Monday, July 04, 2005

Independence and creativity of mind: links

Has anyone read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America since college? I intended to last year, while S. was studying U.S. government, but kept putting it off. Smithsonian Magazine celebrates Tocqueville's 200th birthday this month, and Clell Bryant's article has whetted my desire to dip back into this work:

Few nations can muster the unity of Americans in times of crisis, as was
shown in the aftermath of 9/11. But Tocqueville found another side to that
unity. In America, he noted, "the majority erects a formidable barrier around
thought. Within the limits thus laid down, the writer is free, but woe unto him
who dares to venture beyond those limits....He must face all sorts of
unpleasantness and daily persecution....In the end, he gives in, he bends under
the burden of such unremitting effort and retreats into silence, as if he felt
remorse for having spoken the truth." (One thinks of the vitriolic attacks on
the writer Susan Sontag for suggesting that the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards,
and deploring the "unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric
spouted by American officials and media commentators.")

Indeed, the landscape has perennially been littered with politicians
who could attest to the truth of Tocqueville's insight, from Barry Goldwater in
1964 to Howard Dean in 2004. But some things do change: Tocqueville would have
been amazed at the blogosphere, where absolutely nobody retreats into
silence.

Still, to Americans accustomed to celebrating their independence and
freedom, it must come as a stinging surprise to read Tocqueville's observation
that he knew "of no country where there is in general less independence of mind
and true freedom of discussion than in America." Of course, in the 1830s, a
pro-emancipation visitor might have hesitated to express his views in the U.S.
South. But there are places in the United States today where one might hesitate
to voice loudly an unpopular opinion; what with today's partisan divide,
red-state views are seldom heard in blue states.

I've never seen In Character before the current Creativity Issue, but the periodical examines one virtue per issue from various perspectives. Sharon Begley's article on "What's Behind the Creative Mind?" is fascinating:

"Based on what scientists are learning about the creative process, it seems safe to say that cultivating creativity begins with amassing knowledge and experience. Read widely, live life fully, engage with as many knowledgeable people as you can and you will increase the number of facts and memories available to be recombined into novel thoughts and ideas. If you can will your mind to consider seemingly ridiculous juxtapositions, you will be doing what creative people seem to do effortlessly. If you can encourage your brain to hopscotch among its memory stores, you will be more likely to hit upon a novel, original idea – at which point you can tap your judgment and experience to distinguish between winners such as combining hazelnuts with coffee and losers such as sauerkraut à la mode."

Why do we still concern ourselves with John-Paul Sartre? Ronald Aronson tells us why:

One response, often associated with the political right, claims that we are
completely responsible for virtually everything that befalls us. Another, the
most conventional of left-wing replies, is that social conditions shape and
determine who we become. After beginning by contributing the strongest argument
of the 20th century to the side of the dilemma stressing total human freedom,
Sartre went on to explore the social, economic and psychic conditions under
which we exercise our freedom. Yes, he would say, we do make ourselves - but the
situation within which we do, and even the terms in which we do so, are imposed
on us and generally remain beyond our control.

Sartre made clear that the whole truth lies with both sides taken
together. And then, in works like his biography of Gustave Flaubert, he went on
to demonstrate precisely how an individual creates himself from what his social
class and family situation have made him to be. Like no one else, he gave their
due both to freedom and to determinism. Like no one else, he sought to
understand exactly what it means to be responsible.

This suggests another reason for Sartre's continued salience - his
irritating and annoying claims themselves. Sartre teaches that we are constantly
tempted to escape our responsibility for creating ourselves from what we have
been made - there is something comforting, after all, in feeling that things are
beyond our control. But, as he also teaches, to accept this is to enter into
complicity with the powers that would dominate us. Sartre demands that we see
ourselves as active agents, even when we might prefer the irresponsibility of
seeing ourselves as victims.

Today Sartre is still as troubling and annoying as ever. He demands
that we see a world seemingly out of control as made up of human choices and the
structures these create. When he demands that we take responsibility for our
lives, for the shape of our world, for the situation of the least favored - for
others as well as ourselves - he is expressing decisively important conditions
for learning to live as responsible citizens in this globalized world. This is
no outmoded radicalism, but the message of one of the most challenging and
contemporary philosophies.

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