In America, The Decomposition of Imagination
I’ve just returned from Denmark, one of the happiest nations in our world today. I must confess, I didn’t quite understand the importance of visiting Denmark until after I had already arrived, until I walked the streets and spoke to the people and stood in line after line at Copenhagen airport. The reason I attended, I should note, is to be among a symposium of 600 or so people who have their minds on world-changing topics, from social equity, to social enterprise, to environment, to art. This helped, of course, in putting my mind into important matters, and helping my soul feel comfortable in inspired territory.
Phillip Roth is famous for saying, “The amateur looks for inspiration. The professional just goes to work.” In recent months, I have tried to hold this canon in respectful view, especially as a writer. It is a nice reminder to stop fidgeting and wandering about paralyzed, and to just put pen to page. Or load the car with equipment and teach. Go weed a row, build a thing, plan something, meet people. Hit the road.
I'd like to do a lot of writing about the MAD symposium, and exploring some loose ends from all the thinking and talking that occurred there. First, I want to speak to a realization that I have found, in being in Europe twice this summer (looking for inspiration, perhaps), and returning home to go to work. I have had a painful recognition of sorts, driving me to do my work in greater earnest. It has to do with the state of mind in my own country, in America, and the possible implications of our current state of affairs.
I landed back in the USA, at JFK airport on a Monday around 4pm. In my bones and in my brain, it was 10p, and I was ready for a splash of wine and a bed, but instead I was herded into US Customs and Border Protection, along with thousands of other travelers. As I entered the stanchions, I remembered being in Copenhagen airport earlier that day, waiting in four lines to check in, waiting again at Passport Clearance, and waiting again at the gate for a security interview. People were complaining (people always do, don’t they?). The staff at Copenhagen airport was supremely calm, acutely helpful. The lines were organized. Fast forward 8+ hours, and the scene at JFK was the arch opposite.
With very little direction, and some direction being flat wrong, fellow passengers and I weaved through stanchions and followed signs to U.S. Customs only to find a sea of people trying to access self-service kiosks, and very little staff to assist. There was no line, or etiquette, shall we say. One entered the sea, and one rushed to the first kiosk available, with little consideration for the family of four who might have entered the sea before you, but couldn’t get there as quickly on account of the stroller and the screaming toddler. As I finished my own check-in, I stopped for no less than five people who spoke no English, who were asking what they were supposed to do, which button to push, and where to go. And as we finally emerged into a mass waiting to enter another area of stanchions, low and behold the first staff member I had seen since entering this chaos was yelling coarsely at everyone in the room to “get in a single file line for chrissakes, didn’t your mothers teach you anything? Didn’t you make a single line in grade school, how can I possibly help you people?” Her abusive tirade continued for about 45 seconds, while three women in front of me, one apparently from a Middle Eastern nation, and two from Italy, darted about in confusion trying to figure out why they were suddenly being pushed and snapped at, in a language they didn’t understand. People were moving stanchions and slipping under ribbons to comply with the yelling officer’s commands, further confusing the people who had zero idea what was going on.
A man ahead of me in line, who was passing by the chaos simply said, rather irreverently,
Welcome to America.
I’ve de-boarded many planes in many foreign countries, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s always confusing. But for the life of me I could not remember a single time, in any single country, where I was yelled at, as opposed to being helped in finding my way, even when I was clearly just bewildered and not looking at signs.
Fine. She’s having a bad day, I considered. This airport working-person who receives mildly insulting wages and works with irritated people constantly, and probably endures a pretty banal commute at odd hours, which likely messes with her appetite. I chalked it up to a symptom of some everyday sort of suffering, offered a place in line in front of me to the woman of Middle Eastern descent, and then opened my phone to let my family know I was back stateside. In short, I brushed it off.
Next day, the kids sat with us in the living room before leaving for school, and the oldest was urging her dad that we needed to leave. This is a consistent pattern. She’s set on leaving at a certain time every morning, even as the other five members of her family show other interests (and abilities in getting ready), and even as the normal routine of leaving at 7:40 has proven time and again at delivering up to 4 children at the doors of their respective schools well before the bell rings. To circumvent the usual back and forth of her insistence, I decided to tell the kids about the layout of the city of Copenhagen. Mostly, I focused on the layout of the roads.
From the edge, it’s a well planned and workable stack of common sense: sidewalk for pedestrians, bike lane (complete with tiny stoplights for cyclists), a small median (so that when the aforementioned pedestrian is in the process of crossing all sensible layers of this system, she has a place to stand), two lanes for one-way car and other vehicle traffic, another median, two lanes for two-way bus traffic, another median, then two lanes for the car and other vehicle traffic going in the opposite direction. Oh, and then another median, and then a bike lane, and then a sidewalk on the other side. And then, I noted, if Ela got it in mind in our imaginary we-live-in-Copenhagen-moment that she wanted to go to school at 7:30, she could open a little app on her phone called the Rejseplannen, and it would deliver to her the exact bus and metro route she would need to take in order to do so.
“I would love that,” Ela said.
Indeed. As I sat glumly in the carpool line for an hour yesterday afternoon, I learned that urban area grows by 1 million acres annually in the United States. Maybe someone on those transportation committees has been to Denmark, I mused, breathing in the humidity and the exhaust.
I realize, also glumly, that I am having a bit of trouble settling back into my normal life.
At work, online, in television programs, and in small talk since I have been back, the conversation and the mindset has been focused on our embroilment in a cesspool of opinion. And there is a numbing, quotidian, unmentionable dissatisfaction in the overarching status quo, sparking an endless debate on what is actually happening, and what it means. Comedians are endeavoring to explain trade to the President of the United States! Friends on social media are seriously arguing about whether climate change is real! And people still have to use every inch of bandwidth to repeatedly make the point that social justice is the pinnacle issue of our time.
It has been hard for me to adjust, and hard for me to pay attention to all of this. Slowly this morning, it occurred to me, that this is because my mind and my soul have been pre-occupied with downloading old software so that I can get comfortable back in the States. My body, and my mind, and my soul, are simultaneously resisting and seeking to re-assimilate with an oppressed state of mind.
Daggers. It is true. It is true, through and through. Of utmost importance right now is that people in my country are suffering, gravely and materially, and also that our planet is being racked beyond repair. And what is of equal importance but lesser realized, is that people in my country who aren’t suffering gravely and materially, and even those who are brave enough and comfortable enough to be actively working toward the next best thing have been forced into a constricted mindset. An oppressed mindset. Oppression. The word hit me, toxic and emphatic, like the humidity when I got off of that eight-hour flight into the east coast afternoon. Oppression. I said it out loud to myself just now, to hear its drama and its weight.
I looked it up. Oppression is normally characterized as division, as the creation of a subordinated people and thereby a hierarchy that includes privileged people. Check. It is almost always aligned with cruelty and totalitarianism, and almost always, it is called to attention by highlighting the worst of its brutal work. But what of the more subtle oppression, which creates hierarchies of dominance and of discourse, here and here and everywhere, which trickles down from the top and does not only unabashedly stomp out the least fortunate, but rather seeks to slowly and quietly erase…everyone?
Reflections are upon me now, of moments in Copenhagen when I literally could not fully process what was being said by my Scandinavian counterparts, because the everyday reality from which I come is warped by this subtle oppression. For example, when Michelin-decorated chef Niklas Ekstedt asserted that in Sweden a man is socially demoted for not being a present father, and that the government has made it possible for his family to thrive while his business also thrives, through generous parental leave, I marveled. But then, when he was discussing childcare available to business people with kids, he made the radical assertion that “The city is not just run during the day, but also at night. The government should help more,” I can recall my reaction being one of incredulity. And instead of considering what his vision might entail, my attention was occupied by how such a statement would go over in the US, where the market, and not the government, is depended on. And where the argument still rests on what makes a family, and not what makes whatever family you have able to thrive.
Take another example. After chef Dan Giusti, who cooks tens of thousands of meals for school-aged children in Connecticut and New York argued that it is more important to feed more people balanced food that also gives them joy than to feed them elevated, organic, and well-sourced food, I began discussing the complexity of his point with people in my vicinity. Only to find that his assertion felt much more radical to them, because they live in a country where climate change has been recognized, and people as well as the government have placed a priority on organic and well-sourced food as the norm.
When I shared with EU citizens and people from Hong Kong that I am a butcher, among other things, the reaction was one of less surprise than I suspected. Funny, I thought, as I made my way back from the first day of the Symposium on the metro. Where they come from, a plant-rich (not necessarily vegan or vegetarian) diet has already been accepted as the way forward. I thought it would be harder to be a butcher here. But then it occurred to me: these people already realize that in a system where animal agriculture is re-organized and re-prioritized, a butcher is indispensable.
Since returning, I haven’t run into very many people in my field of food and agriculture, but for those who have asked me how it went and what it felt like, I’ve been able to describe it quite succinctly. For many of the people I know who endeavor to change food on a daily basis, it can be difficult to explain to someone what exactly you do for a living, and all the things you are trying to accomplish on a macro level through your meager professional life. And so I have said, to the people who have asked: Imagine being in a space with 600 people from 60 countries who already get it. They’re already right there with you, ready to take the conversation to the next level. And with this, the eyes of my American colleagues widen and smiles inevitably prevail. Wow….wow. What an amazing thing. Which is exactly what it was.
It is amazing what people are capable of, and what people are doing the world over, in fact, to advance the human race into an age of consciousness and stewardship, of a fierce leveling with what kind of issues we actually face, and with the help of creative systems of integrity and support, both at the community level and beyond. And… it is equally amazing, how people capable of this kind of work can be sidelined, benched, and incapacitated by a full-scale preoccupation with division and cheap polemic. So that the starting place for thinking becomes lower than is called for, and the potential for a high jump—whether it is mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, political, scientific, etc.—is from a place of demoted energy and soured expectation. If we lose perspective on what is possible, we become our own cause of defeat. This is the oppression of the mind, and it is upon us like a fungus.
The decomposition of imagination is collective, and it's source is clear. Hannah Arendt wrote,
“The modern age, which believes that truth is neither given to nor disclosed to but produced by the human mind, has assigned, since Leibniz, mathematical, scientific, and philosophical truths to the common species of rational truth as distinguished from factual truth … we look into these matters for political rather than philosophical reasons, and hence can afford to disregard the question of what truth is, and be content to take the word in the sense in which men commonly understand it…”
Truth is under assault in our country, and as such our focus and our imagination have shifted to “saving the truth”, or at least a fraction of it. This is well worth our energy to an extent, but never mind the fact that there needs to be a certain re-defining of what is the truth, to begin with. Arendt was so lucid to observe this, so long ago, and this is why we are re-reading her work now. It hasn’t perhaps been more clear than it is today, as far as I am concerned, that our oppression is two-fold: Our progress is shrinking because we are too busy defending truths, and then some of the truth which we are endeavoring to save was really only a truth that benefited some of us anyway.
Perhaps this is the very tension that is needed to question all truths that we took for granted to begin with. Perhaps the revolution will only be successful if we learn to act from any and all levels of insanity. Fine. I’m willing to go there. But after leaving the company of my European activists, I want to name the way that this tension, however constructive it turns out to be, is perhaps blinding us from a particular freedom that we still have, and still need, to get the job done. It isn’t that I’m craving innocence. I’m craving a radical belief in the freedom of one’s own mind to invent and to serve justice.
By no means do I intend to suggest any idealism in our predicament. An activist must always face the realistic limitations of the system she opposes. And then, as Buckminster Fuller noted, try to create an alternative system that makes the other obsolete. But what is the domino effect, today, of trying to create change, and finding the society that so needs that change completely out of touch with its own condition? And then, editing the approach and trying again, only to be dashed, again? Sure, we have to keep facing the reality of our situation, but I fear that the revolution we imagine will become weaker and weaker each time, simply because of the state of our collective imagination.
I have written that the activist has to fight for the way the world should be, all the while living in the world as it is. To be revolutionary is to live in the harrowing gap in between. It seems the gap is getting bigger. And if we don’t recognize the crisis of our mental capacity to see both sides, we may lose opportunities before we knew they existed. Before solutions, we have to have the capacity to ask the proper questions.
With many more questions to come, the first for me is this: What can one do to keep his mind free?
Firstly, recognizing that one is inside of a mechanism is very helpful. To know, and to admit that we are oppressed, holds a power. And this will allow us to consistently see salt for salt, to remain mindful as we work. Thich Nhat Hanh:
“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.”
Secondly, we have to turn to the people who have known oppression all too well. To James Baldwin, to Hannah Arendt, to Martin Luther King, Bell Hooks, Paulo Friere, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, Octavia Butler, and more.
Thirdly, we must do more to understand the broken system we are fighting. In particular, careful study of the embedded bias in our economic system, the assumptions of our democracy, and the loopholes in our very fabric. Recently, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics has been clarifying for me. Dmitry Orlov writes of his experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and parallels and power structures to note here in the States. These kinds of studies remind us that no human has yet to dream up a model that works, definitively. Our condition, and any solutions we have ever created, are crushingly temporal. As our 11-year-old just copied into her school notebook, this word means they are of or related to time, as opposed to infinity.
Fouthly, we must cross borders. If we have the ability to seek counsel, take cues, and borrow ideas from fellow humans who are outside of our particular situation, we should do so. It was traveling that allowed me to understand the gravity of the vice I’ve been in, and am in, and what continually helps me to adjust the questions I am asking. Are they born of the cycle I am in? Or are they larger than that? There are always both kinds, but then, which kind is more important today?
It is not enough to simply go to work, one must absolutely also seek inspiration. If we simply go to work, we fail to see the environment in which we are working, and we may slowly fail to edit that environment into a safe and just space. We are armed with the recognition that we are, and have been for some time, falling tragically behind, in terms of our science, in terms of our systems, and yes, even in terms of our imagination. One must seek inspiration and one must also get to work. One must be doing both, with great immediacy.