It’s said that Americans are an “optimistic” people. We’re told President Bush supposedly exemplifies this most wonderful of qualities. His version of optimism was on full display in his jaunt through New Orleans this past week:
“I feel a quiet sense of determination that’s going to shape the future of Mississippi,” said Bush, speaking to a small crowd on a half-vacant Biloxi street.
“We understand that people are still anxious. We understand that people hear about help and wonder where it is,” Bush said in an address aimed at a broader audience. On Tuesday, he heads for an anniversary church service in New Orleans, where he pledged last September to rebuild the region.
“Optimism is the only option,” he said Monday, pledging that the federal government will not leave the Gulf Coast until a rebuilding that already has consumed more than $110 billion in federal assistance is complete. “We’ll stand by you as long as it takes to get the job done.”
What does that mean, exactly, and how can you really go forward if you’re completely unwilling to reflect on what went wrong? What we’ve come to call optimism is really a form of magical thinking, an unwillingness to reflect and confront reality in favor of picturing some laudable but distant imagined goal. Is it possible to reach a destination without some thought, some discussion, some willingness to figure out how you got where you are NOW?
We have a culture with a deep distrust of going through such a process. We reject questioning: questioning of authority, questioning unclear instructions, critics commenting on the worth of something … it’s as though we’re all third graders who groan when that kid in class keeps raising his hand. Even our religions seemingly seek to require as little spiritual work as possible. The “answers” come through dogma, through a preacher or priest or Pope, through a rote series of responses and rituals. Spiritual self-examination? Forget it.
There are signs that more and more people are reacting against this relentless press to “be positive” all the time. Voices of dissent are getting louder. This worries a member of the brain trust over at the New York Times:
Pessimism, however, is the most un-American of philosophies. This nation was built on the values of reason and progress, not to mention the “pursuit of happiness.” Pessimism as philosophy is skeptical of the idea of progress. Pursuing happiness is a fool’s errand. Pessimism is not, as is commonly thought, about being depressed or misanthropic, and it does not hold that humanity is headed for disaster. It simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.
The biggest difference between optimists and pessimists, Mr. Dienstag argues, is in how they view time. Optimists see the passing of time as a canvas on which to paint a better world. Pessimists see it as a burden. Time ticks off the physical decline of one’s body toward the inevitability of death, and it separates people from their loved ones. “All the tragedies which we can imagine,” said Simone Weil, the French philosopher who starved herself to death at age 34, “return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time.”
Optimists see history as the story of civilization’s ascent. Pessimists believe, Mr. Dienstag notes, in the idea that any apparent progress has hidden costs, so that even when the world seems to be improving, “in fact it is getting worse (or, on the whole, no better).” Polio is cured, but AIDS arrives. Airplanes make travel easy, but they can drop bombs or be crashed into office towers. There is no point in seeking happiness. When joy “actually makes its appearance, it as a rule comes uninvited and unannounced,” insisted Schopenhauer, the dour German who was pessimism’s leading figure.
As politicians, pessimists do not believe in undertaking great initiatives to ameliorate unhappiness, since they are skeptical they will work. They are inclined to accept the world’s evil and misery as inevitable. Mr. Dienstag tries to argue that pessimists can be politically engaged, and in modest ways they can be. Camus joined the French Resistance. But pessimism’s overall spirit, as Camus noted, “is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments.”
This is a familiar gambit, in this land of the optimists. It’s yet another either/or. If you’re not optimistic, you’re a pessimist. Fits right in with the optimist-in-chief’s descriptions of our world: black/white, good/evil, “with us or against us”. It is, of course, not a realistic way to look at the world.
The editorialist insists that we’ve lost this most wonderful of qualities, that our recent setbacks have caused us to lose our way.
President Clinton was often mocked for his declarations that he still believed “in a place called Hope.” But he understood that instilling hope is a critical part of leadership. Other than a few special interest programs — like cutting taxes on the wealthy and giving various incentives to business — it is hard to think of areas in which the Bush administration has raised the nation’s hopes and met them. This president has, instead, tried to focus the American people on the fear of terrorism, for which there is no cure, only bad choices or something worse.
Part of Mr. Bush’s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism — a force that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other presidents, like Ronald Reagan, used to rally the country when it was deeply challenged. The next generation of leaders will have to resell discouraged Americans on the very idea of optimism, and convince them again that their goal should not be to live with their ailments, but to cure them.
Where to start?
President Clinton was a lying propagandist too. True, he wasn’t as voracious as the Bush Administration, but he too abandoned those most vulnerable in favor of big money and big influence. These politicians speak in the contentless psychobabble of motivational posters, both wings of the one-party state we all labor under. They use faux optimism to squeltch dissent, silence questioning, cut off debate. In our politics, in our culture … we have no conversations or art anymore, but rather “bipartisan cooperation” and intellectual property. Dorothy Parker, Paulene Kael or Lester Bangs would be bloggers today, as they sure-as-hell wouldn’t find jobs at mainstream publications. While Keith Olbermann certainly tries, there is no way for him to have the same impact as his hero Edward R. Murrow in today’s hyper-target-marketed world. One wonders how viciously Thomas Paine would be attacked by the Faux News Propaganda Networks talking heads. Howard Dean has been dragged inside, and I’m sure that Mayor Rocky Anderson will come under some serious pressure, and vicious attack, from both his own and the Republican parties.
There is more available to us than the fake choice of optimism or pessimism. How about we try some realism for a change? How about we pursue a way of life that is more in tune with the history of this country, where we have the courage of our convictions? Of course, in order to have convictions we have to look first within ourselves. We need to ask ourselves what is really important to us. What do we believe, do we treasure? How do we act on those beliefs in the real world? How can we move past meaningless slogans, fake either/or’s, beyond monolithic groupthink? If more of us do this, there will be more political backing to provide new leaders like Mayor Anderson and long-fighting champions like Senator Feingold and Representatives Conyers and Saunders the support they need to really fight back against the Donkeyphants and Rethuglicans.
This nation, with all of its faults, grew as a place where people from different backgrounds, different races, different faiths, different creeds met in the marketplace of both goods and of ideas, a place where people hashed things out, even if they did so sometimes with cudgels in the street. This cowardly kowtowing to fear and division is beneath us. We can make a civic humanism the cornerstone of our society again, if only we would quit falling for simpleminded calls for optimism.
We can reinvent our country by recommitting ourselves to reinventing our selves, by looking within and reflecting on what is important to us, and resolving to ourselves that we will vote and act in our civil lives in accordance with those values. The old political labels have broken down, and we’re at one of those points in history where we can realign our language and our use of it to shift the way we practice being a citizen. The left faced an opportunity like this not that long ago, when Stalinism and Maoism were revealed by their actions to be antihumanist, to be just as injurious to people as corporatism and fascism. Most intellectuals and activists failed to adjust. We must not fail to make the shift now, as the stakes are higher than ever.
We can remake our political world by remaking ourselves, by having the courage to start small and work up as we find like-minded souls. We must fight the din of the chattering classes and the easy propaganda of the corpo-political PR machines and reboot a culture and habit of bald-faced questioning and debate, where there are no sacred cows, where we’re willing to live with the ground shifting under our feet throughout our lives, for that is the truth of life anyway. Trying to force rigidity onto life serves only to allow us to look away as everything most past and away from us. THIS is how the far right has won the battle so far … they’ve been willing to sacrifice and adapt as they’ve gone along, with an image in mind of what they believe, and what they need to do to make it real.