Chrystia Freeland, the sassy smart, globe-trotting provocateur and editor of ThomsonReuters Digital, helped open the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday evening by pushing back against Walter Isaacson's characterization of the American idea.
Isaacson spoke of America being a hotbed of ideas and values that rub and push against each other, ultimately producing a balance and harmony among divergent interests. Freeland pushed back, saying "that's Canada -- not America."
"America," Freeland argued, "is the place of revolutions."
Freeland expanded on this theme in the two minutes that she was allowed to speak at the Aspen Ideas opener to offer her "big idea" that we are now in the era of "leaderless revolutions."
Freeland and fourteen others offered two minute snippets of ideas, provocations, and just simple assertions before two thousand festival goers who will spend the next week at an annual cornucopia of seminars co-organized by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
Back to the serious side, Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal argued that America had forgotten that it was a place forged by risk-taking and change and that it needed to rediscover and deploy that heritage of growth through instability. Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows argued that if US Senators wanted to continue undermining progress and legislative activity through the filibuster, then there should be 41 bodies on the floor of the Senate the entire time of the filibuster. In other words, if Senators felt strongly about stopping legislative machinery, then they needed to put their back and time into it. Fallows calls it the "41 Body Rule".
The Festival, which I'll be covering along with a team of other Atlantic writers this week, offers a rich array of programming along big concept 'tracks'. Those offered include:
WORLD AFFAIRS: Democracy on Trial
THE ECONOMY: Is the Crisis Permanent?
OUR PLANET: Seven Billion and Counting
ARTS AND CULTURE: Art Matters
WHAT WE BELIEVE AND WHY: An Exploration of Values
SPORTS: Taken Seriously
RADICAL DISRUPTION: The Transformative Power of Technology
WAR AND PEACE IN THE MODERN WORLD
THE CHILD: Raising the 21st Century Child
FRONTIERS OF SCIENCE
There are a lot of wealthy folks here -- with time on their hands that they admirably want to deploy towards learning about major challenges in the world -- but there is considerable diversity here as well -- including high school students from challenging environments supported by the Bezos Scholars Program -- and numerous speakers, Aspen Ideas Fellows, and journalists who ethnically and economically broaden those in the halls further than America's 1%.
Yesterday, 9/11 and BP Oil Spill compensation czar Ken Feinberg talked about 'pricing life'. This morning, I saw former ISAF Commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal jogging in the early hours. (I gave him the runner's 'hey' but didn't get a nod back and wondered if he somehow knew i was pals with Michael Hastings.) Last night, actress and culture activist Anna Deavere Smith chatted with me about the need to diversify the culture here -- surfers, maybe some thugs, and definitely more religiously animated folks who represent key corners of the American ecosystem. As I write this, I am listening to American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks loudly speak (in a public area) about his plans to "take back America" by hiring "young killers" from America's top universities to re-energize and essentially re-animate America's conservative movement.
There is all sorts of stuff going on here. Brooks is on fire. Wish Jane Hamsher or Ezra Klein were in the room to mix it up a bit. Brooks did acknowledge that Harvard, Yale, Princeton are still producing some "lefties" but he's hiring a bunch of "young killers" who can help change the political equation in the country. Fascinating.
If the Festival succeeds, people will get out of their comfort zones and spend time learning about ideas and issues they know little about.
There will be Goldberg-style levity, self-serious discussions, a lot of introspection about our society and world, and as I'm hearing from Arthur Brooks, one of the leading conservative public intellectuals in the country now, there will be attempts at revolution as well.