Archive for May, 2008

Up From Pessimism

May 29, 2008

Thanks for visiting here! This blog aims to provide a forum for lively discussion of political, social, economic, and philosophical issues.

            To set the tone, I’ll start it off with a brief essay explaining my take on rational optimism. The next entry will be some hard-edged commentary concerning current politics.

           Many might question the sanity of optimism today: global warming, war, inequality, etc., you know the litany. Well, it’s true that we don’t live in Candyland. And I actually used to be quite pessimistic myself. What altered that was my gradually learning more deeply about life, people, and global realities, and how they are changing.

            What I see now is a world with more democracy, freedom, and human rights than ever before, more productiveness, wealth, and education, better health and longevity, less poverty, hunger, and illiteracy, more knowledge, conveniences, and recreation, less bigotry, violence, and unfairness, more cooperation, compassion, options, and choices. We in America are literally the envy of the world, enjoying unprecedented affluence and personal autonomy, the evil empire has fallen, and our medicines now come with child-proof caps.

            Yet America, which used to be the world capital for optimism, today seems mired in carping, whining grumpiness. Why so? Pessimists will claim to be realists; yet it’s surprising how often their views actually ignore reality. For example, some insist that poverty is worsening, as an article of faith, no matter how contrary to fact. Yet nevertheless, pessimism and even cynicism can still be attractive postures. Cynics consider themselves sophisticated and hip, profound observers, and feel morally and intellectually superior when they despise humanity and modern civilization (even while enjoying to the hilt its benefits).

            We also like to fancy ourselves independent thinkers, rebels, not followers of the herd. This in particular feeds the cynicism about America that afflicts many intellectuals. They believe this sets them apart from the vulgar masses (though it’s quite conformist within their own circles).

            We get marinated in all that negativity. Bad news fills the media because that’s what grabs attention. An air crash makes headlines, but the thousands of daily safe landings don’t make the news at all. Thus we become scaredy-cats. And it’s contagious; we often are herd animals. An experiment showed that when people stand in the street looking upward—at nothing—many passing by will also look up. It’s easy to be sucked into the quicksand of pessimism all around us.

            Further, the optimist is bound to be disappointed sometimes by how things turn out, whereas pessimism inoculates you against such a let-down. Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed. There is even the satisfaction of “I told you so.” And if a hopeful prediction proves wrong, you may seem like a Pollyanna; while if a pessimistic forecast misses the mark, you may still appear to be a serious deep thinker, and (oddly) even still a kind of realist. Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich predicted billions starving, whereas world hunger actually plummeted, yet he’s still considered some sort of sage. For these reasons, pessimism can seem the less risky and psychologically more stance.

            Yet of course that’s a poor sort of comfort; pessimism and happiness are ultimately at odds. The satisfactions of smug gloominess are thin gruel compared to the hearty nourishment of a positive, cheerful outlook. And without hope, why even get out of bed in the morning?

            We need hope to find life worth living and face the future. We do that most obviously by creating the next generation. Nowadays, many question whether it’s right to bring a child into “such a troubled world.” My wife and I actually had that conversation. But, convinced that in fact people today have it far better than any past generation, we went ahead and put the condoms aside. We are very glad we did—and so is our teenage daughter, who understands what a blessing it is to be alive—especially in today’s world, which, for all its troubles, she keenly appreciates as the best ever. (Kids sometimes do listen to their parents.)

            Some say we need pessimists, to see what’s wrong with how things are, and push for positive change. Yet pessimism and cynicism actually foster resignation, despair, and a sense of powerlessness—a “why bother?” mentality. And, while modern social alienation is a staple of the pessimist litany, much of that is traceable to the psychology of pessimism itself. After all, you won’t likely feel a compassionate connection to your fellow man if you see him as basically selfish, violent, and guilty of making a terrible doomed world.

            Optimism, on the other hand, doesn’t mean ignoring human fallibilities, foibles, foolishness, and even crimes. It’s not that pessimists see problems while optimists whistle past them. The difference is that optimists don’t feel defeated by problems, but believe in our power to surmount them. And a shared belief that people can indeed do this, and are more good than bad, is a glue to bind us together, helping us to love one another, and to tackle together those problems. Thus optimism not only makes us feel better, it makes us do better.

            There will always be bad news, setbacks, failures, disasters, and horrors, our shining hopes will be splattered with muck, and we will almost despair. Almost. But a new day dawns, we pick ourselves up, clean off that muck, and resume our forward march.