Politics and Policy

To start off Trustee Weekend, students and faculty heard from former White Mountain trustee, Kenneth Klothen P’02, at morning meeting this past Friday. Included below is the text from his talk. Mr. Klothen served on the White Mountain Board of Trustees for ten years, from 2001-2011, in various roles including Chair of the Advancement Committee and Secretary.

Kenneth Klothen is an attorney and public policy analyst, specializing in bioethics and mediation in the health care field. He is the founder and current Principal of E2K Consulting, LLC — a firm specializing in research and clinical ethics — in Philadelphia.

Mr. Klothen served as the Director of Economic Development for Montgomery County Pennsylvania from 2009-2012 and as Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development before that. Appointed the Executive Director of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States in 1998, Mr. Klothen has also served as General Counsel to the Corporation for National and Community Service and Executive Director of Defense for Children International-USA. He has taught human rights law as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Case Western Reserve and Widener Law Schools, and has been a member of the executive boards of a number of organizations including the National Jewish Democratic Council and Americans for Peace Now.

Mr. Klothen earned his B.A. from Swarthmore College, an M.A. in History of Science and Medicine from Princeton University, an M.A. in Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania and his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.

Three Ideas (With One Corollary) for WMS Students about Politics and Policy

Point 1: On behalf of all those who were able to participate in the last Presidential election (whether they did or not), to all of you who weren’t yet old enough to do so: I apologize. Not for the result (although I don’t mind disclosing that it’s not the one I favored) but for the fact that all of us, whatever side we were on, have left you a country divided as never before since the Civil War. Politics in a democracy is supposed to be that place in civic life where ideas are debated, interests mediated and ways to move forward agreed upon that are acceptable to all even if viewed as ideal by none. But in our country today, politics has become a battle against “others” who are viewed not as fellow citizens but as dangerous opponents who must be defeated, not persuaded. Compromise is viewed as losing, and the only thing viewed as more important than winning is that the opponent loses. Democracy can’t survive in that kind of environment.

This situation is made worse by the fact that all of us operate in bubbles of our own creation, where our views of reality are reinforced by “news” sources and “friends” we select because they agree with us. So as a first clean-up step I recommend that you follow through on Lawrence Alexander’s call to you to take the Kind Foundation Pop Your Bubble challenge and populate your social media feeds with people who don’t agree with you.

But that’s not enough – simple tolerance won’t do the trick.  It’s not enough to say “I’ve got a lot of friends on Facebook who have crazy ideas even though they’re nice people.”  So…

Point 2: You’ve got to engage seriously with the ideas you disagree with. You’ve got to analyze those ideas for their strengths as well as their weaknesses. You’ve got to admit it when your own ideas may not account for this or that reality the other guy sees. At the very least you’ve got to try to understand what interests or needs that other person has that makes him or her believe something you find wrong, or even offensive.

The good news is that the skills you’ll need to analyze and debate these kinds of ideas are just those you’re learning here at WMS – how to break down a problem into its component parts, how to gather support for and against a proposition about history, or numbers, or the physical or biological world. Which leads to…

Corollary: Be very skeptical of any proposed simple solution.  The problems our country, our world and our human civilization face are enormously complex. You guys know this better than most – after all, the math problems you do get harder as you progress from arithmetic through algebra to calculus; the grammar is harder in Spanish 4 than in Spanish 1; relativity is harder to get your arms around than Newtonian physics. There just aren’t any easy solutions to the problems of providing health care to 320 million people, or assuring a quality education to all children, or ending homelessness, or creating a sustainable economy. If you believe that building a wall on our southern border will solve the problems of unemployed former steel workers in Western Pennsylvania, you’re not doing justice to what you’ve learned at WMS. But neither are you doing justice to your education here if you believe that we can provide free health care and a college education to everyone by taxing some vaguely defined “billionaire class.”  To clean up the mess, you’ll have to commit yourselves to figuring out the hard problems, and bringing into your solutions the ideas of others. That’s how you work collaboratively at WMS, so I know you can do it out there in the “real” world.

Point 3: If our democracy is to survive, you’re going have to do this complex, collaborative problem solving in the institutions that already exist – institutions of civil society like businesses, political parties, non-profit organizations, religious institutions and governments. That won’t be easy, because these institutions are far from perfect, and bringing new ideas to them is often a frustrating and slow process. But they are the institutions we have developed over our history to address the issues we face, so that’s where the work has to be done. I encourage all of you to spend some time volunteering or working in these institutions at this point in your lives, to develop some inside knowledge about how they work and how they can be changed.  Go volunteer in a political campaign, or for an environmental advocacy organization, or take a summer job in a local business – you’ll be a better change agent for the experience.

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