The curse of American optimism

June 22nd, 2015 at 5:10 pm

On my way in this morning, I was listening to a talk show about the mass slaying at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. The host asked an expert on such things whether there was anything we could do to prevent the next one of these horrific episodes.

I fully expected him to go on about the need for a “national conversation” about race or gun control or some such platitude but instead, without dropping a beat, he asserted that in fact there was nothing we could do, and that it was a virtual certainty that we’d be back here again soon playing out the same scenario of shock, anger, disgust, fear, and ultimately, helplessness in the face of a patently insane situation.

The host, and I suspect many listeners, reacted with alarm. Americans are not allowed to admit hopelessness. We’re an optimistic, can-do people, whose innovative creativity works through flexible institutions to solve whatever fate throws our way. We employ the power of positive thinking, we invoke our exceptional spirit, our unstoppable military, our skilled workforce, our basic sense of American decency.

And yet, I found the expert’s hopelessness resonant, and I’m suspect I’m not alone. I’d go a step further and suggest that any knee-jerk optimism and positive thinking not only have no place in this tragedy. They are a destructive distraction.

The author Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about this in her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, a thorough analysis of how optimism and hopefulness trumped careful thought in ways that contributed to multiple disasters, including 9/11/2001, the Iraq war, the failed response to Hurricane Katrina, and the housing bubble and subsequent financial market implosion that brought us the Great Recession.

I see the same dynamic at work in global warming. How can the “greatest nation on earth” contribute to behaviors with the potential to destroy the planet? It just doesn’t make sense! Who are you going to believe, the downer scientist or the upbeat politician?

The power to ignore the facts behind the smiley face is a uniquely American trait. Of course, citizens of other countries are patriotic, but they’re much less likely to be so to the point that in the face of existential obstacles, they assume we’ll work it out, because hey…that’s what we do!

The fact is, at least for now and I’d guess for some number of years to come, we are helpless in the face of the gun lobby against murderous psychopaths, racists, and terrorists. Our non-response to Sandy Hook confirmed that reality.

We can and probably will have some “national conversations” about race and violence and whatever, and if those debates lead to some increment of change, like taking down the Confederate flag in public places, that will be an advance.

But the sooner we dump our national optimism and recognize that we are firmly and, for some unknown number of victims, fatally stuck in an insane equilibrium, the closer we will be to at least facing reality, if not changing it.

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7 comments in reply to "The curse of American optimism"

  1. mitakeet says:

    A while ago I wrote about some thoughts on the Newtown incident:

    To me the key issue is that no one wants to address the underlying problem, which basically boils down to the average person barely gets by (median family income in the ’70’s: $50K; median family income today: $50K; family poverty level today: $50K) and the life of the poor sucks abysmally. When people are hopeless they are trivial to radicalize (self or via others) and, since they have nothing to lose, it is easy to find a handful that will do horrific things.

    Changing our society so we have fewer of these incidents requires a massive change in the way people think. They need to give up the fantasy that they are two steps from being rich and hold the rich accountable for their obligations to society. Also, we must stop rewarding useless activity like the bulk of Wall Street, they suck trillions out of our economy for nothing in return (computers can handle ‘liquidity’ for almost nothing!).

    Sadly, I see no evidence that, as a society, we have the willingness to make the fundamental changes necessary to result in a difference. Maybe if Bernie gets elected…

  2. Richard says:

    I would agree with this that we are in for a number of such ‘incidents’ in the years to come. There is no way the NRA and others so heavily invested in making money from the sales of guns, etc will allow any significant changes to take place in our laws in this arena. Even if/when there might be some change in this regard, actually implementing it will be extremely difficult at best. We are stuck with being a gun toting society, I am afraid.

  3. Tammy says:

    I think a primary problem is the fact that the public and private partnered and there probably was a violation of constitutional rights at the heart of the systemic dysfunction. I tend to agree with the philosophers that questioned happiness as a basic good. I think happiness is one of many human emotions that are all equally important to remain emotionally balanced from an anti-realistic perspective. (As a parent I’m sure you are all to aware.)

    I very much like Sir Ken Robinson’s work, in thinking about a cultural context of practicality. I also think that some inequality is to be expected but as the gap widens cultural diversity can be a delusion, which Joerg Rieger’s scholarship addresses in depth.

  4. Tara Marlowe says:

    I agree. To think that we are “all above average” is delusional. We tend to personalize what is actually systemic failure in terms of wealth distribution, and therefore buy into the “personal responsibility” guff around poverty. I am also concerned that the recent supreme court victories might give a false sense of security to liberals, keeping them from turning out at the polls, while galvanizing conservative who will be voting in droves.

  5. Christopher Hanks says:

    Quick quiz: do the lines below correctly connect the terms on the left with those on the right?


  6. Richard Davis says:

    Each American generation faces this challenge. In the 1880’s, George Santayana and his Harvard classmates wrestled with the dominating influence of America’s “Apostle of Optimism” — Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson still casts a long shadow: the best antidote is still the wisdom of the Greeks, who alone among the ancients, understood the meaning of tragedy–tragedy in a civic, not just in an individual context.