Tuesday, December 13, 2011

True Intelligence is Imagination, or Why neither 'Liberal' nor 'Conservative' is a dirty word

Two of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein:

"The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination."

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

I'm a fan of pragmatism, but also of imagination. Flannery O'Connor said, "Fiction is after truth." We dream our way into the future, and hearts are rarely changed through cold logic but through the power of NARRATIVE (story), which touches the capacity of the heart -- moves us in visceral ways, not intellectual.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Inspiration and imagination are what made Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs, or Tesla, Tesla, or da Vinci, da Vinci -- or Einstein, Einstein. Logic is a tool, not our muse. Yet as always, wisdom lies in the Middle Way (to paraphrase Apollo), or the Tao. The balance. Ungrounded flights of fancy can be impractical, idealistic ideologies can be overly rigid, but too much pragmatism locks us into outworn modes of thinking (and being) in which we try to solve old problems with old thinking.

The best road is the Middle Way: conserve what works, but be progressive enough not fear change.

To find the middle path is important. There is VALUE in both political approaches -- conservative and progressive -- although I'll be honest and say (optimist that I am), I favor the balance being slightly to the progressive side ... but not at the expense of (true) conservative input. Conservatism shouldn't be confused with any religious ideology (which is too often the case in current US politics). My late maternal uncle was a died-in-the-wool conservative Republican ... and an evangelical atheist. ("Evangelical" defines a tendency, not a religion: "evangelism" means "to actively promote and proselytize a particular viewpoint." One can be "evangelical" about her work at the local humane society, or about his vegan lifestyle.)

Please note that being conservative politically need NOT equate to promoting any particular religion or set of "faith values," may even lead to condemning religion. (Ayn Rand, anybody?) In fact, towards the end of his life, my uncle was (by his own admission to me) rather horrified by the Religious Right's hijacking of "his" party. In a long phone conversation once, he told me he wasn't really a fan of Reagan, even while he liked his policies, as he saw Reagan's presidency to be the beginning of (Christian) Fundamentalist dominance of the party of Teddy Roosevelt.

I did not always agree with his (political) conclusions, but particularly as an adult, I found him interesting to talk to, as he was well-read, intelligent, observant, and thoughtful. He made excellent points. I valued his opinion, even when I didn't share it, and I found that I often agreed with his assessment of problems, just not with the best ways to solve them. He was in favor of civil rights for blacks long before it was in vogue ... and at variance not only with other Republicans, but some Democrats. I find it interesting that BOTH my mother, a progressive Democrat (b. 1924), and her brother, a conservative Republican (b. 1919), supported civil rights for blacks before it was "popular." Both had the capacity to think outside the box. By contrast, my father, who I love dearly, still has issues with a black man in the white house, even while loudly proclaiming to his conservative Republican friends, "And what's WRONG with being a liberal?!" (Keep in mind, he's 87.) I doubt most of my liberal under-30 students and friends would consider him a "liberal." Yet by the standards of HIS generation, he most certainly is. Ironically, by some modern standards, so would my uncle have been, the self-avowed conservative.

Oh, those PESKY problems of human definition! What defined "liberal" and "conservative" has changed. My father is a liberal, and my uncle was a conservative by the (political) definitions of their WWII era. The Modern Generation may idolize the Greatest Generation ... but we don't view things the same. I find it somewhat ironic that religion has infused politics far more in our era than in the supposedly more religious era of my parent's generation. Or perhaps that's WHY religion has risen to the forefront. The dominant religious culture can no longer be assumed.

People don't always fall into our neat categories of expectation, and we have to grow OUT of our preconceptions. Real, flesh-and-blood human beings don't fit well into prepackaged ideologies.

That -- IMNSHO -- is a large part of the problem in politics today. Everyone wants to SAY the right thing, not do the right thing. Because in our world of Immediate Social Media (and 30-second soundbytes that promote over-simplification) not saying the right thing will likely result in a failure to be re-elected. and the flow of information about what people DO say is picked up and magnified a hundred times over what it was only 20 years ago. The slightest slip of the tongue (on either side of the political fence), or any deviation from the consecrated political canon of one's party can -- and often does -- go viral not just by the end of the day, but sometimes by the end of the hour.

It occurs to me that Term Limits grant a certain FREEDOM. Might be wise to explore them again for both the senate and congress ...

In any case, and back to my uncle, I found that honest respect gave us a point of contact from which fruitful dialogue could begin. Down the years, I've had other friends (and family members) who held conservative political views compared to mine, but who had an open mind (rather than a dogged, ideological one). I have valued their observations and thought, even when my own assessments differed.

I can not only disagree with you and still like you, I can disagree with you and still RESPECT you.

Can you do the same for me?

Mutual respect lies at the core of the fast-becoming-lost art of Jeffersonian Debate, of which the cardinal rule is RESPECT for the opposition. To use parliamentary terminology, we can each be "The Loyal Opposition" to the other; mutual respect grants permission for reasoned dissent. And that's why the current political climate is so poisoned. Our society has elevated disrespect in the political realm (et al.) to admirable status. Far BE it from us to consider *compromise*! "Compromise" has become a dirty word. One "compromises" values, one "sells out" to the other side, one "gives in" to the opponent's demands. A wo/man of STRONG VALUES wouldn't do such a thing! No compromise = strong values = good/moral person.


That's Zero-Sum competition, not good politics.

I win. You lose.

With that sort of attitude, there's no room for discussion, so why bother?

We must come back to the center -- or we're doomed. Not just as a country, but as a world society. When compromise is seen as a moral weakness, not a necessity for a healthy democracy, civility (and civilization) is lost.

More than one psychological study has shown a link between fear of the new/change and those who self-identify as "conservative" versus those who embrace the new/change and those who self-identify as "progressives." This is hardly a surprise to those familiar with the old meaning of those terms. Truth is, sticking only with the "tried and true" gets us nowhere, while uncareful embracing of the "new" can lead right down the primrose path to well-intentioned disaster. Sometimes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is GOOD advice.

But as any decent military general, past or present, would point out, no battles are won by sticking only with what worked before. The Cyruses, the Alexanders, the Caesars, the Belisariuses, the Subutais, the Napoleons, the Tecumsehs, the Crazy Horseses ... they're innovators. THINK too much (and too long) and you lose the advantage. Rely strictly on what worked before, and you lose not just the advantage, but the battle.

"New" is not a dirty word. Nor is "progressive" -- nor even (gasp) LIBERAL. Yet the flip side requires that "conservative" can't be a dirty word, either.

It's the dreamers who will save the world. They see where we need to go. And history represents movement FORWARD. But the pragmatists will build the solid ground frame from which they can launch.

We need each other.