How intimidating is the crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival?
Even the Surgeon General of the United States of America can find talking before the assembled luminaries a tough task. In the opening ceremony of the conference yesterday, the supremely accomplished Dr. Regina Benjamin got halfway through a shaky speech about preventative medicine before she broke character.
"I don't usually get nervous when I talk," Benjamin confided, "but you all are some impressive people. I turned around and saw Barbara Streisand." The crowd cheered her honesty: she wasn't the only one of the ten speakers invited to deliver a big idea in three minutes who stumbled over a few sentences on the big stage.
Benjamin's idea though was among the most substantive. She argued for a U.S. health policy that would focus on wellness by using whole communities to prevent people from getting sick, rather than treating them after the fact. And her idea had an action item, too. The recently passed health care reform bill created a National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council under her jurisdiction, and the group has already filed its first report. Benjamin hopes the council will be a vehicle for interagency collaboration around structural issues that are making Americans unhealthy.
There were several other notable performances. Ideas Festival stalwart Jeffrey Rosen, a George Washington University law professor, delivered a polished talk about the important role Internet companies will play in the future of free speech. Google and Comcast, he argued, will play a more important role in regulating what kinds of speech are allowable (or at least searchable) than any government. It was a framing of the net-neutrality debate custom-tailored for the audience.
Dutch intellectual Ayaan Hirsi Ali captivated the audience with the cadence of her speech and her powerful invocation of her own persecution by Muslim extremists and the memory of her slain friend, the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Her talk ended with a plea to Westerners to develop a worldview that could compete with the simplistic vision offered by radical clerics. She called on Christians, humanists, and feminists to come up with a compelling "countermessage" that could sway young Islamic men to embrace religious and ideological tolerance. After all, she said, if Americans could sell a brown liquid with no nutrients (i.e. Coke) to the world, they ought to be able to sell their beliefs.
And finally The Atlantic's own James Fallows delivered a condensed version of his deconstruction of the narrative of American decline. He ventured that countries -- or at least America -- have personalities and that the U.S. has been at its best when it's both confident and challenged and at its worst when it's thin-skinned and defeatist. Depending on how the story of America's competition with China is told, either position can be be justified, but only one of them can deliver the energy and intellectual liberation required for remaking our country to remain the world's leader.
He also noted that the first story about America's decline was told in 1636 at the Massachusetts Bay Colony, just a few years after large numbers of colonists landed on those shores.
Aspen Institute board member Robert Steel delivered the festival introduction, saying that the Ideas Festival was an opportunity to create "a different rhythm to the way you think," one that was more deliberative and concerned with ideas of lasting value. He was followed by David Bradley, owner of The Atlantic Media Company, who gave a humorous interpretation of his recent career path in light of the recent Russian spy revelations.
Elliot Gerson, the Aspen Institute's executive vice president followed Bradley to introduce the Bezos Scholars, a group of 12 high schoolers (and their teachers) who receive scholarships to attend the Ideas Festival sessions.
Images: 1. The Aspen Institute Entrance. 2. The crowd mills about before the start of the Ideas Festival opening session. Credit: Alexis Madrigal.
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Alexis C. Madrigal is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a co-founder of the COVID Tracking Project, and the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.