When the PN SXSW team was initially discussing which conference ‘track’ we would follow and report back on, I felt like I’d snuck one by my colleagues in getting to cover Government. In the current political climate, I knew that the civic-focused speakers would have insightful takes on the current administration and its impact on their work and ethos. A couple days into SXSW, I realized that these themes—for better or for worse—were playing a role in every track, whether that was Health, Intelligent Future, Journalism, Development and Code… etc. On my final day in Austin, I attended a panel titled “Are we Alone? A Discussion on Space Exploration.” As politically agnostic as you might expect this to be, audience members bombarded the panel, consisting of astrophysicists and space-travel experts, with questions on how the administration’s budget cuts and climate-change denial might impact these endeavors. A question asking if extra-terrestrial life would even have any interest in meeting us at this point drew uproarious, nerdy laughter.
While politics were virtually unavoidable at SXSW, the speakers who were actually there to discuss it delivered in a major way. Cory Booker, of whom I have always been a fan, gave a powerful opening keynote on Saturday morning. I was a bit skeptical when he started by saying, “I am one of these people that really believes that we are all here today as a physical manifestation of a larger conspiracy of love.” However, I began to understand his point as he continued in his typically articulate, poetic manner of speaking, “We are a nation that was not founded because we all look alike, spoke the same language or prayed alike. And in fact, we know, we’ve had ugly divisions in our country, fearsome conflicts, but there has been a spirit that has still found a way to reach beyond that and to manifest a glorious triumphant love.” Booker wove in an anecdote on the unlikely friendship between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, whose racial separation was reason enough for the two to dismiss or despise one another in the 1850s. “[Douglass] could have accused the people who were opposing him of some of the worst of human character. But he chose not to. He said these profound words with malice towards none and charity towards all.” Booker saw great beauty in this friendship, forged during such an ugly, cruel and violent moment in our nation’s history.
“We don’t have to like each other, we don’t have to agree with each other, but ‘tolerance’ says I’m just gonna stomach your right to be different and if you disappear off the face of the earth, I’m no worse off, or no better off. But love says ‘I see you,’ I recognize your dignity, I recognize your value, I recognize your worth, and I know that if we’re gonna make it, we have to find a way to that exalted truth within one another and find ways to connect to be together in a larger mission.”
Where past pleas for bi-partisan empathy have not really resonated with me, Booker’s look back to Lincoln, Douglass and the Civil War struck a chord. This is not to say that I won’t continue to struggle to understand how we have arrived in our current civic culture—I think Douglass would be disappointed with many of our contemporary leaders, policies and enduring race and class division—but Booker’s keynote helped me understand the powerful necessity of bridging divides. “It’s becoming even more convenient to have confirmation bias and to begin to believe that I am so right and you are so wrong. And not seeing each other creates a very dangerous reality,” he implored.
Ultimately, Booker’s message was one of hope. “The power of our history is that we seem to have chosen a harder path way of love, despite the hate and divisiveness of our days.”