … But I realized right away … that beauty kind of stopped me dead in my tracks. I mean, the nun would play a record of Chopin, and everybody else would be poking each other with pencils, and I would be there like [sound of rapt awe].

And so, I knew that I wanted to go wherever this stuff was. There was no signpost in my neighborhood; there was nobody who’d gone to college or did this. And so in my own way I kind of groped, over the next ten to fifteen years, largely through music, which is the only art that the poor are offered training in, in this country. And … I became first a musician (I wanted to become a composer), and then I eventually became a poet.

But it seems to me it’s that awakening to the full potential of what your life might be—beyond the possibilities your own family, your own class, your own race, your own neighborhood gives you—which is one of the great human gifts that art affords.

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