Notes from the President: The Public Pulse (Summer 2006 Trust Magazine)

Aug 31, 2006

Law students are advised to be cautious when asking a witness in the courtroom a question to which they do not already know the answer. With the fate of their clients at stake, they want no surprises.

Quite the opposite approach applies in making sense of our everyday world—whether we are seeking to understand the values and attitudes of our neighbors or those of people in other countries and cultures. If we are truly to get beyond conjecture, stereotype or simply the inevitable limitations of our individual opinions, we have to be open to surprises. It is how we learn.

Since 2001, the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, has been providing detailed information about Latinos in the United States, whether citizens, permanent residents or immigrants, legal and illegal. The research—especially its often-cited estimates of the illegal population—has helped focus the immigration debate on facts, so that policy discussions might be more informed and productive.

But studies of Latinos constitute only part of the center’s contribution to informing the policy debate. It has also taken the pulse of non-Latino citizens, whose points of view will be vital to any policy decision. Unsurprisingly, the center has found American public opinion to be confused and concerned.

In the midst of such perplexity, good data that are nonpartisan, gathered through a clear and publicly shared methodology and made universally available, make an invaluable contribution to public discourse and decisionmaking. The facts do not lessen the controversy, but transparency and clarity may reduce the contentiousness— providing us all with a more informed set of choices, a more fruitful debate and, ultimately, better public policy.

The pulse of America demonstrates that we are increasingly bewildered—and not well informed—about Islam. We generally are unaware of motivations and opinions in the Middle East, and have relatively recently realized that we ought to be more mindful of the driving forces and values in that part of the world and in Islam more broadly.

The question is how this can best be accomplished. The Trusts has launched some innovative efforts to better understand the public attitudes of Muslims, their actions and the implications for the future.

Started in 2001, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey has been tracking (among other topics) the extent of anti-Americanism in many countries. The results, plus those of other polling organizations, have been analyzed in the center’s just-published book America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked by Andrew Kohut, the center’s director, and Bruce Stokes, international economics columnist for the National Journal. They give us a cogent, up-to-date—and anything but complacent—description of American values and attitudes and explain how our national identity has effects we may not appreciate when we interact with people of other nations.

In another effort, the World Affairs Council, with support from the Trusts and The Glenmede Trust Company, organized a discussion in May among international experts on the complex relationship between Islam and the West. The discussion focused on whether the two cultures are headed toward a “clash of civilizations” or whether our differences are resolvable.

If we are to come to accord, the participants agreed, it will only happen if Americans have an understanding of the many, admittedly intricate and contentious issues involved.

The public pulse in the Philadelphia region toward arts and culture has quickened. The combination of blockbuster exhibitions and the offerings of niche museums and theaters have added significantly to civic life in the region, entertaining and educating visitors and residents of all ages and strengthening our sense of community— and our local pride: National Geographic Traveler magazine recently named Philadelphia as “America’s Next Great City.”

The Trusts has always had an abiding interest in the vigor of our local arts community. Our significant investments have contributed to a robust arts scene, and Philadelphia has shown the world that when artistic creativity and the preservation of heritage are encouraged, positive things happen for the region’s citizens and the economy.

To maintain and enhance this momentum, the Trusts has created the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage as the new home of our Artistic Initiatives. In addition to the practical benefits, being under one roof will foster interdisciplinary collaboration among diverse artists and artistic genres. The center is also an important component in the Trusts’ three-part strategy to unite artistic creativity with organizational effectiveness and greater audience access.

The public pulse is a powerful indicator. Locally, we can sense its more rapid beat, making us proud of our past and optimistic and energized about our future. The public’s pulse is essential in informing and driving policy in a democracy such as ours, and as a nation we are obliged to understand the pulse that animates other cultures if we are to live productively together on the small planet we all call home. Only by understanding our diversity of opinion and appreciating our common concerns can we hope to deal with the differences that divide us and foster the ties that bind.

Rebecca W. Rimel
President and CEO

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