It occurs to me that I shouldn’t write this post before reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided“, since she probably addresses the same points, much better and more thoroughly than I can right now. But it’s still something that bugs me, on so many levels.
Mostly, it bugs me at the fundamental level of things HAVING to have some positive outcome, as if it was some physical law that on balance, things must work out positively in human terms. The three versions of this that I run into most often are “I believe in America”*, “but still, life is/people are still good”, and the belief that progress is inevitable.
By virtue of living in the US and spending a lot of time on US dominated internet forums, I most commonly encounter the “I still believe in America” version. It seems most often to crop up as a last-ditch rebuttal of the problems people in the US are facing, as if it somehow is capable of refuting just how shitty America actually is, compared to other Industrialized countries (which is especially sad considering they came into the 2nd half of the 20th century well ahead of everyone else, by virtue of not having had a war fought on their soil, and therefore having some spare cash for investing into the future, rather than rebuilding from a pile of rubble). For example, some while ago I was arguing with someone on Pandagon about social mobility. Their argument was their son who, despite not having a college education, has made quite a life for himself in IT. I and others shored up a long list of reasons why this experience was exceptional and cannot be used as an example of American social mobility, while giving evidence for how social mobility and social wellbeing in the US is very low especially compared to many European countries. And that person’s last response in that thread? An indignant whine along the lines of “well, excuse me for still having faith in America”. My response was a rather snarky comparison of theoretical opportunities available to me in the US as compared to Germany, in which the US did not end up looking pretty.
The “but still, life is/people are still good” is very similar to the “I believe in America” thing, but can be used both more broadly (i.e. when talking about non-American things), and more narrowly (i.e. when talking about a specific group of people/situation, American or otherwise). Mostly, I’ve seen it used when talking about something atrocious, like abuse in the military or even systemic problems caused by same(“but still, most soldiers are good kids”), or about the effect Western-centered capitalism has on the non-western part of the world. I’ve seen a combination of these two on an essay on ZNet by a soldier’s mom who first made an extremely long list of epically shitty things the U.S. military, the USA as a whole, and Capitalism caused (torture, war, environmental damage, etc ad nauseam)… and then she did a 180 and started talking about how, despite all that, life was still good, because she got to meet for coffee with neighbors, and a lot of other “little things in life” that were going well for her (and nevermind that because of the things in the first part of her essay, a very large portion of humanity did NOT have access to the stuff in the second part of the essay), and how that meant… something.
The third type is more a (subconscious?) attitude than an actual, formed argument, and it presents itself in many different, often very small and barely noticeable ways. A very obvious variant is the “technology will save us” response to AGW, but it’s generally the conviction that the future will definitely be better (or at least not any worse) than the past. This manifests either as the conviction that, in currently raging battles of the culture wars “time is on our side” and that we’ll automatically win given enough time**, or that the things that have already been achieved (8hr workdays and worker safety, abortion rights, gains in environmental protection, you name it) can’t possibly be undone.
I’m not quite sure why these self-delusions are so prevalent, but it seems people need them to function just as much as many people seem to need religion to function. I vaguely remember reading some article that said people with depression were often better at predicting their chances of succeeding at something, but I can’t remember what causal link they posited (or if they bothered at all), but no matter which way things go, it seems being positively self-deluded about one’s own chance at success is correlated with happiness, and being able to realistically predict ones chances in life is correlated with depression. Anyway, what I have noticed when people show these signs of unwarranted optimism is that they primarily do it to deflect acknowledging being part of a problem (pretty much anything environment- and/or capitalism-related) or someone else one knows being part of a problem (any single comment ever that defends the military by saying that soldiers aren’t evil***), or simply try to protect themselves from being crushed by the enormity of the problem (because, let’s face it, short of moving to a hippy eco village, pretty much everything I (and everyone else in the Western world as well as many people in other parts) do on a daily basis is making things worse: the electricity I use while typing this, the starbucks food I’m snarfing (mmm….cheesecake…wait, what was I talking about…?), the gas I used to drive to Bismarck, the plastic my grocieries come packaged in, etc.), and secondarily to give themselves a reason not to do anything much about the discussed problems. I suppose it’s just not human nature to want to go radical, so people instead react defensively (again, probably subconsciously) by either elevating the small things they do in the right direction to actual problem-solving *coughpriusdriverscough*, or by figuring the problem will solve itself given enough time (or if not itself, then at least with the number of people already being engaged being enough), or by simply erasing the magnitude of the problem.
People (and btw, that includes me, in case someone feels like complaining that I don’t do much either) seem to have an extreme need to be “normal” and not be radical too much and on too many things and in too many ways. And sure, it’s not physically possible for any one person to be part of a (radical or otherwise) solution to every problem facing humankind right now, but most people don’t even do what would be within their possibilities. And where this isn’t caused by sheer ignorance, it seems to be caused by fostering this sort of extreme, unwarranted optimism. So, i’m against this optimism that prevents people from realizing that things really could go to shit, and hope for maybe a bit more pessimism and realization that a good future needs to be vigorously fought for and defended against the assholes and idiots of the world.
P.S.:holy shit, this post is difficult to read. waaaaaay too many brackets. sorry :-p
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*I should note that there’s a difference between a “believing” in America in the sense that it’s salvageable and worth fighting for and needn’t be run away from just yet, and a believing in it in that magical-thinking sort of way that seems to assume some magical properties for America that protects it from the historical fates of every other civilization past and present. I don’t necessarily agree with the former either, but it’s a perfectly rational position to take, and even has a certain bravery to it that I just don’t have in me. The latter is just complete bullshit.
**Most notably in the fight for LGBT rights, where the demographics do show that younger people are more ok with gay marriage than older ones; but these demographic changes aren’t “natural”, they’re the result of hard-fought battles for social acceptance fought in the past. and they’re no reason to stop fighting, since a trend like that can be reversed just as much as it can be created in the first place.
***Interestingly enough, only soldiers in the US military are not evil even if the military does bad things (they’re feeding their families who depend on them and that’s why they can’t desert; or they’re doing the best out of a bad situation; or they were duped into joining by the “defend your country” trope and had to stick it out because desertion would have landed them in prison; or a million other reasons), but it never ever applies to German soldiers in WW2, even when they’ve never been within sight of a Concentration Camp and their reasons for joining/not leaving were the same as the reasons American soldiers often give now. But that’s a subject for a much longer stand-alone post which I may even write someday.