Why The Imagined Thing?

The Imagined Thing.  I suppose this site has a somewhat unusual name.  I suppose that it’s unusual enough to merit a few moments to explain from whence it came.

One of my favorite columnists to read is Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I check his author page at The Atlantic literally every single morning.  Those of you who follow him know how pitiful that is.  He generally writes earth-shattering 20,000 word cover-stories for them once a year and blogs in fits and spurts; three pieces in three days and then nothing for a couple months.  It makes for lots of hopeful clicking and frequent despair as the page refreshes.

In January of 2016, Coates wrote an essay about Bernie Sanders.  He was criticizing Sanders for his failure to articulate a big sweeping vision for racial justice in the same way that he did for the social safety net.  I won’t dwell on the politics here because they aren’t really the point (and I plan to dwell on them at length in the future).

In his (fairly unsparing) critique, Coates argued that when change was desirable, it required someone somewhere to articulate a vision for what that change would be.  Tinkering at the margins was only useful in service of the larger vision.  By itself it was incoherent or, in Coates’s words, “evasion.”  

Coates argues for self-reflection, for advocating controversial policy, and for making change wherever possible.  But at the core of his critique, he states simply that “hope still lies in the imagined thing.”  He argues that the effort to imagine a better world and to describe it are the indispensable first steps toward making change.  The better world we each imagine probably differs from that of others, but it’s hard to know how they differ – and more importantly, how they are similar – until we describe them.

I believe that writing about things helps me to understand them.  I believe that understanding another idea or another person better prepares me better to argue.  I believe that arguing with someone helps me better understand my own ideas (and theirs).

This past two years were disheartening for so many more visceral and immediately important reasons, but one thing that has stayed with me is the utter dilapidation of our discourse.  People with nothing to say yell the loudest.  Those with plenty to say are crowded out into silence.  For more reasons than I can enumerate, our conversations are a mess.

This is important because I imagine a country where the sick and the poor are cared for; where immigrants and religious minorities are loved and accepted.  We don’t live in that country and that is, in large part, because our ability to converse is in catastrophic disrepair.  And people like myself are in worse shape than those we seek to oppose, in large part, because our arguments are harder to make concrete.

Fear, anger, and hate are simple.  A country that revolves around and reacts to those emotions is easy to describe.  We want to be far from those we fear.  We take from those we hate.  We ignore those at whom we are angry.  Translating those phrases into action takes little effort and the emotion does the rest.  Responsibility and compassion are different and infinitely more complex and abstract.

What is caring for an immigrant in concrete terms?  The feeling itself is only the most rudimentary start.  What is loving a religious minority or an ideological opponent?  How does a country of millions reflect compassion for the poor or the sick?  More important, still, is the broader vision.  A society built on fear or hate or disinterest simply ignores or relocates those people.  What does a society built on compassion and mutual responsibility look like?  These questions are complex and frankly I have only fragments of any idea how to answer them.  But the first step is to find those who are asking themselves the same questions and explore them together.

The goal of this project is to engage anyone and everyone who may have something to say.  For those of you unsure of where to start, I will do my very best to prompt you with ideas.  For those of you unsure of how to push further, I will attempt to push you.  For those of you looking for a place to air your ideas, I want this to be that place.  For those of you with questions to pose, I want to help you ask them.  But hope still lies in the imagined thing.  More than anything this is a challenge for you to imagine a thing and describe it.