July 4th was all about frontiers - new and old - at Aspen Institute's IdeasFestival.
The metaphor began with a dawn gathering at which Atlantic Monthly uber-journalist and now Shanghai resident Jim Fallows and China expert Orville Schell, the outgoing Berkeley dean of journalism, discussing the mindset of China as it seeks to balance autocratic political order with frenetic and chaotic 'wild west' pace of economic growth. In some ways, China's 'new frontier' has implicit to its momentum that the country may return to the global power status it once enjoyed, allbeit several centuries ago.
From there, the third annual IdeasFestival participants rocketed into a plenary session interview of Virgin's Sir Richard Branson by CBS newsman Bob Shieffer. The delightful wide-ranging interview sauntered from Branson's love of boating and ballooning adventures ["I love a challenge. There's an adventure streak in all of us," said Branson, reminding the audience he was fished out of the ocean no fewer than six times when his conveyances failed him], to launching of his businesses [Boeing told him, when he called about buying an aging 747 to start Virgin Atlantic, they'd be willing to strike a deal "so long as, unlike your name, your airline's going to 'go all the way!'"], to his Virgin Galactic Airways, which is building with Burt Rutan the 'mother ship' to launch tourists, including the Branson family, 70 miles out towards space.
Back down on earth, former George W. Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson invoked the image of the American frontier and rugged individualism characterized by the American West, while Democratic Congresman Rahm Emanuel (Illinois) countered the other legendary pioneering metaphor in America was the wagon train - a communal circling of wagons to protect and prosper. After a long era of leadership which may be characterized as invoking lone cowboy images, Emanuel, suggested, it may very well now be time to restore the more communitarian tradition.
Aspen, itself a one-time fronteir mining town reborn as a haven for the rich and regal, is encountering a few fronteir issues of its own. California Rep. Jane Harmon noted there is no remaining snow at one of the area's favored attractions, the Maroon Bells, for the first time in at least three decades. Environmental impacts, a reminder of the effect of global warming, also extended to the Rocky Mountain city's traditional fireworks display, which were moved for fear of fire from the side of Ajax Mountain to a golf course on the valley floor due to high heat and dryness.
Perhaps the most poinant line of a day celebrating the United States' declaration of independence from Britain came from Sir Richard Branson, speaking in a tent whose drapes were pulled open to offer glimpses of the peaks surrounding the idyllic Aspen meadows:
"I don't know why we ever lost this beautiful country. It was a big mistake."
Happy Holidays. More to come.