While working and doing various things the other day, I lent an ear to the radio. The morning host was talking about pessimism, and how he’s sick of it. Sick! I agreed. It's not just specific pessimism about specific issues, which is sometimes apt and wise, but the overall glumness you get from the news media. Of course, you can find glumness anywhere. Swaths of the right are pessimistic about America because immigration will result in the national anthem sung in Toltec by 2018, and chunks of the left are pessimistic because Chimpy McDiebold may serve out his term without impeachment or interment. Everyone’s glum about something. But I listen to the news on the radio every hour on the hour, and it makes me want to saw ditches into my wrists. It’s the needling worrisome hectoring tone of the newscasters that annoys me. There's a a woman who handles the morning shift on ABC; she emotes every syllable, infusing them with a sense of impending disaster, and then she hands it off to Vic Ratnor, who likewise leans into every phoneme with worried urgency, regardless of whether it’s an oil shortage (which could rekindle inflation!), a discovery of a new oil field (which could cost billions to exploit!) or a study on the effect of global warming on popsicles (which could stain the rug!) The two of them could make a flooded antihill sound like the end of the Republic.
The news is never good. If the economy’s up, there’s an expert on hand from the Institute of the Possible Downside warning about unforseen pressure on the bond market, softening housing, hardening tensions, turgid wage growth, and explosive release of inflationary pressures. Have a cigarette. Was it bad for you?
TV news gives me the same impression, which is why I avoid it. All those earnest faces. Good evening, we’re deeply concerned, and powerless to do anything about it. Although we hope you infer from our brows the need to contact someone, and urge action on this issue. Now here’s a baby giraffe.
The formulation seems simple: The continued existence of problems at this late date in human history implies that we’re regressing. We’re screwing up, we’ve lost it, and we wander confused amongst the morass of the malaise and vice versa. Hard times, brother. Hard times. I’m not saying they should pretend we live in the Republic of Happy Bunnies Who Pee Champagne, but for God’s sake, sometimes you’d think the bread lines snaked from the Hoovervilles to the soup kitchens again. I’m probably confusing the sugar-coated recollections of early youth with actual history, but I grew up with a sense of optimism and confidence in the country. That really makes me sound like Mr. McFartus shakin’ a whittlin’ stick at the jaunty-hatted younguns, I know. But the icons in my dim early youth, either by absence or presence, were JFK and Humphrey. They weren’t defeatists, and they didn’t give off that rank stink of anger.
Of course, someone who's angry about different things is always unbalanced, right? I’m sure I’m regarded as a delusional tool because I worry more about Islamicists than global warming. But it comes back again to that theme I blathered about a few weeks ago, the idea of the eternal adolescent strain in American culture; to the adolescent, the cynic is the truth-teller. The optimists are the fools. (It takes an adolescent to think that people who believe in nothing are the best judges of those who believe in something.) It’s all a pose, for the most part, but after a while it feeds on itself. Pessimism produces its own coal, stokes its own furnaces. Optimism is harder. Optimism takes work. You have to roll your own.
Hah! The iPod just kicked on that fine messy song “Tubthumping.” I get knocked down. But I get up again. I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down. That's the spirit, ya commie buskers! I don’t listen to that song and wonder “what has he done to get knocked down?” I salute the boozed-up shouting chanty brio of the sentiment, which is the distant cousin of Cagney snapping of "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy." Really. Chest out, chin high, eyes bright, up yours if you're heart can't find the tinder to shout hoorah. Look: there’s always a place for the bitchers, the carpers, the griefers, the snipers, the angry marginal sorts flinging poo from the cages of their own beliefs. But it’s not the pessimists who will save the West. It’ll be those who believe the West is worth saving, and not because it is the least horrible option whose defense must be prefaced with endless apologies, but because it really is the best hope we have. Would you rather be a libertarian in China? A Christian in Sudan? A Zoroastran in Iran? A lesbian in Saudi Arabia?
Friday, September 08, 2006
I heard it said somewhere that the optimist thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist is afraid he's right. James Lileks has this to say about pessimism: