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.