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Sen. Ben Sasse talks challenges of the 'digital revolution' in ethics forum at Coast Guard Academy

New London — Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., presented Coast Guard Academy cadets on Friday with five theses about the current "digital revolution": It creates constant echo chambers, "gives unprecedented permission to view ourselves as victims," is eliminating lifelong work in the same job, is transforming the nature of war, and makes it possible for the U.S. dollar to no longer be the world's reserve currency.

Addressing a group of people largely born between 2000 and 2003, he said social media posts are "not representative of regular people who have relationships with their neighbors" and talked about the negative impact of Instagram on teenage girls.

Sasse — who said his top priorities in the Senate are the future of war, the future of work, and the First Amendment — gave the Class of '48 Leadership Lecture at the 32nd U.S. Coast Guard Academy Admiral Thomas Wetmore Annual Ethics Forum.

The forum grew out of a 1988 meeting in which the Class of 1948 expressed concern about declining ethical standards in government, due to the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals.

Sasse was one of seven Republican senators who voted on Feb. 13 to convict Donald Trump in the former president's second impeachment trial, a month after calling the Jan. 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol "the inevitable and ugly outcome of the President's addiction to constantly stoking division."

The Nebraska senator, who holds a Ph.D. in American history, said humans always believe the moment in which they're living is an inflection point because we're narcissists, but he thinks now is "one of those rare times where we're actually living through mass disruption."

"Our politics are mostly being taken over by two tiny, tiny, tiny cults who are addicted to power," Sasse said, adding, "Politics shouldn't be sexy and interesting. Politics should actually be pretty mundane."

He said MSNBC and Fox News programming is about the simplistic view that politics is at the center of everything.

"If you make a list of your 10 to 50 identities, if you put politics at the top, there's probably something wrong with your soul," said Sasse, who named "dad" and "Nebraska football addict" among his top identities. While he believes Democratic policies are hurting the economy, he said that fight can't be issue two or issue four in his worldview.

Sasse also said most wars in the future will be cyber whereas past wars have "been about blowing physical stuff up," and said we're a few years away from a moment when 1,000 drones could incapacitate an entire aircraft carrier.

In a question-and-answer session, cadets asked Sasse, 49, about coronavirus vaccine mandates, how they can expect change given the age of legislators, suicide and advice for bringing people together.

Sasse said he is "zealously pro-these vaccines," calling the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines "unbelievable scientific achievements." But he said he is against the OSHA workplace mandate because he thinks it's unconstitutional, and he thinks mandates "are going to cause more problems than they're actually going to get us public health benefits."

He left cadets with the advice to "believe in the humanity of every individual you lead and every person you serve alongside" and said, "We need lots more breaking bread together and a lot less angry tweet responses to everything."

Jon Heller, director of the Loy Institute for Leadership at the Coast Guard Academy, said Sasse has written several letters of support for cadet applicants from Nebraska, and Superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelly invited him to come. Heller also said they were inspired by the comments he made on Jan. 6.

Heller said Kelly, faculty and cadets have dialogues about contemporary ethical challenges to decide on themes and speakers for the forum, and the academy tries to bring in people from a variety of professions.

The opening keynote address Thursday evening came from Mike Petters, president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries. Sessions on Friday included a senior enlisted leadership panel and a junior officer panel.

The agenda reflected the way ethical questions in military leadership have evolved over the past 32 years: One panel was titled "Being True to Yourself: Ethical Challenges Faced by Coast Guard LGBTQ Members Ten Years After the Repeal of Don't Ask/Don't Tell."

One of the panelists was California attorney Bronwen Tomb, a former cadet who was disenrolled from the academy in 2006 under the don't ask, don't tell policy. Another was Lt. Kelli Normoyle, Class of 2012, who founded the LGBTQ affinity group Coast Guard Spectrum.

Retired Navy SEAL and motivational speaker Jason Redman gave the closing keynote Friday afternoon, speaking about triumphing over adversity and sharing his own journey of moving past the mistakes he made due to his "ego and arrogance."

He talked about the ethical choices leaders must make of friendship versus leadership, trust versus loyalty and correct versus right.

e.moser@theday.com

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