Two leading public intellectuals took the stage in front a full house at Pickard Theater on Monday evening, October 2, 2017, in an event designed to encourage intellectual diversity and thoughtful dialog within the Bowdoin community
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and a leading conservative voice in America, joined Frank Bruni of The New York Times for a discussion moderated by Jean Yarbrough, the Gary M. Pendy Sr. Professor of Social Sciences.
Titled “Talking Face to Face When We Don’t See Eye to Eye,” the event gave Bowdoin students, faculty and staff, a chance to consider different points of view on a variety of subjects, to engage with two commentators who have different world views—although they did see eye to eye on some issues—and to pose their own questions during what was a fascinating and informative evening.
Many subjects were covered, including the debate over the decision by some NFL players to take a knee during the national anthem, the argument over ideological diversity in the workplace sparked by Google’s decision to fire one of its employees, and the discussion over whether college campuses should make efforts to be “conservative-friendly.” Questions from students covered issues such as global warming, free speech, and economic inequality.
Brooks strongly urged liberals in the audience to understand the despair that prompted many Americans to vote for Donald Trump. “The idea that everybody is a dummy who voted for Trump… that’s nothing more than the kind of contempt that people have a tendency to associate with American college campuses.” Bruni responded saying he does not believe he’s disrespecting Trump voters when he harshly criticizes the president, but he did admit that some liberals have a tendency to caricature the opposition.
In response to a student question about economic disparity, Brooks was forced to defend his group, the American Enterprise Institute, against charges that it contributed to the economic misery of many poorer Americans by helping to “gut” the welfare state. Brooks said far fewer people live in poverty than did so in 1970, and he cited globalization, free trade and free enterprise as some of the factors behind that. He described himself as a “warrior for for the poor,” whose commitment to free enterprise was sprung from a desire to bring more Americans out of poverty.
Bruni meanwhile said it was a “tad disingenuous” to suggest that the GOP’s support of free enterprise was motivated by a desire to help poor people. “Most of the Republicans I know, who wave around some of the arguments that you’re waving around, it is not because they’re up at night worrying about the poor, it’s because they want lower taxes and more money in their bank accounts.”
A key part of the evening—as it was last year when Bowdoin presented a similar program with The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof and The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley—took place after the discussion in Pickard, when students were invited to meet in small groups over refreshments in Thorne Hall to share what they heard and learned and to interact more closely with Brooks and Bruni.
This event is the latest effort to encourage the Bowdoin community to further participate in open and vigorous discussion on difficult and critical issues. “Rational and respectful engagement with opposing ideas and uncomfortable issues is a critical part of our mission,” said Bowdoin College President Clayton Rose, “and developing the skill and disposition for this is necessary to have an impact on the major challenges and opportunities we face in our world.”