Optimism or Pessimism? Let's Try Realism

The point isn't to see the world though rose-colored glasses or through a dirty windshield, but to see the world as it actually is.


that one asian/Flickr

Two Washington journalists I have long admired, George Will and Jeffrey Goldberg, had columns last week on the question of optimism and pessimism. They took more or less opposite sides, leaving this non-Washington-based columnist an opportunity to try to arrive at my own position on the question.

Will wrote, paradoxically, "Looking on the bright side, perhaps this election can teach conservatives to look on the dark side. They need a talent for pessimism, recognizing the signs that whatever remains of American exceptionalism does not immunize this nation from decay, to which all regimes are susceptible."

He went on, "Pessimism need not breed fatalism or passivity. It can define an agenda of regeneration, but only by being clear-eyed about the extent of degeneration."

Goldberg, in a piece for The Atlantic prompted by the death of Israeli politician Shimon Peres, mourned the loss of Israel's "chief optimist." Goldberg criticized Israel's current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, writing, "he must shed himself of at least some of his paralyzing pessimism."

Goldberg concluded his column: "As Peres famously said, optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. Despite it all, Peres chose to live as an optimist. It is not too late for Netanyahu to do the same."

So Will is counseling American conservatives to be more pessimistic, while Goldberg is counseling Israel's premier—a person who is arguably the most successful and significant conservative politician in the world since Reagan and Thatcher left office—to be less pessimistic.

Which one is right?

My own view is that to some degree the optimism versus pessimism discussion is a false dichotomy. The point isn't to see the world though rose-colored glasses or through a dirty windshield, but to see the world as it actually is.

Some situations merit cheerfulness; others merit gloominess. Unwarranted cheerfulness is a mistake; so is unwarranted gloominess.

In the Israeli case, Shimon Peres, heroic though he was for developing Israel's nuclear deterrent and rescuing Ethiopian Jewry, was nonetheless, in retrospect, probably unduly optimistic about the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. And Netanyahu's pessimism about the prospect of such a peace is nonetheless rooted in a certain optimism that Israel itself will endure and flourish despite international ostracism and ongoing violent attacks.

In the American case, Will apparently holds out hope that if only Americans realize precisely how badly we are going down the tubes, we might be able to save ourselves. This itself is a kind of combination of optimism and pessimism, almost like the friend of an alcoholic or drug addict hoping that the addict will "bottom out" in such a miserable stupor that the despair of the moment is the first step on the road to recovery.

If I have a dispositional tilt in these matters overall it is toward optimism; how can one not in a world of technological progress—smartphones, jet travel, the Internet—and a past century that saw the defeat of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union? Well, easy enough: the jet travel enabled the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the smartphones and internet enable ISIS beheading videos, and anyone who views the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as evidence for optimism ignores the fact of their rise and the tens of millions that they murdered, which are evidence for pessimism.

The wisest thing I have ever read on this general topic comes from the Jewish sage Saadia Gaon (882-942), whose The Book of Beliefs and Opinions includes this passage: "For all well-being in this mundane world is bound up with misfortune, and all happiness with hardship and all pleasure with pain, and all joy with sorrow."

That insight suggests what we need in the world is not more optimists or more pessimists but more people whose eyes are open to seeing the world as it really is and whose minds are open nonetheless to imagining how it might be improved.

NEXT: Did the Climate Influence Colombian Voters' Rejection of the FARC Peace Deal?

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  1. “The point isn’t to see the world though rose-colored glasses or through a dirty windshield, but to see it as it actually is.”

    Libertarian moment?

    1. Suicidal Moment

  2. The gloominess is entirely warranted.

    1. I don’t view Trump as a reason to be gloomy. Even if you hate the guy, his rise in the polls just shows that the people who support him still believe in the system enough to try and change it by voting. The time to get gloomy is when people lose that faith and their leaders don’t bother with the political system. That is when things have broken down.

      You can’t have a functioning Republic if you don’t clean house and kick out the elites running it periodically. Doing that is hard and often results in some lousy people getting in. Andrew Jackson was a horrible President who did all kinds of stupid things. His election and the resulting end of the old elite was however in the long run a good thing.

      That is how I feel about Trump. He won’t be a great President but he won’t be as bad as they think. More importantly, his winning will cause a sea change in who matters and doesn’t matter in this country. People like Will and the rest of the big media and academia will not matter much anymore. They will have been proven to have very little effect on public opinion, so why listen to them? It will take a while to see who replaces them. Maybe they will get replaced by someone worse. That is certainly possible. But, that is a chance we have to take because they have to go or nothing is ever going to change or get better.

      1. Oh, big media and academia will still matter. They have a stranglehold on part of the culture. But their powers will have taken a big hit. The SJW steamroller will have been stopped, at least temporarily. Whether it can be rolled back, I have no idea. My daydream is that Trump cleans house, eliminates Title IX, the Office of Civil Rights, affirmative action, and more. But I admit the chances of that are slim.

        1. I don’t think Trump will eliminate things. I think other people will eliminate things after they see Trump elected and realize how powerless the media and such actually are.

      2. It’s just not enough for me. I wish is was someone other than Trump.

      3. Your comment is so on point!

  3. Will is a fucking moron. He really is. Trump rose because people disagree with Will on immigration and trade. It is really that simple. The conservatives and the Republican party have spent the last 25 years telling their supporters to go fuck themselves on trade and immigration because top men like Will know better. Eventually, Trump came along and said “no fuck you” and low and behold it worked. Who could have seen that coming?

    It is amazing all of the chin scratching and rationalizations by Conservatives to avoid facing the responsibility for having fucked up so badly. Conservatives like Will are all about personal responsibility except when it comes to their own.

    1. There is much truth here. Also a factor: the rise of the Tea party, which the GOP could have used to reinvigorate itself and reconnect with the smaller-government grass-roots of the party. But noooooo, that would have rocked the DC boat too much. So they rolled over for Obama some more, and tried to avoid being called racists and xenophobes or whatever.

      And the Trump comes along, and as imperfect as he is from a conservative perspective, at least he fights.

      1. Well it didn’t help that the Evangelicals rapidly co-opted the Tea Parties at national level and converted it from a single issue group focused on fiscal responsibility and turned it into just another arm of the culture wars.

        1. I think that is a complete media lie. What did the Tea Parties ever do with the culture war? Nothing I ever saw. The claim that they were just evangelical front groups was one of the biggest lies told about them.

        2. Amen, Rasilio. The early Tea Party had a lot of potential. Not quite libertarian, but close. It left social issues off the table to focus on those parts of the Republican platform that libertarians generally agree with.

          THEN, when it was enjoying a bit of success, it was hijacked by the likes of Palin.

          1. What fucking reality do you live in? And what exactly did Palin ever advocate for that was even that socially conservative?

            Are you so fucking insecure and terrified of not being considered in the right class, that you will believe anything just to avoid the risk of being associated with someone not of your class? Did you not graduate from college?

            Maybe you should go back and get your degree or get an advanced degree like I have. And then maybe you will feel less of a need to social signal and be able to think about these things a little better. It is just a thought.

            1. Asshole, I have a degree in Aerospace Engineering and an MBA. Not that that means fuck-all because you, with your advanced degrees, maybe the most ignorant individual I’ve ever encountered. On top of being an immoral, unprincipled, whiny, despised, vile cunt.

              Fuck off, shithead!

              1. Come on, the two of you have known each other too long. If we were at a watering hole, and we had quaffed up-teen brews, that would be one thing.

                Please keep in mind that yesterday I was at the culmination of the Big Papi palooza where every breathing organism was given a Big Papi hug by the most lovable ballplayer ever to walk inside the lines.

  4. In the American case, Will apparently holds out hope that if only Americans realize precisely how badly we are going down the tubes, we might be able to save ourselves.

    The problem with this approach is that things can get really, really bad before things change. Hitler/Mao/Pol Pot/Stalin levels of bad. However Hitler and Pol Pot were ousted by foreign armies and authoritarian one party regimes remained/remain in China and Russia for decades. And Putin is not exactly beloved by libertarians…

  5. The notion of “let it burn” assumes that something better rises from the ashes. It rarely works out that way.

    I am not remotely optimistic about the future, particularly with the era of one-party Dem rule looming over us.

    1. We have effectively had one-party Dem rule, at least in DC, since Obama was elected.

      A large part of Trump’s success has been due to the fact that it is apparent to a lot of people that the DC Republicans have zero interest in cutting taxes and cutting spending, and very little interest in stopping the SJW juggernaut now metastasizing through the agencies. The Reps are playing the Washington Generals to the Dem’s Harlem Globetrotters, and some of the country, at least, doesn’t like it.

      1. You are right. If Hillary were to win, I think that would change. She would be such an easy mark. The media might be able to drag her ass across the line. But they will never be able to make her popular or there to be any downside to Republicans attacking her and refusing to give her anything she wants.

        The reason the Republicans rolled for Obama is that he is well liked enough that with the media behind him, there were actual risks to telling him to fuck off. There will be no risks to telling Hillary that and a ton of risks for failing to do so.

        1. I’m not as optimistic. I think the Repubs suffer from (a) no principled opposition to what the Dems want to do (b) pathological risk aversion and (c) a bad case of DC-itis, where all that matters is the days Twitter buzz in the Imperial Capitol.

          A Hillary presidency will be ferociously defended by the media, and will lead to the same spineless Republican response in DC.

          1. I don’t see why it’ll be any different than when she was SOS. Just another fake “skandul” being trotted out by those feckless Rethuglicans. They worry more about Hillary than the spending bills they should be passing. ad nauseum

    2. I find it funny that Ronald Bailey attacked that when he voted for Obama on similar reasoning.

    3. I don’t see how you can thing we are entering an era of one party Democratic Rule. I really don’t. The Republicans own the majority of the state governments. They are almost certain to keep the House and even Nate Silver is admitting they are likely to keep the Senate.

      The Democrats meanwhile only hope of complete irrelevance outside of a few deep blue states is Hillary winning the election. And even if she does, what then? She will enter the White House as the first President in history to start out with negative numbers and be disliked by nearly everyone. There will be no downside to Congress defying her. Moreover, the Republican Party will for once face the possibility of being held accountable for not standing up to a President. All the shit head top men who wouldn’t support Trump will face the prospect of having to answer to Hillary. Their only hope will be to actually go after her from day one. I used to think they would not but now I think they will have to and will out of survival instinct.

      I don’t want Hillary to win and I don’t think she will, but if she does win, it might end up worse for the Democrats. They will be stuck defending her. And doing that with Obama didn’t work out so well for them. It would only be worse with Hillary.

      1. She’ll also catch the fallout from the next financial crisis, which seems inevitable within the next few years (if not months).

    4. Well, no. Sometimes you burn something and hope nothing rises from the ashes.

  6. “Pessimist by policy, optimist by temperament — it is possible to be both. How? By never taking an unnecessary chance and by minimizing risks you can’t avoid. This permits you to play out the game happily, untroubled by the certainty of the outcome.”
    ~Lazarus Long

  7. Optimism, pessimism, cynicism. Only one of these approaches reality.

  8. I think it’s time we stop. Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look – what’s going down?

    1. Brother, brother, brother
      There’s far too many of you dying
      You know we’ve got to find a way
      To bring some lovin’ here today – Ya

      1. are you cereal?

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