The Trouble With Optimism

A couple hundred years ago, Robert Burns expressed the belief that “should some power the wee gift give us/ To see ourselves as other see us/ It would from many a blunder free us.”

It’s true, but only a subset of the larger gift we all ought to wish for: The ability to see the world as it is, rather than as we hope or fear it is. This is a relentlessly optimistic country, so the realist is often branded a pessimist. But when the entirely predictable occurs each day, the realists are unsurprised while the optimists often seem stunned. This must be wearying.

Take the Ray Rice mess, for example. From the moment video surfaced of the football star dragging his unconscious girlfriend off an elevator, it was obvious what had happened. He even admitted it, but the ugly reality failed to register with many people. Professional athletes have shown themselves repeatedly to be self-indulgent thugs, but there is still a tendency to want to believe their physical grace and beauty implies a corresponding moral attractiveness. It isn’t so.

The league slapped Rice’s wrist as did the justice system, sentencing him to easy remorse instead of hard time. A lot of women were outraged, but a lot of men dismissed their complaints. Since most hotel elevators have security cameras, however, the graphic evidence of the KO punch was bound to appear. No one saw that coming? Apparently not, because an awful lot of people seemed surprised that knocking a woman unconscious looks pretty damned primitive.

In a similar vein, there seemed to be a good deal of surprise concerning indecent exposure of celebrities thanks to hackers making their nude photos public. But after Snowden, Target, Home Depot and so on, it requires supersize optimism or obliviousness to imagine anything stored digitally is really private? Your documents, your photos, your private records, your bank accounts, your government’s secrets are all an open book. If you haven’t been hacked yet, it is only because they haven’t gotten around to you. Or, more depressingly, you aren’t worth it.

Thirteen years ago a tech bubble burst. Six years ago a home lending bubble crashed the economy and the financial system. Many of the systemic flaws that permitted those runaway booms and busts have not been fixed. Cyber-criminals are ever more powerful. What could go wrong? The same old stuff, over and over again, is what. The next bust is just around the corner, yet markets are at all-time high. Optimism reigns.

During a long hot summer in racially divided Ferguson, Missouri, a white cop uses excessive force and a young black man dies. Chaos ensues. Is this a surprise? Is it even news? It is over sixty years since Langston Hughes asked what happens to a dream deferred, and answered: “does it explode?” Yes. Over and over. Yet it is treated as news every time the same story recurs, either because many believe racial injustice is waning or find it easier to avert their eyes from reality. Either way, little is done to change the script in order to permit a different outcome.

For the last half century and more, Islamic militants have bombed barracks in Beirut, embassies hither and yon, the World Trade Center not once, but twice. They have declared jihad against the Great Satan, targeting us as the epicenter of all they hate — modernity itself, democracy, capitalism, self-determination, social liberalism, separation of church and state, relative equality for women. Yet we go to sleep after each fresh atrocity or attack and awake surprised to discover that they are still around and still implacably dedicated to our destruction.

Some optimistically believe nation-building will make the lions lie down with lambs, others that fearsome attacks will degrade the militants, exterminate them, cut them out like a cancer. But there is no magic formula for changing minds. No way to make those seeking a pure medieval caliphate to embrace modern pluralism, or to persuade the Sunni and Shia, or dozens of other antagonistic sects and tribes to cease hating one another after more than a millennium of practice.

Vladimir Putin, whose pedigree is communist true believer, KGB operative and nationalist zealot, announces his credo as clearlyas Hitler did his in Mein Kampf. In Putin’s case, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst event in world history and that his mission is to reconstitute a Russian Empire. Thus, he bullies Georgia into vassal status, takes Crimea, subverts and occupies part of Ukraine and uses his country’s oil wealth to turn the screws on and to cow his neighbors. Each time we are surprised. We thought when the Soviet Union fell, Russia would become a chummy European country and settle down to doing business.

Thanks to invincible optimism many continue to be surprised that the same bad actors keep committing the same bad acts. Persuaded that tomorrow will be a better day, we fail to learn any lessons, fix recurring problems or change our own behavior.

If the issues weren’t so serious, the stakes so high, our fecklessness would be comic. But it’s no joke that racial discrimination lives, that women are treated as second-class citizens, that justice works differently for the prosperous and powerful, that festering threats haunt the planet. And the American people aren’t laughing. They’re worried.

Congress and the president have abysmal poll numbers. Those polled say they want them to do something. But the same people don’t want the solutions to be risky or to cost us blood or treasure or disrupt their lives. Good luck with that. I’m not in favor of galloping off to right every wrong, particularly because curing many maladies is not within our power. But I am in favor of our not deluding ourselves about the hard realities we confront.

I began with a nifty quote from Burns on self-delusion. I end with another from Housman that might stand the American electorate in good stead as long as there’s no end to challenging times in sight.

“…since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.”

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