Essay by David A. Chamberlain  

The Confluence of Whirled If-Heirs

It's 10:20 on a brilliant April morning in Boulder, Colorado. They've introduced me, and as the applause dwindles I find myself daydreaming. I stand up, not sure where to begin. Overloaded with images, my mind is grid-locked. Time stands still. My mouth opens...

According to the rules I am supposed to be unprepared. What was once an undergraduate nightmare – being called upon to present a cogent commentary on an unfamiliar subject – is the reason I'm here. I sense the pleasure of too many ideas and too little time... the juices flowing... the liberal arts come home to roost.

The topic for discussion is Robots' Rights, whatever that means. That's for me to figure out, along with the other members of the panel. I'm following a meandering soliloquy by the woman on my left, an effervescent athlete/astronaut, whose remarks seem insightful, yet far-fetched. I observe that the next speaker is a brooding psychoanalyst peat-farmer from Dublin who has never learned to drive, and that the fourth panelist is a diplomat chess-master from Jakarta with a laptop computer and jet-lag.

Clearing my throat, I'm about to speak at the provocative Conference on World Affairs. Initiated in the late 1940s by the likes of R. Buckminster Fuller, Eleanor Roosevelt and its all-time founder/director Howard Higman, it's known as an intellectual stir-fry simmering in the midst of our fast-food existence. Let me explain.

The conference, held each year at the University of Colorado, is a cerebral romp with a collection of opinionated thinkers who gather to talk, ponder, and confound, out loud and in public, anything under the sun, at their own expense, while feasting on the hospitality of a group of high-powered Boulderites who make it all exhilarating.

It's a think-tank for hyperbolic dreamers (as in "Whirled") who somehow get somewhere; a forum of breadth as well as focus, where specialists suffer and generalists thrive. People gather here to play If I Ruled the World (as in "If Heirs"), and to imagine. Like the other 100 contributing panelists (scholars, scientists, ambassadors, performers, journalists, plus other notable/notorious figures), and the combined total audience of 30,000+, I wouldn't miss it for the world.

It revolves around a series of panel discussions on a variety of themes, twelve in progress simultaneously, three times a day. Topics are gleaned and blended from ideas sent in by the prospective panelists, so nobody knows what issues or themes will be discussed until the conference is underway. This ensures an unpredictable and ever-changing agenda, and sets the conference apart from the usual prepackaged paper-reading variety. Over thirty categories dominate the week's schedule, covering areas ranging from Gender to The New World Disorder to Religion & Spirituality. Each category has a daily subject, exploring issues like "Is Reading Obsolete?"; "Foreign Aid & Neo-Colonialism"; "Ageless Aging"; "Women as Political Leaders"; "Music and the Brain”; "Lost on the Information Superhighway".

Some titles are more unusual, providing grist for the mill: "American Society as a sterile Hell"; "Government by Sex Scandal"; "What Would Mom Think?"; "Kevorkian Lives"; "Love & Lust in the Age of Sexism"; "For the Sake of Fame". Premises are frequently enigmatic; some defy description. That's the whole idea: to make people think and express themselves spontaneously, and to show creative minds at play – often the most serious kind of play.

A typical panel is composed of four divergent speakers: one is a recognized name in the subject; the second may represent an opposing perspective or radical viewpoint; the third is not an expert but is said (or threatens) to maintain some personal interest in the field; and the fourth is a wildcard—the spoiler who doesn't know a thing about it. (Panelists are not allowed to say who serves in which capacity, and there are times when the audience suspects the entire panel of knowing nothing about the subject at hand.)

Discussions span two unpredictable hours. The first hour has a 15-minute address by each participant, in an arbitrary order decided at the last instant. The second hour is devoted to thoughts and questions from the audience, directed at the full panel, at specific panelists, or geared to pit panelists against each other. Discussions often take on a life of their own, charging off into the unknown on a tangent more interesting than the original direction.

I remember my first panel—how I gulped and plunged into the subject from several perspectives, developed overlaps, toyed with possible conclusions, and then built toward a bang-up surprise ending... only to discover that I still had 10 minutes to go. Later in the panel (about creativity) the dialogue with the audience was getting more and more intellectual, when architect Paolo Soleri brought things into focus by slowly pulling the microphone closer, drawing a deep breath, and whispering, "But where is the passion?"

A lot of terrain can be explored in two hours, and the rapid-fire discourse promotes gut responses that may be appropriate, bizarre, or wrong. I made some inaccurate comments about music theory that were quickly corrected by fellow panelist, composer, and music professor Claudio Spies, who, with elegant conviction, made me eat my words. Plenty of volleys miss, but these errant shots sometimes strike the most telling chords.

Hypothetical musings by the four Soviet panelists in 1991 offered a unique glimpse into the unfolding upheaval in the USSR which, within months, became a reality. Another eyebrow-raising panel digressed beyond the area "Eastern Europe after the Revolution" hinting at what was to become the restructuring of Eurasia. The Arias Costa Rican Peace Plan for Nicaragua was spawned at the 1987 conference.

Each night there is an evening party for the panelists, invented to allow participants to get to know each other. The conference theme song is "Never Tell a Lie," but, as you might guess, it's tongue-in-cheek. These intoxicating gatherings (cocktails, dinner, and 220-volt conversation) can be as intense as the official daytime program. The committee, which plans and orchestrates the conference, is made up of people who might have been panelists, except that their Colorado residency makes them ineligible. (They make up for this: the process for selecting panelists remains a mystery, and theoretically nobody else knows how participants came to be invited, or whether they'll be invited back.) Committee members roam the evening dinners, reveling in their roles as chemists and mixologists. Introductions and dinner combinations are concocted with gleeful abandon: "Jane, this is Tarzan"; "Lincoln, meet John Wilkes Booth."

All this fosters a critical mass in which anything can happen. A certain amount of preposterousness goes with the territory, partly because panelists are themselves a bit eccentric, but mainly because conference chairman Howard Higman encourages it. Enjoying his role as omnipotent instigator, professor emeritus Higman, himself a memorable character, likes to fan the flames. Film critic Roger Ebert, the participant who has attended the most conferences, tells about first meeting Howard, who greeted him with "You'll never be invited back." When Ebert met Buckminster Fuller, he said hello, and Fuller responded, "I see you." This is all part of the routine, and I sometimes wonder whether Henry Kissinger and Louise Nevelson enjoyed it as well as, say, Russell Baker and Steve Allen. When I met Howard he grabbed me by the arm and demanded, "Well, what do you think?" I mumbled something obscure about getting good answers by asking bad questions, and he said, "I knew you'd say that."

Idiosyncrasies come into play in this arena, exposing our interiors and reflecting who we are. By midweek the potent combination of people, pace, and poignancy cuts through our trappings, our baggage, our fears. We become, for perhaps the only time during the year, students again. Minds open; talkers begin to listen; thinkers begin to feel. We are distillers, seekers of essence. What emerges, for better or worse, is some kind of truth.

Homespun humor and worldly wit abound, and responses ricochet from amusement to astonishment, from the absurd to the sublime. But the emphasis throughout the conference is on extemporaneous contributions and the interplay of related ideas. Compositional fields like music and poetry permeate the programs, in analogy, metaphor, and reality. (There's a big Wednesday-night jazz concert in the Glenn Miller Ballroom).

Understandably, jazz is well represented—the impulsive character of the panels' give- and-take format is verbal jazz. Participants take up a concept explored by their predecessor, interpret it, and build upon it through an impromptu counterpoint or a variation on the theme. It is eye opening to find yourself saying something you've never expressed before. To play beyond the score.

Applying our far-ranging personal backgrounds is like performing jazz: We fill in the notes when our turn comes, improvising with eloquence and reason, because we understand who we are, where we are in the piece, and where the piece is going. By broadening our repertoire we can enhance the scope of our contributions – unpredictable, inspired.

Maybe this is how we think most clearly, and learn. We humans, delighting in our ability to perceive, intuit and discover, seem at our best when the light-bulb flashes. In an era of packaged information, speeches designed by committee, and cautiously watered-down opinions, there is something illuminating and courageous about thinking out loud.

– David Chamberlain

David Chamberlain was a popular panelist at the Conference on World Affairs during the 1990's. This essay was published in the Boulder Daily Camera Newspaper. 

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