The Unthinkable Ideas Issue

VOL. 27 NO. 4

There’s a scene towards the end of Tana French’s 2007 mystery novel In the Woods when its narrator, a detective, is attempting to tease a confession out of a murder suspect who is being less than forthcoming. Telling the truth will relieve him of the burden of his guilt, the detective tells the suspect. To the reader, though, he admits that keeping such a secret would actually probably be quite easy—eventually, the murderer would simply accept the horrific thing he’d done and go on living his life. “Human beings, as I know better than most, can get used to anything,” he says. “Over time, even the unthinkable gradually wears a little niche for itself in your mind and becomes just something that happened.”

I read this last week, plowing through this decade-plus old book while unable to sleep one night, and it felt strangely serendipitous, a perfect encapsulation of 2020. Humans can get used to almost anything. It might be our most frustrating and helpful quality: The ability to adapt to new circumstances, good or bad, can get us through painful times, but it can also keep us stuck in unhealthy ruts. If the unthinkable happened this year, it was for the worse, but sometimes led to better. While so many have suffered, that pain has cracked open our perception of the best ways to live. For what felt like the first time in forever, we collectively discussed—and even demanded—to live in a world other than the one that had caused such pain.

This issue cracks apart that niche created by the unthinkable in our minds. It examines ideas that were once unimaginable but have come to fruition, those that are inconceivable now but once existed, and every permutation therein. It presents revolutionary ideas about how we live, where we live, how we reckon with our past—and how to use those ideas to change things for the better.

That night, I stayed up late to finish my book; without spoiling it, the murderer is not who you think it is, and the detective’s life is never the same.

Kate Dries, Editorial Director, Features

“Peace is our profession,” General John E. Hyten told a crowd at the Mitchell Institute over breakfast in 2017. Hyten was then the commander of United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM)—a division of the American military in charge of its nuclear arsenal—and as surprising as it may sound, he was repeating its motto.

“Can I imagine a world without nuclear weapons?” Hyten went on to ask. “I can easily imagine a world without nuclear weapons because I know what it looks like. Because we had a world without nuclear weapons for most of our existence. And all you have to do to know what a world without nuclear weapons looks like is go back to the period before August of 1945. Just go back and think about what the history books say.”

In September, the Belgian government announced that it would be returning the tooth of Congolese Prime Minister and Pan-African intellectual Patrice Lumumba back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The news landed quietly in the digital sphere with the context blurred by the dryness of a headline, but it was true: A piece of an African hero was going home.

Lumumba had been assassinated in 1961 by a firing squad in a Belgian and American-backed coup that saw dictator in the making, Mobuto Sese Seko, placed in power. Lumumba’s body was dismembered and dissolved in acid, his bones crushed and scattered. His tooth, however, was saved; kept by a Belgian policeman for decades, a body part turned into a family heirloom. For Lumumba’s family and nation, the return of a piece of him is a moment of somber celebration, but there are nauseating questions remaining. Where was the tooth kept for all this time? Was it in a jar? Or wrapped in cloth and put in a tiny box? Maybe it sat on a mantle, not easily visible at first glance, but when picked up, was a source of endless fascination, even mirth.

Earlier this year, as spring turned to summer, cities and towns across the United States burned with an idea, sparked by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade and built on the deaths of others like Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Kalief Browder. It was the idea of abolition.

Having spent the months prior huddled against a deadly pandemic, people took to the streets to mourn, rage, and demand a different kind of world. In Minneapolis, in the first days of the uprising, they burned down a police precinct known as a “playground for rogue cops” and began housing people living on the street in an empty hotel. In Seattle, they created a cop-free “autonomous” zone. In New York, where I live, the police attacked protestors indiscriminately; some ran, others fought back. Every night, more people came out—one could hardly step outside without stumbling into a march. The masses were on the move, looking for the way forward.

“New Yorkers Are Fleeing to the Suburbs,” an August New York Times headline blared.

The sub-headline explained that, due to the pandemic, demand for homes outside the city was increasing “as prosperous city residents seek more space.” This trend, the Times reported, “raises unsettling questions about how fast the city will be able to recover from the pandemic.”

But the article—and the countless other similar articles written around the country this summer—underlined another type of unsettling question, one that largely remains unexplored or, at least, taken as a fact of life that cannot be changed. As Maria Doulis of the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission in New York City perfectly summarized it in the piece: “What is worrisome is that the high-income earners, particularly those with more than $1 million, provide a substantial amount of resources to the New York City budget.”

In 2009, Michelle Leath heard about a book that could teach her how to focus on the life she wanted, and make it become reality—it was called The Secret. She was unhappy in her marriage and bored with her career as a marketing account executive and copywriter. When she got her hands on the book, “It gave me hope for the first time,” she said.

This was Leath’s entrypoint into the world of personal development, a niche of like-minded people and consumer products dedicated to inner work, psychological and spiritual insight, and self-improvement. A few months after The Secret, she read Truth, Triumph and Transformation by Sandra Anne Taylor, followed by Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones. She hired a life coach to figure out how to change her career, got a divorce, and began to recover from her eating disorder.

Behind the Art

Coming from an art-direction background, I find it important that the work holds a strong narrative or concept. Sometimes I like to take a literal approach to a brief or theme. It starts with a simplistic solution or response to a situation, which I then try to transform into an absurdist scenario. “Unthinkable Ideas” could in fact have shown any image which is in some way unthinkable. The “wider” a brief gets the more difficult it can be to come up with a direct response.

For the cover, I wanted to approach the core of this theme; what is an “unthinkable idea” and what does that look like? Obviously, something you can’t think of. When are we unable to think? What expressions do people use to describe a brain that can’t think? Brain fried! Which seemed quite accurate looking back on everything we had to take in this year; I think many of us feel a bit brain fried from 2020.

There was an ocean filled with rough ideas. I thought it could be funny to leave the cover blank, just an empty page from a sketchbook. Anyway, then I thought it would be a shame to not take this opportunity to get my work on the cover.

I was going to say everyday life is where I get my inspiration, but I am worried that is going to sound cliché. Living through life is feeding inspiration. The weirdness, and even more so, the normal-ness. Or what we perceive as “normal,” but is actually quite funny and holds space for a concept. Creating an anti-reality out of our reality, and the other way around. I think humor is the greatest trigger. And you can find humor/concepts in the smallest things.

I am working on a couple of nice editorials which will come out next year. I honestly live to make work and work to live, so I am feeling blessed to be busy. Oh, and I need to shoot my mom a “still life with a twist” for her Christmas present, which needs to match the couch and curtains.