Above-the-Fray TED Talks Confront Trumpian Fray

The TED Talks enterprise is transpartisan and above all that (but really secretly kinda liberal). How does it navigate Trumpism in its first major conference of the new era.

A year ago, when the TED Conference landed on “The Future You” as its 2017 theme, their most existential decisions likely revolved around which cricket flour snack to offer to attendees. Then came you-know-what—Brexit, Trump, telluric populism—and suddenly this foundational force for globalism, the power of ideas, immanent progressivity—had to confront reality.

“I wish that Chris had dealt directly with Trump and what he stands for, rather than just say ‘we’re all sick of politics,” a friend told me at the Monday night opening party of the five-day event held in Vancouver, which I’m attending. She was referring to Chris Anderson, who runs TED, who made that safe, nonpartisan point in his kick-off remarks. (It was, in its way, a populist sentiment.)

In a pre-event conference call with the media, Anderson elegantly addressed the undeniable conflict between TED values and the complex political landscape. After all, refracted by today’s contextual lens, “The Future You” can obviously be interpreted as a detached, self-involved call to navel-gazing. In implicit response to that, Anderson referenced “a strong subtheme of ‘The Future Us’” and noted that TED “hit on the theme about a year ago—obviously the world had a few events happen since then.”

He also acknowledged that there is a “global elite” and a need for “a different narrative that is much more human and much more appealing.” He declared that “TED is non-partisan…we believe that ideas are fundamentally global—they belong to everyone and cross borders freely.”

Of course, metaphorical mentions of open borders, even when referring to abstractions and not refugees, constitute loaded language. That said, the acrobatic balance between non-partisanship and the clear political leanings of the TED crowd was a display of fine muscular control. There was a great deal of meaningful talk about empathy, building bridges, and escaping the prison of the self.

The TED Fellows who opened Day One—dauntingly accomplished, world-changing individuals, seldom referenced the politics of the moment. True, Damon Davis, a filmmaker and visual artist, described how his reaction to the killing of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson led him to find a wellspring of personal courage, and how “once I figured out how to use that fear, I found my power.” His hand portraits of those involved in the protests are striking in their abstracted strength; unmistakably political. But he never referenced the president or any events of the moment, or near-moment.

Karim Abouelagna, founder of Practice Makes Perfect, a stunningly effective summer school program in New York City that uses teaching fellows to transform those typically fruitless two months into vibrant learning experieces, allowed that increases in health care spending as a result of the demise of Obamacare would negatively impact education funding—but his strong message was non-ballistic in tone.

As for the opening session on Monday night, there were some unmistakable call-outs to the news of the moment. Laura Galante expounded on the process by which Russian hacks fed into a social media amplification machine; Trump was never mentioned. Garry Kasparov—who battled IBM’s Deep Blue in a series of chess match back in 1997—challenged the audience to accept artificial intelligence as a force for human advancement. His one reference to the political sphere was a joke about Putin; he recounted that as a guest on the Bill Maher show, he said that after Crimea, Putin skipped Poland and went right to Wisconsin.

Titus Kaphar, an artist of charismatic presence, self-graffitied his own copy of a painting by the Dutch master Frans Hals—eliminating the entire wealthy white family, and leaving only the depiction of their black servant—to teach us how to “shift our gaze.” The final speaker of the first evening, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, made a plea to move from an obsession with the self to “strengthening the future us”—mirroring Chris Anderson’s delicate framing of the conference theme. While there was also an implicit political thrust to his remarks—noting that what makes a nation strong is how it takes care of the weak—it was an attaque au fer that drew no blood.

But the pleas for unity and bridging and understanding did not enter the curation process. Thus far—and we are only a day in—there has been nobody who spoke about the “Future You” from the perspective of the hollowed-out white working class. J.D. Vance—author of the “Hillbilly Elegy” —gave a TEDNYC Talk in the fall for an Election Edition on that very subject. It would have sent an important signal for him to surface those electric issues on the main stage in Vancouver.

I have no doubt that an out-of-work steelworker in Youngstown, Ohio—where the unemployment rate is 9.5 percent—would have been deeply unsatisfied about the dearth of “ideas worth spreading” relevant to his daily pain. This is delicate territory I know. The relentless work of TED Fellow Chris Ategeka in making sure that trained physicians remain in Africa should be celebrated. But if TED wants to make a contribution to bringing America together, it could do more to recognize that Youngstown is part of the global economy.

In his pre-game remarks, Chris Anderson said that “we definitely won’t escape politics in the week ahead, nor should we…but with so much focus on politics, much of what changes the future happens inside the mind of dreamers, designers and entrepreneurs. Politicians come and go; ideas are forever.”

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TED is a remarkable organization that is doing important work, all animated by the human collaborative power of “Ideas worth sharing.” It was right not to allow 2017 event to become a public thrashing of the Trump administration, Brexit, and the rise of today’s concatenation of nationalism and populism.

But to say that ideas are more enduring than politicians is largely a false opposition. Why must we choose between politics and the imaginative ferment of ideas that ignite in the culture and enter our minds? The Enlightenment showed us that politics and philosophy can change the fundamental structures of thought.

If TED wants us to dream big, as it repeatedly offers, why should those dreams operate outside the realm of politics—where big ideas, like NASA, like the Internet, like Medicare, like the Peace Corps, all got their start?

It’s wrong to damn politics because its current form and discourse aren’t appealing to you. TED needs to inspire young people, the next generation burning with ideas, to enter politics and government—and mold it into a system that works better than what we have. Politics was once a vehicle for sharing the most important ideas of all – our democratic principles. We can’t forsake it. We have to believe it can rise to that level once again.