Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pessimism is easy; hope is hard but it wins


If we want more victories, those of us who are progressive need to celebrate the wins (always partial but still real) that we pull off, while we press on for more and better. This seems obvious but ...

Instead we trap ourselves in gloom. Timothy Burke, a professor in History at Swarthmore, acerbically describes how this works in academia:

There is a particular kind of left position, a habitus that is sociologically and emotionally local to intellectuals, that amounts in its way to a particular kind of anti-politics machine. It’s a perspective that ends up with its nose pressed against the glass, looking in at actually-existing political struggles with a mixture of regret, desire and resignation.

Move #1: Things are worse now. But they were always worse.
Move #2: No specific thing is good now, because the whole system is bad.
Move #3: It’s not fair to ask people how to get from here to a totalizing transformation of the systems we live under, because this is just a strategy used to belittle particular reforms or strategies in the present.
4. It’s futile to do anything, but why are you just sitting around?

If that's too abstract, try this description from one of my favorite sports writers(!), Gregg Easterbrook. The gloom around us is pervasive.

... optimism itself has stopped being respectable. Pessimism is now the mainstream, with optimists viewed as Pollyannas. If you don’t think everything is awful, you don’t understand the situation!

Easterbrook thinks our apocalyptic gloom is a social sickness. The Republican presidential pretenders, led by the presumptive nominee, bellowed through a competition to proclaim how awful our condition is. Meanwhile Bernie says things are so bad only a "revolution" (his sensible social democratic one) will save us. Lots of polls show most of us think somehow we're on the wrong track.

But people will only struggle to make change when they believe their efforts will indeed win them better lives. If we want to change the world, we can't wallow. We have to find enough hope to keep on keeping on whether to rein in racist cops, or win a living wage, or turn the country away from imperial military adventures.

Let's listen to that observant football writer again:

Though candidates on the right are full of fire and brimstone this year, the trend away from optimism is most pronounced among liberals. A century ago Progressives were the optimists, believing society could be improved, while conservatism saw the end-times approaching. Today progressive thought embraces Judgment Day, too. Climate change, inequality and racial tension are viewed not as the next round of problems to be solved, but as proof that the United States is horrible.

And yet developing the postindustrial economy — while addressing issues such as inequality, greenhouse emissions and the condition of public schools — will require optimism. Pessimists think in terms of rear-guard actions to turn back the clock. Optimists understand that where the nation has faults, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

... The lack of optimism in contemporary liberal and centrist thinking opens the door to Trump-style demagogy, since if the country really is going to hell, we do indeed need walls. And because optimism has lost its standing in American public opinion, past reforms — among them environmental protection, anti-discrimination initiatives, income security for seniors, auto and aviation safety, interconnected global economics, improved policing and yes, Obamacare — don’t get credit for the good they have accomplished.

In almost every case, reform has made America a better place, with fewer unintended consequences and lower transaction costs than expected. This is the strongest argument for the next round of reforms. The argument is better made in positive terms — which is why we need a revival of optimism.

Belief in better possibilities isn't enough to win, but we don't win without such an animating belief. Pessimism is easy; hope is hard, but it enables change.

1 comment:

ellen kirkendall said...

Interesting. I'll have to improve my outlook.

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