Morning Lecture Recaps

Yes, And Laughter Lab co-founder Caty Borum Chattoo talks science, impact of comedy



Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of The Yes, And Laughter Lab and executive director of American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, delivers her lecture “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good” Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Caty Borum Chattoo started her lecture by asking the audience to play a game. They would turn to the person next to them and say what their perfect birthday party was. The other person would respond by saying: “No, but.” 

Then they would turn to another person, tell them what their perfect New Years’ party would be, and the other person would say “Yes, and,” expanding on their ideas. 

As ideas and energy in the air changed the atmosphere in the Amphitheater, people seemed more relaxed and focused. Borum Chattoo, an award-winning media producer and executive, said this exercise is all about play and silliness. 

She then quoted play scholar Miguel Sicart: “Play is disruptive. It disrupts the normal state of affairs. Play is escape and engagement. Through play we experience the world. We construct it and destroy it. And we explore who we are and what we can say.”

Though Borum Chattoo isn’t a comedian, she was a “bad” kid growing up, even failing algebra because she would not stop telling jokes in class. Early in her career, she worked with Norman Lear, the iconic television producer, who turned 99 the day before the lecture. Lear was one of the first people to talk about social issues through comedy on television. 

“For me personally, he was the first grown-up person I had met who was successful and was also really silly,” Borum Chattoo said. “For me, this is the best because I was able to be myself. I didn’t have to choose between being serious and kind of brainy and nerdy, and silly.”

She knew she was curious and wanted social change, but she noticed social movements, philanthropists and non-governmental organizations did not take comedy seriously, which meant they didn’t believe in the power of the art form. Borum Chattoo and others noticed that traditionally marginalized groups, such as people of color, LGBTQ+ and disabled communities, needed more shows about their own experiences. So they took action.

Borum Chattoo is in partnership with cultural strategy group Moore + Associates, co-founder and co-director of the Yes, And … Laughter Lab, a group that establishes partnerships across the entertainment industry and uses comedy to promote social justice.

At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 28 in the Amp, Borum Chattoo presented her lecture, titled “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good & Justice,” as part of Week Five’s theme of “The Authentic Comedic Voice: A Week in Partnership with the National Comedy Center.” She discussed the science and social research around comedy, and how the art form is used to create social movements and change.

Social justice, she said, is about righting wrongs within institutions, and requires people to see the world differently and believe that there can be a better one. Borum Chattoo said comedy is symbiotic with justice. 

“The reason that we laugh is because a comedian takes a reality that we recognize and bends that reality just enough so that we laugh,” Borum Chattoo said.

Comedians have unique artistic processes, and this creativity is often missing within boardrooms and businesses. 

“It’s so radically open and becomes deviant and naughty before it becomes something that we experience,” Borum Chattoo said. “We need that to happen.”

Marjory Lyons plays a game of “Yes, And” with NPR TV Critic and Tuesday lecturer Eric Deggans during Caty Borum Chattoo’s lecture “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good” Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

She said creativity is the most important ingredient for innovation.

“We have never innovated as a culture without creativity,” Borum Chattoo said. “I know sometimes we don’t give this kind of thought enough space because it sounds soft to us. We’d like to think that we only progressed through rational information.”

Borum Chattoo has read and synthesized more than 300 studies of comedy, from fields of social science, geography and biology, and delved into many of the different powers that the art has, both on individuals and cultures.

She talked first about the power to give individuals easy entry into taboo subjects, such as conversations about HIV in South Africa. The country has high rates of the virus, and it is frowned upon to talk about HIV.

“Sometimes humor is the only way to broach that kind of topic,” Borum Chattoo said.

It also gives hope and acts as a gateway to more traditional forms of information over time. 

“That’s pretty amazing, right?” Borum Chattoo said. “Sometimes I get people say, ‘Are you saying we should do all comedy and not journalism?’ No, I’m just saying: Also pay attention to comedy.”

Another comedic power, Borum Chattoo said, is its memorability. She said people like “Flo from Progressive” commercials not because of the company, but because she is funny. This is why humor is the most important marketing strategy. 

She also said comedy persuades. 

“When we watch comedy, we experience hope and optimism because we’re busy being entertained,” Borum Chattoo said. “Those emotions in turn are correlated with our attitudes, and even our actions, over time. Comedy can be powerful.”

And comedy has much broader cultural powers, like social critique and civic engagement. When Jon Stewart hosted “The Daily Show,” he did the first of these very well, essentially teaching a generation of young Americans media literacy and how to question what they hear on the news. Currently, Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, is taking steps to make the show his own while also critiquing society, and so are a plethora of other late-night shows.

“I would argue that there’s a special role that comedy gets to play in that because comedy invites us to play, and often correct dehumanizing images of people in communities,” Borum Chattoo said. 

Borum Chattoo shared two examples: “Ramy” and “Rutherford Falls.”

The first is about the title character who, according to IMDB, “begins a spiritual journey, divided between his Muslim community, God, and his friends who see endless possibilities.”

“Unfortunately, this is somewhat of a corrective because we know from decades of research that a way that our entertainment media and our news has dehumanized Muslim communities quite dramatically so that we need a lot of those stories. ”

The second is about a small, Northeast town in an ongoing debate about moving a historical statue. She then paraphrased Jana Schmieding, one of the show’s actors and writers, who said they were tasked to not show the long-suffering Native American trope that American media has shown forever, but instead, “We’re showing how funny we are.”

Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of The Yes, And Laughter Lab and executive director of American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, delivers her lecture “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good” Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Another power on cultures is allowing audiences to imagine a different world.

“It’s not enough for social change to talk about what is wrong,” Borum Chattoo said. “We have to show what the world looks like and imagine it when it’s better.”

In “Schitt’s Creek,” the show’s creators purposely didn’t include any in-world prejudice against gay characters. Part of the reason was one of the show’s creators, Daniel Levy, who said he didn’t have any patience for homophobia. Though Borum Chattoo said this may seem too utopian, the creators received a lot of letters from fans thanking them for showing a world without homophobia they never imagined.

Then Borum Chattoo discussed what she and others are doing with this information, and creating a “Think and Do Tank.”

“I like to create things,” Borum Chattoo said. “We never want to do research and just have it sit somewhere because that sounds very boring.”

Sometimes when companies hire comedians to help with events or social movements, the performers are treated as jesters, performing 10 minutes of stand-up at the beginning of the event and then given no other responsibilities.

This is where the Yes, And … Laughter Lab enters. Comedians apply, pitch and, if they are chosen from a pool of around 400 applicants, produce their own comedy shows that shed light on important, underrepresented issues. 

The winners this year include Meredith Casey, Ayman Samman, Abdallah Nabil, S.J. Son and Woody Fu.

She ended with a quote from Bernard De Koven, an American game designer and fun theorist: “Imagination offers us the ability to connect compassionately. It helps us understand and relate to one another’s lives and loves regardless of social strata, ethnic inheritances, physical or mental ability. It is a gift that restores us to the best of our humanity.”

As part of the Q-and-A, Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief program officer (interim) and vice president of performing and visual arts, asked Borum Chattoo what important shows are currently airing. 

Borum Chattoo said “Modern Family” was important for many reasons, then asked the crowd if it was still ongoing. Some people in the crowd said no.

“Thank you, Eric Deggans,” Borum Chattoo said to Deggans, NPR TV critic and the lecturer of the previous day, who was sitting in the second row. They then pointed to each other.

Borum Chattoo said “Black-ish” has been quite influential because it has a predominantly white audience. 

“Chances are, if we live in a Black family in America, you have talked about these issues, you have to talk about racism,” Borum Chattoo said. “But for a predominantly white audience to hear a Black family talking about police brutality, I think that is profound.” 

She said shows that can reach an array of audiences can create change.

“I think about, not a magic bullet theory of comedy. You don’t watch something and immediately think, ‘Well now all of my views are changed,’ ” Borum Chattoo said. “But over time that cultural landscape and sort of montage of messages that we receive is meaningful.”

Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of The Yes, And Laughter Lab and executive director of American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, delivers her lecture “Taking Comedy Seriously for Social Good” Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans charts Black representation in TV through decades



NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talks about the evolution of Black comedy during his morning lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Eric Deggans admits he has a cool job. As NPR’s first full-time TV critic, Deggans is paid to watch television and talk to directors and actors.

But he sees the real purpose of his job as more expansive.

“We can really get a sense of how the country feels about race, how we feel about each other, based on what we enjoy, what were big hits, how TV shows were cast, what kind of stories were told,” Deggans said.

“Evoking Oprah,” Deggans asked the Chautauqua crowd why people should care about representation in entertainment. One person said it was because what people watch is what they believe, another said it impacts thoughts and feelings.

Deggans said they were right, but that shows teach society how to dream. An example is how after Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert played the role of president in their respective works, “2012” and “24,” people were able to imagine a Black person as President of the United States. 

“These filmmakers were saying to people, ‘In the future, we can imagine we’ll have a Black president,’ and before too long, we had one,” Deggans said. “So it allowed people to vote for a Black president and think it could happen, and it allowed young Black children to look at a candidate for president and think that maybe they knew him, too.”

And TV shows and movies affect how people treat the Other.

“If you are in a moment where you have to make a split-second decision about whether you’re going to apply force or find out more information, the images you have in your head about the person that you’re confronting may have a deep impact on which choice you make,” Deggans said. “These depictions can have very real-world consequences for how much we can dream, who we vote for, what kind of society we have and who rises up, doesn’t, who gets killed, who doesn’t.”

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 27 in the Amphitheater, Deggans took the crowd on a tour through Black representation in TV shows from the 1950s to modern day and showed how to spot racist stereotypes and caricatures. His lecture, titled “The List: The History of Black Voice and Image in TV Comedy,” was the second of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Five theme, in partnership with the National Comedy Center, on “The Authentic Comedic Voice.”

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talks about the evolution of Black comedy during his morning lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The 1950s and “Beulah”

The list started in the 1950s with Hattie McDaniel in “Beulah,” a show about a Black woman who is the maid to the 1950s’ version of the perfect American family.

“Perfect maid, unquestionably happy,” Deggans said.

Deggans said Beulah was a “mammy figure,” a stereotype based on the jobs often forced on Black enslaved women. This stereotype is depicted as an overweight, dark-skinned caregiver who serves white children more than her own, with a “deference to white glory.”

Another stereotype in this decade of TV shows was the “coon figure,” depicting Black men as “happy-go-lucky, childlike, dimwitted, lazy, inarticulate,” and putting the welfare of white people and the white families they serve over their own families’ needs.

“This is a stereotype taken from minstrel shows where white people often dressed in blackface to portray Black characters: dark skin, white lips,” Deggans said.

One show in the 1960s, “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” was popular with white audiences but was ultimately canceled due to numerous complaints from the NAACP about this stereotype being used. 

One of the show’s problems was that it did not have any white characters.

“They lived in an all-Black world and there were no white people, so they didn’t even have to deal with the deference to white authority, or the difference between Black life and white life,” Deggans said. 

This show established the trend of casting Black people in comedy. 

“It established comedy as a nonthreatening venue for showing people of color,” Deggans said. “There’s been a sense that until relatively recently, people of color are more often shown in TV comedies because that’s a nonthreatening venue; in dramas, you have to take those characters more seriously.”

Deggans said this left actors between a rock and a hard place; they knew they were portraying racist stereotypes, but there were no other acting jobs for Black people.

He then paraphrased McDaniel, who herself was the first woman to win an Oscar with her performance in “Gone with the Wind,” who said she would rather be paid $800 a week for playing a maid than paid $70 for being one.

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talks about the evolution of Black comedy during his morning lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The 1960s and 1970s

When the ‘60s rolled around, many white producers wanted to reverse the stereotypes of the previous decade. While Deggans said these white producers were well-meaning, they created a new stereotype, which he called “The Super Negro.” He said this character is often extremely talented, so there is no question that they should be welcomed into white society.

He said these characters are divorced from Black culture and often have no Black family or friends that appear in the show. In “Julia,” the title character only is around white people, the plot glosses over race issues, and the audience accepted the show because it was more of a reflection of white culture than Black culture. 

Deggans then talked about the ‘70s and “Ghetto Coms” —  sitcoms about Black families who lived in poor areas.

“I loved ‘Good Times’ when I was growing up. I grew up in Gary, Indiana, and I grew up in a house where my dad wasn’t around; my parents had split up before I was born,” Deggans said. “To see a show of a Black family with a Black father in the house doing his best to take care of his family, working hard, was really important.”

Deggans said that this era of TV often addressed realities of problems, such as lack of money, and Black actors starred in lead roles. The negatives, however, were that this era was still full of many stereotypes, such as the “coon figure” and abusive Black fathers, and portrayed ghettos to be safe, fun places. 

In “Good Times,” the character J.J. Evans was popular with white fans, but Deggans critiqued him as a “coon figure.” The character was written as dimwitted and greedy, with barely any other characterization. The cast of “Good Times” even critiqued the show because actors Esther Rolle and John Amos were promised by producers that the show would be progressive. Amos was later fired for arguing too much with producers.

The 1980s and 1990s

The theme of Black representation in the 1980s was respectability politics.

“So what respectability politics are, is this idea that in order for Black people and nonwhite people to succeed in America, they need to conform to America’s idea, white America’s idea, of what being upwardly mobile and successful is,” Deggans said.

To talk about 1980s’ television, Deggans had to talk about Bill Cosby.

“Now, it’s tough to talk about Bill Cosby these days as a pioneer, because he has been convicted (although the conviction was overturned) of some horrible crimes,” Deggans said. “That’s what’s so difficult in talking about Bill Cosby — because he really did have an impact on television,” he said. 

In terms of representation of Black people, “The Cosby Show” had positive effects by showing smart, successful, fully-developed Black characters. But the show also largely ignored racism. 

“We didn’t see much about systemic racism, prejudice, and it convinces white audiences that if you just work hard and you’re respected, then you can succeed in America, even though Black people know that often is not true,” Deggans said.

The beginning of the 1990s was also the start of counterprogramming. Executives at Fox, in order to compete for advertising views, decided to run shows about people who were different from those on Must See TV on NBC, which had all-white casts.

This was also the time that Deggans began his career in television criticism. He said that he could ask his white coworkers about popular Fox shows like “Martin” and they would have no idea what he was talking about. When he asked his Black friends about “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” they would have the same reaction. 

He said it was as if people lived in two different worlds, with two polarized viewing experiences. 


When television viewership started to decrease, the industry decided to target specific demographics more directly. Deggans said Black people, proportionally, watch TV more than any other demographic, and, within Black families, he said Black women most often make purchasing decisions. 

Despite many steps in the right direction, racist stereotypes are still depicted on television. Deggans gave four ways to identify a character that falls into a stereotype. The first was if they are primarily defined by their race and no other attributes. The second was if their entire role is to make a sacrifice for white characters.

The third is if the character acts in a stereotypical manner without reason. Sometimes, though, writers will play into a stereotype in order to challenge the audience’s perception, which Donald Glover does many times in his show “Atlanta.”

The last was if they are isolated from other people of their race. A recent example of this is Raj from “The Big Bang Theory,” who Deggans said mainly was shown hanging around an all-white cast, and his own family rarely featured.

Though Black actors, directors and producers are doing great work currently, Deggans did not want to detract from the work of Black actors in the past, even ones who portrayed racist stereotypes. 

“Those shows were funny because those performers were funny. And they took these horrifically stereotypical situations, and somehow made them funny,” Deggans said. “I think that’s the story of Black people and comedy on television, for much of its history — is talented Black performers and elevating whatever they get and making them iconic.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked Deggans if there is any shared experience viewing now like there was in the past. 

Deggans said the two worlds of television viewership in the ‘90s were a harbinger of things to come. He then asked the crowd if they had seen “M.A.S.H.” and many people raised their hands.

“I love this audience because you guys have seen all these old TV shows that I love.When I’m talking at colleges and I say ‘M.A.S.H.,’ they’re like ‘What?’ ” Deggans said.

The finale of “M.A.S.H.” brought in 109 million viewers. Currently, with many streaming services using subscription models and algorithms that suggest shows based on what the person already watched, Deggans said it is hard to have a society-wide viewing experience.

Though, he said, people can take the initiative to break out of their algorithms by looking up and watching shows they normally wouldn’t experience. Deggans said that people now have more power and choice than any other time, especially with the shows they watch. He then quoted Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

With NPR’s Eric Deggans, ‘SNL’ cast member Ego Nwodim discusses comedic journey, importance of representation in industry



“Saturday Night Live” cast member Ego Nwodim joins in conversation with NPR television critic Eric Deggans Monday in the Amphitheater, launching a week on “The Authentic Comedic Voice.” DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Ego Nwodim’s parents wanted her to be a doctor, since much of her family works in the medical field or are engineers. Nwodim chose to study biology — but across the country so she would have the room to explore acting.

When Nwodim graduated, she made a deal with her mother — give Nwodim four years to make something of herself. 

“I didn’t,” said Nwodim, a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” “But there was really no turning back at that point.”

And her dream? To become an actor.

“I’ve never seen anyone close to me pursuing any sort of art or anything outside of the sciences, so I truly didn’t even think of comedy as a possibility for me,” Nwodim said.

Eventually, her manager convinced Nwodim to take an improv class, something that she had no interest in.

“I begrudgingly took my 101 improv course,” Nwodim said. “It took two years of convincing from a manager I had. I wanted to get them off my case, so I was like, ‘I’ll take the stupid class.’ ”

She fell in love with it.

“I sort of stumbled into improv comedy, but I think once I discovered it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is where I want to be. This is what is most true to me,’ ” Nwodim said.

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, July 27 in the Amphitheater, Eric Deggans, NPR’s first full-time TV critic, interviewed Nwodim for the Chautauqua Lecture Series week “The Authentic Comedic Voice,” in partnership with the National Comedy Center. Deggans also will deliver a solo lecture at 10:30 a.m. today, July 28, in the Amp. 

In their conversation, Deggans and Nwodim discussed her career, from her biology undergraduate degree to becoming a main cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” and representation of Black people in comedy and entertainment, as well as their own experiences working during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A large challenge lay in front of Nwodim: getting into the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, a program whose mainstage shows are said to be harder to get into than Harvard. A UCB Diversity Fellow, she also dealt with the lack of diversity among her peers. To succeed with improv, Nwodim and the seven other actors in her group needed to be on the same page, to know the references and cultural touchstones they each used. Nwodim was the only nonwhite person in the group.

“Those seven did (understand each other), and I was oftentimes on the outskirts,” Nwodim said. “I didn’t feel supported, I didn’t feel they understood my voice or what I think is funny.”

The crowds were sometimes rough, too. They were often composed of people who didn’t make it into the UCB programs. Nwodim had never quit anything in her life, even things she hated, like her biology undergraduate. The day before a big performance, she called her brother, telling him that she would quit. Now it was her brother’s turn to make a deal with her — before she quit, give that performance all she got.

So Nwodim decided to do something new: be loud, be annoying, be heard.

“I remember that night saying to myself, ‘I am not going to be ignored onstage by my teammates. I am going to be very loud. I am going to be so loud that if you ignore me, you look like an idiot,’ ” Nwodim said. “So I went out and did a show like that and it was such a game-changer for me. It gave me the permission and encouragement to be loud.”

Deggans asked Nwodim to talk about her one-woman show, Great Black Women … and Then There’s Me.

Black women in entertainment, Nwodim said, are often portrayed as two extremes: Oprah Winfrey and Kimberly Wilkins, the woman behind the “ain’t nobody got time for that” meme. In her show, Nwodim asks where the room is for Black women to be average.

“It sort of ends with me trying to decide which I am,” Nwodim said. “Am I excellent or am I not excellent?”

Deggans asked Nwodim about her experience working and filming during COVID-19. 

When the cast of “SNL” worked from home during the early period of the pandemic, Nwodim and others received equipment to set up in their houses, such as cameras and greenscreens. 

“I was doing everything in my power to stay sane and centered. Doing shows from home completely upended that,” Nwodim said. “I live in a studio (apartment), and the green screen took up the entire studio, but I didn’t know how to close it. Every time they told me I was going to shoot with a green screen, I’d go, ‘Oh no.’ ”

Despite this change, their work was still rewarding. 

“Ultimately what was rewarding was hearing people say that seeing ‘SNL’ attempt to do shows from home represented some sort of normalcy and offer them some sense of calm,” Nwodim said.

As a fan of Nwodim’s work, Deggans said she really hit her stride on “SNL” in the most recent season. He asked Nwodim how she found her comedic voice.

“Saturday Night Live” cast member Ego Nwodim joins in conversation with NPR television critic Eric Deggans Monday in the Amphitheater, launching a week on “The Authentic Comedic Voice.” DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“In short, I would say that my comedic voice is that I enjoy playing disruptive, indignant, loud, wrong people,” Nwodim said.

Everyone knows what they, themselves, find funny, but comedians have the task of balancing their own voice with what the audience finds funny. Nwodim also had to balance “SNL” ’s 47-year long aesthetic with her own voice, as well as talking to the writers to make sure skits showcase her talents and skills. 

Deggans then asked Nwodim about her experience auditioning for “SNL.” 

She said the first audition didn’t go well. 

“They were actually looking for a white guy. … They said, ‘Oh, we thought you were a guy because of your name,’ ” Nwodim said. During the audition, she remembers being very still and nervous. 

This was not the case with her second audition in 2018. Nwodim felt much more comfortable. She had created several characters to perform: Maya Angelou telling “yo mama” jokes, a 911 dispatcher who gossips about calls she receives and a mother at Lebron James’ I Promise School who only sent her child there so she could meet the basketball star. 

In the audition itself, Nwodim felt like she could talk more freely and have more fun. And then she got the job as a featured player.

Deggans then asked Nwodim about her sense of “SNL” ’s relationship with Black women, both when she started and currently.

“When I was coming in, I tried to be as present as possible,” she said. “I am telling you guys, this was the most stressful time in my life. I was worried about a million other things.”

Nwodim was the seventh Black featured or cast player on “SNL,” which had at that point run for 44 seasons. She was promoted to a full cast member in 2020.

“I said I would like to make it easier for the next Black woman joining the cast,” Nwodim said. “I want to position myself in a way that the audience doesn’t watch us like, ‘What are you doing up there?’, and they are excited for us in the same way they are excited for other cast members.” 

As part of the Q-and-A session, Emily Morris, senior vice president and chief brand officer, asked Nwodim what aspects of pandemic life she wants to take forward with her, and which ones she wants to leave behind. 

Nwodim said the pandemic gave her a lot of time to slow down — mainly because nothing was happening. 

“What was really nice was being forced to slow down, and realize all the benefits of slowing down, and how powerful that is — to just be showing up in the world to do my job as a daughter, sister and friend,” Nwodim said.

But she would like to leave behind the immense isolation. 

“I’d like to get back to a place where I am getting together with friends more,” Nwodim said. “I feel like if I do one activity in the city, I think, ‘What a full day.’ ”

Morris’ last question to Nwodim was: What would she like to be remembered for?

“I want to show young girls that look like me that their goals are possible,” Nwodim said. “Keep on going, fight through adversity.”

Beginning again: Evoking James Baldwin, Princeton scholar Eddie S. Glaude explores need to accept truth of America’s racist past in joint lecture, CLSC presentation



New York Times best-selling author and regular MSNBC commentator, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. gives a morning lecture Thursday July 22, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. began his lecture by quoting Toni Morrison.

“If my work is to be functional to the group, to the village as it were, then it must bear witness and identify that which is useful from the past and that which ought to be discarded. It must make it possible to prepare for the present and live it out and it must do that not by avoiding problems and contradictions, but by examining them. It should not even attempt to solve social problems, but it certainly should try to clarify them,” Morrison said.

Glaude said America has an old myth when it comes to Black people — that Black people are inherently lesser, and white people are inherently more morally just.

“This vision of this new Black subject makes sense only if we are to understand a certain view of white people in this country — how white people are valued more than others and how that valuation dictates the distribution of advantages and disadvantages,” he said.

Glaude is the chair of the Department of African American Studies and James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University. At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 22 in the Amphitheater, Glaude concluded the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Four theme of “Many Americas: Navigating Our Divides.” This was a joint presentation between the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. Glaude’s most recent book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, was a CLSC Week Four selection.

During the lecture, Glaude used Baldwin’s writing to discuss how embedded racism is in America, how the country has failed to address it in every era, and the need for society to accept truths about ourselves and others. 

“The idea of American democracy John Locke imagined, shorn of its need for this staid character of  Black people, has yet to come into fruition,” Glaude said. “We still live in a society where some of us believe that this country must remain a white nation in the vein of old Europe, where the stock assumptions about Black people continue to circulate.”

Glaude said the Jan. 6 insurrection was the latest expansion of the notion that the country belongs to some more than it does to others. 

“What was revealed and continues to unfold right before our eyes, at least to me,” Glaude said, “is clearly a different register of civic expression, a different kind of citizenship, of those who have a right to dissent, and who can claim ownership of the country, while the rest of us are expected to shut up and be grateful because the country belongs to them.”

He quoted Baldwin: “The horror is that America changes all the time without ever changing at all.”

Glaude said it is time to admit that everyone is not treated equally in this country and everyone is not policed in the same manner. 

“All we have to do is think back to Jan. 6 and compare how the police responded to that mob and how they responded to some of the peaceful protests last summer,” Glaude said.

Glaude described the deep division in the U.S. as a “cold Civil War,” in which there is a fear that increasing diversity means white people’s power is diminishing, and that they are at risk of being replaced. 

“History reveals itself not as determination, but as a kind of inherence,” Glaude said. “Not as continuity, but as connection and relationship where one event echoes or carries the imprint of another, and calls it all into view.”

Glaude said the country has been here before. He talked about the Civil War and Reconstruction, when lawmakers in Mississippi, who Frederick Douglass called the “Apostles of Forgetfulness,” created Jim Crow laws after the 13th Amendment was ratified.

Glaude said this “Anglo-Saxonism is in all of us,” meaning the idea that old European cultures are model societies. 

“We see the ideology of Anglo-Saxonism guiding our imperial efforts across the globe. At the very moment we were consolidating racial apartheid in the American South, we were bringing millions of people of color under our rule in Cuba and the Philippines,” Glaude said.

Glaude said that every time America has faced a moral reckoning like the current one, society has “doubled down on our ugliness.”

“At every turn when a new America is about to be born,” Glaude said, “the umbilical cord of white supremacy has been wrapped around the baby’s neck, choking the life out of it.”

Many Americans breathed a sigh of relief when Joe Biden was elected and believed that their work was done — but Glaude said the work doesn’t end based on who is in the White House. 

“I pray that we do not trade one fantasy for another. That somehow the election of a politician affirms America’s inherent goodness and puts a grateful republic back to sleep,” Glaude said. “Presidential elections — elections period, no matter how momentous — do not settle the question of who we take ourselves to be. The answer to that question, and it is a moral as well as a political question, will emerge as what we do now.”

New York Times best-selling author and regular MSNBC commentator, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. gives a morning lecture Thursday July 22, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

What society needs to do now, Glaude said, is to tell the truth about America, from its flaws to its triumphs. He said the country’s original sin wasn’t slavery, or even its genocide against Native Americans, but the belief that some people matter more than others. 

Part of the way people can help tell the truth of the country is by telling different stories about history. Truth requires courage, Glaude said.

He also said the truth will require people to grow up. 

“This is the root of our unadmitted sorrows. The terrors and panics that we experience today have everything to do with the gap between who we imagine ourselves to be and who, deep down, we really are. That the nation actively evades confronting this gap locks the country into a kind of perpetual adolescence where those who desperately hold onto the American myth refuse to grow up,” Glaude said.

People will also have to come out of their comfort zones and imagine themselves in a new way, he said, or risk doubling down on ugliness.

“The future of the world depends on everyone in this room,” Glaude said. “Imagination is a source of the good. There’s those who would want you to believe that our world is all that is possible. We must dare to imagine ourselves differently.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of the Literary Arts, asked Glaude about the backlash seen throughout history whenever steps are taken to uphold people’s civil rights, even now with suppression of voting rights.

Glaude said he doesn’t use the term “backlash” because it carries the implication the movement asked too much.

“One of the questions that James Baldwin loathed was this question: How much more does the Negro want?” Glaude said. “And I do, too, because if you thought we were human beings like you think of yourself, you would know we want the same thing as you.”

Glaude said what is happening is not a backlash, but a betrayal.

“It shows in America there’s still an argument to be had,” Glaude said, “and you still have to fight.” 

New York Times best-selling author and regular MSNBC commentator, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. gives a morning lecture Thursday July 22, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Ton-Aime then asked Glaude what the outrage around critical race theory is really about.

Glaude said in the early 1900s, large, public swimming pools were built in different cities to help bring together different communities and cultures. He said when Black people came to share the pools, fearful white people filled the pools with concrete and turned them into grass fields. White people were scared of being displaced by people of color, and this fear still permeates society.

“There’s a sense that the ‘browning of America,’ ” Glaude said, “left certain Americans behind, that they’re being left behind, and could be displaced, replaced.”

Some people argue that critical race theory removes them from history, and, Glaude said, and fills “(white) children’s heads with ideas they are somehow responsible for the ugliness of the world.”

He said that one prominent conservative tweeted that they want to use the outrage around the term “critical race theory” to cause a broad ban on everything they do not like.

“This is part of this ongoing effort to narrow our conception of America,” Glaude said.

Ton-Aime asked Glaude how he keeps going in the face of trauma.

Glaude recalled one particularly difficult day that drove him to a emotional  verbal outburst, “just cussing at the top of my lungs, you know.” He had to compose himself in time to deliver an online lecture. 

“It’s hard, but you have a sense of calling, a sense of vocation, a commitment to building a world that is better for our children and our children’s children,” he said.

He said there is so much about the world that conspires to make people small, to conform. 

“The question you have to ask yourselves, over and over again as the world tries to make you small — will you be complacent? Will you be complacent?” Glaude said. “Good old Melville comes to mind, ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’: ‘I prefer not to.’ ” 

John Coltrane also came to Glaude’s mind. He told the story of a recording of “Giant Steps.” Coltrane played the introductory solo to “Giant Steps,” and the musicians around him had never heard something like it in their lives. On the track, the pianist is so confused that he is just tapping keys. 

“So, if the world conspires to make you small, to make you conform,” Glaude said, “then what you should do is take ‘Giant Steps.’ So how do I keep going on? How do I muster the energy to stand in the tradition that makes me possible? I refuse to conform to the world as it is and I am going to give my life to make the world as it could be.”

Public opinion scholar Katherine Cramer explores rural resentment of urban communities, how listening disrupts cycles of demonizing



Katherine Cramer, political science professor and author, speaks during her morning lecture Wednesday July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In one of her first listening sessions during her research on the views of rural Wisconsinites in 2008, Katherine Cramer drove 26 minutes from her Super 8 Motel to a gravel lot in a hamlet. She parked her Volkswagen Jetta among a row of pickup trucks and saw the local service station — where a member of the local county board told her a group of people gathered every morning to talk.

“It’s this beautiful, old, vintage service station,” said Cramer, professor of political science and the Natalie C. Holton Chair of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “these old gas pumps, no longer in operation, but big plate glass windows, kind of that lime green color, probably hadn’t been repainted since the ’60s, and I could hear the laughter.”

She walked in to see four men wearing big sweatshirts and baseball caps and sitting in plastic lawn chairs with plenty of Milwaukee Brewers memorabilia around. Cramer introduced herself, told them that she was a professor and asked if she could join them. 

The men, retired public school teachers, chuckled and said, “Sure.” Cramer asked the men what the major concerns were for the people in the area. The men told her their worries: The state legislature had been taking the money allocated for the highway and spending it elsewhere; the state liquor tax was low and they were concerned about drunk driving in their area; the price of gas was too high, and so was the price of health care.

These concerns were similar to what she was hearing in small communities all across Wisconsin — a resentment toward those in cities, where all the decisions were being made without care of those in rural communities.

“(The government doesn’t) know what our lives are like,” Cramer said she heard. “They don’t understand the challenges that we’re facing. Maybe they pass through as tourists, but that’s not the same as knowing what it feels like to live, yes, in a beautiful tourist place, but having to work two or three jobs during tourist season to make ends meet.”

As well as being a professor, Cramer is the author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 21 in the Amphitheater, Cramer presented her lecture, “Listening to Disrupt,” as part of Week Four’s theme of “Many Americas: Navigating Our Divides.” Cramer, who spent time listening to groups of people across rural Wisconsin, noted the deep disconnect between demographics in cities and small towns. She stressed the importance of listening — not to convince, or even change one’s own mind, but to open oneself up to the possibility of what society can achieve together.

The divides Cramer saw appeared in both Democratic and Republican communities. Far, “way up there,” in the northwest corner of Wisconsin in Bayfield County, in a very left-leaning, touristy and artsy community, Cramer talked to a group of women retirees. 

After the conversation, one woman showed her a notebook and said, “This is a list of all the families who had to move away from here because of property taxes.” The notebook had 60 families’ names. 

Katherine Cramer, political science professor and author, speaks during her morning lecture Wednesday July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

She explained to Cramer that because of people moving in and buying big vacation homes, property taxes were raised, and people who had lived in the community for generations were forced to leave because of prohibitive costs. 

Property taxes and a lack of jobs were also problems faced by the group in the service station, and all of rural Wisconsin. One day in 2012, during one of Cramer’s many visits to the small town, none of the pickup trucks sat in the gravel lot and a note hung on the door. It was an apology from the owner, who had quit because he got a similar job with better pay. 

The Bayfield women were tired, too. Cramer asked them how much attention the government paid to the people’s approval of their decisions. 

There was a long pause. One said the government was starting to get it. Another, named Dorothy, disagreed.

“Dorothy says, ‘I think it’s in the beltway. Madison might listen to Madison people. Washington, D.C. is a country unto itself. I know it. I’ve lived there. They haven’t got a clue what the rest of the nation is up to. They’re so absorbed studying their own belly button,’ ” Cramer said.

This divide between urban and rural Wisconsin surprised Cramer. Her intent was to study how the differences between social class identity affects the way people view politics, but that wasn’t what she found. Instead, she found statewide resentment, some of which took the form of racism.

“The racism is important, but I’ve waited until now to bring it up, because it’s important in a scary way. … Notice how it’s woven into people’s understandings here, all of our understandings,” she said. “These notions of who works hard in our population are so important because they’re so bound up in our political culture with who is a ‘deserving’ American.”

Cramer said some people she talked to assumed that certain races were lazy. And, in 2016, she noticed the rhetoric in her discussion groups changing.

“I was kind of amazed at the rhetoric that I heard, because I had heard some blatant racism in the conversations before, but the tone was different,” Cramer said. “There was more of it, and a lot more conversation about immigrants.”

Before the 2016 presidential campaign, when Cramer asked about immigration, she would get little response. During the campaign and afterwards, she never even had to ask. 

“I heard a lot about immigrants and immigration, and a lot of it wasn’t pretty,” Cramer said. 

Katherine Cramer, political science professor and author, speaks during her morning lecture Wednesday July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

After President Donald Trump was elected — and won Wisconsin along the way — family, friends and strangers, shocked, reached out to Cramer asking her to explain why the rural parts of the state voted this way. 

“Well, if you have been asking yourself that, and you’re this far into my talk, I encourage you to just take a pause,” Cramer said. 

And then Cramer talked about the pandemic. Cramer’s pandemic project was spending time with her 13-year-old daughter and building trees. In the corner of her living room, Cramer created “a willow that glows” made of chicken wire, papier-mâché and spray paint, with green felt and holiday lights on the ceiling with green fabric draping down. 

“Trees felt good. They were bigger than me. They were something to aspire to,” Cramer said. “They also communicate with one another, through these underground systems, so that trees warn each other of danger. They figure out how to share resources. They figure out how to devote resources to those most in need. There are  trees that operate like mothers and make sure the saplings get what they need in order to thrive.”

Cramer also went into the forest to learn to identify trees, and noted the many different kinds of trees at Chautauqua. 

“What a restorative thing to surround myself with, to immerse myself in,” Cramer said, “and not just because of all the things that we have been experiencing together on this planet, but because I had been studying resentment for 13 years prior to when the pandemic started.”

To help bridge gaps within society, she said people need to build in little gaps of reflection in their schedules, even if it is just a little bit. 

“I think we need a deeper understanding of why that is the case, what it is that listening does for us. The reason we need more listening is not to become like one another,” Cramer said. “The reason we need more listening is that listening opens us up to what we can become together. It interrupts the process of ramming ahead, exactly like we have been doing: building lies, demonizing the Other.”

Cramer then returned to the forest metaphor. 

“Trees and fungi might grow these connections naturally. Not in modern society — we have the capacity, it’s in our DNA. We have the capacity to love and to look out for one another — but we don’t do it,” Cramer said. “If anything, we are growing things that disrupt those connections. We are not making life-sustaining ways of communicating with one another. So we have to intentionally figure out how.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Jordan Steves, director of strategic communications, asked Cramer how the pandemic changed her work. 

Cramer said she listened to a lot of talk radio from different parts of Wisconsin. She noticed many people from small communities were angry with the COVID-19 guidelines, especially given that many of them lived miles away from their closest neighbors, as opposed to the closeness that people in cities lived in. 

Steves then asked Cramer if the data supports the beliefs of the people she talked to.

She said in some ways it does, and some ways it doesn’t. For example, rural communities receive more money per person from state and federal taxpayer money.

“Probably, as you picked up from my remarks, and David French and Amanda Ripley too this week, that it’s not about facts. It’s about people’s perceptions and their perspectives,” Cramer said. “If you’re looking at the world through a lens of, ‘People like me, we don’t get what we deserve,’ facts that you encounter — you interpret through that lens.”

Author and journalist David French illustrates deep divisions and long road to heal hearts



David French, sr. editor at ‘Dispatch’ talks about America’s divides during morning lecture Tuesday July 20, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

David French hopes he was wrong. The thesis of his book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, was that every force in the United States is pushing people apart more than they are pulling together. 

“When I wrote my book, I thought, ‘Lots of people are going to think I’m too alarmist,’ ” said French, a journalist and author. “Now, when I talk about the book, the question I get is: When is it going to happen?”

Even with the pandemic, when society had a singular enemy in COVID-19, cultures were warring. 

“It might be the most remarkable cultural war in the history of the culture wars: over whether or not to wear a mask in a pandemic spread by droplets in the air,” French said. “Ten to 15 miles south from where I live, if you wore a mask, you could be smeared in public.”

As well as being an decorated author, French is the senior editor at The Dispatch and a columnist for Time. During his lecture, “Divided We Fall: Understanding and Healing a Broken Land,” at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 20 in the Amphitheater, French discussed three major causes of increasing polarization; he said the way forward was healing the heart of America, though this process will take multiple years. This was the second lecture of Week Four of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ theme of “Many Americas: Navigating Our Divides.”

We can be the seeds of something new. We can be the seeds of renewal.”

– David French,
Senior editor,
The Dispatch

Big Sort and Overton Window

Recently, The New York Times released an online test that showed how dense people’s ideological bubbles are. It works by checking voting records and party memberships by state and county.

So French checked how big his own bubble is and realized that his area is 85% Republican. Then he checked other places he has lived, from Manhattan and Philadelphia to Tennessee and Alabama, all of which were 85-90% a particular party.

“I’ve lived in nothing but a bubble,” French said.

This is part of the “big sort,” which French defined as people naturally becoming stuck in ideological bubbles, based on geography, political affliction and other factors. 

Eighty percent of Americans live in ideological bubbles because of people’s tendency to choose to live in places with like-minded neighbors. French said this is a large reason that most districts in the U.S. are “landslide districts,” meaning that they vote for a particular party or candidate with 80% of the surrounding population.

And this phenomenon doesn’t end with elections and politics. French said that TV viewership can be mapped using ideological views of the audience, such as the biggest show on television for many years, “Game of Thrones,” which was primarily watched by Hillary Clinton voters. 

“By itself, it’s benign. By itself, it’s very understandable,” French said. “You tend to like people and like to be around people who share your common interest. It’s just human nature.”

Coupled with the big sort is the Overton Window, which refers to the concepts that are inbounds and outbounds for a particular conversation and group of people, meaning that there are acceptable words a person can use in conversation.

A positive effect of the Window is that it gives society a common language to discuss complex issues and has largely eliminated the use of blatant hate speech and racist terms in popular discourse.

“We have now moved into team red and team blue so sharply that in many areas we don’t even have one window anymore. We have two windows of discourse,” French said. “So that the language that you use in one community disqualifies you from even consideration … in the other community.”

However, French has experienced the negative effects of the Overton Window, on both sides of the aisle. He said that if he uses the term “systemic racism” in more Republican crowds, then all the ears will shut.

“If you talk about systemic racism as a concept (to those audiences), you are then outside the bounds of acceptable discourse; you have identified yourself as a member of the opposition and you are not somebody worth listening to,” French said.

David French, sr. editor at ‘Dispatch’ talks about America’s divides during morning lecture Tuesday July 20, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Law of Group Polarization

French defined the Law of Group Polarization as the tendency of groups of like-minded people to become more extreme when they gather.

“If you go to a meeting that is designed to combat climate change, and you’re brainstorming ideas for things you can do in your community to combat climate change,” French said, “are you going to leave the meeting less concerned about the state of the planet? No.”

This can cause every member of the group, after the gathering, to become more extreme than the most extreme member before the meeting, which French called a cascade. He said this was prominently the case with President Donald Trump.

“I was living in rural Tennessee when the rise of Trump occurred,” French said. “In fact, the identification, and the affiliation, and zealous loyalty to Donald Trump was evidence of this cascading effect upon polarization.”

French said that some of his neighbors went from saying Trump was their last choice for president, to supporting the president avidly. 

While in years past, graphs of American ideological views had a bell curve, with the majority in the middle and a few at the extreme left and right, French said the graph now looks like a “U.”

“Even large-scale differences can be manageable, if not accompanied by large-scale animosity,” French said.

Many people are now more motivated to vote by a distrust of the opposing party than they are by faith in their own party. French said 82% of Republicans strongly or somewhat disliked Democrats, while 78% of Democrats strongly or somewhat dislike Republicans. And 20% of America would be OK if a large percentage of the opposing party died — “I’m not saying they would kill them,” French said; rather that those respondents think if those with whom they disagree “just went away,” things would be better.

“Twenty percent of Americans are now ascribing dehumanized characteristics, animalistic type characteristics to their opponents,” French said. “And it’s not the quiet 65 million.”

And social media is doing little favors. French said social media has nationalized “all our beefs, all our dramas.” Even in times of great national strife, local events mainly stayed local, such as in 1968, when French said there were two to three political bombings a day in the U.S., yet the national newspapers rarely covered them. 

Now, people can see almost everything in real time.

“So what ends up happening is we have instant access to every political atrocity in the United States. No, no, that’s not actually correct,” French said. “We have instant access, because of our curated feeds, to every atrocity committed by another side.”

French defined this as nutpicking, when people take an extreme example and portray it as typical. One example of this was when First Lady Barbara Bush died. While most people from both sides of the aisle mourned the beloved mother and wife of two presidents, one liberal professor from California, with a few thousand followers, tweeted she was glad Bush died. 

“She becomes this symbol of all that’s wrong with the left,” French said. “So for about a week, she is the most famous professor in all of America.”

Unfortunately, Twitter and other platforms have no shortage of extremists, which French likened to “a never-ending amount of fuel.”

To combat the polarizing nature of social media, French started to follow a progressive user for each conservative he added. His bipartisan Twitter feed allowed him to realize how stark the difference was between the world conservatives and liberals saw on social media. 

During the protests following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, French saw this divide in real time. The right side of his feed showed violence, people burning down buildings and attacking police officers.

“You would think that every city in the United States of America is being systematically destroyed and looted,” French said.

The left side of his Twitter feed told a different story: police officers attacking peaceful protesters. 

French said he was not saying everyone is equally at fault.

“No, I only saw one team take the Capitol on Jan. 6,” French said. “There’s a justice to the matter here. The justice of the matter is one side tried to overthrow the government of the United States and is now in the business of minimizing that and pretending it didn’t happen. That has to be opposed.”

David French, sr. editor at ‘Dispatch’ talks about America’s divides during morning lecture Tuesday July 20, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

What can we do?

French said people need to recognize the reality of the state of polarization in the country. He said the U.S. needs to de-escalate partisan politics.

“That’s not going to happen anytime soon,” French said. “And the reason is we’re locked in such a partisan struggle that every conflict, as I said, is national. Every conflict is national.”

It’s going to take more than policy reforms.

“We have to have a reform at the heart level,” French said, “then dissolve this animosity and then engage with true tolerance.”

He ended his lecture with two quotes from the Bible. The first was a favorite quote of President George Washington and was featured in the musical Hamilton.

“Every man shall sit under his own vine and his own fig tree, and no one will make him afraid.” — Micah 4:4.

French said people need to know they have a place in this country and not fear for their livelihoods based on who the president is. 

The second, French said, dealt with how to reach a society where everyone has their own space under a fig tree. Chautauquans knew this quote, and many of the crowd recited it along with French. 

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” — Micah 6:8.

As part of the Q-and-A session, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked French what small acts people could take.

French said to take his last Bible quote to heart, and truly love mercy.

“We can be the seeds of something new. We can be the seeds of renewal,” French said. “America has faced dark grim times and dark, grim division, and it’s emerged from the other side, not perfect by any means in any stretch of our history, but better. But better.”

Journalist and author Amanda Ripley shares keys to supporting good conflict



Investigative journalist and New York Times-bestselling author Amanda Ripley talks about her book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were close friends before they were political adversaries. Adams took a young Jefferson under his wing, and the two collaborated to write the Declaration of Independence. But even the strongest connections, whether between family or friends, wither under the pressure of high conflict.

Amanda Ripley, a New York Times-bestselling author, defined high conflict as a period of argument or disagreement in which the conflict itself becomes the focus, instead of the logical facts or even feelings.

High conflict has three key features: group identities, humiliation and outside conflict entrepreneurs. Both Adams and Jefferson initially opposed the idea of political parties, then were swept into different factions, until they stood as competing candidates for president. 

Running against his protégé in the 1796 presidential election and almost losing was a public humiliation for Adams. Ripley, quoting Nelson Mandela, said, “You mustn’t compromise your principles, but you mustn’t humiliate the opposition. No one is more dangerous than the one who is humiliated.”

The last nail in this conflict coffin came from Jefferson’s camp, specifically from another future president, James Madison. When Jefferson drafted a letter apologizing to Adams, Madison recommended he not send it because it could damage Jefferson’s reputation if it got leaked. 

“For the sake of the young country, there was a lot they should have discussed,” Ripley said. “But that’s not what happened, because this was high conflict, in which everyone suffers to various degrees.”

And, well over 200 years since Adams and Jefferson, much of society lingers in this trap of high conflict: 80% of Americans are stressed about the future, half have stopped talking to someone about politics because of the person’s beliefs and two-thirds hold a political view they are afraid to share. 

As well as her book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Ripley’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and many others. At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, July 19 in the Amphitheater, Ripley discussed the nature of good and high tension, the hard trek of bridging divides and multiple real-life examples of people in different fields, from politics to organized crime, working toward a better-connected society. 

Her lecture, “The Conflict Trap,” opened Week Four’s theme of “Many Americas: Navigating Our Divides” of the Chautauqua Lecture Series.

Around five years ago, Ripley realized facts weren’t enough and traditional journalism wasn’t equipped to bridge the growing fragments of the U.S.

“I wish I recognized this earlier: Our perception matters more than the facts all the time,” Ripley said. “I hate that it’s true, but it’s especially true in conflict.”

So she sought out people who had a lot of experience in high conflict situations, from health care workers to politicians to soldiers. Through these conversations, Ripley saw how conflict can transition from good to high. 

Good conflict, as Ripley defined, is dynamic, when both sides discuss, listen and act. Even if the arguments are tense and emotions are high, good conflict leads somewhere. 

“People do escape high conflict. They don’t suddenly agree, and this is important: They don’t surrender their beliefs. They don’t censor them, either,” Ripley said. “Instead, they do something much more interesting. We become capable of comprehending that with which they disagree. And that changes everything: Curiosity returns, IQs go back up, conflict becomes necessary and good instead of destructive.”

Investigative journalist and New York Times-bestselling author Amanda Ripley talks about her book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Ripley noticed a pattern in her conversations. In times of high conflict, people were able to break out when they are able, or are forced, to pause. Usually, this is the point where people realize they are losing more than they are gaining.

This point could occur when a child becomes sick when parents are fighting, or a catastrophe during wartime. For 10 years during the Colombian Civil War, Ripley said 52,000 people left the armed conflict voluntarily.

“People left the conflict when they reached a saturation point. Sometimes it was when their side experienced major casualties. Sometimes it was when their unit ran low on money,” Ripley said. “Misery can create opportunity.”

Ripley said during soccer games, the Colombian government ran ads inviting rebel fighters to come home and watch games with their families. The day after each soccer game, there were 20 extra demobilizations — 10 times the daily average.

“But, really, the best defense against high conflict that I’ve seen is to create a counterculture of good conflict. That sounds so starry-eyed, I know, like a fantasy,” Ripley said. “So to prove that it’s possible, I want to tell you one last story today.”

B’nai Jeshurun, an influential Manhattan synagogue, had major tension among its congregants after the rabbis praised a United Nations vote favorable to Palestinians. Some members adamantly supported Israel, while others held harsh critiques. The conflict landed on the front page of the The New York Times, members withheld their donation and left, and others remained silent.

“The rabbis were stunned. It felt like an earthquake,” Ripley said. “People they loved and respected and thought loved and respected them were saying terrible things very publicly.”

So the leaders of the synagogue decided to bring in outside experts on conducting conversations. 

“So it wasn’t ‘Kumbaya;’ it was more like training for an Ironman competition, just to be clear. It was hard. There were structured workshops and intensive staff training, in-depth sessions with the rabbis and the board,” Ripley said. “The goal was to understand, not to agree: a huge, but underappreciated, difference.”

Ripley said that being heard often makes a person more willing to listen to others. People shared personal stories about their “connections to Israel, about feeling torn between their sense of justice and their sense of duty.”

“One woman explained how so many of her relatives had been killed in the Holocaust. She’d been raised to believe that any criticism of Israel was sacrilegious,” Ripley said. “This didn’t make other people agree with her suddenly, but it’s helped them to be less mystified by her.”

After months and months of listening sessions, the synagogue discovered the underlying conflict: fear for the future and a fear of speaking out. Ripley said most had ambivalent feelings toward Israel, with some changing their opinion day by day depending on how questions were asked. 

The discussions, for three years, barely resembled those of a high conflict. The synagogue continued to use these methods through many different conflicts and discussions. Then something different came along: Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

“This didn’t seem to be a conflict they could lean into. It felt unique,” Ripley said. “How could they cultivate good conflict with people they’ve never met?”

Most of the synagogue’s congregants voted for Hillary Clinton, so they couldn’t resolve this conflict without reaching outside their organization. Very far, in this case — all the way to Michigan, where 16 conservative Christians who worked in a prison were willing to join in deep conversations. 

The program worked like this: First the members of the New York synagogue would live with the Michiganders for three days, then a few months later, the reverse would happen. Ripley talked to and interviewed both sides, and saw similar fears. 

Investigative journalist and New York Times-bestselling author Amanda Ripley talks about her book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The New Yorkers expected bigotry; one was fearful they would be shot. The Michiganders, on the other hand, expected condescension; one was fearful they were inviting Antifa into their homes. 

“It occurred to me that it might have been less nerve-racking for these Americans to host actual foreigners rather than fellow Americans,” Ripley said. “But, for reasons none of them could fully articulate, about a dozen New York liberals and a dozen Michigan conservatives signed on, and they all agreed to let me come along.”

Despite their political, geographic and religious differences, the two groups grew to understand each other. Some of the New Yorkers even took their companions to Trump Tower to buy memorabilia. 

“It was a strange encounter to behold, slightly contrived but less awkward than it sounds. I had left Washington D.C., where the politicians remain locked in combat, to watch these Americans doing something much more interesting: Coming together with copious misunderstandings and many questions. Despite everything, they still wanted to make sense of each other.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill asked Ripley what the first step is to escaping high conflict. 

Ripley said a good first step is to create a non-aggression pact. While this is a step short of a full peace treaty or resolution, rules of engagement often stop tensions from starting. One example is an agreement between gangs in Chicago to not taunt each other on social media, and for gang members not to go to areas they did not control. Ripley said this was a very important first step because 70% of gang conflict in Chicago starts on social media. 

“So, basic parameters … create that cause of the conflict,” Ripley said. “Then here’s the interesting thing: Someone always violates the pact. Always. But you have a process in place to slow down the escalation.”

This was the case in Chicago. One gang member posted a photo on Facebook of him with a gun on a street corner, “mocking the organization who had this territory,” and mediators were able to contact the other gang and ask for a two-hour window before retaliating. Within an hour and a half, the photo was taken down, and the situation ended without any shots fired. 

“So, this is an example of how you can slow down those forces of humiliation especially,” Ripley said.
“Why would we ask traumatized young men in violent situations to do something we have not asked the members of Congress to do?”

Hill then asked Ripley if COVID-19 and the Jan. 6 insurrection could not interrupt the high conflict in the U.S., what can?

“I do think that some people did escape high conflict in the aftermath of both of those shocks,” Ripley said. “… (There were) families that were estranged, and then the pandemic happened and they’re not anymore.”

When she wrote about polarization for The Atlantic, researchers would half-jokingly tell her that if an alien invasion happened, society would have a common enemy and unify to solve a lot of its problems.

“Then we got it. But we have conflict entrepreneurs in charge,” Ripley said. “So that was a missed opportunity, not in every place, but in a lot of places. Unfortunately, there will be more opportunities, I promise you.”

MIT’s Deb Roy analyzes divisions caused by social media-dominated world



Deb Roy, director of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, delivers his lecture “Social Media & Democracy” Thursday, July 15, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Social media has a unique phenomenon: Even though technology allows people from across the world to connect, it has ultimately fragmented society’s interactions. 

And this isn’t unique to Facebook, Twitter or other platforms. Even the telegraph and the train, technologies that allow humans to travel great distances, create psychological distance, in the same way people yell at each other during traffic.

Deb Roy, executive director of the MIT Center of Constructive Communication, said this phenomenon is partly due to the lack of negative feedback loops on social media. He said these feedback loops are vital for society because they make people aware of mistakes they make and provide them an opportunity to improve. But now, many people only become aware of their mistake when it is too late. 

“(Social media) breaks down that ability to self-regulate, but it doesn’t mean there are no consequences,” Roy said. “It just means the negative signals are diffuse and the actors are not aware.”

As well as working at the center, Roy is a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 15 in the Amphitheater, he presented his lecture, titled “Social Media and Democracy,” as part of Week Three of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ theme of “Trust, Democracy and Society.” Roy discussed how social media has caused societal fragmentation and degradation of human interactions, and laid out a way forward using a new technology he helped develop. That technology has already proved its worth by forging local connections across the country and assisting in a police chief search in Wisconsin and the mayoral race in Boston.

Deb Roy, director of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, delivers his lecture “Social Media & Democracy” Thursday, July 15, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Roy wanted to know how exactly people tend to interact on social media. So in 2015, using artificial intelligence, he helped create a map of every single mutual follow on Twitter. The graph looks like a circle on one side and an-almost crescent shape on the other, with little connections between. 

The circle, colored red, represented people who followed President Donald Trump’s account. This group had little mutual follows with people outside the circle, but many connections with others in the circle. The first part of the crescent were people who followed multiple candidates, and the second was Hillary Clinton followers, who were much less connected compared to Trump followers. The last portion of the crescent was Sen. Bernie Sanders’ followers, who had quite a few connections with Trump followers. Then, Roy and his team marked the public Twitter accounts of thousands of journalists; even the most right-leaning of them, some who worked at Breitbart News Network and Fox News, were not in the circle of Trump followers. Roy said part of the many journalists’ surprise at the results of the 2016 election stemmed from the mass fragmentation.

And there is a lot of toxicity and divisions within the social media platforms. One of Roy’s colleagues had particular problems with an online troll. His colleague is a Muslim woman of color, and this troll was relentless, saying phrases that the colleague wouldn’t repeat to Roy. She eventually figured out the troll was from Kansas and offered to get lunch when she was passing through.

And, as she sat in the restaurant, a mother of two wearing a cardigan walked in and sat with her.

“After a few awkward words of exchange, they entered into a real conversation,” Roy said. “They talked about their lives, about their jobs.”

The mother stopped her trollish ways — for five weeks. 

“It’s a sad ending, but I share this story with you to make two points. The first is: same two people over Twitter versus in person — what a different outcome. Maybe there’s just a little glimmer of a (personal connection) that emerged in that lunch, and it actually had an effect for weeks,” Roy said. “The second is one-time interventions, one-time fixes won’t do it. We have to actually create new life habits.”

So if singular interactions don’t cut it, how can people forge connections in the age of social media? Roy said it starts at a local level, “a place that we can make substantial change.” 

To forge these connections, Roy helped develop technology and a practice that helps bring people together, instead of driving them apart. Roy and the center paired small group meetings with engaging with local leaders and their own invention. It’s called a Digital Heart, a device that transcribes conversations and sorts the audio based on topics, such as education or fear of police. During conversations, the facilitator will search for audio from another recording about the same topic, effectively bringing a new voice and viewpoint into the discussion. Then the participants will respond to that viewpoint. Roy shared a recording of one such interaction this technology spurred in the town of Madison, Ohio. This is from a teacher, who is white, in Madison:

“My experiences with officers in the schools is that they do everything they can not to arrest kids,” the teacher said. “They’re extremely kind and very, very, very positive role models for kids in schools. The schools I’ve worked in, some of the resource officers are people of color, and they’re working with students of color, and they’re able to see a police officer in a responsible role, being good with kids, being supportive.”

A facilitator of another conversation asked their participants, who were all formerly incarcerated men, to respond to this quote. 

Deb Roy, director of the MIT Center for Constructive Communication, delivers his lecture “Social Media & Democracy” Thursday, July 15, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

One man said he couldn’t see how police in school were effective. He said when he was a teenager and in an institution, he had a “teenager temper tantrum, and I was just out of control.”

“I remember a guy by the name of Bruce. He grabbed me, because I was out of control. He just grabbed me, put his arms around me and just held me, and I was trying to get away and all of those things, he just didn’t let me go,” the man said. “He didn’t allow me to hit him or none of the above. Ultimately, I just tired myself out, and I just cried.”

Bruce didn’t hurt him.

“He didn’t disrespect me. He didn’t belittle me. He allowed me to calm down, and then he started to talk to me. And I say that because to this day that was an act of love. And it was not an act of disrespect,” the man said. “And so I think when it comes from the family and from the community, it’s a better perspective versus it coming from the police, because police can’t do just that — they’re gonna police.”

This technology can be used for specific tasks as well. After Madison, Wisconsin, police officers shot a Black man named Tony Robinson and the police chief suddenly retired, the Madison Police and Fire Commission asked Roy’s group to help the department listen to the community and use the people’s voices and concerns to craft questions, and do so in a transparent, trusted way.

He said his group worked closely with local community members to engage with marginalized communities and people who do not routinely show up to town hall meetings. He said town hall meetings can be sometimes performative, especially given the three-minute speaking limit and the requirement to speak in front of a large crowd, and that smaller, group conversations are often effective in welcoming new voices. 

“We heard a very different kind of perspective, (from) people who would not show up (to town hall meetings), or even if they did, would not share in the way that they did through these smaller conversations,” Roy said. “They knew they were being recorded. They were actually wanting their voice to create a durable record that was transparent and accountable.”

Roy’s group pored through the audio, with the help of artificial intelligence, and sorted recordings into different themes. Here are some of the voices that shaped the questions to the Madison police chief candidates: 

“It’s hard to get away from how powerful the institution and the badge and having a gun is and how much that emboldens individuals,” said Carla, whose quote was sorted into the fear theme.

“Growing up, one of the first values and principles that I was taught was to never trust police in any situation or the circumstance. That was kind of proven to me around age 12 and 13, when I saw a family member be shot in the back eight times,” said James, whose quote was sorted into the trust theme.

“They are police and they police. That’s what they do. They’re not counselors, they’re not social workers, and so all of those factors (are) not even in the equation,” said Felix, whose quote was sorted into the scope theme.

“The police in this community and the communities across our country don’t look at people who need support, and people who need someone to guide them, or just be there for them through their struggles — they see them as a problem. They’re not a problem. They are people,” said Kimberly, whose quote was sorted into the disabilities theme. 

These quotes were then used to help craft questions during public interviews. Roy said the public had access to how they came up with these questions and could even listen to the full conversations they sprouted from. 

Currently, Roy’s group is assisting in the mayoral race of Boston, a historically segregated city, in a similar way.

“I hope you will also consider this simply as a case study of how some of the same technologies, where we see some of the problems in social media, can actually be leveraged to create new possibilities,” Roy said.

Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, ended the lecture by asking Roy one question: How can people get involved in this work? 

Roy said they are looking for more communities to get involved in, particularly ones that have “experience or the capacity to facilitate conversation and dialogue.”

“We would love to hear from you,” Roy said, “because we are really set up to provide training and support and try to grow these kinds of efforts.”

‘Commentary’  writer Christine Rosen discusses fall of civil discussion and rise of cancel culture



Christine Rosen, senior writer for Commentary, delivers her lecture “Trust, Freedom, and Cancel Culture” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The divide in the United States over cancel culture is more of a gap between generations than it is between political parties, said Christine Rosen, senior writer at Commentary, an opinion magazine founded in 1945. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that 40% of millennials believe the government should be able to prevent people from publicly makingly offensive statements against minority groups, versus 24% of baby boomers. 

In contrast, in 2018, a majority of college students said that diversity and inclusivity was more important than free speech, that there should be punishments for people who make racist remarks, and safe spaces established on campuses. 

This is true for young Republicans as well: 70% say they need safe space on their campuses.

“Talk to college students, if you know any,” Rosen said. “The most deadly sin one can commit is to offend. Identity politics on college campuses has created hierarchies of oppression, which are rigidly enforced, and it’s unmoored from the complicated realities of how those people live.”

Rosen compared the experience of college students to those of “the shell-shocked soldier just navigating the minefield.” Students will equate certain ideas and phrases to physical violence, she said, and silence is another form of violence.

According to Rosen, this has brought about a misunderstanding about what it means to be tolerant.

“A tolerant person is someone who listens to things about which he or she might have personally disapproved,” Rosen said. “Tolerance is something one exercises from strength or character, not something they demand out of fear or seeking of power. It doesn’t prevent us from judging the behaviors or opinions of others. It simply insists that one accepts the reality that not everyone will always agree with you.”

As well as being an opinion writer, Rosen is a chair of the Colloquy on Knowledge, Technology & Culture at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Her lecture, “Trust, Freedom, and Cancel Culture,” was part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Three theme of “Trust, Society and Democracy.” At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 14 in the Amphitheater, Rosen discussed the harm that shaming and cancelation has on discussion and society, and how social media fueled this culture. 

Rosen discussed those affected by the quick trigger of cancel culture. Former New York Times Editorial Page Editor James Bennet was fired for publishing an article from Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, which Rosen said made other members of staff feel unsafe.

“So even if you accept that some of what’s happening here is a new form of accountability,” Rosen said, “this method of needing our justice and holding people to new norms builds to some of these long-term consequences of cancel culture.”

Alongside firing people who seem to have done nothing wrong, Rosen said, cancel culture — particularly self-censorship — undermines the First Amendment and self-expression. 

When Rosen says self-censorship, she does not mean when a person tells someone else a term makes them uncomfortable, and the other person listens and apologizes. 

“That’s civility. That’s conversation. That’s how we used to do things,” Rosen said. “Not always successfully.”

Christine Rosen, senior writer for Commentary, delivers her lecture “Trust, Freedom, and Cancel Culture” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Self-censorship refers to a person refraining from questioning an argument, or giving their side of it, in fear of being targeted. 

“There are certain times where you shouldn’t say everything that comes to your mind,” Rosen said. “But again, the rules can’t be made out of fear; they have to be made out of empathy.”

Rosen said people sometimes place morals unnecessarily onto conversations for self-promotion, such as a person posting on social media for likes and attention — but also as an “expression of dominance.”

“These people use moral talk to shame or silence others and to create fear,” Rosen said. “They verbally threaten and teach to humiliate — and humiliation, in particular, has a tendency that I think to be taking too much hold on our institutions, particularly politics.”

She blamed social media platforms, which prompt an “engagement by loudness” and reward younger people for tirades through likes and shares. 

“All of these platforms privilege immediate reactions, not contemplation,” Rosen said. “They encourage the development of an outer-directed self that becomes reliant on validation from others.”

She then gave the example of online quizzes, like “Which Harry Potter character are you?” or “What is your spirit animal?,” which Rosen said are harmless by themselves. But, she said these quizzes signaled to her that this generation, lacking a sense of who they are as people, look outside to find themselves. 

“The younger generations, who have been raised with smartphones and the internet, have also been raised to value speed and immediacy, which are the opposite (of) the kinds of things upon which communities and institutions need to grow,” Rosen said.

Duke University professor John Rose, an instructor at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, is one of the people standing up for the values of freedom of speech and expression. In a poll of his students at the beginning of the semester, Rose discovered that many shared the same problem of needing to self-censor, no matter their political party. One wrote that it was difficult to be both a liberal and a Zionist at the university, and another said that though they agreed with most of the ideas of Black Lives Matter, they couldn’t have a conversation that lightly criticized the movement.

So Rose created rules in his classroom to ensure the safety of discussion, such as letting students talk about how they are no longer allowed to talk. Students would have no social or professional penalties for what they said in the classroom.

“That used to be something that goes without saying in the classroom,” Rosen said.

Rose indicted both political parties for the state of civil discussions in the classroom and the country: He blamed progressives and liberals, who dominate these institutions, for defending moves that suppress free speech; and he blamed conservatives for quickly writing off universities as “irredeemable bastions of progressive privilege.”

Rosen quoted Rose: “We’re all wrong. What we need to do is create these spaces where genuine debate can occur, and students can have disagreements in civil fashion.”

As part of the following Q-and-A session, Geof Follansbee, senior vice president and chief advancement officer, asked Rosen if it was possible to argue that cancel culture has always existed — looking to McCarthyism as a prototype. 

“It is human instinct to ‘cancel’ one’s opponent, ideologically and politically,” Rosen said.

Rosen said society is talking about cancel culture more because social media is such a powerful tool, and institutions cave immediately to very small groups from within their own organizations.

Follansbee then asked Rosen when it is appropriate for social media to censor people. 

Rosen said she is fine with private companies, like Twitter and Facebook, censoring people.

“I think any of those platforms can ban anyone they want,” Rosen said. “What they can’t do is say that they are doing it out of either rules broken, principles crossed, and then not be consistent in their application.”

‘The time is now’: Media scholar Meredith Clark outlines need for reparative journalism



Media Studies professor Meredith D Clark talks about reparative journalism and the role media plays in rebuilding trust during her morning lecture on Tuesday July 13, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When Meredith D. Clark was growing up, she wondered why newspaper photos of Black people always looked off. 

“I could never quite figure out why the newspaper couldn’t print more flattering photos of people who looked like me,” Clark said. “But then I began to work in the field.”

She later learned that it was because the industry used “Shirley Cards,” photos of white women that are routinely referenced to calibrate light, shadows and skin tones.

“Which means if you are darker, even if you are more pale, the camera doesn’t quite see you as you are seen. It doesn’t quite pick up on the intricacies of your appearance. Similarly, news media is calibrated this way,” said Clark, who previously was an assistant professor in media studies at the University of Virginia and was recently named associate professor at Northeastern University’s College of Art, Media and Design.  

A recent opinion piece by Brent Staples of The New York Times, titled “How The White Press Wrote Off Black America,” delves into how newsrooms have historically had primarily white, well-off reporters who targeted white, wealthy audiences. This lack of diversity caused wide gaps in coverage, such as a correction that ran on the front page of Clark’s own hometown newspaper when she had recently graduated college. 

It read: “It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.”

“It was in this moment that I began to understand exactly why our preacher called the Herald-Leader the ‘Herald Misleader,’ and why my parents refused to subscribe,” Clark said.

She said journalism schools, which were also founded by white, land-owning men, always teach the importance of objectivity.

“How objective could it be, leaving out entire swaths of the American populace?” Clark said.

And she said this wasn’t just a journalism problem: Everyone has a role to play.

As well as being a professor, Clark is the author of DRAG THEM: A Brief Etymology of Cancel Culture. At 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 13 in the Amphitheater as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, Clark explored the importance of reparative journalism, the role that Black women play in the movement, and ways society can move forward. The lecture, titled “The Time is Now,” was the second presentation of Week Three’s theme of “Trust, Society and Democracy.”

Visionary, not reactionary, and grounded in the history of the ignored

Media Studies professor Meredith D Clark talks about reparative journalism and the role media plays in rebuilding trust during her morning lecture on Tuesday July 13, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Clark said she was radicalized on Jan. 6, 2021, when she saw the U.S. Capitol riots on TV. 

“Jan. 6, for an American, was one of the most difficult days of my life,” Clark said, “because it was the day that I learned that the principles that I had been taught my entire life could be for sale — that they were available for purchase to the highest bidder.”

And the highest bidder wasn’t the president or the rioters, Clark said. It was the news media.

“The news media … is subject to a cycle of 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making sure that there is something on the television, on our screens, in our newspapers that will keep us angry, afraid and on edge,” Clark said. “It took a while to recover from this hurt.”

What is needed and has been needed for a long time, she said, is reparative journalism: reporting that not only acknowledges the mistakes of the past, but actively repairs the gaps in coverage and treatment of underrepresented communities. She identified six key traits that journalism needs to strive for: It needs to be visionary, not reactionary; grounded in the history of the ignored; critically intentional, and comprehensive. It needs to find alternative funding and, what she said is usually the most controversial point, redistribute power.

In terms of the first two, Clark said journalists need to approach stories from a bottom-up mindset, interviewing those most affected first. She said that, currently, the trend in news media is to interview people in charge, and then slowly, if at all, move down the ladder of power.

“How do you begin to see the world differently when you look from underneath?” Clark said.

Journalism also needs to move away from reacting and waiting for events to happen, Clark said, and move toward actively seeking stories. 

“We know that there is plenty of uncovered news and information that the world needs to know,” Clark said. “That’s why we celebrate unknown stories and unknown histories when they come to light.”

Though there has been more of a push in recent years for more diverse newsrooms, people in power have known about this problem for decades. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a review of the dividing society in America. This report, called the Kerner Commission, found that “Our Nation is moving toward two separate societies, one white and one Black, separate and unequal.”

Clark said that the report also put much of the blame on the growing divide on the news media, not because it was sensationalizing or fear-mongering, but because “the news media simply did not have the depth of understanding that it needed to communicate to different sectors of society, what it was like to live outside of privilege.”

Critically intentional and alternative funding

Media Studies professor Meredith D Clark talks about reparative journalism and the role media plays in rebuilding trust during her morning lecture on Tuesday July 13, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Black women, Clark said, are at the center of the push toward reparative news and being critically intentional in order to better represent every part of society.

She defined many key features of Black feminism. Black feminists have historically been a part of an oppressed group, from journalism schools not admitting Black women until the 1950s to Black women, currently, having a disproportional amount of college loan debt.

“They were subjected to the same sort of oppression that white women experienced with the added layer of racism. … Black women experience disparities in terms of health care, maternal mortality, and even their opportunity to move in the ways that this country says we can be effective in terms of social mobility,” Clark said.

Another key point is that Black women are a diverse group with different beliefs, class, education and age. 

“I mentioned this to help us remember that when we see people from different backgrounds, who are held up as an exemplar of what the Black community is or does or what the LGBTQ community is or does, we have to remember that we are talking about a range of experiences — with some commonality,” Clark said.

Black feminists throughout history have found alternative ways of making progress, such as organizing child care during the civil rights movement so that people could attend protests and, now, utilizing hashtags on social media to spread information. 

And Clark said the journalism industry, like Black feminists, needs to find alternative ways to progress, especially when it comes to funding. With print advertising decreasing, local journalism shrinking and large corporations taking over small newspapers, she said, this is a large issue the industry is trying to address, and that she did not have the answer. 

Comprehensive work and redistributing power

In 2019, the Associated Press changed their stylebook to say that journalists could write that things were racist — something that was actively discouraged previously. It was a good first step toward reparative journalism, but more should be done, Clark said.

“It’s not enough to simply repair the surface issues. We must look beyond, into the wounds that have been leveraged against our respective communities and find what needs to be addressed,” Clark said.

As well as being comprehensive, Clark said reparative journalism requires a redistribution of power, not through violence, or even through one side losing, but simply by thinking about who is put at the center of stories. 

Clark said this is part of the hard work ahead, for journalists, executives, economists and readers. 

“Reparative journalism, like the struggles for freedom, for justice, for equality, is the work of generations,” Clark said. “It begins with us today. It continues long after we are gone, and I invite you to join us into this great work.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked Clark to discuss the role of transparency in reparative journalism.

In a study Clark conducted in 2018, she talked to people in communities who didn’t pay attention to the news media.

“They said one of the reasons that they didn’t was because it was so artificial, that there was no transparency about how stories came to be,” Clark said.

She said readers want to know how the article was created, and for the writer to acknowledge their own biases. 

Ewalt then asked what the ideal structure for journalism could be.

Clark said that the perfect structure isn’t known yet. She said that the industry, as it currently exists, supports many jobs and families — so upending it isn’t realistic.

“We cannot wait for one system to become obsolete in order to take up this challenge. Some of that work has to begin where we are right now, and so there are pushes that are happening from inside the house that help with that regard,” Clark said. “I will never say that I see a singular model or a singular form for reparative journalism.”

Richard Edelman, creator of eponymous Trust Barometer, opens Week 3 by tracking trends in trust over past 20 years



CEO of global communications firm Edelman, Richard Edelman, during morning lecture on Monday July 12, 2021 in the Amphitheater KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

People’s trust can be viewed as a pyramid. Previously, said Richard Edelman, the government and those with power held the top as the most trusted. Now, it is flipped, as people turn more to those closest and share news articles with those in their political bubble.

So, Edelman, CEO of the global communications firm Edelman and the creator of the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey of trust in government, business, media and nongovernmental organizations, said businesses are now more trusted than governments — even in addressing systemic racism, climate change and health care reform.

On the most recent Barometer, business is 40 points more trusted in competence and 20 points more trusted in ethics than government.

“When the pandemic hit, the way we all absorbed this was (asking) which institution can actually make a difference and save us from this horrible scourge a year ago — the government?” Edelman said. “Well, the government failed us. The government failed in terms of getting vaccines to us at the right times. The government failed in terms of living up to its halo.”

Though businesses are seeing a rise in trust, society as a whole is also becoming more fearful.

“Every generation has felt that they can do better than what their parents did. It’s not true anymore,” Edelman said. “Fears have eclipsed optimism. They’ve made hope disappear and the pandemic is actually accelerating fears in general.”

Edelman has been at the forefront of mapping trends of people’s trust through the last 20 years, heading the eponymous global communications firm that his father founded in 1952. During his lecture “Recommitting to Trust” at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, July 12 in the Amphitheater, Edelman illustrated trends in national trust in different institutions — such as business and media — opening up the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Three theme of “Trust, Society and Democracy.”

There are five key factors to build trust: ability, dependability, integrity, purpose and sense of self. In recent years, ability has been deemed less important, going from 75% of what determines trust, to 25%.

“It’s the dependability part that is the big question mark,” Edelman said. “Can I rely on these people to do what they say? Can I actually believe that they have integrity of their soul, as opposed to the next quarter’s earnings? Do they have a purpose?”

The Great Recession helped spark this change.

“The Great Recession really showed how empty the promise was to the 13 million Americans who took subprime debt and lost their houses,” Edelman said.

Richard Edelman delivers his morning lecture, “Recommitting to Trust,” to open Week Three’s theme on “Trust, Society and Democracy” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Many experts thought the economy would recover from the 2008 recession in three to four years, as it had from past recessions. Edelman said this wasn’t the case. Thirteen million people lost their homes, and the automobile industry took a large hit.

Edelman said the distrust in politicians shown during the Great Recession led to President Donald Trump’s election, showing that many voters were fed up with traditional politicians; and the Brexit referendum, that showed voters distrusted experts and were influenced by nationalist rhetoric. 

The government is doing better than the media, however, in terms of trust — traditional media has the lowest score among all the institutions Edelman tracks, including government, business and NGOs. News organizations are facing a multipronged threat, including society’s heavy dependence and distrust of social media and many platforms’ “bubble-like” nature, meaning people only share articles with others that agree with them.

“The perception is that the media is biased, that it’s chasing clicks, that it’s desperately clinging for attention. That’s a dysfunctional relationship with its customer,” Edelman said. “It’s not really serving its customer. It’s serving its customer candy.”

To rebuild trust, Edelman said, people are going to have to be brave, speak their grievances, and admit they are wrong or don’t know all the answers. He also said that there is value in talking about uncomfortable history, such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Edelman believes that stories like these should be taught in schools because acknowledging and sharing the truth is essential in repairing trust.

Richard Edelman delivers his morning lecture, “Recommitting to Trust,” to open Week Three’s theme on “Trust, Society and Democracy” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Edelman said he is an optimist by nature, and that two-thirds of people polled by the Barometer this year believe that the future will be better after COVID-19.

“Tomorrow demands trust,” Edelman said. “We have work to do to get there.”

During the subsequent Q-and-A session, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill asked why Edelman started the annual Trust Barometer.

Edelman said it became apparent that a marker of trust was needed. He said he saw shifts in trust throughout the country during U.S. globalization in the ’90s, and later during the Iraq War and Great Recession.

“A lot of our illusions have been smashed, and we demand answers,” Edelman said. “Well, we should.” 

Hill asked how people can move away from tribal impulses. 

“I just think we need to have a bit more bravery,” Edelman said, “and stop going to our little opinion bubbles, and stop being self-referential and recognize that the other side probably has some valid points.”

He also stressed the importance of listening, especially from those in power.

“We should listen more and not just talk,” Edelman said. “The more senior we are, the more we should listen.”

MIT’s Ariel Ekblaw looks to the potential of cutting-edge space architecture in CLS



  • Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, speaks about the future of space habitation during her lecture Thursday, July 8, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR
  • Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, speaks about the future of space habitation during her lecture Thursday, July 8, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR
  • Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, speaks about the future of space habitation during her lecture Thursday, July 8, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR
  • Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, speaks about the future of space habitation during her lecture Thursday, July 8, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR
  • Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, speaks about the future of space habitation during her lecture Thursday, July 8, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

When the Cold War ended, space travel stalled. With less political pressure, the government gave NASA and other space-related organizations less money. This was understandable because the Earth had, and has, a whole host of other problems that need to be addressed. 

But now, private companies are spurring on the space industry, though SpaceX and other groups do receive a lot of funding from the government. 

“This time, unlike Apollo, where it was just the government, really, in a Cold War space race, we now have an ecosystem of economic actors that will help continue to propel this exciting period of space exploration forward,” said Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative.

As director, Ekblaw charters annually recurring parabolic flights and suborbital and orbital launch opportunities and leads space-related research in multiple fields. At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, July 8 in the Amphitheater, Ekblaw discussed the initiative’s achievements and what they hope for the future; the historical and future politics surrounding space travel; and how she and others are collaborating to help democratize space. Her lecture, which was part of the Week Two Chautauqua Lecture Series theme of “New Frontiers: Exploring Today’s Unknowns,” came 10 years — almost to the hour — of the launch of NASA’s final manned Space Shuttle mission.

One of the initiative’s major goals is to build better space stations. Building the International Space Station required launching 27 rockets, and astronauts risked their lives to manually build the station while in space suits.

It was an “incredibly dangerous, incredibly exciting and a beautiful moment for those astronauts, but even this partnership between human labor and robotic arms — it won’t scale,” Ekblaw said.

To solve this problem, Ekblaw is helping design a self-building station, with highly magnetized, lightweight hexagonal and pentagonal tiles that are able to configure themselves into a breathable, livable area for humans. 

This structure is called TESSERAE, short for Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments.

“We are working on this opportunity to have you find delight and safety and comfort in the future of life in space,” Ekblaw said. “Can we take it from a domain where it’s just purely survival, building on the shoulders of giants here — NASA and others — who have made it possible to even consider a different paradigm, and go from surviving to thriving in a space exploration context?”

One of the major problems with current space stations is that their structures cannot change without major reconstructions. Billions of dollars are needed to send the material to space. This is a sharp contrast to cities and towns on Earth, which are constantly expanding and morphing. So for inspiration, Ekblaw and others looked to plants.

“There’s a certain logic, almost a fractal pattern, to each individual note and unit,” Ekblaw said, “but they also spiral in a way that you can predict and plan for where your space city might expand into.”

The structures made out of the magnetized tiles are able to assemble and disassemble all on their own. Ekblaw said the panels could one day be used to build larger concert halls or cathedrals. She showed one artist’s rendering of the structures connecting together to make a ring around the earth. 

Ekblaw and the initiative are working to not only advance space architecture, but also bring about conversations concerning ethics. The initiative brings together over 50 graduate students, staff and faculty and fosters conversations with independent artists, CEOs and film directors to help create the next chapter of human space exploration.

“We’re not simply a design house or a speculative-fiction group thinking about futurism and technology,” Ekblaw said. “We’re building these prototypes, and we’re launching them.”

The initiative, she said, has over 40 projects it is developing, testing and sending into space. These projects involve all aspects of everyday life — from designing new bathrooms to creating new instruments.

“We think about musical instruments that (can) only be played while floating, so that we have this opportunity to design new artifacts for the unique culture of space exploration, rather than assuming that we will always simply carry up with us the artifacts from Earth’s culture,” Ekblaw said. “It’s a very interesting blank slate.”

TESSERAE has accomplished all of this in two and a half years. Ekblaw said this is largely because her team is not completely reliant on the government, while some groups wait for years to simply have their idea approved for funding.

But there are many problems along the way, now and in the future. NASA estimates that there are 27,000 traceable pieces of debris in space around the Earth, with the amount of debris too small to trace estimated to be many times that. This debris is mainly due to miscalculations of scientists and poses a large threat in a future where space travel is more regular. Now, the international community requires a review of the calculations of reentry on almost every mission to space. 

In the future, when space travel becomes more regular, traffic may become a problem along routinely used routes. Another important issue is the security of satellites, with the machines ensuring communication between those on Earth, space and Mars.

As part of the Q-and-A session, Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair of Education, asked about China’s role in international space cooperation and about the prospect of another space race.

Ekblaw said that during the most tense parts of the Cold War, one of the only projects that the Soviet Union and U.S. collaborated on was space travel, with Americans flying on Mir Space Station and the U.S. bringing the Soviet Union into the early planning of the ISS. In the future, the same can happen, with many countries coming together for mutual benefits. 

Ekblaw said one key difference between space programs in the United States and in China is that while NASA is, essentially, civilian scientists who communicate with scientists from other countries, China’s space program is more intertwined with the military and Communist Party. 

“It can be difficult in that way to sometimes reach across the civilian-to-civilian conversation, but I think we need to do more of it and would look forward to opportunities to avoid a deeply militaristic race, if we can, for space,” Ekblaw said.

Ewalt asked what would most disappoint her — and what would most thrill her  — when it comes to her work. 

She would be disappointed if the tiles her team is working on break down and contribute to debris in space. She would also be sad if, in the future, outer space isn’t a peaceful place.

“It’s still an open question and takes a lot of our engagement to tell our government what we want, and also to engage with global citizens around that area,” Ekblaw said.

Ekblaw would be thrilled if the infrastructure helped people experience life in orbit.

“You can come back home, but (imagine being able to) share the magic of the cosmos with more people,” Ekblaw said. “You can imagine a yoga session; instead of sitting here on Earth, you are floating in a windowed, space habitat, truly immersed in the stars.”

Alta Charo explores history, misconceptions, future and the ethics of genome editing



R. Alta Charo, Warren P. Knowles Professor Emerita of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, delivers her lecture, “Now I Am Become Life, Creator or Worlds: The Era of Biotechnology,” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Is there a difference between genetically modifying a fish or a rabbit to glow in the dark and breeding dogs for a preferred look?

As technologies that can change parts of the DNA of animals ­— and humans — expand, R. Alta Charo, the Warren P. Knowles Professor Emerita of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said humans will have to reckon with these kinds of questions. 

Altering DNA has a lot of uses, from eliminating genetic diseases and making animals more resistant to changing climates. The application most in the spotlight, though, is potential changes to humans.

“Are we really upset about the technology, about the underlying thing it accomplishes, or simply about the fact that it’s now easier to do it and maybe more people will try?” Charo asked.

Charo, who spoke at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, July 7 in the Amphitheater, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, and the inaugural David A. Hamburg Distinguished Fellow at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

R. Alta Charo, Warren P. Knowles Professor Emerita of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, delivers her lecture, “Now I Am Become Life, Creator or Worlds: The Era of Biotechnology,” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Wednesday morning, she explored society’s attitude toward genome editing, different current practices and how the advancing field has raised questions about what it even means to be human. Her lecture, titled “Now I Am Become Life, Creator of Worlds: The Era of Biotechnology,” was the third part of Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Two theme, “New Frontiers: Exploring Today’s Unknowns.”

Scientists weren’t always conscious of how far their work could expand. In the 19th century, many were simply enamored with the inventive power of science. But, as more and more catastrophic weapons were conceived and deployed in the 20th century, this captivation turned to terror. 

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was eerily conscious of the power his work created. While testing the Manhattan Project during World War II, he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, and quoted Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

In the late 20th century, fear rose around the environmental impacts of genome editing. One experiment with genome editing attempted to protect strawberries from frost using a commercial product called Frostban; the woman spraying the strawberries wore a full hazmat suit.

“That image of having to wear a hazmat suit while spraying the field — something incredibly innocuous as genetic changes go — is probably what helped to lead to things like the fear of genetically engineered food that we now see,” Charo said.

Then public attitudes transformed again, this time with growing fear about reproduction. Instances of cloning, such as Dolly the sheep, Charo said, caused a media frenzy; some states even issued bans on cloning. 

Charo gave two examples of more recent genome editing: the first was mammoths and another was tomatoes. 

The first revolves around some scientists claiming reintroducing the mammoth would be beneficial to the ecosystem. Critics say that there is no way to measure the impact of reintroducing the species to an environment that has changed over thousands of years.

“It was really driven by this magical idea of bringing back extinct species,” Charo said. “There’s something really very romantic about that.”

R. Alta Charo, Warren P. Knowles Professor Emerita of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, delivers her lecture, “Now I Am Become Life, Creator or Worlds: The Era of Biotechnology,” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The second revolves around hybrid tomatoes. The tomato was bred over the years in order to last longer and travel better, though this made it less flavorful. Now, there is an effort to create a tomato that is flavorful and able to grow in more places, so that the produce does not have to travel as far. 

“If it was exactly the same, every base pair, every last one was identical between the one that we created, and the one that you picked off the vine originally — they’re literally identical in every possible chemical way — would it bother you that one of them has been engineered?” Charo asked.

Beyond extinct mammoths and everyday produce, the main focus within the field of DNA manipulation is combating genetic diseases, such as some forms of blindness and sickle cell. 

Charo said the two forms of manipulation are treatments that change the genes of a single person, with the changes essentially lasting one lifetime; and changing the genes of embryos, with the changes able to be passed down.

One scientist focused on changing embryos in order to give children more immunity to HIV. His work caused controversy, Charo said, because of the touchy subject of the work; critics also said his work was completely unnecessary, considering that none of the mothers participating in the trial had HIV, and that medicine was already advancing to treat HIV.

“We have absolutely nothing near the level of basic science research that you need to even think you have a good way to predict how well this is going to work, and what level of risks you’re facing,” Charo said.

All of these are examples of how far humans have progressed, and Charo said humanity has more power than ever before. This change in humanity’s power has made people ask what being human even means and what it means to “play god.” 

Charo’s final example was Mendel’s Dwarf, a novel about a geneticist with dwarfism. In one scene, he is looking at embryos in a dish and realizes he can choose which one to “bring to birth,” whether it be one with his genetic disease or not.

“He has this revelation that, for him, the deity actually is the one who just rolls the dice. The deity is the one who sets up a system,” Charo said. “He says, ‘If I choose, that is not being God, that is being human,’ a complete reversal of the way that phrase, playing God, is understood.”

R. Alta Charo, Warren P. Knowles Professor Emerita of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, delivers her lecture, “Now I Am Become Life, Creator or Worlds: The Era of Biotechnology,” Wednesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Amy Gardner, vice president of advancement and campaign director, asked as part of the Q-and-A session international review boards exist for genome editing. 

Charo said that she is on one of these boards, but enforcing and practicing policies mostly comes down to individual countries. An individual country’s policies around genome editing often come down to how they govern themselves, and the country’s primary religion. Majority Christian, Jewish or Muslim countries often hold different views on this topic. 

In some countries, like the United States, everything is essentially allowed until the government says otherwise; in other countries, if the government doesn’t explicitly state that the practice is allowed, then it is not. 

Gardner then asked what can be done to help societies adapt to the incredible rate of change of gene-editing technologies. 

“Often the change does not happen across all segments of society. It doesn’t happen in a very big way,” Charo said. “There are technologies that people worry about because they think everyone is going to use it, but they won’t. So we don’t have to worry about (an) enormous societal impact.”

In terms of sperm donations, many thought, and still believe, that people would choose the donors who are taller and more conventionally attractive. One business used a model that almost guaranteed that the child would be tall, blonde and strong. Charo said this organization failed quickly because the business model counted on its customers prioritizing conventional beauty.

“You don’t get people doing it because they want to see if they can have a kid that’s going to be more athletic or not,” Charo said. “They do it because they don’t want a kid who is going to have cystic fibrosis and is going to be in the doctor’s office, day after day, month after month, trying to breathe.”

Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Kolbert examines humanity’s desire to control nature



Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert gives a morning lecture about her book ‘Under a White Sky’ on Tuesday July 6, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the early 1900s, the Chicago River was so overrun with sewage that people said a chicken could walk across without getting its feet wet. The river connected to Lake Michigan, where the city got most of its drinking water. So the city’s leaders decided to reverse the flow of the river so that the water went back into the Mississippi River.

A massive construction project was undertaken, said Elizabeth Kolbert, an award-winning reporter and author, and 43 million cubic yards of dirt were moved.

“The project did succeed in achieving its primary aim to preserve the city’s drinking water, which of course is tremendously important. Chicago probably would not be the major city that it is today without that,” Kolbert said. “But it created a new problem, which no one was really thinking about at the time.”

Namely, after the construction project, aquatic animals and plants were able to invade other ecosystems. 

Especially carp. 

Grass carp were brought into the Mississippi to eat invasive aquatic plant species, stopping their spread without the use of herbicides — only the animals escaped their small enclosures, and now, they make up 75% of the biomass of the Mississippi. They are one of the many invasive species wreaking havoc on the ecosystems of the Great Lakes. 

People are trying to solve this problem, caused by human engineering, with more of the same engineering. To deter carp from coming up the Mississippi, engineers added electrified sections, with warnings not to dive, swim or even touch the water. Kolbert said the next plan is to build what one researcher called the “Disco Barrier” that would have water jets and blasting sounds. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert gives a morning lecture about the changing climate and her book ‘Under a White Sky’ on Tuesday July 6, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“The response to the problem of control or, if you prefer, control gone awry, is to try to layer on new forms of control. We act as if we believe that if engineering got us into this mess, more engineering will get us out,” Kolbert said. “The projects become more baroque, but we keep at it, either because we don’t see any other options, or because we reject the other options.”

Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, an influential nonfiction book that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999. At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 6 in the Amphitheater, she presented her lecture “Under a White Sky,” taken from the name of her new book Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, as part of Week Two of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ theme of “New Frontiers: Exploring Today’s Unknowns.” She discussed humanity’s continued desire to control nature and the lack of will to decrease carbon emissions despite growing concerns and proven evidence.

Throughout the lecture, Kolbert explored a phrase etched on a pillar outside one of University of Wyoming’s buildings built in the 1920s: “Strive on — the control of nature is won. Not given.”

“There was a great deal of faith in the idea that nature could and should be harnessed for human ends,” Kolbert said. “This was at the very heart of what it meant to be an engineer.”

The University of Wyoming quote struck many engineers and scientists and, in particular, authors Rachel Carson and John McPhee.

Carson, in her landmark book Silent Spring, didn’t see humanity’s control of nature as triumphant. Instead, she explored it in a darker key, Kolbert said. Carson wrote about how humanity had visibly changed the environment, through roads and buildings, and also invisibly, through pesticides that indiscriminately killed the creatures it was designed for, but also bugs beneficial for farming, fish, birds and — in some cases — people. 

She then read from the final pages of Silent Spring: “The control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert gives a morning lecture to a crowd of Chautauquans about her book ‘Under a White Sky’ on Tuesday July 6, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Decades after Carson, McPhee wrote his book The Control of Nature. Whereas Carson struck a dark note of people’s impact on nature, Kolbert said McPhee’s tone was “bemused and skeptical.” In his book, he explored a volcanic eruption in Iceland, where people used around 8 million cubic yards of water to hose down the magma. They claimed that this effort helped save half the island from destruction. McPhee was less sure, to say the least.

“But, as McPhee then notes,” Kolbert said, “the truth of this will never be known, the role of luck being unassessable, the effects of intervention being ultimately incalculable and the assertion that people can stop a volcano being hubris enough to provoke a new eruption.” 

Kolbert herself was inspired by the University of Wyoming phrase, and it became a central subject of Under a White Sky.

“Now in 2021, the issue is not so much that we are trying to control nature, either arrogantly per Carson, or ineffectively per McPhee,” Kolbert said. “It is that without even seeking to, we do control nature, and what I mean here by ‘controlling nature’ is that we dominate it, both by design and in many ways, completely inadvertently.”

She described the scale of humanity’s impact. People have directly transformed roughly half of the earth’s ice-free land and indirectly changed the other half. Most of the world’s major rivers are dammed or diverted; the only remaining ones with natural courses are in remote parts of the Arctic, the Amazon and parts of Congo, though Kolbert said that more dams are planned. Humans also cause 100 times more carbon emissions annually than volcanoes, which used to be the world’s main source of emissions. 

Ninety-six percent of mammals are either humans or livestock; the total weight of human-made objects is roughly the same as the weight of everything else; the biomass of every animal on earth is 4 gigatons whereas plastics are 8 gigatons; and the world is on track to have more plastic than fish in the oceans in 2050.

Though one solution with much support is to reduce carbon emissions, Kolbert said that there is little evidence that people are changing their ways.

“I, myself, am not an advocate,” Kolbert said. “I’m a journalist, and I see my role not as looking at what we should be doing, but more looking at what we are doing. I just don’t see much in the way of evidence that we are scaling back. Or, to put things more starkly, that we have the will to scale back.” 

So what are people doing? As Kolbert said, humanity is “basically betting the future of the planet on more engineering. We are hoping that a new round of engineering can fix the problems created by the old engineering.”

One example is a project in Iceland with large “air conditioners.” These machines take the CO2 out of the air, store it until there is a significant amount and pump it deep underground, where it turns the surrounding rocks into, essentially, chalk, or calcium bicarbonate. 

Another more controversial example is solar geoengineering, also called solar radiation management. The concept is that if a large aircraft flew into the stratosphere and released a large number of reflective chemicals, it would lessen the amount of heat Earth would receive from the sun, thus causing global cooling.

“If your reaction to this is, ‘Well, that sounds pretty scary,’ you are not alone,” Kolbert said. “Solar geoengineering has been described as dangerous beyond belief, as a broad highway to hell and it’s unimaginably drastic. The possible side effects are manifold.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert gives a morning lecture to a crowd of Chautauquans about her book ‘Under a White Sky’ on Tuesday July 6, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The negative risks would be disrupting ecosystems even further by suddenly changing their temperatures, damaging the ozone layer and even changing the sky to a whiter color. This prospect of a whiter sky is where Kolbert got her book’s title Under a White Sky.

“I also think it’s important to consider geoengineering, and other world-altering technologies against the alternatives. In the case of geoengineering, the alternative is not going back to the climate that we had before we embarked on the world-altering project that is extracting fossil fuels and burning them,” Kolbert said. “That climate is gone. And it is not coming back in any foreseeable future.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Mark Wenzler, director of the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative, asked what can people expect from literary arts in helping explore these issues. 

Kolbert said that the proof was in the pudding; while many, including her, have tried, there hasn’t been a transformational text covering climate change — yet.

“To be honest,” Kolbert said, “the book of the future may be a miniseries. It may be a tweet. I don’t know what it is going to be. Maybe an Instagram feed. So I don’t know if a book can galvanize public opinion the way that Silent Spring did.”

After the release of Silent Spring, Congress called Carson to testify on the use of pesticides. 

“It’s since terribly dated and terribly sexist,” Kolbert said. “But JFK says to her, ‘You’re the little lady who started this all,’ which is a reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had an enormous galvanizing effect for the abolitionist movement.”

Wenzler asked what the older generation can say and do for the younger generation so that they have hope and can take action. 

“The simplest answer I could give is: There’s no choice but to face these issues. We’re not being given a choice,” Kolbert said.

Kolbert talked about her children, one of whom is going to graduate school for climate science.

“He knows the science better than I do. It’s not a pretty picture. I don’t have to tell anyone here that,” Kolbert said. “If you want to do meaningful work, there’s going to be a lot of meaningful work to be done in the climate sphere. So let’s go out and do it.”

Celebrated author Ted Chiang shares how ‘literature of change’ shapes idea of future



Hugo Award- and Nebula Award-winning science fiction author Ted Chiang delivers his lecture “Science Fiction and the Idea of the Future” Monday, July 5, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Aluminum was once worth more than gold. In 1884, the Washington Monument was capped with aluminum because of its value and durability. Yet today, the metal lines the shelves of Walmart and Wegmans. 

Ted Chiang, a decorated science fiction author of works including Exhalation and Stories of Your Life, said this is a consequence of the almost-daily changes caused by the industrial revolution. The world in which parents raise their children is vastly different than the one in which they themselves were brought up. 

Enter science fiction. True science fiction, Chiang said, is the literature of change.

The winner of four Nebula Awards, four Hugo Awards, four Locus Awards and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Chiang opened Week Two of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, themed “New Frontiers: Exploring Today’s Unknowns,” at 10:30 a.m. Monday, July 5 in the Amphitheater. During his lecture, titled “Science Fiction and the Idea of the Future,” he explored the differences between fantasy and science fiction, how the industrial revolution has changed how humanity views the future, and his belief in a machine-like universe. 

The differences between science fiction and other genres, Chiang said, are more than cosmetic. Some stories, such as “Star Wars,” are falsely labeled as science fiction because they have aliens and spaceships, but are really adventure tales: a young man saving a princess, defeating a dark force and returning the world to order. 

This type of story, where the world is in the same state both before the beginning of the tale and again at the end, Chiang said, was common before the industrial revolution and Enlightenment.

“For me, the underlying assumption for real science fiction is the idea that arose during the Enlightenment. It’s the idea that the universe can be understood through reason,” Chiang said. “It’s the idea that the universe is a kind of machine, and if we study it carefully, we can figure out how it works.”

Chiang said that The Dead Past, a novel written by Isaac Asimov and published in the 1950s, exemplifies the nature of science fiction. This novel ends with everyone in the world gaining access to a technology that is able to look milliseconds in the past. Much to the characters’ dismay, this advancement effectively ends personal privacy.

The most important characteristic of this story, Chiang said, is that it ends at a different point than it begins, unlike traditional good-versus-evil stories like “Star Wars.” These more traditional stories usually have a message that the past was good, and that humanity needs to preserve the past.

Hugo Award- and Nebula Award-winning science fiction author Ted Chiang delivers his lecture “Science Fiction and the Idea of the Future” Monday, July 5, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“Many critics believe that this implies a political message, and it is a conservative one because the efforts of the protagonists are directed at maintaining the status quo,” Chiang said. “The underlying message of these stories is that things were good before, and we should try to keep things that way.”

Real science fiction, on the other hand, follows another pattern, Chaing said, starting with the familiar, new technology disrupting daily life and the world changing.

Another key part of science fiction exemplified in The Dead Past is the democratization of technology, like the machine that can look into the past or, in real life, smartphones. He said that true science fiction often asks two questions: What if this technology exists, and what if everyone had it?

The availability of technology, Chiang said, is a major difference between science fiction and fantasy. He said that some people claim that the only difference between the two genres is cosmetic: they say that if The Lord of The Rings had aliens instead of elves, then it would be called science fiction. 

Chiang disagrees. He then gave two stories: one where gold could be created for cheap by anyone and another where only a few people had the ability.

The difference between the two examples is the importance of the practitioner. The second example — found in the genre of fantasy — depends on the individual, with the universe choosing a particular person for a particular reason. The person may have an innate gift, or a purified soul,  for example. Reasons could also include good intentions, hard work, intense concentration or personal sacrifice. 

The first, which he said is more reminiscent of science fiction, requires none of these.

“None of these things are true of scientific phenomena,” Chiang said. “When you pass a magnet through a coil of wire, electric currents flow, no matter who your parents are, whether your intentions are good or bad. You don’t have to concentrate power or offer a sacrifice in order for a light bulb to turn on. Electricity doesn’t care.”

In fiction, magic typically requires individuals and responds differently to each one. 

“Magic is evidence that the universe knows that you’re a person,” Chiang said. “Magic is an indication that the universe recognizes that people are different from things and that you are an individual who is different from other people.”

Science fiction, in many ways, does the opposite.

Hugo Award- and Nebula Award-winning science fiction author Ted Chiang delivers his lecture “Science Fiction and the Idea of the Future” Monday, July 5, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“Sometimes people say that the scientist’s way of viewing the world is cold and impersonal,” Chiang said. “I am not sure that I would agree that it’s cold, but definitely agree that it is impersonal.”

Chiang said that people, in fiction and in real life, tend to anthropomorphize the universe, thinking of it as a person, with its own will and thoughts. One such example is the idea that positive thoughts lead to positive outcomes. One author, Chiang said, wrote about a character designed after themselves, and when they wrote about bad things happening to the character, bad things happened to the author. 

“It’s the idea that the universe recognizes the interpersonal, because that’s what people do,” Chiang said. “But mass production cannot be understood this way, because people do not behave this way. No one would grant a favor, once a second, all day, every day, 365 days a year.”

The idea of a lack of connection between humanity and the universe grew in Western cultures during the Enlightenment. Instead of relying on the written works of old philosophers, scientists of this era started to rely on their own experiments and looked for replicable results. 

And capitalism has thrived under this philosophy. 

“Capitalism excels at making people feel unimportant. Working on an assembly line takes a lot of joy out of working,” Chiang said. “This is a direct byproduct of living in a mechanistic universe. In a universe where magic works, that type of alienation cannot happen, because magical nature is inextricably tied to (the) individual.”

Chiang said that the world needs more fantasy and science fiction, as both are essential in understanding the universe and humanity, and help people understand the value of themselves and the world around them. 

Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, asked Chiang, as part of the Q-and-A session, which authors should people read that exemplify science fiction. 

Chiang recommended writers Greg Egan and Kim Stanley Robinson. 

Ewalt also asked Chiang about science fiction’s role in inspiring a sense of awe in the reader. 

The awe readers experience while reading is the same emotion that scientists feel when studying the universe, Chiang said. For many early scientists during the Enlightenment, the surprise and inspiration they felt during experiments were vastly tied to their practice of religion because they were gaining a greater understanding of their god’s creations. 

And it is similar for secular scientists. 

“The awe that you get from understanding the universe,” Chiang said, “is the closest thing a non-religious person can get to religious awe.”

Political scientist, author Dexter Roberts examines Chinese wealth gap between urbanites, rural migrant workers; delves into country’s economic future



Political Scientist Dexter Roberts speaks on China’s economic future during Thursday’s morning lecture July 1, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

While Mao Zedong was radically egalitarian, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, was more practical. He helped open China up to the world and convinced its people to let some among them become wealthy first. The rest of China would follow naturally.

Dexter Roberts, a fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative, said Deng was very successful over the next several years. Too successful, some thought, to the point his own successor was worried the wealth gap between China’s rich and poor was becoming too big. 

This is one of the main problems that China faces today, Roberts said. China is now tainted with wealth gaps even greater than the United States. 

Roberts reported in China for over two decades for Bloomberg Businessweek, is a fellow at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana, where he is also an adjunct instructor of political science. At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 1 in the Amphitheater, Roberts delved into China’s uncertain financial future and the hurdles 300 million internal migrant workers face. His lecture, titled “The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: Challenges to China’s Future as a Global Superpower,” was the last presentation of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week One’s theme of “China and The World: Collaboration, Competition, Confrontation?”

In 2000, Roberts reported on China’s young migrant workers. He met many of these people in Guizhou, often called the factory of the world because it has the world’s highest number of exports, from clothes and toys to iPhones. One of those migrants was Mo Pubo.

Mo left his village when he was 15 before starting high school and spent the next five years traveling around China working at factories. He eventually landed in Guizhou, where he met Roberts.

Roberts talked to Mo’s coworkers, many of which were his distant cousins, and also Mo’s girlfriend. 

“She had been very shy. She had always seemed afraid. When I addressed her, she would look down at the table,” Roberts said. “It was quite the experience to then see her several months later back at her village. She was really transformed. She was actually pretty proud of her village.”

Mo’s girlfriend returned home for two reasons: Her parents needed help during the rice harvest, and her identity card expired. 

This ID is more important than one might think, not only to migrants like Mo, but to the future of the Chinese economy. It states where a person is born within China. According to Chinese law, a person cannot use health care, public education or pension funds outside of their birth area. This means that the 300 million workers must travel back to their homes in order to receive medical care. Similarly, they must send their children back home for their education, or pay high prices for private urban schools. 

And it is a large risk to have an expired identity card. One of Mo’s cousins was held for ransom because theirs had expired.

“In places like Guizhou, the local police often saw migrants as a source of extra income. They would get them on the streets for any infraction they can pick up,” Roberts said. “Certainly an expired card would be one of the classic reasons they would grab someone. They would hold them in what they would call black jails and, in fact, hold them for ransom.”

Political Scientist Dexter Roberts speaks on China’s economic future during Thursday’s morning lecture July 1, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Mao and his government initially created the card policy as a means of controlling the rural population and restricting migration across the country. Roberts said Mao wanted a “captive” rural population living in communes to produce cheap grains and foods for the urban population. 

“The economic rationale was: Sacrifice the livelihoods of the Chinese rural people in order to support the city,” Roberts said.

Unlike Mao, his successor, Deng, allowed the rural population to travel and live wherever they chose. But, Roberts said, Deng still tied social welfare — like health care, education and pensions — to where each person is born. 

“The issue here probably does not come as a surprise: China’s rural health care, China’s rural education, is far, far inferior to what is available in cities,” Roberts said.

Like in the U.S., the wealthier the area is, the more resources the local schools and hospitals have. With rural areas lacking the factories and foreign investments that urban areas have, villages are usually poor. A lot of the money that these remote villages receive, Roberts said, comes from migrant workers’ earnings and local agriculture. 

In 2000, the average wage of people in urban China was three times the average wage of those in rural China. Today, the ratio is around 2.5 to 1. 

Roberts said migrant parents can spend a high amount of money for private urban schools for children from rural areas, but even these schools are often not much better than their rural counterparts. Rural schools have a very high dropout rate; Roberts said very few actually finish high school in these areas. Furthermore, around 100 million children of migrant workers grow up separated from their parents. 

China and its migrant workers are reckoning with the welfare rules around the identity card, but also with another Mao-era policy lingering into modern times. 

In urban areas, homeowners are essentially free to sell, rent or buy their property and keep most of the profits. Roberts said this has led to an explosion of wealth within the real estate industry.

But, in rural areas, when owners sell their land, they receive very little because the local Party members take most of the profit. 

The policies around the identification cards and selling property leave migrant workers with little money, and the extra money they do have, they need to save for emergencies. This is especially dangerous for the Chinese government because their economy is transitioning from factory- and export-geared to one that needs to be driven by the spending power of its own people. 

China’s old economic model is not working as well, Roberts said, because the one-child policy has left the country with few working-age adults and factory wages have increased. China’s economy initially grew at unprecedented rates partially due to the very low wages the companies paid their workers. Since those wages have grown over time, China’s profits have decreased, and are still decreasing.

Additionally, migrant workers often save as much as 23% of their wages, which is 15% higher than the global saving average. It is either this, Roberts said, or risk going bankrupt.

So, China’s leadership wanted to increase its household consumption, Roberts said, which is at a very low 39%, 15 points below the world average. In comparison, Roberts said American household consumption is between 70 and 75%.

Chautauquans gather to hear Political Scientist Dexter Roberts talk about China’s economic future during Thursday’s morning lecture July 1, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair of Education, opened the Q-and-A by asking why the Chinese government is resistant to expanding education to rural areas. 

The main issue, Roberts said, is money, as funding for schools and hospitals comes from the local area. Another issue is that there is not much benefit for rural governments to invest in schools. Their reasoning is, Roberts said, if they invested heavily in educating children, the students would still leave for wealthier cities as soon as they come of age, instead of staying within the community. Urban populations also do not want to share their access to welfare, particularly with education. 

“Some of the bigger protests we’ve seen in recent years (in China) have actually been the parents of city kids who have gone and protested against the well-meaning efforts by the central government to try and allow more young people from rural China to also attend these schools,” Roberts said. “We’ve seen parents go march outside of the board of education and say, ‘Keep them out.’ ”

And, Roberts said, President Xi Jinping is not a strong supporter of reform.

“He does not necessarily believe in allowing young people to decide to live where they want to live and to sell when they want to sell,” Roberts said. “So I think there’s a large issue of control by the Communist Party — this perception that it’s socially destabilizing to allow rural people to move around the country.”

With Week One of the CLS ending, Ewalt ended the lecture by asking who the audience should read to learn more about China’s role in international affairs.

Roberts recommended journalists and authors Peter Hessler, Ian Johnson and Mei Fong — a friend of Roberts’ who lectured at Chautauqua two days before him.

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