Alumni Short
“How Do We Protect Democracy as Populations Age?” Ask Meridian 180 Members at Conference in Seoul Ithaca, NEW YORK, May 7, 2015

Older people will soon vastly outnumber the young in Pacific Rim democracies like Korea and Japan, leading to far fewer wage earners and much greater public debt, putting stability at risk.

Those issues need to be front and center, say many of the 650 members of Cornell Law School’s Meridian 180, a diverse community—some describe it as a think tank—of some of the transpacific region’s most brilliant thinkers and innovators in a multiplicity of fields. Their discussions on Meridian 180’s website led to “Democracy in an Age of Shifting Demographics,” its first conference at its new Asia base at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Korea, on March 31.

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The gathering, which drew about one hundred leaders and opinion makers from Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Australia, and the United States, garnered positive media attention and praise from participants for doing something that few others had done before-namely getting the best people from different Pacific Rim countries to work together on solutions to pressing, shared problems. The conference was extensively covered in Asian media, including the Korea Times, Hangyoreh and Seoul Shinmun, which published an interview with Riles.

"My hope is that Meridian 180 will provide real solutions to the complex problems that East Asia is facing, while opening up new horizons for higher education and research," wrote Haejoang Cho in the Hangyoreh. Cho is a professor of cultural anthropology at Yonsei University and a leading public intellectual in Korea.

Cornell Law School Dean Eduardo Peñalver, who spoke via video at the conference at Ewha, praised the university for "giving Meridian 180 a central base in Asia of intellectual import where our members and other thinkers and practitioners might gather together to have the kinds of face-to-face conversations that build real relationships and give us a deeper understanding of one another."

Professor Annelise Riles, director of Meridian 180, who planned the conference with Ewha professor Eunice Kim, director of its Asian base, says: "We wanted to find a way for people from very different disciplines professions and national backgrounds to communicate meaningfully with one another, to take some risks, and speak straightforwardly outside their comfort zone. That required getting away from the standard academic speeches followed by polite questions."

The Meridian 180 team came up with the idea of anonymous comments that could be submitted in any language and would be translated and projected on a screen behind the speakers in real time as they were speaking. Panelists also shared their viewpoints in an online forum on the Meridian 180 website prior to the conference.

The strategy worked: "The conference was rich in diverse opinions," says Kim. Riles, who directs the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture and is Clarke Professor of Law and Far East Legal Studies at Cornell Law School, agrees.

Panel discussions ranged from aging societies in Pacific Rim countries in relation to potential problems they might face, the pluses and minuses of such solutions as wealth redistribution, and how to define a country's values and ensure fair and equal treatment for all. Even though people's viewpoints diverged wildly, "We wanted conference attendees to come to some collective conclusions that could be summarized in a joint communiqué and shared with the media and policymakers at the end," says Riles.

The Meridian 180 team also is working on a quadrilingual e-book that reflects ideas, viewpoints, and solutions that emerged at the conference.

"It was exciting to hear from scholars from around the world, and to meet online colleagues from Meridian 180 face-to-face," says Leigh Bienen, senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, who was a panelist in a conversation at the conference titled: Fairness and Equality in an Aging Society.

"Our societies share many circumstances, especially around policy issues concerning generational disparities and communication difficulties," says Bienen. "If democracy is going to survive, we need to keep learning from one another and to keep listening," she says. "Meridian 180 is a unique forum for communication and publishing, creating new methods always."