Around the Institute

Afternoon of Conversation Touches on All Aspects of American Identity

July 3, 2015  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Above, watch the full version of the Afternoon of Conversation.

If there’s one thread that ran through the Aspen Ideas Festival’s signature event, the Afternoon of Conversation, it was about identity: what it means to be American, how identity intersects with racial perceptions and realities, current challenges and issues with American identity, how identity intersects with opportunity, and how American identity manifests itself around the world, in philanthropy, in trade, and in conflict.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander kicked off the sprawling, three-hour marathon of ideas with a reading of her poem that she delivered at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, “Praise Song for the Day,” which concludes with a question that springs deep from identity: “What if the mightiest word was love?”

Sue Desmond-Hellman, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a certified oncologist, spoke of what it’s like to reconcile the ambitious, American-style goals of her organization — such as eradicating disease and curtailing poverty — with the reality that’s on the ground in places like Malawi, where barriers include lack of running water and reliable electricity and transport systems. While addressing those realities is one of the strengths she brings as a scientist, it’s also about learning to work in ways American may not be used to.

“We don’t do anything alone,” Desmond-Hellman noted. “We actually cite the African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” 

Desmond-Hellman also spoke about innovations in precision medicine, how big data will help the life sciences, and how the Gates Foundation is still very much focused on one of its founding purposes: K-12 education in the United States, in which it is particularly working on ensuring that poor and disadvantaged kids have equal access to a good education that prepares them for college.  

Physicist and mathematician Brian Greene challenged the current human perception of our place in the universe with a lecture that encompassed the history of the Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum physics, and the as-yet-unknown theory that is poised to marry the two. He spoke of unknowns about what is known and unknown about black holes — and in particular how scientists may be at the threshold of explaining what happens to matter that goes into them.

“It’s a thrilling time, because when we do figure it out, our understanding of space and time and matter will be catapulted to the next level,” Greene told the audience. 

Senior advisor to the president Valerie Jarrett spent much of her time onstage talking about the Charleston tragedy and giving an insider’s account into Obama’s reaction to it. That included why he chose to sing — it was his idea, but he would only do it if it felt right in the moment, and it did — and the now-famous pause before starting to sing, which was to decide which key to sing in.

Speaking of the president’s frustration at having to speak over and over after these tragedies of gun violence, racism, and police killings, Jarrett suggested that everyone in America should take a page from the Charleston victims’ families and make it a moment, not only of forgiveness, but to spark collective action.

“The question is, what are we going to do?” she asked. “Because this is a collective responsibility. It’s not that just because the country elected this president that all of our history suddenly evaporates. That young man didn’t create that terrible act of violence in a vacuum; he was raised as part of a community, part of a society. So the challenge and burden is not solely on the president; it’s on all of us. Just imagine what you can all do to create that perfect union.”

PBS Anchor and Managing Editor Gwen Ifill led a panel on American identity in an unusual format that allowed the seven of them to discuss their personal views on their own individual and collective identity and then field questions and commentary from the audience about it.

The three black women, one black man, one white man, one Asian American, and one Puerto Rican American agreed that American identity, while it has some shared traits, is not a concrete, universal thing.

As NPR’s Michele Norris put it, “being American is not set in stone; it’s more like water on rock,” because of all the people that come to the United States with their various backgrounds and traditions and outlooks.

“American identity is a work in progress just like American democracy is a work in progress,” noted Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Our identity should be as stewards. So much is changing about racial demographics, age demographics, economic realities, so we have to be aware and inclusive of all the ways American identity is reflected back through those changes.”

The panel also emphasized the importance of really thinking about how we see ourselves and others, in order to understand others.

Alexander asked the audience to think about, “Which bodies are inescapable in America right now? And what does it mean to be someone in that body all the time?”

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), in conversation with Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, touched on his platform of shifting the war on poverty to focusing on results, overhauling safety nets to get people out of poverty, tackling entitlement, strengthening the US military, and making the Republican Party more inclusive, relatable, and goals oriented.

But Ryan also spent some time on the recently passed trade bill, which gives the president fast-track authority on a Pacific Rim trade deal, among other things. The new law bucks American stereotypes and its role in the world in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that it was passed in a rare bipartisan partnership between Obama and Republicans in Congress.

On how the trade bill will change America’s role on the world stage, “It’s important for America to lead,” said Ryan, who, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was one of the bill’s main champions. “And no matter who the president is, we’ve got to knock down trade barriers and have America holding the pen when we’re rewriting the rules of the global economy.”

Predicting that the trade deal “is one of the best things we can do to put America in the driver’s seat in Asia,” Ryan added:

“Our allies wonder if we’re still in the game. They want America as a counterweight to China, and we want access to their markets. We made the economic and foreign policy argument that we believe in free trade and we think it’s right for the country, and we need it not only for this but for the next president. And if America on a bipartisan basis told the world that we’re not going to try to get trade agreements and that we don’t want to engage, think of the punctuation mark that would have placed on the narrative that we’re in decline. The world would say that this is not an aberration of the last eight years, that this is America now, America is past its prime.”

Billionaire tech investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, explained how he and others who think outside the box are able to innovate in ways that go against tradition and break the mold.

Thiel went against the grain of thinking about college as “the absolute be all, end all, safe way to do things.” Calling it an ever-larger insurance policy for young people to not fall through the cracks, Thiel said college “is very good at training people to do things the way we’ve done over and over, and that’s perhaps not as good at pushing some of these new ideas.”

Thiel, a child chess prodigy who was on track to a promising career in the legal and financial industries, advocated for a different view of entrepreneurship than is generally acknowledged.

People shouldn’t aspire to be entrepreneurs, said Thiel, who believes that starting a business should always be an answer to a specific — and preferably small — problem that’s not being addressed by any other company.

“A great company is not just the first mover, the first one that does something new, but it has something that lasts,” he said, pointing out that there is much less innovation in present day technology than even in the 1930s, which saw the birth of numerous industries, including plastics and aviation. And many of today’s technological successes don’t translate to societal improvement, he added.

The afternoon ended with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg interviewing retired US Army Gen. and former CIA director David Petraeus, who weighed in on the impending Iran nuclear deal, ISIS and the Middle East, and America’s place in the world.

Petraeus called the Iran deal one that could be “of far-reaching significance.” While pointing out the good and the bad in the deal, he also opined at the consequences of no deal:

“If you don’t get a deal, Iran presumably goes back to enriching more uranium, it reverses those other steps in the interim agreement, and we continue on a path that’s presumably more and more toward the threshold of nuclear war. I think military confrontation is inevitable if there is then irrefutable evidence that they’re moving toward a nuclear weapon.”

ISIS is dangerous to the United States because of its enormous success, particularly with recruiting young men and women through social media, said Petraeus. But it’s “not near the kind of 9/11 danger,” he added. 

Despite all the instability in the Middle East, Petraeus predicts that Iraq can stay together. But one of the keys will be for the United States to establish a “robust military headquarters” in Baghdad, which he said could have “a huge impact” throughout the region.

On the notion of American decline, Petraeus had a similar answer as Ryan’s, one of optimism if the United States takes advantage of its strengths.

“We have this extraordinary opportunity, because of the energy revolution, which has upended energy markets, the manufacturing revolution beginning, robotics, 3D printing …” said Petraeus. “All these things have completely transformed the workplace as we know it. In all of these revolutions you either find Americans completely leading or among the leaders. Look around the world and tell me if there’s any country that’s as well positioned as the United States. So it’s about how the United States can play an indispensable role as thoughtfully, as intelligently as we possibly can.”

Even organist Cameron Carpenter, an Aspen Institute Harman-Eisner artist in residence, shook up notions of traditional identity when he performed J. S. Bach’s “Toccata” as an interlude between speakers. With his distinctive modified mohawk and dramatic style of play that incorporates both hands and feet, Carpenter upended the very traditional concept of classical music and those who perform it.