All posts by jfanton

Farewell to a Democratic Opening in Myanmar

This trip report, written February 2020, reflects the challenges and the aspirations for a democratic Myanmar. There was no forewarning of the military takeover that would come within months of our visit. I remain committed to supporting the courageous civil society leaders with whom I met.

Myanmar January 15-26, 2020

Background

My wife Cynthia and I took an Abercrombie and Kent tour of Myanmar which started in Yangon then on to Bagan, a 2 day trip up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay and finally 2 glorious days on Inle Lake. There, we visited villages and met with local artisans working on silver, weaving, cigar making. Earlier we visited a lacquerware workshop. In Yangon, we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar. In Bagan, we took a balloon ride to see the 2,500 Buddhist pagodas and temples the first of which was built by King Anawrahta in 1044. A special treat was seeing a novitiation ceremony, “a coming of age ritual celebrating an aspiring young monk’s first entry to the monastery.” The trip up the Irrawaddy exposed us to rural villages and the lifeline the river plays in transporting timber and minerals, two keys to the Myanmar economy. Mandalay was the last royal capital of the Burma Kingdom and the cultural center of the country. We visited the ancient Teak Monastery, Shwenandaw, which survived World War II bombings. Our two days on Inle Lake were beautiful and peaceful. We saw real life close up. The floating farms and villages on stilts are amazing. 

On either side of the tour, I arranged visits with civil society groups including Free Expression Myanmar, Equality Myanmar, Athan, Smile, the Institute for Strategy and Policy, and the local HRW representative. Of special interest was our conversation with Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN Secretary General U-Thant. Thant’s recent book The Hidden History of Burma, is a widely read analysis of the way forward for Myanmar given its complicated history. He has led the restoration of his grandfather’s house into a museum and is a leader in preserving historical buildings in downtown Yangon.  

Myanmar is a country of 51.4 million people, twice the size of Germany but smaller than Texas. It has over 100 ethnic groups, the largest of which are Shan, Karin, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Mon, and Rakhine. Burmese are 68% of the population. The country is divided in 7 states and 7 regions. Yangon is the largest city with 5 million; Mandalay has 700,000. The capital is a new city Naypyitaw, which feels deserted. 90% of the population are Buddhists, 5% Christian, 4% Islamic. The economy is fueled by timber, tin, copper, jade, ruby, rice and other agricultural products. Most foreign trade is with China (38%), Thailand (25%), India (8%), and Japan (6%). 

The British were in control 1824-1948 followed by a challenging period of independence (1948-62) and then military rule (1962-2011).  

Observations

Myanmar is more open than I had expected. Civil society leaders spoke their minds freely. Their organizations are monitoring elections and free expression, have reform agendas on the economy, ethnic relations, social services. Although there is sharp inequality across the country, Myanmar is more modern than I expected: a new airport, construction of new high-rise apartments in Yangon, car dealerships for Volvo, Mercedes, Toyota, technology stores across Yangon. The streets in the places we visited were well paved, electricity widespread, modern hotels and tourist amenities available. 

I felt safe in Myanmar. People of all walks of life are warm and friendly. I think of our boat ride through villages in Inle Lake and the young children sitting in the windows of the stilted houses smiling and waving as we passed by. I am not naive about the poverty, inequality, and still controlled society. But the people impressed me with their resilience, hard work, and openness. I have an instinct of affection for Myanmar that I have not felt so strongly in most places around the world I have visited for the first time. 

With that said, the intellectuals and activists with whom we spoke are to a person disappointed with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. They recognize she faces a daunting challenge of leading a new era when the military is still all-powerful. A constitutional provision prevents someone married to a foreigner from holding the Presidency thus she has de facto leadership though this special position. 

Yet people who supported her in her period of house arrest report she is not accessible to them. And she did not continue staffing key agencies with experts brought in by the last military leader, Thein Sein. Instead, she has turned to old guard bureaucrats who do not challenge her. She is criticized for being narcissistic, even dictatorial, in her interactions with people around her. According to people with whom we spoke, she has not articulated a positive vision for the country and has not reached out to ethnic minorities. The peace process with the key groups in the North has stalled. Nor has she taken a progressive stand on the Rohingya issue. That was clear in her defense of the military in the ICJ at the Hague. As one person told us, “she is not building a cohesive nation. She needs to connect to non-privileged groups like the Shan, Muslims, and other ethnic groups”. 

With that said, most everyone expects her party, NLD, to win the 2020 election. And most of her critics will vote for her. Some observers predict the NLD will lose seats in Parliament as the ethnic parties gain traction. Some think it possible the NLD will not have a majority and will need a coalition. Still most with whom we spoke think her continued leadership is the best alternative and real change will happen only after she retires, perhaps 5 years hence. No one could name a list of possible successors except to express the hope it would be a member of the younger generation.  

Among the people with whom we spoke, there is a mature understanding that it takes time to build a healthy and sustainable democracy. Intellectuals and activists are thinking in at least a 10 year horizon focusing on incremental improvements. Not surprising, the younger generation is more optimistic about the future than their elders who suffer from unfilled rising expectations. The growth of civil society organizations is an encouraging sign. 

Athan (voice in Burmese) was founded in January 2018 to promote free expression through research, advocacy and education. It issues periodic reports on the status of Freedom of Expression. It advocates a revision of the Telecommunications Law which criminalizes defamation which is the key tool the government uses to punish journalists it believes too critical. It has issued reports on how Parliament violated freedom of expression, compiled an inventory of 2019 protests (constitutional reform and labor rights are the top 2 issues), and monitors hate speech on Facebook which is the widely used social media platform in Myanmar. Athan has 17 staff (all under 30) and support from the National Endowment for Democracy and the Netherlands. It is central to a network of 30 civil society organization working on freedom of expression throughout Myanmar. 

Equality Myanmar involves 65 people (not all full time) and works on human rights training throughout Myanmar and helps build a network of local community based organizations. Among the issues it is focused on are forced relocations, domestic violence, forced labor and child soldiers. It aims to mitigate conflict among ethnic communities. It also advocates policy positions, for example, pushing Myanmar to sign the International Covenant on Human Rights. It will participate in monitoring of the 2020 elections. It has support from NED, Norway, Netherlands, and Open Society. 

Another group, SMILE, promotes freedom of religion and ethnic minorities; it monitors hate speech, including rating 2020 campaigns on hate speech. It has support from USAID and the Polish government and a fund of $500,000 a year for 28 staff. 

Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) has a staff of 10-15, a budget of $110,000 which comes from Sweden, UK, US governments. FEM prioritizes gender. It monitors the fate of journalists posting on Facebook with 50% of journalists saying some content has been taken down. Facebook is a key source of information for people living outside of Yangon and Mandalay where there are few print papers and radio is controlled by the government. 

I was particularly interested in learning about a CSO, Yone Kyi Yai (Belief), which aims to train people to be active citizens in a democracy. It works to bring local community leaders together with local government officials to talk about issues like the conditions of roads and access to safe water. At first, it is a shouting match but eventually both sides learn to talk in a civil fashion. This promising institution needs to expand. 

The Institute for Strategy and Policy has 20 researchers and a budget of $400,000 a year provided by NED, USAID, and Sweden. It has a quarterly journal and a quarterly TV show with 13 million viewers and a project “Myanmar 2050: What is the Vision”. Topics for its journal include: the development of civil society, social justice, electoral system reform, the growing influence of China and the future of federalism, all key issues. 

I have introduced the Institute and several other CSO’s to the New School’s Democracy 2.0 project. During the 1980’s the New School had a network of underground seminars in East and Central Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other locations. When the revolutions of 1989/90 opened a path to democracy for the region, our members were hopeful about the future. Now there is backsliding in most of the countries which raises the question of what went wrong? A new project, Democracy 2.0, will be a network of scholars in these countries plus Turkey and India. I think Myanmar would benefit from participation in the project, which seeks to understand the complex and uneven process of building a healthy and sustainable democracy. The naive notion that an election equals democracy needs to be replaced by a more nuanced understanding of how to build the cultural and political prerequisites of a democracy over time.  

Thant Myint-U’s The Hidden History of Burma ends with an epilogue that calls on Aung San Suu Kyi to articulate a comprehensive vision for the future of Myanmar during the 2020 election campaign. Among the key points is the need to find a middle ground between crony capitalism and the neo-liberal faith in free markets. He makes a powerful case that the future of a sustainable democracy in Myanmar depends on reducing inequality. And reinvigorating the peace process with ethnic minorities. In conversation, Thant mentioned other key issues like the direction of relations with China, the need to repair relations with the West, give Muslims greater access to education and public health, repatriate refugees, and resolve the Rohingya issue. 

I asked all with whom we spoke about their advice to the United States in helping Myanmar to a better future. People recalled with great affection Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in 2012 and the support that came from the US government. Most people feel the current US administration is at best indifferent, perhaps hostile to Myanmar. People believe that general sanctions over the years have been counterproductive. One thoughtful scholar urged US help to strengthen the education system, expand student exchange programs, support the development of civil society, increase private investment, and limit sanctions. Several advocated targeted sanctions targeting perhaps 100 individuals by freezing their assets and boycotting companies they control like Myanmar beer. Also, they urge requiring US companies active in Myanmar to adhere to high standards in labor rights and protecting the environment. 

The ruling by the International Court of Justice came out while we were in Myanmar. It requires Myanmar “to take all measures within its power” to prevent any further acts of violence against the Rohingya. Myanmar is required to submit regular reports to the Court within four months and thereafter every 6 months. Myanmar’s own Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) found that crimes against humanity were committed in Rakhine “but did not find” genocidal intent. 

Aung San Suu Kyi responded to the ICJ ruling in a letter to the Financial Times basically saying Myanmar’s own investigation had found evidence of “killing of civilians, disproportionate use of force, looting of property and destruction of abandoned houses of Muslims.” The right course now, she argues, is to give the Myanmar justice system time to bring those responsible to account. “An informed assessment of Myanmar’s ability to address the issue of violations in Rakhine can only be made if adequate time is given for democratic justice to run its course. Justice can help us overcome distrust, fear, prejudice and hate, and end the longstanding cycle of intercommunal violence. This has always been my goal.”

There was little discussion of the ICJ’s ruling among the people we talked to and her statement seemed to have strong support in the country.

Our 10 days in Myanmar were certainly eventful. Chinese President, Xi Jinping also made his first visit to Myanmar while we were in country to inaugurate 2020 the year of Tourism and Culture between China and Myanmar. It is also expected that China will increase its infrastructure investment in Myanmar as part of its belt and road initiative. China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner with exports to China worth $5.5. billion and imports worth $6.2 billion. The withdrawal of Western support and interest has forced Myanmar to be more dependent on China which is not the surest path to the kind of democracy we hope for. I believe this is a critical moment in Myanmar’s history with the possibility, but not certainty, of a positive evolution towards a more democratic future. There is an appetite among many civil society leaders and intellectuals, especially younger people, for interaction with the West. So I will be advocating that universities, foundations, businesses, civil society groups become more active in Myanmar. I say this with a sense of modesty and realism. The US and other Western nations are not the answer, but rather play a supporting role as the drama of Myanmar’s future unfolds. I think of the young man whose novitation we witnessed. At age nine or so he has a long future ahead and I hope it will be in a more democratic, peaceful, and prosperous Myanmar. I care about Myanmar and its people and I want to help them realize their enormous potential.

Academy at Risk: Challenges of the 21st Century

“Academy at Risk: Challenges of the 21st Century”

European Humanities University

Vilnius, Lithuania

January 26, 2018

It is an honor to be back here at EHU, a university I first came to know in 1995 when I visited Minsk in my capacity as President of the New School for Social Research and as Chair of the European division of Human Rights Watch. It was my privilege to support EHU as President of the MacArthur Foundation with substantial grants over the years. Most recently, as Chair of Scholars at Risk, I have continued my support for EHU and scholars facing repression around the world.

I also feel a deep bond to Vilnius. It is a particular pleasure to be here in Vilnius this special year – when Lithuania commemorates a centenary anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Vilnius plays a special role in the history of many nations; being a capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it has also become a cultural center for generations of Jews, Poles, and—certainly—Belarusians.

As Chair of Helsinki Watch I first visited Vilnius in late January 1991. I saw then the courage and determination of the Lithuanian people. I will never forget coming through the sandbags and volunteer guards that ringed the Parliament to meet with President Landsbergis.  The spirit of freedom was alive in the entrance gallery full of young people singing songs of tradition and liberation.  The President told me, “If we are not crushed completely in a short time, this process of independence will succeed.”  How right he was.

I am proud that MacArthur provided support for the critical relocation of EHU from Minsk to Vilnius. And I was honored to join President Adamkus and Rector Mikhailov at the opening ceremony of the European Humanities University International in June 2005. In my remarks I said:

At today’s occasion, I cannot help but recall that the Graduate Faculty of the New School was founded 72 years ago this month as the University in Exile.  The New School rescued scholars from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, giving them safe haven from Nazi terror.  The faculty adopted as their guiding principle “To the Living Spirit,” words etched on the main building of the University of Heidelberg and defaced by the Nazis.

In the 1980s, when dissident academics in East and Central Europe were subject to persecution, the New School supported their underground seminars, brought forbidden books and journals in, and brought censored manuscripts out for publication in the West. So through the New School tradition, I feel a special kinship to scholars in peril.

MacArthur was drawn to supporting EHU for intellectual and pedagogical reasons: We saw in EHU, the European University of St. Petersburg, the Central European University, and the New Economic School a force for strengthening the Humanities and Social Sciences. We saw a generation of scholars yearning to meet international standards through open inquiry and exchange. And a desire to connect research with policy at a time when we hoped that democracy and wider freedom would take root in the post-Soviet space.

EHU has been a leader in creating research centers, libraries, and institutes. I think of the Center for Gender Studies, the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism, and the Center for Constitutionalism and Human Rights as shining examples, producing research that informs and improves policy.

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Redistricting and Representation

On November 8, 2017, Jonathan Fanton introduced a discussion on “Redistricting and Representation.” The discussion was moderated by the Honorable Patti B. Saris, and featured the following speakers: Moon Duchin, Jamal Greene, and Gary King.

The program served as the 2062nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy. It is my pleasure to welcome you and to call to order the 2062nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Let me begin with a special welcome to those coming to us from the Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation’s program on redistricting reform, which is co-sponsoring this evening’s event. A special thank you to Miles Rapoport, a Senior Fellow at the Ash Center and a member of the Academy’s new Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship for making this collaboration possible. I am also pleased to note that tonight’s event is being live-streamed on the Academy’s website.

The topic of this evening’s program, “Redistricting and Representation” extends back to the earliest days of the Academy, yet remains relevant today. The American Academy was founded in 1780 by 62 scholar-patriots, including John Adams, John Hancock, and James Bowdoin, in the midst of the still-ongoing revolution. They recognized that the new nation they were building would need an institution dedicated to collecting and disseminating knowledge that would “advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” The founders hoped that the collection and dissemination of “useful knowledge” would help create the educated citizenry needed to lead the new nation out of revolution into independence and democracy.

Among one of our earliest fellows was a man whose name will be familiar to most everyone in this room: Elbridge Gerry. Inducted into the Academy while serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1781, Mr. Gerry would go on to become a United States Congressman, Governor of Massachusetts, and Vice-President under James Madison. He signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, but refused to sign the Constitution in 1787 because it lacked a bill of rights.

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The Resilience of the Human Spirit

Reflections on a Visit to Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan
September 17-20, 2017

We traveled to the Za’atari Refugee Camp on Wednesday, an hour’s drive from Amman and 10 miles from the Syrian border. Za’atari hosts 80,000 Syrians—the largest camp in the Middle East and fifth largest in the world. It is run by the Syrian Refugee Affairs Department, but UNHCR is responsible for the management and coordination of humanitarian services. It is divided into twelve communities which hold a meeting every other week with the authorities.

We spent the better part of a day at Za’atari, starting with a briefing from the camp leadership and UNHCR representatives. We visited a Community Center and food market, were hosted to tea by a refugee family in their caravan, and met with a group of community leaders.

Signs everywhere identified the donors: government agencies like the Norwegian Refugee Council and USAID, UN agencies like UNHCR, NGOs like Mercy Corp, Oxfam, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee.

As we moved around the camp, it felt more like a real community than a compound. There is an orderly street grid, a string of local shops commonly referred to as the Champs-Élysées, and rows of family houses that resemble metal trailers (called caravans). There are schools, places of worship, and two modern, well-stocked food markets.

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Induction Ceremony

On October 7, 2017, Jonathan Fanton introduced the 2017 Induction Ceremony held at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA. The ceremony featured historical readings by Kenneth Wallach (Central National Gottesman Inc.) and Diane Wood (U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit), as well as a performance by the Boston Children’s Chorus. It also included presentations by five new members: Ursula Burns (Xerox Corporation), James P. Allison (University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center), Heather Gerken (Yale Law School), Jane Mayer (The New Yorker), and Gerald Chan (Morningside Group).

Let me add my warm welcome to the Class of 2017, and to your families and friends who have joined us to celebrate this special occasion.

The Academy benefits from the wise and dedicated leadership of its Officers, members of the Academy Board, Council, and Trust.  As a result of their efforts, the American Academy is a thriving institution. We are grateful for all that they do, and particularly for the leadership and encouragement of the new Chair of our Board, Nancy Andrews.

I would also like to thank our previous Chair, Don Randel, for his friendship and dedication to this institution over the past four years.

The Academy was founded in 1780, during the American Revolution, by John Adams and 62 other scholar-patriots who understood that the new republic would require new institutions to gather knowledge and advance learning in service to the public good.

Adams dreamed that there would be a scholarly academy in every state.  As in so many initiatives of the Revolutionary period, Massachusetts took the lead, incorporating Adams’s vision into its foundational documents.

The Massachusetts Constitution was drafted in 1780 and remains the oldest functioning written constitution in the world.  Adams and his colleagues included a section called “The Encouragement of Literature, etc.”

“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties…it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them…to encourage private societies and public institutions…for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”

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Science and the Legal System

Science and the Legal System Authors’ Workshop

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Good morning and welcome. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the Academy.  I hope you are all rested and ready to engage in a lively discussion of your colleagues’ papers on this first day of the authors’ workshop. We have a full agenda and I look forward to the conversation.

Shari Diamond originally proposed an Academy study on Science and the Legal System two years ago, at a meeting of Academy members at Northwestern.  The idea received robust support at that meeting, and indeed, over the past two years I have found it is a topic that resonates strongly among the Academy’s members, and not only those from the sciences and law.  We are pleased at how the study has developed under Shari’s and Rick Lempert’s direction.

My own interest in this topic dates back to my days at the MacArthur Foundation.  During my tenure as president, the Foundation launched a Law and Neuroscience Project that was one of the early systematic efforts to bridge the fields of law and science. Today, this research network continues to promote the accurate presentation of neuroscience in legal cases and explores how new knowledge from neuroscience can be used to improve the justice system. Joe Sanders and Nancy Gertner have been active contributors to this project, as has Jed Rakoff, who was a valued advisor to me during its creation.

The Academy study on Science and the Legal System explores similar issues in the context of the broader scientific community. Scientists’ willingness to get involved in the legal system has consequences for the quality of expert advice. This question has not been fully explored by previous studies, nor has prior work systematically examined the variety of alternative approaches that might be used to encourage and introduce better quality scientific advice.

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Challenging Corrupt Practices: America, Brazil, Globally

On June 26, 2017, Jonathan Fanton introduced a discussion on “Challenging Corrupt Practices: America, Brazil, Globally.” The discussion was moderated by Robert Rotberg and featured the following speakers: Sergio Fernando Moro, Zephyr Teachout, and Mark L. Wolf.

The discussion was streamed to a group of Academy members and guests gathered in New York City, at the offices of Skadden, Arps, hosted by Mark Kaplan. When the panel concluded its presentations, Michael Sovern moderated the discussion in New York City.

The meeting served as the 2056th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Good evening. It is my pleasure to welcome you and to call to order the 2056th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

I am pleased to note that tonight we are streaming this meeting to Academy members and guests gathered in New York City, at the offices of Skadden, Arps.  We are grateful to Mark Kaplan for hosting our group in New York.  When our panel concludes its presentations, our members and guests in New York will have their own conversation, moderated by Michael Sovern, President Emeritus of Columbia University and Chancellor Kent Professor of Law at Columbia Law School.

This week, a group of scholars and practitioners from around the world are convening at the House of the Academy to discuss drafts of their essays for a forthcoming issue of Daedalus on Anti-Corruption: Best Practices.  The essays in this Daedalus volume will try to provide answers to the following question: How can individual countries, as well as the global community of nations as a whole, reduce, if not end, corrupt practices? The authors are asking, very simply, what really works?

We are delighted that the Daedalus authors are joining us this evening and that three of them, as well as the guest editor of the issue, Robert Rotberg, will be speaking with us tonight. I am grateful to Robert for shaping the issue and for assembling an outstanding group of contributors.

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Communicating Scientific Facts in an Age of Disbelief in Experts

On May 18, 2017, the American Academy held a discussion, in partnership with the Carnegie Institution for Science, on “Communicating Scientific Facts in an Age of Disbelief in Experts.” Matthew P. Scott introduced the evening’s topic before handing the program to Jonathan Fanton. The discussion was moderated by Richard A. Meserve, and the featured speakers were Mary Sue Coleman, Alan I. Leshner, and Joe Palca.

The meeting served as the 2055th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I am pleased to call to order the 2,055th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

It is a particular pleasure to convene this program in partnership with Matthew Scott and the Carnegie Institution for Science. Since their founding, our two institutions have shared a common mission of advancing knowledge in service to society.  And several Academy members have served as Carnegie Institution scientists, including its first two presidents, Daniel Coit Gilman and Robert Simpson Woodward.

Woodward, in fact, served as the Academy’s delegate to the centennial celebration of the University of Virginia in 1921. In his report to Academy President Theodore Richards on June 13, 1921, he lamented that

“Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and [Teddy] Roosevelt are the only, almost, American statesmen who had anything like a competent knowledge of science.”

The situation may have improved slightly since then, but I imagine most of us would agree there is still room for improvement.

The Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who helped to establish the United States. In the midst of the American Revolution, they believed the key to America’s long-term strength and survival was, in the words of our charter, “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

From the beginning, the Academy’s purpose has been not to simply honor excellence in a broad range of disciplines and professions. Its members also conduct studies of critical policy issues and debate the most pressing issues of the day.

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“How Do We See?” A Discussion on Visual Perception

On May 17, 2017, Jonathan Fanton introduced a discussion on visual perception, entitled “How Do We See?Ken Nakayama moderated the discussion between Charles Gilbert and Dale Purves.

The discussion served as the 2054th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy. It is my pleasure to welcome you and to call to order the 2054th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Our topic this evening is “How do we see?” As you can imagine, questions about how vision works have been ever-present throughout the life of the Academy. In fact, an issue of the Academy’s Memoirs from 1809 contains a communication from Peres Fobes, a Massachusetts clergyman elected to the Academy in 1780, entitled “A Curious Phenomenon of Vision.” His letter describes the case of a 46-year-old man named Pierce who had “a kind of ulcer collected in his head,” which confined him to his home with weak eyesight and extreme sensitivity to light.

One night the ulcer broke, and Mr. Pierce awoke free of pain, feeling well and composed. He arose and went to look out a window, and, as Reverend Fobes described,

“to his great surprise [Pierce] saw, at a place called Reed’s ware-house, near the ferry, at the distance of near two miles, a cart and yoke of oxen. He could plainly discern the color of the oxen, the rounds in the cart, the stones on the beach, and even the courses and joints in the shingles on the ware-house. This extraordinary degree of acute, telescopic vision continued for about one hour; after which his sight returned to its usual state.”

The letter goes on to vouch for Mr. Pierce’s character and judgment.

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Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society

On April 18, 2017, Jonathan Fanton introduced a discussion on the book “Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity and Democracy and a Prosperous Society.” The panel, introduced by Nancy Cantor and moderated by Liz Cheng, featured the following speakers: Danielle Allen, Earl Lewis, Deval Patrick (via video), and Amy Schulman.

The program was organized by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Good evening.  It is my pleasure to welcome you to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for a program organized by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The panelists here tonight will discuss the book edited by Earl Lewis and Nancy Cantor, Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society.

We are delighted that the Mellon Foundation selected the Academy as the New England venue for one of a series of conversations around the country on the issues raised in the book. The American Academy has been home to some notable projects over its history that addressed the issue of diversity in America, including ground-breaking scholarship in the 1970s on ethnicity, work on urban school desegregation, and comparative projects on ethnic pluralism and immigration in the United Kingdom, France, and China.

As Our Compelling Interests makes clear, America’s level of diversity is one of its most distinctive characteristics. Demographers predict that in 25 years the United States will have a majority non-white population. Diversity of all kinds—racial, socioeconomic, gender, religious, linguistic, regional, and sexual—has had a profound impact on American culture and institutions. Our Compelling Interests asks whether diversity is a goal worth pursuing, an opportunity to be leveraged, or a condition to be managed? Can we sustain a prosperous democratic society if there are particular groups that are excluded from the promises of equal political, social, and economic opportunity? How can our compelling interests as a nation be brought into alignment with the compelling interests of the many diverse groups of people who make up our population?

Continue reading Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society