Washington and the United States are deeply polarized. Those holding liberal or conservative views increasingly live in echo chambers in which media and other sources of information typically reinforce already established views. In addition to being more parochial, media also seems increasingly superficial and less nuanced as the Internet and television present news and information as “infotainment”.
This bias and superficiality is especially ironic in Washington since it is a city with incredible competition in the market place of ideas. Indeed, there is a complete glut of information sources here. Ease of access to high-caliber information, informed debate and knowledge is a defining characteristic of living in Washington. Policy-oriented think tanks rather than academic institutions create much of the information; their practical orientation is appealing. Scholarly information is certainly available, but it is more confined to university campuses and less accessible to broader society.
Ten days ago, the venerable Brookings Institution, for example, offered a fascinating half-day seminar on Japan’s reinvigorated approach to Africa’s economic development. Attendees learnt intriguing details such as the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe allotted twenty minutes a piece to meet individually with each of the 39 African heads of state who went to Japan for the recent TICAD V conference. This impressive and revealing time commitment from the Japanese premier underscores Japan’s new approach to Africa. Imagine President Barack Obama similarly according each African leader equal “face time” during the upcoming U.S.–Africa Leaders’ Summit to be held here this August? It is unthinkable. African leaders are, of course, being courted by the United States and Japan in direct response to greatly expanded Chinese influence on the continent. Whatever the motivation, this African, for one, is gratified that Africa is at last receiving greater world attention.
Attendance of an event such as the Brookings seminar on Japan in Africa is typically free. Anyone can sign up to attend through the Brookings’ website. In this case, fellow attendees included U.S. government officials focused on Africa, foreign diplomats based in Washington, staff from international organizations and NGOs, private-sector representatives, contractors, academics, students, and retirees and other interested individuals. Complimentary coffee and tea is usually available. As this event was longer than the more usual 90 minutes, a complimentary lunch was generously served for all attendees, providing the opportunity to chat and “network”, to use that overworked Washington term. It is probably fair to assume that the government of Japan or Japanese companies hosted the lunch.
It would be exhausting to trawl the websites of the major think tanks regularly to keep up with their imminent seminars and guest speakers. Helpfully, most institutions with this type of programming allow people to sign up on their websites for email notification of upcoming talks in one’s selected areas of interest. A portion of the programs that think tanks offer are also available for viewing on the Internet, either live through a webcam or live streamed in audio.
Attending these types of lectures, panel discussions, or seminars is also a helpful way to get personal impressions of key actors in diverse areas. For example, I heard Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee; speak on the post-Hurricane Katrina focus on charter schools in New Orleans. It was similarly illuminating to hear Mark Warner, Virginia’s Democratic senior U.S. senator who sits on the Senate Finance and Budget Committees, discuss the budget battles on Capitol Hill.
Another personal favourite for broadening understanding and appreciation of an issue is hearing authors speak about their recently published books. There are ample opportunities to do so here, since stopping in Washington and having at least one public reading seems to be “de rigueur” for newly published authors. Bookstores like Politics and Prose (which the Washington Post recently described as “the showcase for D.C.’s literary intelligentsia”), Busboys and Poets, and Barnes and Noble constantly offer the chance to hear authors. The talk featuring Katherine Boo, author of the powerful “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” about life in a Mumbai slum, was very poignant. My children greatly enjoyed the musings of Irish author Eoin Colfer at another such event. The annual National Book Festival, a celebration with nonstop talks by authors held—until this year—in big tents on the National Mall, is another joy. Attending a reading and insightful question-and-answer session with Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini is a treasured memory from last year’s Book Festival.
Public libraries here are exemplary. The range of services they offer, all free to residents of that particular county, is incredible, so it is not surprising that these places bustle with activity. I have enjoyed visiting area libraries for their speakers’ series. An eloquent talk by “Cutting for Stone” author Abraham Verghese was inspiring. His talk drew many from Washington’s Ethiopian and Eritrean communities, tellingly suggesting that he accurately described their challenges and diaspora.
Some venues typically only hold ticketed events. But the number of free events held in Washington that any member of the public can attend is breathtaking. Visits to the numerous Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are also free.
So, amidst the sharp, often disingenuous discourse too well exhibited in Washington, the yearning for more substance, common sense, and evidence-based understanding can—ironically—be well satisfied here. Thoughtful presentations at think tanks and inspiring discussions on literature offer reassuring counterpoints to the shrill ideological content of political discourse and the popular media. It is not a zero-sum game; we all win when we better understand each other. Is it not possible for Americans to get out of their ideological silos and rise above bitter and divisive politics, and see the world more broadly than the present narrow parochial ways? This is sadly not likely. There are mid-term elections this year and the presidential election in 2016.