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Interpreting the Oracle: Neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro explores history, biology of dreams

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Everyone sleeps, which means everyone dreams — but not everyone remembers those dreams. Neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro proved this point at the outset of his lecture, when he asked his Chautauqua audience to raise their hands if, surely, they sleep every night. But when he asked how many remembered the dreams they had while asleep, only half raised their hands.

Ribeiro, whose research focuses on memory, sleep, dreams and psychedelics, is the founder of the Brain Institute at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil, and the author of The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreaming. His lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater was part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Six theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime.”

We know much more about sleep than we do about dreams; humans go through four to five full cycles of sleep each night. Some, but not all, of those cycles feature dreams, and it’s the REM cycle when we dream the most, Ribeiro said. But thanks to the prevalence of electric lights, and then television screens and the internet in the palms of our hands, humans are sleeping less, which means we’re dreaming less.

“What we know is that we are sleeping about two hours less than people did 100 years ago,” Ribeiro said. “It depends on the age group. It depends on where you’re living. But overall, it basically means we are getting poorer and poorer sleep as we progress into the 21st century.”

Less sleep, essentially, means less of a chance for the REM cycle — the last cycle of sleep and dreams — to kick in. And what happens to people’s lives when they do not dream? We know that dreams are important in the history of humanity, Ribeiro said. Not just important, but essential. He traced stories from the earliest texts in Sumer, Mesopotamia and Egypt, all pointing to the centrality of dreams at the start of civilization. The Bible is filled with premonitory dreams, but they’re not limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Ribeiro said.

“People knew, in the antiquities, that dreams cannot be taken at face value; it’s not as if you have a dream and the dream is exactly what happens or tells you what to do, because you need to interpret dreams,” he said. “Sometimes they can be very direct, but sometimes they are very metaphorical.”

As the age of antiquities neared its end, philosophers attempted to classify dreams into two categories: A “regular dream” that references the past, and a “special dream” that refers to the future. A clear example of “special dreams” is Calpurnia, the wife of Julius Caesar, immortalized by Shakespeare, who dreamt her husband would die in a pool of blood — and her husband’s own dream.

“Caesar had a very different dream,” Ribeiro said. “He had a dream in which he would fly through the skies across the clouds and then go all the way up and meet Jupiter himself. … Jupiter greeted him warmly and said, ‘You’re now with us.’ And he felt empowered by this dream, so he didn’t pay attention to his wife, and he did go meet the senators, and we know what happened. Her dream came true in detail.”

Both dreams were premonitory, Ribeiro said, and noted he could go on for hours with examples of such dreams, from every single culture. But things started to change in the past 500 years, as “capitalism and science intertwined” first in Europe, and then everywhere Europe had influence.

“This role that dreams had to serve as some sort of insight into the future, even though it was somewhat fuzzy, somewhat noisy, somewhat needed interpretation — but nevertheless, an insight into the future — was substituted by science,” Ribeiro said. 

People didn’t need dreams and premonitions; they needed mathematics and meteorology.

“Dreams were completely neglected, and became actually complete nonsense,” he said. 

This is why we know more about sleep than we do about dreams — sleep, after all, is a “solid, scientific object.” But, Ribeiro stressed, this was only the case in Western cultures. He cited various African cultures, Indiginous communities in North America, and the Xavante people of his native  Brazil, who all understand dreams as spiritual voyages.

“For example, voyages to meet your ancestors, in which you can go and ask for council, in which you can go and ask for inspiration, for new ideas, for new names, for new songs, for new strategies,” Ribeiro said — bridging the dreams looking back with dreams looking forward, with inspiration from those dreams having real-world impacts.

The Xavante were combating occupation efforts by the Portuguese and then Brazilian governments during the 19th and early 20th century; in the 1940s an Xavante elder had a dream.

“We cannot fight the white man,” the man advised, based on his dream. “We need to make peace with them. We need to become friends with them.”

So the Xavante shifted their strategy, Ribeiro said, and they are now among the strongest Native people in Brazil because of it.

Beyond the artistic, metaphysical and historical influences of dreams, Ribeiro said science itself owes inspiring breakthroughs to the phenomenon — from chemistry to the periodic table of elements. 

“It’s interesting to see that even though science didn’t have a place for dreams for a long period of time, dreams always had a place for science,” he said. “They were always helping science throughout.”

After all of this, Ribeiro asked, could there be a plausible, evolutionary narrative to make sense of dreams? Dreams — at least at this point in our understanding of physics, he said — can’t actually predict the future. 

“Therefore, we need to come up with — if not a new physical explanation for things — we need to come up with some biological explanation,” he said, and maybe then some sense can be made of dreams.

Going back 4 billion years, to the beginning of life on earth, all biological organisms have a circadian rhythm — from the ones with just a single cell, to humans.  

“This means that this alteration of day and night is perhaps the most prevalent selective pressure, which means that all forms of life had to adapt to this,” he said. “They could not go against it. They had to go with it.”

This is true from jellyfish to humans — and all animals experience what is called “quiet sleep.” But there’s another kind of sleep, called active sleep, otherwise known as the REM cycle. Research has shown that even flies might experience active sleep; Ribeiro’s own lab has proven that octopus do. But those REM cycles are short, very short, compared to that of humans, whose cycles last 40-50 minutes. (The REM cycle for a platypus, however, is more than an hour.)

At the beginning of mammalian evolution, Ribeiro said, the focus was on survival. So the notion that dreams somehow predict the future likely evolved during the period in which all cognitive powers were dedicated to surviving. It has to do with memory reactivation, he said, and when we sleep, that’s exactly what happens.

“Threat simulation theory  says dreams evolved as a way to warn our ancestors about impending threats,” Ribeiro said. “By reactivating memories of those threats, this allowed us, our ancestors, to prepare for the future. … Whatever is happening to you now has direct consequences for tomorrow. And if you dream about that, you are simulating outcomes.” 

So the Oracle of Night evolved under harsh, but simple conditions — kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. But in the modern world, “when you have thousands of little problems, the dreams reflect that. And they often don’t make sense as a whole.”

As history progresses, and as humans evolve, we begin to share our dreams.

“If mammals are the animals that have the most dreaming, we are the only animals, as far as we know, that can share our dreams,” Ribeiro said. “I also have a little bit of suspicion that this may not be true. … (But) what we know is we can do it. And there’s no reason to believe that our ancestors 300,000 years ago were not doing this. Very likely, they were getting together and sharing their dreams around the fire.”

This is what truly, as far as we know, sets us apart from other mammals. A pet dog may always know to expect their human home at 6 p.m., but only humans can close their eyes — Ribeiro had the audience try this — and picture their best friend from the age of 5, to immediately picturing their plans for Thanksgiving.

“We can travel within our memories towards the past, towards the future. We can come up with stuff that never existed, and this is so easy that we can still do this as we talk to people and drive a car somewhere,” he said.

This is because the same parts of the human brain responsible for dreams are responsible for daydreams; so, as prehistoric humans developed stronger relationships among their families and communities, and the concept of death and loss developed as well, dreams took on a new meaning.

“Imagine back in the Paleolithic era,” he said, “(and you dream of a dead relative). This can only be interpreted as evidence of that person being alive. And many people have proposed … this was the beginning of the belief in gods.”

Science shows that sleep is when the brain detoxifies and heals, improving cognition and ridding the organ of malformed proteins. But it’s only been in the last 12 years that science has been able to show that dreaming is beneficial for a person’s cognition. And this delay in science, and the fact that both sleep and dreaming have been neglected in Western culture, has “tremendous impacts at the ideological, social levels,” Ribeiro said.

“When you sleep poorly and dream poorly, you get all sorts of problems the next day,” he said. “You have cognitive problems; you can’t remember what you know. You can’t learn new things. You have bad emotional regulation. You become cranky, grumpy, difficult to deal with, and this is like a social snowball.”

Down the road, a lack of sleep and restorative dreams can lead to diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease and, eventually, Alzheimer’s disease.

“We know that we have a problem in the world,” Ribeiro said. “There’s more people dying from suicide than homicides. People are feeling despair. People are feeling disconnected. Depression is rampant, even in countries that are developed and rich.”

There have been endless technological advancements, Ribeiro noted, but humans can’t solve starvation, or pollution, let alone contemplate the universe. He argued that this paradox may be linked to humanity’s abandonment of sleep and dreams.

“If we knew how to sleep and dream properly and to use those dreams, to share our desires and fears, could we be more empathetic? Could we be more resourceful? Could we be more creative? Could we be more intelligent and understand that the problems that our ancestors had are solved?” he said. “… If we’re just able to increase our ability to love and to decrease our ability to compete, we may actually survive ourselves.”

Jim Richardson discusses light pollution, human connection to night sky

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Photos of cacti with a backdrop of a brilliant blue, a starry sky contrasted against aerial photos of nighttime Chicago sliced into a grid by streetlights — these are some of the images displayed by National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson on Monday, Aug. 1 to the Amphitheater audience at the first 10:45 a.m. lecture of Week Six “After Dark: The World of Nighttime.”

His lecture, titled “Vanishing Night,” focused on light pollution and the Milky Way. Richardson opened his discussion with the places and projects his job as a photographer has led him to.

In order to demonstrate his approach to photography, Richardson showed a photo of soil erosion on the Shaanxi Plateau in China. While the photo had little to do with the decreasing visibility of the Milky Way, it helped demonstrate his overall point.

Richardson photographed the Shaanxi Plateau because it has some of the worst soil erosion in the world, but when he asked the farmers working on their field, they said they did not have a problem with soil erosion.

“It’s crept up on them. It’s not that they can’t see it, but that they don’t know what they are seeing,” Richardson said.

He believes this is where a photographer can shed light.

Georgia Pressley / staff photographer Jim Richardson, photographer for National Geographic, speaks Monday in the Amphitheater. Richardson’s talk, opening the Week Six theme of “After Dark: The World of Nighttime,” was titled “The End of Night.”

“I’m in the seeing business, but I’m also in the knowing business,” he said.

A combination of facts and images drove Richardson’s lecture. While he admitted he is not a scientist, he has a bit of expertise on the disappearing night sky because he spent time photographing the subject for National Geographic.

Camera technology is at a point where photographers can showcase light pollution and the night sky, he said. So, with NatGeo, Richardson went to the Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. This location was chosen for a specific reason.

“It was the first of the dark sky parks in the world. And it really is magnificent,” he said. “There is a scale for this stuff, the Bortle scale.” 

The Bortle scale in one of the darkest skies in the world will show “such darkness that the Milky Way will cast a visible shadow.”

With the help of a park ranger to light up the underside of a natural rock bridge, Richardson took his first series of dark sky photos, capturing the brownish red rock bridge against the night sky speckled with white.

The photo taken there became the lead picture of the NatGeo cover story, “Our Vanishing Night,” which was published in November 2008.

“I was convinced that what we first had to understand was not the problem, but the loss of the splendor; the loss of the night sky; the loss of what has been, throughout our humanity, this wonderful heritage, this constant companion, this wonderful, wonderful place — our galaxy — and we live out there,” he said.

Richardson shared that when it is truly dark out and the Milky Way is visible, looking at the southern end of the galaxy, toward the center, is where the black hole of our galaxy is.

“That big super massive black hole that drives all of this, that emits these gravity waves that cause the crest of the waves of star formation — it’s a marvelous process, and we are not just inhabitants of it,” he said. “We’re part of that process. It’s an incredible thing.”

Richardson then shifted the audience’s focus to how the Earth looks from space, with bright splatters of light pollution across the globe, specifically in areas like the Eastern United States, Western Europe and India.

He explained that this radical shift in how our world looks from space has occurred in just over 140 years since Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. This portion of time is relatively small, and these changes happened quite rapidly.

“To a large degree, it’s a population map, isn’t it?” Richardson asked. “Except, conspicuously, from Africa. Because, not only is it a map of population, it’s a map of GDP — gross domestic product. Curiously, it’s also a map of paved roads. You have more light pollution where you have more paved roads.”

During Richardson’s photographic journey for this night sky project, he traveled to Burkina Faso in West Africa. There, he photographed people around a campfire with the vibrant night sky above them.

“For much of our existence here on planet Earth, this was our world. This was our world, you know? Sitting around the fire at night, the stories going back and forth, stories being projected onto the planets, stories being projected onto the constellations,” he said. “(The sky was) our constant partner, part of our heritage, how we think, how we react, how we commune with our families and our clans and all of that — that wonder that we feel when we sit there and look up at a pristine, beautiful night sky and contemplate the universe.”

He accompanied this with a photo of a man in Tanzania sitting on the ground and gazing up at the sky.

Richardson said people were created from stars, and if light pollution causes the connection to be lost between people and the night sky, the connection to our beginning is also lost. 

“All the atoms in our bodies formed within the hearts of stars,” he said. “It’s the only place you can make complex atoms. So, we are not just the observers. We are the participants in this great journey. And I think it’s worthwhile for us to consider with our knowledge, with what we know, how we think about the night.”

Richardson said that of the children born today, 80% will never see the Milky Way.

Light pollution is particularly rampant in cities, he explained, showing pictures of Central Park in New York City lit up at night, as well as photos of Denver and Chicago — the latter of which became the cover of the National Geographic issue that featured Richardson’s photos of the disappearing night sky. 

In some places, the lights are so bright at night that they have earned the term “sky glow.” When Richardson photographed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the lights shining up at the arch were so bright they cast a shadow from the arch onto the clouds overhead.

Cities are not the only places that have a light pollution problem, Richardson pointed out, pulling up photos of Liberal, Kansas, which has a population of less than 20,000.

“You get this sense of light trespass,” he said.

Richardson addressed the question of light pollution’s definition and effect by listing the tangible issues of light pollution. To begin, he said, it disrupts the circadian rhythms of humans, suppresses the production of melatonin, and has even been found to cause breast cancer.

His example of this was his photo of a taxi’s rearview mirror, showing the reflection of the tired eyes of a man.

“It looks pretty much like that,” Richardson said. “Harder to see. Harder for me to photograph, but that one kind of got to it.”

The impacts on nature are also significant. He gave examples of how migratory patterns of birds, the eating patterns of bats, and firefly mating are disrupted because of light pollution.

Tall buildings with bright lights frequently cause birds to fly into them and, subsequently, die. Toronto resident, Brian Armstrong, noticed an injured bird and now patrols the streets of Toronto to try to save the birds that have mistakenly flown into the buildings.

The birds he can’t save, he collects for the Fatal Light Awareness Program, which creates a display of all the birds that died flying into buildings.

“It was one of the most profoundly affecting things I saw,” Richardson said. “All these birds, lying out there.”

Light pollution also leads to the death of the loggerhead turtles, which frequently breed in Juno Beach, Florida. The endangered turtles return to within 100 yards of where they were born to lay their own eggs.

“Often they come back to nest, to find that somebody has built a new house or a new high-rise tower that’s all lit up,” Richardson said.

This is not where the disruption ends. Once the loggerhead eggs hatch, Richardson explained, they are confused by the lights and head toward them rather than toward the ocean where they can swim away. When they move to the light, they often find themselves on highways where they could be run over by cars.

Even with all of the effects on nature, Richardson believes the light pollution problem is not unsolvable.

“There’s one big cure: Turn the lights down,” he said. “We can do all the technological things we want. But essentially, we have to figure out a way to live with the lights turned down a little bit.”

To experience a town where all the lights were truly turned off, Richardson returned home to Cuba, Kansas. On the Amp’s screens, he contrasted two photos: the first with the streetlights on and the second with all the lights off. The difference was not only visible in the sky, but in all the people gazing up at the stars.

Richardson also gave the example of Harmony, Florida, which is part of the International Dark Sky Association.

“They use these lamp shades in which no light goes up, and light goes down where you want it — where you’re walking at night,” he said. “But, you notice the houses back there? It’s not even lighting up the tops of the houses. So, light where you want it.”

Another photo Richardson took in Harmony has herons in the foreground and large homes in the background.

“What it means is the sandhill cranes can coexist with very nice housing,” he said. “That’s an impressive thing to me, that it’s not necessarily an either/or kind of situation.”

The International Dark Sky Association has also worked to create 195 dark sky parks, Richardson shared, from New Zealand to the United Kingdom, and even with many in the United States.

He finished his lecture with a call to action.

“I’ll also implore you that when the next zoning commission comes up in your town, when people are discussing street lighting or new developments or anything like this, you go,” Richardson said. “You go and raise your voice at some level to make intelligent decisions about how we can live morally in a world of limits and be happy doing it.”

From doom, gloom to hope: Lee Drutman outlines potential of multi-party system

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Lee Drutman’s closing lecture of the Week Five Chautauqua Lecture Series theme on “The Vote and Democracy” was titled “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.” And so he offered the audience “a little doom, a little gloom,” but “mostly a note of hope and a sense of possibility, because I do think our democracy can renew and innovate.”

In fact, America could be on the verge of that renewal and innovation, precisely because it’s in a doom-and-gloom moment, Drutman said. Drutman is a political scientist and advocate for both ranked-choice voting in the United States, and a multi-party system: the idea that the country needs strong third, fourth, or even fifth parties on the ballots. He’s a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America, and the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multi-Party Democracy in America. 

He spoke Friday, July 29, in the Amphitheater, sharing his “big idea” for representative democracy. Within his big idea is four takeaways that he shared with Chautauqua. 

“First, I want to convince you that though there are many problems, at the core is the hyperpolarized two-party system that keeps us divided and angry, and the winner-take-all electoral system that supports and preserves this hyperpolarized two-party system,” he said.

Dave munch / photo editor Drutman’s lecture closed the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Five theme of “The Vote and Democracy.”

Second, he wanted to convince his audience that, among proposed solutions, the one with the highest chance of success is this move to a proportional, multi-party democracy. And it doesn’t require a constitutional amendment — “just ordinary legislation.” 

“Third, I want to convince you that reform is indeed possible, and that we are in a moment in which big things are possible,” Drutman said.

Finally, he wanted to hammer home that this reform isn’t just possible, but urgent and necessary.

“American democracy has had a long history, and it’s a history of ups and downs,” he said. “… We’ve done this before, and in each era, there’s a pattern of deep dissatisfaction with the unfairness and corruption of existing rules that gave way to periods of reinvention and reinvigoration. … The fundamental bargain of American democracy adapted to changing societal values and moral expectations about how modern democracy ought to live up to its core values.”

Eras of reform — the Revolutionary War, the expansion of the franchise in the 1830s, the progressive era of the early 1900s, to the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Movement — happen about every 60 years. So, Drutman said, we’re right on schedule in 2022.

“But the question is, can we do it again?” he asked. “And can we learn from the mistakes of the past, or are we doomed?”

Drutman took the Amp back to the last era of reinvention in America — the 1960s.

 “Most politics was local,” he said. “National parties were more like these loose labels whose main function was really to come together every four years to say who should run for president. … There’s a famous quip from President Eisenhower in 1950: ‘There’s not one Republican Party. There’s 48 Republican Parties.’ ”

At the time, there were 48 states. The same quip could apply to the Democratic Party then, too. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement shifted political relationships, and for a moment in the 1970s, Drutman said, people thought the era of partisan politics was over. 

But “beneath the surface, what was happening was that the parties were realigning,” he said. “… And the focus of Washington was shifting. Washington was becoming the arbiter of cultural values as these issues really came to the center of politics, … and parties became more nationalized.”

Citizens were no longer voting for candidates, but for the parties. As local media declined in the 1990s, more attention focused on national politics, and elections — even local elections — became referendums on national issues. 

Those years of shifting political relationships, from the 1960s to the 1980s, meant that in those years, American politics “really operated more like a four-party system, with liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, along with conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats,” Drutman said.

But as parties drew clearer lines on social and cultural issues, those liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats began to disappear. Geography has something to do with it, tied to diversity, as America becomes more multicultural and multiethnic, Drutman said. It became easier to see the other party and “distant and different, and things that are distant and different become more scary, more threatening. The more the other side becomes a threat, the worse it would be if they won.”

That fear just feeds more fear, with harder fights and higher stakes. 

“Yet for all the fighting and the fear that the other side is going to take over and do some horrible thing, the other side never seems to amass quite enough power to actually do all that much for all that long,” Drutman said. “Instead, what we’ve had over the last 30 years is this constant swing, back and forth. … Stakes keep rising. Scorched-earth policy, scorched-earth rhetoric keeps rising. No compromises. Gridlock.”

This, he said, is the two-party doom loop.

“Yes, it’s true — we’ve had Democrats and Republicans for 160 years now, but something is fundamentally different today,” Drutman said. For one, politics are more nationalized than ever, and the two prominent parties are “completely, geographically, non-overlapping parties.”

Americans’ political conflicts have been flattened, with Democrats and Republicans “separated by geography, culture, identity and, most dangerous of all, different facts. Just fundamentally different realities.”

The Founding Fathers knew their history, Drutman said, and they knew that the few democracies and republics that had existed before America had fallen into civil wars. 

“They thought they had worked out this solution, which was this complex system of shared powers and checks and balances,” he said. “… Madison lays out in Federalist Paper No. 10 this idea that coalitions should be fluid. There’s going to be factions. … But you can prevent tyranny and dominance and this binary by trying to make it harder for the factions to be consistent.”

The alternative to politics without parties, however, is “incoherent chaos,” he said, and ultimately a descent into authoritarianism.

Having laid out the problem, he moved to the solution — a multi-party democracy. There are other counterarguments and ideas, Drutman noted, but his proposition is to change the way Americans vote, getting rid of single-member districts which limit choices to the two parties. 

He proposed proportional, multi-member districts, with up to five elected representatives per district, allocated proportionally. Around the world, in most democratic countries, “it’s a norm, frankly. … The U.S. is really the only large democracy that has two political parties.”

Drutman is not proposing what Israel does, for example, with the whole country as one electoral district. But there’s a sweet spot, of those five-member districts, that he thinks would pair nicely with increasing the size of the House of Representatives.

This system could do more than just solve the binary, zero-sum game the U.S. finds itself in; it could also alleviate the power of gerrymandering, which he said could mean “every vote matters equally.” And with more parties and more options, he said, voter turnout is higher among those who don’t align with either of the two major parties.

“There’s some good, decent people who would like to have a party that is conservative, but not anti-democracy,” Drutman said. “But without a multi-party system, where is that party going to come from? And that party is essential to the future of our democracy.”

Change happens slowly, and then all at once; he reminded the audience that many ideas have been fringe ideas in the history of American politics, and now is “a moment of transformation.”

“We’ve got to figure out how to build something new, that takes the best principles of American democracy and updates them for our modern era,” Drutman said. “Now, obviously changing how we vote is a big idea. And it’s really challenging to build new parties in our political system. … We’ve had a history of third parties that have failed because it’s really hard in a single-winner district (and) two-party system.”

There are promising steps being taken in the short-term, however. New York State has used fusion balloting, for example, allowing multiple ballot lines to endorse the same candidate.

“History doesn’t move in straight lines. History moves in waves. And the moments in which everybody’s feeling dark and pessimistic are the moments in which big ideas can take off,” Drutman said. “ … In these moments, somebody has to have a plan. Somebody has to have a vision. This is why it’s so important to have a vision for the future — any destruction to the status quo is going to feel risky, but whether we like it or not, it’s happening. It’s being done; it’s just a question of how, by whom, and with what goals in mind?”

That two-party doom loop he mentioned at the outset of his lecture “isn’t going to break on its own.”

“Democracy is a fragile system. … But I am seeing some energy that says we need bigger, more transformative change out there,” Drutman said. “The status quo is broken and we need to mobilize and organize. … Most progress always come when enough of us look at the world as it is and say, ‘enough already.’ ”

Americans are not “sleepwalkers fated for disaster,” he noted, because their political pessimism has done something important.

“It’s awakened us to where we might be headed if we don’t make big changes,” he said. “And the good news is that we’re here. We’re having this conversation. To me, this is a cause for optimism, and it’s a moment for leadership to take us out of the ravine. So enough with the pessimism. Let’s turn this mess around.”

Michael Li discusses gerrymandering, ‘thinking outside of the box’ in America

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Where the United States draws the line in election law has never been more important to the preservation of democracy — especially when it comes to representation, which Michael Li said is “the cornerstone of democracy.”

Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, tackled the multidimensional issue of gerrymandering Thursday, July 28, in the Amphitheater, discussing how redistricting has impacted politics and how it will continue to change in the future. His lecture was titled “The Fight Against Gerrymandering: How Are We Doing?” 

Li practiced law at Baker Botts in Dallas for 10 years before joining the Brennan Center, where he specializes in voter rights and redistricting. Author of a widely cited blog on redistricting, Li is a regular commentator on election law and has appeared on MSNBC, NPR and “PBS NewsHour.”  He has also written for publications like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today

As the fourth Chautauqua Lecture Series speaker for Week Five’s theme “The Vote and Democracy,” Li opened his lecture by drawing on a conversation he had with Tuesday’s 10:45 a.m. speaker Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity. 

On the front porch of the guest house on the grounds, Li asked Chavez if she was pessimistic or optimistic about the future of the United States, given the political and social strife afflicting the country — she responded that she was “worried.”

Li asked the audience the same question before telling them that his talk would offer both a hopeful and daunting perspective on voter rights.

He launched into his discussion of gerrymandering by reciting Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion on the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“He says, ‘Women are not without electoral or political power. It is noteworthy that the percentage of women who register to vote and cast ballots is consistently higher than the percentage of men who do so,’ ” Li said. “Now, there’s a lot that’s wrong with those statements. … At the heart of it is the idea that if you don’t like the laws that are passed by lawmakers, just vote them out.”

Alito’s insinuation that the people of the U.S. can choose what happens in their country, however, discounts the injustices gerrymandering has in creating a majority unreflective of the actual population.

In reading Alito’s opinion, Li thought of his home state Texas, which, in 2021, redrew maps that allowed Republicans to win the majority with only 44% of the vote, while Democrats had 56%. 

“That, in short, is not what democracy looks like,” Li said “… There is no more vivid illustration of why what Justice Alito says will work, won’t.”

In 2019, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to make partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional in Rucho v. Common Cause; but, the Court tabled the question. 

“They said it is a political question that we are not going to decide,” Li said. “When it did that, it has opened the door to partisan gerrymandering around the country, because now, as long as you can claim that you’re doing it for political purposes, even if it’s to target an opponent, even if it’s to benefit yourself, even if it is to benefit your party, that’s OK.”

The Rucho decision made not only a statement on politics, but on discrimination.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Rucho has opened the door not only to political discrimination,” Li said, “but also to racial discrimination, if the courts are not willing to dig deeply and try to separate out when the motive is racial and when it is political.”

Li connected the 2019 decision to the American Revolution and struggle for representation in British Parliament. 

“Representation is important, and it’s important that the bodies that make our laws and decisions for us should look like us,” Li said. “That just doesn’t happen if you put the thumb on the scale in the way that has happened in recent years.”

To understand this imbalance, and redistricting in its entirety, Li briefed the audience on the dynamics of national politics in the last decade. 

The first aspect he highlighted was that the rate of population growth is the slowest it has been since the Great Depression, climbing only 7.4% in the last decade. That growth is most prevalent in the South and the West, home to 40% of all Americans. 

Population growth, in combination with racial demographics, affects redistricting.

The population growth of Black Americans increased by 2.5 million people in the last 10 years, and the South specifically has witnessed this growth with two-thirds of that increase living in the South. The South’s growth also increased with half of all immigrants who have come to the U.S. in the last year settling there.

Another facet of national, racial demographics Li touched on was that for the first time in the last decade, the white population in the United States fell. 

“This is a major driver of a lot of what is happening both in redistricting and in terms of our country’s politics,” Li said. “There’s no question that demographic anxiety lies at the heart of a lot of what I’m going to talk about today.”

The last piece of Li’s briefing discussed the people who draw the maps themselves. In 2011, Republicans controlled 187 congressional seats, as opposed to Democrats’ 75 seats. Republicans “maximized their advantages” and made it hard for Democrats to win back control. 

“Had Donald Trump not been elected and had there not been sort of the suburban shifts that followed his election, it’s likely that the House would have remained Republican all of last decade,” Li said. 

Having “set the table” for the discussion on gerrymandering, Li went on to define redistricting through the lens of seven specific examples. 

First, he said that Democrats did fairly well in the last decade, now on a path to the majority in future years. In 2020, President Joe Biden won 197 Democratic seats by more than 8 points and won 30 seats by less than 8 points. 

“Democrats drew maps in a way that suggests that they thought that the Biden coalition of recent years — the coalition of women and younger voters and voters of color and suburban, college-educated women — would hold together, largely,” Li said. “That’s a very optimistic version of the country. Republicans didn’t — so Democrats drew seats that were a lot more like 54%, 53%. This is good enough for us. Republicans drew seats that were a little bit safer than that.” 

The maps, however, are still “wildly skewed,” which was Li’s second point. In the last decade, nine states had maps initially passed at the legislature that were considered significant partisan gerrymanders.  

The third: Competitive districts are disappearing. Li again pointed to Texas to illustrate this phenomenon. 

“It used to be in Texas that Republicans won, or Donald Trump won 11 districts by 15 or more points,” Li said. “After redistricting, he wins 21, so it almost doubles. Republicans only have 24 seats in Texas. 21 out of the 24 seats they have are super-safe districts that Donald Trump won by 15 or more points, and that provides a lot of insurance — both against demographic change and political shifts.”

Denton County, Texas, further demonstrates this shift. Situated in the 26th congressional district, Denton County is home to a high-tech industry and college-educated women who are typically left-leaning. The area was sectioned off to join a district with the Texas panhandle, 700 miles away. This maneuver joined the rural suburbs of Texas with an urban area in contoured ways to control majority vote.

“If you’re scared of both people of color and of college-educated white women, there’s only so much you can do, and you have to end up doing something like this,” Li said, motioning to the gerrymandered map of Denton above him.  

On a more positive note, the fourth example offered hope for the future, and lies in state courts. This decade, state courts in New York, Maryland, North Carolina and Ohio have struck down gerrymanders. 

“Increasingly, people are looking to state courts and to state constitutions as a possible remedy for gerrymandering,” Li said. “I think that state courts are oftentimes ignored in vain and state constitutions are ignored in vain. … There’s a rich state constitutional tradition … to focus only on federal courts, and that’s really not where all the action is at.”

With the rising power of the state courts comes a counterattack. For example, Republicans wanted to impeach Maureen O’Conner, a Republican Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, after she struck down partisan gerrymanders.  

“State courts are playing a bigger role, but there’s also push back from state courts,” Li said. “Also, watch for judicial elections in lots of these states to be highly, highly polarized going forward.” 

 Li also brought up the independent state legislature theory, which asserts that only Congress can override a state law relating to federal courts or redistricting, not the state itself. When this doctrine — or theory, depending on who one asks — was raised after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s congressional map in 2018, the case was taken to the Supreme Court. Alito immediately denied it. 

The general attitude toward the theory is now changing. 

“Flash forward just four years, and you have a majority of the court deciding to hear a case out of North Carolina, deciding whether the North Carolina Supreme Court has the power to strike down a congressional map for violating the North Carolina Constitution,” Li said. “At least four justices agreed to hear that case, and there seems to be a path to a majority, and that’s really worrying because state courts are jumping into the equation, and now the U.S. Supreme Court could take them out.”

Li then moved to discuss the sixth example, redistricting reforms and their successes and limitations, by talking about the stark differences in Michigan and Ohio. 

In 2016, volunteers in Michigan created an independent commission aimed to eliminate gerrymandering. The commission received half a million signatures and passed with 60% of the blue vote. Michigan, which was previously one of the worst gerrymandered states in the country, is now among the least gerrymandered states. 

By contrast, Ohio adopted a reform that left line drawing in the hands of the elected officials. 

“While courts in Ohio can strike down a map, they can’t put in place a new map,” Li said. “They can only send it back to the people who drew the last gerrymandered map and say, ‘Fix this.’ You would think the Court telling you to fix this would cause you to fix it. That has not happened in Ohio, either at the congressional level or the legislative level.” 

The seventh and last point Li included was that above all, gerrymandering creates a disappointing cycle for people of color. 

“There is some good news for our communities of color in electoral politics around the country, which sometimes I don’t think we do enough to acknowledge,” Li said. “That is, that people of color are increasingly winning in districts where the minority share of the population is not particularly high.”

Alabama is a state with prevalent racial discrimination drawn into the electoral districts. Li said that there is only one district in which Black voters enjoy political success, and the rest ignore the “Black belt” of voters at the bottom of the state. 

“You see the band of Black voters stretching across Alabama? That’s the Black belt,” Li said, pointing to his slides. “That is the old cotton belt of Alabama that has hundreds of years of shared history, common challenges, common needs. In a lot of ways, the idea that the Black belt is divided up among four different districts is crazy, because everybody agrees what the Black belt is. Everybody understands that it has a shared history that stretches back, again, hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Li said that as gerrymandering persists, the effective use of the Voting Rights Act dwindles. 

“I think really the challenge for us is going to be, increasingly with this Court, to think outside the box, and to think about other alternatives,” Li said. “ … There’s never really been a successful multi-racial democracy where there isn’t a dominant group, and that’s a challenge for us. How do we do that? I think it’s important for us to be prepared to think outside the box, because that is a very dark place that we are in.”

To conclude his lecture, Li noted that the original First Amendment the founders drafted would have created a Congress different from what was actually made, one with far more seats and members. Li discussed this original amendment as a way to say that “we should not, at this moment, be afraid to think outside the box.”

“It is easy to curl up in a ball sometimes and think all is lost,” Li said. “But at this moment, we should be brave like the founding generation was and we should, in the words of Scripture, ‘fear not,’ because if we’re going to keep our country, it’s up to us to redefine it. Every generation gets to define anew, and that is our challenge, our task.”

Jelani Cobb analyzes history of voting rights, ‘peaceful transitions of power’

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Right off the bat, American democracy is not playing the same softball game it was back in 1776, as Jelani Cobb, historian, Peabody Award winner, incoming dean of Columbia Journalism School and staff writer for The New Yorker outlined in his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, July 27, in the Amphitheater as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series.

Speaking to the theme of “The Vote and Democracy,” Cobb opened his lecture with a few sports metaphors and questions, asking the audience if they remember the first time they played softball or baseball, or boxed, against a left-handed person.

Cobb, a southpaw himself, said the fundamentals of sports are fairly easy to learn until going up against a left-handed person. Then everything that was up was down, Cobb said, and he takes a particular pride in hearing right-handed people groan at this experience.

“All the rules you learned that apply in one way is the exact opposite that you have to do when you play against a left-handed person,” Cobb said. “Our society, our institution, the fundamental bulwarks of our democracy are playing against a left-hander for the first time.”

America is attempting to understand the patterns, policies and behaviors that are the inverse of the practices that originally led to a fully functioning democracy. Cobb highlighted the events of Jan. 6, 2021, as an example of this, along with the subsequent investigation and hearing.

“It’s possible amid the crush of information that we encounter in any given day, and the speed of events locally, nationally, internationally, globally, it’s possible to lose sight of just how astounding a departure the events of Jan. 6, 2021, were,” Cobb said.

George Washington is the only non-partisan president America has had. Federalist John Adams term ended and in 1800 Thomas Jefferson entered as a Democratic Republican, and for the next 220 years there was a “chain of peaceful transfers of powers.”

Cobb’s first foundational memory is his father taking him along to vote in the 1976 presidential election when he was 6. At first, he didn’t realize why his father took him, but he recognized later on that his father wanted “to instill in me at an early age the importance of not only exercising the right to the franchise, but the importance of having the rights to the franchise.”

If his father attempted to vote in his youth, in his home state of Georgia, he would have been subject to severe injuries, even death. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law when there were about 1,000 African Americans who held office in the United States. Cobb said this number has massively increased since then.

Eight weeks after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act — also known as the Hart-Celler Act — into law, voiding the quota system. The quota system, created through the Immigration Act of 1924, was a xenophobic reaction in an attempt to preserve U.S. homogeneity. It favored northern and Western European immigrants, while essentially ending all immigration from Asian countries. 

“What that did was strip away the old racist quota system. … That’s not my judgment, that was the judgment of the people who wrote the law,” Cobb said. 

With the Hart-Cellar Act, immigration began to increase from countries outside of northern and Western Europe.

“We began to see immigration from places like India and Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa — places people would have had a great difficulty coming into this country as immigrants prior to this,” Cobb said.

The reverberation has echoed throughout America ever since these laws were passed, but Cobb said to understand how “potent this idea of maintaining a largely white electorate has been,” people need to dive even further back in American history.

“If we go back to 1798 in the course of the undeclared war that the United States was fighting with France, President John Adams and the federalists were also keeping an eye on Thomas Jefferson,” Cobb said, “who they thought would be formidable in the election of 1800. And they passed a law called the Alien Act of 1978.”

The principles attached to this policy, formally known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, changed the five years of residency necessary to become a citizen to 14 years of U.S. residency. In response to this, Cobb said Jefferson and Madison were so furious they drafted two propositions called interposition and nullification, otherwise known as state’s rights.

“(Jefferson and Madison) argue that states have the right to nullify legislation that imposes on the rights of their citizens,” Cobb said. “The federalists know that Thomas Jefferson is particularly popular with immigrant voters, and that if they can prevent more people from becoming eligible voters, they may have a chance of preventing him from becoming the next president.”

Then, in 1800, Jefferson won the election and Cobb said there is a “peaceful transition of power, and we move on.” Cobb said politics played out similarly over the course of the 19th century, but then from 1861 to 1865, almost 700,000 people died in the Civil War.

“About 12 times the number of Americans who died in Vietnam. Almost double the number of Americans who died in World War II,” Cobb said. “By far our bloodiest conflict, fought over the questions of ‘Who will belong?’ ‘Who qualifies as a human being?’ Will it be possible?’ and ‘’Will it be legal to own other human beings?’ ”

All of these questions were resolved by the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation struck down slavery, and Cobb said Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party had one overriding concern. 

“The Confederates largely centered on, at that time in the Democratic Party, not being able to regain the level of political power they had prior to the war,” Cobb said.

That power came from the Three-fifths Compromise, which counted each enslaved person as three-fifths of a vote in a congressional apportionment. Cobb said this allowed white, Southern slave owners to have a disproportionate amount of power, and Republicans were “concerned if they ever regain the level of power they had in 1860, they will rip the country in half again.”

Before Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he pondered the situation, but never came to a conclusion. Lincoln was trying to figure out how to give the vote to formerly enslaved men, something he had opposed seven years prior in debates with Stephen A. Douglas.

“He reasons, correctly, that if Black people are given the right to vote, they are not going to vote for the candidates who also get the support of their former slave masters,” Cobb said. “They will vote for the Republican Party — that Black people will be a counter balance to the power of the white Confederacy.”

After Lincoln’s assassination, the 15th Amendment was ratified, giving the right to vote to all men, but not women. Due to the amount of white men who died in the Civil War though, there were more white women in the South than men. 

“An astounding change takes place in American politics (and) in American government,” Cobb said. “Within a few short years, we see more than 600 African Americans, many of them former slaves, elected to political office throughout the South.”

Cobb said these political figures sought progressive change right away, but these rights were swept away as quickly as they came due to Jim Crow laws and segregation over the next 100 years. In March 1965, at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech.

“It’s not one of his better-known speeches, but it is one of his most fascinating and insightful,” Cobb said. “He gives a speech explaining why they had to fight for the right to vote in 1965, almost a full century after the 15th Amendment had granted the right to vote to African Americans.”

In this speech, King talked about the counter-revolution that reinforced the laws that catered to the wealthy, white slave owners. This is when America saw lynching, violence, intimidation and other “blatantly unconstitutional” acts against Black people.

“In response, the Southerner Lyndon B. Johnson gives a speech, which he concludes with the words ‘We shall overcome,’ and announces he will sign voting rights legislation,” Cobb said. “That happened in 1965. Five months later, President Johnson signs that legislation (and) it has this momentous impact.”

Over the years, the alignment between voter rights and immigration has become more explicit, Cobb said. The Voting Rights Act was focused solely on enfranchising Black Americans, but over the course of history amendments have been added to protect Indigenous people.

Language barriers are also an issue that has been addressed, Cobb said; the language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act say that if over 1% of the population speaks any one language, the voting centers have to provide valid materials available in that language.

“An example of this is, in the last mayoral election in New York City, I took my daughter with me,” Cobb said. “My daughter is just about the age I was when my father took me to vote in that presidential election.”

Reaching this full circle moment, Cobb took his daughter through every step of his personal voting process. He told her why he made certain decisions, who he was going to vote for and why.

“I let her cast the ballot, and then I took her for candy,” Cobb said. “I’m old enough to have realized that some portion of good parenting involves manipulation.”

Over time, the Voting Rights Act “grows to become a fundamental bulwark of inclusion in American democracy,” Cobb said, “but there are two dynamics that change the course of this.”

“This first happens in 2008 with the stunning, really unpredictable rise and election of the first Black president of the United States,” Cobb said. 

Although electing Barack Obama as president in 2008 was a huge milestone, Cobb said the fight for equal voting rights is never-ending.

Cobb once interviewed former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. about Shelby County v. Holder, and the decision that the Voting Rights Act places an unfair burden on Southern States — specifically with regard to the mandate that historically discriminatory juris­dic­tions receive court approval before changing any voting procedures.

“Never mind the fact that there had been Southern counties … which had as recently as a few years earlier had laws struck down for disproportionately disadvantaging Black voters,” Cobb said.

Now, there is legislation preventing voter fraud, which makes it harder for people, mainly minorities, in particular counties to vote, he said. The rise of voter ID requirements and changing voter procedures, including how long people have to wait to vote, are examples of this; Cobb saw this firsthand. 

“I lived in Georgia during these years,” Cobb said. “I remember witnessing the lengthening lines in communities where you would go out and vote.”

Cobb then pivoted to more recent events, including Donald Trump’s presidential election in 2016. Trump famously said that he lost the popular vote because between 3 and 5 million people — whom he referred to as illegal immigrants —  had voted in the state of California.

“It was specifically a canard that frightened people with the prospect that 3 to 5 million people not in the country legally insinuated themselves into the electorate, playing into that antique American fear,” Cobb said.

Yet voter fraud is rare, he said, and hardly enough to justify the impositions of the regime alleging there is no more voter fraud.

“I was covering a story about an election, and one of the things you find about covering local politics … is that the lower you go on the political scale, the less elegant the lies people tell you,” Cobb said.

Cobb said the landscape America finds itself in is one of weaponized lies, with the ability to mobilize people, citing the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. He said the Capitol has a particular metaphorical history.

“We know it was constructed in part by slave labor, but the original dome of the Capitol, which was made of wood, rotted immediately and over the course of the Civil War,” Cobb said. “Abraham Lincoln’s government oversaw the reconstruction of the Capitol dome, and that reconstruction became a metaphor for the attempt to hold the country together.”

The opposite metaphor was witnessed Jan. 6, 2021, when thousands of protesters broke through and stormed the Capitol.

“This is a dire crisis,” he said. “So what do we do here?”

Cobb said two key pieces of legislation — the Save Democracy Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — are stalled in the Senate because of the refusal of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to reform the filibuster.

“So it falls to us. It falls to us to pressure people,” Cobb said. “It falls to us to support candidates who are in favor of protecting American democracy.”

To close his lecture, Cobb gave a synopsis of the November 2020 election and the role the country thought Georgia was going to play, but didn’t. Now, Black voters are being asked to do exactly what the Republican Party asked Black voters to do in 1870: Nullify the threat of white supremacy destroying democracy.

“That is the responsibility that confront us. That is the work that is in our hands,” Cobb said. “It’s our responsibility to ensure that this country continues to move as diligently as possible in the direction of democracy, not autocracy. History is watching.”

Linda Chavez discusses rebuilding trust in U.S. democracy

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When Linda Chavez was running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 1986, the campaign trail brought her to Cumberland, Maryland — a small city in the western part of the state — where she was meeting with local business leaders and her primary opponent, a CEO out of Baltimore who wore a pinstripe suit to the event. Chavez was also dressed in a “proper little suit,” but there was one problem: After a hiking trip, her family had taken her high heels home with them, leaving her nothing but the cowboy boots she’d worn the day prior.

Chavez, who has been honored by the Library of Congress as a Living Legend, opened her lecture Tuesday, July 26, in the Amphitheater with this anecdote, because history rhymed that day for her: After a 10-day trip to Europe she was again left without her heels, abandoned in an Albanian hotel. So, she took the Amp stage in her tennis shoes and hoped that, like the cowboy boots all those years ago, they would bring her luck.

A widely published opinion columnist, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, an advisory board member for Republicans For Voting Rights, former U.S. Expert to the U.N. Sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, and staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Chavez joined the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Five theme on “The Vote and Democracy” with a question: “How Do We Protect Democracy in a Divided America?”

Chavez first spoke at Chautauqua in 1996 on issues of media bias, and nearly 30 years later, those issues are still a problem — especially when one looks at polls she cited that show 70% of Republican voters still believe that the 2020 election was stolen.

“There’s a reason they believe that,” she said: President Donald Trump’s ability to convince his voters that he, simply, did not lose.

“But in a democracy, we have to actually believe that our elections are free and fair,” Chavez said. “Because if we don’t, then the whole house of cards collapses. … The reason I am so worried is that I think that we have, in fact, lost a measure of that trust, and it is absolutely vital that we begin to rebuild that.”

Chavez pointed to America’s many divides — self-segregation, differences both political and geographical, a decline in faith and worship and, perhaps most of all, the same issues she sounded the alarm on in 1996 from the same stage: media bias and echo chambers.

“The most important change that’s taken place is the change in where we get our information from,” she said. “We don’t read the same newspapers, if we read newspapers at all. We don’t watch the same television programs, either for entertainment or for news. We don’t get information necessarily from organized outlets like newspapers or television broadcasts or the radio. We get it often from the internet, and we get it filtered by algorithms that are set up to steer us to people with whom we agree, so that we never hear what people who disagree with us have to say in a respectful fashion. We have no common reference point.”

Chavez said she grew up in a time when the news was trusted. Walter Cronkite was a mainstay, and Americans had a “common body of information, a common set of facts.” Interpreting those facts could lead to disagreement, but, facts were facts.

Algorithms and a lack of fact-checkers online has led to an erosion of trust, Chavez said, and “the problem is that a democracy absolutely requires the trust of the people who are involved in that democracy to function.” 

The media landscape is at fault, too, with how Big Money has altered the way outlets operate. Chavez used the example of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings, some of which have aired in primetime on major networks as a public service, while Fox News opted instead to not broadcast the hearings.

“There’s a very good reason why: It’s not a money-maker for them,” Chavez said. “… Those primetime shows (on Fox) bring in big bucks. … People think, ‘Well, of course, it’s the politics of Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch,’ … but Murdoch also owns the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and I think that they’ve been very hard-hitting not only in their coverage, but in their editorials against what happened in 2020.”

So, Chavez asked, what happened in 2020 that changed? The election was not close, but there was confusion because states were shifting how citizens could vote during the pandemic. Trump spent much of the election spreading mistrust over that confusion, Chavez said, but the biggest factor cementing distrust came after the votes were counted.

“For the very first time in U.S. history, a man who was defeated at the polls absolutely refused to concede,” she said. “This was very striking. … So we had a central lie that fomented the notion that the election had been stolen. Well, we saw what happened, what the result of that lie was.”

Chavez called the Jan. 6 insurrection “the most devastating moment of my political life,” as she watched “this symbol of American democracy, this symbol of freedom being physically attacked, with police officers being beaten, with the whole building being desecrated by a mob.”

It was a mob that Trump summoned, incited and sent, Chavez said, echoing the words of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. And by Jan. 6, Chavez had “had it with my party.” She changed her voter registration to “unaffiliated.”

As of Tuesday, the Jan. 6 Committee had held eight hearings, and Chavez said she had watched “every single minute of it.” An informal poll of her Chautauqua audience indicated that most had watched all, or most, of the hearings. That impressed her.

“We are not the majority. Sixty-two percent of Americans aren’t watching and haven’t watched at all,” she said. “And even those who are watching, at least part time, only 11% say they have watched most or all of those hearings. Only 25% of nominal Republicans have bothered to watch at all.”

Chavez said she wanted to focus on these numbers because the hearings have outlined “a long, complicated conspiracy to commit a coup — a conspiracy that has taken place on multiple fronts,” including the state courts and governments. As she listed developments on these various fronts, Chavez recounted voting fraud investigations in Georgia, considerations in the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to seize voting machines, and cases of fraudulent votes cast for Trump.

“What does all that mean for the future?” she asked. “… The fact is, we can survive this, but it won’t be easy.”

Chavez sees a bright spot in the bipartisan effort to reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887, and the contemplation among congresspeople to require one-fifth of the chamber vote to object to the counting and certifying of votes before holding any discussion of a debate on merits. That is an extremely important change, she said, but she worries about other Republican efforts to change the vote counting system, and to place individuals in election offices who believe that the 2020 vote was stolen.

Also worrisome for her is the emphasis on access in HR1, the For the People Act.

“I want every person who’s eligible to vote to be able to vote and cast that vote in a safe and secure way,” Chavez said. “But the problem is not so much the casting of votes. It is, as I say, the counting of those votes and what role that secretaries of state or other election officials will have in determining whether or not the votes in various jurisdictions are going to be counted.”

With Jan. 6 Committee hearings extending to the end of summer 2022, and possibly beyond, Chavez noted that “we don’t know yet exactly what’s going to happen.” She pointed to the length of the hearings indicating the involvement of people with integrity — not household names like Rudy Giuliani, but the Cassidy Hutchinsons of the world from the previous administration who are “upstanding members of the Republican Party” and now have the opportunity for their voices to be heard.

Chavez does think criminal indictments will be handed down as a result of the Jan. 6 Committee report, when it does come. She just doesn’t think it will be of Trump — but of what she called “phony electors appointed in the aftermath of the election” certifying the vote had gone to Trump, and of White House administrators who conceived of a stolen election to begin with.

The true challenge, after all of this: How do we restore trust in a democracy?

“It is by civic engagement, it is by going back to your communities (and) getting involved that we’re going to see this change. It’s by talking to your neighbors. Don’t just talk to your neighbors who you agree with. Reach out to people that you maybe haven’t agreed with in the last five years,” Chavez said. “We have to learn to trust each other again. We have to learn to try to convince people with words, not by bullying, … not by name calling. We have to convince people with the power of our ideas.”

One day, Chavez said, she looks forward to rejoining the Republican Party. She still identifies with many of the party’s issues and policies, and knows that democracy depends on a two-party system. 

“I would love to be able to vote for a Republican in 2024, but I’m not going to vote for Donald Trump, and I’m not going to vote for a whole lot of others who seem to be rushing to embrace him,” she said. 

She voted for Joe Biden in 2020 — the first time she’d voted Democrat in a presidential election since casting her first-ever vote for Hubert Humphrey. But she wants a two-party system, and “one in which my values can be represented by someone who also believes in the importance of democracy.”

Until that point, it’s going to be a struggle, she said, and Americans mustn’t take for granted that the United States is the oldest democracy in the world, or that that democracy will be around forever. 

“Are we the biggest? The strongest? The most successful? The most economically successful country in the history of the world?” she said. “We are, but it doesn’t mean we will be so forever. If we lose our democracy, if we lose the ability to trust in our institutions and to ensure that those institutions function as our Constitution envisioned, then we won’t be any longer. But I’m here to tell you, I’m sure that you’re not going to let that happen, and I’m going to do my best not to let it happen, as well.”

Jon Meacham shares message of hope for future of American democracy

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Jon Meacham last spoke to a Chautauqua audience from a computer screen, in the middle of the 2020 virtual season on CHQ Assembly. He spoke then as the closing lecture of a week on “Reframing the Constitution” — and a lot has changed since then. So he reflected on the idea of “The Future of History” by looking into the past.

“I would not have said that the American experiment in constitutional democracy is at an existential hour, even two years ago, if we had been here. I would not have said that when we were on our (Zoom) boxes together,” Meacham said. “It was, I believe, the erosion and attempted overthrow of the American government in the fall (2020) into January 2021 that cast into the darkest relief what we face.”

Meacham, presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, delivered the designated Chautauqua Lecture of the 2022 season at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, July 21, in the Amphitheater. Through stories and reflection, Meacham brought historical context to current events and issues. History may not repeat itself but it may rhyme, Meacham paraphrased Mark Twain. 

“Democracy is not guaranteed,” Meacham said. “It is the hardest of human undertakings because it requires us to see each other not as rivals, but as neighbors.”

For Meacham, preserving democracy is a human and moral commitment. 

“Without that, this experiment will not continue. I am convinced of that. And why should it? This is a human undertaking. This is a moral undertaking,” Meacham said. “Moral in the pure sense of the word. Moral means how we are with each other.”

Meacham said that this morality should be present in customs and behavior,  as well as how we view our rights and responsibilities.

“I don’t have to love you to respect you. It’s in my self-interest to respect you because we all know in our own lives, we are more likely to respect those who respect us,” Meacham said.  “Let’s be honest. As Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better.’ ”

Jan. 6, 2021, convinced Meacham that American democracy is in danger. 

“That convinced me that, in fact, I might not hand down the country that made my life possible to my children,” Meacham said.

In 2018, Meacham wrote The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, which argued “that manifestation of the forces we were dealing with from 2016 … were the fullest expression of perennial forces.” 

Meacham cited the forces of nativism, extremism, racism and authoritarianism. He said that while these forces began manifesting in 2016, they are still present —  changing only in degree and not type of force.

“They ebb and flow in human experience, and they are flowing. Every generation, to some extent, is judged by the extent to which it enables those forces to ebb or to flow,” Meacham said. “That’s the task that we face. What I did not foresee was a blatant attempt to thwart the concept of what I call the constitutional conversation.”

The constitutional conversation, Meacham said, is not just how the law is written, but also the spirit of the law.

“The social contract is about understanding that the letter of the law gets as close as it can to dictating and putting the guardrails up. But you don’t have to observe those guardrails,” Meacham said. “The danger we’re in, and the future of history — which is also the future of the American Republic — is, are we going to fall into this Hobbesian view of the world, that the strong should always dominate the weak? Is this the war of all against all? That was Hobbes’ state of nature.”

Sean Smith / staff photographer Meacham, after speaking to a Chautauqua audience virtually in 2020, gives his lecture on “The Future of History” in the Amp.

Meacham believes that the Founding Fathers shared Hobbes’ view of democracy. 

“You may think the founders made it really, really difficult to get anything done in the United States of America because they believe the worst of human nature, and we have done everything we can ever since to prove them right,” Meacham said. 

This country is fundamentally a social contract, and no political organization or party should have a monopoly on truth, said Meacham — noting that he does not see himself as a partisan, having written a biography on George W. Bush, as well as appear on MSNBC and work with Joe Biden.

“A democracy is the fullest expression of all of us. That is at once thrilling and terrifying,” Meacham said. “It’s thrilling, because it is up to us. If enough of us have habits of heart and mind, if enough of us have a disposition in our manners and morals to find political expression, then a course of action can happen.”

Meacham stressed that individuals not getting what they want doesn’t mean democracy isn’t working. Rather, the opposite.

“There’s progress, and then there’s a loss of ground, and there’s progress, and there’s a loss of ground,” Meacham said. “… I believe in many ways, the present and the future role of history is to tell a story that is convincing and activating.”

Meacham reflected on his children’s lived experience in the United States, with the oldest born in 2002 and the youngest in 2008. They have lived through the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the War on Terrorism, the Iraq War, 20-year war in Afganistan, the financial crisis of 2008, the Obama and Trump administrations, an insurrection and a novel pandemic. 

“For somebody under 25, what is the seminal, ambient, formative political experience?” Meacham asked. “The presidency of Donald Trump. … So why would you have a great deal of confidence in the world? Just given the basic demography of the folks I see here, our world was one in which the country — after too much time, too much treasure, too much blood, too much delay — produced civil rights, produced voting rights, which is now under assault again,” Meacham said. 

He noted that some of the audience grew up building the Cold War economy and the largest middle class in the history of the world. The key to democracy is the middle class, Meacham said. 

“There’s an expectation that if you do the work, you will thrive. Then the whole thing collapses,” Meacham said. “You can’t do it with two ends of the barbell. That leads to autocracy and aristocracy.”

In 1965, according to Pew Research Center, nearly 76% of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing always or most of the time. That number is now 9%, Meacham said. During the George W. Bush years, Gallup News reported Vice President Dick Cheney had a 20% approval rate, but now he has proven to be, along with his daughter, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, a “statesman of the republic,” Meacham said. He used the Cheneys to illustrate that “this is a human undertaking.”

Meacham shared what he believes the future of history is. 

“The present and the future of history, I believe, is this: We have to tell a story that preserves the possibility of prosperity and progress and justice. … It makes the history of the United States a potent and essential element in preserving the experiment, whose danger I described at the beginning.”

Meacham shifted toward discussing the political polarity in American politics; people are complicated as well as parties, Meacham said.

“In my view, the Republican Party as currently constituted is not a functional conversational partner within the constitutional construct. That’s terrible. Because it only works if we have two. And we can argue about reforming so they can have more, that’s fine. But we need two functioning principal parties,” he said. “We don’t have them right now.”

Meacham said he wanted to be clear in terms of the left, right and center — that “this is not about both sides,” pointing to the lived experience of the younger generation that leads to the belief that the system is not worth preserving.

“We know that the right has felt that way. They are putting strength above anything else. They want power at any cost. … That’s enough of a problem for any civilized society,” Meacham said. “A problem I worry about, and the reason we talk about the future of history, is that there could come a day, not too far in the future, where the center and the left decide, ‘You know what? I’m not sure this works either.’ And when that comes, I’m not sure what happens, but it’s not good.” 

With this polarization, the left and center are asked to be patient, tolerant and forgiving; this has been seen in the past, specifically during post-Civil War Reconstruction, Meacham said. People act on incentive, thus the need for story. 

Meacham focused on two main points in the nation’s history: 100 years ago and 60 years ago. In 1922, the Ku Klux Klan was refounded. Seven U.S. senators, around 20 members of the House of Representatives and five governors were openly members of the KKK. America faced the Great Depression, World War II and the second Red Scare, and in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, they were ready for a dictator. 

“There was never a ‘once upon a time’ in American history, and there’s never going to be a ‘happily ever after.’ Because it’s us. It’s a daily, hourly, weekly struggle to decide: What rights do we want to enjoy, and what responsibilities do we owe?” Meacham said

In the 1960s, the U.S. faced the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as a close presidential election. Meacham spoke about a moment in 1965, a week after Bloody Sunday, that is from his perspective one of the most important moments in presidential history. 

“Lyndon Johnson summons George Wallace to the Oval Office. … And he said, ‘George, when you’re dead and gone, do you want there to be a scrawny grave that says: George Wallace, he hated. Or do you want a beautiful stone monument that says: George Wallace, he built?’”

Meacham feels this question is still relevant in 2022.

“That’s the question for us, in the present, and therefore, what history will say of us,” Meacham said. “The question is, did we hate or did we build? Did we reach out? Or did we clench a fist? Did we add to the sum of human knowledge and grace and possibility? Or did we constrict opportunity out of fear and selfishness and anxiety?” 

Meacham said that it is our responsibility to uplift, not destroy.

“The duty we owe, the history of our own time, which is how history will see us, is to build and not to hate,” he said.

‘Start from a point of truth-telling’: Nicole Austin-Hillery traces interrelationship between human, civil rights in lecture

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The discussion on civil and human rights in the United States requires a truthful conversation between two receptive, open-minded parties, as if they were old friends. 

Congressional Black Caucus Foundation President and CEO Nicole Austin-Hillery approached Chautauquans with that exact mindset, calling on them to engage in a dialogue on race based in truth and respect. 

“I truly believe that the only way we can resolve the issues that we are facing, not only in this country, but across the world right now, when it comes to the fight for civil and human rights, is to start from a point of truth-telling,” Austin-Hillery said. 

Austin-Hillery took the lectern at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, July 12, in the Amphitheater to closely examine how civil and human rights are inherently the same, and how the United States can move toward progress in achieving equality and civil liberties for all. 

Continuing on Week Three’s theme of “The Future of Human Rights,” Austin-Hillery was the second Chautauqua Lecture Series speaker to talk about civil liberties in U.S. systems in her lecture, following Alison Brysk, Mellichamp Chair of Global Governance at University of California, Santa Barbara, on Monday. 

A graduate of the Howard University School of Law and Carnegie Mellon University, Austin-Hillery was the first to serve as the executive director of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization that studies and advocates for human rights. Austin-Hillery was appointed president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in February 2022. 

Joeleen Hubbard / staff photographer Austin-Hillery’s lecture was titled “Race: A Human and Civil Rights Issue.”

To open her speech, Austin-Hillery told Chautauqua she would be speaking the truth from her vantage point of being an advocate for civil and human rights in her career, and asked the audience to voice their truths in the Q-and-A session, as well. 

The conversation launched from Austin-Hillery’s four declarations of truth that she has made to navigate discourse about civil and human rights. The first of her declarations was that civil rights and human rights are inextricably linked. 

She read the United Nations’ definition of human rights, which says: “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.”

Then Austin-Hillery recited Merriam-Webster’s definition of civil rights, which reads: “The rights of personal liberty guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress.”

Having delivered the definitions, Austin-Hillery pointed out a glaring truth: that the meanings are inherently the same. 

“Both human and civil rights protect a human being against injustice, mistreatment and oppression, simply put,” Austin-Hillery said. “It’s based on the understanding that we have to accept and acknowledge that the two are inextricably linked and that … without accepting (the first) declaration, we cannot begin to address the problem of racial injustice in the United States. … We need one to make the other work, and we need them both to get us to the next level, to make us better.”

In accepting Austin-Hillery’s first declaration, she said people can understand her second declaration, which is that “the fabric of this country, the systems upon which it was built, and that we adhere to, have race at their foundation.”

“We have to also understand that in the history of the United States, the people who have been prevented from exercising and fully availing themselves of these rights, whether civil or human, have mostly been people of color,” Austin-Hillery said. “I don’t care what anyone says, if we look at the history of this country and the systems that have been created and the systems that have oppressed and have caused discrimination, the people who have been most impacted by that and by those systems are people of color.”

Austin-Hillery presented this statement with evidence, citing her past working in law in Washington.

The three examples she gave to support her second declaration were slavery, unequal opportunities for education and the history of the police system in the United States. Austin-Hillery drew on an article from The New Yorker, titled “The Invention of the Police,” by Jill Lepore, that explored how the police derived from Barbados slave patrols dating back to the 1600s. 

“The use (of slavery) was all about controlling these new people who were brought from Africa to serve, to till land, to till soil, to be at the beck and call of their owners,” Austin-Hillery said. “And these slave patrols are the earliest iterations of what we now call our police organizations in the United States.”

Moving on from the past to examine the present state of civil rights in the United States, her third declaration is that the United States is in a period of rights retrenchment. Austin-Hillery said the United States has come a long way in the past 60 years in terms of civil rights, but as of this moment, America is seeing a reckoning in human rights. 

“We are witnessing something wholly different,” Austin-Hillery said. “We are witnessing an effort to roll back these successes and these victories, these efforts that were put in place to expand, protect and defend hard won rights.”

She said the infringements of rights, especially for people of color, include the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, strict voter identification laws and the police brutality that is responsible for taking the lives of Black people across the country, including George Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jalen Walker and many more African Americans who deserve to be named and honored. 

The pandemic, Austin-Hillery said, opened the eyes of many to these retrenchments that directly affect Black communities, and she was approached with a simple statement by many: “Nicole, I didn’t know.”

“They said, ‘I didn’t know,’ ” Austin-Hillery said. “Well, guess what? Now you know.”

This response led Austin-Hillery to give her fourth and final declaration, which says that we combat the retrenchment through the use of civil and human rights approaches as tools for change. 

“We no longer have the luxury of saying this issue of civil rights and human rights is for somebody else. It’s for someone else to deal with. It’s someone else’s problem,” Austin-Hillery said. “It is our problem. And we all have to take it on as a part of our individual responsibilities to figure out what in the heck we do about it.”

Austin-Hillery commended leaders in civil rights like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Eric Holder and John Lewis and their efforts in combating the stifling of civil liberties. 

She promoted a four-point agenda the Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations made to advise people on how to tackle civil and human rights. Point one says to stop denying and start dismantling; point two says to end impunity and start to build trust; point three says to simply listen; point four says we must redress and confront past legacies to deliver reparatory justice. 

To conclude her speech, Austin-Hillery circled back to the beginning, with the idea that truth enables real progress and real conversation. 

“When we look in the mirror, we have to ask ourselves the question, if we are living in this nation that is suffering from the cancer of (racism), what are we doing about it?” Austin-Hillery said. “And if you are not figuring out something in your corner of the world that you can do about it, if you are not engineering how we do better, how we can be better, how we can treat one another better, how we can ensure people’s lives are better, then maybe if we’re not doing that, maybe we’re all parasites on society if we don’t rise to that challenge.”

Austin-Hillery advised Chautauquans to remember and acknowledge her four declarations in understanding race in the United States, and she asked them to reflect on their position in the universal struggle for equality.

“The question that you have to ask yourself is: ‘If not now, when? If not me, then whom?’ ” Austin-Hillery said. “We only need to follow our instincts, our hearts, and our souls, and these lessons from history to know how we have to proceed and how we have to move forward. That is what democracy looks like. That is what America is supposed to look like. And that is how we will create a union of what I like to call social justice warriors and change makers. That’s who you are. That’s what I believe you have in you.”

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis makes conservative case for climate action

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With a career of challenging the norms of his Republican-leaning state, Bob Inglis, former U.S. representative for South Carolina’s 4th congressional district, chose to engage his Chautauqua audience through political comedic relief to introduce his three-step plan to becoming a conservative concerned with climate change.

Inglis spoke at 10:45 a.m. Monday, July 4, in the Amphitheater to open Week Two of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, themed “The Wild: Reconnecting with Our Natural World,” with his lecture titled “Can Free Enterprise Solve Climate Change?”

Inglis, executive director of conservative climate change initiative republicEn.org, opened his lecture by asking audience members, if they were comfortable, to raise their hand when prompted to indicate if they were politically left-leaning, right-leaning or in the center. A majority of the audience was left-leaning, with about 10 right-leaning and a handful in the center.

GEORGIA PRESSLEY / staff photographer
Inglis, former U.S. representative for South Carolina, discusses policy options available to address climate change.

He then asked the left-leaning portion of the audience a series of questions: if they believe climate change is real, if they believe it’s human-caused and if they believe it can be fixed. He then asked the right-leaning portion of the audience the same questions.

All audience members, regardless of what party they identify with, kept their hands raised for each question. Inglis had a different experience during his congressional tenure.

“Conservatives aren’t interested in climate change,” Inglis said. “That’s the way it was for my first six years in Congress. I said that climate change was nonsense. I didn’t know anything about it, except that Al Gore was for it.”

Inglis represented the 4th District of South Carolina, which he said is probably one of the most conservative states in the country. After his initial six years, he went into commercial real estate law, then returned in 2004 to run again for the same seat.

“That was the year that the eldest of our five kids had just turned 18, so he’s voting for the first time,” Inglis said. “He came to me and said, ‘Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you’re going to clean up your act on the environment.’ His four sisters and his mother agreed.”

Listening to his family was step one of his three-step plan, Inglis joked, because “these people can change the locks on the doors to (my) house.”

He joined a science committee and, through a congressional delegation, visited Antarctica to see the ice core drillings at the South Pole — the second step of his plan. 

His third step was going to the Great Barrier Reef to see coral bleaching. 

Inglis said he experienced a “spiritual awakening” when snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef with his friend Scott.

“So that’s how this conservative from South Carolina got involved in climate. It was a three-step metamorphosis,” Inglis said.

Inglis then went home to South Carolina to work on his newfound climate change initiative, focusing on carbon removal.

“I came home and introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009,” Inglis said. “Note to self: Do not introduce carbon tax in the midst of a great recession in the reddest state in the nation. It did not go well.”

His stats as “an actual conservative” are a 93% American Conservative Union rating, 100% from the Christian Coalition, 100% from National Right to Life, an “A” with the National Rifle Association, a zero with the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action and a 23% with the labor union AFL-CIO — which surprised Inglis, as he was hoping for a 0%. 

Inglis’ roots in the Republican Party, paired with his passion for climate change, motivated him to start republicEN.org.

“We even spell (republicEN) differently,” Inglis said. “It’s EN for energy, entrepreneurship (and) the environment.”

Inglis then explained the second part of his lecture: policy options available in the United States and worldwide.

“We make it sound like the solutions are really complicated; they’re really not,” Inglis said. “They fall into three categories. You can regulate emissions. You can incentivize clean energy, or you can price in (the) negative effects of burning fossil fuels.”

Regulating emissions was a good idea until West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency this year, Inglis said. The Supreme Court found that the EPA “cannot seek to change the (carbon) generation capacity of the United States.”

Doing so exceeded the EPA’s authority. Inglis said he wants to imagine what could happen if the United States could regulate emissions, but the cons could outweigh the pros. 

“The risk of this regulatory approach, in all humility, even if you’re left of center, is you could go downhill on solving climate change,” Inglis said. 

Incentivizing clean energy, such as expanded credits for wind and solar power, is another concept Inglis has considered, but it has a similar outcome to regulating emissions.

“It’s got this same pitfall,” Inglis said. “Which is: ‘How do you incentivize Chinese corporations or individuals to do things to the American tax code?’ Answer — you can’t. So you might end up in the same spot.”

There’s a relatively small market for clean energy equipment — about 20-30,000 companies. Inglis worries about this industry becoming a mass market. If a lot of people end up wanting clean energy equipment, the price will remain stagnant, making it less accessible. This would reverse the effect that Inglis said would help cut carbon prices.

Inglis said the next option wouldn’t be to cut taxes somewhere else, but to divvy up the money from carbon tax to distribute among citizens so the government doesn’t get too much. The only issue with this, he said, is that applying taxes elsewhere would cause an uptick in the international market.

The problem is reflected in the cost of products, Inglis said. Increasing the prices of electricity, gasoline and propane doesn’t make people want to vote for this sort of change.

“Make sure you start with the good news, which is ‘No, we’re not going to cut your taxes somewhere else,’ or, ‘We’re going to divert the money back to you,’ ” Inglis said. “ ‘Yes, your propane is going to cost you more. It’s going to cost the actual cost of burning that stuff, but you’re going to have money in your pocket.’ ”

Ingis reflected on what  legislation has done, which is mainly correct past legislation. He said, at the end of the day, people on the left and right need to come together and realize they are all hoping for the same climate change endgame.

“I think that what was being preached earlier from this stage is the idea of grace and forgiveness,” Inglis said. “It’s incumbent upon the left to be that way toward the right in accepting people into this conversation.”

George Packer closes week with warning against contempt, loss of self-government

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Abraham Lincoln once said that, “as a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” According to journalist George Packer, America is now dying a slow death by democratic suicide in a highly polarized political and social state. 

“One way to think about democratic suicide in this country is a simple loss of faith in democracy: something slow and subtle, and even imperceptible,” Packer said. “But (there’s this) gradual belief in the public that everyone is on the take; that every politician is out for their own self-interest; that the media are simply a bunch of liars; that business is corrupt and always doing dirty deals with politicians; and that essentially there is no truth. We can’t know what’s real.” 

Packer, award-winning author and staff writer for The Atlantic, took the stage at 10:45 a.m. Friday, July 1, at the Amphitheater to discuss an introspective view of what equality means in American identity through his lecture “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal,” which shares the same name of his most recent book, published in 2021. 

Packer has been a staff writer for The Atlantic since 2018, and he worked as a journalist for The New Yorker from 2003 to 2018, where he covered topics like the Iraq War and the war crimes in Sierra Leone. Packer has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. 

After a week of lectures focusing on geopolitical strife in Ukraine and foreign affairs, Packer closed out Week One’s theme “What Should be America’s Role in the World?” by bringing Chautauquans home to examine internal democracy within the United States through fresh perspectives of international relations. 

Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, introduced Packer. 

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer Packer was the closing presentation of the Week One theme: “What Should be America’s Role in the World?”

Packer launched into his presentation with a passage from Lincoln’s Lyceum Address about the need to preserve the United States by following the law and seeking out justice. The passage from the famous 1838 speech set the stage for Packer’s discussion of U.S. democracy throughout time. 

The Civil War, Packer said, was a form of democratic suicide in history that Americans know well; the closest the country has come to that “form of suicide” since 1861 was that of the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021. 

“(Jan. 6) was the best and worst of times,” Packer said. “The best of times because more Americans had gone to the polls two months earlier in the middle of a pandemic than in our history, and that election, which was put under microscopic scrutiny, turned out to be about as fair and legitimate as any election we’ve ever had. It was the worst of times because the psyche of one man could not tolerate defeat and brought us to the brink of the overthrow of democracy.”

The events that happened on Jan. 6, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, have revealed the cracks in American democracy. 

“As long as there are no political or legal consequences for what happened that day, American democracy will always have a gun to its head,” Packer said.

Consequences and loss of faith prompted Packer to examine what exactly equality means to America, and how the nation has drifted from the ideals of democracy — if it have ever even achieved it at all. 

“(Equality) is about the idea that we’re all basically the same,” Packer said. “Equality as an ideal has been betrayed throughout American history. But equality as a feeling … (what de Tocqueville called) the passion for equality: a desire to be able to enter any world, to be anything, to be excluded from nothing on the basis of where you’re born or who you are, that is what de Tocqueville felt was the most distinguishing feature about Americans: the desire to be equal with everyone else. He called it equality of conditions.” 

In analyzing equality, Packer draws four American narratives in their chronological order: Free America, Smart America, Real America and Just America.  

 “We are red and blue,” he said. “Every election tells us how deeply divided we are, but the red and blue are in turn divided within themselves.”

Free America is an ideal defined by President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” It promotes individualism and deregulation of government.

“That was a powerful narrative,” Packer said. “I think it’s actually been the most influential of my adult life. It became the narrative of the Republican Party, and in some ways it remains that narrative.” 

Free America, however, didn’t last. 

“Something didn’t work with Free America. That is, we are a society; we are not simply a collection of individuals. We are citizens,” Packer said. “Free America created a door that was the beginning of the inequality that I’m talking about. It was the beginning of the breakup of the social contract that had created a middle class, the biggest in history, and instead has led to the hierarchy, the stratified society that we all are familiar with today.”

Smart America is an identity of educated Americans with the belief that anyone can rise with the power of knowledge, popularized by the Clinton administration, which became the identity of the Democratic Party. 

“That narrative says we need to soften the blows of our capitalist society, but the best path for anyone is to accept the future, to accept the information age,” Packer said. 

But like Free America, Smart America created a major problem. It created a new aristocracy of the top 10% of educated individuals, which left out a majority of Americans. 

Free America and Smart America were the narratives dominating American life before large political defeats birthed two new narratives. 

“They had spectacular failures: the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, the entire period of the war on terror … and the financial crisis of 2008 leading to the great recession,” Packer said. 

The third narrative, according to Packer, is Real America, a term coined by Nancy Pelosi when addressing a fundraising event in North Carolina. It consists of uneducated, white, traditionally Christian Americans who he said “led to the election of Donald Trump.”

At the same time came the fourth and last narrative of Just America, which is a younger millennial generation that believes the United States has never confronted its history of corruption, allowing the country to continue unjust practices. 

“This country is not moving toward a more perfect union,” Packer said. “It is not the best of all possible worlds. It is not a beacon of democracy to the nations. It is a country born in sin that has never rooted out that sin, that has a permanent character of oppression in its soul.”

Of the four narratives, Real America and Just America clash most frequently, representing the issue in these groups as a whole.

“Not only are we famously polarized, but we have lost what de Tocqueville called ‘the art of self-government,’ ” Packer said. “We don’t know how to talk to each other. We don’t know how to argue with each other, persuade each other. We don’t believe persuasion is possible. We only believe in power. That’s the ultimate consequence of this division, that only power is real.”

Having described his introspections of American identities, Packer laid out what he thinks is the most poisonous threat of democracy within U.S. borders: contempt and the loss of self-government. 

“Today, our culture is marked above all by contempt,” Packer said. “Contempt runs through our discourse like acid, and it corrodes everything. Contempt is really satisfying because it relieves you of the burden of having to take seriously anything that the person you despise says. Contempt is the currency of social media, and it corrodes the spirit of any democracy between equals because contempt is inherently unequal.”

While the road to preserving democracy and equality in the United States is long, and the solution unknown, Packer called on the audience to remember that the American people have no other choice than to coexist.

“We can’t choose,” Packer said. “We are stuck with each other, so we cannot stop searching for the common identity, however fragile, that lies beneath the four Americas I’ve described.”

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria explores FDR’s vision of a united world

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When journalist and political commentator Fareed Zakaria joined ABC News’ “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” as an analyst in 2002, he often clashed with conservative commentator George Will. Despite their differences, the two men grew to be friends. When Zakaria began taking public speaking engagements, Will had succinct advice for him.

“He said to me, ‘Well, young man, make sure you have a point,’ ” Zakaria said.

Zakaria returned for his third appearance at Chautauqua and took the Amphitheater stage at 10:45 a.m. Monday, June 27, kicking off Week One’s theme: “What Should be America’s Role in the World?” Zakaria made the point that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision of world unity facilitated America’s political and economic strength throughout the 20th century, and that the vision should serve as a guiding framework for the present day, and going forward. 

Zakaria has ample expertise in domestic and international politics. He is a New York Times bestselling author, a columnist for The Washington Post and the host of the CNN program “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”

Zakaria noted the current chaos of the world, from the lingering pandemic, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

“​​Is there some sense in which we can understand where we are in a type of narrative trajectory?” Zakaria asked. “And I think there is. I think we are at a transformational moment for an international system that can probably best be described as ‘the American System’ because it was built by the United States.”

In order to understand our current moment, Zakaria traced the contours of global politics and economics over the past 80 years. He noted that the post-World War II world, with global organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, was a product of Roosevelt’s singular vision.

Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS”, opens the 2022 Chautauqua Lecture Series by discussing geopolitics and international affairs Monday June 27, 2022 in the Amphitheater. JOELEEN HUBBARD/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“(Roosevelt) created something that was aspirational, but also practical, that would actually work,” he said.

Roosevelt’s world featured cooperation, even between ostensible enemies. When the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a political stalemate, they were still able to cooperate on other matters. The two countries, through various U.N. agencies, united to help vaccinate the world against smallpox in 1958.

The Soviet Union, nevertheless, created a political snag. Zakaria analyzed the fall of the Soviet Union to identify multiple areas of massive growth in the global economy, in connectivity and communication with the arrival of the internet, and in democracy. Nations across the world, from Eastern Europe to Africa, adopted democratic methods of government. Zakaria referred to a 1989 article titled “The End of History?” by Francis Fukuyama.

“The point of the article was that it did seem as though human beings had arrived at the final destination of the historical process by which they tried to figure out what is the best form of government,” Zakaria said. “And everybody in the world seemed to be saying, ‘I guess we all want to be liberal democracies.’ ”

But change was coming: conflict that would turn the thriving economic world on its head.

“The world never stands still,” Zakaria said.

America’s global dominance took two hits in the first decade of the new millennium, he said. The 9/11 terrorist attacks disproved the theory that the American way was the end of history because it revealed voices of dissent. And the 2008 financial crisis undermined the world’s confidence in America’s economic system.

The COVID crisis, and the U.S. government’s response, Zakaria said, further chipped away at America’s legitimacy in the world’s eyes. It also exacerbated the political divisions in the United States.

“COVID represents something much broader, which is the rising polarization in America, and polarization of a quality and character that is so sharp, so divided, so bitter that it seems difficult to imagine any national purpose, any national unity, any national project,” he said.

Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS”, opens the 2022 Chautauqua Lecture Series by discussing geopolitics and international affairs Monday June 27, 2022 in the Amphitheater. JOELEEN HUBBARD/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Meanwhile, as the 21st century has brought multiple crises to bear on America, China has undergone massive economic growth, and Russia has been steadily building political power under President Vladimir Putin.

“Now you have not just the erosion of American power, but competitors to that power,” Zakaria said.

To conclude, Zakaria returned to the question that frames Week One’s morning lectures, and to his conviction that Roosevelt’s vision of the world laid the groundwork for the success and growth of the 20th century. 

Zakaria said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is both an aberration and an opportunity for the world to realign itself around the values of a rule-based international order. In order to take advantage of that opportunity, the world’s most powerful nations need strong and collaborative leadership, and Zakaria thinks the United States can lead the charge.

“​​It will require great leadership from the United States, because it’s a very different kind of leadership,” Zakaria said. “It’s leadership that is more conceptual and more cooperative.”

To close season, ‘New Yorker’ staff writer Osnos shares stories of renewing American principles

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NICK DANLAG – STAFF WRITER

Evan Osnos, staff writer at The New Yorker, delivers his lecture “American Bedrock: Renewing the Ties that Bind Us” Thursday in the Amphitheater, closing the 2021 Chautauqua Lecture Series. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Evan Osnos spent part of his career as a foreign correspondent, reporting in places like Cairo, China and Baghdad. Once, in Myanmar, he was smuggled into the country by the rebel army in the middle of the night.

“I will tell you it would have made me very nervous, except that the soldier who was driving me spent most of the time asking me how he might get a date with Taylor Swift,” said Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker specializing in politics and foreign affairs.

In his many, more serious conversations abroad, Osnos found himself defending America’s virtues, saying that despite the country’s flaws and grave mistakes, U.S. citizens had a fundamental commitment to truth, law and morality. But, after he returned home in 2013, he said, quoting John Gunther, an American journalist and author, he felt like a man from Mars.

Some of the changes were subtle. When he passed by Brooks Brothers, a men’s clothing store, he noticed some of the suits in the window had an American flag pin pre-implanted in the lapel. Osnos had never seen such a pin on one of their suits before, so he reached out and asked the company, who said they started doing it in 2007. 

“I did notice that 2007 was the year in which Barack Obama was getting lambasted for not wearing a flag pin in his lapel,” Osnos said.

Other changes were more wide-reaching. He noticed 9/11 altered American’s perceptions, such as a poll in 2016 finding that on average, people thought the U.S. population is one-sixth Muslim, while it is, in fact, one-one hundreth. He was also shocked at how the country viewed gun control.

“As a country, somehow we had come to live with the phenomenon of public shootings in our most vulnerable places, in schools, in public areas,” Osnos said. “Even though they were happening on average nearly three times as often as they had been the year I went abroad.”

But Osnos’ biggest surprise was how much less faith people had in law and politics. 

“Of course, the notion of a shared truth — mental commons we might call — had fractured before our eyes, and we were seeing it play out in our politics in 2016, and eventually, in 2020,” Osnos said. “But the signs of what we were seeing were very visible to us long before the COVID pandemic, before the murder of George Floyd.”

Osnos asked himself if he had been wrong all those years when he told people in other countries about American values. So, Osnos went on the road back to places he lived before, to find out what Americans thought, and what was being done to reverse these trends toward mistrust.

Those travels informed his latest book: Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, which will hit shelves on Sept. 9. At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday in the Amphitheater, Osnos presented his lecture, titled “American Bedrock: Renewing the Ties that Bind Us,” concluding the 2021 Chautauqua Lecture Series and Week Nine’s theme of “Resilience.” 

Evan Osnos, staff writer at The New Yorker, delivers his lecture “American Bedrock: Renewing the Ties that Bind Us” Thursday in the Amphitheater, closing the 2021 Chautauqua Lecture Series. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Osnos discussed the work of three people across the U.S. who are trying, and sometimes succeeding, to better America’s commitments to morality and truth. As well as working at The New Yorker, Osnos is a National Book Award-winning author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China; this was the first talk he’s given about his forthcoming Wildland. For Wildland, Osnos chose to explore places he already lived because he knew their past. The first place he went was Chicago, where a lot of his family is from.

“Chicago is the great American city. It is at once real and flawed, and in a constant permanent state of becoming,” Osnos said. “Chicago is the place, as Frederick Jackson Turner put it a century ago, where all the forces of the nation intersect. And, in many respects, I think that description stays true today, both for better and for worse.”

Chicago, Osnos said, is also one of the most segregated cities in America, with most of the white population living in the downtown area. 

Enter Jamal Cole, a community organizer from the south side of Chicago. As a child, Cole was struck by how people spoke in church, how preachers could make their messages strike deeper and how he, himself, could use these same techniques. 

Cole’s father, Osnos said, was addicted to drugs, and the family moved constantly. 

“Statistically speaking, Jamal Cole was not set up to succeed. He was coming of age in a country in which one-third of Black men become involved in the criminal justice system. He entered the 21st century in a country that has more prisoners than farmers,” Osnos said. “But, Jamal was also allergic to the assumptions people had about him and what was possible.”

In high school, a guidance counselor told Cole to give up on going to college and to join a trade school or the military. Cole, instead, stole pages out of the counselor’s books about different colleges, and applied, Osnos said, “almost at random.” He was accepted to Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska.

After graduating and eventually landing a job in information technology, and then as a network administrator at a trading firm at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Cole volunteered on the side at the Cook County Jail and mentored juvenile offenders. He noticed that few of these young men, despite being born and raised in Chicago, had ever spent more than a few hours in the downtown area, even though they lived close by. When he asked the mentees where they were from, they would say the names of their neighborhood, and never Chicago. Cole asked why, and they said it was because there were no Black people in downtown Chicago, and they identified more with their own neighborhoods. To help each neighborhood connect with different areas of the city, Cole helped create My Block, My Hood, My City, also called M3. The organization began by taking young people to explore areas of the city they had never been before — waste treatment plants, homeless shelters and a chiropractor’s office. They even went scuba diving together. As the organization expanded, they took on more ambitious projects, such as a program where new police officers go on tours of neighborhoods guided by the young people who live there.

“A lot of the cops really don’t know the neighborhoods until they get there in a moment of crisis. This was giving both of them an opportunity to have a conversation, for some shared experience outside the confines of those moments,” Osnos said. “As he put it to me, ‘It’s a skill that neither side really has.’ ”

Evan Osnos, staff writer at The New Yorker, delivers his lecture “American Bedrock: Renewing the Ties that Bind Us” Thursday in the Amphitheater, closing the 2021 Chautauqua Lecture Series. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

COVID-19 brought a whole host of new programs for Cole, who had to figure out how to do his work in safe ways. So Cole had the young people make wellness packages for the elderly, filled with items like hand sanitizer. M3 also partnered with a call center for seniors to train the young community members to work the phone, and if they did well, they could earn an internship.

When protests rose from all parts of Chicago after George Floyd’s murder, Cole turned to the relationships, with police and the community, he had built.

“It was no panacea, let’s be blunt,” Osnos said, “but it was, at least, a basis for some mutual understanding.”

His work even received attention from Oprah Winfrey, who gave Cole $500,000. Cole hoped to raise $1 million for M3, and ended up raising $10 million.

“To Jamal Cole, I realized, resilience is really not just fortitude, though he has that in spades,” Osnos said. “It is a strength derived from some other attributes, other muscles to use his words, like empathy and creativity, and the clarity to say with total conviction that his life deserves a greater share of what this country has to offer than he has so far received.”

The second person he discussed with was Jeffrey D. Grant, a former lawyer. 

“It’s not a story that’s easy to like, necessarily,” Osnos said. “The lessons in his life force us, however, to talk pretty honestly about some of the moral questions facing this country and what it will take to solve them.”

In the 1990s, Grant owned a law firm in Westchester County.

“As a lawyer, he specialized in real estate work, in corporate work, and he regarded himself, to use his words, as an assassin,” Osnos said. “His philosophy, as he put it to me bluntly, was ‘Win. Win. Win.’ ”

In his 40s, Grant’s life began unraveling. He was becoming erratic and was addicted to Demerol, a painkiller. He stole money from his clients, and after 9/11, he falsely claimed his office was destroyed in the attacks to receive aid. When the IRS discovered his lies, he served 14 months in prison.

“Grant had been disbarred, largely cut off from his old world — and that, he will tell you, saved his life,” Osnos said. “He had undergone an awakening of a kind that Bryan Stevenson, civil rights lawyer, describes as the power of getting proximate, getting close to people who are vulnerable, people who are suffering, people who are living a life outside of your own.”

After prison, he volunteered at the same rehab organization that helped him, and eventually became an executive of Family Reentry, an organization that helps people coming out of prison and their families, and later earned a degree in divinity at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.

Evan Osnos, staff writer at The New Yorker, delivers his lecture “American Bedrock: Renewing the Ties that Bind Us” Thursday in the Amphitheater, closing the 2021 Chautauqua Lecture Series. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

“Jeff Grant, in one form or another, had come to recognize that the problems in his life were not about Demerol; they were not about the events of 9/11. They were born of deeper fault lines in himself and in the culture that he represented and he inhabited,” Osnos said. “And frankly, one that is common in many of the most powerful corners of American life: The instinct to win, win, win.”

The third person Osnos discussed was Katey Lauer in West Virginia. The political makeup of the state changed drastically while Osnos was abroad, from three generations of Democratic control, to the state voting mostly for President Donald Trump in 2016.

“It forces people to ask: What would it take to restore confidence in government in rural parts of this country in places where people feel as if they have become, to use Jamal Cole’s word, disconnected?” Osnos said.

Lauer was an environmental activist who had become demoralized after she was routinely outmatched and outspent. In one instance, the mining industry sponsored a program called “Coal in the Classroom.” In this program, they had a workbook on economics for children decorated with “a smiling lump of coal with arms and legs opening the door to a bank.”

“It was a wake-up call for her. She said, ‘We’re done knocking on the door of the Capitol. We need to win positions of power ourselves,’ ” Osnos said.

Although her state went for Trump in the presidential election, Lauer noticed that all the counties had chosen Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. She also noticed how Democrats in Washington were mischaracterizing West Virginian voters, simply writing them off as ignorant. These points showed Lauer that West Virginia was turning against mainstream politics. 

Lauer was reassured this was the case in February 2018 during statewide teacher strikes. West Virginia paid teachers some of the lowest wages in the country, and the striking teachers demanded a 5% raise. When they succeeded, the strike spread to other Republican states and even other industries. Osnos said 2018 saw the most strikes since President Ronald Reagan was elected. So Lauer created the organization West Virginia Can’t Wait, whose goal is to go against mainstream politics all the way down the ballot.

“They avoided the term progressive,” Osnos said, “because they knew that in West Virginia, that would hold them back. There were people who just recoiled from the language of progressive politics. They said, ‘Let’s focus instead on the matter on the page. Let’s focus on the details of the issues, not on the labels we give ourselves or give others.’ ”

Evan Osnos, staff writer at The New Yorker, delivers his lecture “American Bedrock: Renewing the Ties that Bind Us” Thursday in the Amphitheater, closing the 2021 Chautauqua Lecture Series. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

The organization found 93 candidates, half of whom were under 40, for races across the state and broke the state’s record of most small donors with 2,449. In contrast, the incumbent governor had 13.

“It will not shock you to discover that they eventually ran up against the limits of what might be possible at this moment in West Virginia politics in the 2020 election,” Osnos said. “The incumbent Gov. Jim Justice prevailed, and Donald Trump expanded his lead.”

Lauer was surprised that despite the organization’s losses, 18 more people committed to run for office within the state.

“She said one of the dimensions of the culture war that we’re fighting in this country is urban versus rural, and the idea that we should and can write people off; that there are ‘our’ kinds of people and ‘their’ kinds of people,” Osnos said. “And as long as we believe that, she said, we are putting ourselves into warring tribes, and we will never be able to reconcile.”

So, was Osnos wrong, or lying, when told people in other countries about American values?

“By the end of this process, I realized I was writing this for my kids, actually — because I needed them to see and to know of a period in which I do think we lost sight of our moral aspirations, our moral ambitions,” Osnos said. “We were drifting broadside to the judgments of history. And I think we have set out, in fact, to find our way back. And that gives me confidence.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill asked Osnos how people should go about looking at different countries and cultures through a different lens, especially with the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

“There is a natural temptation to want to organize our world into convenient assignments of guilt and innocence,” Osnos said.

He also said the war in Afghanistan had an impact on American soil, especially small towns, which had more than twice the deaths of soldiers per capita than big cities. 

“This is the result of a project that has been limping along longer than it should have,” Osnos said. “And we allowed it to in this country, partly because this was not a war fought by all Americans. It was a war fought by a tiny sliver — less than one-half of 1% of Americans — and the rest of us didn’t have to bring the usual political pressure to bear.”

University Hospitals’ Adan charts course of resilience, from self-care to compassion

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NICK DANLAG – STAFF WRITER

Françoise Adan, chief whole health and wellbeing officer for University Hospitals, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Françoise Adan danced and clapped along with the audience to Gloria Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive”: “As long as I have love to give, I will survive. I have all my life to live, all my love to give, I will survive.”

“This is my song. I love this song,” Adan said.

Then Adan shifted the energy. She guided the Amphitheater audience through meditation, to find a comfortable position, to close their eyes and pay attention to their breath as it was, and try not to change anything. Then she said to visualize an image of peace, whether it was a word, symbol, or an area or person they loved. Then she asked them to silently repeat a simple affirmation: I am peaceful and present.

Then Adan told the audience to open their eyes. 

“Today, I will share with you some tools and some tips to build your resilience,” Adan said. “I will give you hope, but I will also challenge you with a call for action.”

Adan is the chief whole health and wellbeing officer for University Hospitals, as well as the director for the UH Connor Integrative Health Network based in Cleveland. At 10:30 a.m. Aug. 24 in the Amp, Adan discussed the foundational pieces of resilience, which start from self-care and end with compassion, and how people could build this skill within themselves. This was the second lecture of Week Nine’s theme of “Resilience.”

Adan has worked as a psychiatrist for about 25 years, with around 35,000 hours spent one-on-one with patients. 

“People are incredible. They taught me so much and still amazed me by how humans are resilient. People get beaten, betrayed. They feel scared, anxious, overwhelmed, anxious, guilty, sad and so much more,” Adan said. “Somehow, they emerge. Somehow, they stand back up. Somehow, they move forward and, often, thrive.”

Over those years, she learned resilience is the “ultimate equalizer.” She defined resilience as the ability to bounce back up, adapt and cope.

“I’ve seen people having everything, but, at some point in their life, in some circumstances, they don’t know how to cope anymore,” Adan said. “I’ve seen people who have nothing, who live in incredible circumstances, but, again, somehow, they find the courage, the resilience, just to take one more step.”

She also said resilience means refusing to be the victim. Resilience means choosing to spend energy on finding a solution, rather than blaming others or themselves. Resilience is a skill, which means people can get better at it. 

This all starts with self-care — and the most important word in that phrase, she said, is “self.”

“I know, often people don’t like this word,” Adan said. “We take better care of our car or dog or work or friends or children than ourselves.”

People have to take care of themselves on their best days and, especially, she said, on their worst. Self-care means doing the basics, like eating more vegetables, staying hydrated and getting enough sleep. The U.S. especially needs more sleep, she said, because 70% of the population is sleep-deprived. 

One of the biggest aspects of self-care is managing stress, and the first way to cope with anxieties that Adan delved into was mindfulness. She said 80% of primary care visits are due to conditions either caused by stress or exacerbated by it. 

She then quoted Mark Twain: “I had a lot of worries in my life — most never happened.”

This is where mindfulness comes into play.

“(Mindfulness) is to be in the present as an observer. We’re not in the past. ‘What could have happened, would have happened, should have happened,’ often leads to regrets and sorrow,” Adan said. “We’re not in the future, the to-do list, the worries that lead to anxiety. We are in the present, as an active observer.”

Françoise Adan, chief whole health and wellbeing officer for University Hospitals, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Mindfulness allows people to see problems as they are, instead of amplifying them. 

The second way to manage stress is to realign priority. As inspirational speaker Virginia Brett said, “ ‘No’ is a complete sentence.” Adan conceded that it is tough for her to say no.

“What I do,” Adan said, “is I don’t say yes right away. So what I do, I say, ‘Let me get back to you tomorrow.’ It gives me an opportunity to think. ‘Do I really want to do this? Do I feel like I have to do this? How does that fit in my schedule in my life?’ ”

Unlike checking a pulse or blood pressure, resilience has no surefire measure. The best way, Adan has found, to check a person’s “resilience pulse” was to ask them two sets of questions. The first: “When I am at my best, when things come easily, when I’m in my zone, how do I feel? How do I behave? What do I do?”

“For me, when things come easily, I have a great sense of humor,” Adan said. “I have a good sense of perspective, and it’s easy for me to make decisions.”

Then she asks the opposite: “When I’m at my worst, when I feel I can’t take it anymore, when the next step just seems too much, who am I? How do I behave? Where do I feel it?”

“For me, easy, I’m someone I don’t like,” Adan said. “I am judgmental, cynical, critical, impatient. Everybody. Is. So. Slow!”

Self-awareness, she said, is the key to creating resilience. This means knowing what makes us feel better, and what makes us feel worse.

“Most of us, as we are not in our zone, when we are acting at our worst, we actually do more of what’s hurting us, instead of what’s helping us,” Adan said.

Resilient people, she said, have three main characteristics. The first is that they accept life as it is — which, she said, gives people the ability to move on and not think of themselves as the victim. Instead, people who accept life as it is can spend more energy trying to change it. 

And the second characteristic is that they are positive, which Adan said is the “unstoppable hunt to look for what is right.”

Having a positive mindset is not the same as being optimistic, though. 

“We all know the analogy of the glass half-full or half-empty. We all know that seeing it half full is better, but positive people go even beyond that,” Adan said. “Even if there is not that much water, there’s still a glass. There is no glass? I have my hand. I can make a cup.”

The last characteristic of resilient people is they have purpose. This doesn’t mean they have a world-changing plan, like curing all diseases, she said, but small purposes, like being a good neighbor or friend. 

She quoted Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning: “When we are no longer able to change a situation — we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“I have a fancy title. I have a great job. I have a good income. And at the end of the day,” Adan said, “ ‘I have all my love to give, all my life to live,’ and for me, that is my purpose — to be loved and to love.”

The last step of resilience is compassion. Compassion is different from empathy, though, because empathy, she said, means envisioning oneself in another’s shoes, while compassion means doing something to help. 

“The amazing thing is being compassionate, being a listener, looking at someone in her eyes, smiling, is actually replenishing yourself,” Adan said. “So, people who are compassionate experience less burnout — not the other way around — which, to me, is incredible.”

She then shared one of the most important lessons of her life. In 1993, Adan interned at the Cleveland Clinic, and during one shift she hadn’t slept in 24 hours because of her work schedule. One of her patients was a 23-year-old mother of five children with three different fathers, who had a heart infection because of drug use. 

“I am exhausted and depleted and, you remember how I am (at my worst) — cynical, judgmental, feeling completely hopeless, and hopeless for her and for me,” Adan said. “I feel no ability to help her.”

The doctor stopped her and said, “Do you think she woke up yesterday and thought, ‘I’m going to screw this up’? We all do the best we can.”

“That moment was literally life-changing for me; realizing that this was where she was at that time. Having compassion was not only going to help her but help me,” Adan said. “The reality is we all do the best we can, sometimes great, sometimes not so great.”

Compassion, she said, also means taking care of oneself. 

“There is absolutely zero research confirming that beating ourselves up for whatever else we didn’t do is going to help us. Zero,” Adan said. “But we do it over and over and over again.”

She ended her lecture by talking about her time at Chautauqua. When she entered the front gates of the Institution, it was like she was entering a dream, where every stranger she passed looked her in the eye and said, “Hello!”

Then she asked the audience to think about this question: What is one thing from this summer they learned, and are willing to take back into the wild?

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Addario shares portraits of resilience

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NICK DANLAG  – STAFF WRITER

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario speaks about her life and career covering conflict and human rights issues on Monday in the Amphitheater, opening the week on “Resilience.” KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Before 9/11, most of the U.S. did not know anything about Afghanistan, including Lynsey Addario’s mom, so when the young photojournalist let her mother know she was going there in 2000, her mom simply said, “Sure, have a good time.”

What Addario, now a Pulitzer Prize winner, didn’t tell her mother was that she would be photographing the lives of women under Taliban rule, where photography was illegal. She had an escort of Afghan men who kept her safe and her work a secret.

“Some of the first women that I saw on the streets, actually the only women I saw on the street, were widows,” Addario said. “They were begging because they had no man to provide for them.”

Addario would have to swiftly take her camera out of her bag, take photos and hide the camera again each time she saw a photo worth taking. Some of these images projected on the Amphitheater screens above her, from secret schools for young girls to a woman giving birth in a hospital in Kabul with what Addario described as “rudimentary” equipment.

During her third trip to Afghanistan under Taliban rule, Addario’s taxi driver said he was going to a wedding, and she asked to join him. He agreed and led her to a basement of a big cement compound. The soundtrack of “Titanic” blasted, and women, in makeup and dresses, danced.

“I had never seen anything like this in three trips to Afghanistan under the Taliban,” Addario said. “It just made me realize that the human spirit continues on, and people really have to find forms of entertainment to keep themselves going.”

At 10:30 a.m. Aug. 23 in the Amp, Addario presented her lecture, “It’s What I Do: Documenting Resilience,” to begin the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Nine theme of “Resilience.” Addario told of her own journey of covering wars and her own kidnappings, how journalism and photography can change public perceptions and political wills, and the endless perseverance of the many people she has met over the years. Addario is a regular contributor for National Geographic, The New York Times and Time. Her New York Times best-selling memoir It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War was a finalist for the 2016 Chautauqua Prize, chronicling her personal and professional life as a photojournalist in the post-9/11 world. She also published Of Love & War, a collection of photographs from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.

Addario went back to Afghanistan in 2009 and saw progress in the country. Women were graduating from a school of literature, hosting news shows, working as police and soldiers and driving cars. In 2009, though, the country had the highest maternal death rate in the world; the Badakhshan province had an even higher rate because there were few roads to travel by. She said it took some people 12 hours by donkey to get to the nearest clinic. One day in Badakhshan, Addario saw two women on the side of the road and knew “they were in trouble because they didn’t have a man (with them).”

One of the women was in labor and refused to get in the car with Addario because she needed her husband’s permission first to get in someone’s car. Addario asked one of her coworkers to take the car and find the woman’s husband — which she said wasn’t hard, because there was only one road. She then got the whole family in the car, and the baby was delivered safely in the clinic.

Addario also talked about girls who had defied their husbands. One girl was 13 and married to a man who was paralyzed; her only duty in life until she was 20 was to take care of him. When she asked for a divorce, the man’s family threw her in jail. Another girl, identified only as Bibi Aisha, ran away from her husband, and when she was caught, her husband cut off her nose and ears. She was later featured on the front page of The New York Times before she underwent surgery to have her nose and ears reconstructed.

And Addario’s first experience covering wars was during the Iraq War. She photographed people celebrating Saddam Hussein’s fall from power. 

“I took these initial pictures of euphoria: People celebrating, swimming in his palaces,” Addario said. “Saddam had diverted most of the water in the country for his own personal use, lakes around his palaces, and most Iraqis didn’t even have water at home.”

There was also a lot of chaos and looting after Hussein’s death; Addario showed a photo of a woman walking toward a factory covered in smoke. It was a propane factory where her husband worked.  Addario took the picture, then yelled to the woman that it was too dangerous to go close. The woman turned, looked at her, and said, “My husband is in there.” She kept walking.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario speaks about her life and career covering conflict and human rights issues on Monday in the Amphitheater, opening the week on “Resilience.” KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

She also photographed wounded U.S. soldiers. She witnessed and photographed the treatment of one particular soldier who had stepped on an IED, and later died. She was told she could not call the family to get permission to publish the photos. A few months later, she received a call from the soldier’s father, who asked her about his son’s death because the military had told him next to nothing.

“We had a, maybe, two-hour-long conversation. It was very tearful on both sides. I told him everything I remembered,” Addario said. 

The father later gave her permission to publish the photos, so long as they wouldn’t compromise his son’s identity. 

Addario told the story of her kidnapping in March 2011 in Libya. The Libyan government was not giving journalists visas to photograph the Civil War, so Addario snuck in through a river with a rebel army. When she was in the town of Ajdabiya, she, along with three other New York Times journalists, could see signs that the city was about to fall. Sounds of mortars were getting closer, dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s troops were closing in and civilians were fleeing. They had two cars, with two journalists in each car in case something went wrong. 

“The driver of the other car — his brother was shot at the front line,” Addario said. “And so suddenly in the middle of the battle, he pulled the car over and dumped everything they had on the side of the road, and said, ‘I’m leaving.’ ”

While they were leaving, Addario was the first to see the soldiers on the horizon. When she pointed them out, her companions laughed, because Gadhafi’s troops were in the other direction. But they were wrong, and the soldiers had flanked them in the desert. The driver panicked, stopped the car, got out and begged the soldiers not to shoot them because they were just journalists. 

They never saw him again.

“My colleagues were pulled out of the car. I, the only woman, was just left to sit in the car. That happened to me, actually, when I was kidnapped in Iraq in 2004; I guess they never really know what to do with a woman on the front line,” Addario said. “I’m watching my colleagues to the right getting roughed up.”

The rebel soldiers then opened fire on the government soldiers. 

“There was a wall of bullets coming at us. The car we were in was not armored. I knew I had to get out of the car,” Addario said. “I made the decision to lie down and crawl out the right side of the car toward my colleagues. Immediately, there was one Gadhafi’s troops on me, pulling at my cameras and, instinctively, I’m pulling back.”

Addario then realized she needed to let go of the camera, and both the journalists and troops all ran to the other side of a cement building. The government soldiers accused them of being spies and held a rifle to each of their heads.

“They put us down in the dirt,” Addario said. “We stared down, literally, the barrel of the rifle and begged for our lives. I remember looking to the right and seeing us all begging, and I, myself, was begging, ‘Please don’t shoot.’ Eventually, a commander came over and said, ‘You can’t shoot them, they’re American.’ ”

The four of them were then tied up and put in the back of a vehicle, “packed like sardines.”

“With my experience with war, I assume this is where they take me to rape me and, so, I just said ‘Please don’t hurt me,’ ” Addario said. “A soldier came up, punched me in the face and then they left us sitting on the front line for hours. For the first three days, we were all beaten, tied up, blindfolded, threatened with execution, repeatedly, and terrified, and this went on. I, the only woman, was groped. I was not raped, fortunately.”

Gadhafi later let them go free because he wanted to show the world he was a legitimate leader. The New York Times later sent a team to investigate what happened to the driver, but he was never found.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario speaks about her life and career covering conflict and human rights issues on Monday in the Amphitheater, opening the week on “Resilience.” KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Later, Addario worked in Sudan, covering the civil war in the country. On a small island, she met a 12-year-old boy, Chuol, who had seen his father burned alive by Sudanese government soldiers who were raiding his home. Chuol had jumped into the water with his grandmother and sister, and the three lived off of lily pads for two months, until they met Addario. Chuol was the man of the family, so it was his responsibility to take care of his grandmother and sister while going to a UNICEF school. The family’s goal was to get to Kenya so Chuol could pursue an education. Chuol, his sister and his grandmother did not know what happened to Chuol’s mother and other siblings. 

Addario tried to find her but only knew her name and village. Six months later, she got an assignment for a different publication to go to Lair — where Chuol was originally from — and realized his mother might be there. 

“So I went to Lair, and it was like killing fields,” Addario said. “There were skeletons everywhere and people had not eaten in months because there were no aid workers who had been providing to them.”

The next day, however, 17,000 people gathered for food from an aid agency. Addario doubted she could find Chuol’s mother in the crowd if she was there, but then a few of the workers said they found her. Addario approached the woman and asked her questions only Chuol’s mother would know the answers to. The woman knew them, and Addario realized she had found Chuol’s mother, and burst into tears.

Addario then met Chuol’s siblings and showed them the cover of the New York Times with a photo of  their brother. Addario filmed a video of the family for Chuol — his mother told him not to come to them until he graduated and got his education. When Addario then visited Chuol and showed him the video, “he was stoic, and I said, ‘Chuol, what do you think?’ He said, ‘I must get educated.’ ”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked Addario about her experience with the Taliban, and her thoughts on its recent takeover of Afghanistan.

During her three trips to the country under Taliban rule, Addario saw how oppressed Afghan citizens were. She has been making a lot of appearances on TV news channels and was on CNN the morning of the lecture. In one article she published in The Atlantic on Monday, she wrote about a “very grim future” for women in Afghanistan.

“I have been trying to show people,” Addario said, “Afghans love their country. They’ve been so happy to rebuild it over the last 20 years, and no one is happy to have to leave, but it is really a matter of life and death for most of them.”

She keeps in touch with people who helped her during her reporting, including a translator who was trampled at the Kabul Airport. 

“She lost control of her 2-year-old. She watched another baby get stepped on, and she doesn’t know if that baby is the baby who died on Saturday, but she’s super traumatized,” Addario said. “Everyone’s traumatized and really desperate, and so I am basically fielding those calls all day.”

Ewalt then asked Addario what keeps her going in her work, given she has seen the worst in humanity.

“Because I believe in it. I believe it’s important for issues to be documented. I believe it’s important for the international community to intervene when necessary. We’ve so many injustices, human rights abuses that go on in conflict and outside of conflict,” Addario said. “I think that good journalism holds people accountable.”

Duke’s Farahany explores dangers, promise of brain monitoring tech

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NICK DANLAG – STAFF WRITER

Nita Farahany, the founding director of The Duke Initiative for Science & Society, gives a remote morning lecture on the ethical implications of neurotech developments Thursday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Nita Farahany started her Chautauqua lecture with an old adage: Don’t ever put anything in writing you don’t want to see on the front page of The New York Times. She said, however, this is outdated, and  soon people should not even think — let alone write — about anything they don’t want to be broadcasted. 

Humans have thousands of thoughts a day, she said, with specific neurons firing depending on what part of the brain the mind uses. 

“As a thought takes form, like a math calculation or a number or words, neurons are interacting in the brain, creating minuscule electrical discharges,” Farahany said. “When you’re in a dominant mental state like relaxation, hundreds of thousands of neurons are firing in the brain, creating concurrent electrical discharges and characteristic patterns that can be measured.”

At 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 19, Farahany’s pre-recorded lecture was streamed into the Amphitheater, concluding the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Eight theme, “The Human Brain: Our Greatest Mystery.” It was the first Amp lecture of the season delivered virtually due to the speaker’s health concerns.

Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University and the founding director of The Duke Initiative for Science & Society and chair of the Duke master’s program in bioethics and science policy, discussed potential uses of brain monitoring, the ethical debates around companies and governments using it, and her own opinion that society should strive to protect self-determination of individual citizens around the technology — while also limiting the ability for organizations to take away people’s rights to their own thoughts.

Farahany showed the audience a recording of her own brain activity, which was an array of different colors constantly changing shades.

“What’s really interesting isn’t just how pretty my brain is. I do think I have a lovely brain,” Farahany said. “Actually, the fact is that those characteristic patterns can be decoded and parsed in great detail.”

Companies are heavily investing in brain monitoring technologies, such as video games where the controller is a person’s mind, cars that alert people when they are drowsy, robotic limbs that move from signals from the brain, swarms of military drones controlled by thoughts, and visible feedback to show people when they are focusing or in a state of mediation. 

Nita Farahany, the founding director of The Duke Initiative for Science & Society, gives a remote morning lecture on the ethical implications of neurotech developments Thursday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“This can be really powerful for things like ADHD. Training with a video game using one of these headsets, trying to get a golf ball into a hole, it turns out, can be more powerful if you’re able to complete about 20 hours of one of these games than even being on some ADHD drugs,” Farahany said.

Jack Gallant, one of her favorite neuroscientists, published a study in 2011 in which people lay in a fMRI machine and watched a series of YouTube videos. The machine recorded the brain activity of the subjects, and Gallant was able to “decode,” Farahany said, their thoughts to recreate a rough image of what they were viewing. 

“He essentially built a dictionary, a library, an algorithm that can start to predict if you see this type of blood-oxygenation level, this is what it means in the brain. This is where the images are that you see,” Farahany said. “He then reconstructed, just based on brain activity alone, what the images were. They are a little bit blurry. It’s not a perfect representation, but it’s pretty remarkable.”

Previously, only doctors had the technology to see into the brain’s inner workings, but now, and more so in the future, everyday citizens will have access. 

“Which raises the question: Should you have direct access to this information? Should it go through an intermediary, somebody who can interpret it for you?” Farahany said. “Is there a right to self-access? If there is, is there a corollary right to be able to do more than just access your brain? Can you change it as well?”

In sports, any physical enhancements, such as performance-enhancing drugs, are considered to give the athlete an unfair advantage. Common belief is that competitions should be won through innate physical gifts and hard work.

“Is this just what we are doing in society, or what we’re doing in humanity?” Farahany said. “Aren’t we always trying to enhance our own brains? Is that just part of what it means to flourish as a human being?”

International chess competitions, Farahany said, have banned the use of memory-enhancing pills, because they give advantages to the user, and chess players are required to take drug tests before playing. 

And she said sports industries are not the only ones interested in brain-monitoring technologies. She said many tech companies like Facebook are “all-in.” The social media giant recently released an update on their computer-brain interface. In the study, they researched people who already had a brain chip to control epilepsy, and they were able to correctly predict what a person was going to say before they said it, which could be used for people with debilitating paralysis.

The time has come to recognize cognitive liberty so that we can embrace the promise of neurotechnology, while safeguarding human flourishing.”

—Nita Farahany
Founding Director,
The Duke Initiative for Science & Society 

Facebook has already bought Control Labs, a leading company in the field, and is working on actual reality games, which are video games that interact with real life — such as Pokémon GO — and virtual reality games that use only the players’ thoughts to play, as well as computers that do not use a keyboard or a mouse.

Elon Musk is another figure in the brain monitoring industry. Recently, Musk released a video of a chimp playing a simple video game through a brain-monitoring headset.

Some of the efforts have been noticeably well-intentioned, Farahany said. IKEA, for example, wanted to create affordable artsy rugs for art lovers, but when they released the products, lines turned into brawls and the products were immediately sold online for thousands of dollars, which is called scalping. 

So, IKEA used a technology that tracked a person’s mental reaction to art, and customers could only buy pieces that they had a noticeable mental engagement with. The process worked, Farahany said, and no fights occurred and none of the art was scalped later. 

Though IKEA and its customers had a good experience with the application of the technology, Farahany said neurological surveillance needs to be limited. 

“I, for one, am not ready to hand over the keys to my brain to be part of the greater surveillance economy that has been expanding so rapidly in recent years,” Farahany said. “Especially since it isn’t just corporations, but also governments, (which) are all in when it comes to investments in the human brain.”

Every brain is unique, and Farahany said each person has a “biometric identity” that could be used in the future to unlock a laptop, or for government identification purposes.

Some governments are already implementing the technology. In a class in China, students wore headsets that had different lights that would shine based on how focused they were. Not only would it shine on their head, but they were connected to a console in front of the teacher so they could easily be monitored. The data was shared with the school and parents. The government of China also had access to the data, but Farahany said it was unclear what they were using the information for. 

“How does that affect human development? How does it quell the possibility of any dissidents or resistance, the ability to fantasize?” Farahany said. “How would that impact your ability to truly flourish, to grow, to think something novel and different?”

She said this will likely have a deep impact on children’s creativity and imaginations, and that most innovators have had their greatest ideas while their minds were wandering.

“I worry that we may have a slight increase in productivity; that is, the efficiency of the number of hours a person spends paying attention, and a plummeting result of the quality of their output as creativity starts to decline,” Farahany said.

Society, Farahany said, needs more protection around brain monitoring. Currently, there are no explicit protections around neurological surveillance in the U.S. Constitution. 

Nita Farahany, the founding director of The Duke Initiative for Science & Society, gives a remote morning lecture on the ethical implications of neurotech developments Thursday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

But she also stressed the right for people to choose what kind of technology they would like for themselves, such as the keyboard-less computer or more effective ADHD treatment.

“The time has come to recognize cognitive liberty so that we can embrace the promise of neurotechnology, while safeguarding human flourishing,” Farahany said. 

As part of the Q-and-A session, which Farahany conducted live from her home in North Carolina, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked Farahany to talk more about IKEA using brain monitoring to sell art. When she discussed IKEA earlier in the lecture, as the audience reacted, an alarm went off in the distance.

“I also feel like,” Ewalt said, “that was Chautauqua just raising an alarm because of our love for the arts, as well as the implications of what that means, and measuring what loving art means, and who gets to define that.”

Farahany said the technology was first developed for museums, and scientists tracked the brain patterns of people viewing different works of art and asked them later how they felt about each. They noticed an innate reaction within the brain for pieces that the person likes. The technology was also used to recommend similar works of art. Farahany said it brings up the interesting question of what is defined as love.

“What does that do to how we think about our own appreciation of art, that you have to have an objective measure in your brain that somebody can visualize, and that that’s the true mark of what counts as appreciation?” Farahany said. “Our experience of appreciating art will start to be narrowed. It’s only if you love it that it counts. Well, actually, if I’m disgusted by it, then the artist has achieved something that they were trying to achieve as well, potentially.”

Neuroscientist Marlin explores how trauma can impact brain structures of future offspring

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NICK DANLAG – STAFF WRITER

Bianca Jones Marlin, principal investigator at Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, speaks Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

During World War II, the Netherlands faced nine months of starvation because the country decided to protest the transport of Nazi troops. The country’s future children would face a strange phenomenon: higher rates of metabolic issues like hypertension and diabetes.

“If there is no food, something like diabetes is actually adaptive. It’s beneficial. You’re able to hold onto the sugar that you are taking in, but when we’re living in the land of plenty, that’s when it becomes a problem,” said Bianca Jones Marlin. “So scientists started to see this emergence of a metabolic memory of the past living on (in people) who had never experienced the trauma.”

Marlin is the principal investigator at Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, where she researches the mechanism of transgenerational inheritance of environmental information. At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday in the Amphitheater, Marlin presented her lecture, titled “Nature, Nurture and the Science of Parenthood,” as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Eight’s theme of “The Human Brain: Our Greatest Mystery.” Marlin discussed her own research on oxytocin in the brains of mother and virgin mice, how fears can be passed down through generations, and what her work might entail for humans. 

Human babies show their emotions by laughing and crying, and other young mammals perform the same actions, especially when signaling for care. Take mice pups, which are the subject of much of Marlin’s work. These critters become cold very quickly, so whenever they are removed from the nest, they make ultrasonic vocalizations, which humans can’t hear, for help.

“I want you to know that it’s not allowed in the Marlin Lab to abuse mice,” Marlin said. “We use mice with such care and appreciation for the life that they give to us, so we can give life to humanity.”

While mother mice are quick to bring the young pups back to the nest, mice that have not given birth, which Marlin called virgin mice, are unlikely to do so. Virgin mice are more likely to leave the pups out in the cold, or sometimes cannibalize them. 

Bianca Jones Marlin, principal investigator at Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, speaks Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

So Marlin and other researchers wanted to know why there was this difference between mother and virgin mice, and where their brains vary. 

She thought oxytocin was at the center of all this. Oxytocin is released through activities like talking, eye contact and soft touch, but also during birth. 

“Given we see a change in virgins to mothers, is oxytocin the magical ingredient that makes that happen?” Marlin said. “Given the first sound that a mother will hear after birth is the sound of the litter crying, is the auditory cortex, which is the area of the brain that processes sound, the area in which the magic happens?”

Every three hours for three days, Marlin would inject a virgin mouse, while under anesthesia, with oxytocin. Throughout the days, Marlin would remove a pup from the nest and place it elsewhere in the cage. What her team found was that virgin mice, who formerly did not retrieve the pups, were learning to after they were  treated with oxytocin. The virgin mice would also have to be housed with mother mice for some time in order to achieve the best results. 

“I think this is a very important point when we think about parenthood, network, community and support,” Marlin said. “Nature has us set up to be expert caregivers, but not on our own. There’s a learning component, and there’s a communication and society component that’s essential.”

Marlin’s team mapped the oxytocin receptors in mice brains.

“We were astounded by what we saw,” Marlin said. “We saw oxytocin receptors in the left and oxytocin receptors in the right auditory cortex. However, when we looked at them together, we noticed something. There were more oxytocin receptors in the left brain than in the right.”

Bianca Jones Marlin, principal investigator at Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, speaks Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Marlin said the left side of the brain had twice the amount of receptors as the right. This sent “chills” through Marlin’s research team, because this meant they found “a communication center, that also expressed oxytocin receptors that was lateralized,” like human brains.

Then they wanted to make sure this change in oxytocin in mice brains was necessary for spurring on more retrieval of pups, so they deactivated that part of the brain in mother mice for a day. Mother mice that used to retrieve pups stopped doing so, and Marlin and her team found that the area of mice’s brains that told them to retrieve the pups was, indeed, the left auditory center. 

Marlin then talked about her own upbringing, and why she does her work. Her parents were foster parents, so she had many nonbiological siblings.

“When we went to bed, I would hear stories of why they were in foster care, stories of abuse, stories of neglect, stories of a broken system that had separated them from their parents when they didn’t need to be,” Marlin said, and noted her own family in the audience. “Now as an adult, I realized this is what motivated my work in parental care and parental behavior. So I thank them, and my mom is here, in the corner over there. Hi, Mom.”

Marlin’s research now focuses on how trauma in parents affects brain structures and sensory experiences in their future offspring, which is called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.

One of her studies involved almonds. She would put male mice in a cage; one side would have the scent of almonds and produce a small electric shock on the mice’s feet, while the other side had nothing. The male mice would avoid that side of the cage, and she noticed their offspring would, too. 

She ended with a quote from artist Kehinde Wiley: “We are wired to care about the needs of others. I think that is in our DNA.”

Bianca Jones Marlin, principal investigator at Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, speaks Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

As part of the Q-and-A session, Amy Gardner, vice president of advancement and campaign director, asked Marlin if there was a difference between left- and right-handed mothers on the side of auditory perception in the brain. 

“The majority of the animals, 70% of the mice, who had the quieting of the left auditory hearing centers, did not retrieve, but there was 30% that consistently did,” Marlin said. “Similarly, when we silenced the right, a large percentage of them continued retrieving, but a small percentage didn’t.”

This leads her to believe that the same could be true for humans.

Gardner asked Marlin if there was a difference between how male mice retrieved pups versus female mice. 

Marlin said that while females took about 3-12 hours to start retrieving the pups after the oxytocin treatment, male mice took about three days. 

Gardner then asked Marlin if there was any research done on transgenics and the impact of structural racism. 

“We’re looking at a targeted approach. It’s a jump to really call a foot shock ‘trauma.’ I have all my students test the foot shocks and feel it on their hands,” Marlin said. “The mice are tested with the foot shock five times a day for three days, so 15 light foot shocks, 15 walking around on the carpet and touching a doorknob.”

But, Marlin said this could potentially change the mice’s sperm makeup and impact the second generation. 

“We could just think about the chronic stressors like systemic racism and how much more that could be affecting the brain and the body,” Marlin said. “That’s a question that is scary, but important.”

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