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Visions of a Perfect World

Debra Trione encourages American leaders to make their visions of utopia real.

The idea of ‘America’ is the idea of a perpetually perfectible world: “a more perfect union,” states the US Constitution; “a system approaching near to perfection” announced Benjamin Franklin; “the world’s best hope,” according to Henry Cabot Lodge.

Perfectibility isn’t an idea Americans invented, of course, just one we brought down to earth. If Heaven is reachable, it’s only after death. The Garden of Eden is ancient mythology; the Peaceable Kingdom and Never-Never Land are literary con structs; and when Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, the name he chose for his imaginary ideal island is Greek for ‘no place’. But Americans made the perfect-world idea pragmatic, and over centuries have built a national identity around it. While the citizens of other countries share a common ethnicity, race or religion, Americans define themselves through their distinctions. We do not look like each other, speak the same language, or pray to the same God. But until recently at least, from sea to shining sea we have shared one rarefied presumption: that within these borders the best of what is will closely resemble the best that could be.

In his book A Visionary Nation (2001), Zachary Karabell presents the sweep of American history as a series of national efforts to chase after one, then another, perfect-world vision, as framed by a succession of idealistic leaders, including 17th century Puritans, the Founding Fathers, the Great Triumvirate, robber barons, 20th Century Progressives, on to a bevy of harbingers in our own time. “The quest for perfection has been a hallmark of American culture since a group of settlers embarked from the old world to create a City on a Hill, ” concludes Karabell.

What You See Is What You Create

It may be hard to see how such a quest animates the nation today. When I first set out to interview American leaders on their visions of an ideal world, I ran into resistance everywhere I turned. Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr, the owner and publisher of The New York Times, declined my interview request through the mail: “I’m afraid the idea of a perfect world is disturbing to me,” he wrote. “For one, I’m not sure I’d have a place in a perfect world. Secondly, I’m not sure what the role of newspapers would be if everything was going swimmingly. Everyone Wins Lotto, Again – I don’t think so.” Sulzberger’s letter was unusually frank and funny, but the sentiment it expressed was common: a perfect world? What a weird and unsettling topic!

Maybe the current discomfort with the notion of a perfect world grows from the fact that the recent past contains the most malevolent efforts ever to manufacture ideal societies at any cost – Hitler’s satanic Third Reich, Stalin’s collectivization through mass terror, and other human-rights failures of communist social engineering worldwide. Visions of utopia have so recently produced the dystopic obverse that conventional wisdom is now solidly laissez-faire: the best of all possible worlds can never be prescribed. If a more-or-less perfect world is possible at all, we can only imagine that it might emerge slowly over time, in the messy push and pull of conflicting self-interests chasing private gains in incremental ways.

Still, by asking powerful or influential individuals in politics, business and publishing to describe their perfect worlds, I hoped to get a perspective on their big-picture agendas and ideals – the most important focus of any leader, after all. I wanted even more that the bigwigs I chose would express their big-picture ideals in an uncommonly candid way. So I had to use a unique – even peculiar – interview technique.

Each interview I conducted during this five-year project began with questions so broad and unfocused that they could easily be called Rorschachesque: “Name two things you hope will be true about the world in 50 years,” I would say; and “Tell me about the kind of environment in which you thrive.” Then, when the celebrated somebody was just warming up to the subject, I would abruptly pull out a small white board, some brushes, and a colorful selection of neatly-boxed acrylic paints, while the now dumbfounded VIP stared on in disbelief. “Can you paint a picture of your ideal world? I would ask.

“I don’t even know how to think about that,” gasped ace attorney Alan Dershowitz, sitting motionless and falling silent for a full four minutes. “This is not an area of my brain that I normally call into play,” complained the editor of US News & World Report. “The last time I did this was maybe kindergarten or first grade,” protested the Chief Administrator of NASA.

Maybe they shouldn’t have been so surprised. Picturing or ‘visualizing’ a desirable outcome has become a fairly common aspect of leadership training programs. Goal visualization exercises are now also standard practice in business motivational courses, career development strategies, weight-loss clinics and Olympic sports, and all for good reason. Anyone who wants to achieve anything has to have vision for what they want to achieve. Who would follow a leader without it – someone drifting aimlessly at the whim of circumstance or chance?

It turns out that there are substantive psychological reasons to ask people with power and influence to paint their notion of an ideal world rather than sing, dance or recite poetry about it. The first such reason involves a simple truism: any image of a heartfelt desire, remembered or rehearsed, exerts a dynamic but stealth-like force which works to carry the reality described by that image into being. Compelling mental images can exert such a mysteriously powerful motivational force that they are even referred to by leading psychologists as “ghosts in the mind’s machine” ( Ghosts in the Mind’s Machine, Stephen Kosslyn, 1983). Our visions are independent operators which drive our actions and determine our direction according to their own inexorable logic. It’s worth noting that the self-realizing potency of mental images has been recognized and used widely over centuries and across cultures: it’s the muscle which activates prayers, and the inspiration behind the ancient Latin axiom Fortis imaginatio generat causum (A strong imagination begets the event).

I reasoned that if mental images are such powerful guides then the mental images of powerful people ought to be matters of public concern. I wanted the paintings I collected from the powers I interviewed to reveal something new about the ideas which might be compelling the people who control the nation. But for that to happen, the paintings had to be as perfectly sincere and spontaneous as possible – so I deliberately chose not to interview anyone known to be a good painter. Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: “What a man is begins to betray itself when his talent decreases – when he stops showing what he can do.” (Beyond Good and Evil, 1886, trans Walter Kaufmann.)

No matter how accomplished in their fields, all the leaders I chose to interview were exquisitely awkward at choosing colors and pushing paint around with a brush. I also sprang this large and ponderous assignment on each of them with very little warning, knowing full well that their harried schedules would likely cause them to spend no more than 20 minutes painting. Even considering this, not a single one of the leaders was illiterate in the language of visual communication in the same way that one can be illiterate in, say, Portuguese. They all agreed willingly and even graciously to paint. They thought hard and took the assignment seriously. And despite some awkwardness at first, nearly all of the 60 outstanding individuals I interviewed finally did find a way to visually convey an idea which had power and resonance with them. From my point of view, the fact that they failed to manipulate the paint with artful grace only makes their paintings more genuine records of their ideals.

Meanings Hidden And Revealed

Once I had collected a large number of perfect worlds verbally and visually described by American leaders, I stepped back to analyze what they meant. I had deliberately interviewed a diverse variety of people whose public personas were often diametrically at odds with each other. So it surprised me to find that a few perfect world paintings were very similar indeed. Incredibly, General H Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander of Allied Forces during the first Gulf War, and Jessica Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, painted nearly identical mountain landscapes, peopled by almost exactly the same set of stick-figures. Should we conclude from this that Schwarzkopf and Mathews harbor similar big-picture goals, even if the means by which they might propose to achieve them are somewhat contradictory? Conversely, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives and a leading advocate of women’s rights, and Patricia Ireland, long-time president of the National Organisation for women – two ideologically similar champions of the political Left – painted two radically different images of a perfect world. Go figure.

As a whole, the variety and range of the answers and images generated from these interviews was huge. Some wanted to talk about the best of all possible futures; others remembered a simpler, more Arcadian past. Some described and drew from their personal experience; others pictured more global or abstract themes. For some, a single image sprang immediately to mind. Sometimes that picture was of a particular place and time – a single moment that embodied perfection like a jewel. I had imagined that all of them would broaden their perspective and see the forest for the trees, but many collapsed the rarefied notion of an ideal world down into some supersaturated essence, and then cast about for a graphic way to describe that essence whole. Some scribbled the trajectory of desirable changes they wanted to see occur. Still others pictured a landscape of favorite things; an eclectically-assembled perfect-world pastiche.

I began to make sense of this diversity by comparing how each individual verbally described a perfect world with how the same person painted it. Several recurring themes ran throughout the verbal descriptions: peace, racial harmony, population stabilization, a need to narrow the gap between rich and poor and to value education more. A somewhat different set of leitmotifs wove throughout the pictures.

Many leaders painted a visual environment that was meaningful or beautiful to them for personal or sentimental reasons. Their verbal descriptions of that world tended to focus on more general, often abstract, themes. The paintings seem to answer the question ‘what would a perfect world look like?’, while the verbal descriptions answer ‘how would such a world operate?’ There were a few exceptions to this general rule, notably the painting done by Knight Kiplinger, respected economic journalist and business forecaster, which pictured a large-scale social phenomenon he wanted to see develop.

Nature cropped up much more frequently in the paintings than in the verbal descriptions. Does this mean many leaders are closet environmentalists, or does it simply reflect the fact that nature is easier to paint than a complex urban environment? Baffled, I called on psychologist Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He’s the author of The Language Instinct (1994) and How the Mind Works (1997), and is a leading expert on language and visual communication. Professor Pinker offered a different explanation: “I think that a deep part of human nature feels most at peace in a particular natural environment – one with greenery, with open areas punctuated by trees, with water and animals. That’s the habitat our species evolved in, and it extends itself into our brain. In the biblical story we came from the Garden of Eden and in the visions of a number of your respondents there’s an eco-paradise that may be the kind of environment in which our species feels happiest, and that people use to symbolize an ideal world. ”

Pinker also noted that many of the verbal descriptions began paradoxically with a statement about the most dire problems in the world today. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began: “I hope we leave behind us some of the terrible baggage of this last century in terms of Communism, Nazism, and all kinds of authoritarianism. The twentieth century from beginning to end was a bloody mess in terms of human rights. ” William Kristol, Editor of The Weekly Standard said, “We now have a society that’s lost the notion that there are objective rights and wrongs. And on the other hand we have all this scientific progress. I think the two together are quite dangerous. ” Paul Krugman, Princeton’s winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for economics and New York Times columnist began: “The worst thing about today’s world is that there is actually a fourth world; countries where there is no hope at all, nothing is moving forward, and where no-one is participating in economic progress. ”

Of course, all the leaders went on to explain that their perfect world would be one without the dire problems they described. But, as Pinker pointed out, a negative approach to thinking about a perfect world cannot work in a visual medium: “Concepts like the absence of something are impossible to draw unambiguously,” he explained. “A room with no giraffe in it is identical to a room with no elephant in it, or no cockroaches in it. ” So to describe a perfect world using paint, you have to depict something positive.

This underlines the truth Marshall McLuhan preached so long ago: medium matters. Each medium conveys its own category of understanding in its own vocabulary, with its own endemic set of weaknesses and strengths. Surely, it’s important to know what our leaders really value, what their notion of a perfect world is, and where they truly want to take us. Important enough that we should insist on seeing how they describe those things in more than just words.

© Debra Trione 2008

The full range of verbally and visually described perfect worlds are collected in Debra Trione’s book A Perfect World: Words and Paintings from Over 50 of America’s Most Powerful People (Andrews McMeel, 2002), available from the website perfectworldbook.com or directly from the author: dtrione@rochester.rr.com.

Who Invented Utopia

The word Utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the English writer, statesman and Lord Chancellor executed for refusing to recognize Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. Utopia was the title of a book which he wrote in 1516. It is a novel in which a traveller discovers an island where society is arranged in a perfectly ordered and reasonable way. There is no private property and there is a great measure of religious toleration (though this toleration doesn’t extend to atheists). Society on the island is very hierarchical and is based on a kind of Biblical communalism. By drawing contrasts with the ‘ideal society’ of Utopia, More was able to safely criticise the European nations of his own day, He was very influenced by Plato’s Republic, to which he refers a number of times in the novel. The name More invented for the island was a Greek pun – it comes from both ou-topos (‘no place’) and eu-topos (‘good place’) Some see the whole book as a satire.


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