Imagine That.

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I wrote this blurb about Imagination one year ago, in Things Fall Apart (Part 3) – Markets. I’m leading with it in this note because I want to show you the power of framing.

In the Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman, Dream of the Endless must play the Oldest Game with a demon Archduke of Hell to recover some items that were stolen from him. What is the Oldest Game? It’s a battle of wits and words. You see it all the time in mythology as a challenge of riddles; Gaiman depicts it as a battle of verbal imagery and metaphors.

Here’s the money quote from Gaiman:

“There are many ways to lose the Oldest Game. Failure of nerve, hesitation, being unable to shift into a defensive shape. Lack of imagination.”

I love this. It is exactly how one loses ANY game, including the games of politics and the games of investing … including the metagames of life. This isn’t just a partial list of how you lose any truly important game, it is a complete and exhaustive list. This is the full set of game-losing flaws.

  • Failure of nerve.
  • Hesitation.
  • Being unable to shift into a defensive shape.
  • Lack of imagination.

Of these four, lack of imagination is the most damaging. And the most common.

In the comic, Dream and the demon Choronzon go through an escalating series of metaphors for physically powerful entities, culminating with Choronzon’s verbal imagery of all-encompassing entropy and Anti-life. Dream counters by imagining a totally different dimension to the contest thus far, by making the identity statement, “I am hope.” Choronzon lacks the imagination to shift over to this new dimension and loses the game, at which point he’s wrapped up in barbed wire for an eternity of torment.

It’s true, you know. A failure to imagine a new game is the surest way to lose the old game.

And we ARE losing.

In the Land of Self-Defeat  [New York Times]

What a fight over the local library in my hometown in rural Arkansas taught me about my neighbors’ go-it-alone mythology — and Donald Trump’s unbeatable appeal.

In the few days since this article was published, it has more than 2,500 comments from NYT readers, almost all of them tsk-tsk’ng the locals in one way or another. Some of them are much harsher than a tsk-tsk.

I get it. I feel the same way. It makes me ANGRY and SAD that this rural county does not support the local library.

Then again, this library is a freakin’ Taj Mahal that cost millions of dollars in what is a really poor county. And now the locals are ANGRY and SAD that they must pay MOAR to keep it. I get that, too.

We’re ALL angry and sad, Arkansas locals and NYT readers alike, and we are ALL convinced that we are entirely justified in our very strong angry and sad feelings about this issue.

And then it hit me.

We are ALL being played.

These emotions are done TO us. Intentionally.

Here’s the game …

None of us – not the Arkansas locals, not the author of the article, not the readers of the article – can IMAGINE a local library that is not built by government and maintained by taxes.

It’s not that we can’t execute on a plan or that we don’t have the resources to build a library separate from gov’t. Those things may be true, but that’s not the game. That’s not how we’re played.

The game is to prevent us from IMAGINING a library separate from government.

Should governments build libraries? Of course!


And WE should build libraries. And WE should maintain them.

Does this Arkansas community have a WE with the desire to maintain their library? It sure doesn’t seem that way, does it?

But that’s okay. We got this.

By ‘we’ I may not mean you. You may not want to be part of this ‘we’. And that’s okay, too.

But there IS a ‘we’ for this. It just needs organizing. It just needs a Pack.

By the way, I’d bet my life that there are Pack members for this project in Van Buren County, Arkansas, too.

A $1 million endowment with a 5% real return can fund the librarian this county needs. Not just for a year or two. Forever. $100 million can fund 100 librarians. $1 billion can fund 1,000 librarians. Forever.

Imagine the good that 1,000 librarians across the country could achieve, year in and year out. Imagine THAT.

Who prevents us from imagining this?

Americans gave $6.5 billion to national political candidates in 2016.

That’s who.

We are TOLD that the “real” story of this Arkansas county library is something-something about Trump. That’s it’s something-something about Republicans and Democrats.

The citizens of Van Buren County believe this. The readers of the New York Times believe this. The author of the article surely believes this.

I tell you this is NOT the real story of this rural county library. I tell you this framing is a Lie.

This framing is designed to make us angry and sad. This framing is designed to make us give national political candidates our $6.5 billion. Most damaging of all, this framing is designed to make us give national political candidates our IMAGINATION, so that we cannot even conceive of an alternative to political life that does not depend utterly and completely on their verbal imagery and metaphors, on their internecine battle of wits where WE are their fodder and feed.

They keep us sick, you know.

They keep us hooked on this framing, in a political version of Munchausen-by-proxy.

The cure? Take back your distance.

You’ll find your local library to be the perfect place to start.

Make. Protect. Teach.

It’s a reframing of our political lives, without the … you know … politics.

Imagine that.


  1. Ben, I really like this. It reminds me of how I felt after reading Rusty’s “Hey, Maybe it’s the Needle,” because it is YES, AND. I’m realizing that this is one of the strategies I gravitate towards to pull people back from the widening gyre: finding common ground in identifying how we are all being played on a given issue. It’s not always successful but changing the framing—identifying where our packs overlap—works a hell of a lot better than yelling past each other.

  2. I was shocked at the figure of political donations you provided then I remembered that Trump was gloating about raising $125 million just last quarter. There is your 100 libraries funded in just 3 months.
    Taking a page from the Pack Playbook, any and all of my future contributions; either money or time) will go back to my community. My kid’s school, local groups etc are all much more worthy of getting more of and from me. #MPT

  3. Good article.

    When I was a senior in high school, I often walked into our city’s main library at night to sit among the books and casually search for knowledge. I explicitly thought of it as a church…my church. Later in life, I hired a librarian for a few years to help on setting up a knowledge management department. I learned so very much from her, and often think that knowing something about library science would help a majority of the so-called knowledge workers. In short, I revere libraries and librarians.

    If I were younger – and living in the U.S. – I would seriously consider starting (or helping to start) a Librarian Fund such as the one you imagine. And you’re right…I had not imagined it until now. Now that I’ve imagined it, my mind is swimming with ideas of how totally cool it could be…how disruptive (to use that tired saw) it could be.

    Alas, for the time being I am in self-imposed exile overseas. Maybe in a few years…

  4. Ben - great article. Your clear-eyed writing helps to remind me of things taught to me as a child, things that have a way of being left behind. I was told, on more than one occasion, that it’s easier to criticize & tear something down than to build something, because it requires no skill. Or, in this case, imagination. Your work is appreciated - Thank you.

  5. $6.5B for political campaigns… how much do you think is given each year to university athletics (not used for education, and not under the control of university officials)?

  6. Avatar for tobinh tobinh says:

    I wish we would publicly fund elections and privately fund everything else. Focus our giving on the needs of others, not another attack ad.

Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum


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