I saw the world in a day

March 12, 2015

Nobel Peace Prize Forum posterLast Saturday, I attended the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Forum. I heard its sponsorship promo on Minnesota Public Radio and perused their website, where saw that single-day tickets were $75(US), at which I initially balked. But then I thought, “you know, that’s not the kind of thing that comes to your town every day” and went for it. We could all use some global perspective, especially here in the United States.

The conference was over a three-day weekend. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was the headline speaker on Friday and I would have loved to hear his presentation, but the topics of Saturday’s line-up, disarmament and sustainability, were more interesting to me in general. And Saturday also featured Steven Pinker, whose book The Stuff of Thought was enthusiastically recommended to me by a friend, which I found on discount at Barnes & Noble, which I bought and began reading, and whose chapter 2 I have not gotten beyond. My friend said that after about the third chapter, it was much less dry. Apparently I’ve not felt too compelled to investigate that for myself.

photo of reception area

The first impression is that this is a swanky place. But it really is just a large, cavernous room with movable tables holding artfully stacked coffee cups. Who decided on purple?

On the day, check-in began at 7:30am. Two parts of my grand plan for the day revolved around food. The conference was conveniently located in downtown Minneapolis, and even more conveniently in the part of it with which I am most familiar but which, sadly, is no longer where my office is. I carefully planned to arrive at the check-in pretty close to right at 7:30, and then go across the street to Au Bon Pain (whose website promised they opened at 8:00 on Saturdays) for one of my favorite breakfast items, the smoked salmon and wasabi bagel sandwich thing.

All of a sudden, spring has sprung here in the upper-midwest, so I biked the less-than two miles. I arrived at the check-in at 7:25, but they were ready for me! I killed time with a cup of coffee while I read the day’s schedule. At 7:55 I wandered over to the ABP (makes me think of AVB), only to find it not open, with 8:30 listed on the door as the actual time. I reconsulted their website and Google maps and concluded that I should be at the other one, the other one a couple blocks away. I wandered over there (okay, high-tailed it) only to find that it, too, was not open, nor would it be on a Saturday. I spent a lot of battery power in confusion and finally concluded anew that I should, in fact, go back to the original location.

By this time it was 8:15 and I was beginning to feel a little anxious because, as an only child, I am a slow eater. I resumed lurking and conducted additional research on the ABP and Google maps sites. I realized that this particular location was listed twice, once on 6th Street and once on 7th Street, and not only that, but its suite number (225) was identical to the street number of the not-at-all-open other location. As I rolled my eyes in frustration, I saw that the doors were now open. I entered and filled the manager in on all of the above, and she said that she tries to get things going by 8:15.

My bagel was delicious.

I had no idea what to actually expect from the day’s talks, but I was pretty sure it would be enriching, whatever transpired. I’m not going to list the program; you can read it here, Day 2 Saturday. But I will call out what I enjoyed most.

Photo of John Packer speaking

John Packer knows how to hold an audience!

The first highlight was the breakout session. Three caught my eye; I chose John Packer’s talk, called “Managing diversity and inter-ethnic relations in peacemaking: herding cats and cutting pies,” and not because it had cats in the title, though he did start with the herding cats commercial from a few Super Bowls ago, which didn’t hurt. The base idea of the presentation was how language is used as a divider and categorizer when apportioning states and nations, and asking why this one is an “official” language of a nation or an organization, when this one with more speakers isn’t, and all kinds of interesting things about how peoples are validated or subjugated based on their mother tongue (L1). Not only that, but he was a most engaging speaker. Yes, he had projected slides, but they were only an outline and he spoke mostly extemporaneously (please compare this to later comments below). So, so interesting. I will read his books. And finish them.

Then, it was lunch time, for which I also had a master plan. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Twin Cities’ food truck boom in the last few years. A perennial favorite is Vellee Deli (I’d swear they originally spelled it “Dellee”), and they have joined the ranks of wheeled businesses that now have stationary endeavors. Their soft opening was Saturday and, unlike all the others so far, they kept their new storefront is downtown, just two blocks from the truck’s usual spot. It wasn’t a tough decision to support them rather than overpaying for the box lunch offered by the hotel. At the truck I have always gotten the burrito or bowl, so I tried the duck confit banh mi and it was delicious!

After lunch, it was time for my second highlight of the day, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, from opposite, warring sides in Nigeria. I am atheist, but it was not hard to get behind their message which was, simply, take your worst enemy and make him your best friend, and that the killing of others in the name of your religion has no legitimate place in any religion. It’s so simple. Listening to these two men talk with each other should be required world education. For everybody.

photo of Farah Siraj performing

Though Steven Pinker came and stood right in front of me to listen to Jordanian vocalist Farah Siraj, I was far too shy to introduce myself.

Then it was time for Steven Pinker, the main impetus for my attendance. I suppose it’s only natural that that which you build up the highest in your anticipation has the greatest potential to disappoint. His topic, that we are actually experiencing the least violent time in the history of humans, was very interesting, and he had statistics to support it. But Steven, Steven, Steven. It is the death knell of a presentation to read verbatim the slides which you are flashing on the screen. Tsk tsk. John Packer in the morning used his slides as jumping-off points. Steven Pinker used them as a script. It was distracting. Womp wah.

The Saturday schedule must have been adapted based on ticket sales. I’m very certain that, three weeks ago when I bought my ticket, the general program ended after Steven Pinker, with the option of paying extra for a dinner and documentary screening. On the day, it was a cocktail hour and movie screening at no additional cost. Hurray!

photo of fancy snacks

Fancy bites during the cocktail hour

Hors d’oeuvres, light macro beers, wine, and booze were available. I wasn’t certain if I was going to hang in there for this unanticipated foray into the evening, but I gave myself time to consider it while noshing on Parmesan pastry-encrusted asparagus spears and cheese and cranberry hazelnut Raincoast Crisps (my favorite!). In the end, I decided to make the most of my $75, and thanks to all the coffee I consumed during the day, I had the wherewithal to do so.

The last feature of the day was viewing the documentary Food Chains, about how tomato workers in Florida have come together for better rights, such as providing a mechanism for women field workers to report on-the-job sexual harassment, and convincing large food chains to sign on to program to pay a penny more per pound, which basically doubles workers’ wages.

I was exhausted when I got home a little before 9pm, but what an interesting day! No disappointments about the investment.

photo of Nobel Peace Prize Forum speakers

A long day of listening and being enriched. I know you can’t really make anybody out well, but top to bottom:
Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons;
Adama Dieng, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser, Prevention of Genocide;
Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists, who led a moment of candle-lit silence for the journalists who have been killed on the job due to conflict;
Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, Nigeria, with Reverend Mark Hanson;
Steven Pinker and his slides, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature;
Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White buffalo Calf Pipe and Leader of the Lakota Dakota Nakota Oyate, The Great Sioux Nation;
Sanjay Rawal, Smriti Keshari, Eric Schlosser, Lucas Benitez, of the documentary Food Chains

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