Rational optimist – or pessimist?

On Wednesday morning I changed this blog’s title from “The Rational Optimist” to “The Rational Pessimist.”

unknown-1Psychology research shows that optimism-versus-pessimism, happiness-versus-unhappiness, is largely inborn, and largely impervious to life’s vicissitudes. That we have a set-point of temperament, to which one’s mood reverts, after the immediate impact of some positive or negative event dissipates. I have been blessed with a setting at the far end of the range. It was no coincidence that I literally wrote the book on optimism.

Tuesday night was the worst thing ever in my life. Worse than 9/11. Worse even than when my longtime girlfriend left me. Someone has said that “Never Trump” Republicans (like me) are now the loneliest people in the world. I have agonized about changing my enrollment; but the Democrats will likely continue their leftward march. images-1I’m the man without a party; I feel like the man without a country.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a local gathering (celebrating an election upset 50 years earlier). I wore black. However, as I ran toward the entrance, in the rain, I realized I was already actually feeling cheerful – confirming all that set-point psychology research! (A nod here to my wife and marriage, which have been my rock.)

But my book and blog referenced rational optimism – not a Pollyanna attitude with rose-colored glasses. Another strong personality trait of mine is realism. I see no benefit in deluding myself about things I wish were true. Thus I’ve also written of my “ideology of reality.”

One of the realities I accept is that the cosmos is purposeless, undirected, and our existence is an evolutionary accident. But that means it’s entirely up to us to make the best of our situation; and, unlike every other creature that ever existed, we have great tools for it. Mainly, our incredibly powerful brains. And, using those tools, we have actually done fantastically at making for ourselves lives worth living. unknown-2Especially in modern times, since the Enlightenment, humanity has achieved incredible progress. (Once again I reference Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) This is the heart of my rational optimism.

In that march of progress, building the means for people to live good lives, one of our greatest creations has been the United States of America.

But the realist in me knows that we are not perfect beings, and for all the reasoning power of our brains, we are subject to rampaging emotions and irrationality. What people build people can also destroy – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly. America is not immune. No God protects her from human folly.

unknownAn enterprise like America can only be sustained if the people in it actually understand what it’s all about. Tuesday showed that America – well, half at least – has lost the thread. It’s freedom and democracy, yes, but also rule of law; pluralism; human dignity; tolerance; openness; generosity; fair play; civility; responsibility; community spirit; and, not least, devotion to truth and reason. What Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (inspiring Pinker’s title).

Those establishment “elites” whom Trump voters so resent have upheld those values quite well, indeed kept up the momentum of progress (for example with gay marriage). But meantime, lamentably, the rest of America has undergone a long process of civic decline – decline in genuine devotion to its ideals and values, because too few people are educated and acculturated nowadays in what those precepts mean. Too many have reduced Americanism to flag waving and snarling empty slogans.

There are a lot of reasons, a lot of culprits, it’s not a simple story, and a lot of it is actually fallout from some aspects of our progress (like greater racial equality) – but the bottom line is that too few Americans still understand what actually made America great. unknown-4This is why the “Make America Great Again” slogan was so painfully ironic. I wish we could make America great again – like it was before Tuesday.

We heard much talk of voters expressing their pain. I won’t belittle what anyone feels; but surely conditions of life in today’s America are not historically bad. Things in the Depression, for example, were much, much worse. However, voters in the Depression did not fall for such a blatant, un-American demagogue. Nor would have tolerated a candidate with such grotesque defects of character.* That all this was accepted in 2016 bespeaks a sad corrosion of America’s character.

This is why I am so heartbroken. Hearing the national anthem has always teared me up. Now it will be for what’s been lost.

And yet there may be hope, because perhaps strangely, it is older people who most embody the decline, while younger people – more shaped by the trends of modernity I mentioned – seem to better embrace those Enlightenment civic values their elders have forgotten. unknown-5It’s true too of the new arrivals – that’s why I so welcome immigration – people come here because they do crave America’s true meaning, and their coming is a national renewal.

Well, our new first lady is an immigrant.** That’s one thing at least to celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” images-2Seeing that great trend of history made me an optimist. But it’s never a smooth curve, and America has just bent sharply the other way. But I’m not ready to believe humanity’s whole arc has changed. Nor am I ready to give up on what America used to stand for. I have tried to promote those values on this blog. Now, I will have to work harder at it.

I have restored this blog’s title.

* Please, stuff the spluttering about Clinton. There’s no comparison. Indeed, the very fact that so many failed to see this shows how messed up the country has become.

** Though not the first; that was Louisa Adams. However, also ironically, the first family will include its first Jew.

9 Responses to “Rational optimist – or pessimist?”

  1. Roger Green Says:

    Frank – I went to a church service Wednesday noon. Felt a LITTLE better. Ultimately, the parties will realign, for Trump will be a shill for the corporatists who run the GOP, the Dems will split left, and there will be a true centrist party emergent in the next four years.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Had dinner last night w long-time friends…the anger-disappointment as they got into our car was like a grumbling dark cloud thankfully dispelled by another refreshingly apolitical couple…I voted for one of the independents (Tweedledum) because I don’t trust Trump’s volatile and mean personality. I am hoping that the Republican Party will analyze this protest component and make necessary changes in the future. Meanwhile all the speculation (yes, it’s just that now) about Trump’s policies are to my mind positive: I distrust the “Iran Deal”, the un-Affordable Care Act needs emergency amendments, I want more energy expenditures (The XL Pipeline, fracking), more infrastructure spending while interest rates are in the basement. The Dodd-Frank over-regulation of the banking sector is an obscenity (I heard former Fed Head Alan Greenspan say this week it was “a disaster”). A lower profile for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are positives. I believe (hope) that some of the more strident elements of Trump’s rhetoric will slip out of his agenda (his animus towards HC, which in truth I probably share, and his blanket distrust of immigration). I deeply resented Obama’s ‘apology’ tour of Europe, his unjust Nobel Peace Prize award, and his immediate, distracted focus on healthcare proposals at a time when we were in the grips of a hideous recession that required jobs not health insurance for the majority of Americans. For me a dark cloud is dissipating. As they say, ‘It’s either light at the end of a tunnel or maybe it’s an oncoming train’. Time will tell.


    Just compare yourself and your pitifully small problems to the Cosmos. Then you will be an optimist again…

  4. dennis wentraub Says:

    I found out how to forward this and sent it to Jay and Kris…told them to look for “anonymous” in the Comments section…just fyi/fwiw


  5. NothingMan00 Says:

    You are an insect and an imbecile. Find some rope and a ledge. Soon.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks, NothingMan, at least you aren’t threatening to do the job yourself, that’s something at least. And also, thank you ever so much for showing my blog readers the true face of Trumpism. You and your new president deserve each other!

  7. Paul Landsberg Says:

    Frank, eloquent as always. I would point out that both you and I are very unlikely to be closely or intimately affected by a Trump presidency. I think we both have carved out a large comfort zone during times with different opportunities, different economic conditions, and different social conventions & pressures. While I absolutely believe that the USA will be worse off in four years, barring all out Armageddon, I probably will be better off. Yeah. White privilege, being at the right place at the right time, an old fashioned corporate job that hasn’t been outsourced ……yet.

    One of the most interesting things for this grand American experiment is that Trump’s view only randomly intersect Republican views. Does anyone believe his hardcore supporters really want him to pay attention to “that terrible Iran deal” early in his presidency. Banking regulation? Oh puhleeze, that is Paul Ryan’s orgasm inducing attempt at corporate give aways. Of course a lot will matter on how much Trump pays attention to detail. My expectation? Only when it is too late.

  8. bruce Says:

    You know Frank I have felt wonderful reading most of your blogs,
    let me try to brighten your outlook. I am likely wrong in my opinion but give it a little leeway.
    Trump may become a great president, at least a lot better than what his detractors and different than his supporters imagen.
    He has no need to up his style, his riches, his position, all he can gain is increasing his “Brand”. His Brand doesn’t play well to the people some of his campaign promises were made to. Why would he make his brand suffer for a small segment that has no bearing in his after presidency Trump empire. For that matter his empire will be in its, for their inherency phase.
    I am saying he has every reason to be a good president with the best possible appearance because that is all he can gain from his presidency. Aside from some well publicised unthinking promises that may well have been pandering, business, the average guy and the poor might actually do well by him.
    Its clear to me Obama didn’t set out to do harm to America, he had the best intentions, but for our time, his beliefs were wrong. Trump needs the best intentions to build his brand, I don’t know why he would sacrifice his Brand for campaign promises. I agree he hasn’t done much for that brand with those promises, apparently it gave him the win element.
    He may proclaim some effort to make good on some promises but they will be weak sauce.

  9. Greg Says:

    Face it Frank — your an independent thinker. Time to create your own political party perhaps? Although I disagree with you on a few issues, I’d vote for you any day over Trump. Frank Robinson for President!!!

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