In social anthropology there is an interesting phenomenon, described as the “cultural cringe” by Australian social commentator A.A. Phillips, which manifests itself as an internalized inferiority complex around a country, region or community’s cultural offerings when compared to those of an older or bigger neighbor. On occasion I have felt that we in the midcoast suffer from that cultural cringe, choosing to focus on the things we have in common with small rural towns (not much nightlife and a bit out of the way) rather than the things that would blow minds even in big cities.
We have literary, music and film festivals; art galleries and exhibitions; live theater and art-house movies; every genre of live music you can imagine; outstanding dining and celebrations of the different aspects of our local heritage throughout the year. For my money, one of the best examples of why this region has no need to cringe when it comes to cultural offerings has to be the Camden Conference.
For those of you unfamiliar with this cultural and economic gem, the Camden Conference is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization whose mission is to foster informed discourse on world issues. A small group of State Department and CIA retirees founded the conference in 1987. Early conferences set important precedents for the future: world-class speakers would focus on topics that shape major areas of U.S. foreign policy. The conference would be nonpartisan and balanced. There would be significant audience participation and student involvement. Importantly, a volunteer organization would run the conference and its activities.
This February the conference will once again convene for its flagship annual weekend event at the Camden Opera House and will attract both world-renowned speakers and hundreds of attendees from both near and far. And the impact is not just felt in Camden — with satellite locations that carry the conference live in Rockland, Belfast and now Ellsworth and Bangor, the weekend is truly wide-ranging along the coast of Maine.
The Camden Conference does not just have a three-day impact, either. The conference has a year-round free Community Events Program that attracts more than 2,500 attendees from Damariscotta to Mount Desert Island. An Educational Outreach Program was initiated and increasing numbers of students attend the conference through scholarships. The conference collaborates with local libraries, the University of Maine, College of the Atlantic, Unity College, the Watershed School, the Farnsworth Museum and Road Scholars (Elderhostel). About 80 percent of attendees come from Maine (but not all from Camden), and the rest visit from other states and countries. This means that the Camden Conference has a significant positive financial impact on our part of Maine. Attendees patronize local hotels, restaurants and shops. The conference uses local theaters, caterers, printers, designers, production and streaming companies.
Conference speakers and attendees become global ambassadors for midcoast Maine based on their experiences here.
This year’s Camden Conference, on the theme of “The Challenges of Asia,” gets under way at the Camden Opera House and at the satellite locations on Friday, Feb. 18. For more information on the weekend events, video “cam-casts” of past speakers, reading lists, the year-round program, tickets or conference membership visit www.camdenconference.org.
And remember to do it with an element of cultural pride!