Morning Lecture Recaps

‘Our lives depend on it:’ Former U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power concluded the 2020 Chautauqua Lecture Series with a plan for how America can reach ‘diplomacy at its best’

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Of every role Samantha Power has served in her lifetime — diplomat, author, journalist, professor and scholar — none has been more meaningful than United States Ambassador to the United Nations. 

During her time as ambassador, from 2013 to 2017, Power helped mobilize 70 countries to take on ISIS, brought into force the Paris Agreement, worked with Civil Society to get prisoners out of jail and supported President Barack Obama as he leveraged contributions to end West Africa’s Ebola outbreak. 

In other words, Power said she has seen the indispensable need for diplomacy and what it can accomplish at its very best.

“The grim facts of the current moment help us appreciate just how important and how necessary diplomacy is,” Power said. 

Power’s lecture, “America’s Role in International Engagement and Leadership,” closed the 2020 Chautauqua Lecture Series and the Week Nine theme in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, “The Future We Want, The World We Need: Collective Action for Tomorrow’s Challenges,” at 10:45 a.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 28, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform

Diplomacy is necessary, first and foremost, to end conflict. More countries are experiencing some form of violent conflict in modern-day than at any other time in the last three decades, Power said. And they aren’t just increasing in numbers — conflicts are also lasting longer. The average humanitarian crisis involving the United Nations lasts more than nine years. 

“That’s almost double the duration of such crises as recently as 2014,” she said.

Conflicts often give rise to massive population movements, which are inherently destabilizing and have led to a rise in “xenophobia and nationalism across the globe,” according to Power. Close to 80 million people have been forcibly displaced across the world, this worst displacement crisis since World War II. 

“Over the last decade, this number has essentially doubled, to the point that 1% of the entire population of the globe has been forced from their homes,” Power said. 

Diplomacy is also needed to negotiate “more ambitious” global commitments to combat climate change. 

“The commitments made under the 2015 (Paris Agreement) was a starting point, not a solution,” Power said. 

Unprecedented drought and climate-induced migration already gave rise to two of the deadliest conflicts of the 21st century: the Darfur genocide and the Syrian Civil War. 

“Even in places where climate change doesn’t cause violence, it is due to cause mass displacement on a scale that is hard to fathom,” she said.

In the face of COVID-19, Power said diplomacy is essential to coordinating global action, as she did with the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Power worked alongside diplomats from 50 nations to support West Africa in ending the outbreak, but since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Power said more than 90 governments have instead restricted exports of personal protective equipment, medicine and medical devices. 

“It’s generating antagonism and a zero-sum mindset among nations to the detriment of individuals in need,” she said. 

Despite the indispensability of using diplomacy, Power said the United States and other democracies have not invested sufficiently in that “lost art.” The Pentagon and armed services have 228,000 American personnel deployed outside of the United States. The U.S. Department of State? Only around 8,000.

“The Pentagon, famously, has only slightly fewer people serving in marching bands than (the state department has) diplomats,” Power said. 

The “undervaluing” is apparent in a lack of proper funding as well, which Power said creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

“The less we engage in diplomacy, the more chaotic the world becomes, and the more chaotic the world becomes, the harder it is to convince people at home and abroad that international engagements are worth pursuing,” Power said. “We have to break out of this cycle.”

China, on the other hand, is making “gigantic investments” in diplomacy. China’s spending on diplomacy has doubled since 2013, at the same time the United States’ budget has stagnated. 

To give a sense of the trajectory, when Power joined the Obama administration in 2009, China was the eighth-largest donor nation, contributing about 3% of the U.N.’s budget. Currently, they have passed Japan as the second-largest donor.

“I believe that building a strategic relationship with China is essential,” Power said. “It’s also going to be immensely challenging.”

China is doing more with its standing than “play defense,” Power said. China is promoting national sovereignty, an interpretation that “endangers the international human rights system.”

“China is spearheading an effort, welcomed by undemocratic nations, to redefine inalienable rights as state-bestowed privileges,” she said. “China is bringing relief to many governments.”

The key question becomes: What can be done? Power offered three ideas, presented with “humility, as the task before us is genuinely daunting.” 

First, Power said America must strengthen the internal workings of its “democracy at home.” 

“No matter how many diplomats we have, our greatest weapon is the model of our democracy at home,” Power said. “Our perceived domestic strength and our perceived domestic competence has huge bearing on the willingness of other nations to follow our lead.”

Strengthening democracy at home begins with building the diplomatic core. Power said the Department of State is in crisis as many senior leaders have left, its mission is uncertain and “morale has hit rock bottom.” 

Three years into the Trump administration, more than one-third of the top positions are vacant or filled by acting officials, such as the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, which has not had a Senate-confirmed ambassador since April 2019. 

In filling the vacancies, Power said “we need to make the face of America look like America.” 

“For as long as national security has existed, it has been a field dominated by white men,” Power said.

Since the country’s founding, fewer than 1 in 10 U.S. ambassadors have been women. No American woman has served as ambassador to China, Russia, Israel, Turkey or Afghanistan.

“More often than not, those (female) ambassadors have been posted to countries considered less critical to U.S. national security,” Power said.

Power said the record of “recruiting minorities is even worse.” Only 6% of foreign service officers are African American, a mere 6% Latino. As of this summer, of the 189 U.S. ambassadors posted overseas, only seven are African American or Hispanic.

After the murder of George Floyd, Power said many African-American diplomats began speaking out about the prejudice and discrimination they have faced. As the former U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Harry Thomas Jr. put it, “You can set up all of the kumbaya panels you want, but until you see people of color being given opportunities, nothing is going to change except Band-Aids on surfaces.”

“The standard half-measures used to address these inequities just won’t do,” Power said. 

Once those positions have been filled, Power said diplomats need to focus on supporting democractic transitions and strengthening alliances among democracies. 

“The economic heft of democracies dwarfs that of even an economically potent China,” Power said. “The ability of China or Russia to silence any one country using its economic leverage is far diminished if we can coordinate our positions and stand up collectively on behalf of one another.”

Lastly, Power said diplomacy needs to take into account one of the most “underestimated forces” in politics and geopolitics: dignity. 

Why did a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire, igniting the Arab Spring? He felt humiliated. It was a matter of dignity. 

Why have many Russians supported Vladamir Putin despite their country’s stagnant economy? Partly because they believe he has restored Russia’s status as a major player on the world stage. It’s a matter of dignity.

There have been more mass, non-violent movements around the world over the past decade than at any time in recorded history. What has been at the core of these protests, the peaceful resistance that helped bring down corrupt governments? Dignity. 

In closing, Power revisited the 2014 Ebola outbreak, a time before the United States and Cuba had reestablished diplomatic ties. Nevertheless, one of the very first countries to heed president Obama’s call for global contributions was Cuba, which sent more than 200 medical professionals to the region. One of the doctors deployed was a 43-year-old Felix Baez Sarria, who was dispatched to an Ebola treatment facility in Sierra Leone. 

Sarria contracted Ebola and was airlifted to Geneva where for two days, he drifted in and out of consciousness. He almost died, but with time, pulled through and ultimately chose to return to Sierra Leone to continue working. 

“He said he needed to, that Ebola was a challenge he wanted to fight to the finish, to make sure it didn’t spread to other countries,” she said. 

Power pointed out that to save his life, multiple nations had to come together. Sarria was initially treated in the clinic where he worked, which was built with the help of the United States. From there, he was transported to a clinic run by doctors from the British Ministry of Defence. Then, Sarria was airlifted to Switzerland aboard a plane operated by an American charter service. Upon arriving, he was treated with a Canadian-developed experimental treatment. 

Every one of the stops on his itinerary was negotiated by people practicing diplomacy. To Power, diplomacy was used to make “(something) hard happen in the interest of a better world” — diplomacy at its best. 

“It will not be enough to back to a point where we proclaim that diplomacy matters, nor even to say why it matters,” Power said. “Instead, we must treat diplomacy as a top line, national and global priority, rooted in a deep-seated, broad-based, whole new appreciation of the fact that our livelihood and our lives depend on it.”

Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Fabrizio Hochschild discusses efforts of UN75 Initiative to learn people’s hopes, fears, priorities for the future

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Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Fabrizio Hochschild said the news media has covered in depth the life-threatening, physical effects of COVID-19, but the amount of people whose mental health has been impacted is much larger. 

Mental and emotional vulnerabilities come with being isolated, and many have been forced to stay in abusive households — not to mention the number who have lost their jobs, and the countless people who have needed to change their daily lives.

“Just about everybody has been subjected to the growth of uncertainty and anxiety about the future. All these are massive stresses on mental health that don’t get the attention that they deserve,” Hochschild said. “I’m afraid they will be with many of us long after we’ve discovered a vaccine.”

Hochschild hopes that the pandemic will make society more empathetic and “drop this awful, macho … approach to expressing vulnerability when it comes to mental health.”

“None of us feel inappropriate when it comes to our physical health, none of us have a problem confessing to a stomachache or a backache,” Hochschild said. “Yet, we have this terrible trend not even to acknowledge the worst depression or major anxiety disorder.”

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Hochschild gave a presentation titled “UN75 and the Future of International Cooperation,” as part of Week Nine of the Chautauqua Lecture Series themed “The Future We Want, The World We Need: Collective Action for Tomorrow’s Challenges,” in partnership with the U.N. Foundation. Hochschild discussed the UN75 initiative, the common desire for greater international communication and the importance of empathy in the reckoning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The discussion was led by Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, who asked about Hochschild’s work to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the U.N., and how that anniversary has been framed.

“There’s a sense, even before COVID struck, that we were facing this contradiction between a growing number of challenges that can only be resolved through international cooperation, and the flagging commitment to the mechanisms of international cooperation,” Hochschild said.

In order to reverse this contradiction of the growing global issues and declining interest in cooperation, the U.N. wants to inspire the people it serves, and reinvigorate the international organization.

Ewalt asked him to speak on the current state of global cooperation. One example, Hochschild said, is the U.N. Security Council.

“According to some permanent members sitting on their council, they haven’t seen it as dysfunctional, as unable to reach agreement, at any time since the Cold War,” Hochschild said. “That’s a pretty tough statement.”

The conflict in Syria, which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, is “perhaps the most painful and tragic indication” of a lack of global cooperation. Hochschild said that the U.N. Security Council has become more fragmented on these large issues that are more visible to the public, but also on issues that the majority of the council historically agreed on. 

“The last climate summit in Madrid, presided over by my own country, Chile, in the diplomatic words of many U.N. members, was really an abject failure,” Hochschild said.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed more of this lack of coherence, and that creating fractures instead of bridges has very immediate consequences, such as widespread death.

Ewalt asked about UN75, and the initiative’s efforts to learn millions of people’s hopes and fears about the future, and the focus on inviting people to discuss priorities for the future.

Hochschild said the project has focused on reaching young people in as many parts of the world as possible. He said the initiative has partnered with organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America and platforms like Facebook, in order to reach a wider audience, and has currently reached millions across all 193 countries. 

Hochschild said despite growing political divisions, there are common hopes to strengthen global cooperation.

“What is very striking in the results we’ve achieved so far … is that there is a remarkable amount of unity across political divides, across generation groups, across genders and across continents, around what people’s fears and hopes are for the future,” Hochschild said. “Maybe we should tap in more to those and build more on (them).”

Ewalt asked what people should think about in the coming months in terms of prioritizing international cooperation.

Hochschild said the pandemic and growing global dysfunction may bring changes to educational systems. He gave an example of how some educational experts have argued that children should be taught programming instead of literature, but they eventually found that most programming would be done by artificial intelligence in 10 years. 

“There’s a lot of confusion about what this brave new era means for education, but I think (it’s important to be) coping with uncertainty, coping with change and building resilience,” Hochschild said, “not the sort of silly macho resilience that I was taught about, bottling up one’s feelings and always showing a brave face.”

UNICEF’s Henrietta Fore examines challenges children face across globe, how COVID-19 has changed her work, and importance of education in global context

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Ewalt and Fore

During childhood, people experience three major turning points regarding education. At around age 5, said Henrietta Fore, they should be ready to learn.

“This means in those first 1,000 days, you need enough good nutrition so that your brain and your bones develop, so you have a full chance to both live to survive, as well as to thrive,” said Fore, executive director of UNICEF.

The second point is at age 10, when Fore said children should be able to read and understand a paragraph or short story.

“(UNICEF is) worried about the quality of education around the world, especially in the poorest communities,” Fore said. “For many of the children, 40% or 60% can graduate out of primary school without having this ability to read and comprehend a simple paragraph.”

The third turning point is at age 18, when Fore said the child should have enough secondary school foundational life skills to learn an occupational skill to make a livelihood.

“Our greatest worry is that many of the children will now drop out,” Fore said. 

She said because of the pandemic, 1.6 billion students were out of school, though some have started to go back into the classroom. Fore thinks that in the poorest countries and poorest communities, students — especially girls — are unlikely to have a chance to return to schools. In the poorest countries, she said students are tuning into class by radio and in middle-income countries, children are watching classes on TV. In high-income countries, such as the United States, she said, students go to school online.

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Fore held a conversation with Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt titled “How to Help Children Reach Their Full Potential,” as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Nine theme of “The Future We Want, the World We Need: Collective Action for Tomorrow’s Challenges,” in partnership with the U.N. Foundation. Fore discussed the challenges children face across the globe, how the pandemic has changed UNICEF’s work, and the importance of education in a global context.

UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories, helping children survive, thrive and fulfill their potential. The U.N. organization supports children across the globe, focusing on education, sanitation, and the protection of young people against violence and exploitation. Its office and caseworkers also work to improve hygiene and health among young people.

Fore said that most mental health problems start to show by age 14, and young children who have experienced trauma show mental health issues even earlier.

“They will come in (to our caseworkers) and they will draw pictures of guns firing, people getting shot and names of members of their family,” Fore said. “They are reliving (trauma), and we need to make sure that we have safe places, that they can let their feelings be expressed, that they can talk to an adult and then they can learn how to deal with those feelings of anxiety and depression.”

UNICEF has offices in every country. Fore said the best practice to solve international issues is to work with local governments, so UNICEF is deeply involved in communities.

“We are hearing from people, and they are very worried. There is an enormous challenge ahead,” Fore said.

Many countries have been experiencing floods, others droughts, and she said locusts have hit eastern Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an additional challenge to communities across the world.

Community health care workers are absolutely essential to our fabric of life, and governments need to know that these are not just policies that they’re implementing or systems or people in offices,” Fore said. “These are people.”

“The number one request our country officers had when COVID first came to us was that the governments wanted to reach out to their people in every language,” Fore said, “(in) all the local dialects, as well as in the major languages, to tell them about COVID and how they could stay safe, and what it means to wash your hands and have good hygiene.”

Because much of the world does not have ready access to water and soap, she said it is difficult for homes, schools and hospitals to have good hygiene practices. UNICEF is spreading information about the pandemic to various countries with handbills, as well as on social media.

Ewalt asked how UNICEF social workers keep children safe, and how much governments invest in these employees. 

“Community health care workers are absolutely essential to our fabric of life, and governments need to know that these are not just policies that they’re implementing or systems or people in offices,” Fore said. “These are people.”

She said these social workers are talking to parents and children in their daily lives, teaching them about immunizations, keeping children away from violence, the importance of education, and making sure the community has access to water.

“Many of (the social workers) have been falling ill. We are getting personal protective equipment out to everyone that we can. We have enormous demand around the world for this, but they risk their lives,” Fore said. “They didn’t miss a beat when COVID came. They just went out there and began talking and making sure that a community feels safe.”

Part of UNICEF’s work is also interacting with local and national governments.

“We are calling on every government to make sure that they do not cut their budgets on community health care workers,” Fore said. “All of our partners who are nonprofit organizations are trying to spread this word.”

Ewalt asked how the pandemic has affected prevention and response services for children who may be living in abusive households.

Fore said one of the ways UNICEF helps children is making sure every child can be identified by the government and has a nationality, meaning they are a citizen of a country, so they can be counted for school and have health care. As children get older, UNICEF focuses on protecting them from violence. She said one in four young people are in areas of conflict, and they sometimes are separated from their families.

“If you’re a very young child, it’s very hard to know your name, your parents’ names and the name of your village,” Fore said. “It’s hard sometimes for the caseworkers to know how to bring this child back to their family, but UNICEF does this with many of our partners, so that we reunify families; we want to be sure that children are not trafficked in these times of emergency.”

Fore said it is important to make sure the children that are safe and secure, have access to food, health care, sanitation and education. 

“If you (are) separated, it makes you very distressed, very anxious; and children can just be crying,” Fore said. “When I was in Mozambique just after the cyclone, … roofs had been blown off of most of the homes. So often, families were separated and children and families ran to the schools, because the schools’ roofs were still on.”

Rachel Bowen Pittman discusses the United Nations Association of the USA’s mission, shares actions each person can take to create a better world

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Rachel Bowen Pittman grew up in a segregated Memphis, Tennessee. At age 15, she attended a National Conference of Christians and Jews summer camp, which encouraged children to interact with other cultures and taught them how to reduce prejudice and be leaders in social justice. The second day, the counselors placed the campers into different groups based on their race, and gave different rules to each group. For example, white campers got special food, and Black campers were tasked with clean-up duty.

“As teenagers, we know we have to respect and listen to adults. We knew we wanted to rebel, but we’re afraid of the consequences,” said Pittman, executive director of the United Nations Association of the United States of America. “However, after some time, one camper stood up and crossed the line into another group to break the rule. And then one by one, we all stood up until we were united as one in protest against the counselors.”

This was a planned exercise by the counselors; the goal was to teach the campers they had collective power, and sometimes building a better world requires breaking some rules. 

Pittman spoke at 10:45 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 26, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, as part of Chautauqua Institution’s Week Nine Lecture platform, “The Future We Want — The World We Need: Collective Action For Tomorrow’s Challenges,” programmed in partnership with the U.N. Foundation. Her lecture, “Americans’ Role in Addressing Global Problems at a Local Level,” discussed what the United Nations is doing for its 75th anniversary, the effects COVID-19 has had on the globe, and actions each person can take to create a better world.

No step is too small, no movement forward will go unappreciated. Our path to a better world is real,” Pittman said.

The U.N. predicts that 71 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic by the end of 2020. Pittman said 270 million people could face acute food insecurity — more than double the number of 2019 — meaning their lives would be in immediate danger from lack of food.  

“It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the great equalizer,” Pittman said. “It, in fact, has a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable and marginalized communities.”

She also said by the end of 2020, the U.N. predicts global greenhouse gas emissions will decline by 6 percent. This decline, however, will not keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, which Pittman said would require world emissions to fall by 7.6% every year.

Pittman discussed her work with UNA-USA, dedicated to inspiring Americans to support the work of the United Nations, and how she helps members of UNA-USA tell their stories in Congress. According to the UNA-USA website, the organization has over 20,000 members and more than 200 chapters across the country. Members can participate in monthly national conference calls with U.N. experts and have a forum to voice their support for U.S. engagement at the U.N.

“Before the pandemic, I saw this framework in action by (UNA-USA) members,” Pittman said. “I escorted younger and older members around the halls of Congress, so they could advocate for full U.S. funding for the U.N. … Many of them had never taken this action before.”

Pittman said the audience needs to think about how they will participate in the global COVID-19 recovery. She said people of any age can become involved in community engagement and activism, as well as write letters about important issues to their local paper. People can also reach out to their elected officials to make sure they are endorsing laws and practices that promote equity.

“No step is too small, no movement forward will go unappreciated. Our path to a better world is real,” Pittman said.

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Emily Morris, Chautauqua Institution vice president of marketing and communications and chief brand officer. The UNA-USA website states that 60% of their members are under the age of 26, and Morris asked how that affects Pittman’s work.

“We felt that the voice of youth needed to be heard more,” Pittman said, “and we noticed that youth in general were becoming more engaged in advocacy issues, such as climate change and gender equality, so it was a natural move for us to want to engage more youth.” 

She said UNA-USA reaches out to young people in several ways, including Model U.N. programs.

Morris asked what UNA-USA would be focusing on in the next few months.

UNA-USA holds the Global Engagement Online Series — webinars featuring a variety of experts in global issues. The next one, on Sept. 9, will be about how COVID-19 is impacting the educational systems in the U.S. and abroad, especially with the start of the academic year.

And for the 75th anniversary of the U.N., UNA-USA chapters across the country are hosting virtual programs.

“We are always looking for people to advocate for the United Nations and the work of the United Nations — especially the World Health Organization,” Pittman said. “We need to fight the COVID pandemic.”

UN Foundation CEO Elizabeth Cousens discusses founding, purpose of UN, accomplishments during 75-year history, and need for greater global cooperation

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In 1796, James Phipps, a child living in Gloucestershire, England, became the subject of the first successful documented vaccination. In 1967, Marcelino Candau, then-director general of the World Health Organization, initiated a global movement to eradicate smallpox before the new millennium, which succeeded when Ali Maow Maalin, the last known individual to contact the virus, was cured in 1977.

“These three people illustrate an arc of ingenuity, determination and collective action that is one of the greatest examples of overcoming a world scourge that had wreaked havoc on human civilization for centuries,” said Elizabeth Cousens, the U.N. Foundation’s third president and chief executive officer.

Cousens said a similar arc happened after World War II, during which nearly 3% of the world population died and half the world lived on less than $1 a day. Due to the effects of the war, the United Nations was created to help reconstruct shattered economies, settle refugees and revive agricultural systems. 

“The founders of the modern multilateral system were not sentimental. The architects of the system didn’t share every value,” Cousens said. “They understood how imperfect and cruel the world could be, they’d seen the failures of the League of Nations a generation before, and they understood that their task was about both purpose and power.”

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Cousens delivered a lecture titled “This Is Not a Test: Collective Action in the Age of COVID,” opening Week Nine of the Chautauqua Lecture Series. This week is themed “The Future We Want, The World We Need: Collective Action for Tomorrow’s Challenges,” a week in partnership with the U.N. Foundation.

Cousens discussed the founding and purpose of the United Nations, its accomplishments during its 75-year history and the need for greater cooperation in the face of a pandemic.

She quoted former U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who said the U.N. was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell. 

“(The U.N.’s founders) understood that each country would benefit from an infrastructure of cooperation that could deliver critical global public goods, provide institutions an incentive for cooperation and maybe, just maybe, create a platform for our better instincts to prevail,” Cousens said.

Since the U.N.’s founding 75 years ago, Cousens said there has been “a lot of ebb and flow.” Dozens of countries gained independence, globalization distributed wealth in new ways, and 193 countries are currently represented in the U.N. — compared to 50 in 1945. During the Cold War, Cousens said the U.N. helped stabilize conflicts. After the Cold War, the U.N. helped strengthen international human rights standards, such as a commitment to ban landmines and the creation of the International Criminal Court.

She also said that 20 years of polling has shown that American citizens have widespread support for the United States, but often do not vote for political leaders based on their leadership capabilities on the world stage. This has caused some U.S. leaders to walk away from global efforts. 

“Then came COVID-19. A spiked particle, all of 125 nanometers large, that has dramatically accelerated and accentuated all of the dynamics we were already facing,” Cousens said. “We’re still deep in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, which may well get worse before we see our way through to the other side.”

Because of the pandemic and the deepest economic turndown since the Great Depression, Cousens said 71 million people are at risk of being forced into poverty, 1.5 billion schoolchildren are affected by school closures, and there has been a 30% increase in domestic abuse. 

“We are interconnected as never before,” Cousens said. “We have mutual vulnerabilities as never before, and we have incredible potential to lift each other up as never before — if we are able to summon new ways of working together, and at scale.”

Cousens said society will have to embrace new forms of cooperation, such as the Republican and Democratic governors and mayors who created the U.S. Climate Alliance, to solve issues revolving around the pandemic, inequality and climate change. Another example is the U.N. creating the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, which worked with philanthropists to raise a goal of $50 million, but has since raised $220 million.

“While it is certainly a moment of consequence, I actually don’t believe we have a real choice,” Cousens said. “Why wouldn’t we eradicate more diseases, starting with COVID-19? Why wouldn’t we consign racism decisively to the past? Why wouldn’t we act to save our only planet for our children?” 

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt. He asked Cousens to discuss her role during the 2015 adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Cousens said one of the main drivers of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) was the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) — a set of goals, such as eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, agreed upon in 2000, and expiring in 2015. 

“There was a big question of what to do next, both with the unfinished business of the MDG needs but also with the future development agenda,” Cousens said. “Alongside that, there was a growing sense that our economics, which had created so much prosperity for people around the world and so much to celebrate, was at the same time causing accumulating pressures on our planet.”

Cousens said that the SDGs, unlike its predecessor MDGs, was meant to be “universal aspirations that citizens in all countries have” and not simply what one part of the world would do for another part.

Ewalt asked how American citizens, and citizens of the world, should think about their responsibility on a global scale. Cousens’ response was simple: “just being aware, being conscious and conscientious about your place in the world and the things that you can do as an individual, such as talking to your neighbors and discussing issues in your own communities.”

She also said that people can be more aware of what they are buying and the companies they are supporting. And everyone, especially younger citizens, needs to vote.

“There’s almost nothing in a given day that doesn’t give you an opportunity to expand your own horizons, to talk to others about the issues at stake in the world and to think about ways that you can make even a small difference,” Cousens said.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham traces struggles of Founding Fathers to create a stronger system, to current partisan political climate

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In 1786, with Daniel Shays leading a rebellion and the Articles of Confederation proving to be ineffective, George Washington and the other Founding Fathers believed the newly formed United States was in peril. Presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham said people were burning prisons, court houses and other government offices, and there were even rumors of the U.S. returning to monarchy.

Henry Knox wrote in a letter to Washington that he was “in dire apprehension that a beginning of anarchy with all its calamities has approached and (we) have no means to stop the dreadful work.”

“Fears of American decline are, therefore, older than the Republic,” Meacham said. “The imminence of chaos of a nation torn asunder, of a country irretrievably lost, has been a standard political trope from the beginning.”

Meacham said that this kind of political language is almost universal currently, particularly in national campaigns. 

“First, I’m neither Democrat nor Republican. I’ve voted for candidates of both parties and plan to continue to do so,” Meacham said. “The thoughts I’m offering you grow out of a historical sensibility and, I hope, an appreciation of the best of the past, not out of any particular partisan concern of the moment.”

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Meacham delivered a lecture titled “How the Constitution Endures.” Meacham discussed the differences between the struggles of the Founding Fathers to create a stronger system than the one laid out by the Articles of Confederation, and the current, extremely partisan political climate, as well how each generation of Americans has dealt with a major crisis.

He said the Constitution depends on the character of the United States’ leaders, and if citizens are willing to sacrifice individual interests in order to maintain the country. He also quoted Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Meacham said the the Constitutional order is currently in jeopardy, from freedom of the press to voting rights. He believes that the Constitution will endure if enough people choose to play by the rules, even if they are not what everyone wants them to be. But he did say the Constitution does have major problems.

“The Constitution was essential in preserving slavery and in securing white male supremacy,” Meacham said. “It was written, in many ways, to protect people who look like me.” 

He said that the Founding Fathers did not think the document “fell wholly in perfect from heaven. They knew it was the work of many flawed hands and hearts.” This is why they created ways for future generations to amend the document, and also why reformers like Frederick Douglass believed the best way forward was through amendments, and not revolutions. 

From the Civil War to the Cold War, Meacham said the U.S. has largely been in a “perpetual crisis,” and yet people have time and time again reached temporary consensus. He said each generation tends to think of itself as uniquely challenged.

“Our crisis is this: We live in an age of division, of self-absorption. We stare at screens, we filter our news to our ideological predispositions. We offer reflective opinions without thought and with increasing fervor,” Meacham said. “Yet, our common welfare, our common constitution, lowercase c, depends not on what separates us, but on what unifies us.”

The U.S. has amended its Constitution 28 times since its conception, and Meacham said that each time, people have opened their arms wider.

“Fear is more emotional than rational,” Meacham said. 

He also said people cannot, and have never, agreed on everything at all times, and that “ferocious disagreement and exhausting debate are hallmarks — inevitable hallmarks — of American politics.” 

The lecture then transitioned to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill, who asked Meacham what he thought about Joe Biden’s Aug. 20 presidential nomination acceptance speech. 

“Acceptance speeches are like inaugural addresses — more fall flat than soar,” Meacham said. “I’ve not seen reviews as universally as positive as Biden is getting. I think it’s the most effective acceptance speech since 1988 with George H.W. Bush.”

Meacham said Biden said what he needed to, which was to tell the country he was not Franklin D. Roosevelt, Washington or Martin Luther King Jr., but that he’s “a hell of a lot better than the other guy.”

He also said that President Donald Trump is running a challenger’s campaign, “though he’s the incumbent, because he’s saying ‘Joe Biden’s America will be,’ — because he’s so desperate not to have us look around and see what Donald Trump’s America is.”

Hill then asked Meacham to talk about his upcoming book, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.

Meacham was a reporter with The Chattanooga Times when he met Rep. John Lewis in a hotel in Atlanta. He knows the exact date, Thursday, Nov. 24, 1992, because he kept his notes. Meacham asked Lewis what the difference was between protests in places like Selma and Nashville, versus serving as a congressman.

“He gave a classic John Lewis answer. It was: ‘You keep fighting. You keep going,’” Meacham said. “(In) the world he was born into Feb. 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama, with his great-grandfather was born (enslaved), … his sense was, ‘Yes, it takes a long time, but it’s worth the struggle.’”

Meacham said he was lucky enough to meet many times with Lewis at different news events. 

“This is a story that I wanted to tell. He was great,” Meacham said. “We talked until about probably three weeks before he died. And one of the things that makes me a little gooey is he got a chance to read (the book). That meant a lot to me.”

New York Times Magazine’s Emily Bazelon discusses how voting was laid out by the Founding Fathers, and how the pandemic and voting suppression may affect the 2020 election

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A larger amount of mail-in ballots for the 2020 presidential election may force states, particularly swing states, to count the ballots into the next morning. 

Emily Bazelon, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and best-selling author, said the process may be slowed even more because some states have a rule that election officials cannot count ballots until Election Day in order to prevent fraud. Many ballots may arrive at the last minute, and states have never counted a large number of mail-in ballots before. 

“There may be totally legitimate reasons why the state election officials just haven’t counted all, or even a large fraction, of the absentee ballots on election night — and we should all be ready for that,” Bazelon said.

She said the media, herself included, has a broad responsibility to prepare audiences so they understand the process of counting every ballot, “as opposed to (audiences perceiving) some evidence that something fraudulent is going on.”

“I do worry about that potential for litigation, but I think the headline going into election day is that we should all be prepared to be patient,” Bazelon said, “and obviously watching to make sure that these results are fair and legitimate and regular — but not to be worrying that if we don’t have an immediate result.”

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Bazelon discussed how voting was laid out by the Founding Fathers, how the pandemic and voting suppression may affect the 2020 election, and possible Constitutional amendments that can improve American democracy, as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Eight theme of “Reframing the Constitution.” Her conversation, with Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt, was titled “Voting and the Constitution.”

Ewalt asked Bazelon to explain how the right to vote is not explicitly protected in the Constitution.

Article One describes how senators and representatives will be elected, and the fourth section states that the time, places and manner of election will be determined by each state. The 14th Amendment expanded voting rights to Black Americans, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and the Voting Rights Act ensured that voters, particularly Black voters in the South, were not subject to “overt barriers” like poll taxes and literacy tests.

“What we still are lacking is a sense that there are limits to what states and localities can do to close polling places — for example, to change the way elections are shaped in a way that can affect representation,” Bazelon said.

Bazelon said the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs. Holder “really, in some ways, gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act,” by no longer requiring that the Justice Department approve changes to the electoral process by state and local governments. Since this decision, she said thousands of polling places have closed across the country, particularly in the South.

The U.S. has also had disputes over voter identification laws, and Bazelon said tens of thousands of votes were removed since Shelby County vs. Holder if the state and local election officials found that they were “inactive voters.”

“When you see these kinds of moves that really limit the franchise, (making) it harder for people to vote,” Bazelon said, “that makes me wonder if we had this Constitutional guarantee, (we might) be better equipped to address them.”

Ewalt then asked how the April 7, 2020, Wisconsin presidential primary was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think, unfortunately, that (the) Wisconsin primary was a full-on disaster,” Bazelon said.

She said at that time, in the face of COVID-19, election officials in Wisconsin were debating how to handle the election — whether to extend deadlines for absentee ballots and what to do about workers uncomfortable staffing the polls. Bazelon said that staffing problems may occur again in November, as volunteers tend to be older retirees who may be at higher risk of the virus. 

She said Wisconsin had never had more than 2-3% of the electorate vote by mail, but saw large increases in mail-in ballots for the primary.

“They just had a lot of trouble getting all the ballots out in time and then back in time,” Bazelon said. “Wisconsin, confusingly, doesn’t have a postmark requirement for returning absentee ballots, and so there were a lot of people whose ballots were not received by election day as the law required, and they were disenfranchised. This is upwards of 10,000 people.”

Another problem — with a lack of workers and concerns of the pandemic spreading — is that cities, such as Milwaukee, closed “almost every single polling place. So you saw a big city that usually has hundreds of polling places having only a handful,” she said.

“There were these very long lines of folks lining up to vote, having to spend hours, sometimes in the rain. This is not what we want to see on election day; that’s just way too big a burden,” Bazelon said. “Unfortunately, after the election, contact tracers found that dozens of people got the coronavirus, and that may have been linked to their either working or going to the polls.”

Ewalt asked what people should pay attention to in the courts in the near future related to voting rights.

Bazelon said dozens of lawsuits surrounding voting rights are occurring, such as the Republican National Committee having $20 million in reserve to spend on election litigation. She said that the committee is trying to challenge Nevada’s plan to give everyone an application for an absentee ballot and Pennsylvania’s plan for having secure drop-off boxes for collecting mail in order to take pressure off the United States Postal Service. 

She said Democrats are trying to increase enfranchisement; for example, if a person submits an absentee ballot and their signature does not look correct, they will have a chance to verify it, which is called signature curing. She compared this to the “hanging chads” of the 2000 presidential election, where many ballots were thrown out because of the way some voters punched their ballot. 

Ewalt asked Bazelon to expand on recent discussions about Constitutional amendments, like the renewed interest in the Equal Rights Amendment.

Bazelon said people are debating an amendment setting term limits for federal judges, who can potentially serve in their position for 40 to 50 years. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, she said they did not know people would want to be federal judges in the future.

“It was kind of a crappy job. (In those days) you had to literally ride a circuit on horseback around the original states to do your job,” Bazelon said. “It wasn’t particularly prestigious, and so life tenure was this extra benefit they were dangling in front of people. Also, (there were) very different average life expectancies than they have now.”

She said people are now chosen for the Supreme Court partly because of their ages, and the hope that they will stay for many decades.

“I would argue that’s just too much power to give a small number of people, to give nine people,” Bazelon said. “They get to have the final say of the meaning of the Constitution, and in many cases law, in this country for a very extended period of time.”

But if Supreme Court Justices had staggered, 18-year terms, then every president would appoint two judges.

“We wouldn’t have the same incredible Sturm und Drang over each single appointment, because it would be much more regularized, and that I think would also be healthy for our democracy,” Bazelon.

Additionally, Bazelon said she was originally dismissive of the effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment when the push was relaunched a few years ago.

“I have changed my tune about it, in part because I watched the show ‘Mrs. America,’ which was all about the original 1970s effort to pass the ERA. I understood much better what was at stake,” Bazelon said. “This is my own lack of knowing our nation’s history, I suppose, but I understood much more that it was this foundational fight, and what they were asking for was just to be treated equally.”

She said since the 1970s, when ERA was passed through Congress — but not 35 states — many of the demands of ERA supporters have become law, and it has been harder to discriminate based on sex in the United States. Bazelon said the new ERA may address pregnancy discrimination, and, potentially, “a more secure anchor for the right to access to abortion.”

Cato Institute’s Robert Levy explores how libertarians agree and disagree liberals and conservatives on the role of the federal government

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Libertarianism is a philosophy centered on protecting private property, free markets and individual liberties. Robert Levy, chairman of the board of directors at the Cato Institute, said that libertarians tend to agree with conservatives regarding fiscal issues, and agree with liberals on social issues.

“Does that mean libertarians are philosophically inconsistent, because we agree with liberals sometimes, conservatives other times?” Levy said. “No — in fact, it’s conservatives and liberals who are inconsistent.”

The 10th Amendment says that the federal government may only exercise powers that are in the Constitution. Levy said that conservatives and libertarians tend to agree in a “tightly constrained view of the federal government, but there are a couple of key exceptions.”

Levy said that many conservatives, as opposed to libertarians, are willing to assign the federal government more responsibility, such as with hurricane relief, retirement systems and medical care. 

“Take a look at the totally effective-less war on drugs. If you look through the Constitution, you will find very few crimes mentioned: counterfeiting, treason and piracy,” Levy said. “Criminal law is typically left up to state and local governments, and yet conservatives believe because of the drug war … we can ignore that there’s no Constitutional authorization.”

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Levy discussed how libertarians agree and disagree with liberals and conservatives on the role of the federal government, and the powers the people and the Constitution gave the federal government, as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Eight theme of “Reframing the Constitution.” His lecture was titled “The Founding Fathers’ Vision.”

Levy said that Congress is supposed to enact laws — not the Justice Department or the Environmental Protection Agency. He said liberals would likely be against giving the Justice Department the ability to enact regulations for national security.

“When the same Congress delegates to the Environmental Protection Agency power to enact regulations, with no more guidance than to keep us safe from pollutants, the left applauds enthusiastically,” Levy said. “Now, could it be the pollutants are a greater threat than terrorists, or is it more likely that the left has this selective indignation about the role of government, reflecting an inconsistency in liberal mindset, just as there is inconsistency in the conservative mindset?”

Levy said that when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, and wrote that all men are created equal, with unalienable rights, he also wrote that governments are instituted “to secure these rights.”

“Notice he said secure, not grant,” Levy said. “He said secure. We already had the rights.”

The Constitution, Levy said, is not “a code of conduct. Its purpose is to limit the power of government, and secure individual liberties. It is not the people or the citizens that are required to obey the Constitution.”

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt. He asked Levy if federal legislation, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, oversteps the government’s responsibilities. 

Levy said federal legislation is doing more than it should, and the ADA specifically should not be regulating as much when it comes to private parties. He said that private parties should be able to negotiate “whatever employment agreements the employer and the employee agreed to.”

“While I think that it was a bad idea, remains a bad idea (and I believe) that employment relationships should be up to the private parties involved,” Levy said, “I nonetheless recognize this isn’t on the horizon, and there’s no proposal with the Cato Institute or by any of the experts at the Cato Institute to abolish the ADA, or for that matter any of the other anti-discrimination laws.”

Ewalt asked how limited government, such as one libertarians support, can deal with large issues that the Founding Fathers never thought of, like climate change.

Levy said libertarians mostly agree that climate change exists and is partly manmade, but there are some disagreements on how detrimental global warming will be, and a vast disagreement over what actions the federal government should take.

“The new green proposals by the Democratic Party … some of those cures may be worse than the disease,” Levy said. “Libertarians do not deny that the federal government has a major role to play in climate change because climate problems could consist of some people engaging in activities that have injurious effects on other people, and government has a meaningful role to step in and stop that from occurring.”

Ewalt then asked how Americans should go about educating themselves about the Constitution. 

Levy said that it is understandable for the public not to be well-versed in the Constitution; only a few years ago, Congress passed a bill requiring all members of Congress read the Constitution.

“In fact, it was read on the floor of Congress,” Levy said. “(For) some, I’m sure, that’s the first time they were exposed to the Constitution.”

He said everyone should be required to read and study the Constitution in school, and that there should be a much greater school choice. 

“If you’re going to learn about government, the last thing in the world you want is for the government to be running the school system,” Levy said. “So far, I think privatized education is a heck of a good deal, if not exclusively, at least as a supplement to public education.”

Hopkins scholar Martha Jones discusses history of voter suppression before and after ratification of 19th Amendment

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In the 1880s, suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began writing a history of women’s suffrage — a project that was thousands of pages long. 

“It is indeed a story that is told selectively,” said Martha Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University, “and, in particular, really minimizes, downplays, overlooks — and even erases in some moments — the role that Black American women had played in the road to the 19th Amendment.”

The 19th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago to the day of Jones’ Chautauqua lecture, and she said many will hear retellings of history that are closer to myths than facts. One of these myths is that the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote.

“It’s fair to say that no one gives American women the vote in 1920. As some commentators have put it, American women take the vote,” Jones said. “The Constitutional amendment is a decades-long battle waged by American women in the face of fears and recalcitrant opposition.”

In addition to her work at Johns Hopkins, Jones is the author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. At 10:45 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, she gave a lecture titled “The Rare Few Times the Constitution Has Been Amended,” as part of Week Eight of the Chautauqua Lecture Series theme on “Reframing the Constitution.” Jones discussed the history of voter suppression before and after the ratification of the 19th Amendment and current laws that keep American, particularly Black Americans, from the polls.

Jones said that the 19th Amendment states that a person’s sex is no longer a legitimate criteria for voting, and the word “male” was removed from U.S. voting laws. 

“Of course, there’s no guarantee in that provision. There’s no promise. There’s no requirement,” Jones said. “American women will still be kept from the polls after August of 1920 by age requirements, by residency requirements, by mental competency requirements; all of these things will continue to mediate women’s voting rights, even as sex is no longer permissible by law.”

She said that while the 15th Amendment states that race cannot be used as a criteria for voting, Southern and some western states made laws that successfully kept Black Americans from the polls. These laws included poll taxes, which was an annual fee for voters, and literacy texts, which required voters to read and provide an interpretation from the Constitution — either the federal one or an individual state’s Constitution.

“If any of you have lately looked at your Constitution and contemplated the complexity of something like the Electoral College,” Jones said, “you’ll know that many of us could not explain that provision of the Constitution, even if we could recite the words.”

Another was the Grandfather Clause, a law, Jones said, that permitted only people whose grandfather had voted before the end of the Civil War to vote. Jones said this ensured that the descendants of slaves could not vote, as the 15th Amendment was passed after the Civil War. She also said that unchecked intimidation and lynching forced many Black men away from the polls. 

“When we ask, ‘Did all American women win the vote in 1920?’ The answer is assuredly, ‘No,’” Jones said. “African-American women in too many states become equals to their fathers and their husbands, their sons, their brothers, but at the same time, they are equal only in the sense that they are equally disenfranchised, equally going to be kept from the polls.”

One example Jones gave was that, after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, officials in Kent County, Delaware, refused Black women who failed the literacy tests. And in Savannah, Georgia, election judges ruled that women were not allowed to vote because of a state law that stated voters had to be residents of a state for six months before the election, and the 19th Amendment had not been in place for six months at that time. 

Jones said Southern and western lawmakers devised laws that targeted Black women because they feared they would vote in high numbers. She said during this time, white women did not register and vote at a high rate, but Black women did, even before 1920 in states — including California and New York — where women could vote.

“African-American women had been coming to the polls for years,” Jones said. “They had proven themselves to be committed voters, proven themselves to be organized and savvy enough to overcome registration hurdles.”

In Florida, Black women created clubs that prepared one another to register and vote on Election Day. Throughout Florida, Jones said that the Klu Klux Klan organized violence against Black voters to keep them from the polls. In the city of Daytona, Jones said the terrorist organization staged an open rally, which the local paper publicized, and went from the center of the city to Bethune Cookman University in the heart of the African-American community. At Bethune, Jones said the Klan tried to intimidate the many Black college students, and community members, to prevent them from going to the polls. 

Jones said voter suppression laws currently exist, with voter ID requirements and the closing of polling stations. While these laws are “neutral on their face,” as Jones said, so were the laws that suppressed Black voters in the 1920s — and they are having a disproportionate effect on Black voters.

“I’m not a historian who thinks nothing has changed,” Jones said. “There’s too much in the story between 1920 and 2020 for us to blindly suggest that nothing has changed, even as we continue to face struggles over voting rights in our own time.”

The lecture then transitioned to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution Chief of Staff and Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Shannon D. Rozner. Rozner asked Jones to comment on Sen. Kamala Harris being chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate in the presidential election. 

Jones said a lot of people commented on Harris being the first Black American woman and the first Indian-American woman to be a presidential running mate for a major party. 

“I’m someone who really thinks it’s time to retire the distinction of ‘the first,’” Jones said. “I think where we are, is in a new historical moment, one in which African-American women are emerging really as a force, rather than as first.”

Harris was among six other vice presidential hopefuls who were Black women, and Jones said around 120 Black women will run for Congress this year, which is up from 40 in 2018. 

“That tells us that African-American women are no longer tokens, are no longer ‘first.’ They have broken, if you will, the glass ceilings, and are now coming into American politics to lead,” Jones said. “I think what Sen. Harris exemplifies and gives us an opportunity to learn more about is, what does it mean when African-American women lead in American politics?”

Rozner asked Jones to react to the breaking news that President Donald Trump would pardon suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who was arrested for voting in 1872. 

“What a cynical move that is on the part of the president, when we are in the midst of wholly fumbly access to the polls for so many Americans, including American women, in November,” Jones said.

Jones said there are people in better positions to speak on Anthony’s behalf, but she thinks that Anthony would be “decrying this administration for its unwillingness to guarantee our access to the polls in November.”

“Her arrest was a badge of honor. In many ways it was a merit badge for an activist of her generation; perhaps it’s still a merit badge today for activists,” Jones said. “I’m not convinced that Susan Anthony would welcome the pardon from Donald Trump in 2020.”

National Constitution Center’s Jeffrey Rosen opens week on ‘Reframing the Constitution’ by tracing founders’ ideals to present day

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Founding Father James Madison wanted to create a Constitutional system that ensured that reason prevailed over passion and prevented large assemblies from making hasty decisions. 

“That is why it is so difficult in the U.S. to pass a law or to amend the Constitution; you have to jump through lots of hoops to pass a law,” said Jeffrey Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the National Constitution Center. 

An amendment to the Constitution has to be proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, or two-thirds of the states have to call a special convention, then it has to be ratified by three-quarters of the states and signed by the president. Rosen said that the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid the creation of factions, which Madison defined as a group, either a majority or minority, that is dedicated to passion and self interest, rather than reason and public good. 

Madison thought that the size of the U.S. was an advantage, in that it made it hard for factions to organize themselves. Rosen said the original drafters of the Constitution, also called the framers, thought that elected representatives would ensure that the wisest people would pick the best policies.

“(The framers thought) it’ll be hard for passionate factions to mobilize, but it will allow cool representatives to deliberate in the public (eye),” Rosen said. “Sound like politics today? Well, of course, it doesn’t sound like politics today.”

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Rosen discussed how some of the Founding Fathers’ ideals are not followed in present-day politics, as well as how the the U.S. government has changed since its founding, to open the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Eight theme of “Reframing the Constitution.”

Madison’s idea that the size of the U.S. would make factions harder to form no longer applies, Rosen said, because technology makes it easy to find and organize with like-minded people. And on Facebook, fake news often reaches more people than real news. 

“People are more likely to share a post with inaccurate information and a really inflammatory headline without reading it, just because it seems so outrageous,” Rosen said. 

Rosen said that historians have found that the U.S. is the most polarized it has been since the Civil War. 

“In 1960 in Congress, there was a 50% overlap between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrats,” Rosen said. “Today, there is zero overlap. It means that both parties are much more extreme than they were before, and are much less likely to find common ground.”

Since the Constitution was drafted, Rosen said that political parties have risen, which Madison did not anticipate. Because everyone recognized George Washington as “someone who is above party,” Rosen said, the framers — including Madison and Alexander Hamilton — assumed that legislators would do their work without the influence of political parties. 

“Almost as soon as the system got started, it began to operate in a way that was different than the framers expected — and that was because of the rise of parties,” Rosen said.

Rosen said that discussing and listening in person is no longer how Congress makes decisions. 

“The parties are so polarized, they’re refusing to deliberate. They’re putting through major legislation on party-line votes,” Rosen said. “Both the major achievements of President Obama and President Trump, the Affordable Care Act and the tax cut, passed with zero votes from the other side.”

But this was not the case as recently as 2006, he said, when the expansion of the Voting Rights Act passed with large bipartisan support under President George W. Bush, but then “the Supreme Court struck that down in the Shelby County case.”

“Whether you agree with the majority or the dissent in the Shelby County case, it’s pretty striking, isn’t it, that as recently as 2006 we could have major bipartisan legislation?” Rosen said.

Further, the powers of the president are different than what Madison originally believed they should be. The Constitution itself gives the president very few powers, but Article Two gives the president the power to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to ensure laws are faithfully executed and to nominate ambassadors, judges and other officials with the consent of the Senate. 

Rosen said that from President Ronald Reagan to President Donald Trump, the number of executive orders issued by presidents has risen. He said that the Supreme Court has challenged executive orders, such as Obama’s executive order that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and Trump’s executive order to phase out the program.

The framers, including Hamilton, who Rosen called “the rap star of the moment” due to the musical Hamilton, supported judicial review of laws. In the musical, and real life, Hamilton believed that judges should choose the will of the Constitution, which he said represented the will of the people, over ordinary laws, which represented the will of legislators. 

But people disagree if the original Constitution truly represents the will of everyone. 

“Not everyone agrees that the original Constitution, passed by a bunch of white men, many of whom were slaveholders in Philadelphia, from which African Americans and women and other groups were excluded, … does represent the will of the people,” Rosen said. 

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill. As the National Constitution Center recently partnered with The Atlantic for a project called “The Battle for the Constitution,” which argues that the nation is in a fourth battle over the document, Hill asked Rosen about the first three battles, and why he believes a new battle is occuring. 

Rosen said the first three battles were the American Revolution, the Civil War and the New Deal, and each represented a moment of rethinking principles. The Revolutionary War led to the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, then the Constitution — because the framers wanted a central government strong enough to control the country’s defense and economy, while being constrained enough to protect individual rights.

The Civil War, which Rosen called the second battle of the Constitution, led to the end of slavery and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The third battle, the New Deal, centered around the Supreme Court giving President Franklin Roosevelt broader federal powers in order to give economic aid.

Rosen said the fourth and current battle revolves around whether certain agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Protection Bureau and the United States Postal Service, should have broad scope in which to operate. He said the outcome of the presidential election will decide if this battle continues or is resolved.

Hill then asked what Rosen’s prognosis was on the divisiveness of the present moment, and what the average person should be looking at more closely.

“(We need to) move past an age of Twitter, and the cable news and making quick decisions by a soundbite, and just take the time to sit down together and look each other in the eye,” Rosen said. “Your wonderful questions and your willingness to listen to my attempts at answers are what give me hope.”

Author, international human rights attorney Flynn Coleman discusses making AI more empathetic, the importance of non-human intelligence


Billye is a Giant Pacific Octopus who lives in the Seattle Aquarium. Billye and other octopodes have learned to open jars — they can even open medicine bottles with childproof lids. 

“While (octopodes) have a good-sized central brain, two-thirds of their neurons are in their eight arms controlling hundreds of suckers,” said Flynn Coleman, author and international human rights attorney. “They use distributed intelligence to perform multiple tasks simultaneously and independently: something that the human brain cannot do.”

Much of the conversation around artificial intelligence is how machines can mimic the human brain, which Coleman said is thought to be the “gold standard” for organic intelligence. While the human brains have a lot of promise due to their complexity, they also present problems.

“We do not fully understand our own brains, nor do we even have a universally accepted definition of what human intelligence is,” Coleman said. “We don’t know exactly why we sleep or dream. We don’t know how we process memories. We don’t know whether we have free will, or what consciousness is or who has it.”

Coleman said these unknowns make the task of coding a human brain very difficult, so scientists may have to look toward minds of other species, such as octopodes. She said Billye’s distributed approach to problem solving may be well suited to making robots that explore distant planets.

“The range of skill ingenuity and creativity of our biological brethren on this planet is astounding,” Coleman said. “We have a proclivity to only weigh their intelligence and skill in relation to our own. This human-centric view is limiting at best and dangerous at worst.”

Coleman is the author of A Human Algorithm: How Artificial Intelligence Is Redefining Who We Are and has worked with the United Nations, the United States federal government and organizations around the world. At 10:45 a.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, she discussed how people can make AI more empathetic, as well as the importance of non-human intelligence, to close the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Seven theme of “The Science of Us.”

Coleman said the original computer — the human brain — has 100 billion neurons and 2.5 petabytes of memory, and has served humans for around 100,000 years.

“It is hard to overlook that it needs constant fueling to perform at even minimal levels,” Coleman said. “We all know how notoriously slow it can be to boot up in the morning.”

She said people are becoming more reliant on machines and more immersed in virtual life.

“A new era is upon us, and our lives are so seamlessly merging with the digital world that many of us don’t even notice,” Coleman said. “That is, until a global pandemic thrust us into a primarily digital existence, exposing both the promise and the frailties of the technological systems we have.”

These frailties include many people having no access to a laptop or a smartphone, according to Coleman. She also said that society is more focused on advancing technology and creating AI that is better at predicting outcomes, than how these tools will define the lives of current and future generations. 

To address concerns about technology, Coleman said people need to address their own assumptions about the world, and “paradoxically, we also need to ask what technology can teach us about being human.”

Almost every major human achievement has been the result of our ability to collaborate, not the genius of some individuals, according to Coleman. 

“Experts can often be the worst forecasters because they can be dogmatically siloed in their fields, and invested in being right,” Coleman said. “However, beginners, who have a fresh take without a stake in being the best, can often help us see what specialists cannot.”

Coleman said the technology mirrors its designers, and that a diverse group of participants is necessary in creating a fair and ethical AI. 

“AI and computerization will be the biggest disruptors in the history of labor economies, and the challenges of the fast-spreading novel coronavirus have exposed the inequities in our societies, and how many essential workers are significantly undervalued and excluded,” Coleman said. “We’re going to have to reimagine our relationships with work and tap into our innate sagacity and creativity to navigate this brave new world.”

Along with octopodes, Coleman said other animals have incredible intelligence, from the memories of pigeons, spiders spinning webbed balloons to fly, and bees using dance to communicate complex information to their colonies.  

“This is possibly the last frontier of scientific invention — maybe our chance to embrace our human limitations and to expand our worldview beyond ourselves,” Coleman said. “The science of us must have the broadest possible definition. Being willing to admit other species are brilliant could be the smartest thing we can do.”

Coleman said that part of building better AI is looking at humans’ worst tendencies and improving society. 

“We don’t need to save ourselves from robots, we need to save robots from ourselves today,” Coleman said.

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution Vice President of Marketing and Communications Emily Morris. Morris asked Coleman how her work as a human rights attorney connects to her work with technology.

Coleman worked with the Genocide Prevention Center in 2001, where they used satellites to look for evidence of war crimes, such as mass burial cites. 

“I kept thinking it’s not enough, because everyone is already dead and gone,” Coleman said. “While it’s so important to have a record of abuse and the things that have happened, the worst things we can do to each other, I thought, ‘How can we do more?’”

Coleman then looked into artificial intelligence and saw the field needed a human right’s perspective, which led her to writing A Human Algorithm: How Artificial Intelligence Is Redefining Who We Are.

Morris asked Coleman how the average person could get involved with making ethical AI.

Coleman said that the fields of programming and other technology are not the only aspects of society that need more inclusion; it’s needed at “every echelon of leadership” from the school boards to local government.

“We can, inch by inch, brick by brick, take tiny actions every single day. Your life is a million tiny moments, mostly unseen,” Coleman said. “How can you serve another today? How can you care for someone else? How can you amplify someone else’s voice? How can you stand up for social justice with whatever skills you have at hand?”

Author Kent Nerburn relays what he has learned and unlearned from telling the stories of Native Americans

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Before Kent Nerburn became an author, he was a wood sculptor. He changed his career after being hired in northern Minnesota to help high school students conduct a two-year oral history project interviewing Red Lake Ojibwe elders in 1988.

“I soon realized that I was in the presence of a way of living and believing that had a depth unlike any I had experienced in my typical American way of growing up,” Nerburn said. “And it was a way that perfectly fit my hunger for a spirituality that honored the mystery and life, but did not demand exclusivity or divide people between insiders and outsiders.”

After being struck by the suppressed history and worldview the Ojibwe elders described, he has written 17 books on the Ojibwe, Lakota and Nez Perce tribes. Nerburn’s lecture, “Quiet Voices, Important Truths: Life Lessons from the Native Way,” was released at 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 12, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform.

Nerburn recorded his lecture from his Oregon home, as part of Week Seven’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Spirituality of Us.” He reflected on his career switch and lessons he has learned from listening to and writing about Native American history, culture and spirituality.

When Nerburn was still a wood sculptor, he felt almost guilty for carving his ideas into trees. To him, it felt like he was imposing ideas onto something with a living soul. And for many Native Americans, there is a life force in trees. Nerburn said the Iroquois have carved masks from live trees so the spirit of the tree is imbued in the mask. Some tribes on the northwest coast of British Columbia carve faces in trees and then let the faces change as the tree grows.

Nerburn’s work collecting and sharing Native stories for the past 30 years isn’t done, which means he’s not done learning, either.

“There are so many stories I could tell, and so many stories I am still learning,” Nerburn said.

He first came across the work of Native philosophers and leaders while working with the Ojibwe students in 1988. He quoted Dakota philosopher Ohiyesa, also known as Charles Eastman:

“We have always preferred to believe that the spirit of God is not breathed into humans alone, but that the whole created universe shares in the immortal perfection of its maker,” Eastman wrote. “We believe that the spirit pervades all creation and that every creature possesses a soul of some degree, though not necessarily a soul conscious of itself. … We see no need for the setting apart of one day and seven as a holy day. For to us, all days belong to God.”

Nerburn found his purpose in listening to and sharing the stories and lessons from Native people, opening a door for the rest of the world to learn with him from Native American perspectives and life lessons he details in his work. In his lecture, he read two sections from his book Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way.

In one section, “Stones for the Sweat: All People Should Be Made to Feel Needed,” he described a Nez Perce man’s account of his ancestor Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph. The man also described responsibilities for children and elders when he was a child. While children were tasked with braiding horse bridles, elders made community decisions based on their breadth of life experiences.

“It granted them an unassailable status and responsibility that belonged to them and no one else,” Nerburn read.

In the second section, “The Old Man in the Café: Spirit is Present in All of Creation,” Nerburn described his chance encounter in a café with a Native man who in his youth had been forcibly sent to the Fort Totten Indian Boarding School, which Nerburn was researching at the time. The U.S. government created schools like Fort Totten to forcibly assimilate Native American children.

“I learned Good English,” the man said to Nerburn. “I learned Good Christian. But I am no longer myself.”

Children who were initially taught to learn from their elders were forced into these schools to learn the ways of the dominant U.S. culture and Christian religion. White teachers told children that their elders would go to hell for their beliefs.

“This man, for all his class and manner and sanguine outlook, was the very embodiment of what we as a nation had done to the Native peoples, who had stood in our path as we pushed our way across the continent,” Nerburn read.

Part of Nerburn’s work requires him to unwind the United States’ systemic damage done to Native Americans and Native values. In his research, Nerburn found out a government leader in charge of Native training and education in the 1870s had said that the Indians need to learn the “exalted egotism of America” — in other words, to think of “I” rather than “we.”

Nerburn said that while Native Americans have worked to uphold this value of “we,” the rest of the United States has yet to learn this, especially in light of some people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

Nerburn sees an opportunity during the pandemic for everyone to reconsider societal priorities and values; to look out for group needs rather than individual needs.

“Every child in America right now is being influenced by (the pandemic),” Nerburn said. “When we get through this — if we don’t sacrifice them all on the altar of normality by sending them back to school or putting them in bad situations — every kid in the world that went through this will have something in common with every other kid. And as their time comes, they’ll remember that and look at themselves as part of the human family.”

Nerburn’s work calls people to pay attention and listen to Native stories. After speaking with Native people for 30 years, there is one phrase that he’s heard over and over again: White people need to listen.

“The first thing we need to do is to stop controlling and start to listen,” Nerburn said. “And that takes away the sense of responsibility for mastery. I think that’s really the key to the Native way of understanding — to accept rather than to master.”

Science journalist and author Angela Saini discussed the origins of the social construct of race, the history of racial science and its lingering threads in science and politics

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Some people think of race, as science journalist Angela Saini said, “as a biological entity, something that resides within your body.” But this idea could not be further from the truth, and racial categories that people use now were created during the time of the European Enlightenment. Philosophers and naturalists of this era were categorizing the natural world, so Saini said they did the same with humans.

“They were doing this with a huge absence of knowledge, because of course many of these people had not traveled the world,” Saini said. “They didn’t understand, for example, how to separate culture and language from biology or genetics.”

Saini said that these categories were almost-randomly created, with some people believing that there were a few races, and others that there were thousands. Before the Enlightenment, she said that the word “race” was used in reference to small tribes or families. Race now commonly refers to continents of people “united under one biological banner.”

“We try and read by race using genetics, and we always fail,” Saini said.

As well as being a journalist, Saini is the author of Superior: The Return of Race Science, which traces the history of long-held beliefs of biological racial differences in the world of science. At 10:45 a.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Saini was in conversation with Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt on the topic “The Return of Race Science.” Their conversation was part of Week Seven of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, themed “The Science of Us.” Saini discussed the origins of the social construct of race, the history of racial science and its lingering threads in science and politics.

Ewalt asked why doctors tell patients that different races are more predisposed to certain illnesses.

Saini said that the difference between humans is not random, and people are more genetically related to their family. The more extended the relationship between family members, she said, the weaker the genetic relationship. 

“Historically, we have tended to live near kin. This isn’t so much the case for people these days,” Saini said. “Certainly not in my case, because I’m the children of immigrants — but historically, people have tended to live in the place where their ancestors have lived.”

When people live for generations in the same area or village, Saini said people could tell which village an individual was from slight, physical traits. As people looked at bigger areas, such as states and countries, these genetic similarities went away quickly. 

“When you get to the continental level, which is the level at which we’re talking about racial differences, then it’s almost meaningless,” Saini said. “It has almost no statistical power whatsoever.”

Saini said that racial differences are often brought up in health, such as the sickle cell trait. Black Americans have higher rates of the trait than white Americans, so she said many people assumed that it was a result of race. Saini said that the sickle cell trait is not unique to Black people; the trait is traced to areas of the world where malaria is common, because it provides a resistance to the virus. 

“It is not a racialized condition. It’s only because of the demographics of the U.S. that it looks like a racialized condition,” Saini said. “Even then, it is not common enough or prevalent enough in only Black Americans to justify different health policies.”

Ewalt asked Saini to discuss the origins of race science.

“It is made real by politics. That is how race works,” Saini said. 

Saini said scientists sometimes treat social constructs, like gender, as biological instead of cultural. Naturalist Charles Darwin, for example, noticed that women had different jobs than men, so he concluded that women were less evolved and naturally less intelligent than men. 

When you have, for hundreds of years, used the premise of race as the basis for studying human difference, you can’t abandon that overnight,” Saini said. “Even though you may be committed to this idea of anti-racism, even though you may not be a eugenicist anymore, you don’t shed that baggage overnight. It lingers in the way that you think about people.”

“Of course, there is no scientific connection there,” Saini said, “just an observation he’s made culturally, and then drawn a kind of scientific conclusion out of it.”

Ewalt asked how race science developed after World War II.

Saini said that many 19th-century race scientists had ungrounded ideas around race — for example, the idea that Black people who escaped from their enslavers were ill, as it was assumed at the time that “to be enslaved was a kind of natural condition of Black people.”

She said that after the Holocaust showed what happens when eugenics is “taken to its horrific logical conclusion, which is such a race is inferior, how do we eliminate them,” the global scientific community moved race out of biology and into social sciences. 

“When you have, for hundreds of years, used the premise of race as the basis for studying human difference, you can’t abandon that overnight,” Saini said. “Even though you may be committed to this idea of anti-racism, even though you may not be a eugenicist anymore, you don’t shed that baggage overnight. It lingers in the way that you think about people.”

Saini said one such anti-racist scientist was Luka Cavalli Swartz, one of the founders of the field of population genetics. When Saini talked to Swartz before his death in 2018, she said he referred to mixed-raced people as “hybrids,” which she said is “completely the inappropriate language because, of course, we are not different breeds.”

“I still see that phrase being used in far-right circles and by scientific racists today, and yet here was this anti-racist scientist using that kind of language,” Saini said. “That is the problem that we have, but even in very well-intentioned people within the sciences, there is that lingering remnant of thinking about people in this kind of racialized way.”

Ewalt asked how else race science can be seen in 2020.

Saini said the use of racial categories as biological ones can be seen within the COVID-19 pandemic. With differences in deaths and critical infections between racial categories in the U.S. and United Kingdom, she said prominent geneticists and medical researchers are publicly speculating that there might be a genetic reason for the difference. 

Saini said that Black Americans have always experienced racial disparities in health, including dying of “almost everything at greater rates than white Americans.” She also said that “many, if not most” people socially defined as Black in the U.S. have mixed ancestry. 

“How plausible is it to say that this very diverse group of people, socially defined as Black, are so genetically disadvantaged that they will die of everything at greater rates than everybody else? That just doesn’t make any logical sense,” Saini said. “You don’t even need to be an epidemiologist to know that that doesn’t make logical sense.”

Ewalt then asked Saini about her interactions with scientists who believe they are truly objective, and do not acknowledge their bias.

Saini said that she has met many scientists who readily admit that science in the past was biased, and that race science and eugenics are pseudosciences. But those same people are not able to admit that current scientists might have bias and are affected by politics. 

“So many scientists still behave as though they sit above culture, not like any other human being,” Saini said, “almost like an ethereal, deity-like creature that isn’t affected by what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

As a journalist, she is alarmed when a person tells her they are perfectly objective.

“When somebody says that to me, I know that I have to be careful, because that means they’re not examining their own biases; that means they’re not taking them into account, and they’re much more likely to make mistakes,” Saini said. “It is possible, theoretically possible at least, to achieve objectivity, but only by examining your own biases and taking them into account.”

Saini then talked about her own biases. While she was working on Superior, she expected scientists to tell her that there were loose ties between the color of someone’s skin and their health. Instead scientists told her, “‘This is just nonsense, racist nonsense.’ High-level geneticists telling me again and again that there is absolutely no tangibility to this idea.”

“That was, for me, a real shock to my sense of identity,” Saini said. “I’ve had emails from people, especially children of immigrants like myself or immigrants like myself, who feel that there’s something deep down that connects them to the place that their ancestors are from. That there’s something within them, that makes them who they are.”

Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic origins of QAnon and the harms it has caused, her experience talking to theorists and what society and individuals can do to promote a healthier democracy


The internet allows anyone to spread information easily — this includes conspiracy theories. Social media has also changed the nature of conspiracy theories, as Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, said different websites incentivize engagement, keeping people’s attention, as well as quick, emotional responses. This is where QAnon enters.

LaFrance said that the premise of QAnon is that “a secret and powerful cabal of evil, high-profile Democrats is running a global child sex ring, and that Donald Trump is the savior figure that will eventually free them.” QAnon started on the internet in October 2017 with posts on 4Chan — one of the most famous theories was that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be arrested soon. She was not arrested, but these posts generated a lot of attention and a following around Q, a figure who drops clues online that disciples or followers attempt to piece together. Clues are sometimes posted multiple times a day.

“There’s a narrative that is evolving, that really lends an air of legitimacy to the conspiracy theory, that a lot of its followers have seized upon,” LaFrance said. “They see these posts and assume that because it’s happening in real time, it must be true.”

The more she talked to people who believed in QAnon, the more she realized they were “deriving a sense of faith and serenity, and almost religious satisfaction, from the conspiracy theory. It’s a belief system, and it looks a lot like a new religion.”

LaFrance wrote The Atlantic’s June cover story about QAnon, and has reported on misinformation and media for more than 15 years. At 10:45 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, LaFrance gave a lecture titled “The Conspiracy Theorists Are Winning,” as part of Week Seven of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, themed “The Science of Us.” The lecture was co-sponsored by the Chautauqua Women’s Club as part of their Contemporary Issues Forum. LaFrance discussed the origins of the internet conspiracy theory and the harms it has caused, her experience talking to theorists, and what society and individuals can do to promote a healthier democracy.

Over her time reporting on QAnon, LaFrance has learned of beliefs that the moon landing was faked, COVID-19 is a bioweapon unleashed on the world by China and the “deep state,” and one man told her that John F. Kennedy Jr. did not die in a plane crash, but was assassinated by Hillary Clinton.

“I asked this gentleman, ‘What evidence do you possibly have to support that such a thing could have happened?’ He didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘What evidence do you have to say that it didn’t?’” LaFrance said. “We are living through a mass rejection of reasons, a mass rejection of enlightenment values. People are breaking with reality at an alarming scale.”

LaFrance said that conspiracy theories are nothing new; in 1775, Samuel Adams told the Continental Congress that King George III was taxing the colonists to turn them into slaves

“This is to say nothing of actual slavery taking place at the time. There’s no evidence to suggest that this plot was actually a part of King George’s taxation attempts,” LaFrance said.
“(But) it gathered a ton of steam, and people believed it.”

Watergate was also considered a conspiracy theory, until that conspiracy was proven true.

“The difference, of course, is that investigative journalism requires the confirmation of facts before publication,” LaFrance said. “Conspiracy theorizing can be referred to as investigating when it’s merely connecting unrelated events, people and ideas, and saying that they have closer ties than they actually do no evidence required.”

LaFrance cited political scientist Joseph Uscinski, who said a person’s likelihood of believing conspiracy theories can be determined how they agree with four statements: Much of society is controlled by secret plots, a few people will always be in charge in American democracy, the people who the country are not known to the voters, and a small, secret group of people determine events like wars, recessions and elections. The more a person agrees with these statements, and how intensely they agree with them, Uscinski says the more prone they are to believing conspiracies.

“When people talk about why a person might believe in conspiracy theories, they often refer to a feeling of being out of control and wanting to impose order on a chaotic world, or wanting to explain away something awful that’s happened,” LaFrance said.

LaFrance said that President Donald Trump is a conspiracy theorist and actively promotes these theories. This can be seen 10 years ago, when he said that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. LaFrance said newsrooms debated for a long time on how to cover conspiracy theories, and she thought that people would naturally see conspiracies as a way of getting attention. She believed that if journalists ignore these theories and covered more important topics, truth would prevail. 

“Fast forward to today,” LaFrance said. “Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and he still actively promotes conspiracy theories.”

One example LaFrance gave was of Trump retweeting an image in March from Dan Scavino, White House deputy chief of staff, that showed Trump playing a violin. LaFrance said many people saw this image as an “echo of Nero, they thought it was an image of a president fiddling while the world burned;” but the phrase at the top of the image, “Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming,” is a popular reference in the QAnon community. 

“They saw the president tweeting this and saw it as not just a wink or a nod, but a direct acknowledgement of their conspiracy theory and their worldview,” LaFrance said.

LaFrance said she was wrong to think that conspiracy theories would go away if people ignored them, and “to dismiss them today requires a willful blindness at a time when they’re really dangerous.”

She said individuals can help combat conspiracy theories by sharing facts respectfully, not mocking theorists and earnestly asking them questions, such as, “How many people would have to be in on this in order for it to be true?” On a societal level, LaFrance said it is very helpful to have a healthy democracy, which can be achieved by promoting an independent free press, supporting human rights and ensuring people understand how to guard against biases.

LaFrance also said that a handful of tech companies have a “stunning amount of power over our lives.”

“People often treat the internet as fully baked, like it’s finished, like the internet that we have now is the one that we will forever have,” LaFrance said. “That’s just not the case. We could rebuild this thing entirely. Maybe we should.”

LaFrance said while companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon make people’s lives easier, more convenient and sometimes richer, they have a lot of control over their consumers.

“These companies can control the information you see; they control how that’s different from the information a person sitting right next to you on a different device might see, even if you Google the same thing,” LaFrance said. “They can toy with our emotions, as Facebook’s own research has shown. They can influence the outcomes of elections.”

LaFrance said alongside the large amount of misinformation on the internet, platforms treat facts and fiction neutrally. She said people should acknowledge that the internet and the “democratization of publishing” has allowed for many marginalized voices to be heard.

“I don’t envy these companies. This is a hugely, hugely complicated problem. The scale of this problem, the scale required to fix it, it’s unprecedented in human history,” LaFrance said. “We’re talking about billions of people who use a single publishing platform. It’s like a magazine with 2 billion editors. It’s really a nightmare.”

LaFrance said that the web may change in the 2020s or 2030s through reinvention or regulation, and that the health of institutions that promote democracy may improve.

“Even then, conspiracy theories will be with us and conspiracy theorists will be among us,” LaFrance said. “They will, as they always have, warp and stretch to fit our informational environments or technological realities and our world.”

The lecture then transitioned to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution Vice President for Advancement Geof Follansbee. He asked LaFrance about the damage conspiracy theories have caused.

LaFrance talked about Pizzagate, which was a predecessor to QAnon, in which a young man believed a local pizzeria in Washington D.C. was the headquarters of the group of powerful Democrats who were running an underground sex ring. This man did not find what he was looking for and, despite gunshots and an encounter with the police, no one was injured. He was sent to federal jail.

“I think that one gentleman’s case is a really important one, because it shows how well he took a really reckless action,” LaFrance said. “He’s also a victim of conspiracy theorizing himself, and he really believed that this was true, and was surprised to find that it wasn’t.”

LaFrance said that the man regretted endangering people, but still believed in the conspiracy and that the “the intel on that wasn’t 100%.”

Follansbee asked how LaFrance built trust among conspiracy theorists in order to report on them. 

LaFrance said that many QAnon theorists are against the media, so they did not trust her because she was a reporter. She also found that those in a position to profit off the conspiracy, such as YouTubers with large audiences and those selling merchandise, were less likely to talk to her. The ones who were happy to talk to her were the people who earnestly believed in the conspiracy and wanted to spread the message. 

“I interviewed one woman in March, and she suggested … ‘Look at the pandemic. This is proof that the apocalypse has arrived,’” LaFrance said. “The conspiracy theorists will use that to support their worldview, but they will use any data point to support their own view.”

Investigative journalist Sheri Fink shares importance of personal stories in understanding COVID-19 pandemic

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There is an almost-universal desire among COVID-19 patients and their families to share their stories. One such person is Rosa Hernandez, a grandmother in her 70s who had a tough battle with the disease. Sheri Fink, an investigative journalist and author, said that Hernandez is a very private person and does not use social media, but wanted to help people by telling her story. She said “show it all. Show me at my worst because I want people to understand.” 

“She’s paying her bills by phone, and she told me yesterday that she’s … engaging the operators in long discussions of what she went through and trying to advise them as a grandma, like, ‘Don’t put yourself at risk. Don’t go to the bars,’” said Fink, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The New York Times.

Fink has been able to access and report on places like the Houston Methodist Hospital, the Brooklyn Hospital Center and Long Island Jewish Northwell System. She said the hospitals that allow reporters through their doors are typically the places that are doing a good job, and that they trust the reporter’s work and fairness. Health care workers, Fink said, also know that everyone makes mistakes, including themselves, and typically join the field to help others.

“They go into health care because they want to do good, and they believe that opening the doors, in this case, will help to raise awareness, will help to dispel, to the extent possible, the rumors or misconceptions — like coronavirus doesn’t exist or it doesn’t cause severe illness,” Fink said. “These people who work in the hospitals are so pained by that.”

Fink said that doctors are learning more about COVID-19, like that many patients who had acute symptoms of the virus are still experiencing effects of the virus months after contracting it. Some hospitals are creating clinics for post-COVID syndrome, and she said masks are being found to be increasingly effective at keeping down the reproductive rate of the virus.

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Fink held a conversation with Chautauqua Institution Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt, titled “Inside the Science of and Response to COVID-19,” as part of Week Seven of the Chautauqua Lecture Series themed “The Science of Us.” Fink discussed what she learned through reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic at different hospitals, how personal stories can reflect the statistics of the virus and help people understand different aspects of the crisis, as well as what the general public and lawmakers need to keep in mind with future pandemics. 

Ewalt asked what the public doesn’t understand about the science of a new pathogen.

Fink said that people need to understand that when scientists are researching complex topics, such as COVID-19, they will continually discover new information and disprove claims that were previously widely accepted. 

“Early on we heard, ‘Don’t wear a mask.’ Then we heard, ‘Wear a mask,’” Fink said. “We’ve heard different things that have been tried; that seems promising.”

Fink said that a medicine or practice can only be considered effective when studied and agreed upon by many different scientists. 

“This is normal — we should expect to have some twists and turns in what we learn,” Fink said. “We should expect that something we know today, we might be told tomorrow that, actually, that wasn’t right.”

Ewalt asked why personal stories are important, alongside statistics, to understand the impact COVID-19. 

“I guess it’s just how we’re wired as humans when we would tell stories around the campfire,” Fink said. “Those individual stories are powerful, and they’re emotional and they can communicate a lot more than just a number.”

Fink said journalists have to choose to cover personal stories that reflect the numbers. She also said that the pandemic and individual experiences can be captured in many different mediums.  

“I’m a word person, but there’s something about hearing people’s voices,” Fink said, “(and) seeing what they looked like before they were patients in the hospital that I think is so, so powerful.”

Ewalt then asked about the unequal death tolls of COVID-19, particularly among the most vulnerable in the United States, and how it relates to systemic issues in health care. 

Fink said that there has been a lot of coverage on the disproportionate toll the virus is having on communities of color. The New York Times published an article recently on the high proportion of the Latinx community in Houston in intensive care units, with whole families falling ill. Fink said that there are multiple factors on why some communities are more affected, such as not wanting to go to the hospital immediately, medical bills, historic negative experiences and multi-generational households that cannot social distance. 

“Sometimes it takes a crisis to really make all of us more aware of things that were very inequitable for a long time,” Fink said. “We’re seeing that sort of magnifying impact of health care problems in certain communities.”

At a hospital during a week in July, employees found that 60% of the patients in the Coronavirus ICU were Hispanic, whereas the overall hospital population was 16% Hispanic. 

Ewalt asked about the science of a COVID-19 vaccine, and how the general public can better understand what’s to come.

Fink has reported more on hospitals than clinical trials and vaccine development, but she said all the experts she has spoken to have been “pretty optimistic that we could have an effective vaccine.” She also said that there are important ethical questions around who gets priority for a vaccine on a global, national and local scale. Fink said there are many options of who to give the vaccine to first, such as the most vulnerable populations, younger generations in order to reduce the prevalence of the virus in multiple communities, or health care workers who are on the frontlines. 

“Many public health officials are thinking about how to ensure that there is trust and that people will actually accept that vaccine at a level that will help protect the population,” Fink said.

Some experts call COVID-19 a “starter pandemic” that is not as deadly as many other potential pathogens. Ewalt asked what has been learned about the American government’s — and the world’s — ability to combat a crisis, and what can be done better in the future.

Fink said other pandemics will happen in the future, and that it would be very smart to make investments to combat them. In the past with outbreaks of SARS, MERS and other types of coronaviruses, which are viruses that spread from animals to people, investments tend to stagnate after the immediate emergency ends.

“We hear over and over again about how when that emergency passes people, understandably, want to get back to their daily priorities,” Fink said. “It would really make sense to learn as much as we can, and to capitalize on those investments, because we will almost certainly have other pandemics in the future.”

Theoretical physicist Brian Greene shares how universe was created through order and disorder, and how humans are ‘spectacularly ordered’ despite odds


Entropy, in physics, is essentially a measure of the amount of disorder in a physical system — this means that if a system has a low number of rearrangements, it has low entropy, and if it has a high number of rearrangements, it has high entropy. Brian Greene, one of the foremost theoretical physicists in the world, compared entropy to a messy desk with papers and pens randomly scattered about. 

“When the desk is messy, it has high entropy, high disorder, because there are many rearrangements that you would completely not notice if someone were to do them behind your back,” Greene said. “But if you have a very orderly, very clean desk, … if you go over to that desktop and start to rearrange the ingredients, you do notice.”

Another example of high entropy is how sand on a beach can be configured into almost countless variations. A sand castle, however, has low entropy because it is highly organized and changing any part will make the whole castle look different. 

Greene said that the entropy of one system can affect others, such as with stars, and systems effectively release disorder into their surroundings and keep order within themselves. He said that steam engines of the 17th and 18th centuries burnt “orderly” fuel and released some of that heat into the environment.

“The steam engine must expel the entropy to the environment in order to maintain its orderly form. How does it expel that entropy?” Greene said. “It emits heat to the surroundings, allowing it to maintain its order. While the environment soaks up the disorder, it soaks up in toxic waste.”

At 10:45 a.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Greene delivered a lecture titled “Mind, Matter and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe,” opening Week Seven of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, themed “The Science of Us.” Greene discussed how the universe was created through both a process toward greater order and complex structures such as living creatures, as well as progressing to more disorderly systems.

Greene also discussed evolution. He said some scientists tend to view evolution and entropy as “embattled characters fighting it out for dominance.” Evolution is viewed as building evermore complex structures, while entropy is seen as causing more and more disorder. 

“But that is too simplistic a description,” Greene said. “There’s a lot of truth to it, but it’s not the full story.”

While many people associate evolution with living organisms and parents passing down their genes, evolution occurs even down to the level of an atom.

“Over time, interesting, complex, molecular configurations can naturally emerge. No guiding intelligence necessary, just the laws of physics acting themselves out on the ingredients,” Greene said. “The ingredients have this capacity to make copies of themselves and every replication process has some degree of imperfection.”

These imperfections, or modifications to the molecules, Greene said, eventually created systems better suited to their environment.

“Over time,” Greene said, “we get the kinds of molecules able to carry out processes that look like they require some kind of guiding intelligence.”

Greene then talked about the fate of different astrological bodies, such as the sun and black holes. He said in 5 billion years, the sun will use up all of its fuel in its core, imploding inward and rising in temperature. Greene said the sun’s “hydrogen will burn with such intensity that it will force the sun to swell outwards” and become 150-200 times its size, swallowing up the planets Mercury and Venus. 

Black holes, which are regions of space where the gravitational pull is so strong that anything that falls in cannot escape, were thought to be stable and orderly for a long time, he said, as scientists thought black holes could only get bigger. Greene said physicist Stephen Hawking showed in the 1970s that light, which is a form of energy, “streams outward from the edge of a black hole. It’s sort of like burning a piece of charcoal.”

“When you take energy away from the black hole itself, it shrinks. It gets smaller and smaller. We do not yet know what happens at the very end of a black hole when it shrinks all the way down to nothingness,” Greene said. “All that will be left in the cosmos are these particles … wafting through the darkness.”

When some people hear Greene talking about how the universe and its origins can be broken down into equations which have “no evidence of anything like meaning or value or purpose,” they often think he is unfairly criticizing everything they hold dear. 

Greene said he is doing the opposite. “Against all odds,” he said, “we are so spectacularly ordered.”

“We can experience wondering. I’m thinking about everything from building the pyramids to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the Mona Lisa to King Lear to quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity,” Greene said. “The very fact that collections of particles can do all that fills me with a deep sense of gratitude that really verges upon reverence.”

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Chautauqua Institution Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt. Ewalt asked Greene what he thought about the concept of a multiverse. 

He said the idea of a multiverse is worthwhile in “our metaphorical toolkit,” something for people to turn to if scientists cannot find any other answers. Greene gave the example of scientists being able to measure the amount of dark energy in space, but unable to explain why that amount exists. Some people say that the value of dark energy changes from universe to universe. 

“The idea that we are one universe of many is highly speculative,” Greene said. “By no means do we have any evidence for it, but it is an idea that’s worthwhile to have at our disposal.”

Ewalt then asked about the emerging narrative in society of distrust in scientists and the need for teaching science, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I don’t sense the mistrust for science surrounding COVID-19. As I sense the growing distrust of the way our leaders have responded to the scientific insights surrounding COVID-19, we see a dance playing out in the world in real time that juxtaposes economic viability with personal safety,” Greene said. 

Every challenge people face has science at its core, and scientists need to play a bigger role in government. 

“If you don’t have leaders that really understand and respect the science, we are going to make wrong decisions left and right going forward,” Greene said. “This is one test case, and it’s a vital one, but it’s a much larger issue of the role that scientific insight will play in the decision-making process going forward.”

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