5 November 2008
I spoke with my sisters this morning and Gabriella told me that David Brooks had been pontificating on one of the networks last night. It sounded like he’d been spreading a message much like one of his recent columns for the NYTimes.
In the next few years, the nation’s wealth will either stagnate or shrink. The fiscal squeeze will grow severe. There will be fiercer struggles over scarce resources, starker divisions along factional lines. The challenge for the next president will be to cushion the pain of the current recession while at the same time trying to build a solid fiscal foundation so the country can thrive at some point in the future.
We’re probably entering a period, in other words, in which smart young liberals meet a stone-cold scarcity that they do not seem to recognize or have a plan for.
So? I asked. Where does he get his history? I asked G what the biggest shift in government’s role of the past century had been. She suggested the New Deal. I agree. And when was the New Deal dealt?
At that moment the nation was severely constrained. FDR came to office facing a huge crisis and a “stone-cold scarcity” if ever there was one. But one of my mantras is that creativity is born of constraints. The very constraints that faced FDR, that face us today, may help bring forth the creative approaches to government and our problems that we need.
Let me back up a bit and explain this “creativity is born of constraint” idea.
When I was in college I spent a lot of time printing at the Pierson Press. This was a letterpress shop in an old converted racquet ball court. There I learned to set lead type by hand, picking one letter at a time out of the upper or lower cases, lock it into forms, and roll the paper across it. I loved letterpress printing, the bite of paper, the impression of type on a page, the mixing of ink, the fine control and endless possibilities, the excitement of breaking rules.
A couple years later the Mac arrived and my friend Kirk and I convinced the local Kinkos to get a few Macs one the LaserWriter and PageMaker arrived. Oh, man, endless fonts, no running out of letters, last minute changes to designs, mixing in drawings of all sorts, the flexibility and endless possibilities, the excitement of making the machine meet my imagination.
Years later I realized that I’d felt creatively freed in both situations. Each imposed severe restrictions on me. Letterpress was very unforgiving of error, setting type was difficult, the fonts and letters we had available were quite limited. Laser printing was limited by toner, black and white, only a few kinds of paper, and only a few sizes.
Yet it was within those boundaries that my creative expression was allowed to flourish. The excitement was in pressing against the edges, in feeling the tension of medium and imagination, of getting to know the tools well enough to make them work for me. I began to recognize that art was often fundamentally about this sort of artificially constrained play. We choose a medium, we immerse ourselves in it, get dirty with it, and see how we can make it serve our dreams. Most recently for me this has been a lesson I relearned with tile. The limitations of mosaic tile are severe, not the least of them, I learned, is the time it takes. When doing a job for my mom recently, I found that by embracing my extremely short timeline I opened a whole new approach to the problem that I really enjoyed.
Today I realized that this lesson, that creativity is born of constraints, applies to politics and our national endeavor as well as it does to art.
We are entering a constrained moment. In that I agree with Brooks. But where he sees scarcity, division, and struggle, I see creativity, compromise, and beautiful potential. It is at these moments where we seem most bound that we are most likely to make a leap together.
Think about it this way: When can you get people in a neighborhood together for a meeting? On a sunny day when all is well folks see endless possibilities around them, the go out for walks, they go on vacation, they go to the movies. But what if the day is drippy or the cars on the streets have all had their mirrors smashed? It is a lot easier to get people together when they are bound by some common constraints of weather or circumstance or whatever it may be. Our financial system meltdown is such a common constraint.
I believe Barack Obama will be the kind of leader we need to call us together for that national conversation. He will be pressing for the creative solutions, engaging dynamic minds, respecting the input of science. What now? Now we make the fullest possible use of the awesome constraints we have been given at this juncture in our nation’s history to rebuild our government it ways that it can serve us and our children in the coming century. There are few more exciting times to be engaged in such a call than when the environment conspires to put everybody in the same room, at the same meeting, looking for a way to break the rules, to make media meet imagination and carry us forward.
That is our next step.