“Imagination,” Einstein said, “is more important than knowledge.”
When the Queen asked her fancy-pants economists why they did not see the Crash of 2008 coming, they took a few days to answer. Finally, they said it had been a “failure of imagination.” You would think the West would have pulled itself up and fixed its imagination deficit, but no, it went right back to number-crunching business as usual.
And right back to some sort of bizarre replays of WWII heroics in conflicts, large and small, all over the world. The saying goes that generals always fight the last war (instead of the current one)-and that would have to be attributed to a failure of imagination. Meanwhile, China is making stuff and making deals and following Napoleon’s advice: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is busy destroying himself.” I’ve been keeping an eye on China for some time and I am not at all sure they consider other countries to be their “enemies” so much as they are firmly convinced that China is great.
And they appear to value imagination, because they can imagine a different world and communicate that vision. China is building new currency structures, new development banks and high speed railways and energy pipelines all over Eurasia. They make deals, not wars and they don’t try to make the country they are dealing with over in their own image.
And guess what? Countries like this better than overt invasion or covert regime change, which is the US method of “making deals.”
Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar, who lives in China when he’s not on the road, points out that in Chinese culture, their plan can be expressed by one character: “jie” which means (to introduce, between) It is four strokes of a brush, representing the roof of a house, their two planned New Silk Roads on the sides and space inside to meet.
To Americans, jie is a house with a wall in need of repair. Because we lack imagination. And so the Angel of History is caught up in the gale and moves on. The Angel of History is Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” The angel is looking back at what might have been, but the wind of change is blowing it on into the future.
Of course Americans have as much innate imagination as any humans, it’s just that imagination is not valued in our materialistic culture. It’s not real, tangible, number-crunchable. Imagination is all right for toddlers, but grownups should leave all that behind and build hardware and tanks and bombs and calculate cost-benefit analyses.
Well, we will never be Chinese and will never see the world the way they see it. But we could still use our imagination, we could still dream a better world, a different way of doing things, lest the Angel of History blows away eastward.