July 4, 2017

Remarkable “Takeaway” From Aspen Ideas Festival

by Hal Gershowitz

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Of Thee I Sing Heading Authorsde Tocqueville would smile.

Aspen Colorado – So, a remarkable “takeaway” for us from the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of mostly left-of- center, well educated, and successful Americans who care greatly about their nation’s future was this—America has to reduce its reliance on Washington and focus more on local initiatives to make progress and solve problems. While Republicans tie themselves in knots and make a spectacle of themselves as well as the US Congress, many liberal elites have, ironically, begun to focus on a traditional bedrock Republican position—decentralization of political initiative in order to get things done.  Who knows, perhaps federally funded block grants to fund state and local initiatives will gain attraction among thinking politicians of both parties.

The decentralization of the political process for problem-solving in 19th century America is exactly what so excited Alexis de Tocqueville one hundred and eighty years ago. As a young French historian, de Tocqueville traveled throughout America and chronicled his observations in his seminal work, “Democracy in America,” which we strongly commend to everyone.

de Tocqueville marveled at the uniquely American practice of self-reliance. He saw an entire nation in which people looked to themselves and to their neighbors to address and resolve all manner of issues and problems. It was, he said, as nothing he had ever seen before.  Elsewhere, especially in Europe, the people were totally conditioned to look centrally, to their sovereign or monarch, for resolution of all disputes and formulation of all programs for the common good. Not so in America. He described these new Americans as Englishmen left to themselves.  This was, he observed, “a general progress and evolution that history has never yet experienced.” He found “no parallel to what is occurring before my eyes.” This was, we believe, the American Exceptionalism that so impressed de Tocqueville.

In describing 19th century Europe, de Tocqueville wrote as though he were channeling 21st-century American domestic debate.  “It (the governments of Europe) covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

The Aspen Ideas Festival is a feast for those who hunger to understand the issues of the day and our collective prognosis for the future. There were hundreds of speakers and panel participants and thousands of attendees spread over two sessions between Sunday, June 25 and Saturday, July 1st. Often, there were as many as eight sessions running simultaneously.

There were many different points of view discussed and, no doubt, there were attendees who came merely to have their own views affirmed, but we were impressed with the willingness of most of the attendees to respectfully consider perspectives that differed from their own. There was also a willingness of panelists to, respectfully, take issue with fellow panelists.

Jeffrey Immelt, retiring  Chairman, and CEO of GE provided candid insight into his management philosophy and his view of globalization and of our very interconnected world.  Today 70% of General Electric’s business is generated outside of the United States.

Our favorite participant who served as both panelist and moderator in various sessions was Gillian Tett of Financial Times.  She was invariably perceptive, crisp in her comments, and never hesitant to provide a point of view that differed from other panelists. We’ll be renewing our subscription to Financial Times.  We don’t want to miss anything Gillian Tett writes.

We thought commentator Chris Mathews (MSNBC) was, perhaps, the least impressive panelist, moderating a light panel discussion between two Saturday Night Live regulars, Colin Jost and Michael Che. While his session was, of course, designed to provide a light and humorous touch, his Trump bashing deteriorated into silliness and was, we thought, out of place in an otherwise high-quality array of sophisticated and often differing points of view.

We found the discussion, “Being Muslim and American in 2017,”   by Rabia Chaudry and Haris Tarin to be the most moving and, in many respects, the most eye-opening presentation. Rabia Chaudry is an attorney, an immigration and human rights activist and a superb advocate for those who are at risk of becoming road kill at the hands of those political demagogues who wrongheadedly infer or equate all Muslims as the enemies among us. Haris Tarin is actually a senior policy advisor at Homeland Security. Their discussion of post-911 America and how this period has affected their and their family’s lives was something every thinking American should hear.

“Around the World in 60 Minutes,” a discussion between David Petraeus and John Dickerson was also quite worthwhile as was the discussion, “National Security in the Age of America First” with Professor Peter Feaver of Duke University, Julia Ioffe, Atlantic Magazine, and David Petraeus (4-star General ret.) and moderated by foreign affairs author, Professor, David Rothkopf.

We thought “China in Transition” was both enlightening and sobering as discussed by Elizabeth Economy (Director of Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Affairs), Julian Gewirtz (Author, “Unlikely Partners”), Evan Osnos, (New Yorker) and beautifully moderated by Financial Times’ Gillian Tett.

Journalists Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria along with Elizabeth Economy provided rare insight into the growing crises with North Korea.

Considerable time was devoted to cyberwarfare and what we can do about it by Dmitri Alperovitch (Co-founder and chief Technology Officer of Crowdstrike), Yasmin Green (Director of Research and Development, Jigsaw – Alphabet), and Garrett Graff (Executive Director, Cybersecurity and Technology Program, The Aspen Institute).

We leave you this week with this tidbit of wisdom from cyber exec Dmitri Alperovitch. “There are two types of people.  Those who have been hacked, and those who don’t know they have been hacked.”

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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2 responses to “Remarkable “Takeaway” From Aspen Ideas Festival”

  1. Dr. Lydia Axelrod says:

    Delightful, informative and makes you wish that you had attended

  2. Sheila says:

    Hal — Thank you for this post — it sounds like it was a very exciting “kid in a candy store” few days. And given the turn of events in Washington, I appreciate your de Tocqueville insights — thankfully, since the election, California has been ahead of the curve in many ways.

    Can you elaborate on the Fareed Zakaria-Tom Friedman discussion? Zakaria (whose show we never miss) has remarked and has featured guest experts on No. Korea in the past — but given the most recent ICBM launch, which occurred after their seminar, I would love to hear your thoughts, and what Zakaria and Friedman would conclude.

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