I’ve Discovered the Antidote to This Year’s Nasty Election: TED
Early last week, I was sitting in an arena listening to a highly influential person discuss ideas that would, if enacted, change the world.
They ranged from a plan to build a gigantic wall between the United States and Mexico and convince Mexico to pay for it; a plan to allow waterboarding as an accepted torture tactic; and a plan to—OK fine, you guessed it—“make America great again.”
These were the lines that drew the most applause at Donald Trump’s final rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. The fervent supporters in the audience helped Trump handily win the New Hampshire primary.
Cut to today, and I’m sitting in another arena, this time on the other side of the continent at the annual TED Conference in Vancouver, where another influential person is laying out an audacious idea. In some ways, the crowd is similar to the one I encountered in Manchester: mostly white, mostly male, busting with enthusiasm. But the similarities end there.
Instead, the person on stage is Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, and the big idea he’s calling for is the end of what he calls the “crisis of political polarization.” He is urging the audience not to join the “holy war of ideology,” but to “blur the lines” of political affiliation.
“Be the conservative who’s always going on about poverty,” he implored. “Be a liberal who’s always talking about the beauty of free markets.”
After weeks on the campaign trail, TED was a wonderful, and welcome, palate cleanser.
We Are Better Than This
In almost every way, TED is the diametric opposite of not only the Trump campaign but the election season in general. Where candidates have fixated on nationalism, TED is intentionally global. Where Trump and others deal in doom, TED’s currency is hope. Yes, there are many promises made, and yes TED, is its own kind of bubble. It, too, is filled with aspirations every bit as outlandish, and difficult to implement, as a giant border wall.
But there also are a stunning number of promises kept. From an educational researcher who received $1 million to create an online school for the developing world to a teenage Malawian inventor whose education was funded by TED attendees following his 2007 talk, TED has, for decades, been a vehicle for discovering and nurturing big dreams.
It’s not cool to be overtly political on the TED stage, but there’s no denying that this year’s speakers are playing Trump’s foil. (One TED moderator followed up Brooks’ talk with the two-word question, “President Trump?”) But while few presenters have mentioned his name—or any candidate’s name—on stage, they haven’t had to. The ugliness and anger this election season has unleashed have served as a persistent undercurrent to the week’s most powerful presentations.
In lighter moments, it was the butt of the joke, as it was in the video “The Bacon Test,” in which TED Fellow and comedian Negin Farsad skewered Trump’s proposals to create a registry of Muslim people in the US. In it, Farsad, a Muslim-American, stands in New York’s Washington Square Park asking people to eat bacon to prove they’re not Muslim or sign their names in her doodle-covered “Muslim Registry” binder.
“It’s just like a bridal registry, except you’re not going to get a crockpot in the mail or anything, but you might get surveillance for the rest of your life,” Farsad tells one registrant. When a woman approaches to sign the list, only to reveal that she’s Mexican, Farsad deadpans: “That’s a different registry.”
At the end of the video, a hashtag flashed on the screen: #WeAreBetterThanThis.
Obstacle in Chief
But more often, those appearing at TED soberly presented Washington and the cast of characters competing for its highest office as the primary obstacle, not the primary conduit, to a better world. TED is not an overtly partisan group, but in the eyes of its community, issues like climate change, Islamophobia, and gun violence aren’t overtly partisan. Or at least, they shouldn’t be.
Which is why on Wednesday, TED curator Chris Anderson had no reservations about referring to the threat of climate change as humanity’s “deepest fear of all” before welcoming former Vice President Al Gore back to the TED stage. Nearly a decade ago, Gore’s talk on climate change catalyzed a new, mainstream conversation about the climate and cemented Gore’s post-political role as a leader on the issue.
This year, Gore was back to explain how far we’ve come since then, how far we still have to go, and how that goal can be achieved. With sweat streaming down his face, Gore delivered what can only be described as a sermon. The packed auditorium was rapt as Gore raced through chart after chart of statistics and video after video of high tide flooding in Miami’s streets and a collision of cars and trucks being washed away by rushing brown waters in one Spanish city.
“You could call this the running of the cars and trucks, I guess,” he said.
The former politician didn’t stop to bask in the intermittent applause, except for a moment in which he asked the audience to honor House Republicans who “had the courage last fall to step out and take a political risk by telling the truth about the climate crisis.”
The audience cheered, just as it did toward the end of Gore’s speech, when he likened the struggle to save the environment to the struggle to end slavery and the struggle for LGBT rights. “We are solving this crisis. The only question is how long will it take to get there,” Gore roared. By the end of his speech, everyone was on their feet, and I heard a man in front of me exclaim, “Goddamn!”
The Last to Wake Up
But the former politician wasn’t the only speaker whose talk had political overtones. During her talk on being Muslim in America, scholar Dalia Mogahed alluded to the fact that “some people” want to ban Muslims and shut down mosques. “They talk about my community kind of like we’re a tumor in the body of America, and the only question is are we malignant or benign,” said Mogahed, leaving several audience members dabbing at their eyes.
Later, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, condemned Congress for being beholden to the gun lobby and being the “last to wake up” to the fact that a majority of the American public supports some gun legislation. But Gross’s indignation wasn’t solely reserved for Republicans.
The Brady Campaign has already endorsed Hillary Clinton, and Gross didn’t miss the opportunity to take a subtle swipe at Bernie Sanders, who has supported gun manufacturer immunity in the past. Though he didn’t name Sanders outright, Gross said that gun control, once a “third-rail issue for Democrats” is now a key campaign platform for them. “Now candidates are running on it,” he said. “Some are being forced to reverse very bad positions they defended very comfortably until very recently.” It was a speech that could have polarized any other audience, but at TED, Gross too received a standing ovation.
Centers of Power
But perhaps the clearest demonstration of how TED can be a counterbalance to the 2016 election came Wednesday night when architect Michael Murphy of MASS Design Group and Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, announced plans to build a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, to commemorate the United States’ history of slavery.
The memorial will include a field of temporary columns that will in time be distributed to sites of lynchings across the country. As part of the project, Stevenson’s team will also collect jars of soil from each of the sites and attempt to return them to the descendants of the victims, as well as local communities.
The goal, Stevenson said on stage, is to publicly acknowledge the legacy of slavery as an act of truth and reconciliation. “I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865,” Stevenson said. “I think it evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism and violence.”
The talk itself was not overtly political, but its implications clearly are. Such a project is likely to face political opposition from the same groups and regions that opposed the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina State House.
But unlike presidential candidates on a debate stage, the luminaries at TED tend to dwell less on who or what might stand in their way and instead focus on how they can harness their collective strength to make change happen anyway.
And so, after Wednesday’s sessions were over, a group of people gathered in a reception room with Murphy and Stevenson to hear more about their plan. I can’t name names, (sorry, TED rules), but I will say the crowd included movie stars, television stars, music stars, and philanthropists whose net worth runs into the tens of billions.
The monument, Anderson explained, still needs funding. So, he asked, who wants to donate $1 million? $100,000? $50,000? Hands shot up, one after the other, until finally it was decided to simply write everyone’s commitments down in a book. The attendees physically tripped over each other to sign up, raising $1.5 million in a matter of minutes.
I couldn’t help but think: yes, politicians are powerful, but this group holds substantial power too. If this is how they choose to use it, maybe we’re not doomed after all.