Suppose you put 100 public figures together in one place, gave them some provocative subjects to expound on and then just set them loose with one another. It's Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, right? Wrong. Actually, it's the brainchild and culminating statement of the late Howard Higman, a former CU sociology professor who first brought his eclectic Conference on World Affairs together on the Boulder campus fifty years ago.
The conference went into a backspin when Higman's health failed (he subsequently died in late 1995), but it's back on track, just in time for a Golden Anniversary of the ages. Boasting a disparate band of participants gathered for countless panels, roundtables, keynotes and performances, this year's exhaustive week-long event celebrates half a century of iconoclastic conferencing. And, of course, simply everybody--from film critic Roger Ebert to columnist Molly Ivins to New York Stock Exchange boss William Johnston to Australian Aboriginal artist Jingalu to Focus on the Family honcho Tom Minnery--will be there, spitting in the wind. Here are just three of them:
Jeffrey Klein. Klein, from his vantage point as editor of the broad-minded magazine Mother Jones, has his eye on a panoply of progressive grassroots movements. Not by any means a cookie-cutter leftist, Klein is interested in understanding exactly what it takes to make the world a better place to live--even if it means crossing ideological boundaries. "My emotions lie with the progressives," he says, "but sometimes they seem to like to just feel good about themselves rather than actually going out and trying to accomplish something."
Klein says he prefers a challenge. "There are traditional progressive approaches that need rethinking," he says, adding that he prefers hearing all points of view, even if he doesn't ultimately agree with them.
At a heated conference debate last year with a speaker from the religious right, Klein says he chose to do just that. "I like to engage them," Klein says, intimating that it's much more effective than issuing an instant put-down. "A lot of progressives are too quick to dismiss some people with yearnings for a faith-based understanding of the world. I said, 'He's being brave, don't shout him down,' and I went toe-to-toe with him on the Bible. I said, hey, I read the Bible, too.
"After the debate, we had lunch. I sat him down with Robert Wright and Roger Ebert and got them to discuss the issue of evolution versus fundamental creation. It was interesting to see all the ostensible opposite sides--I like to orchestrate."
Where did Klein stand in the midst of that controversy? "My own view is that science is the great religion of our time--it's my religion," he says. "But he had areas of doubt; he was frightened to look at any kind of common ground," he says of his rightist friend, with whom he hopes to spar again.
Michael O'Keefe. O'Keefe is an actor with plenty of Hollywood credits, including a regular stint on Roseanne, but perhaps his first love is for Zen Buddhism, and he considers himself a novice priest. Unlike many other CWA participants, he's coming to the conference with a plan.
In 1996 O'Keefe joined the Zen Peacemaker Order's Bernie Glassman, his teacher for over a decade, and an international interfaith group of 150 for a meditation retreat at the sites of the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camps. During the retreat, O'Keefe directed a film about it titled Raising the Ashes; now he's on the film-festival trail, shopping the finished product.
"We gathered there for five days for a kind of bearing-witness retreat with meditation and prayer," O'Keefe relates. "Needless to say, everyone there was deeply taken with the tragedy of the Holocaust and the overwhelming power of the criminal nature of how it was done. After a few days of meeting in prayer, we began reading names of people who had died from a list compiled by the Nazis. We read for four hours a day--I think we got through 30,000 names.
"We'd all gather to talk in the evening, and eventually everybody felt a healing experience come up. The film documents that transformation."
O'Keefe will stay on after the conference to give a weekend workshop on the film at the Naropa Institute.
Ben Sidran. Sidran--a kind of musician-in-the-round who plays piano, composes, produces, writes soundtracks and books and has attended the conference before--says there's no way to prepare for it: "Everybody says to themselves, 'What's going to happen? Why am I here?' There's always a moment when you go, yes--this is why. It's a real sense of discovery. You never know what hits you."
For Sidran, CWA is a revelatory thinking man's three-ring circus. "We used to call it the 'leisure of the theory class,'" he quips. Participants sometimes don't know what panels they'll be on until they arrive, and Sidran's no different: "I think we're doing a panel on song composition. We'll compose a song right in front of your eyes," he says.
But his participation--like everyone else's--isn't necessarily limited to a single course. "I always look forward to interacting with people in areas where I'm not an expert. Its a real interdisciplinary exercise--I think that's the best of it. You get to meet some really brilliant and funny people--some of them just drop a bomb on me."
He also appreciates that the conference emphasizes the multi-faceted individual: "A lot of those things in those areas I'm engaged in don't show up in the radar of how I'm living day to day. At the conference, I can use parts of my interests that I don't use in my business life. Most people can't be put into a box," he stresses. "They can stretch the aspects of who they are at the conference. You spend your life running around to make a living--this gives me a chance to stop and look at the underpinnings of my life."