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Fallowses talk America’s ‘becomingness’ in Independence Day lecture

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  • James and Deborah Fallows, authors of "Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America," lecture on the theme "American Identity" Wednesday, July 4, 2018 in the Amphitheater. RILEY ROBINSON/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

American identity is “becoming,” Deborah and James Fallows said at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Wednesday, July 4 in the Amphitheater as part of Week Two’s discussion on “American Identity.”

“The story of this nation is a contiguous start at every point, from the 1600s to the 2000s now, where you have forces of openness and inclusion and possibility and ideals, and forces working in the other direction,” James Fallows said. “And the story of our country is the endless frontier between those forces.”

The Fallowses have spent the last five years flying in a single-engine prop airplane to smaller- and medium-sized cities across the U.S., meeting with leaders, workers, young people and immigrants to see a “country busy remaking itself.”

Their book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, documents their journey through the City Makers: American Futures project — a partnership with The Atlantic and “Marketplace.”

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, currently based in London. He served as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, and as editor of US News & World Report.

He is the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermines American Democracy and China Airborne, a five-time finalist and winner of the National Magazine Award, a winner of the American Book Award for non-fiction, and a New York Emmy Award winner.

Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, where she writes about women, education and travel. She is also the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language and A Mother’s Work. She previously worked on research for the Pew Internet Project and for Oxygen Media doing data architecture. She is also a graduate of Harvard University with a Ph.D. in linguistics, and speaks six languages.

The Fallowses first visited Chautauqua Institution almost 30 years ago — they have been returning and active Chautauquans ever since.

“Chautauqua has such a special place in America’s imagination and identity and history and future, and in our own family’s life,” James Fallows said.

He opened the lecture by polling the audience. He asked who thought the current direction of America was on “the wrong course”; the majority of attendees shot their hands in the air, and a snicker echoed through the Amp. When he asked who thought the country was on “the right course,” only a few hands rose.

“We have within this Amphitheater, and the parts of America and society that you represent … people (who) feel that the nationwide scale of the American identity, the American ideal, is in trouble,” he said.

But despite the overwhelming majority of people who think American ideals are changing, the Fallowses believe that cities are rebuilding themselves — and their identities.

“Just at the moment when the ‘us-ness’ and identity of America seems darnfully troubled in ways … a reinvention of the United States, of the ‘us-ness,’ of the American identity of the American idea and ideal is happening city by city, state by state, region by region,” James Fallows said.

He asked how many people’s parents were born outside of the U.S.; a few hands hung in the air. He asked how many people’s grandparents were born outside of the U.S.; more hands rose. He asked how many people’s great-grandparents were born outside of the U.S.; by then, almost every hand was in the air.

“My understanding of the history of American immigration is very much like what we’ve heard from the stage in the previous two days — it’s never been fair, it’s never been easy,” James Fallows said over a crack of thunder he called “natural underscoring.”

For many immigrants, their first taste of America comes in a prepackaged orientation. Here they learn how to do basic tasks — things that seem intuitive to most people — like flush the toilet, how to turn on the stove. More importantly, how to turn off the stove and “how to call 911 when they forget to turn off the stove,” Deborah Fallows said.

After the basics, the orientation skims over how to find housing, pay rent, get health insurance, enroll in school and secure a job.

For students, some of whom have never been to school before, they’re tasked with learning English — no easy feat — or how to write or even how to hold a pen, she said. But schools across the country are accommodating students: giving Muslim students a separate lunch room during Ramadan so they aren’t tempted to eat while fasting, and hiring more English as a second language instructors.

“What do we hear when we were going around these communities?” Deborah Fallows said. “I’ll tell you: we never heard ‘Build a wall.’ In some instances we hear, ‘We need each other, we rely on each other, we are richer for it.’ ”

In November, Deborah Fallows contacted her sources and connections in refugee centers across the country.

“In Erie, Pennsylvania, the phones were ringing off the hook asking, ‘How can I help?’” she said. “In Burlington, Vermont, people had lined up around the block saying, ‘How can I help?’ ”

The head of a national organization for refugee processing in North Carolina, whom Deborah Fallows contacted, met a Syrian refugee who said: “If I was sent back, I want Americans to know that I am grateful for the time I had here, and they have been very good to me.”

As Deborah Fallows read that statement to the audience, her eyes teared up and her voice cracked.

“The history of immigration has and will always be disruptive, there’s always been exclusion, there’s always been prejudice and yet … the promise of the United States is that overall people have become ‘us,’ overall there’s been this imperfect slow continuation of expanding the ‘us’ of the American identity,” James Fallows said. “We can tell you that continues now.”

These communities are also experiencing “institution innovation” in their libraries, public schools and public-pride organizations, according to the Fallowses.

In Duluth, Minnesota, the community is using art as a “reckoning” of the town’s dark history, Deborah Fallows said. Duluth is notoriously known as the site of the “most northern lynching” in America. The town did not acknowledge the lynching until a national alt-weekly magazine highlighted its twisted past.

In memoriam, the town built a park near the scene of the hanging.

Other towns the Fallowses visited are using art to brand themselves; like Bend, Oregon, whose “ flaming chicken” statue has become a staple of the town, and even Chautauqua Institution.

“(At Chautauqua) you have done it to perfection. Everything at Chautauqua is infused with everyday life, and I think it brings this ‘not everyday life’ perspective into what the American life is,” Deborah Fallows said.

The Fallowses said the struggle to define the American identity is between two forces; a force at the national level, where the government is paralyzed, polarized and fearful, and a force at the local level.

“There’s another force that we have seen at Chautauqua, and Erie, and Sioux Falls, and San Bernardino and Greenville — dozens of other places of people reinventing a idea of this country, renewing its promise,” James Fallows said.

He proceeded to read a selection from their book, Our Towns, which summed up the couple’s belief in the strength of redefining American identity at the local level. The last line read: “This is the American song we hear.”

Following a thunderous round of applause (and thunder from a looming storm), Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt presented Deborah Fallows with a gift from Smith Memorial Library: a T-shirt with the phrase “Libraries Rock” printed on the front, for her passion and enthusiasm for libraries.

Ewalt then opened the Q-and-A. He asked how effective the cities the Fallowses visited have been at telling their stories.

More important than having a craft brewery as a point of pride for many cities, James Fallows said, “it’s knowing the civic story.”

“Chautauqua knows what its story and its role in America’s past and the future that Chautauqua has,” he said. “Most of the cities we thought were doing well, they conveyed to their citizens ‘this is what it means to be in (our city).’ ”

He mentioned Fresno, California, as an example. Fresno, a once-underappreciated city, now feels that it’s “coming up,” so much so that it has rebranded itself to “Fres-yes,” James Fallows said.

One attendee asked if cities had found their “sense of place.”

“As people that travel around a lot, we were struck by the ‘placeness’ of the U.S. now,” James Fallows said.

When asked what town or city the couple wanted to visit next, Deborah Fallows sharply replied: “Brownfield, Texas.”

Who is the ‘we’ in ‘We the People’? Cobb examines ‘fundamental divide’ of racism in defining identity

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  • Staff writer of The New Yorker Jelani Cobb discusses the history behind "American Identity" and how it has made a personal impact on his life at the Amphitheater on Tuesday, July 3, 2018. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Who are the “we” in “we the people?”

Jelani Cobb, staff writer for The New Yorker, took a hard look at what “we the people” has meant throughout history at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Tuesday, July 3 in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Two’s discussion of “American Identity.”

During Cobb’s tenure at The New Yorker, he has written extensively about race in America. His articles, including “The Anger in Ferguson,” “Murders in Charleston,” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Reparations,” tackle injustice, the police and race.

He is the 2015 recipient of the Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism, the 2017 recipient of the Walter Bernstein Award from the Writers Guild of America East for his PBS Frontline series “Policing the Police,” and a Fulbright fellow.

This was his first visit to Chautauqua Institution.

“This is an immense country — sprawling — and if we were to ask ‘what America is,’ we could give any variety of answers,” Cobb said. “We could say that it is a nation-state, in North America — the North American continent — that covers 3.8 million square miles. That it has a population of 325 million people…”

Cobb rattled off facts about the U.S., from religious makeup to racial breakdown. He told the audience “a lot about the United States,” but not “who we are.”

“ ‘Who we are’ is a much broader, philosophical question,” he said. “It is best understood by our responses in times of difficulty. It is what we do in our most mundane moments. It is what we hold onto in our most cherished values.”

The question of who are “we the people,” Cobb said, is central to decades of unresolved conflict — he called it “the fundamental divide” — because for most of the nation’s history, “we” has been exclusive to white people.

“The first-person plural ‘we,’ we’ve never sufficiently understood and defined who was included in that word,” he said. “And as a consequence, we had a dynamic in American history of an expanding concept of ‘we’ and a contracting and fearful idea of who ‘we’ should be.”

This dynamic constantly replays itself, like a “Freudian nightmare, (recurring and recurring) until the underlying conflict is resolved,” he said.

Cobb referenced the Declaration of Independence — and its inherent hypocrisy.

In the original declaration, Thomas Jefferson drafted arguments for separating from England. One of the grievances stressed that the British were guilty of thrusting slaves on the American colonies, and if the slaves revolted, it would be at the expense of Americans, not the British, according to Cobb.

“This is as stinging a rebuke of the institution of slavery that we see from Jefferson’s pen,” he said.

That clause did not make it into the final draft, weaving oppression into the nation’s founding document.

“It is essentially copy-editing black freedom out of the original document. We begin with this disparity and distinction in the capacity in the word ‘we’ to not include all human beings of this country,” Cobb said.

Moving through history, this “disparity” pitted the young republic against itself, erupting in the Civil War — a war fundamentally rooted in the question of “who we are,” Cobb said.

Cobb, who lived in Georgia for a number of years, said “people will tell you ‘the Civil War was fought for a number of exotic reasons.’ ”

“It’s widely accepted that slavery was the active ingredient, which is to say it was not the only cause, but it was the cause which without it, we would not have war,” he said. “It was the intractable element in this, and this issue of slavery would prove more fundamentally as a question of identity.

“Could the people who imagined a republic where there had been none imagine an interracial republic where there was not one?”

States used slavery as a bargaining chip: California could join the Union if southern states could enact tighter fugitive slave laws. From these “compromises” arose a government bureau dedicated to capturing and returning fugitive slaves and attempts to impose a constitutional amendment to prohibit the abolition of slavery, according to Cobb.

None of this resolved the question of “who we are.”

“It’s like a tire that has been patched and patched and patched, and sooner or later the tire is going to fall apart,” he said.

Cobb recalled seeing a statue of Abraham Lincoln on the drive to the Institution. Most people remember Lincoln as “the Great Emancipator,” but Cobb said people admire him for the wrong reasons.

According to Cobb, Lincoln spoke openly about “(consigning) the Negro race to a position of inferiority.” It wasn’t until his party pushed for the abolition of slavery and the Union was victorious at the Battle of Antietam that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Cobb noted that the proclamation only freed slaves in states that had seceded from the Union, and a constitutional amendment was needed to truly end slavery (only for those who had not been convicted of a crime).

“This is back to this expansion and contraction of ‘who is we?’ ” he said.

The rise of the Klu Klux Klan in the late 19th and early 20th century and the sharp increase of immigration laws were also bound in this question of “Who are we?”

Cobb jumped forward to contemporary history.

“In 2007, there were exactly four people in the United States who thought the country was ready to elect a black president, and they all lived in the same address on the south side of Chicago,” Cobb said over a roar of laughter. “But this happened, and it was an amazing thing to witness.”

He said regardless of political views or opinions, Barack Obama’s election to the highest office was a “novel development in American politics.”

However, the election of the first African-American president did not deter the “fundamental divide” from tearing at the social fabric of this new era.

A 2010 and 2011 opinion poll showed a small sliver of white people thought the most disadvantaged group in the country was themselves — despite making up 61 percent of the country and holding 91 percent of political offices, according to Cobb.

“We have yet to triumph over the most narrow sense — the most zero-sum understanding of who we are. We have yet to permanently inscribe a concept of democracy that sees itself as enriched with the presence and success of others. … This can be a difficult thing to grapple with,” he said.

But Cobb has hope. He shared an anecdote about a flight from Atlanta to New York City he took shortly after 9/11. A tall man with olive skin and a long beard boarded the plane wearing a tunic and baggy pants; he sat a row behind Cobb.

Cobb looked over his shoulder and asked the man where he was from; the plane fell silent.

The man turned and, in a rebuttal, asked Cobb where he was from. Cobb responded: “I’m from Queens, and I’m asking because I think you’re also from Queens, and if you are who I think you are, we were in the same breakdance crew in high school.”

“Everybody around us exhaled — he’s a breakdancer, he’s not going to kill us,” Cobb said over the audience’s laughter. “I’m now the large black man that made the white people around me feel more comfortable.”

This experience taught Cobb that it is possible for the country to see beyond its narrow view of itself and widely adopt openness and acceptance.

“In short, it is possible for democracy to exist in this land — it does not quite at this moment,” he said. “This struggle we have inherited from generations past, but I have no doubt that as people of conscience and diligence, it will. It will one day.”

After a thunderous standing ovation, Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt opened the Q-and-A by asking if Cobb finds confidence in the younger generation’s ability to further advance inclusivity.

“We do in instances find that young people are more open-minded about questions and being less mired by the decrepit thinking of older generations, and I think that’s hopeful,” Cobb said. “But I also think that we can’t kind of think that we are on auto-pilot, that these issues will resolve themselves.”

One attendee asked Cobb’s thoughts on whether Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the national anthem is a response to social injustices, or a lack of patriotism.

Cobb, who is close friends with Kaepernick, said that people mistake his decision as “unpatriotic” to gloss over the actual issues at hand, like police brutality.

“Patriotism is supposed to include dissent,” Cobb said.

‘Our Towns’ authors Fallowses to examine nation’s ideals in context of current climate

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The American identity is changing, according to James and Deborah Fallows.

The Fallowses will discuss how cities are redefining American ideals and their new book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, at their 10:45 a.m. lecture Wednesday, July 4 in the Amphitheater to continue Week Two, “American Identity.”

“(Chautauqua Institution) has a way of understanding how the long-term elements of the American identity and American ideals match the realities of this moment of the political trends and emerging crises,” James Fallows said. “It’s particularly relevant right now because a lot of both national and local politics involve this effort to figure out what is America, who are Americans and what does it mean to be of this country.”

Over the last five years, the Fallowses have traveled by prop airplane, reporting on smaller-to medium-sized cities that are reshaping what it means to be an American on a local level. This project, in partnership with The Atlantic and “Marketplace,” is called “City Makers: American Futures.”

Along their journey, the couple met with civic leaders, factory workers, immigrants and entrepreneurs — Our Towns is a collection of those interactions, “an account of a country busy remaking itself.”

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic — he has written for The Atlantic since the late 1970s. James Fallows was the chief White House speechwriter under former President Jimmy Carter for two years and served as editor of US News & World Report for two years. He has authored Breaking the News: How the Media Undermines American Democracy and China Airborne. He is also the author of Blind Into Baghdad and Postcards From Tomorrow Square; these works are based on writing from The Atlantic.

He is a fifth-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, which he won once, recipient of the American Book Award for non-fiction and a NewYork Emmy Award-winner for the documentary series “Doing Business in China.”

He and Deborah Fallows have lived in Shanghai and Beijing, travelling through China for three years.

Deborah Fallows is the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, a reflection on her struggles while learning Mandarin. She is also a contributing writer for The Atlantic and co-creator of “City Makers: American Futures.”

Deborah Fallows is a graduate of Harvard University with a Ph.D. in linguistics. She has worked in research and polling for the Pew Internet Project and data architecture for Oxygen Media.

For their morning lecture, the Fallowses will touch on the contrast of American identity at the local and national levels.

“At the national level, there’s just a really pinched battle about who can be an American,” James Fallows said. “We’re contrasting that to what we’ve seen in the local level, where there is this city-by-city, ongoing reinvention of the American identity, which we’re saying is actually much closer to what has been over the century.”

The Fallowses have visited the Institution many times over the last few decades.

“Since we’ve gotten to know a lot of people at Chautauqua, we’re looking forward to seeing them again,” Deborah Fallows said. “We always look forward to the kind of community family village atmosphere of Chautauqua that’s different compared to maybe our hometown.”

James Fallows said he is interested in the way the Institution has evolved.

“One of the things that makes Chautauqua most distinctive in American life is the tradition,” he said, “the way it is deliberately set apart from modern chaos and trying to give people a chance to think seriously about ideas and books and matters, both of reason and of faith and of culture, and all those things have been consistent since its foundation. … It’s recognizably the same place, but is also clearly responding to the new ideas, challenges, opportunities of each age.”

Deborah Fallows said the Institution “maintain(s) some of the things about American society that the country has always valued.”

James Fallows agreed.

“(American identity) has been one of (the Institution’s) trademark themes over the decades of understanding both the permanent and continually changing nature of the American identity,” he said, “permanent in the ideals of inclusion, mutual effort to make a more perfect union and all the other aspects that were said at the start, but changing and continuing with the ethnic mix and international and domestic challenges.”

For Deborah Fallows, the Institution, despite its isolation and microscale, ignites inspiration for change across the nation.

“I think (Chautauqua) offers something different, which is maybe a chance to be more creative about the kinds of changes and renewal that are possible,” she said. “That comes from hanging out in the summer with people you don’t live with every day during the winter and the community problems you don’t live with during the winter, so it’s a chance to, in a micro-cosmic way, listen to the country at large.”

Caragol frames ‘American Identity’ through portraits

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  • Dr. Taína B. Caragol, curator of painting and sculpture and Latino art and history for the National Portrait Gallery, talks about the importance of representation in the Amphitheater, Monday, July 2, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For Taína Caragol, American identity is visual.

Caragol, curator of painting and sculpture and Latino art and history at the National Portrait Gallery, framed identity through portraits at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Monday, July 2 in the Amphitheater to kick off Week Two,“American Identity.”

“Identity is a grounding force — it tells us who we are and by that it centers us, defining not just our own selves, but also how we relate to the world,” she said. “Identity, personal or national, is led by shared experiences and values that are informed by our past and our present.”

Prior to her appearance at Chautauqua Institution, Caragol said she spent a lot of time thinking about her identity.

“I thank you all for throwing me into a new identity crisis,” she said.

This was Caragol’s first visit to Chautauqua, but she quickly realized her identity was more closely tied to the Institution than she thought.

Within hours of the announcement that Caragol would deliver a lecture this season, an unfamiliar face with a familiar lineage contacted her.

A Chautauquan and distant relative reached out to Caragol. It was a “great cousin on her father’s side,” whose family was from Liverpool, England, and born to Catalonian parents. This inspired Caragol’s title for her lecture: “Catalonia to Chautauqua, One Way.”

On the journey from Catalonia to Chautauqua, Caragol took a brief ( five years and counting) stop at the National Portrait Gallery.

Caragol has been at the foreground of the effort to increase representation of Latino figures and culture at the National Portrait Gallery. She previously served as curator of education at Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico and as the Latin American bibliographer for the Museum of Modern Art.

As one of Washington’s oldest public buildings, the structure that now holds the National Portrait Gallery was built in 1836 to house the U.S. Patent Office, injured soldiers during the Civil War and, eventually, President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration.

The traditional Greek Revival building was marked for demolition in the 1950s to make way for a parking lot, but survived and was incorporated into the Smithsonian. The National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1962 and authorized by Congress to “acquire and display portraits of ‘men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States.’ ”

Although the gallery displays images of influential figures, Caragol stressed “(the gallery) is not a hall of fame.”

“I take the time to go over our building’s history to convey the fact that American identity — the question of who we are collectively, as a nation — permeates every aspect of the National Portrait Gallery’s mission,” she said.

When Caragol interviewed for her current job, she asked why the institution was looking for a Latino art and history specialist when their collection of such art was minimal. That was the reason they needed her.

At the time, less than 1 percent of the gallery’s 22,000-piece collection featured historical Latino figures. African-Americans comprised about 5 percent and women less than a quarter.

According to Caragol, this lack of representation was partially because of biases in the portrait industry.

“Not everyone has been worthy of a portrait or able to afford one. Early American portraiture, until the advent of photography in 1839, is mostly white and male,” she said. “When postage portraiture presents most often the original history of the elite, written history is most often related from the point of view of the notorious and powerful.”

The lack of representation of minorities could lead to insecurities among youth, Caragol said.

“The portrait gallery, as the national compository for portraits of great American men and women, exists not only to tell their biographies but to let younger generations know by example that they can and should live on in history,” she said. “In this context, the mere absence of Latinos from the gallery … and from its collection suggests their lack of belonging.”

During her tenure at the National Portrait Gallery, Caragol has helped acquire 150 pieces depicting Latino figures — most by Latino artists. The collection has grown from 1 percent to 2.5 percent — a small but significant change.

“There’s more work to do, but that means job security, right?” she joked.

The collection includes portraits of Rubén Salazar, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the first Mexican-American journalist to cover the Chicano community in the mainstream media, painted by Rupert García; Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and third female Supreme Court jus- tice, painted by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders; and activist and founder of Agricultural Workers Association, Dolores Huerta, painted by Barbara Carrasco.

“In the last five years, I’ve been working hard to make sure that the history of the nation that you see in our museum, its past and present, reflects the integral role of Latinos in shaping its culture,” Caragol said.

Caragol referenced a work from “The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now” — a collection she co-curated — called “Home” by Vincent Valdez, which moved her.

The multimedia piece included a video of businesses and neighborhoods of San Antonio, Texas, with a coffin of an American soldier floating through each scene as a tribute to the artist’s fallen friend. She shared a clip of the piece with the audience.

Caragol said the work, although it is by a Latino artist and depicts Latino culture, has a universal message that people can relate to despite political or social opinions about war, race or ethnicity.

“That is the power of art. By agreeing to our humanity, it can connect people with many different experiences. It can be a vehicle of solidarity, while also conveying specificity. So if you see someone you do not know or does not look like you show up on the walls of your National Portrait Gallery, they might be connected to your identity.”

-Taína Caragol, Curator, Painting, Sculpture, Latino Art and History, National Portrait Gallery

As Caragol finished painting the relationship between art and identity to the Amp’s audience, President Michael E. Hill opened the Q-and-A. He asked how the curatorial team fills gaps in American history through portraits.

Caragol said that while the museum follows the “traditional, official historical narrative — the one written in textbooks,” it tends to be exclusive, and therefore, the museum also relies on specialists in different fields to accurately portray history.

Hill then opened the floor to audience questions. One attendee asked how the gallery told larger stories, like of mass immigration and the Japanese internment camps, through single portraits. Caragol explained that other mediums are often included to better sculpt history.

“Some of (the collections), we don’t have all the necessary portraits to put that story together, but then we borrow them from other museums, we go to archives and documents that can help us tell that story,” she said.

In the context of the broader, national conversation about removing Confederate monuments, one audience member asked if the National Portrait Gallery will remove any of its controversial pieces.

The National Portrait Gallery does not gloss over history — even the difficult subjects — according to Caragol.

“As I said, we are not a hall of fame — history cannot be a hall of fame, there are parts that are really painful, that are disturbing and we should not simply ignore them — it’s not possible,” she said. “We need to study them and understand them fully to make sure they don’t happen again. That can’t be possible if we decide to turn a blind eye on them.”

Playwrights Hnath, Hamill take stage to talk writing, theater with Kahn

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  • Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn leads the Morning Lecture with Playwrights Lucas Hnath and Kate Hamill in the Amphitheater on Friday, June 29, 2018. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the finale of “The Life of the Written Word,” playwrights stepped out of the wings to discuss taking their scripts to the stage.

More than 30 years after leaving his mark on Chautauqua Institution, Michael Kahn returned to lead the 10:50 a.m. (the 10:45 a.m. lecture started five minutes late) conversation Friday, June 29 in the Amphitheater as the curtain call of Week One.

Kahn, the founder of Chautauqua Conservatory Theater Company, now Chautauqua Theater Company, is the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. He will retire in 2019 after more than 32 years with the company.

In 1983, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his direction of Show Boat. His work at the theater earned him the award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in 2012. Kahn is an inductee in the American Theatre Hall of Fame and was named an honorary knight of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

Now, he said in regard to his panelists, “we are in a golden age of playwriting.”

An international playwright, Lucas Hnath’s work includes A Doll’s House, Part 2, a look at what happens to Nora after the bold ending of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, Hillary and Clinton, Red Speedo, The Christians and Death Tax.

Hnath is a 2017 Tony nominee for Best Play, a recipient of Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, the Windham-Campbell Prize and an Obie Award. He serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Dramatic Writing at his alma mater, New York University.

For Hnath, theater combines his childhood loves: Disney, which was in the backyard of his childhood Orlando home; megachurches, which his family attended often; haunted houses, which he hated; and magic shows, which he adored.

Kate Hamill works both behind the page and on the stage; named The Wall Street Journal’s Playwright of the Year in 2017, her work includes an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which won the 2016 Off-Broadway Alliance Award and was nominated for the Drama League Award. She debuted the role of Marianne.

“I think of ‘Kate the actor’ and ‘Kate the playwright’ as two different people,” she said.

She has also written adaptations for Vanity Fair and Pride and Prejudice; she acted in both plays. Hamill is also working on The Odyssey and The Scarlet Letter.

Kahn opened the conversation asking why each playwright chose to write for the theater.

“I get to make my own little stage, and I get to put something in three dimensions,” Hnath said. “There’s no other form where you really get to do something that moves through real time and space like that.”

For Hamill, the theater feels like a unique religious ritual.

“As opposed to when you watch a film or TV or something,” she said, “a play is actually changed by an audience.”

Hnath’s work presents characters with polarizing themes that challenge their beliefs. For example, A Doll’s House, Part 2 challenges the idea of monogamous relationships.

“It comes from a desire to understand something I don’t agree with,” he said.

He recounted working for a nonprofit law clinic, listening to people talk about horrific moments in their lives, and how it shaped his playwriting. Hnath’s job was to establish cases for his clients, but to do so he had “to understand the argument against them.”

He asks himself a series of questions when writing a play: “What do you know?” “How do you know it?” and “Are you sure you know it?”

“If you have a really big problem that people can connect with for 90 minutes, you might have a play,” Hnath said.

For Hamill, her inspiration for “woman-central plots” stemmed from a frustration about the lack of powerful roles for female actors.

“I would go to an audition where there would be 400 women in an room trying their best to play the male protagonist’s wife, or girlfriend or prostitute,” she said.

Her work is also focused around personal questions. For Sense and Sensibility, Hamill played with responses to social pressures.

For adaptations of 19th-century novels, Hamill begins by reading or re-reading the book, then researching context and themes, and then writing. Her plays are not a “copy and paste” of the original work.

“I start writing and try to meet the author where they are,” Hamill said.

Hnath usually starts with a conflict — maybe a few characters — but he builds his stories around “fragments.” They might just be a few lines he concocts after his morning coffee or full pages of dialogue, but they fill in holes in his scripts.

He deletes and rearranges ideas by playing with the fragments and the actors during rehearsal — insisting he directs the first few workshops for each of his plays.

He described workshopping the Broadway production of A Doll’s House, Part 2 with actor Laurie Metcalf.

“When we went into rehearsal, I did not realize that Laurie was both off book — she had memorized all her lines — but she had pretty much memorized all the fragments too,” he said. “When I would ‘Oh, this one moment it’s not right,’ she’d say, ‘Oh, I remember fragment dated such and such, I could try that here,’ and she just knew it.”

Hamill said she also periodically thinks of snippets for plays — some make it into her work, others wait in the wings.

“Sometimes I write segments, and I don’t quite know what play it goes to,” she said.

Like Hnath, Hamill also workshops her scripts during rehearsals; she changes lines and stage directions if they feel unnatural to the actors, “shaping everything to fit the actor’s mouth.”

The playwrights said they each write everyday and are constantly working on multiple pieces.

“It helps me to have multiple projects at once so if one drives me nuts, I can switch to another,” Hamill said.

Despite having a myriad of ideas and finished plays, Hnath is very critical of the work he presents to the public.

“I just have to ask myself, ‘Does this need to live in the world?’ and sometimes it just doesn’t,” he said.

Kahn asked the playwrights if there’s anything they ask of the audience during a performance.

“Don’t unwrap hard candies,” Hamill said jokingly over a wave of laughter and applause.

Hnath said there is a difference between playwrights’ and audiences’ language; for the audience, it usually boils down to whether the play was “realistic or not.” Hnath hopes that audiences “endeavor (to find) more words to describe plays.”

For Hamill, openness and empathy is key for her audiences.

“It’s so easy to be cynical and too jaded about what you’re seeing, or (have) prejudice against ideas or prejudice against viewpoints, …” she said. “If our lives were reflected on the stage, we would not like our petty hypocrisies in our lives that we tell ourselves, and our behaviors reflect it. I think it’s so interesting to come in with openness in mind and empathy, and hopefully you can put yourself in someone else’s skin.”

Prompted by a question from President Michael E. Hill to open the Q-and-A, the playwrights said they don’t “lock in their words” for future performances, but hope theaters and directors respect their initial vision.

“I don’t have children myself, but it must feel a little bit like you raised a child and the child is in the world and you’re like, ‘I hope you don’t go to jail,’ ” Hamill said.

Kahn, a director himself, said he feels responsible for honoring the playwright’s intention, dead or alive.

Hill closed the lecture — and the week — by asking where the panelists think the future of theater is headed.

Hnath sees more playwrights directing their own work; Kahn doesn’t know where theater is going, but he is sure it will persevere.

“Everyone is always predicting the death of the theater, but I don’t think it’s dying,” Hamill said. “It’s been around for thousands of years. I think the old girl has still got some kick in her.”

Stamper dives into words’ origins, ‘irregardless’ of consequences

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  • Lexicographer Kory Stamper lectures on the secret lives of words in the Amphitheater Thursday, June 28, 2018. RILEY ROBINSON/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As Chautauqua Institution gets ready to close the curtain on “The Life of the Written Word,” Kory Stamper pulled that curtain back to reveal the secret life of language.

The lexicographer delivered the morning lecture Thursday June 28 in the Amphitheater as the second-to-last-lecturer for Week One.

Stamper joined Merriam-Webster in 1998; she worked for the company for 20 years, and was responsible for explaining the “F-bomb” entry in the dictionary. Stamper is the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, and her writing has also been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Stamper opened her multimedia presentation with the definition of “lexicographer” — an author or editor of the dictionary.

“I did not write that definition by the way,” she said over a roar of laughter. “It was already there.”

But what does a lexicographer really do? It’s a question Stamper asks herself often.

“If you’re anything like I was, you didn’t even realize lexicography was a job,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was a job until I was hired to do the work. And when I started doing the work,I thought,‘Why? What do you mean dictionaries need to be written? We already wrote the dictionary.’ And then I thought, ‘How do dictionaries get written and what kind of person writes dictionaries?’ ”

And some of you are probably thinking, ‘They let you write dictionaries?’ ”

To be a lexicographer, reading is a must — compulsive reading is a bonus, Stamper said.

“I am in fact a compulsive reader,” she said. “I am not an avid reader; I’m not a voracious reader — I am a pathological, compulsive reader. I am the woman on the train who you see reading her receipts from her pockets if there’s a delay. That’s me.”

Lexicographers spend at least two hours a day reading, and it’s not just novels. Anything in print is up for grabs, according to Stamper — from beer bottles, to diaper boxes, bills, the Yellow Pages and menus — especially menus.

“When you’re reading, you’re not reading for content. I don’t read David Brooks’ column in The New York Times to find out what he thinks about our current economic situation, I’m looking at the word level, I’m looking for a brand new use of the word ‘voodoo’ in voodoo economics,” Stamper said. “So, I read compulsively, but remember nothing about what I’ve read.”

But although David Brooks might use the word “voodoo” in reference to economics, that doesn’t guarantee that definition will make it into the dictionary.

At Merriam-Webster, new words or new uses for words are flagged, and lexicographers must evaluate and decide if they merit an entry. To merit an entry, the word must have widespread, sustained and meaningful use.

Widespread use is both geographical and tonal.

“I want a word to be used in the Wall Street Journal and in Vibe magazine,” Stamper said. “I want to see a word that’s used in the The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review and People magazine and on somebody’s blog.”

Sustained use is the second criteria.

“A word needs a shelf life to be entered into the dictionary because once a word gets into the dictionary, people tend to use it more, and it’s really hard to get a word out of the dictionary,” she said.

The final measure is meaningful use. Stamper clarified the distinction between “significant” and “meaningful” use.

“Of course, words have meaning, but not all printed words get used with a meaning I can grab onto. The word ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ appears in print as an example of a long word, but it doesn’t mean a long word. Nobody would say, ‘He put a lot of disestablishmentarianism in his dating profile to attract women’ because that’s not what that word means,” she said. “In that case, ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ does not have meaningful use.”

Language enthusiasts have two principles of thought: prescriptivist and descriptivist. Prescriptivism is “an approach to language that champions the best English,” according to Stamper. Most people would agree that dictionaries are “prescriptivists.”

Descriptivists believe that all language is equal — that there is no “good or bad English.”

“People that care deeply about language hate descriptivists,” Stamper said. “So, you will imagine my surprise when I discovered that dictionaries are descriptivists. The reason that dictionaries are descriptivists goes back to Noah Webster. He said, ‘Collect, arrange and define all the words in a language.’ And it’s not until you start doing this job that you realize the language goes in some really weird and ugly places.”

The audience erupted into laughter.

“If you’d like to get up and leave now, I won’t be offended,” she said, as the word “irregardless” appeared on the screen.

“Irregardless,” the most hated word in the English language, Stamper said, turned her lexicographic career upside down.

Stamper read an email, which she received from an upset consumer early in her career at Merriam-Webster:

“To whom it may concern;

As any educated Mississippian knows: ‘irregardless’ is the superlative form of regardless. Not used in lieu of ‘regardless’ as it states by y’all.

Regards.”

Dumbfounded by the thought of a nonsensical word appearing in the dictionary, Stamper went to work to prove this disgruntled reader wrong; unfortunately, she proved herself wrong — irregardless was in the dictionary and was used in abundance from the 1700s through the early 20th century, according to Stamper.

The audience burst into murmurs and gasps.

“Irregardless is a dialect term,” she said.

Dialects are subsets of language that people usually associate with accents but that also have their own grammar.

“There’s Southern English, then there’s whatever they speak in Boston,” she said. “There’s California English — there’s whatever they speak in Boston … everyone grows up speaking a dialect, in fact most of you speak multiple dialects and you switch between them easily, but none of you natively speak standard English.”

English is a written standard, a standard that grew out of the development of the middle-class and fall of the upper-class. To maintain their power, members of the upper-class clung to manners and language to assert their dominance — they pinned “elegance of language with elegance of mind and elegance of character.”

“Prescriptivism champions the best of English and what are the best practices — those that are right and correct and, you know, morally good,” Stamper said. “Then, clearly descriptivism, with its lack of attention to rules and boundaries and belief that anything in use in a language is fine is just too loosey-goosey and a little corrupt and must be morally bad.”

“I will remind you that dictionaries sit on the morally evil part of the spectrum,” she said. “So, you start your job as a lexicographer thinking that you are going to save the language, and it turns out that you are a hippie, liberal, pinko, commie nut job that puts ‘irregardless’ in the dictionary.”

The idea that the “best practices of English are morally right” is how people have come to assume that certain dialects are associated with lack of education.

But practices of poor grammar are not exclusive to the “uneducated” — Shakespeare was a grammatical mess, Stamper said.

“Verb to nouns — uncle is not a verb nor is grace — pronoun problems, subject verb issues in Julius Caesar,” she said, rattling through a list of errors on the screen. “Nope … not correct … double negatives …”

The best practices of English are not static. One-hundred and fifty years ago, the phrase “the house is being built” was considered incorrect; the structure “the house is building” was preferred, Stamper said.

Instead, she said, think of the English language as a child.

“You ask them as unruly teenagers, ‘Can you just clean this up a little bit, can you get rid of “irregardless” no one needs to see that,’” Stamper said, “and the language slumps in its chair and writes ‘irregardless’ all over its arms with ballpoint pen and says that you’re ruining its life, and it goes to its room and listens to moody music in the dark.”

Stamper reiterated themes from throughout the week like inclusivity,which Lisa Lucas stressed in her morning lecture Wednesday June 27 and the power of words from Tyehimba Jess on Tuesday  June 26.

“The glorious thing about English is that it is by design inclusive,” she said. “No one person has any say over the language. I don’t get to say where the lan- guage goes, we all together get to choose where the language goes; it is a truly democratic institution in that way.”

To close the lecture, Stamper left those who criticize younger generations for ruining language with the words of Wendell Berry:

“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

After the lecture, Vice President of Marketing and Communications and Chief Brand Of cer Emily Morris opened the Q-and-A with what words Stamper thought will be added into the dictionary in 2019.

“Lexicographers make lousy clairvoyants,” Stamper said.

However, she did predict that new definitions of “collusion” would be added to Merriam-Webster.

When asked about accepting “they/them” pronouns, Stamper said that English is fluid and people will adjust as they did 700 years ago with the transition from the singular pronoun “thou” to “you.”

“It’s a really a matter of respect; it’s a matter of honoring someone’s decision — regardless, no irregardless — of what you might see,” she said.

Finally, Stamper assured she would “never say irregardless again.”

National Book Foundation’s Lucas pushes for literary diversity and inspiring youth

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Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, delivers the 10:45 a.m. lecture at the Amphitheater on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Lisa Lucas wants reading to be “cake, not spinach.”

The executive director of the National Book Foundation delivered the morning lecture Wednesday, June 27 in the Amphitheater during Week One, “The Life of the Written Word.”

This was Lucas’ first visit to Chautauqua Institution.

“I’m not intimidated at all,” she joked to open her lecture. “This is all very normal.”

Lucas started working in theater — a path vastly different from her current trajectory — for Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Later, she moved to film, serving as director of education at the Tribeca Film Institute and as a consultant for the Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society and Reel Works Teen Filmmaking.

Before joining the National Book Foundation, Lucas served as a publisher of the nonprofit online magazine, Guernica.

She is the first woman and African-American to serve as executive director of the National Book Foundation, which is responsible for the annual National Book Awards.

Lucas called herself an “independent reader” from a young age, but she never anticipated taking a hobby and turning it into a career.

Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, delivers the 10:45 a.m. lecture at the Amphitheater on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“I never really even dreamed of taking this thing that I loved and actually just get a job at 32 years old, working in publishing — something I’d never done before — but I did it,” she said. “Almost two-and-a-half years ago, I found myself appointed director of the National Book Foundation.”

Her new job came with a long history.

The first National Book Awards were awarded and celebrated in 1950 through a joint effort by the American Book Publishers Council, the Book Manufacturers Institute and the American Booksellers Association. In 1980, it broadened and was renamed the American Book Awards, which awarded 28 prizes.

Its gross expansion watered down the impact of the awards, and in 1986, the organization returned to being the National Book Awards.

“We were no longer just thinking on how to sell a book, or two books or 27 books maybe — we weren’t about just making money,” Lucas said. “It was about thinking about the core of what the book is to American culture and thinking about how to protect and preserve that.”

Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, delivers the 10:45 a.m. lecture at the Amphitheater on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

From there, the organization worked to reignite the glamour of books. Lucas described the National Book Awards as “the Oscars on a bad year.”

“We spent a lot of years making (the National Book Awards) into a big benefit that actually drew the eye and brought people to celebrate the work we do,” she said.

Her first encounter with the organization was at the after-party in 2012. Lucas described being in awe of the authors, designers and publishers she was surrounded by, thinking that she had ”made it”; she returned to that party every year after.

After the former executive director of the National Book Foundation announced his impending retirement, Lucas received a call from a recruiter asking if she knew anyone who would be a good hire. She rambled off names before giving some choice advice.

“You really should think about having a person of color,” she said, before breathlessly rattling off that “you probably should think about hiring a woman. Because there really aren’t many women running things and there aren’t really many people of color running things, and you know things are really changing because things are the same as they were 20 years ago, and you should think about that.”

The recruiter said “Why not you?” Lucas submitted a resume and was rejected.

She returned to the after-party that year, upset. But, later the National Book Foundation called again with the job offer.

When she first got the news, she thought of the offer as a great opportunity.

“I really just thought about a couple of ex-boyfriends that might be really sad they dumped me,” Lucas said. “I thought about my parents being like ‘Oh, that’s a good job.’ They were always a little concerned about my path that I chose.”

Lucas didn’t think about the magnitude of her accomplishment until stories and interviews with publications like The New York Times and NPR began piling up. When the news broke, the response was overwhelming.

“There was this constant repeated message — everything changed,” she said.

Lucas called her presence at the organization “woke.”

One of her first tasks at the National Book Foundation was to update the mission, which she read to the audience:

“The mission of the National Book Foundation is to celebrate the best literature in America, expand its audience and ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture.”

A key element of the mission that shifted, according to Lucas, was to celebrate the “best literature in America” rather than the “best American literature.” Prompted by this, the organization added a fifth National Book Award for translated texts earlier this year.

“We thought, ‘We’re talking to Americans, Americans are from all over the world’ — we’re a country of immigrants. So why should we encourage reading only our stories when we should also be reading stories from Japan, Kenya, from China, from Mexico and from all around the world? All of these cultures influence our culture and are a part of us.”

Lisa Lucas, Executive Director, National Book Foundation 

“We are looking outward — even though we are an American institution devoted to celebrating American literature — we also want to celebrate the American reader,” Lucas said.

Lucas acknowledged diverse characters in books, but said inclusion must go further. She pointed to the publishing industry.

“It’s not only the fact that we don’t see ourselves,” she said. “It’s also that no one is telling us that books are for (minorities).”

Marketing in most publishing houses is aimed at white women, according to Lucas, and it is affecting the reading habits of underrepresented youth.

“Who’s telling you that (reading) is cake and not spinach?” she said.

But building a love for literature starts at home, Lucas said, to make sure kids are getting their “spinach” and enjoying their cake. Lucas emphasized the urgency to change the narrative around representation in books and the health of the book business.

“The book is definitely— 100 percent, in no way — dead,” she said.

Book sales are raising among young people, bookstores are becoming community hubs and the electronic book is not overpowering paperback sales, according to Lucas.

“We have to believe in the book, support our institutions, and celebrate the book and support our authors,” she said.

After her lecture, Chautauqua Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt opened the Q-and-A by asking Lucas how to address dated cultural attitudes in many classic novels.

Lucas said it is important to impress that “there are different cultural narrative(s)” throughout history and that parents, teachers and mentors should impress onto young people that, despite oppression faced by minorities in 19th- and 20th-century novels, they own their own narrative.

Ewalt then opened the floor to audience questions. An attendee asked how people manage to find time to read among other obligations.

“I hear people say ‘I have to go to yoga, but oh, did you see ‘The Wire’ last Night? I watched all ve seasons,’ ” Lucas said.

She reflected on the Harry Potter craze, where everyone found the time to read the series because everyone was talking about it, according to Lucas.

“When there’s cultural pressure, people will find the time to read,” she said.

The lecture concluded with a question that asked how to encourage and influence more people to read.

“It’s like how everyone that likes a candidate brings two people to the polls — bring 10 to the bookstore,” Lucas said.

Reconstructing history, deconstructing poems: Pulitzer-winning Jess shares syncopated sonnets

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  • Tyehimba Jess reads poems from his book "Olio" during the morning lecture in the Amphitheater, Tuesday, June 26, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Tyehimba Jess brought the written word to life.

The accomplished poet highlighted his unique — and crafty — style Tuesday, June 26, in the Amphitheater for Week One’s second morning lecture and the first Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Roundtable.

An award-winning slam poet turned author, Jess’ first book of poetry, Leadbelly, won the National Poetry Series competition in 2004 and was hailed one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005” by Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review.

Jess’ most recent work, Olio, won awards such as the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and The Midland Society Author’s Award in Poetry.

The word “olio” describes a mixture of “heterogeneous” ingredients; in historical and the book’s context, “olio” refers to the middle of a minstrel show.

“Minstrel show is a form of entertainment started in the 19th century which consisted of white performers putting on blackface and tattered clothes in order to make caricatures of African-Americans,” Jess said. “It was principal for a form of psychological warfare that continued throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century and still manifests today.”

Jess pointed out a book — “a handy dandy guide for how to put together a minstrel show.” The first entry was titled, “How to Black Up.”

Olio centers on African-American artists and creators, an interest spawned from Jess’ curiosity about the origin of black music, he said.

Millie and Christine McKoy are Jess’ subjects for five pieces in the book.

The McKoy women were conjoined twins, fused back-to-back from the base of the spine to the tailbone. The two were born into slave-state North Carolina in 1849 and their master sold them to the circus at 18 months old, according to Jess.

“The twins did not just stand and get gawked at,” Jess said. “They sang — duets of course.”

Jess’ first poem about the twins — “Millie and Christine McKoy” — is written, and can be read, in three parts. The first from the perspective of Millie runs down the left of the page; Christine’s voice runs down the right. Their united voice runs through the center.

“We’re fused in blood and body — from one thrummed stem/ budding twins blooms of song,” Jess read down the center. “We’re a doubled rose…”

Jess moved to read Millie’s side:

“We’ve mended two songs into one dark skin / bleeding soprano into contralto…”

Then from Christine’s side:

“We ride the wake of each other’s rhythm/ beating our hearts’ syncopated tempo…” he read.

Jess finally blended the three columns and two voices, reading:

“We’ve mended two songs into one dark skin / we ride the wake of each other’s rhythm/ bleeding soprano into contralto/ beating out hearts’ syncopated tempo / — we’re fused in blood and body — from one thrummed stem, budding twin blooms of song. We’re a doubled rose…”

Olio is structured to give the reader flexibility.

“The reader can choose any path they want in these poems — I just make the decision as I go through about which way I want to go,” Jess said.

This line of continuity runs through each poem and even onto the cover, which spells “olio” from the left, right, up and down.

Following “Millie and Christine McKoy,” Jess read a poem titled “Millie-Christine: On Display.” The piece cries out in response to “egregious damnation,” Jess said, to which the McKoy women were subjected, forced to expose themselves to prove they were conjoined.

Again, the middle of the poem reads as the twins’ conjoined voice:

“We count the blessings of our doubled shell / as we pay our dues. We’ve proven ourselves / for science. We’ve been taken town to town / like prize bovine: We’ve been pawned up and down / each sawbone has searched us from spine to loin / our wondrous one- ness exists. We’re conjoined / We’re not frauds, but born of providence / God mended two souls into one dark skin,” Jess read.

Jess demonstrated the flexibility by reading the poem backward, adding in lines from the left and right sides, both Millie and Chris- tine’s voices.

In the next piece, Millie and Christine have been kidnapped and taken to Britain to perform, forcing their mother to choose between the United Kingdom, which had abolished slavery, and “Dixie’s rebellious mouth.”

Their mother ultimately chose the South.

The McKoy twins were able to profit from their act and eventually buy the plantation on which they were once enslaved. Jess jumped from line to line in the poems, skipping and repeating phrases, owing from one stanza to the next.

The final piece, a star- shaped poem, merged each of the prior poems and featured repeating lines throughout.

“A star of syncopated sonnets — because the McKoy twins were stars right?” Jess said over murmurs of awe from the crowd.

The final sonnet’s features mimic that of its subjects — not only a star, but two heads, a conjoined middle and two bases. The son- net can be read in infinite combinations, Jess said.

“Whichever direction you want to go with your eyes, tracing across the bottom of the poem in the same way that the gawker’s eye traced across the body of the McKoy twins,” Jess said. “Except in this case, you are taking the story of the McKoy twins and you are getting involved in their story and not just looking at their body.”

Jess also shared the story of Bret Williams and George Walker, comedians he described as the “Key and Peele of their generation.” His piece is a dialogue between the two men.

“There’s a coherent relationship between the right and the left side,” Jess said.

He, again, jumped and repeated lines, demonstrating the poem’s flexibility and how the connotation changes with every combination of lines. Each line of the poem can be paired with any of the five surrounding it, Jess said.

“… believe the human / might be saying ‘Look at that handsome man!’ Nobody/ might be saying, “Look at that handsome man!’…” Jess read.

After Jess finished “Brett Williams / George Walker Paradox,” he grabbed Olio, moved in front of the lectern and ripped the page from the book’s spine. He began folding the page to reveal new combinations of the poem. He brought the edges together to form different cylinders; with a fold and a twist he created a Möibus.

“I want the reader to deconstruct the book in order to reconstruction the people inside the book,” Jess said.

After the lecture, Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education David Griffith opened the Q-and-A with a question about Jess’ transition from slam poetry to prose.

Jess said competitive slam poetry taught him how to engage with — and keep — an audience.

“The harder you work on the page, the less you have to work on stage,” he said.

Griffith then turned to questions from the audience. One attendee asked about the reasoning for the church names that line each of Olio’s pages.

Lining the pages with the names was inspired by activist organization Black Lives Matter’s practice of repeating the names of those killed by police, as well as the lack of tribute to black churches that were burned down in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jess said.

A year prior to Olio’s publication, nine people were shot and killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. To Jess’ surprise, that church had also been burnt down decades earlier; it became the first and last church listed in Olio.

The final question asked whether Jess has or would write poetry about the current political climate — echoing a similar theme from Monday’s conversation with John Irving.

“All kinds of things happen around the word that deeply trouble me, and I think what I’m writing about now answers or corresponds with what’s happening the world today,” Jess said.

Irving, Paul discuss writing methods in regard to present politics, social issues

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John Irving always starts with the end.

The renowned author spoke to his reverse writing process in a conversation with Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, on Monday, June 25, in the Amphitheater to open the season’s morning lecture series and Week One’s theme of “The Life of the Written Word.”

Irving’s work has earned him accolades, including three National Book Award nominations, winning once for his 1980 novel The World

According to Garp. His works have been translated in over 35 languages — A Prayer for Owen Meany is his best-selling novel in every language.

Outside of the literary circle, Irving won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules, and The World According to Garp became an Academy Award-nominated film starring Robin Williams.

Pamela Paul, a journalist and author herself, grew up reading Irving (after watching the movies).

For his first four novels, including The World According to Garp, Irving started with the ending — something he thought he’d outgrow.

But, his method stuck.

“I don’t know where else to begin,” he said.

His process usually takes him around the plot; he starts with the ending, moseys around the story and ends at the climax.

“Even after the end comes to me, the novel will wait eight, 10 or more years before I decide to begin,” Irving said.

For Irving, the characters don’t drive the plot, and there’s no guarantee that they will be alive for the whole novel.

“You’ve heard writers say ‘the characters tell me what’s going to happen,’ but not with mine. I’d kill that character off very quickly,” Irving said.

Irving described his cataclysmic approach as a product of his “disaster- prone imagination.”

“If there weren’t something in the novel that I hope never happens to me or someone I love, if there wasn’t that element in the story and if that element wasn’t crucial to the story, I don’t know why I would give it so much thought,” Irving said.

His ending-driven plots reflect his love for 19th-century literature.

“Whether you finished Moby Dick or you just can’t, you know you can’t get on the Pequod and get home safe,” he said.

Despite the influence of writers like Melville and Dickens, Irving said his writing could never sound anything like them — even if he wanted to — because of cultural differences. Irving said the language and attitudes toward sex have changed, allowing him to write about what his predecessors could not.

Addressing timely political and social issues is a driving force in Irving’s novels, which proves to be timeless in works like his 1978 novel, The World According to Garp.

“What I think really went into the writing of The World According to Garp was principally a lot of anger and disappointment at what I thought was going to be a sexual revolution, at what I thought was going to be a feminist movement and a sexual liberation movement,” Irving said.

Irving reflected on how Garp echoes similar themes in 2018, despite celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“The sad thing about that novel is that its not to my credit that it’s still relevant — it’s an embarrassment,” he said.

The Cider House Rules addresses abortion, which was legalized 12 years before the book’s publication. While working on the novel, Irving said people thought it was “quaint” that he was writing literature on a issue that was “solved.” In response, he said, “This one will ever be solved.”

“I said, let’s tell a story where a lot of awful things happen, not one of which would have ever happened if abortion had been legal, safe and available,” he said. “Everything in Cider House Rules happens because abortion is illegal, not safe and not available.”

He said it’s upsetting how his predictions for the future are usually wrong, but his prediction about the discussion surrounding abortion rights is the “small political point (he’s) been right on.”

Paul prodded at this, asking how Irving felt about the political state of the country. Irving paused.

“I never thought I’d hear myself say I wish George W. (Bush) was back,” he said over a cacophony of laughter and applause.

Now a permanent resident of Toronto, Irving is eligible for Canadian citizenship but plans to keep his American citizenship.

“I don’t want to not ever be able to vote here,” he said. Irving stressed the right to vote — he emphasized the importance of not wasting a vote by not voting.

“I expect Republicans to disappoint me; I am angry when my fellow Democrats disappoint me,” he said, regarding the millions of Americans who forwent the voting booth in the 2016 election. “I don’t care if you don’t like either candidate, one is always better than the other.”

Paul asked if Irving could see himself writing a protest novel about the current political era and what that would look like. Irving said he “doesn’t do the future well.”

Irving went on to compare President Donald Trump’s “bullying” tactics to that of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini — Irving specified that Mussolini had better hair.

“The vulgarity aspects of Mr. Trump aside — the extreme narcissism aside — fascism is looking alive and well, and not only in the United States,” he said.

Fascism is seeping into developed countries from Italy to Canada, Irving said. Paul added to that with examples including Brexit and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

“Xenophobia is not Mr. Trump’s idea. Hatred of others, blaming of others instead of addressing what the problem is here at home, is an old, old tactic,” Irving said. “If we don’t make education the priority of every functioning democracy, how can we expect everyone to know that? We always need to know more, but I’ve never lived in a time when so many of the general population know less.”

After the conversation, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill started the Q-and-A with speakers’ advice for young writers.

“My advice to anyone that wants to write is to read,” Paul said.

Irving agreed and added that he was fortunate to be an avid reader as a young man.

Hill closed the Q-and-A with an audience question about the writers’ daily writing routines.

For her most recent book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, Paul said her time to write was limited to the 38-minute train ride to and from work. She said having that tight window forced her to crank out pages at a time.

“That’s impressive,” Irving said. “I’m trying to think of the last time I did anything in 38 minutes.”

Irving compared his routine to training for wrestling, or any sport.

“The discipline comes in loving repetition,” he said. “You have to love the process itself; you can’t be enamored with the end result.”

Conrad: ‘Do what is in your heart and soul and spirit’

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Barbara Smith Conrad speaks during Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

During her lecture at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater, Barbara Smith Conrad did what she’s always done best: She sang.

The small woman on stage approached her friend, pianist Patsy Sage, to decide which song to sing. The words that escaped her lips were much more booming than her voice had been before — even with the aid of the microphone.

She sang: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace./ Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

That first song, “The Prayer of Saint Francis,” was sung in its entirety, followed by Fred McDowell’s “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” She also sang part of W.B. Stevens’ “Farther Along” and ended her time on stage with “Amazing Grace.”

“My sister said that I was a preacher woman,” Conrad said. “Well, I don’t think so. What I am is a girl born in Northeast Texas into a rural Baptist church, whose values have never changed, whose dreams basically have never changed, but has been fortunate to meet people who have expanded my life in a way that I never dreamed possible.”

Conrad, the fourth speaker in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts,” is an African-American mezzo-soprano opera singer. She has possessed a natural talent for music since she was very young, growing up in Center Point, Pittsburg, Texas. Though she said she wanted to visit the Chautauqua Institution for a very long time, this visit was her first.

Her speech focused on her various life experiences regarding opera.

Geof Follansbee, Chautauqua Foundation CEO and Thursday’s moderator, said Conrad’s life itself is a case for the arts.

She discussed her time at The University of Texas at Austin, where she inadvertently became a pioneer in the push for equality and diversity at universities.

“To all the people who dream these dreams,” she said of anyone with aspirations in life, “don’t let anyone stop you. Ever.”

Accordingly, Conrad was cast as the female lead in the university’s 1957 production of Dido and Aeneas with a white man as her counterpart, causing a stir. The story gained national attention when the situation reached the Texas legislature, which leaned on the university president to remove her from the cast.

Eventually, a white woman was cast as her replacement.

In response to this event, famed activist Harry Belafonte offered to finance her way to any school in the world.

“Do you know what that means to a young singer?” she said, beaming. “It’s wonderful.”

When she went home to discuss the offer with her parents, her father simply told her to do what she felt was right. Ultimately, Conrad chose to remain where she was, eventually graduating in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in music.

“At the end of the day, you have to do what is in your heart and soul and spirit to do,” she said, “or you will miss out on a big chunk of life.”

Since then, Conrad has performed in well-known venues across North America and Europe alongside, as Follansbee said while introducing her, some of the most talented symphonies in the world.

Conrad said it amazes her to think that she went from living in a deeply segregated world to being able to stand in front of an audience to share her story. She said she is deeply grateful for the chance.

She commended the Chautauqua Institution’s staff and scenery, saying how visiting this place had been a lifelong dream that she never got around to completing. Now that she has, it’s just another dream she’s been able to achieve.

She reminded the audience members to never let go of their dreams.

“Even if it means just singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’” Conrad said, “get up and sing your song and let no one stop you.”


Q: You were part of the first class with African Americans in it at Texas, as I understand. How did that figure into your decision or not at all?

A: Oh, very much so. I was lucky to have one voice lesson per semester where I was. And it’s just that the school was not designed that way. There was interest, always. Where there are people who like singing, you’re going to find someone who can do something. But really, it boiled down to that I wanted something resembling an education that would let me go someplace and to do something beyond the boundaries I was used to. And a man came by and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and that’s when I went to my second year of college.

Q: Quickly you were thrust into a situation where this came to the fore where, having been cast in a role where within the music school, all of a sudden you’re surrounded by a university-wide controversy. How do you respond to that? What impact did it have?

A: Well, first you get mad. That’s a healthy thing to do: Just go get mad. And you’ll do something — who knows what that’s going to be. But you have to do something. The university offered me several opportunities, the first being, “Can you stand on your own two feet?” Yes, I can. I used to tell everybody, “My father is Conrad Smith, my mother is Gerrie Smith and we can do anything.” That was very important. Those are the things you grasped. But then you start to meet people who have a similar dream … because I didn’t know quite what to do, Belafonte said, “Choose any school you want and we’ll go there,” and when I talked to my father about it, he said, “If you want to go, go. If you don’t, don’t go. Go right down to that University of Texas and show them how to do it.” Well, that was more (easily) said than done, but it led me to where I am.

Q: (In 1957), when you remained at Texas, were you able to continue your music studies? Were you able to perform in other offerings?

A: That’s a good question. This is why friendships mean so much. Because … they knew I was way behind in everything and hadn’t even had an opportunity to stop and even look at what (Center Point) looked like. So I had support from students and friends and faculty. The thing that’s always impressed me, is how the staff at the College of Fine Arts could be one way and the rest of the world was asleep. We weren’t going anyplace; we were Texans. We had not so many choices, especially those of us who dreamed of having careers of any kind having to do with music. But the best thing of all is: No. 1, your faith, your family, your friends, your dreams; that all comes together. One way or the other, you’ll figure it out — and you do.

Q: What are your favorite roles and songs?

A: Oh my God. Through the eyes and ears of the passions of my brother Denard, who is also a French major, French songs are way up there. But in terms of dramatic roles, the lady at the piano really messed over my life when she said I should sing (Wagner) — one of the best days of my life, actually. [Asking her accompanist, Patsy.] Am I the only African American who did that in Brussels? I met all of those girls, and that was a huge victory. First of all, I’m clearly not German, but may as well be when you’re around Patsy. So — how do I put this? — it was fortuitous. I went from doing lots of Verdi and Carmen … and then found myself falling in love with Wagner.

Q: What are the lessons you consciously teach your students today about character and motivation?

A: Very good question. It’s my Aunt Maggie again, or my grandmother, and she would sit me down in her big rocking chair and she’d say, “Come, let us reason together,” and that started when we wanted band suits for our school, because schools were still segregated then. And then, at the end of that … she said, “You have a built-in motivation for living, child, and you just don’t know it yet.” And that’s been my credo.

Q: Another question has just come up that wants to know a little bit more about your parents and to ask, how did they receive an education for people of their race and generation in the South? It’s remarkable that they were able to become educated.

A: Center Point is Center Point, because anyone who ever lived there or went to school there is enamored with it, because it was the first and only accredited black school in the state of Texas. That’s No. 1; No. 2 is it took on a whole community of people who have something they could be proud of and proud about, and a way to make a living. My father was (one of) five children: He had three brothers and a sister whom I didn’t know, but they walked every weekend, 22 miles from Newsome to Center Point throughout the entire school.

Q: What is your next challenge in life and work that you look forward to taking on?

A: Well, like many people of my generation, I didn’t record as much as I could have and should have. So I’m trying to do some of that. I’m doing a lot of work with AT&T; that’s something that I had not even had any thought about ever in my life. But now I understand what my father meant when he said, “Carry the torch and carry it steady.”

—Transcribed by Emma Morehart

Lynch: Arts are an absolute necessity for the nation

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Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, gives Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Robert Lynch’s career began with a lie.

It was January 1975. He’d had his hand in the creation of the New England Artist Festival and Showcase, today called the New England Arts Biennial.

The team of founders — including Lynch — marketed it as “New England’s largest gathering of artists, craftspeople, performers, poets and other creators.”

The lie: It had never happened before this; there was a chance no one would even show up.

That wasn’t the case.

The event, held in May, attracted 20,000 people. And as this was Lynch’s first adventure into marketing, a variety of mishaps ensued.

Tickets cost 99 cents, but the event organizers hadn’t expected patrons to want the penny change; they had to come up with 20,000 pennies

The volunteers providing security showed up dressed in riot gear and carrying billy clubs, despite the festival’s family-friendly image.

A symbolic release of white doves was actually a flock of pigeons, and they stuck around once released — and with them came their droppings.

Finally, when the North Hampton mayor boarded a hot air balloon there, it lifted 10 feet off the ground before blowing sideways 100 yards, plowing over two interns in the process.

“I was completely booked,” Lynch said. “The excitement, the energy, the arts.”

He said once all the problems had been solved, people were free to enjoy the music and the artwork. It was then that Lynch understood: Art can bring communities together. There was a sense of understanding among the patrons.

Lynch, the final speaker in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts,” said art is so instrumental he questions why communities have yet to take it seriously.

Lynch is the president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, an organization that promotes art and art education. His speech, titled “America at a Cultural Crossroads,” explored the history and benefits of the arts on communities and education.

Benefitting from the arts

When Lynch was growing up, his parents had a very different view of how his life would go: His mother wanted him to a dentist, while his father wanted him to be a lawyer.

“I chose creative writing, specializing in poetry — where the big bucks are,” Lynch said sarcastically. “So I got out, and I discovered all the poet jobs were taken.”

Though he joked about this, he said the arts actually contribute to the economy quite well — $166 billion a year, to be specific. They generate 1.7 million jobs and $30 billion in taxes.

Furthermore, arts can result in creativity, self-actualization and self-discovery. Lynch said most people already know this, thanks to religious services, communities, environments and personal lives.

When asked in a survey what inspires innovation, superintendents said the No. 1 factor is arts education in schools. Similarly, a group of American businessmen said arts education is the No. 2 factor.

Arts have had a place in America’s history since the very beginning, he said.

It’s mentioned in the Constitution, reading that Congress should have the right “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Even today, interest in the arts is thriving, despite reports from the National Endowment for the Arts saying otherwise. The NEA reached that conclusion because of fewer ticket sales — but Lynch said the organization failed to take online and television views into account.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he said, is responding to this demand by inviting amateur musicians 25 years of age or older to play with its members. Although the orchestra expected only a few responses, 400 people took the opportunity.

“It’s out there,” Lynch said. “The hunger (for the arts) is there.”

It’s these facts, he said, that policy makers need to hear about if supporters of the arts hope to make change.

The issue behind it all

Despite all these positive trends, Lynch said, the arts are getting very minimal government funding.

Sixty percent of funding comes from revenue earned by individual art organizations, and foundation and corporate funding provides about 4 percent each. Individual donors make up about 20 percent, with the remaining 12 percent coming from the government.

The NEA, he said, provides less than 1 percent of total funding for the arts, even though it’s one of the most known supporters of the arts.

Lynch said the main goal behind it all should be to find a way to make people understand the necessity behind the arts. Arts education is one way to solve this.

Presidents have enjoyed the arts; militaries have utilized the arts; communities depend on the arts. Yet, Lynch said, governments officials don’t recognize their impact.

“We’ve enjoyed the fruits,” Lynch said, “but we need to spread the word, making the value of arts — in a very practical nation — better understood as a critical need right now.”


Q: As we begin, I’m thinking of the opening lecture of the week, Rocco Landesman, and the three people that are standing there (representing the ratio of National Endowment for the Arts funding to the gross amount of arts funding). He made an interesting statement, which I wonder if you find is a contradiction. One of the things he talked about was a misallocation of supply and demand. He quoted the number of people actually attending arts productions and then turned and quoted the number of nonprofit organizations that have grown in that same period of decline of membership. He was saying that there’s something wrong with this picture; we have a glut of participant organizations and an increasingly smaller attendance population. He thought we just had too many of these organizations; we need to cut them back. What’s your reaction to that?

A: Great. Actually, how many people heard Rocco’s speech? What a character, don’t you think? I love Rocco. I actually talked to him personally about that question when he first came out with those statements, because I have a very different point of view. He said, ‘I’m just trying to get the conversation going,’ and so I thought that was terrific. So here are my thoughts on it. The first thing is that you have to understand and look carefully at what studies say, and then what they mean for the larger context. So, for example, there are many studies that say that attendance in various arts activities is down, meaning people sitting in seats, listening to opera, watching dance or theater. So the NEA has interpreted that as demand for the arts is down. I do not. Because when you look at other kinds of demands — online demands, for example — different kinds of ways that, whether they are electronic or through new kinds of arts activities — hybrid arts activities — people are engaging in the arts. Demand for the arts is actually quite strong. Demand for a particular kind of art form in a particular kind of venue is not as strong. What that means to me is that we in the arts world have to do some serious thinking about our marketing approach, about the products that we have and the places through which we deliver those products. That’s not good if all you are interested in is people sitting in seats seeing you; you’ve got a tough time. If we can, as the Metropolitan Opera and other entities have done, expand the way of looking, we have more audiences to deal with. So that’s one thing. The second thing is we have a very different system in America than anywhere else in the world. We have a market system for arts organizations coming into being. Nobody is supporting those 109,000 non-profit arts organizations with enough money to be able to make a difference about them coming or going. Meaning, they survive on a mix of public, private and earned money. And so what that means is that when there is no longer a demand or an audience, they’ll go out of business. But for us to say that there’s too many of them, and that they should be put out of business, is not the way we’ve done arts growth in America, and I, first of all, don’t think it can be done. I think what you’re going to see are more arts organizations changing and some merging and even many new kinds of organizations coming into being. I think you’ll see growth.

Q: This person declares that he’s a dentist with a piano in his waiting room — I thought it said he’s also an amateur surgeon, but it actually says an amateur singer — so he agrees with the arts being valuable and all but then goes into a long piece about how governments can misuse the arts. He quotes Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s use of artists and basically asks at the end, therefore, isn’t it better if the arts remain in the hands — that is, their support — remains in the hands of private individual?

A: Well, two things. In America. the arts are in the hands of private individuals; you just have to look at the numbers I gave you: 60 percent earned income, that’s you voting with your pocketbook; and 30 percent private individuals, business; 10 percent, even less than that, government. So government is not in control; that’s the first thing. Secondly, the value of government is not to say what art gets delivered to you or not. The value of government is to help stimulate more of it for everyone; at least, that’s what I feel. That’s why the great leveraging power of those three bodies up there (the three people in the audience who represent the government portion of arts funding) — and you see how cutbacks are happening; there’s two of them sitting there right now — becomes, I think, really critical to understand that it’s about the leveraging, it’s not about any kind of control. The third thing I’ll say is that we must not confuse government — which every nation has — with Hitler or Stalin. Those were bad people, bad governments. Everything can be abused. Our job is to have good government and not abuse the things that we want to have for our people, like the arts, and the arts should be one of them, as far as I think.

Q: How many members of Congress have some background and education in the arts? How can Congress in general be more encouraged to participate more in the arts?

A: You know it’s interesting, how many people here sing in a chorus? Would you raise your hands? How many people here — leave those hands up — play an instrument for yourselves at home? How many people here write poetry? So now we’ve got almost every hand in the room up. Congress comes from the people, just like you; you are a good example of what Congress comes from. Almost every congressperson has something that is related to the arts in their background; that’s what I find. Every March, we have something called National Arts Advocacy Day. About 600 people come in from around the country, many others from online, and we visit almost every congressional office. If you go to every congressional office, you’ll see pictures of music-making or of visual art or something that connects to the arts. About 20 or 30 of them have some sort of professional connection to the arts. The others enjoy the arts even if they vote against the arts, all the time. Many years ago, I got to meet with Jesse Helms and he said, ‘Bob, I love the arts,’ but he always voted against the arts. So that interest is there. Making it understood as a public sector priority, as a policy priority, that’s another question. Those congresspeople might participate, and we want them to more of that. But getting them to understand why it’s a public good — why it does help with some of the things their constituents want done — that is what gets them to vote for the arts. I’ll just say this: Sadly, in some ways, the No. 1 reason that we have seen growth of federal money for the arts — according to the surveys that we’ve done — is the economic impact of the arts argument, as opposed to the inherent value argument. So we need to do both more, but it’s important for us to know what they respond to.

Q: Every speaker at the Hall of Philosophy this week at 2 p.m. mentioned that he or she had one or two mentors, most of them accidental. Could, or does, Americans for the Arts encourage or sponsor formal mentoring programs at the local level?

A: You know, that’s a great idea. We do not have a formal mentor program. We do have a number of programs, conferences and leadership forums, where we bring speakers and bring local leaders to be there and meet with other people and form their own mentorship opportunities. The woman who was my mentor — a woman named Lee Howard, here from Huntington, N.Y. — I met in that way, some 35 years ago at a conference for this organization. I came to the conference, and here was this person going on about fighting the fight at the local level, and we bonded and she helped me. So I think that’s a great idea to make that even more formal. So I’m going to take that back, and maybe you’ll see one next year.

Q: Pretend you’re meeting face-to-face with an inner-city elementary school principal, and you want them to purchase a well-respected series of dance classes. What two or three points do you make to convince them the arts are critical to the students?

A: In a study done with the Department of Justice and the city of Atlanta, the city of Portland, Ore., and the city of San Antonio, it was clearly done that with the involvement of dance and music and theater in classrooms for inner-city kids, particularly at-risk kids, recidivism rates went down, juvenile delinquency reportage went down, the ability to communicate went up, the ability for kids to graduate went up and the track record of kids going on and getting jobs and being contributors to the community was much higher than without the arts.

—Transcribed by Sarah Gelfand

Stamberg: Art and museums can, and will, save the world

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Photo | Megan Tan Susan Stamberg, NPR special correspondent, asks the Amphitheater audience for a show of hands from public radio listeners during her Wednesday morning lecture.
Susan Stamberg, NPR special correspondent, asks the Amphitheater audience for a show of hands from public radio listeners during her Wednesday morning lecture. Photo by Megan Tan.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

It was a cold Thursday morning in February. NPR’s Susan Stamberg waited anxiously in front of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. — not an uncommon locale for her, considering her regular art reporting.

But this time was different.

She had received a phone call days before from long-time listener Juan Hamilton, a sculptor and companion of painter Georgia O’Keeffe. They placed a special antenna on their roof specifically to listen to “All Things Considered,” of which Stamberg was the host.

Hamilton had asked Stamberg if she would like to attend an exclusive preview of a new art exhibit with O’Keeffe and him.

Her answer was a joking, “Oh, you know, I’ll have to look at my schedule.”

The taxi pulled up, and out stepped Hamilton — quite handsome, as Stamberg remembered. He turned to help the 96-year-old O’Keeffe from the vehicle.

“Georgia, this is Susan Stamberg,” Hamilton said. “We listen to her in Abiquiú, (N.M.).”

O’Keeffe looked at Stamberg and, as Stamberg recalled it, she “showed some teeth,” rather than smiling.

Similar mannerisms continued through the museum, and all the while, Stamberg recorded O’Keeffe’s comments and remarks. To this day, Stamberg considers the recording — though it’s not great quality — one of her most treasured.

Stamberg shared this story as part of her lecture at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater. Stamberg shared her views of art as a 40-year broadcast journalist, specifically that art will save the world.

Stamberg was the third speaker in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts.” During her speech, titled “Museums Matter,” she described herself as more of an art enthusiast than an expert.

“Why do museums matter?” Stamberg asked. “I think the answer to that is: Why do we need rain? I believe that (art) museums in particular … nurture our souls, and they help us to grow. They soak us with beauty, or discovery, or sometimes dismay — that’s fine.”

They matter, she said, because they can inspire and thrill. They can change “nondescript” towns into something more. They bring pride to people, and they can take people away from the horrors around them.

Furthermore, Stamberg said, artwork has the ability to relate people with each other. She compared the paintings of Edward Hopper and Gustave Caillebotte, who each painted modern art in their own times. Even though our modern times are very different from theirs, Stamberg said, viewers are still “forced to feel” when viewing their paintings.

Directly after the 9/11 attacks, she said, museums and art helped people cope. She had a part in this by bringing pianist Leon Fleisher onto her show to aid the emotional recovery of the nation.

“Great art — whether it’s music, painting, sculpture, drawing, fiction — takes us away from the present,” Stamberg said, “and engages, clears, airs out our minds of the present, so we can go back to our realities refreshed.”

Refreshed people are more willing and able to perform the difficult tasks with which they are presented, she said.

When Stamberg was growing up, her father would take her to a museum every Saturday. She and her late husband, Louis, did the same for their son Josh, even though they sometimes had to drag him along.

She said she’s very glad they had this tradition, because her son now visits museums in every new city he visits.

“He’ll go to any museum any place,” Stamberg said, “because there will always be, and he knows this, at least one thing, one treasure, that will intrigue or provoke or enchant, puzzle, annoy him, cause a reaction. That’s the point — to prompt some sort of an emotion.”

Throughout her speech, Stamberg drew on personal experiences regarding many living and deceased artists, including Paul Gauguin, César Baldaccini, Mark Strand and Edward Hopper.

Stamberg quoted Robert Frost, saying, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Museums, she said, are the same.

“When we have to go (to museums), they have to take us in, to welcome and expose us to the truths of our time and other times,” Stamberg said, “to help us to look at ourselves in fresh ways, to synthesize — through great works of creativity and discovery — our feelings, our fears, our aspirations. It helps us to express what has been inexpressible in our day-to-day language that we are meant to create.”

She said it’s reasons like these that she chose to spend so much of her life devoted — as both an enthusiast and a journalist — to art and museums. She didn’t have to cover so much art in her broadcasts. She chose to do so.

“I believe art will save the world,” Stamberg said, “if anything can.”

Q: How does a curator make a museum? What makes a well-curated show? Can you give us some examples of that?

A: It’s not so different from the way I work in telling stories. Have an idea. They have an idea about something. Things that have been out there, with old paintings, for hundreds of years, but try to look at it in some fresh way and tell a new story. And so much for the art curators happens because of advances in technology. Well that’s true for us as well, because there are better ways to X-ray paintings, to see what their history has been, to notice hitherto unnoticed aspects of a painting, or discovery of manuscripts, discovery of paintings that have been in somebody’s attic — all these things allow the curators to deepen their scholarship, the information they have, and shape whatever it is that is the story they want to tell in a particular exhibition. Sometimes it’s as simple as just chronological. I find those — well, I was going to say the least interestingn, but that’s not true. If you look at chronological exhibits, say, of Picasso — although there would be no museum in the world big enough to hold all of them, you could do a retrospective — but if you arranged his pictures in chronological order in an exhibition, what you would find would be extraordinary. You would see him painting his way through every era of art. Absorbing it. Changing it. And moving on to the next one. So he had to invent cubism by the end, because he’d run out of other people to be. So he had to invent this new thing, and then after that, he went back to some of those classic forms that he started with. So I can’t say chronological is the least interesting with someone like Picasso, but sometimes, often, in the case of others, it’s not as interesting as other ways of gathering.

Q: What do you think about opening up a Louvre in Abu Dhabi?

A: Well, aren’t they lucky to have all that money? I would love to go there because they are doing extraordinary things in architecture. Do you remember the time when the Japanese started buying up major works of art? I remember wandering into the Phillips and seeing some Japanese visitors with stacks of art books that they were buying and carrying back home. And then they just started amassing these extraordinary collections. And now in Dubai, that money is creating cultural opportunities for those citizens as well as destinations. I’m sure Rocco Landesman, if you went to hear him, that art works and creates cultural tourism, and brings cultural tourism — not that they need it so much in Abu Dhabi — but brings in money to a country or a town or an organization as well as spreading culture and showing people wonderful things.

Q: Your advice, please, for aspiring broadcast journalists?

A: Oh, I’m so happy that there are those. You have to go into public radio. Go and volunteer at your local public radio station. They always need help. Get a job. Now, I’m not sure if this is still true; this is traditionally been the advice I gave, which is avoid journalism school.  Gosh, I hope there are no professors of journalism in this audience. Get on the job training, because there’s nothing like it. Go work at a local, small newspaper. That’s the part I’m not sure about anymore, if that’s great advice. Although this daily paper you have is really something. I’m very impressed at the level of reporting. I was reading Stanley Fish’s remarks written up in today’s paper, and it was such a terrific summary of the things that he said — very good. I’ll see what tomorrow’s paper brings. But anyway, that traditionally has been a great thing to do because you get editing by professional editors who will help guide you and shape you from the local newspapers. And they have been big enough so that the editors can take that time to help teach you. I’m afraid those days are over as papers shrink and collapse. Strangely, it’s been to the benefit of National Public Radio. It’s nothing we ever wished for, but when we started, we all have all observed our 40th anniversary now, and when we began we never dreamt that 40 years later, we would be people’s major source of information as the newspapers collapse and as television really gives up news for whatever they’re doing now. These reality shows. But now there’s this whole aspect of citizen journalism. I have very mixed feelings about that as well. I really do believe in carefully trained reporting where you’ve got editors looking over your shoulder and telling you, ‘That doesn’t work,’  ‘How do you verify that?’ ‘Who confirmed that source?’ ‘How many sources did you have on it?’ The whole business of reporting, which I fear is getting lost as well, but still the public stations are there, and they’re trying to do what they can to expand their own local news reporting. I think that would be a big piece of advice. We have a wonderful internship program — it’s very competitive — but it’s something else for young journalists to think about applying to and getting. And it’s not just gopher work. There’s plenty of gopher work that we get those poor young people to do, but there’s also really hands-on help that they provide to us all the time. And volunteering at the local public station will allow you to do things, because they’re so desperate. They really need you. They have small staffs and tremendous pressures on them to do the work. Those are the ways. I don’t know what paying jobs are anymore for young people to get into it. I don’t know.

Q: Tell us about some museums you don’t like.

A: I don’t think there’s a single museum I don’t like. That’s very shallow of me, or unselective, but as I said, there will always be some one thing — you zip through and many museums, especially in small towns, have started because the rich folks in town bought paintings and decided the way they would put their mark on the town was to start a museum and turn their personal collections over. That’s the case with Barnes, except it was not exactly voluntary on his part. He opened his home and his extraordinary collection — he has more Renoirs then anywhere else in the world — he did it first as a adjunct to the arts school that he wanted to form in which he could extend his own personal philosophies of what art should be. Well, now there’s so much controversy, as you may know, about the moving of that museum, which he was very adamant in his will: ‘They will not lend; they will not borrow; you make an appointment to come in; you can’t just wander in off the street.’ There was one rule after another in a lovely residential neighborhood outside of Philadelphia where parking was difficult, neighbors were complaining. It became a tremendous hassle, and eventually the will was broken; it spent a lot of time in court, and the decision, although it is still being fought, is to move the collection, recreate its hanging as best as they can, and it’s a very idiosyncratic way that they’re displaying art, that he decided art should be displayed in that wonderful building, home, but to recreate it in a new facility in the heart of Philadelphia. And there are arguments back and forth, there’s a film, a documentary some of you may have seen, something about theft. What is it? “The Art of the Steal,” which presents its case pretty forcefully, but you can also make the case that the level of hassle it took to get out there, and the advance planning. The first time I went there, which was in the ’60s, I think, you had to write a letter months in advance just to get permission to come, and they were told on a particular day at a particular time. So there is a case to be made for making it available, more centrally located, in a place where many many more people can have a chance to look at it.

Q: Is the Guggenheim a good place to display?

A: That’s a controversy, too. It was when I was there, but they had (Richard) Serra, those huge waves of sculpture, and in that building, it looked great. Others say that the gallery space is not particularly conducive to looking at the art. It’s too bad, but you get to see that building; you get to have that experience of space and the pioneering way that (Frank) Gehry was able to conceive of it based on computer technology developed by the aerospace industry. He was able to create forms and architecture that have never existed before. But I haven’t gone back since, as I said, this was 2001, and I haven’t gone back to see any other sorts of exhibitions there.

Q: How many museums have opened this year, and how many have closed?

A: I don’t know the answer to that. Does anybody here? There are new wings; there are not so many brand new museums; per se, but there have been capital campaigns from before 2008 and the economic collapse to raise money for the edition of wings by major architects to many museums. So those have opened, and they have been able to take out of storage things that nobody ever had a chance to see before, and put on display. I think Cleveland was the most recent one that I visited. Oh, and also, Richmond, Va., which has a terrific wing. And I know I’m forgetting others. What is it? (Renzo) Piano’s addition to the Art Institute. Oh my lord, it’s fantastic, all that natural light pouring in. Well, Piano, didn’t he do Richmond as well? Anybody from there? I was just there a few weeks ago, but I can’t remember. And Detroit, so I’ve heard, but I haven’t seen that. That seems to be the trend, rather than brand new museums opening, although again in my hometown, Washington, they’re working toward a 2015 opening of an African-American museum, and I heard on the radio, my best source, the other day, that a small venue, 5000 square feet, has opened to show the African-American role in the Civil War somewhere in Northwest Washington. So museum spaces are opening up, but as far as new space and commissioned space, they’re attached to the older institutions. And I don’t know about closings.

Q: Are you worried about rising admissions cost?

A: You have to spend, I think it’s $20, to get into the Museum of Modern Art. I’m so spoiled, and I don’t think it’s going to last long, in Washington, D.C., where admission to every museum is free. It’s extraordinary. Except for my favorite, the Phillips. But all of those Smithsonian museums, you just walk in the door. In some ways, in this economy, they may have to start charging. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. And charge $5, or charge $10. The worst accusations of the arts are that they are elitist, and those kinds of fees will only exacerbate that level of criticism. But there are other museums doing creative things in order to keep their doors open or their prices down. And one I’m thinking of is the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, which opens its doors to yoga classes. They have yoga classes in galleries right underneath some of their wonderful — wouldn’t you love to do that? I would. And whatever the charge for the yoga class is, a percentage of it gets brought to the museum. So those are imaginative ways. A main way that they raise money is through their museum shops, which I always find a very mixed blessing, because I hate being herded out of galleries into the shop. I’d rather have a little breathing space before they want me to spend my money on something. On the other hand, I can’t begrudge that, because it’s a good revenue producer for them, and a big percentage of their income comes from that. I just lament so the idea of how high these fees are getting. But these are our new realities, I’m afraid. We’re living in a really difficult economy, and we want to keep those museums’ doors open. Some are closing, not closing down, but because security guards are expensive, they’re cutting back on number of days the museums stay open, and I’m afraid we’ll see more of that.

Q: Is our contemporary art going to rank with the great stuff of the past?

A: Gee, don’t you wonder? A lot of it — and this is the hopeful part in a way — is being created online and through the Internet. How that gets preserved, I don’t know, because it’s out there, and it’s essentially ephemeral. Some of the recent stuff, Julian Schnabel putting pieces of crackery into his canvasses. I don’t know how you roll that up when they take down the exhibition. So the extent to which those pieces will last is unknown. There are people breaking ground. I don’t have nearly as easy a time with truly contemporary things as I do, as you can hear, with some of the things from the past. But I did talk a few months ago, again in Paris, with David Hockney, who was at an exhibition of his newest art, which is making art on iPhones and iPads. The gallery was full of one wall on which iPhones — 20 of them — were hung, all on, and the other wall was iPads all turned on, with that light coming out of all of them. And these images — which there’s an app, which I’m going to buy for the iPhone, called “Paintbox,” or something like that. And a little paint box comes up at the bottom of the screen, and you dip into it and make images on the iPhone, and he said he had gotten into it so much that he was wiping his hands on his smock and then going back to paint some more. And he started doing this — he would wake up at his house, I guess, in Whales, and next to his bed was always his sketchbook and some pencils, but he’d look out the window and see this gorgeous sunrise, and he decided he wasn’t going to sketch it, he was going to grab his iPhone, turn it on, and with this brand new app, start making sketches. And then he would email them to his friends, and that’s how this began. I offered to give him my email address. He laughed, but the other thing he said was, ‘I haven’t figured out a way to make money from this yet.’ So if David Hackney can’t make money off of this, how can these new artists and people coming in and using the web to make art, how will they ever find a way to support themselves? Although there’s room for graphic and commercial artists, I think, online. But in a way it’s a time I, as an old fogy, lament things past, but it’s really an exciting time of enormous activity and invention that could lead us places we’ve never even dreamt of before. For instance, the little disc that will be soon embedded in my head replacing Google, and just at the moment when memory is utterly shot, I can just do this and it will all come back. And you will have that, too.

—Transcribed by Josh Cooper

Fish: Value of arts, humanities found in pleasure we take in them

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Stanley Fish, a columnist for The New York Times and professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, speaks at Monday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, read and analyzed George Herbert’s poem “The Forerunners” during his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

The poem, found in 1633’s The Temple, depicts a struggle with senility and the loss of the mastery of language. The poem reads: “True beautie dwells on high: ours is a flame/ But borrow’d thence to light us thither./ Beautie and beauteous words should go together.”

Fish, the second lecturer in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts,” is also a columnist for The New York Times. He used this poem in support of his argument for keeping liberal studies as college graduation requirements. Without the study of humanities, he said, cultural artifacts would be lost.

“I hope you agree with me that ‘The Forerunners’ is an amazing poem,” Fish said once he had finished a 20-minute reading and analysis. “I would even call it a supreme achievement of mind. It’s really good. But, our question today is, ‘What’s it good for?’”

He said it further begs the question of whether funding used to pay humanities professors is justified.

Fish said a popular argument for the humanities is that they inspire critical thinking. On that subject, Fish mentioned the writings of Victor Farrell, who said there’s no ground in arguing that humanities inspire good thinking any more than another subject.

As true as it is that college graduates make more money on average in a lifetime than those who stop at high school, Farrell wrote that this fact refers to all college educations, not specifically liberal arts.

Another argument that Farrell disputed is that liberal arts educations build oral and writing skills. He said the same skills can be learned from a vocational education or education earned from the workplace.

Finally, Farrell also argued against the assertion that, because most people these days will have several careers over their lifetimes, a liberal arts education will prepare students for later life.

He wrote of an imaginary man, John, who runs a bike shop, then works at Volume Communications, Inc. and finally becomes a sales executive. Farrell questioned how studying English literature, philosophy or French helps in those fields.

“But you’ve got to remember that Farrell is a defender and lover of the humanities,” Fish said, “and yet he runs through every argument for supporting them in the universities and finds each argument wanting.”

The question, Farrell wrote, is how to prove that studying the humanities is useful when the subject itself is not. Farrell said liberal arts colleges would need a large-scale, long-term public relations campaign — but based on the actions of those colleges in the past, that would prove unsuccessful. Fish agreed.

Fish said these ideas directly counter the ideas of Richard Brodhead and John Rowe, the co-chairs of the American Academy Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Brodhead, who also serves as president of Duke University, said businesses recognize the following from liberal arts educations: communication skills, cross-cultural understanding, history and an understanding of personal values and the social good.

Rowe, who also serves as chairman and executive officer of Exelon Corporation, said excellence in the sciences is “inextricably linked with the humanities.”

Fish said this claim is unsupportable and is thus unviable.

Fish said as long as the commission thinks like this, it will “produce nothing.”

“The demand for justification is always a demand that something be justified in terms not its own,” he said. “Nothing in the commission’s (goal) acknowledges that the arts and humanities might operate according to their own terms or that these terms might be the basis both of the value they have and of the pleasure we take in them.”

Indeed, he said, people enjoy the arts and humanities. There wouldn’t be theater, music, poetry readings, book clubs, dance festivals or art shows if that weren’t the case. The Chautauqua Institution itself, he said, is the perfect example of this point.

Still, Fish said, there’s a question of why there needs to be academic departments in universities dedicated to these subjects.

“So the question is, how do we justify not the existence of ‘The Forerunners,’ but the academic study of ‘The Forerunners’?” Fish said.

The poem, he said, doesn’t supply a life lesson to most people; it doesn’t inspire its readers into becoming responsible democratic citizens; it doesn’t enhance the life of the mind. The audience stirred at these assertions.

As these are common justifications of humanities education, Fish probed the audience for the answer. What justification can be provided?

He said the understanding of poems like “The Forerunners” can only be achieved with a background in the humanities. To keep alive the culture, those who study the culture must have a place in society and in the university.

“If the study of the arts and the humanities is to be justified,” Fish said, “it will be because it keeps alive and refurbishes glorious human artifacts that might well be lost or less available to future generations if they were no longer taught.”


Q: Who was your best teacher and why?

A: That’s an interesting question. I’d have to say my best teacher was a teacher I had in Classical High School in Providence, R.I., where I grew up. Classical High School, just as it sounds, is a high school built on the Boston Latin model, where we had four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German and some adventurous souls — I was not one of them — also took Greek in addition to the other usual subjects. I had an English teacher by the name of Sarah Flanagan who simply inspired me to become interested in the kinds of questions and problems that came up in her class.

Q: Why do you forbid The New York Review of Books in your home?

A: Well, there’s something called the New York Intellectual World, which is a world that Tom Wolfe satirized in one of his novels and a world which has often been satirized in movies. It’s a lot of bright people, well-dressed, but well-dressed in a kind of respectably seedy way, standing around in an apartment either in Greenwich Village or on the Upper West Side and talking brightly about the plight of the poor, or of the horrible state of things in some foreign country, and then offering bromide solutions and philosophical disquisitions which usually begin with Hegel. I just hate the feel and smell of it. Is that enough?

Q: This question is referring to a specific university, but I think we should expand it beyond a particular place. What, if anything, could have been done to prevent the removal of foreign language programs from this university and what can we do to bring back these programs?

A: That must be our old friend, SUNY Albany, where it was announced brightly by the president that they’re going to ax, meaning get rid of, goodbye, “go birds of spring,” French, Italian, Russian, theater and classics. OK. What can be done? Well, the first thing that can be done, and I mean this quite seriously, is don’t hire a president like that. There is a movement, which is, I think, increasing in its acceleration, to look to business executives or industrial executives for senior positions in the academy. Now the reasons for this are superficially cogent. First of all, as the university and college world becomes more and more cash-strapped, it makes more sense to hire a CEO who is a CEO, who knows what it means to be a CEO. Another cogent reason given is that academics themselves are not trained in large-scale management, but I think that these advantages that a CEO from another field might bring the organization of a college or university are far outweighed by a simple fact: In colleges and universities, as in other institution structures, everything depends on what and who is at the top, because the entire atmosphere, the way of everyday feeling that pervades the institution, stems from the top. If you have at the top someone who is not himself or herself absolutely invested in the enterprise because he or she has taught in the enterprise, written about it, done work that has earned graduate degrees, I … think that if you have someone who doesn’t have that experience and yet has all of the business acumen in the world, it’s going to be a disaster, because when push comes to shove, and judgments have been made, that person will not have an intimate knowledge of what he or she is supposed to be judging.

Q: This is a teacher of humanities, who has a master’s degree from SUNY Albany, who wants to know: How do I encourage my career-driven 17-year-old students to love learning for the sake of knowledge instead of for a specific job?

A: Well, we had a discussion last evening before we went to bed — several people discussing education and teaching — and I made a point that I’ve often made, which is that the way in which you teach is a function of your personality. There are many methods of teaching that will produce the results, but not all those methods are available to every one of us, because our personalities are suited to some methods and not to others. You’ll not be surprised that my method could be described as a combination of shock treatment and saturation bombing. So that the first thing I tell my students, and this is not a recommendation — some of you could never do this, and I could never do some of the things that you can do — the first thing I tell my students, no matter what the class is, is I haven’t the slightest interest in any opinion you have ever had about anything. And I don’t want to hear them, although I will want to hear what you have to say of a relevant kind about the materials we study. That’s enough at the beginning, because students have often been taught or told or allowed to believe that the reason they’re in a college classroom is so that they can express themselves. So that’s one thing; they come in with a certain set of attitudes. Also, here’s something I recommend. I sound like — you know the Click and Clack brothers? They’re always saying at the end of the program, “This is NPR,” even though when so and so hears it … well, when I say this, my wife cringes in the same way. I say, I always like shame and humiliation as good pedagogical techniques at the beginning; get things started in the right direction. When I first became chairman of the English department at Duke, one of my colleagues, after about six weeks, said, “Are we going to have a meeting in which we fashion bylaws?” And I replied, “No bylaws. My laws.”

Q: Are Great Books programs the answers?

A: Great Books programs are part of an answer. I think Great Books programs have an appeal. I think Great Books programs work well in small colleges. I haven’t said very much about the difference between institutional education and institutional draw, but the difference is vast. If you have the small liberal arts college where students know each other and instructors know all of the students and students know all the instructors, the campus is quite small, then the Great Books education will often serve as the glue that holds the entire enterprise together. That kind of education also used to serve a social function. It used to provide what sociologists call social capital. If you want a Great Books education, then you entered society either in the business world or medical world or political world, and you were able to refer with familiarity and ease to Milton or Herbert or George Elliott or Homer or Virgil or Goethe or Tolstoy. You were then, in fact, carrying a piece of currency that stood you in good stead. I don’t think that’s any longer the case. I think if you find yourself in certain kinds of business and even political environments today, and start talking about Herbert’s “The Forerunners,” you will soon be the only person in the room.

Q: How much of this is going to be on the test?

A: I don’t give tests, but I require papers.

– Transcribed by Elora Tocci

Landesman: The arts build better communities

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Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is interrupted by Chautauqua Opera Young Artists performing a flash mob during his lecture Monday in the Amphitheater. Photo by Megan Tan.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

When Rocco Landesman was young, his uncle would give his brother and him $5 for every F they got in school. His uncle, after all, went on to found a personal management company, its motto being, “We take the sting out of success and put the fun back in failure!”

“For some reason,” Landesman said, “that business never really took off.”

Nonetheless, Landesman took his uncle’s motto to heart.

Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, opened Week Four’s morning lecture series on “A Case for the Arts” at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater. His speech, titled “Art Works: A Conversation,” spanned three “acts” regarding the arts as community-builders: embracing failure, motivating audiences and investing locally.

Act I: Embracing failure

As Landesman delivered the first commencement address he’d ever been asked to make, he spoke to the graduating class at the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts. He wished upon them one thing: failure.

Since the 1980s, success in art has been reviewed by analyzing attendance, income and national attention. Landesman said the simplest way theaters achieve those goals is by practically mimicking Broadway or by playing it safe with familiar, popular material.

“But what is the result of defining success that way?” he said.

Small playhouses attempting mainstream success across the nation, he said, lose their identities and their ability to take chances.

Failure, he said, is required to find “alternate pathways to success.”

If applied to schoolchildren, failure helps them to adapt and to try harder. Failure, to those children, is nothing but the “permission to try again.” Innovation, he said, can be called “the art of productive, noble, fun failure.”

Landesman said failure shouldn’t be stigmatized in schools like it is today. Instead, it should be treated as one absolutely acceptable outcome. Encouraging students to try again, he said, is where it counts.

In that way, Landesman said, failure can inspire success.

“I think we can use the arts to give the luxury of failure to our students,” he said. “The arts allow for experiment, for risk. The arts often engage students who are not succeeding in other arenas — those who know what failure is and who navigate it every day.”

In this economic recession, though, art is often the first thing cut in struggling education budgets.

He ended this portion of his talk by referring to various failures that ended positively: Christopher Columbus sailing for India but finding America and Alexander Fleming neglecting to clean his lab before a holiday and discovering penicillin.

Act II: Motivating audiences

One of the biggest problems Landesman has encountered at the National Endowment for the Arts — and one of the most interesting conversations — regards that of shrinking demand for arts, while the amount of arts organizations continues to grow. Nationwide, demand for arts has shrunk 5 percent, but not-for-profit arts supply has increased by 23 percent.

Solving this problem, Landesman said, is all about increasing the demand for arts.

In boosting that demand, he said, one of the only reliable predictors of arts participators is if arts education was offered to them when they were children. Factors such as age, race, ethnicity and income level fall short of arts education.

Secondly, singing and dancing are becoming more popular — as a result, he said, arts suppliers should take advantage. As primetime television is filled with shows like “Glee” and “Dancing with the Stars,” theaters should start producing shows to appeal to those audiences.

Lastly, Landesman suggested arts organizations should “offer free samples.” Contrary to popular belief, presenting clips of music and plays makes audiences more likely to attend shows.

Essentially, he said, it’s about taking the audience seriously.

He said to imagine an arts organization in the future that valued the audience as highly as the artists and curators. Alongside the artistic director, there would be an audience director. There would be audience residencies with artist ones — where audiences would receive stipends to attend other shows.

“What if we saw this as an investment in building a stronger, more committed, more literate audience?” Landesman said.

Some art houses have found ways to engage their audiences, he said.

At the Seattle Art Museum, some tour guides are paid to give their opinions on art they do and don’t like. The museum recognizes that every audience member won’t like every single piece of art — and they want to encourage that.

In tandem with this, the box office at the National Theatre in London tracks the likes and dislikes of audience members to suggest which plays to skip.

Though these aren’t necessarily specific changes Landesman suggests, he said they’re on the right track to engaging their audiences.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZDGNVOdnOQ]

Act III: Investing locally

Before Landesman could begin to talk on this subject, members of the Chautauqua Opera Young Artists Program interrupted his lecture — a flash mob had begun.

Each singer stood up from the audience or appeared on stage, singing different operatic tunes in both English and Italian. Spanning almost 10 minutes, the group performance ended with all participants together in a full-stage finale.

Landesman compared the short performance to a group of Knight Foundation opera singers called Random Acts of Culture, which exposes people to opera in public settings. The Young Artists supported his point: Local arts need to be supported.

“At the NEA, I’m calling for the arts community to stop looking toward Broadway or the equivalent for other art forms,” Landesman said. “Indeed, we need artists to invest in the places where they live, and we need those places to invest in their artists.”

A study by The Knight Foundation found that people most like the places they live for three reasons: social offerings, openness and aesthetics — art.

Another study found that communities greatly benefit from high levels of cultural activity. Namely, those cultural cities have more stable governments, better child welfare and less poverty.

“So why isn’t everyone just wildly investing in the arts?” Landesman said. “That’s a question I’ve been asking for more than a couple of years.”


Q: When you were talking about acknowledging viewers’ tastes, I found myself thinking about your point about certain static demands and that sort of thing, but taste isn’t static. Taste is elastic, and exposure — a certain amount of surprise exposure, if you will — has a certain stimulative effect on expanding taste. How can we make certain, in the array of offering of the arts, that people are challenged enough to expand those parameters of taste?

A: Well, first of all, I think access is a part of this — to get more and more people into the experience of the arts, which means knocking down one of the chief barriers, which is cost. It also means getting the arts institutions out and around their communities. Sometimes, you have these high temples on a hill that are pretty forbidding as places to access. Then I think also, it is the dynamic between the people who know the subject and the audiences. People who are presenting the work of art do have to listen to their audiences, as I’ve said, but the audiences also need to be guided by people who know the subject. I don’t think that everyone’s opinion about art is absolutely equal, although everyone seems to think that it is. Art is one thing in which everyone’s an expert. S. J. Perelman had one of my favorite remarks. He said, “I don’t know much about medicine, but I know what I like.”

Q: Many universities and colleges are cutting dance programs. (The questioner) cites the UNC Asheville program that only has five students. How can this change? I guess that’s talking about the balance between dance and classics. Are you observing that balance at war, and who’s winning, and is it good?

A: Well, it’s certainly not good. A lot of these have to do with cost pressures. The performing arts, especially the very labor-intensive ones, are easy ones for cutting because they take a lot of people. The presentation you just saw was as powerful as it was because it wasn’t just two people doing it. It was a dozen. And I think we’ve got to find a way to preserve that kind of participation.

Q: Do you think there’s any correlation between attendance and the cost of theater, museums, et cetera? That is, that in tough times, attendance declines because it’s too expensive to attend?

A: Yes. Certainly. I think that’s true for everything. And one of the things we have to do is work hard on the subsidy aspect of the equation so the accessibility and the cost can be brought down. It’s one of the things that we in the commercial theater are facing on Broadway. As our costs keep escalating, eventually it’s going to have an effect on audiences.

Q: What would it take to revive funding to individual artists as the NEA does for writers and other artists?

A: I think that’s one of those questions that it’s the 11-foot pole rule, for the questions I shouldn’t be touching with a 10-foot pole, but I will anyway, even though I will get in trouble. We’re the National Endowment for the Arts. We should be supporting artists as directly as possible, not through every other intermediary. We should be giving direct support to artists. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s now mandated by Congress, and it’s one of the things I think we have to change.

Q: Can you give us examples of productive failures within NEA, and what are the consequences?

A: Yes, I can. As a matter of fact, it’s actually a very interesting question. When I first arrived there, I didn’t know better, and our budget was $168 million. The first thing I did was I went to the White House and to the key congressional people, and I asked for an appropriation for Our Town, my new signature program, of another $150 million. By the time they got done laughing and the eyebrows which had been raised went down, we started the conversation that resulted in, ‘OK, if you’re not going to get this money appropriated by Congress, and you feel this is such an important program, how can you get the money?’ And the answer is, there are other federal agencies in the federal government that have connections with the arts, that have big art aspects. If you look at, for instance, Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius’ agency, well, there are natural intersections of the arts and childhood development, early cognitive training, mental health, geriatrics. There are all kinds of points of intersection. HUD, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Education obviously, the Department of Agriculture. All of these agencies have natural intersections with the arts. So it became my job to go to each of these cabinet secretaries and start to commandeer some funds from them. We also started a major initiative in the private sector, which you’ll be hearing more about shortly. That was a perfect example of productive failure. We failed to get the appropriation, but we set about trying to find the money somewhere else.

Q: This question, I think, goes to the supply and demand question. It focuses on the phenomena of the Met’s use of live opera broadcasts. Is this expanding supply, and is its effect to limit demand in the sense of herding regional operas, or is it driving people to regional operas?

A: I think it’s a great program, and it’s expanding both supply and demand. People you know, they beam it in two times squared. They beam it into theatres all across the country. People will see opera who have never encountered opera before, who have never experienced it, and some of them are going to become opera fans, so it’s going to increase demand without a doubt. And as far as decreasing supply, I think it has exactly the opposite effect. As people get excited about opera, it creates more employment opportunities both at the Met and everywhere else, and I just think it’s one of those win/win things that’s a great program all around.

Q: Let’s go to pragmatics. If one is working to renovate an old historical building in an economically challenged town to create a farmers market and gathering space for artists and music festivals, dance, how do we apply for grants from NEA?

A: The Our Town program is administered through our design discipline. It’s run by a brilliant guy named Jason Schupbach, and we’re in the process of now soliciting and welcoming applications for the Our Town program, and I would welcome them to be submitted.

Q: I’m trying to speak to the issues of evaluation in the grant process. How do arts organizations accomplish their goals in communities when so much funding relies on a grueling process of grant-writing and reporting with more and more demands of proving successful use of those funds in a constrained period of time?

A: Well, one of the first things that came to my attention was through my wife, Debby, who’s had a career in philanthropy. She looks at the application that we had and she says, ‘My god, you’re going to be getting people to be great grant writers.’ It may have nothing to do with them being great theatres or opera companies or dance troupes, because the application process is such a cumbersome thing to go through. We’re trying to streamline that as best we can within the parameters of what Congress and our oversight agencies mandate. I mean, there are certain things that have to be done, certain information that has to be provided, but we need to have a streamlined process so that the arts organizations can put their energy into making art, not into making grant applications.

Q: You talked about creatively engaging audiences at a variety of levels. With the empowerment of audiences, and maybe even regardless of that preface, what will be the role of the critic?

A: It goes back to what I said before, where you know I don’t know much about medicine, but I know what I like. The critic is presumably trained in that field, and one of the most alarming things that’s going on now in this world is what’s happening at newspapers across the country. The Chautauquan Daily actually does have some criticism, one of the few papers left, and the critics are presumably the experts in this field. I don’t think we have a healthy situation where all the criticism you get is people just blogging their opinions. I think you have to have some people who know what they’re talking about, presenting an expert point of view, and we now at the NEA are taking this very seriously. We have a program that we’re developing in coordination with the Knight Foundation. It’s a contest to try to see if there can be new business models, new sustainable models for criticism in communities, because most of the newspapers have gotten rid of all of their critics. There are now four papers in the United States that have an art critic. There used to be dozens, and this is not good.

Q: Would you please comment on your experience with, and your opinion of, the confirmation process?

A: I wouldn’t advise it for anybody. It’s not fun. It’s long and protracted and invasive, and frankly, I think it discourages people from serving in the government. I think it’s needlessly difficult. I think that should be streamlined just like our grant applications. I actually feel strongly about that.

Q: You’ve described many fabulous projects on the local level for which NEA provides seed funding grants. How frequently, especially in the last 10 years, do these programs continue once the grant funding ends?

A: Well, we try to monitor that pretty closely, and we want to start to have metrics where we can start to evaluate the programs over a period of time. This will especially pertain to our work with the private sector with private foundations who want to see the results of what they’re doing. Mike Bloomberg in New York has a great line. He said, “In God we trust. All others bring data.” And I think we’re trying to establish metrics of data and evaluation so we can keep track of what may start as a seed grant, but we want to see how things develop and keep track of it.

Q: What’s NEA doing, if anything, to specifically address the overwhelmingly difficult problem of the cost of health care insurance for self-employed artists?

A: That one is the 12-foot pole rule. We are not engaged in anything that could be construed as any kind of political action. We are really a bipartisan agency. That might be something for Bob Lynch, who’s going to be speaking here on Friday, at Americans for the Arts. He can address that much better than I can. We’re careful to avoid advocacy of that kind.

Q: What is being done to preserve arts education in schools nationwide, and what role is there for an organization like NEA to participate in that national dialogue when decisions are made locally?

A: Yes, as you know, most of this is at the state and local level with school boards and school districts. I will say that Arne Duncan, the new Secretary of Education, is not only a visionary, but he cares very deeply about the arts. And there was just a recent notice of funding availability for his Promise Neighborhoods program where the arts, for the first time, was included as a metric in these grants. If you’re a school that has an arts program in it, you have an advantage over programs that don’t, and this is the first time the arts have been included in that, and that’s a big win for the arts and for the NEA, and I’m very grateful to Arne for doing that.

Q: How do you balance, or do you believe there is a value in balancing the exposure of audiences to innovative, perhaps unpopular, works and the overall issue of needing to promote the support for the arts and “butts in the seat”?

A: I think you have to do both. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing popular programming and understanding the taste of your audience and playing to that, but there also has to be, at the same time, work that is challenging and venturesome and risky. That, after all, is the nature of subsidy. Presumably, you’re given a subsidy because you’re being protected from the exigencies of the marketplace and within that framework, as is happening at the Chautauqua Theater here, you’re going to do work that’s more venturesome, as the work they do is. I know that the “Three Sisters” was controversial, but that’s exactly the kind of work that isn’t going to be done if what you’re doing is just polling your audience. They’re leading the audience in that way, and I think that’s very important.

Q: Have you been watching the events around New York City Opera, and can you comment on their prospects for success or what, if any, role government might have in helping them?

A: I don’t know. I followed it like everybody has, but I know too little about the subject. I recently did see one of the city operas, Séance on a Wet Afternoon. My ex-wife and still very good friend, Heidi Ettinger, was the designer of that, and I thought it was a marvelous, marvelous opera, but the issues of their policy and programming, I’ll have to leave to them.

Q: In your mind, what is the ideal resident non-profit theater in the country, and why?

A: Well, we have a great one here. We really do. There’s no question. From all I’ve heard, they really do take risks and take chances, and one of the good things about it here is that — and Tom (Becker) and I were talking about this earlier — it’s very similar to the model that I was trained in and grew up in, where you have a mixture of equity actors, non-equity actors and students. I was trained at the Yale School of Drama, where there was the School of Drama, there were the students — those of us getting degrees there — but there was also a professional repertory company, an equity company. The students benefited enormously from their contact with those professionals. The professionals taught in the program. I think they benefited enormously from being exposed to new thinking and to new people coming through. I think that kind of symbiosis is very productive and healthy, so that kind of modeled what I would call a conservatory professional theater model. It’s one that I think is ideal. I think you had it when I was at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and I think you have it here at Chautauqua.

Q: What advice do you have for parents who appear to take extraordinary measures to ensure that their children do not experience failure?

A: Who was it that wrote that book? The Chinese woman? Yes, the Tiger Mom. Well, I’m glad to say that I never read the book or bought it, but I did read the reviews of the book with a tremendous sense of outrage and anger. I saw a lot of the discussion about it. I would say, actually, to be serious for a moment, that that is exactly what you don’t want to do, and her kids are trained in the arts to be concert pianists and so forth. I can’t think of a better way to stifle creativity.

– Transcribed by Taylor Rogers

Woolsey: U.S. energy can be target of terrorist attacks

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R. James Woolsey speaks in the Amphitheater Friday, closing a week of lectures on “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage, and Alliances.” Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

During a summer storm in Cleveland a few years back, the conditions knocked branches from their trees — much like many storms nationwide. The result of this one was very different.

Branches struck power lines, making a regular storm into something much worse. Fifty million people were left without power, some of them for days. By the end, the economies of the U.S. and Canada lost almost $10 billion.

“Now we come to the real problem,” R. James Woolsey said after presenting the story. “Terrorists are a lot smarter than tree branches.”

Woolsey said during his lecture, 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater, that Americans need to take measures to protect the country’s energy resources, especially in today’s age.

Woolsey is former head of the CIA, having held the office between 1993 and 1995. He also is a member of the board of directors of Week Three partner the International Spy Museum.

His speech, titled “Keeping Our Infrastructure Secure in the Age of the Internet: The Case of Energy,” was the fifth and final lecture in Week Three’s topic on “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances.” Unlike the rest of the speakers this week, Woolsey focused most of his speech on how to counter foreign espionage.

Oil and transportation

While electricity comes from several sources, Woolsey said, 97 percent of U.S. transportation is fueled by gasoline and diesel. Furthermore, the 12 nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries control 78 percent of the world’s known oil.

“We have oil, which has a virtually complete monopoly on (U.S.) transportation, and we have OPEC, that has a degree of monopoly over oil,” Woolsey said.

He called this a “conspiracy in restraint of trade” because OPEC supplies about a third of the U.S.’s oil. In trade with this oil, the U.S. borrows more than $1 billion a day in order to import oil.

He said to solve this problem, many people suggest buying oil from Canada instead of, say, Saudi Arabia. This would solve nothing, he said, as there’s only one world oil trade. If the U.S. bought from Canada, everyone else would buy from Saudi Arabia.

Another suggestion, he said, is for the U.S. to pump its own oil and to only pump what it uses. That way, the U.S. would not partake in the world oil market. Great Britain, he said, is almost at that point — but oil is still expensive there.

“The problem can’t be solved that way,” Woolsey said. “The problem has to be solved by breaking oil’s monopoly over transportation and breaking OPEC.”

A security problem, nonetheless, lies in America’s dependence on oil, he said. Al-Qaida has been saying for years that it is very important to attack the infrastructure of the Middle East oil trade.

Furthermore, he said, entrenching and strengthening occurs in any dictatorial or autocratic government that becomes the owner of a large portion of a commodity.

Of the top 10 oil-exporting countries in the world, eight are dictatorships, Woolsey said. Of the top 22 countries dependent on exporting oil for their national economies, all of them are either dictatorships or autocratic kingdoms.

The unsafe energy

As suggested by his story, Woolsey said, terrorists have the means to cut power to many Americans. This is mostly because the means to controlling power now lie on the Internet — meaning hackers can access it with the right skill.

“We’ve got 18 critical infrastructures in the U.S. — water, food, sewage, electricity, gas pipe lines, etcetera,” Woolsey said. “All 17 of the others (aside from electricity) depend on electricity.”

If the power grid was to go down because of an attack, it wouldn’t just be electricity Americans would be without, he said. It would be like dropping to the 1870s in an instant.

He said it’s important to remember it was a single teenager who gave hundreds of thousands of secret cables to WikiLeaks.

Another issue that faces the electrical grid is that of the electromagnetic pulse. EMPs are emitted from nuclear bombs and other high-energy explosions. They can affect the ground even if the bombs are detonated at very high altitudes.

EMPs can travel along electrical wiring, Woolsey said, disrupting and destroying transformers and other electrical devices as they go.

Even though the U.S. has been aware of EMPs since the Cold War, Woolsey is concerned because he believes the U.S. has not done enough to protect its electronics. The technology to shield from EMPs has been developed but has been largely neglected.

If North Korea or Iran launched a relatively small scud missile, Woolsey said the bomb could do “a pretty brutal job” against shares of America’s important electronics.

As a result of the advent of terrorism, Woolsey said, attacks can now be completely unidentified, be it because of suicide missions or computer-based attacks from other countries.

Furthermore, the designs of those grids lie in wait on the Internet, Woolsey said. On these maps, the most “sensitive areas” are marked with “Danger” and “High Voltage” signs to make maintenance easier.

“The transformers are well protected — they’re 30 yards from the side of the highway; they’re well fenced-in by cyclone fences and by big signs that point to the transformers and say, ‘Danger! Do not touch,’” Woolsey said. “Well, the system is pretty well-designed to keep out, let’s say, a drunk teenager on Saturday night.”

The problem here is that the transformers were designed before terrorism, when the U.S. never expected to be attacked at home, he said.

“We don’t have (an energy protection) problem that we can solve with better intelligence,” Woolsey said. “We don’t have a problem we can solve with better weapons. We have got to begin to have our electricity system evolve into something that is a lot more resilient.”


Q: If you think back to 2006 — when the report was given about the status of the Iranian nuclear capacities — how did the DCI and the CIA get that assessment so terribly wrong?

A: Well, the short answer is, “I don’t know,” but let me explain how I think it was wrong. This was the assessment in December of ’06 that said that the Iranians, two years before, had stopped their nuclear weapons program, and that was the headline, and then buried down in a footnote, it said, “Oh, and by the way, they’re continuing with their uranium enrichment.” Now, the long pole in the tent in a simple, sort of straightforward nuclear weapon, the simplest kind, so-called “shotgun” design, just blasts highly enriched uranium down into a socket, essentially, that is also highly enriched uranium, and the mass goes critical, and you have a nuclear explosion. It was what we used at Hiroshima without one having been tested ever in the history of the world. We were so clear it would work. What we tested at Alamogordo was a plutonium bomb, which is very different, but the very simple, highly-enriched uranium bomb, we used in combat without it ever having been tested in the history of the world. We were so sure it would work, and the designs for it are all over the Internet. Unfortunately, we’re not talking about anything that’s very hard to do. What’s hard to do, to get a nuclear weapon, is to get the highly enriched uranium. You only need uranium enriched up to about 3 percent, U-235, to run a power plant, and you need one that is enriched up to about 90 percent for weapons-grade. Now it seems like there’s a big gap there, but in fact, there’s not. The way the curves work: Essentially, once you have enriched uranium, enough to use it in a power plant, you’ve done about, let’s say, 70 percent of the work necessary to get it up to 90 percent, so that’s what North Korea did; it said, “Nobody here but us electricity generators,” and they enriched enough to make bomb-grade and have had one, maybe two, tests. That’s what Iran is doing; it is enriching enough to get up to 20 percent with a medical justification, and that means at that point they’re about 80 percent of the way toward getting weapons-grade. And then in some place, either after they withdraw from the treaty or before, they’ll go ahead and have a bomb. So that estimate took a relatively minor and easy thing to do — design the weapon itself — probably had good information that it had been halted for some reason. But it’s easily started up again, and it’s unfortunately not too big a deal. They made that the headline, and then the footnote that the Iranians were carrying on with their enrichment program; they put in the footnote what should have been the headline and put in the headline what should have been in the footnote. I don’t know the people who actually wrote that, but I’ve got to say, I’ve been reading National Intelligent Estimates since 1968, and that’s the worse and most intellectually dishonest estimate I’ve ever seen. It had the effect of having the country say, “Well, gee, we can’t do anything about this; and we don’t need to do anything about this, because they’ve stopped.” And that was the general impression in the press, and the general impression for a lot of people in the government. Maybe the authors wanted to make sure that George W. Bush didn’t go bomb Iran; I don’t know. I don’t know why they did it, but this is not a small mistake. This was not a misunderstanding. This was a really, really terrible job.

Q: What magnitude of resources are being allocated to revising the grid structure currently, and what sort of timeline is realistic for significantly hardening its defenses?

A: Let’s talk about distributed generation, and what you’d do. There’s a pretty simple tool. It’s called a C.L.E.A.N., for a lot of organizations, and C.L.E.A.N. means “Clean Local Energy Accessible Now.” The older term derived from the German is feed-in tariff, which nobody likes; it’s translated directly from the German, and it sounds like it might be an import duty on animal feed or something, but what both of those mean is that the government will pass a law telling the utility that they have to give you, if you want to produce electricity at under 20 megawatts from renewables, they will see that you are given a 20-year contract to sell that to the electric grid. It’s called wholesale distributed because you’re selling it to the grid; it’s not just going on your roof to reduce your own personal electrical bill. It seems like it ought to be very expensive. I mean, my gosh, aren’t these renewable systems extremely expensive? Well, they’re getting cheaper all the time, especially solar, especially in sunny places, and today, at a cost for the solar part of their feed-in tariff in Germany, it costs about one euro per month per family because you spread the cost over all rate payers, about one euro per month, and Germany has the skies that are the equivalent, essentially of those over northern Alaska, not even southern Alaska. And Germany has 18 times per capita more solar than the United States. There’s more solar on one building in downtown Munich, a big building, two megawatts, than there is in the entire state of Texas. And the reason is the feed-in tariff. Utilities fight it. They fight it hard because each dollar of electricity that you’re paid for having, let’s say you’ve got a farm, you’ve got an acre of solar out there and you’re making a few thousand dollars a year by shipping it to the utility, and they have to take it because of the feed-in tariff law; utilities don’t like that. They’d rather build a big utilities scale plant of some kind and keep the money themselves. So it’s a pretty straightforward fight. So far there are two states in the United States, Vermont and Hawaii, and a few local areas, a few towns, that have feed-in tariffs. But since 40 countries have followed Germany, Spain did and kind of fouled it up, and the people who don’t like feed-in tariffs always point to Spain, but pretty much every place else has done it well. You have 40 countries following Germany. You have India, China and Japan all in the process of adopting a feed-in tariff. Probably the United States will be one of the last, but it would be good if on a local basis, people started generating it, because it does wonders in terms of increasing renewables, and furthermore, renewables under 20 megawatts, so they fit into the distribution grid; so they’re distributed; they don’t have anything to do with the transmission lines.

Q: Are young computer hackers being recruited into the intelligence community, and are they an asset?

A: Well, they would be; I mean, they would be a huge asset, but I don’t think they are being. The community has always had difficulty with things like internships because of classification. It’s hard to give somebody a full background investigation to have a small summer job or something, so they start mainly working with people when they’re — especially in the computer areas — when they’re in college, or often graduate school. And there are several graduate schools around the country that supply a lot of people to NSA, and on that side of things, there’s a fair amount of interaction. But at the really talented 14-year-old stage, we’ve got to wait till they get to college or graduate school.

– Transcribed by Aaron Krumheuer

Ignatius: Ethical dilemmas are very present in international espionage

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David Ignatius, columnist for The Washington Post and author of the novel Body of Lies, gives the Thursday morning lecture at the Chautauqua Amphitheater. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

When David Ignatius was trying to get his first novel, Agents of Innocence, published, he found himself rejected by a dozen companies. The book started as nonfiction, but it became fictionalized as he wrote.

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., finally approved the novel, but only on the basis that they wanted a nonfiction book next.

Later, once Agents was published, Ignatius said he remembers speaking to his children’s classes. First, he would read the rejection letters — which weren’t very nice, in his opinion. Then, he’d pull the book from a bag, placing it on the table. Then he’d place the same book in French, then German.

“And pretty soon there’s this stack of books that was translated into, maybe, 15 languages, and it’s this high,” Ignatius said, holding a hand about two-and-a-half feet from the podium, “all balanced on these letters of rejection that were so mean. So the moral of the story is: Stick with it.”

Ignatius, an international affairs journalist, columnist and spy novelist, presented three ethical dilemmas regarding foreign affairs. He said that by analyzing these issues, Americans may attain better public policy.

Ignatius delivered his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater. His speech, titled “Spy Fact, Spy Fiction,” was the fourth in Week Three’s topic on “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances.”

Political covert action

Covert action, Ignatius said, is the use of American resources to influence foreign political outcomes in America’s favor. Sometimes this can mean bribing politicians to vote differently, or maybe getting certain parties to speak up or to keep quiet.

“That may sound terrible,” he said, “but I want you to think about the greatest example of covert action in modern history.”

That example, he said, is the CIA’s late 1940s campaign to combat the spread of Communism in Europe. Some countries were very close to turning Communist — without these covert actions, Ignatius said, Communism likely would have spread.

The ethics of unmanned drones

To illustrate this point, Ignatius read almost five minutes of his most recent novel, Bloodmoney. It depicts the violent deaths of an entire family due to an American drone in South Waziristan, Pakistan.

Though one official Ignatius spoke to about these drones said he feels no ethical dilemma at all about them due to their precision and control, Ignatius said there is most definitely an argument to be had.

That very same man said a drone could hover over a mark playing with a grandchild until the child leaves, if that was the case. Drones, the man said, reduce the number of bystander deaths.

Ignatius said his main problem with drones is not the harm drones can cause.

“Rather, I worry that these weapons are becoming addictive,” he said. “It is too easy — and an effective way to project power — without putting boots on the ground, to use the common phrase, and risking American lives.”

The danger these drones pose is quickly becoming a threat to America as well, he said. Other countries are attempting to develop similar weapons.

It’s not that he wants to completely eliminate the use of drones, Ignatius said. Instead, he thinks it’s important for the public to be aware of them. As moral and democratic as the U.S. is, he said, there needs to be more debate on the subject.

Ambiguity in covert action

In 1979, a Palestinian Liberation Organization terrorist named Ali Hassan Salameh was assassinated with a car bomb in Beirut, Lebanon.

In 1980, Ignatius had lunch with an anonymous administration official as part of his preparation for covering a story.

“You know, the Israelis just killed our man in the PLO,” the official said to Ignatius.

“What?” Ignatius said.

“Oh, I shouldn’t have said that,” the man responded.

To this day, Ignatius said, he isn’t sure whether the man purposely let that information go. Nonetheless, it put him on the trail. He began to think the man the official referred to was Salameh, the PLO chief of operations. At the time, PLO was the biggest terrorist adversary to the U.S.

For the next two years, Ignatius worked on that story. He found sources and began to spend more and more time with those people. A story began to unfold that was deeper than he had originally thought.

Salameh, he discovered, had been working with the CIA for almost 10 years.

“This man was a terrorist,” Ignatius said. “But also, according to the testimony of American diplomats and others who had worked with him, he had saved hundreds — maybe thousands — of Americans lives.”

In 1983, months after this discovery, Ignatius was in Beirut again when a bomb went off in the U.S. embassy. The bomb had killed Robert Ames, a CIA analyst and director, along with more than 60 others.

This event left Ignatius the only person, he said, who knew the ins and outs of the Salameh story. Arabs who had worked with the CIA began to come to Ignatius to share their stories.

“I became the repository for this history than I had been scribing,” he said. “It didn’t take long to realize that there was no way that I could write all of this in a newspaper story.”

Agents of Innocence, that first novel, resulted.

The point of this story, Ignatius said, is the ambiguity. The U.S. worked with a terrorist to reduce the number of American deaths by terrorism. Meanwhile, that same man was killing Israelis, residents of a U.S. ally.

When Israelis questioned U.S. officials regarding the agreement, the relationship was denied.

American espionage versus the world

“I’ve written in my columns that the CIA sometimes seems to have a permanent ‘Kick Me’ sign on its backside,” Ignatius said. “And it gets kicked plenty, as we know reading the newspapers in the last few years. But for decades, this has been a controversial area.”

The truth is, he said, the U.S. isn’t the only country that has espionage and intelligence agencies — Americans have to remember that.

Since all these countries are spying on one another, there’s a lot of international lawbreaking even by American spies.

“Spying is about lying,” Ignatius said. “Our agencies are out there recruiting people through bribery, through blackmail, through other techniques, to commit treason in their own countries. And that’s just the simple part.”


Q: To begin, David, I wonder if you could comment on this whole scenario you’ve built about the GID in Jordan, starting with the reference to tenant and using that as a resource, then your familiarity with this person. Both in your book and the movie, there’s a certain amount of tragedy in the way in which the two countries’ intelligence services interacted. A fair amount of that seems to have been created by a cultural abyss. I guess the question of you is, is that true, and is that a general problem for our intelligence service as we try to work particularly in the Middle East in the Arab world?

A: I would say, without question, that lack of sufficient knowledge and clarity is our biggest problem in the Arab world, in the Islamic world, everywhere in the world. If there’s one theme that runs through each of my seven spy novels, it is that the United States does not know enough to be getting as deeply involved in the places where we go as we do. In Body of Lies, we see at the end of the book that it is the Jordanian who’s had all the strands of the story in his hands, and we have a CI officer, played by Russell Crowe, a kind of loudmouth know-it-all who thinks he knows what he’s doing who repeatedly blunders and is rescued by a Jordanian who had a deeper understanding of what the play was.  You’ll find that theme in many of my books, to some extent it’s in Bloodmoney, but I think it goes, Tom, to your question. Of course people in the region understand this better. They live there.  This is the sea in which they swim. We come in with our Aqua Lung and our night-vision goggles, and we think, “How can we make mistakes?” Well, we make mistakes because we don’t understand the basics.

Q: With Leon Panetta now Secretary of Defense, will the CIA merge with military intelligence, and since 9/11, how much cooperation is there really between the intelligence services?

A: One of the big trends in the last few years has been the joint operations of our special operations forces and the CIA. The most obvious example was the ray that killed Osama bin Laden, where Navy Seals were under the operational command of the CIA and Leon Panetta. The reason for that was that this was an active war in a country with which we’re not at war — Pakistan — and so had to be conducted under Title 50 and the authorities of the CIA. There is a wonderfully elusive fragment in the National Security Act of 1947 that says that the National Security Council shall conduct such other activities as it deems necessary. Folks, that is basically the legal rationale for covert action. So the CIA, under Title 50, has the authority to break the laws of other countries and deny it, and that’s the authority that we use, but these joint operations are increasingly frequent. If you and the audience would like, Tom, I just spent a week with General Petraeus, the next CIA director, and I can tell you in just a few words about where he’s going in the post-Panetta era. I did travel to Afghanistan with General Petraeus after his confirmation hearing. We talked for many hours. I’ve known him well for a number of years, and I’ll just say some basic things about Petraeus. First, he really wants this job, which is important. If he thought it was a consolation prize for not becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or something else — we’ve had CI directors, notably John Deutch, who had that feeling. They really would rather have been doing something else, and it’s not good. Petraeus really wants the job. Second, he knows that he needs to demonstrate, and demonstrate to his workforce, that he has sufficient intellectual distance from subjects, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he can be the president’s intelligence advisor. As part of that, he knows that he’s not a military commander anymore. You can’t just give an order and expect it to be carried out. The CIA isn’t like that. It’s a much more delicate kind of organization. He also knows, frankly, that this is a culture; this is an organization that can eat outsiders alive. I’ve been covering this for more than 30 years, and I have watched outside directors either been co-opted, so they become quasi-cheerleaders, or isolated and expelled from the culture. This is a rough crowd. Petraeus knows that. As he says, this isn’t the first time he’s managed difficult people. Petraeus is a complicated person, but I think what he accomplished in Iraq, with President Bush’s support, I think it’s a mistake not to just say that this was a real achievement. Getting into Iraq was Bush’s biggest mistake, but having the guts when the military and everybody wanted out — the country was screaming to get out — to stay long enough to come up with a more stable endgame than we would’ve had was a great achievement and a courageous achievement, and the person who did that on the ground was Dave Petraeus. I think he’s the real deal. To my mind, it’s fascinating Obama chose him for the CIA and fascinating that he accepted, and it will be the best spectator’s sport in town, if only we could get a seat, but we can’t.

Q: As you might imagine, there’s lots of questions about drones. There’s two parts to this question. One has to do with an inquiry about could you give us some examples of the rules that now govern decisions on whether or not to implement these strikes, but the other side of it has to do with moral accountability, and what are the moral responsibilities with a specific reference to Harold Koh, the dean of the Yale Law School, having said that drones are less harmful to human life than bombs and thus more humane? Would you comment on that kind of moral reasoning?

A: There are rules to give at least the veneer of due process before we launch the missile from 10,000 feet. I have to say that those rules have been loosened somewhat under President Obama, so that what’s known as signature targeting, where you don’t need to be 100 percent certain of the individual, you hope you know who it is, but it has the signature, he’s got a telephone handset that you know has been in contact with people who are part of al-Qaida, or he’s driving in a car that yesterday was being driven by so-and-so’s body guard, or he’s going to a safe house that three days ago — so in other words, the signature is there, and so the rules of engagement, I believe, have been stretched to allow those kinds of attacks. As is well known, the Obama administration radically increased the number of predator attacks and the number of countries in which they’re used. President Obama said, before he was elected, that he was going to be aggressive with this weapon, and he has been. I have asked the top officials — these conversations were off-the-record, so I shouldn’t name them — but I’ve asked them, “Are you troubled morally by this? Does this raise issues for you?” And the answer that I’ve typically have gotten was, “No.” These are the most precise weapons that have ever existed, so far as I know. Because they have cameras, we can watch. If a target is playing with his grandchildren, we will hover and wait for the grandchildren to run away. This gives us a degree of flexibility that we would not otherwise have. You get those kind of defenses, and I’m even going to stipulate that the number of civilian casualties, relative to other weapons, is very low. Even so, I think we need to talk more about the use of these drones.

Q: There have been several references this week to the threat of homegrown terrorism, the number of young people that are attracted to the terrorist cause. Several questions ask you what’s your assessment of this as a risk, and where is the balancing point between protecting ourselves against that eventuality and infringing on the rights of American Muslims?

A: If you were to ask the FBI director, he would say, “Poor Stella Rimington.” It’s much harder to do this job in Britain, because their Muslim communities are nowhere near as comfortably assimilated in their society as America’s, and I think that’s still true. What we depend on is that Arab-Americans living in Detroit — let’s say, in Dearborn, the big Muslim communities around Detroit — have felt their chance to grab for the American dream, and in many cases have been extremely successful, and their friends see it and know it. Most struck by no matter how screwed-up politics are back at home, people come from that culture to America, and they have great ideas. They build good companies. They’re successful. That’s, to me, our saving grace, is that we are still a company where immigrants can come — whether they’re Muslims, Arabs, you name it, Chinese — and prosper, and then everybody sees it. Everybody in the Arab world has a cousin or an uncle who’s in the States and who’s done great. Because of that, our security service, the FBI, and our local police have been able to have networks of informants within these communities. Where there’s a mosque, you know, the sheik, or somebody close to the sheik, he’s in touch with the appropriate people, and when he sees a young person who’s beginning to get a little weird and get a little jihadi, he’ll tell somebody, and that’s what’s been our big protection. It is first the fact that people feel they are Americans and that they are respected as Americans and that they’ve done well, and they have a stake in the country’s stability. The idea that we should make Arab-Americans a special target and get all — I understand the human reaction to go, “Oh, you know,” — but if you want a guarantee that this problem will get worse, do that, and it will.

Q: Would you share your comments on the Valerie Plame affair?

A: Great movie. There are few absolute rules about press coverage of intelligence activities, but one of them is that you do not name CI officers whose identities are undercover, and it is well understood, and I believe respected by news organizations, and the fact that White House — let’s be honest; the fact that the Bush White House — more or less deliberately outed her and put that name out is outrageous. It is just outrageous. I think the people who were involved in that have been identified and punished, although, they were, in some cases, pardoned. Just to say one other thing about the press and these intelligence secrets. If a CI officer were here, there may be some, but if he took me aside after and said, “Nice of you to say all those things, David, but be honest; the press drives us nuts. As soon as we get a secret, you guys rush to blow it, and you’re one of the offenders.” I think there is tension between what people do in my profession, which is try to tell the public as much as we can about things that matter and try to talk, as I have today, frankly about issues that I think the public needs to think about, even if I get into areas that people say, “It’s really better not to talk about that.” We do have a practice that was inaugurated by my beloved, late chairman of the board Katharine Graham, who said in the 1980s that whenever a Washington Post reporter has some information that you’re thinking of publishing that affects one of the intelligence agencies, you have a responsibility, as a Post reporter or editor, to go to the agency that may be affected and let them make their case that this will be damaging. That this will get people killed, that this will have severe damaging affects on the United States, and they’ll listen. We’re not going to let them make up their minds, we don’t have a censorship system, but we’re going to listen to them and then try to make what we think is the responsible decision. She would say that now. I think we really have tried to follow that. We write a lot of stories that give the government heartburn. If you sat where I’ve sat as an editor, you’d be surprised at how many stories don’t get published.

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