Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Civilized Society from the Citizen Up

~ Feb 15, 2010: President’s Day ~

Like sudsy spume on a sandy beach, my recent reading has tossed up a couple of interesting comments about solitude, independent thought, and civilized society. I scrawled the quotes on little scraps of paper and they have been lying loose on the coffee table for weeks. It’s time to look them over one more time and then clean off the coffee table.

The first one is from a letter written in the late 1920s by the Englishwoman Vera Brittain (First World War–nurse, pacifist, socialist, and author of the heart-wrenching Testament of Youth) to her best friend Winifred Holtby (novelist, journalist, and fellow pacifist). Miss Brittain was visiting the U.S. for the first time, and she is telling Miss Holtby what she thinks of America:

“America is a civilization whose members spend all their energy in adapting themselves to each other and on the whole they succeed very well — I never met so many people with such a fear of originality, solitude and independent thought.”

Originality and independent thought do not thrive in the herd; they require solitude, and I think Americans are even more afraid of solitude today than they were when Miss Brittain wrote that sentence. Perhaps we are more afraid of it today because even less of it is available, and more effort is required to find it. Solitude requires turning off the television and radio, not checking email, not twittering, not texting, not telephoning, not being somewhere with piped-in music and always-on television screens. These days, solitude requires decision and a detour.

It’s a suspect decision, too. The message in our everyday air is that solitude means nobody likes us and that, if we move from one minute to the next under our own steam we’ll make a mistake or “miss” something. Life in herd mode is safer; regression to the mean is easier.

My second scrap of paper quotes Jane Addams, from her book, The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, published in 1930. Jane Addams was also a pacifist. She founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (still in existence) and opposed U.S. entry into the First World War. As a result, she lost most of the public good will that her Chicago settlement house work had gained her. Gradually, after the war, people calmed down and she was feted nationwide when she became the first U.S. woman to win a Nobel Prize (ironically, for peace) in 1931.

Miss Addams makes this statement:

“The patriotism of the modern state must be based not upon a consciousness of homogeneity but upon a respect for variation, not upon inherited memory but upon trained imagination.”

Wow! That wakes me up nicely. Although we exist in social groups, our families, societies and nations won’t succeed if their members all the same; they will succeed only if our differences are appreciated! Patriotism is not about using the past to constrain the future, but about using our variations to enlarge the future!

“A trained imagination.” I love that concept. Imagination requires independent thought — imagination develops in solitude like film develops in darkness. A person can’t find her imagination, let alone train it, in the midst of our saturated, attention-demanding, noisy, instantly-reacting world.

I like how these two quotes move us from individual choices to social and political choices and back again. They aren’t separable: civilized life requires independent thought, which requires solitude. Civilized society requires tolerance, which requires imagination, which takes us back to independent thought, which takes us right back to solitude.

[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for Reforms of All Kind]

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