Becoming human, says Agustin Fuentes, author of The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional, is not simple. It’s messy, long, and difficult.
“From the start of our lives,” he writes, “we are social, reliant on others, confused, and curious. We can’t walk or talk for the first few years. It takes us at least a few decades (if not more) to get good at being humans.”
Humans are naturally drawn to co-operation and community, Fuentes, the head of Notre Dame’s Anthropology Department says, “but we each put our own individual spin on the process. We are distinctive not only as a species but also as individuals in that species.
Being creative and having such a long period of development means each of us is unique.”
And that can mean trouble, as our conflict-wracked country is learning.
Through creativity – through individual and group actions, we can reshape the landscape for the generations that come after us, he writes. Or we can fight over it.
Being creative individuals, we also quarrel, split, divide. Sometimes we go to war, literally or symbolically. Creativity shines on social media, the freest, and most individual form of communications in human history.
But it is tearing us apart as well.
There is growing evidence that the Internet and the communities it spawns are not promoting community but tribalism.
A growing number of sociologists and political scientists believe the tribalism promoted on social media, websites, and exploitive corporate media is turning Americans against one another – and especially against the principles enshrined in our founding document, the Constitution.
“Living in a society that was already diverse and pluralistic,” Gordon Wood wrote in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, the founding generation realized that the attachments uniting Americans “could not be the traditional ethnic, religious, and tribal loyalties of the Old World.” Instead, as Abraham Lincoln put it, reverence for the “Constitution and Laws” was to be America’s “political religion.” Americans were united through a new kind of patriotism—constitutional patriotism—based on ideals enshrined in their founding document.
But increasingly – and especially in new kinds of online communities that exclude diversity of thought or the idea of a common community, many Americans seem to have come to view the Constitution not as a statement of shared principles but as oppressive, a club with which to demonize and attack their enemies.
They see the constitution as an obstacle to their freedom, not a guarantee.
In many ways, that was – is – the genius of Donald Trump and his early advisers.
He went to the dark side of the digital world – where no other mainstream politician had dared to go – and captured the seething nation that was forming there. Nobody on the outside had a clue how big it had gotten or how angry and unhappy many working-class Americans were and are.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s first campaign manager, did know. And our politics change radically.
For a long time, the Constitution managed to overcome these divisions. The way it dealt with religion is revealing, wrote Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld in The Atlantic in 2018.
“Colonial America had not embraced tolerance; on the contrary, the dissenters had become persecutors. Virginia imprisoned Quakers. Massachusetts whipped Baptists. Government-established churches were common, and nonbelievers were denied basic civil and political rights. But in a radical act, the Constitution not only guaranteed religious freedom; it also declared that the United States would have no national church and no religious tests for national office. These foundational guarantees helped America avoid the religious wars that for centuries had torn apart the nations of Europe.”
But social media has eroded America’s tradition of keeping religion out of politics. Evangelical Christians are among the most political people in America.
We are in a religious war now; the Evangelicals and many conservatives now see the Constitution as a threat to their religious freedoms. So they are seeking political power to defend themselves and force their views on everyone else.
It is no longer acceptable for women to choose to have abortions or for gays and trans people to marry and possess equal rights. Thus, the movement to find judges who promote religious values rather than secularism.
They are no longer seeking diversity but domination.
Gun owners see the Constitution as protecting absolute rights to own firearms. Both the Christian nationalists and the gun owners organize and fund-raise and form communities online that are open only to themselves; there is no longer any mingling, either socially or online with anyone else.
We really do, as a nation, live in two distinctly different realities. In a sense, one could argue the most pressing issue in our country is how to deal with this divide.
Abraham Lincoln’s safe “political region” is breaking up.
The jarring reality of the November election is that we are no longer one nation with a shared value system. We are two nations or perhaps more, each using their creativity to create a different sense of reality.
Creativity challenges us to think differently, change, and listen and open up; that’s what creativity is.
But creativity, for me, isn’t just about getting everybody to agree with one another. We really do have to use our imaginations, something no other species has. That’s how we solve problems.
“Co-operation among members of a community across ages and genders from the very first day of life is our pattern,” writes Fuentes. “We have always recognized the need to cooperate with others. This pattern comprises innovation, sharing, teaching, conflict and challenge, communication and complexity, and even failure. Living as a member of the creative species is no small feat, especially today.”
My own creativity challenges me to be imaginative and imagine others’ worlds in other ways beyond agreement. The question for me is always, “why, why is this person thinking in this way, and why is it so different from me?
We assume conflict must be bad and that we have to stop it at all costs and above all things. I see it a little differently. Conflict can be as necessary in a civic sense as it is in a marriage. Conflict can bring about needed change and compromise.
I’ve always seen conflict as a kind of toilet bowl, flushing out waste and tension.
Social media are not wrecking America or destroying our constitution; our founding document is severely undercut by the government’s failure to represent the people, as they are sworn to do, and by the takeover of governmental and legislative practices by big money.
Politics hasn’t block gun control. Lobbyists and donors have. For decades, corporations and billionaires have spent vast amounts of money to promote the belief that government is too large and is a poor solution to social problems.
They dread a government that regulates, their true interest is shrinking it and crippling it.
When forty percent of the wealth is in the hands of one percent of the people, there will be plenty of rage and disconnection.
Never underestimate the power of money in politics. Not only have they taken over our political system, but they have also trained us to hate the very things that might help them – Democratic socialism is one, now demonized as dangerously un-American.
In a very literal sense, the country has been taken over, not by Donald Trump, but by giant corporations who now have the right to pour unlimited amounts of money into a political system that has been utterly corrupted.
He is the symptom, not the disease.
People feel disconnected by the government, which has abandoned them and left them to the elements. It is clear now that most of Donald Trump’s supporters are needy and struggling. No citizen can get a congressperson on the phone quicker than a lobbyist.
Just consider the drug industry. No congress has ever passed a law against it.
No bill can pass Congress that would lower drug costs because the industry won’t let it, not because people don’t want it.
Social media just might be the reason people aren’t burning down buildings in the streets, as happens in so many other countries – it might divide. Still, it is also a safety valve and a reflection of the broken bonds between the government and its people.
We can cluck about it or learn from it. This week, I saw at least a dozen mainstream media stories warning of the dangers of new and extremist websites promoting lies and falsehoods about the election.
Not one of those stories wondered why so many people flock to sites that lie when what they say they are seeking is the truth? Because they have lost faith with the government, it has drifted far away from what the Constitution really intended.
When politicians start speaking to that – and Trump did, however dishonestly, begin to speak to that – people will listen. Trump could have been a lot more dangerous than he is if he wasn’t so nasty and sick.
Demagogues rise up when governments lie to the people. The Democrats and Republicans have been lying to people for a long time now. Something is terribly wrong, and it isn’t just lying on websites on social media.
The people are weary of the way they have been treated. They are looking for alternatives; the angrier, the better. The constitution is something that is very remote to the lives of most Americans.
I really have no idea what kind of president Joe Biden will be.
If he tells the truth, as he so far has been doing, and Donald Trump loses his Twitter account (January 20, says Twitter), we’ll see over the next few months if the Founding Fathers safe and radical “political region” can be salvaged and we can start to heal our country.
But it is about creativity, from beginning to end.
For me, a chance to imagine a very different future.