Monday, July 8, 2013

Leadership and the Moral Imagination, a snippit.

 Here is a snippet from my talk tonight on leadership and the moral imagination to students of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

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The phrase "moral imagination" is from that great 18th century British parliamentarian Edmund Burke in his  Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Attacking the French Revolution, he wrote the following difficult but very insightful paragraph:

       "All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.  All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion."


Now . . .
furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination. . .  What on earth does that mean?  I read Russell Kirks essays on the topic.  I read and reread Burkes language.

Maybe I am not as smart as most, but I know I wrestled with this concept on and off for a decade or more before it finally started to make sense to me.  It was like one of those lizards you grab at and think you caught and then it scampers out of your fingers and you are left with just the decoupled tail.

I dont have time this morning to give you a full treatment of the topic of imagination or that particular variant called the MORAL IMAGINATION.  I dont have time this morning to explore all the intricacies of the argument or what I have learned about it all in the last decade.  Instead, I want to offer a few thoughts to set up a couple of the ways I have come to think of the power and importance of IMAGINATION and particularly of what I think is the essential link between imagination and LEADERSHIP.

My own eureka moment came when reading Robert Penn Warrens Pulitzer prize winning novel All the Kings Men, a book I highly recommend to you. It is mandatory reading for my leadership students. There is a scene in that book that rocked me back on my heels.  To boil it down, the scene had one man (Jack) changing another mans mind (Dr. Stanton) and convincing him to do what Jack wanted him to do.  (That is, jack was exercising leadership).  When asked how he did it, Jack said that he changed the pictures in Dr. Stantons head.
You see, he didnt give him a better argument.  He didnt threaten or bribe him.  Those tactics wouldnt work with a man of such integrity as Dr. Stanton and he knew it.  He changed the pictures in the Dr.s head and that was sufficient.
This insight, that we might be driven in our actions, not so much by cold, calculating reason but by the pictures in our head, forms an essential foundation of what I want to talk to you about today.
I have become convinced, we are all governed by the pictures in your heads.  We are sad or happy, successful or a failure, well-adjusted or an outcast, Christian or pagan largely because of the pictures we carry around in our heads.  They are essential to who we are. 
We all carry pictures around with us from all sorts of places: parents, teachers, loved ones, movies, music, classmates, church, books. 
       If you are a conservative, you probably carry around with you certain pictures of things you want to conserve and find true and others you find false and maybe even dangerous.  More on that as the week progresses.
So, back to my more general point; these pictures, in other words, are what inhabit our imagination.
It is those pictures that govern our lives.  It is our imaginations that rule our world.
We cant get any further than the pictures in our heads allow us to go.  We cant do anything that the pictures in our heads tell us we cant. 
And so you might now start to see the genius of Dr. Kirks friend who claimed we could reform our politics by infusing poets into the process as advisors to our leaders. 
Our political figures are governed in their actions no less by the pictures in their heads and the quality of their imaginations, than are we.
It was a twisted and diabolic imagination that made possible Nazi Rule.
It was the idyllic imagination that made possible the terrors of the French Revolution and the excesses of 20th century communism.
Think of the differences in public policy decisions made by a political leader who had visions of America as one huge secular empire.  And another whose vision of America at its best is that of a republic of small republics who worship as communities and raise families according to shared values. What divergent decisions those two would make!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Genesis--The Power of Ideas

 A Review of Genesis by Bernard Beckett
By Gary Gregg, PhD
McConnell Center Director

What does it mean to be human? In one way or another almost every great piece of literature–from Homer's Odyssey to Shakespeare's Hamlet to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings–asks this basic question. Few authors are as overt in their raising this question than is Bernard Beckett in his 2006 novel Genesis (Mariner Books).
I recently picked up this slim volume because a friend suggested it as a modern companion to Plato's Republic.  Though what I found in the pages was not at all what I had expected from the description given, I did find a good read that raises profound questions for our age of the machine and the growing science of genetics. And, the final twists of the plot were worth every moment.
The book takes place in a post-apocalyptic age. A plague has decimated the population of the planet except for a small island-nation led by a man who calls himself Plato. Plato builds a sea wall to protect his people from the carriers of the plague and then proceeds to build a society remarkably like the Republic that sprang from the imagination of the great Greek thinker 2,500 years ago. The Republic's motto is "Forward toward the past" and its version of conservatism manifests itself in the platonic vision that change means decay. The classes of society are divided into philosophers, soldiers, technicians and laborers. 
The key moment in the downfall of the Republic comes with the discovery that the laboring class would be the key source of instability. To deal with this situation, the leaders reason, they must do away with labor so no human being finds themselves at the bottom.  To that end, they build labor- saving machines and continue in their experiments to perfect their machines by making them capable of artificial intelligence.
But if a machine can be developed with artificial intelligence–with the ability to learn, mimic, change and evolve as it interacts with its environment (like human babies interacting with their parents), what sets it apart from being considered a human being? This, perhaps, is the key question of the novel and unfolds as a series of interactions between a robot dressed as an orangutan and a human rebel whose crime was to save an innocent girl adrift on the sea by killing one a fellow soldier who, under orders, was about to kill her.
Beckett wrote the novel while he was on a science fellowship exploring DNA mutations and one can see the application he was making of applying our understanding of DNA to that basic question of what makes us human.
What does make us human? Is it being self-conscious? Being able to imagine and create? Being created in the image of God? Suffering from Original Sin? Having a soul? A certain particular pattern in our DNA? Amidst all we can do with machines, is there something that is ultimately non-transferable from our species? 
In 1948, Richard M. Weaver published a book called Ideas Have Consequences. In that important book, Weaver showed the origins of modernity and also gave us a very handy phrase with which to understand the power of ideas. In Genesis, Beckett gives us a short novel whose basic thrust is to imaginatively demonstrate his conception of the incredible power of ideas. Ideas, one of his characters argues, are all that hold us together. They bind person to person into communities. But, what is more, rather than understanding ideas to be the creations of individual human beings, he creates a picture of ideas as being outside forces which invade and colonize individual minds. They are like microbes transmitted from host to new brain, occasionally mutating in order to survive in their new environment.  
What if being human, Beckett seems to want us to ask, is just to have been colonized by a certain set of particular ideas? What if those ideas are best expressed, perhaps, in the first book of the Bible which Beckett takes for his own title? What if, then, those ideas can jump from organic intelligence to colonize artificial intelligence, too? Or, what if those ideas, like all living things, can die away in a culture that neglects them or actively assaults them?
Genesis is a slim volume and worth the time, thought and reaction it might provoke. In our age no less than any other and perhaps more, we must continue to seek wisdom about what it means to be human.

Gary L. Gregg II is the author or editor of ten books including his young adult novels The Sporran and The Iona Conspiracy.

Russell Kirk's Founders and the Unwritten Constitution




2013 is the 60th anniversary of the publication of one of the most consequential books of the 20th century.  I am privileged to have been asked to contribute to a number of forums this year discussing Kirk and his work and am particularly thankful to Liberty Fund and Richard Reinsch for inviting me to contribute to this one.  As I considered what I would write and thumbed through The Conservative Mind, I hit upon some things I had never spent time thinking about and my essay represents one strand of that new thought on Kirk's ideas.

I hope you enjoy this section of my essay and will read the full version at the website listed at the bottom.

The Conservative Mind at 60: Russell Kirk’s Unwritten Constitutionalism
A consideration of Kirk’s founders, both missing and rediscovered, lead us to an understanding of Kirk’s conservatism that would surprise many who consider themselves contemporary heirs of the movement he helped found.  Kirk is concerned with institutions, including those of the U.S. Constitution, to the degree that they are aligned with two more critical under girding phenomena: human nature and political culture.

Throughout The Conservative Mind, authors and statesmen are upheld to the degree that their understanding of human nature is in accordance with the inherited vision of Judeo-Christian revelation and human experience.  Human beings are flawed, incapable of perfection, and suffer profoundly from original sin.  To the degree that political institutions are structured to account for this overriding fact and meliorate its most negative consequences, they are found to be worthy of praise.  Here the United States’ Constitution is good as it rests on just this basic understanding and accounts for the corruption of power by separated and checked institutions.

Though John Adams fought hard against the philosophes and their abstract accounts of human nature untethered to imperfectability, he admitted some degree of change possible within the human species.  Such change is manifest in the political culture.  As the virtues, values and ideas of a people change so will their political prospects, making any constitution only as useful or as pernicious as the culture that underpins it.  Of course, with Adams and all of Kirk’s conservative minds, any change is bounded by the fact that we are created somewhere between the beasts and the angels and are destined to always stay in that zone of humanity.

To understand and learn from Russell Kirk’s magnum opus, then, we must understand an overriding fact of human existence: sin and culture trump politics and planning. This is why Kirk, unlike so many contemporary conservatives, point us in the direction of the poets and not the politicians; the unwritten more than to the written constitution.  It is in this way that we might more properly consider our “founders,” not the framers of the Constitution in 1787 but those who shaped the minds and imaginations of the culture that produced it.  The Constitution of 1787 will survive as something more than parchment only to the degree that it is supported by the prevailing political culture of America.