Chautauqua Revisited

Our visit to Chautauqua, the vacation/retreat center in upstate New York founded in the late 19thCentury, was so successful last summer that we decided to do it again this year and to bring along our granddaughter, Sadie, Andrew and Karen’s 11-year old, part of our tradition of taking each grandchild on a trip with us, one at a time. This was Sadie’s turn. The idea was for Sadie to attend the day camp during the day and to meet us for lunch and spend the late afternoon and evening with us. We also were scheduled to be here at the same time with John and Grace, old friends from Chapel Hill and Davidson days, and with friends from DC—Wendy and Charlie, Connie, and Sally, who spends the whole summer here. It was a fabulous week—especially being with our granddaughter, Sadie. The highlights for her were the camp activities, the magic show and the bat in our room that woke us all up at 2:30 a.m. But there was a whole lot more.

Last summer I posted several blogs about this magical place. There is simply nothing quite like it–at least not that I have seen. Moments after you drop off your bags at the cottage or rooming house where you are staying, park your car in the main parking lot off campus, and reenter the Chautauqua Institute on foot, you immediately feel the difference. Nineteenth Century, three-story, gingerbread cottages with huge front porches and balconies line the streets surrounded by towering pines, ancient hemlocks and maples, and engulfed in a sea of flowers and greenery. Pedestrians, not cars, dominate the narrow streets, and the pace is slow except for kids shooting by on bicycles and scooters. Someone is always walking a dog or two, and there always seems to be someone pushing a baby carriage or an older person riding on an electric cart. The population of the town is listed as about 4,500 permanent residents, but there are surely a lot more during the summer months. The amphitheater holds over 6,000, and for the big morning lectures it is usually close to full and not everyone attends.

One thing that stands out most to me is how many old folks there are, people my age or older. My guess is that well over half are over the age of 70 and still going strong, rushing from lecture to lecture and taking in as much as they can. One lady I sat beside talked about her youngest great grandchild just turning 20. How old could she be? Many people here are part of intergenerational families, often returning year after year. My only question about the demographics is why are there so few persons of color.

What brings people to Chautauqua besides the cooler temperatures, clean mountain air, and its delightful setting are the educational, religious, cultural, and artistic programs that begin before eight in the morning and go on all day and into the evening without letup. The place is a combination of a summer camp for grownups, an old-fashioned, religious retreat center, and a major university. Each day there are over 40 lectures, discussion groups, religious services, plays or concerts and another 30 or so classes plus three or four films every day.  There is a tennis center, sailing center, golf course, ball fields, lawn bowling, and swimming in the lake. Entertainment—symphonies, concerts, and this year a magic show—begin every evening around eight. When one of the speakers this week described this place as a utopia, you could see heads nodding.

Over the course of the nine-week summer season, each week there is a different theme. The theme this week, Week Eight, was “shifting global power.”  I do not know how they do it,  but Chautauqua prides itself in attracting the best and brightest to do the lectures—a kind of superstar system with lots of people who are famous and well-known and others whom you may not have heard of but whose credentials take about ten minutes to read. They all seem to have written numerous books, been highly successful in their careers, mostly in academia, and won all sorts of prestigious awards. Just like last year, they did not disappoint.

While the published theme this year was shifting global power, the actual theme which undergirded most of the presentations could be summed up in one word: doomsday. This was present both in the main morning lectures and in many of the spiritual forums that happen every afternoon at two pm. I do not know about others, but my takeaway from most of what I heard was enough to scare the bejesus out of me. I learned from Robin Wright (U.S. Institute for Peace) that the Information Age has accelerated the speed we need to respond, and it is beyond our human capacity to do this–jeopardizing our ability to address crises in a timely and thoughtful way. This suggests to me, anyway, that we are not even close to being ready for the scary future that awaits us.

 I learned from  Ken Weinstein (The Hoover Institute) that technology has fundamentally changed the nature of warfare, that China, which is now our number one adversary,  is moving forward faster than we are in developing  technology. China’s new social credit score system now tracks behavior of its citizens and rates each one according to criteria like loyalty to the state.  Your social credit score will determine if you get job, a college degree or a mortgage, making the novel 1984 look like a child’s bedtime story. We are in a sort of Sputnik moment, he said; and if we do not respond in kind, the world’s superpower will be China, not us. 

I learned from tech star, Joi Ito (Harvard Media Lab) that the early optimism about the power of the internet to make the world more democratic has a dark side that is just the opposite of what he and others had predicted when the Digital Age was beginning to ramp up, only a couple of decades ago. Its future direction is uncertain.

 I learned from Environmentalist Bill McKibben ( that the Greenland ice cap is much closer to a meltdown that anyone imagined 30 years ago when it was beginning to become apparent that global warming was real.  We are very near a tipping point, which if it happens, will mean that there is nothing humans can do to prevent a total Greenland meltdown, which would result in the seas  rising over 20 feet, causing  a refugee crisis of over a billion people, no way to feed the Earth’s population, and uncertainty about the future existence of human life on the planet. 

McKibben argued that the only hope we have is for a worldwide, massive effort to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere from over 400 particles per million to 350 or less. Nothing close to that is happening now. Others in smaller lectures and discussion groups tended to migrate to the same warning themes: Beware, these are dangerous times like none that we humans on Earth have known or experienced. The future could be bleak.

As terrible and compelling as all these wakeup calls were, what disturbed me as much as anything were Bill Moyers’ comments about the deterioration of civic life in the U.S. and the threats to democracy from within rather than from coups or hostile takeovers by adversaries. In countries like Turkey, Poland, the Czech Republic, Indonesia, and Venezuela this has already happened. It could happen in the U.S. Some say it already is happening here. 

Another speaker warned us that Trump is a symptom, not a cause of the divisions in our country; and until we address the issues of class, race and inequality, these divisions will only worsen. But how do you do that given our history of race and class divisions and that we are now in a global economy where corporations rather than increase wages in the U.S., move their factories to other countries where wages are lower?

So here is the irony. You are sitting in an extraordinary, bucolic, and beautiful setting among people who would seem to share your values and taking all this in, and you are hearing these dire warnings that the Earth is going to hell in a hand basket. What are you supposed to do?

Well, there are some hopeful signs, and most speakers tried to throw in a tidbit of optimism. Several pointed to the GenZ generation, those born between 1995 and 2015, as our best hope for the future. They seem to get it when it comes to climate change, inequality and the need for action. Millennials are also more aware of these threats than the Boomers though many are watching from the sidelines. The so called “Silent Generation,” which I am part of, is leavening behind some big problems for our children and grandchildren. 

  Others talked about the potential for grassroots organizing and the power of protest. The 350 Movement is having a lot of impact all across the globe in putting climate change on radar screens using protests and grass roots organizing, and the #MeToo Movement has had enormous worldwide impact changing behavior toward women, using social media. The head of that movement, Tarana Burke, who spoke on the last day, was very inspiring. In fact most of the speakers were inspiring because they have not decided to throw in the towel and they still have a dog in the fight. Perhaps the most hopeful comment was by McKibben, who said that we now have the technology to convert from a carbon-based energy system to solar and wind based. The issue is human willpower.  People working together in common cause can make a difference. All of these threats require action, but with climate change—by far the most ominous—the clock is clicking. Time is running out.

It reminded me a bit of the early civil rights movement and how the big push was to get people of good will involved in the movement, regardless of their race. In 1964 I was inspired by civil rights leaders at a conference I  attended in Philadelphia to do something to further the cause. I returned to Davidson College after the conference and my senior year organized a march in Charlotte supporting the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. It was not such a big deal in the larger context, but it was big for us Southern, white boys at Davidson who participated and was another small stick of kindling added to the civil rights fire. When you get enough kindling burning, big logs catch on fire.

 Maybe we are at that time again, a time for massive protests, marches, sit ins and nonviolent civil disobedience. Maybe it is time to take to the streets to pressure the politicians to act.  Regarding global warming, McKibben challenged us old folks in particular, saying, “What have you seniors got to lose? An arrest record on your resume is not going to make any difference to someone who is retired!”

Maybe it is that time again. 

2 thoughts on “Chautauqua Revisited

  1. You describe this terrifying and delightful week so we’ll! I can’t wait for the blog post about your arrest!

  2. Joe, you’ve captured Chautauqua to a T including the post-lecture moods: what can one possibly do to meaningfully reverse all the disturbing trends and developments we listened to all week? These days I’m thinking marches to voter registration booths now….and, come November 2020, marches to voting booths across the country are our best bet. To be discussed over more coffee…or wine!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.