Peril and perspective as ideas swirl in Kent
KENT — The topic was the future of the Democratic Party, and Mitch Landrieu, recent mayor of New Orleans, took matters much further.
“This is a pivotal moment and a dangerous moment. It’s going to force us to think very differently,” Landrieu said to an audience at the Kent School Friday. “We’re at a point where we have to make a decision about whether we can put our ideology down and actually save the country. ... My strong suggestion is that we look beyond party politics.”
That’s life in the age of Trump. The battle is drawn, with lines of opposition well past political ideology.
Looking deeper still, Landrieu was just one of many speakers at the annual Kent Presents conference — a gathering on politics, economics, culture and science — who saw a world in peril, or perhaps, on the brink of peril.
Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state aptly introduced as The Oracle for his decades as a foreign policy expert, and perhaps for his crazily deep voice, sees a globe of nations that’s dangerously close together through technology, and threatened by a more complex set of problems than the World War II-era nationalist divisions we grew up fearing. Questioned by Leslie Stahl of CBS News, the diplomat fell short of criticizing Trump except in a subtle way.
Stahl wanted him to compare former President Richard M. Nixon, his old boss, to Trump.
“Nixon was a student of international affairs who tried to construct an international system,” Kissinger said. “Nixon had a gap between his personal insecurities and his sense of mission...I would not say that the existing administration necessarily shares the global perception of Nixon.”
Stahl tried hard to coax Kissinger into trashing Trump for this or that policy; he said he wasn’t sure whether he still has his security clearance because retired top officials tend to use it only for specific projects, but that Trump shouldn’t take away clearances as punishment. But Kissinger, who lives in Kent, preferred to talk about the world order.
The biggest problem we face? “Our biggest challenge is to understasnd what we’re up against, so that it is partly an internal issue,” he said.
You never know who you might talk with about world affairs, or maybe dance or museums, at this well-heeled event in one of Litchfield County’s toniest towns. In the lobby, you can overhear two student volunteers talking about the dilemmas of fighting terrorism as spelled out in The Art of War. Perilous stuff.
I jabbered with a guy sitting next to me in the last row of a theater hall as Landrieu and New York Times columnist Charles Blow discussed Democratic Party strategy (equal time: Republicans had a panel on Thursday). We harumphed when Blow suggested a Democrat could add members to the U.S. Supreme Court. Afterward, the fellow shook my hand and others as he walked out.
Who was that guy? I asked. “Wynton Marsalis.” Dang, I knew he looked familiar.
Across the board, danger seemed to recur as a theme at several panels — certainly on guns and cybersecurity. But conference co-founcer Donna Rosen made the point that the event is upbeat, about solutions and next steps more than peril.
That’s certainly the view of Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, dedicated to advancements enabling guns to recognize their owners and not fire in the wrong hands. We could be on the verge of a breakthrough, Hirsch said, driven by the teen survivors of the Parkland shooting, among other forces.
“Ninety percent of people who try to commit suicide and fail, never go on to try again,” she said — meaning smart technology can help prevent many of the 2,600 youth suicides a year.
Landrieu — a moderate Southern Democrat — is on a list of people supporters are pressuring to run in 2020. He says he won’t do it but he has a lot of ideas about the precipice for the nation. In his view, the political spectrum isn’t a straight line from left to right, but a circle — where the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements might be close together, connected through their anger at the system.
So, I asked, are we in a perilous moment? No, he said. He’s an optimist. “We’re walking toward a cliff but we’re not going to go off the edge.”
The fact that we’re even discussing the cliff makes the point about peril.