Hunting for big ideas at Chicago Ideas Week


  • Courtesy Chicago Ideas
  • Brad Keywell

It's apparently not enough to just be a good idea. What I learned about ideas at Monday night's session of Chicago Ideas Week is that it's all in the presentation.

The Cadillac Palace Theatre was packed and vibrant with keenness: it must've been like this in the old days when shareholders met at Apple. Huge video screens dominated the stage, and digital clocks counting down in tenths—or maybe hundredths—of seconds told us exactly how much longer we had to wait before the ideas began to crackle. (These screens would have an important role to play throughout the evening; at important moments they showed big question marks descending in balloons, fraughting the air with significance.) Finally, Brad Keywell, founder of Chicago Ideas Week, came out alone onstage looking a lot like Steve Jobs and said something meaningful and disconcerting.

If you all came to my house, he said, meaning everybody in the theater, you'd see a lot of pictures of me and my family, and then you'd see the words of Eleanor Roosevelt. These were his words to live by: "Small minds discuss people. Average minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas."

Research I'd do when I got home informed me that Keywell probably got the wording wrong as well as the source—these lines didn't actually originate with Eleanor Roosevelt. But no matter—it's the thought that counts, and thinking about the thought made me uneasy. To get the evening off to a touchy-feely start we were asked to get to know our neighbors, and I turned to the woman to my left and admitted I'd been discussing Donald Trump a lot lately so apparently I had one of the small minds. My comment depressed her. She'd been discussing Trump too.

Maybe we should have slunk out together. Instead, I tried to reason with myself. Why had I been discussing Trump? Wasn't it because he was running for president? And wasn't the election an event? Surely my mind was average at worst! And why did I care if Trump was running for president? Because his election could spell the end of American democracy!

But isn't that an idea?  If it's not Trump per se who has me agitated . . . if it's the idea of Trump . . .

No, it's Trump per se, I admitted to myself. My mind is petty.

But Eleanor Roosevelt aside, it turned out to be a pain-free evening at the Cadillac Palace. New ideas, you know, are sometimes downers. They can challenge and even pummel our assumptions. They can make us vexed and furious. I remember, back in the 60s, professors of literature smirking and sputtering at the ignorant students who proposed that Bob Dylan was some kind of a poet. Those profs were vexed!

Yes, new ideas often come with cutting edges. But this was barely acknowledged and besides, we weren't the ones being cut. At one point the gay, Filipino-born journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, speaking about American identity, wondered, "How much change can straight white men handle?" and it was the night's best laugh line.

Abby Wambach and Anne-Marie Slaughter - CHICAGO IDEAS
  • Chicago Ideas
  • Abby Wambach and Anne-Marie Slaughter

Among the guest speakers, I had two favorites. One was Abby Wambach, the retired soccer star. She's cocky and proud of herself, as she should be: when she talked about equal pay for players on the men's and women's national teams, she reminded us that she'd won a World Cup and some Olympic gold medals, and the men haven't won squat. But while acquiring glory she became a collection of "labels"—girl, jock, world-class jock, world-class gay jock, national heroine, national heroine with drug and drinking issues—and she wants to get past them and figure herself out as a human being. It's not easy, not when the label mill operates 24-7.

She was joking to the moderator, Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, about how complicated it is these days to remember who you’re supposed to be caucusing with. There's the L and the G and the B and the T, and I think she also mentioned the Johnny-come-lately, the I. "I feel like I'm the gayest of the gay, and I can't keep up," she admitted.

And I was impressed with the reporter and author Sebastian Junger. Like Wambach, he spoke to us out of a life lived, not just a mind scratched. Junger was talking about human beings as tribal creatures and he recalled harrowing months spent with an army platoon in the remote outpost of Restrepo in Afghanistan.

Life was miserable—the soldiers slept cheek by jowl in squalor and were constantly under fire. But after they finally were relieved, 15 months later, and finished their R&R in Italy, the ones Junger talked to wished they were back at Restrepo. This is an instinct that goes back to our origins as hunter-gatherers, Junger said—there's a sense of security and well-being in being included in a communal existence.

To include, I guess a tribe must also exclude. It could have been interesting to pit Junger's observation about tribal solidarity against our lighthearted dismissal of straight white men with grievances. But it wasn't that kind of evening. No one was looking for trouble: new ideas ought to be happy ideas. Or as the Chicago Ideas Week website puts it, as it extends its invitation: "Our world-class speakers are experts on a wide range of topics, from policy to sports. Find one with the best ideas for you." Views you can't use are no views at all.

At the end of the evening, the Chicago Children's Choir came on for a rousing finale. Thanks to a slip-up Slaughter didn't introduce the choir and I, for one, didn't know who they were; but the music was what counts, and we were sent on our ways without a thought in our heads that wasn't a heady one. I might've been the exception; but after I'd worked it out that it was OK to blow off the piece of wisdom Eleanor Roosevelt didn't coin as fatuous nonsense, I felt pretty good myself.

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