A Pox on Optimists!

Think the world needs an alternative to corporate media? Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout and keep independent journalism strong.

I’ve had it with optimism. Optimism, at least US style, got us into this mess. It gave us 30+ years of indulgent parenting in which self-esteem was considered to be more important than skill acquisition, self-discipline, cooperation, and learning to cope with adversity. It’s led to widespread magical thinking, that if you had the right attitude, you’d surely get ahead. Notice how everyone looking for a job is obligated to fake that they have passion? The Greeks understood that passion was an affliction, something you got when you were on the receiving end of Eros’ arrow and as a result developed an insane, insatiable fixation on whatever you saw next, which in a best case scenario might be an unattainable but fetching female, and if you were unlucky, might be a goat.

My sense is the issue of motivation is more pressing in the zeitgeist than it used to be due to the how dark things are now and how difficult it appears to be to effect positive change. Over the last few weeks, we’ve had a running sub-theme in the comments section on how to motivate people to make sacrifices for future generations if you couldn’t appeal to religion. And in the last day, in a weird bit of sychronicity, I’ve seen two calls from members of the lonely faith of True Progressives, for Yet More Optimism.

When I was in a less cranky mood, back in 2008, I wrote in the Conference Board Review, apropos the corporate perma-fad for yet more chipperness:

“Negativity,” an awkward coinage, has widely come to be used pejoratively. Magical thinking, too, has become increas- ingly popular as a way to gain the illusion of control in an uncertain world. Rhonda Byrne’s motivational best-seller The Secret, for example, basically says that you get what you wish for. If you don’t have the things you want, it means you don’t have enough faith. In this construct, neither insufficient ef- fort nor bad luck plays a role.

In the business world, we’ve moved from hardheaded to feel-good management. As Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway observed recently: “For people in any position of authority the ability to say no is the most important skill there is. . . . No, you can’t have a pay rise. No, you can’t be promoted. No, you can’t travel club class. . . . An illogical love of Yes is the basis for all modern management thought. The ideal modern manager is meant to be enabling, empowering, encouraging and nurturing, which means that his default po- sition must be Yes. By contrast, No is considered demotivating, uncreative and a thoroughly bad thing.”

To illustrate, Tom Peters’ Leadership offers an impossible, irreconcilable list of exhortations: Be a great salesman, great storyteller, great performer, networking fiend, talent fanatic, relationship maven, visionary, profit-obsessive, and (of course) an optimist. Push your organization; know when to wait; love mess, politics, and new technology; lead by winning people over; foster open communication; show respect; embrace the whole individual. Granted, Peters does give a couple of breaks—leaders get to be angry and make mistakes. But his list is all sizzle, no steak. Not only are his executives reluctant to say no—they don’t develop any of the guts of what managing is really about: making decisions under uncertainty, creating routines, developing (not merely exhorting) direct reports, responding to crises, building in enough slack to deal with low-probability but high-consequence opportunities and risks.

By contrast, the normally sound Gaius Publius tells us that “Action and optimism are critical to progressive victory:”

First, as I’ve said many times, the antidote for depression is action. So when you’re feeling down and hopeless, get up and do something. It’s amazing how much better you’ll feel. All those Action Opportunities you see from me? It’s because I’m concerned about your health, and want you to be happy.

Second, everyone has reach, a world within which we have an effect. Even the so-called least of us lives in a world we influence. Use your reach; you have no idea when a surprisingly good result will come from it.

Third, action is a choice, not a prediction. And except in rare circumstances, when inaction is more powerful, we must act to win. We could win a battle or lose a battle, win the war or lose it. But we must act as though we can win, or we never will win. In the longer interview, Eskow talks about how the Clintons, the Obamas, the Romneys and the Ryans, all want us to feel powerless, hopeless. That’s part of their plan, it shouldn’t be part of ours.

The antidote for mild depression isn’t optimism, it’s exercise (trust me, a lot of research on that), so part of this prescription is not far from the mark. But what good does it do for organizers to pump people up with talk of victory? You might motivate them short term, so optimism to move people forward can work when you can give people specific, attainable targets, like organizing and running a soup kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, this sort of very tangible local action is incredibly valuable. But optimism and desire are the tools of marketers. They create and exploit object or status lust. Look at how Obama’s con was based on sheer hopium, and how in 2012, he still had a remarkable number of loyal followers despite his clear record of dishonesty and abuse of his base.

Optimism and desire are likely to prove inadequate to carry most people through a protracted struggle against powerful and oppressive forces. Were labor leaders in the days of violence against unions (the persistence and savagery of corporate opposition to labor has been airbrushed out of the most histories), rely on happy talk as a major motivating strategy? Did people fighting for causes they thought would not be won in their life, like abolitionists and the early suffragettes, rely on optimism to get them through the day? What you need is tenacity. Getting people to find the internal resources for protracted battles where all they are likely to experience is losses requires a different headset than the sort of optimism that we’ve been deeply inculcated to rely on in America.

A different formulation of the “think positive” school comes in “Political Dreaming in the Twenty-First Century” by Ira Chernus in TomDispatch. It does get high marks for eloquence. Some key extracts:

Dreaming is the realm of pure freedom. In dreams, we can see, do, or be anything. When our dreams are political, they help us sense what it might be like to escape the limits imposed by corporations, the state, the media, the advertisers, powerful forces of every kind. They help us imagine in new ways what is possible. In our dreams, none of the powers that be can touch us….

But a political dream is quite different from the dreaming of sleep because it happens while we are wide-awake. It may even make us feel more awake, allowing us to pierce the pre-packaged version of reality handed to us by the rich and powerful, who demand that we take their distorted version of how this place, this country, this planet works as “realism” itself….

Of course, we should never confuse our dreams and myths with specific policy proposals. That would endanger the chances of achieving policies that could bring us a few steps closer to realizing those dreams. Policies, after all, are always political artifacts, produced by compromises between our dreams and the hard facts of the present.

This sort of thing is likely essential for some people. But I have to say for myself that when the gap between your idealized world and what seems attainable is a yawning chasm, focusing on a remote dream seems like a prescription for guaranteed disappointment. Matt Stoller would often sputter to me that he’d lose his best organizers to organic gardening. My take was that it became too hard for them to keep projecting optimism (organizers are in the business of selling and selling in America requires an enthusiastic persona) and they decided they’d rather do something where they could put effort in and see tangible results.

And this bit troubles me:

It may even make us feel more awake, allowing us to pierce the pre-packaged version of reality handed to us by the rich and powerful, who demand that we take their distorted version of how this place, this country, this planet works as “realism” itself.

That sort of high, which is a variant of the endorphin high of romance, sounds an awful lot like how people who’ve been in cults recount the feeling when they fell under the cult leader’s sway. The loss of personal boundaries in being subsumed in a group can be very powerful emotionally, but it also makes the participants ripe for manipulation.

So what are mere mortals, or the insufficiently dreamy, to do? Victor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, would often start his therapy sessions by asking his patient, “Why haven’t you killed yourself?” He found that what enabled people in concentration camps to endure was either that they had a loved one they wanted to live for, or they had some sort of creative work they wanted to accomplish. The interesting bit about the loved ones is that many of the survivors learned that turned out to be a delusion, that many had assumed they were dead and had moved on to other relationships.

I’m up for a much more fundamental rethink of cultural values. The pursuit of optimism has both a hedonistic element (we want to feel good emotionally) and Judeo-Christian dualism (optimism is a good, safe, nice, clean emotion, we don’t need to think about our nasty chthonic drives). It requires an ongoing, active effort to deny significant parts of our personality and human experience, which is why I’m dubious of its ability to sustain people over the long haul (admittedly, there are some people who are blessed with naturally sunny dispositions, but they don’t have to exhort them, they just seem to have been lucky in the brain chemistry they inherited).

I have to confess I’m not deeply enough read in it to be sure, but Stoicism has gotten a bad rap, and it has a lot to recommend it in times like ours. Stoics have a lot in common with Buddhists, in that they believe in cultivating emotionally equanimity and resilience no matter what your external circumstances. What appeals to me about Stoicism is that they have a non-Christian (as in not driven by fear that God will get you in the afterlife if you are bad) foundation for morality. From Wikipedia:

A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.” This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy,” and to accept even slaves as “equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature.”

The Stoic ethic espouses a deterministic perspective; in regard to those who lack Stoic virtue, Cleanthes once opined that the wicked man is “like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes.”…

Borrowing from the Cynics, the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control…

The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια) or peace of mind (literally, ‘without passion’), where peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense—being objective or having “clear judgment” and the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life’s highs and lows.

In this framework, people like Jamie Dimon are correctly seen as unhinged and destructive.

Stoics also were big on empiricism, as this section of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations show:

Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object that is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.

If any readers can recommend any classics that have decent translations, please list them in comments. I feel we need to find new ways, on a practical and philosophical level, to get out of the mess we are in, and it can’t hurt to see if past schools of thought can provide fresh vantages.