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.
on the military and American democracy
Today’s all-volunteer force numbers 1.4 million … and about 900,000 in the Reserves. The active forces today proportionate to population are -125th the size of the force that we deployed in World War II. Moreover, thanks to the advances in technology … that extremely small force, measured by historical standards, is extraordinarily lethal …
Blog: Atlantic@Aspen (July 3-9, 2006)
Dispatches from the Aspen Ideas Festival by James Fallows, Ross Douthat, James Bennet, Clive Crook, and Corby Kummer.
The total Defense Department budget today, including the expenditures for Afghanistan and Iraq, is less than 4 percent of GDP—one-tenth of what this economy had to deliver to win World War II. Now what this means in effect is that our society can now deploy history’s most lethal military force without breaking a sweat, without making any very deep demands on our manpower pool or the size of our economy. And this, to me, raises very, very serious questions about political accountability and [the] lowering of the threshold for the executive to employ military force without having to engage the deep and durable engagement and agreement of the citizenry at large …
Another asymmetry of very troubling proportions, it seems to me, is [in] the nature of today’s armed forces; 42 percent of today’s Army enlistees are ethnic or racial minorities—42 percent. In the general population in the eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old age cohort, nearly 50 percent of people … have had some exposure to college education. In that same cohort in the U.S. military today … the percentage of people who’ve had some kind [of] exposure to college education is 6.5 percent. So … the vast majority of our society … has in effect hired some of the least advantaged of our fellow citizens to conduct some of our most dangerous business. And I think that is an unstable situation, and one that does threaten, in the long run, the health of our democracy.
on the psychology and politics of terrorism
And, perhaps one of the most moving things … was when Martin McGuinness [the Irish Republican Army leader] started talking about what he’d really, really wanted to do when he was a little boy. He wanted to be a motor mechanic. More than anything else, he wanted to fix cars. And when he was sixteen and he had finished up at school, he didn’t go on to do his later exams; he went to the local garage and he said, “I’d like a job.” And the guy says, “Don’t have a job for you, son.” He said, “No, no, I understand you might not have a job. But just, you know, keep me in mind, and when a job comes up—you know.” He says, “Look, son, you don’t understand. I’m never going to employ you. You’re a Catholic.”
But that wasn’t the really striking bit. The really striking bit was when Martin McGuinness said, “You know, I sometimes wonder: If I got that job, would I ever have got involved in all the things I got involved in subsequently?” Now, for a man who not only runs Sinn Féin but runs the IRA, that is a big statement, a very striking statement.
And what does it say? It says that it’s not about whether he got money for being employed as a mechanic, that it would have kept him from getting involved in paramilitarism. It was the humiliation and the disrespect—that was what was absolutely critical.
on the Internet and education
This all … sounds like a gigantic waste of time. If I was competing with the United States, I would love to have the students I was competing with spending their time on this kind of crap … [P]eople are fooling themselves that they’re being creative in these spaces … [T]he standard of creativity in the world, to be competitive and be a great designer, is very hard: you have to go to school; you have to apprentice; you have to do hard things. It’s not about, your friends like something you did. So I think this is setting a false expectation: you can create your own island and people come to it in a video game … and I don’t see any correlation between that and what it’s gonna take to be a designer and have a skill set to succeed in the world. So I go back to what I said before: we’re amusing ourselves to death; there are good uses of this technology, and I don’t see this as a good use of the technology …
[T]he real problem is, by democratizing speech and the ability to post, we’ve lost the gradation for quality. The gradation of quality was always based on the fact that words had weight—it cost money to move them around. So there was back pressure against … junk …
[U]ltimately, not everyone can have a million readers, because all the readers have run out of time. So it’s a false promise to people, that they can get the big audience. Because in the end—once [you’ve] gotten to the years when you’ve got a job, you’ve gotta raise your kids—you’re not gonna have time for this.
I think it would be tragically self-limiting. I think the U.S. has far bigger and larger issues in the world that it needs to be concerned with. I believe this issue remains vital. I believe that all the instruments of state that are being applied to prevent the next 9/11—and to take action against those who might one day attempt to perpetrate it—are indispensable and must continue, but it would be a shame if the U.S. and its posture in the world were limited to this one thing alone. The U.S. stands for far more in the world than resistance to terror … I think you are far too [great] a country to be defined merely by the enemies you seek to fight.
on judicial independence
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.
on kitsch and the crisis of the West
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.
I want to end with another idea, which I hadn’t thought about [discussing] until right now, which is our interconnectedness … [T]he reason I really got into the work I’m doing goes back to a story … of when I was twelve years old, and my uncle Ed gave me a blue sweater that had animals crossing in the front of it and mountains on the top of it, and I loved the sweater; I wore it all the time.
And one day when I was fourteen and my adolescent body was filling it out in a slightly different way … Matthew Mussolino, who was my nemesis in high school, said to me, in a voice that everybody could hear, a really lewd comment, which made me go home and throw the sweater away immediately, asking my mother how I could ever possibly have worn it. And we put it in the Goodwill, and I promptly forgot about it.
About twelve years later I was jogging in the hills of Kigali, Rwanda, and about twenty feet in front of me I saw a little boy wearing my sweater. And I thought, you know, it couldn’t be. [So I] ran up to him—and I’m quite an excitable person—and grabbed the child, turned over the collar, and sure enough, there was my name, [on] his sweater, thousands of miles away and more than a decade.
Education has not been marketed well to young people. We have not made it look fun to be smart. Today, young people have been sidetracked by [the] marketing of music and movies and everything else, but education has no marketing strategy. If we were running a regular business, a regular corporation, you wouldn’t provide a great product for which you had no marketing.
We need to find a way that we applaud and celebrate, not only … America’s best singer but … America’s brightest student.
on America’s image in the world
First of all, I think we have to realize … as long as we’re in the position we’re in, or even when others may acquire some greater parity with us on a military … economic [or] political plane … There will always be times when we will be making decisions that some people won’t agree with … [B]ut they need to think that in general we wish them well, and that we are trying to take the world to a place where everybody on earth has a chance to live their dreams and to pursue their faith and to preserve their culture and to make a decent living …
I remember once I was in Sri Lanka, talking to one of the parliamentary leaders of the Tamil Tigers. And we had them on the terrorist list the whole time I was president. And he said, “You know, you had us on the terrorist list the whole time you were president, but I liked you anyway.” And I said, “You did?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I always figured that you wanted my people to have a fair break here, that you thought that Hindus should be treated fairly.” Now, I don’t mean to be self-serving … that’s the first thing that came on my mind. But the point is … you want people to admire and not to resent America. And when they disagree with us, you want them to disagree with us in the way you have a disagreement within your family or your business … You want them to think, basically, we are the good guys on the right side of the history, and we are pulling for them …
There are two Muslim countries where our standing is better than it was a couple of years ago, and they are both important: one, the largest, Indonesia, and the other, the most troublesome, Pakistan, because it’s home to so many Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers—and the reasons are the tsunami and the earthquake … I saw this myself. When former President Bush and I took our first [trip] over to the tsunami area … we visited [these] little kids, and part of their therapy—if they had lost their families during the tsunami—was to draw pictures of what they saw. Picture after picture after picture: American military helicopters dropping food, not bombs, dropping ladders to get people out of isolated places.
We are working hard on getting control of the borders. But we cannot get control of our borders until we do something about … a man or woman who is making fifty cents an hour in Mexico and can make ten bucks an hour in the United States, for a job that Americans will not do; until we have a system that allows them to come here. We don’t have enough people to stand across the bottom of the border and stop them. We just don’t …
Every bit of evidence we have is that people do not come here in order to stay in America … But we are making it so difficult to get here that what happens is … you scrape together the money to get across the border, you get across the border, you get a job … you can’t go home. [It’s too] tough to get back and forth. His little sister gets married, he can’t go home, it’s too difficult to get back and cross the border … can’t go home for holidays, can’t go home for family. You wake up, you’ve been here for five or ten years, and you say, “I’ve got no connection in that dusty little town in the interior of Mexico. I am staying.”
Who should be surprised at that? What we ought to have is a system that allows him to keep those personal connections, to travel back and forth across the border freely during the time that they are in the United States legally …
Let me say one more thing: there are a lot of really good people who are scared to death about immigration, and we shouldn’t be surprised about it. First of all, because it always happens. I’ve been reading sort of the pre–Civil War history, and boy, talk about—you know, the Mexicans in those days were the Irish … You should hear what politicians in the Midwest said about [us] Norwegians when we were coming in: “root eaters.” I mean … they didn’t like us. This happens, and I understand that. But … we are a great country and have been able to assimilate people from all kinds of backgrounds, from all parts of the world, because we’ve emphasized a shared language, a common tradition … Look, with all … respect, there’s no Filipino dream, there’s no Japanese dream, there’s no Italian dream. But there is an American dream. And some guy standing on a street corner in Addis Ababa knows what it is about.
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.
on awakening 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.