Chautauqua is an old fashioned religious retreat center started in the 1870s in upstate New York on the shores of Chautauqua Lake. Embry and I are spending a week in a tiny apartment nestled next to gingerbread, Victorian structures among aged hemlocks and abundant laurel and rhododendrons. It is surely one of those rare spiritual vortexes you stumble upon occasionally. We had heard about it, as have, I am sure, many of you, but we keep asking ourselves why did it take us so long to get here. It was started as a venue for teaching Sunday school teachers but has evolved into something closer to a life-long learning center. Every day there are dozens of lectures or classes to choose from along with music, dance, poetry readings and worship services or religious discussions. Virtually every mainstream Protestant domination has its own “cottage,” as do Catholics, and Jews, and there is a big emphasis on interfaith dialogue with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others including “Nones.” It is all here. Just take your pick. And then there is tennis, golf, sailing, swimming, camps for kids, and many places to eat and relax. Put this place on your bucket list.
The theme this week is “Russia and the West.” They set the schedule over a year in advance, but it could not be timelier. At the first morning lecture Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from Delaware, spoke at exactly the same time that the Putin/Trump Summit was happening in Helsinki. Coons was eloquent and powerful. He said that should Trump miss the opportunity to confront Putin on the meddling issue, this would amount to a catastrophe. Only minutes after he completed his talk, we learned about Trump’s now infamous press conference. There were also two afternoon lectures that day by college professors and scholars, one titled “The Fall of the American Empire” and the other “The Putin Regime and Political Murder.” You get the gist.
But the word on Russia was not all doom and gloom. Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, and a Princeton PhD and professor at the New School, painted a much more nuanced picture of a complicated and paradoxical country, much more like our understanding of the country we visited in 1994 and 2015. We in the U.S. often fail to understand how the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union affected the Russians and their strong desire to regain their national pride. The World Cup was a milestone for them in regaining their self respect, and life for ordinary people is far better now than it was in the economic chaos of the 1990s.
She was followed the next two days by two other expat intellectuals from the former Soviet Union, Alina Polikova and Masha Gessan, neither of whom was optimistic about the future. The hopeful but chaotic Nineties have morphed into a kind of totalitarianism-lite where Putin remains hugely popular and basic freedoms sharply curtailed.
The most disturbing presentation came from a professor from Arizona State University, who is an expert on technology and artificial intelligence. Social media and targeted assaults like the Russian meddling are just the beginning of a sea change where he believes there will no longer be any such thing as “truth” or “facts.” We are retreating into a new kind of tribalism where because of technology we can screen out anything that does not conform with our own view of the world. The new technology can be and is being weaponized to shape the way people think and act. Pretty scary stuff. This guy was quite pessimistic and had no more clues than the rest of us as to how we get through these troubling times and keep and open and democratic society.
All the lectures we attended—over a dozen—were excellent, several extraordinary. I could not help wondering where did they find all these people. But this is the Chautauqua Institute, with a rich history of over 140 years of giving platforms to the best and the brightest. Alexander Graham Bell, Franklin Roosevelt, Margaret Meade, Thurgood Marshall and Elie Wiesel all spoke from the stage of the massive amphitheater (not the current one, which amidst intense controversy replaced the original two years ago) . My two favorites this week were William Burns, now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomat and Ambassador to Russia, Avor Towles, author of A Gentleman In Moscow. Burns made me realize just how important diplomacy is and how it can and often does produce great benefits. Sadly not what is happening now. And Towles, witty and charming, provided an insightful context for his best seller about the triumph of the individual spirit under Communism, a book that I truly loved.
So if you have the time and the money (Embry refuses to tell me how much it cost.), plan to come here. On any given day during the nine week program, I am told that there could be as many as ten thousand people scrambling to classes and lectures, attending concerts or just milling around the lakefront or strolling along the car-free, narrow streets, dodging kids riding bicycles. It is a cross between a university, a summer camp and a retirement community as a whole lot of people—I would guess over half– are about our age. And that there are so many engaged, gray-hairs like us intensely listening and discussing the great themes and ideas of our time is in itself inspiring. We humans just keep squeezing as much juice out of the lemon as we can until the last drop.