Rising Creek Digressions IX – a (mostly) weekly bucolic blog by tim Hare
I’m over a week late and perhaps a bit unoriginal in terms of themes for a blog around the 4th of July, but I felt it as good a time as any to shamelessly and courageously delve into the roots of independence.
Traditions change over time, and often their origins are forgotten. So let’s think back to the origins of our independence day. During the century leading up to July Fourth, 1776, the Enlightenment had cracked open a wave of radical thinking in the West that led ordinary folks to think more freely. Independence was coming in different forms and functions – independence from tyranny, independence from the ruling elite, or personal independence in the form of freethinking. Some cite the printing press as the impetus for the first Enlightenment in Europe. For the first time in history, common people had access to knowledge, quickly heard about new and radical ideas, and could participate in deep and important philosophical debates en masse. Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s principle author, was steeped in Enlightenment thought, and philosophies then, as now, moved across oceans.
The Enlightenment was one of the most important periods in western history. No, not because America gained its independence at its close, but because individuals in America, and many other places in Europe at about the same time, were finally being encouraged to have political and social agency, and to shape their own future. Once manifest politically, many were offered inalienable rights and the power of the vote. At least on paper in the USA once the Constitution was then written, they were also allowed to think, speak, and live freely (as long as they were white, land-owning, and male, but that is a different conversation).
The Enlightenment had a number of downsides as well, but history’s changes have consistently been flawed. One of the more persistent failures of it has been that it set the focus on the head over the heart, which has been damaging to both culture and environment through reductionism and specialization (which, like most negatives, also had their positives). But in one sense the main agenda of Enlightenment philosophers was to open individuals to engage their own intelligence and have their own agency. They trusted the individual’s ability to reason and use their heads.
Independent thought has often been considered dangerous, both then and now. But consider divergent thinking as a type of independent thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to see multiple routes to the same destination (or to be able to envision an entirely different destination altogether), or multiple uses for one object, rather than just one pre-determined route or use. This is the foundation of creativity, and creativity is exactly what is needed to shape a viable future.
Let’s consider the present. Information (and misinformation) is being spread at an amazingly rapid rate. The Internet is a kind of modern equivalent of the printing press. It is like a printing press blessed with a magic wand – it makes things bubble, sizzle, and turn to magic dust that is whisked away in the ether to emerge in 1,030,862 other “hits” in seconds. Want to build a chicken coop? YouTube it. Want to learn about intercropping on Andean terraces, or particle accelerators? You get the idea. Humans are learning a lot, about a lot of different things – and fast. But, more importantly, they are sharing their successes and failures with one-another, and by using this collective information, more and more people are able to branch out into divergent modes of being and thinking. It is too early to determine whether we are becoming smarter, as our phones tries to convince us, but at the very least we can say that something is happening to our intelligence.
What does this have to do with the USA’s independence? Well, (North)Americans have been known to have a sense of optimism, and a good, hefty laugh, albeit feigned or awkward at times. So in our finer moment’s we tend to expect a better future. We were also one of the first modern federalist states, wherein smaller, local governance is allowed and granted a level of autonomy within the national sphere. This allows for a fair bit if independent decision making for communities, although the leash has been shortened since our country’s founding. This may be the most important element in shaping our future – declaring community independence once again. An Independence Day for the modern world in which our national government, military, banks, and outrageously bloated corporations feel, well, too far away for us to really trust or lean on when we need them. And the vast majority of things that are important in day-to-day life could be left to sort out amongst neighbors – from what we buy, to what we eat, to what we do with available land. Consider the emergence of local and urban agriculture, community-based schools, local currency, or local energy grids. These are divergent ideas from divergent minds, acting creatively about a new kind of independence that gives primacy to the interdependence of all aspects of life in all corners of the planet. And this could be all the more possible with the ballooning access to information.
The Farmette has had interesting experiences with these themes recently, from Joel Salatin’s visit last fall (www.polyfacefarms.com), to the Democracy School’s workshops this winter (www.celdf.org/democracy-school), to a visit from Boulder’s Unreasonable Institute fellows (www.unreasonableinstitute.org). These are each examples of a new kind of independence in which individuals and communities take more agency in shaping their future, revisiting a few of the more nobler Enlightenment ideals such as the use of freethinking and creativity in place of fear.