The quotes below were part of an essay I did on placing fear in

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Optimism/Pessimism
The quotes below were part of an essay on placing fear in longer term context. It was
posted on CCNet in 2005 I believe. This material refers to an interesting trend in popular
culture where despair, pessimism, angst, etc. became the new cool in the past century.
When comedians like Richard Lewis did it, it was funny. When others took such an
outlook seriously (optimism as shallow, pessimism as profound) it was distorting of life
and reality.
“Tom Robbins expressed something of the influence of this darker side of the human
psyche on literature in his Harpers piece (Sept 2004) titled In Defiance of Gravity
(http://www.harpers.org/Newsstand200409.html). Comparing comedy and despair in
literature he said, "Comedy is deemed inferior to tragedy primarily because of the social
prevalence of narcissistic pathology. In other words, people who are too self-important to
laugh at their own frequently ridiculous behavior have a vested interest in gravity because
it supports their illusions of grandiosity...many people are unable to function without
such illusions". What has this produced in modern literature?
"Most of the critically lauded fiction of our time concentrates its focus on cancer,
divorce, rape, racism, schizophrenia, murder, abandonment, addiction, and abuse. These
things are rampant in our society and ought to be examined in fiction. Yet to trot them out
in book after book, without the transformative magic of humor and imagination- let alone
a glimmer of higher consciousness- succeeds only in impeding the advancement of
literature and human understanding alike" (p.60-61).
And further, "Despair is as addictive as heroin and more popular than sex, for the single
reason that when one is unhappy one gets to pay a lot of attention to oneself. Misery
becomes a kind of emotional masturbation. Taken out on others, depression becomes a
weapon".
Then this from Dick Taverne’s The March of Unreason. From a chapter on Bjorn
Lomberg. “One of Lomberg’s ‘crimes’ is his optimism. I too regret the loss of optimism
about science that characterized the Enlightenment and its transformation into
contemporary pessimism. I have always associated science with optimism, because there
must be a sense of excitement about the process of discovery. If you also believe that
science can help answer many of the problems that face us, you are more likely to be an
optimist than a pessimist. I do not regard progress as inevitable, but it is not impossible,
and I believe we can make the world a better place. Doomsters have managed to convey a
spurious impression of intellectual depth and persuade public opinion that pessimism is
profound and optimism is shallow. They are popular as media pundits because good news
is not news, whereas warning of catastrophe sell newspapers and attract television
audiences. The current widespread anti-science mood has been strongly influenced by
warnings that nowadays every minute particle of a chemical residue in our food or every
extra molecule of a dioxin in the air claims a new cancer victim. It was therefore
refreshing to read Lomberg’s full-frontal assault on the prophets of doom and to learn
that perhaps the world as we know it is not coming to an end, but is actually improving”
(p.157).
It is also interesting to note in The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman that
optimism was the characteristic mood of Greed science. Optimism is more than just a
cute thing to advocate for when times appear dark. In light of the overall universe story,
the long term trends of life, and the nature of the human cortex (John Pfieffer, The
Emergence of Humankind- the brain is wired for optimism), optimism or hope appears to
be foundational to all reality.
From Martin Seligman’s book The Optimistic Child:
“Pessimism came into fashion in America as a reaction to the ‘whistle a happy tune’
boosterism of the 1950s.The optimism of the 1940s and 50s had a more brittle edge than
nineteenth-century optimism. It was a forced, self-conscious reaction to the grimness of
the Great Depression and to the mass destruction of the war. The media and the political
leaders orchestrated a propagandistic attempt to lift the nation’s spirits, to divert attention
from the sagging quality of life, and most important, to increase production. And as the
country leaped into the postwar boom, boosterism seemed to work.. Norman Vincent
Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was its bible.
“The underside of the ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative’ boosterism of the
1950s, however, was ‘don’t mess with Mr. In-Between’. While boosterism was
energizing, it was footless, almost dishonest. While it increased cheer, it urged the
wearing of blinders. It asked people to ignore oppressive reality and even eschew all
doubt. This offended the swelling ranks of the college educated. Among educated
Americans, blind faith was dying. Skepticism, with its detached weighing of evidence,
was taught as the scientific way of looking at the future. The sophisticated American
prided himself on looking unpleasantness in the face without having to mouth upbeat
slogans.
“Among such people, footless boosterism became anathema. Optimism got a bad name.
It was commonly paired with the adjectives ‘false’, ‘foolish’, and ‘unwarranted’.
Pessimism escalated in the 1960s from just a fashion of seaboard intellectuals to become
the required posture of educated Americans. The gloomy pronouncement, the cynical
angle on noble deeds, and the view that the world was sliding downhill all became
hallmarks of urbanity and depth. In those days, to say at a social gathering that we do not
live in ‘terrible times’, or that technological progress can clean up the mess it creates, or
that nuclear holocaust was not inevitable, was to mark yourself as shallow- an ignoramus,
a Pollyana, a booster. The social pressure to sound pessimistic was hard to buck..
“The 1960s and 1970s provided ample fodder for the growth of American pessimism.
The assassinations, Watergate, and the Vietnam catastrophe steeped the parents, teachers
and journalists of the current generation in their dour worldview. In a thousand small
ways, and a few huge ones, they have passed their pessimism drop by drop to the next
generation. This pessimism has now found its way into many of our children’s hearts.
Have you ever heard a young person say that racism and sexism might not be forever, or
that both Fascism and Stalinism were defeated in this century, or that fewer soldiers are
dying on battlefields than at any time in this century, or that the danger of nuclear
holocaust is more remote today than at any time since atomic weapons were invented?
“The pessimism of our children is not inborn. Nor does their pessimism come directly
from reality. Many people living in grim realities- unemployment, terminal illness,
concentration camps, the inner city- remain optimistic.
“Pessimism is a theory of reality. It is a cycle that can be broken” (page
50-51).
Wendell Krossa [email protected] www.thehumanspirit.net
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