Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The absence of imagination

What's driving preservationist reaction isn't expedience, per se, it is the absence of imagination.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do we live in a time of pygmies?

Gideon Rachman had an interesting column in the Financial Times, wondering whether we live in a time bereft of intellectual giants.

Compare these lists, he created, of "greats" living in 1861, 1939 and 2011:

Darwin, Marx, Dickens,

John Stuart Mill, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky
Lincoln, Gladstone, Bismarck and Garibaldi

Einstein, Keynes, TS Eliot, Picasso, Freud, 
Gandhi, Orwell, Churchill, Hayek, Sartre

Nouriel Roubini, Joseph Stiglitz, Christopher Hitchens, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Mandelbaum, Maria Vargas Llosa, Abdolkarim Soroush, Hu Shuli, Jacques Attali

Even allowing for historical perspective to have done its job of sorting out, it is kind of startling to realize how few are the giants, if any.  And, what does that say of the quality and relevance of intellectual life in politics, economics, or literature?

Think about it in terms of the previous post: the lack of imagination we bring to bear to the problems of a collapsing system.

Mr. Rachman suggests that it may be that it may be largely a matter of heroic narratives of the individual being supplanted by what are, now, large, networked collaborations.  Christopher Columbus v. Neal Armstrong, so to speak.

I think it may also be that we fail to see the acceleration of technical progress, because we don't seem to need new concepts -- we can re-use the old ones.  My great-great-grandfather saw the coming of the railroad, the telegraph, the steamship, cheap steel, cheap oil, cheap newspapers, and the industrial corporation.  Each was a novelty.  My grandmother saw, in her lifetime, the telephone, the airplane, the automobile, the movies, radio and television, electrical light and electrical appliances, the zipper and velcro.  Each was a novelty.

That progress continues and accelerates, but the conceptual novelties are absent: cellphones are still phones.  The only reason I know that progress is accelerating is because things are disappearing.  The telegraph is gone.  The newspaper may soon be gone.  The phonograph.  Film cameras.  The letter.  Bank checks.  Books?  My generation is measuring technical progress by the disappearance of things.

We are at the end of things, in many ways, and progress by disappearance accentuates that experience.  It doesn't promote a vision of what is to come.

In the Lee of the Storm: A Lack of Imagination

The Perfect Storm came and went two years ago, and the System that failed, was preserved and stumbles onward.  It is difficult to know what to make of this failure to make good use of failure.

One thought is that politicians are "sell-outs" to the plutocracy.  Lots of truth in that, I suppose, but it seems to be a bit of a buyers' market. “Sell-out” was a real category, circa 1965; there were actually people imagining better, and selling out, then.  Not now.

Between grief and nothing, I’ll take grief, says the resigned cynic.

The preservationist instinct is born of a deep lack of imagination, as well as the absence of moral integrity.
Facing the collapse of a system that was manifestly not-really-working for quite some time, and to respond by trying to preserve and restore it, as if imagining and building an alternative that actually works, is beyond our poor powers — whatever that is, is certainly distressing, but it is not fully captured in the phrase, “selling-out”.

We are so far, now, from the visionaries, who were the architects of the systems now crumbling about us, that we act almost like children, whose faith in the constancy of their environment is built on one-part ignorance of the young, and one-part neurotic compulsion to deny the obvious risks. This generation of leaders has had no idea that they were creating crisis, with their neo-liberal (or neo-conservative) magical incantations. And, the crisis comes, and they have no idea how to make use of the crisis. They don’t see themselves as responsible for the immediate past, or the immediate future; they are just along for the ride, but these things happen, and we do the best in the circumstances, and we should strive to be prepared to do better, the next time something like this happens, as it inevitably (nod sagely) will. Things happen, and these leaders see their job as coping and reacting and patching things together — it is a childlike response in many ways, the response of a creature with little sense of control or power.
In the short run, it may be rewarded by more than just gratuities from the grateful, plutocratic winners. A large body of reactionaries of more modest means but greater numbers (at least in the U.S.) lack the imagination to reward creative restructuring reliably. They are preoccupied by their resentment at lacking the opportunity to continue in the pursuit of the oil-fueled pursuit of the American dream, classic distant suburb edition. The ex-urb SUV driver resents mass transit, CFL light fixtures, global warming and hates $3/g gas and liberals.

We lack the imagination to conceive of better institutions, both at the leadership level and at the followership level. Politicians are genuinely afraid of the power and responsibility that comes with architectural design, and not just petty, piecemeal reform. And, they are, of course, afraid of making acute and immediate enemies, in exchange for dubious and resentful and mournful friends: breaking the old system will make break someone’s yolk, and that someone will know who did him harm; founding a new system will lead a lot of people into a period of mourning for what was lost, which may go on for quite a while, before any joy can be felt in the new.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What Happened? was shutdown by the Google bots as a spam blog, and despite many requests to restore it, I've heard nothing from Google to indicate that a human has reviewed that decision, or ever will review it.

I did have a backup, through August, and have restored that, here.  Still, I feel the loss, though I had posted only sporadically, of late.

I'd really like to know what prompted Google's actions.

At the time the blog was taken down, I also lost access to my email account, which had to be re-verified.  But, again, I have no clue what about my blog would cause the bots to think it was a spam blog, or what triggered Google to want to verify the legitimacy of my email address.