Against optimism

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

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

*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.

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25 comments on “Against optimism

  1. Mattir says:

    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.

    Oddly enough, I completely disagree with this. There were thousands upon thousands of German soldiers who were honorable people with very few or no choices. I also have empathy for child soldiers who are forced to commit atrocities. There are no good choices in war, and the “hooray for Americans – everyone else’s soldiers are monsters” trope is simply a way of obscuring the reality of war and minimizing its effect on American soldiers so that we don’t have to acknowledge how damaged they can be by politically popular military actions .

  2. David Marjanović says:

    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”.

    There’s a nice example of a trend that isn’t inevitable in there. In pretty much all of the richer European countries (Switzerland seems to be a notable exception), the idea that patriotism is 1) an innate human universal missing only in people with rare congenital abnormalities and 2) a good thing has pretty much died out. This trend has largely bypassed the US unnoticed. “That person” appears to believe that all normal people somehow love the real estate they were born on and have or should have all the best expectations for it. Where I come from, that mindset was once near-universal in the public sphere, but it took a heavy hit in 1945 and got the coup de grâce in 1968; it would be met with embarrassed silence and/or suspicions of extreme-right affiliations. This trend seems completely inevitable in retrospect… but evidently it wasn’t.

    (As for Switzerland being an exception, a few months ago I had an opportunity to read an article in the sometimes sickeningly conservative Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche. It reported on a poll that showed that large parts of the population of regions surrounding Switzerland wanted those regions to join the Swiss Confederacy. The author of that article expressed considerable surprise at this, “because of how much it takes to make a citizen of a modern nation-state want to renounce his [sic] country” (paraphrasing from memory). My first thought was “WTF? ‘Modern’? In the 1950s maybe, at the latest.” — My sister went to school in Switzerland for a year and found out her classmates, by and large, were “proud to be Swiss”. Incredulous, she asked if that’s really what they meant or if they meant “glad” instead, and it turned out her suspicion was right, but it’s still remarkable that they had a cultural expectation of expressing this as “proud”.)

    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.

    Ooh. Link, please. I think such a list could become very useful for me in future discussions. :-)

    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.

    …And… you’re sure this wasn’t a botched attempt at deadpan irony…? :-S

    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.

    That sounds… depressing. :-)

    I smile, inappropriately, because I’ve found the third way I come with the third way inbuilt: cynicism to the point of autistic detachment from reality. It’s like Buddhist detachment, only… less sane. Rather than being deluded that I’ll succeed no matter what happens, I seem to believe that it won’t matter, at least not in the slightly longer run. It’s actually a bit disturbing to watch myself believe this.

    Just one of the examples I can think of right away: My thesis is done, I’ll almost certainly defend it on Nov. 19th. So I’ll either have a postdoc soon, or I’ll be unemployed. The latter option means living with my parents, so no great expenses can result, but this family could still put an extra income-earner to very good use. Half a year ago I wrote to the natural-history museum in Berlin if they had a postdoc position for me. They said I’d be welcome and I should apply for a Humboldt Foundation grant, or something. In any case, I interpreted this as meaning they had money and could take me in any case, I should just apply for a Humboldt grant because that would make everything easier and would amount to more money for everyone. In the last 2 or so weeks, my mother desperately pressured me all the time to look for an apartment in Berlin and to ask how much money I would get, if indeed any. A couple of days ago, she started looking for an apartment, and I finally wrote that e-mail asking if I had understood them correctly half a year ago. Sending it first to the wrong and then to the right person, I got the reply that they have no money at all whatsoever; I’m welcome if I bring my own money from a Humboldt or similar grant. Was I shocked? Outraged at how they had been too polite to express themselves clearly? Outraged at how stupidly, obliviously naive I had been to adopt the best possible interpretation half a year ago (if not in fact a better-than-possible one) instead of asking right away if I had understood them right? Sad at what that could mean for my career and my parents’ financial situation? I’m surprised at myself that none of that happened. I answered right away “OK, so I’ll apply for a Humboldt grant first”, and that’s what I’ll do. :-| It goes without saying that thinking up an entire project, and that together with the people in Berlin rather than alone, will take some time, and that a grant proposal takes months from submission to decision, and that acceptance is by no means guaranteed. (Given my CV, I do think I have reasons to be optimistic about the acceptance part, but that still isn’t a guarantee.) I have enough things to write papers on that I can do here at home or in the museum here in Vienna, but the best-case scenario still means I have no work, no money, and no postdoc for my CV for the next several months. And if I won’t get a Humboldt grant, that means I have to start looking for a postdoc all afresh, and that at a time when university budgets are being slashed around the world.* So why can’t I bring myself to be afraid? Why can’t I even bring myself to work harder instead of spending hours on Pharyngula every day? Hey, why do I comment here instead of continuing to work on the presentation for my thesis defense so I can get to work on the grant proposal, or going to bed so I’ll have more time to do so tomorrow?

    Anyway, this saves me from depression. I have plenty of reasons to be depressive, but somehow I’m not (and I’m not on any meds, nor am I an unusually happy person). I don’t understand it. :-)

    * Eh, actually, the total budget of Austria’s public universities will be increased by 80 million € next year. But this still won’t lead to a tolerable situation. I wonder if it’ll even make up for this year’s slashes; it certainly won’t for the cumulative ones since 2001.

    or by simply erasing the magnitude of the problem.

    <dismissive wave of hand> Magnitudes are difficult to grasp for a three-pound monkey brain anyway. “One death is a catastrophe, a million is a statistic”, because we can’t even imagine a measly million in the first place. I juggle hundreds of millions of years around every day, and I don’t even try to imagine one of these millions (or for that matter 0.01 of them); I think of geologic time in terms of a timescale that represents 500 million years on a single screen or the narrow side of a sheet of paper, and of 600,000 dead Iraqi civilians (let alone the world wars) in terms of… statistics. :-|

    P.S.:holy shit, this post is difficult to read. waaaaaay too many brackets. sorry :-p

    Come on. :-) You’ve been absent from Pharyngula so much that you seem to have forgotten about Ogvorbis (the (you know) soul inhabitant (of the (you know) Ogvorbisverse) formerly known as (((Billy))))… :-)

    I also have empathy for child soldiers who are forced to commit atrocities.

    Or are drugged by their superiors, go home, chop their sisters’ arms off for no particular reason, and then sometime later wake up and find out what the fuck they’ve done. :-S

    obscuring the reality of war and minimizing its effect on American soldiers so that we don’t have to acknowledge how damaged they can be by politically popular military actions

    The reactions by the US Administration to the WikiLeaks revelations (yesterday and a few months ago) are particularly… funny in this regard. They can’t deny the atrocities and general bumbling, deadly incompetence happened, so they don’t even try — instead they whine that it wasn’t nice to publish the facts…

  3. johannes says:

    I see no need why the left should adopt cultural pessimism. It had been associated with the right for centuries, if not millenia. Trying to beat the right in their own game will inevitable end in disaster. The right has more experience and knows the territory much better. Quoting Spengler about the inevitable fall of the decadent west might attract some event managers or wedding planners who fantasize about being Nietzschean supermen and wearing shiny jackboots, but than Palin quotes Ayn Rand and they gravitate back to the tea party. If the left abandons its grand narrative (that people can improve their lot) in order to win over some conformist rebels, as Adorno would have called them, it sacrifices long term strategy for short term tactical advantage.

    Where I come from, that mindset was once near-universal in the public sphere, but it took a heavy hit in 1945

    The other way around, Austrian patriotism did begin in 1945, before that date the Ostmark – with the exception of a few Slovenian partisans – was more German than the Germans.

    and got the coup de grâce in 1968

    “Comrade Thälmann never accepted the Versailles treaty, so how could we accept the Oder-Neisse border?” :-D And that was the Arbeiterbund, in relaxed, hedonistic Munich. Don’t get me started on the real hardcore Maoist zombie cults, like the KBW, and their plans to defeat both the American imperialists and the social-imperialist Breshnev (by turning the cars of the bourgeoisie into light tanks)…

  4. Paul says:

    …And… you’re sure this wasn’t a botched attempt at deadpan irony…? :-S

    Sometimes you really seem to know a lot about Americans, and other times you seem to give them far too much credit. The contrast is amusing.

    johannes, I don’t see Jadehawk as advocating “cultural pessimism”. She’s arguing for realism. They’re not the same. For instance:

    it’s generally the conviction that the future will definitely be better (or at least not any worse) than the past

    This is the one thing that really irritates me about Ebonmuse. I’ve generally had a boycrush because of his amazing essays, but he has posted more than once that the world follows a long arc bending towards morality/justice (a Martin Luther King Jr. paraphrase, I believe). But just because I’ll argue against it doesn’t mean I’m arguing in pessimism, that the future will definitely be worse than the past (although odds are pretty good there). I just want an open and honest accounting of where we are and where we’re going, and recognition that it is well within our hands to make the outcome better or worse. Without assuming that there is an intrinsic positive bent to universal outcomes.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    And as always (if I count the hits and ignore the misses, at least), I was right not to get depressed – my postdoc situation has lightened up: a job has opened at the U of Chicago under Neil “Tiktaalik” Shubin, and it’s damn near ideal for me. I’ll start writing my application tomorrow.

    Shubin was at the SVP meeting and may well have seen my talk… :-)

    (Of course I’ll still apply for a Humboldt grant ASAP. I don’t want to live in the US for too long, and nothing is guaranteed anyway, and getting a Humboldt grant takes 6 months under ideal conditions.)

    Quoting Spengler about the inevitable fall of the decadent west

    I’ve read the abridged edition of a 1950s version of

    DER
    UNTER
    GANG
    DES
    ABEND
    LANDES

    (all-caps so huge that there’s no space for the two hyphens on the title page…)

    …at least twice, and you’re misunderstanding it. Spengler didn’t even say the West was decadent at all. Instead, he thought great complexes of ideas had a limited lifetime, and the lifetime of the “Faustian soul” was about to end. Indeed, the biggest reason why I disagree with his grand(iose) scheme of things is because he overlooked a couple of important facts and didn’t anticipate some that developed after the 1950s and that had never occurred before. He had too much trust in Ecclesiastes chapter 1.

    If the left abandons its grand narrative (that people can improve their lot)

    Jadehawk is saying that people’s lots will not necessarily improve, that we must work for it. She’s arguing against Marx’s “historical inevitabilities”, not against the “grand narrative” that you mention. Ain’t the same thing.

    (Er, and, I haven’t actually read Marx.)

    Austrian patriotism did begin in 1945

    Austrian patriotism never began.

    :-)

    Really. When (most) Austrians gave up on German nationalism, most ditched the entire concept of patriotism with it.

    Maybe 10 years ago I read an article by an Austrian politologist on why he’s not a patriot. He was an Austrian patriot before it was cool not considered crazy, in the 60s or something, when people still wondered whether Austria was a nation*, and then he abandoned patriotism in the 1990s or so because (…he didn’t use those words, but…) it’s just too stupid. Being citizens of the same country doesn’t make people have a lot in common. Catholic mothers in central northern Austria have more in common with Catholic mothers in Uruguay than with Viennese bureaucrats, to make an attempt at citing one of his many examples from memory.

    It’s similar in Germany. If you say you’re proud to be a German, you’re either a Nazi or a member of that tiny group that wants to reclaim that word from the Nazis; that almost exhausts the possibilities. Reportedly, few Germans even knew how to sing the single stanza of the national anthem before the football** world championship of, uh, a few years ago.

    * That question is now answered because we’ve redefined “nation” to mean “citizens of a country”.
    ** Soccer.

    “Comrade Thälmann never accepted the Versailles treaty, so how could we accept the Oder-Neisse border?” :-D

    Who said that?

    And that was the Arbeiterbund, in relaxed, hedonistic Munich.

    Bavaria was a Soviet republic for about a year in 1919. X-D X-D X-D

    Don’t get me started on the real hardcore Maoist zombie cults, like the KBW, and their plans to defeat both the American imperialists and the social-imperialist Breshnev (by turning the cars of the bourgeoisie into light tanks)…

    *snort*

    Google sez the KBW is this here. The German article is extremely long and explains why it dissolved itself in 1985: due to lengthy negotiations over the administration of its wealth, worth millions of DM! LOL! It seems to be a pattern that small communist parties are extremely rich. Austria’s Communist Party (KPÖ) has a still not quite resolved scandal over having inherited a lot of East Germany.

    Uh…

    My point was that patriotism was seen as a conservative value, and rejected with all of them, by the hippies. While no revolution happened in ’68*, the effects were profound. For instance, Austria had become more conservative at every election from 1945 to 1966, and in 1966 the conservatives got a majority of the vote, so they didn’t need a coalition partner anymore; the next elections, in 1970, flipped that over, so the Social Democrats (still Socialists at that time, I think) formed a minority government for a year and resoundingly won the elections of 1971. Their majority government held till the early 1980s, and they have been the bigger partner in coalitions ever since with the exception of 2002–2006.

    * Though it got very close in France. Why aren’t the streets of Paris paved with cobblestones anymore? To make it more difficult for protesters to procure cobblestones for throwing.

    Sometimes you really seem to know a lot about Americans, and other times you seem to give them far too much credit. The contrast is amusing.

    :-) Must be because I interact mostly with those Americans that deserve pretty much all the credit I can get. Your average teabagger doesn’t fit through my end-user tube of the Internet.

    I did get to see an “if it’s a theory, that means it’s just an idea” creationist in the flesh 10 days ago, though. :-)

  6. David Marjanović says:

    HTML test:

    DER
    UNTER
    GANG
    DES
    ABEND
    LANDES

    Also,
    this.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Complete failure. (I tried to center it, write it in 20pt, and make it bold, all in one <p> tag.) Note to self: <strike> works, <s> doesn’t, I can stop using both.

  8. Jadehawk says:

    I see no need why the left should adopt cultural pessimism. It had been associated with the right for centuries, if not millenia. Trying to beat the right in their own game will inevitable end in disaster. The right has more experience and knows the territory much better. Quoting Spengler about the inevitable fall of the decadent west might attract some event managers or wedding planners who fantasize about being Nietzschean supermen and wearing shiny jackboots, but than Palin quotes Ayn Rand and they gravitate back to the tea party. If the left abandons its grand narrative (that people can improve their lot) in order to win over some conformist rebels, as Adorno would have called them, it sacrifices long term strategy for short term tactical advantage.

    you’ve completely misunderstood this post. I’m for realism, not baseless optimism or equally baseless apocalyptic thinking; BOTH of which have long belonged to the right (“America is #1!!!”, American exceptionalism as a whole, America as the eternal good guy, the completely absurd belief that growth economics can make the lives of Westerners better forever, etc blah blah). The left should not fall prey to seeing the world as they want it to be, instead of seeing it as it is, and figuring out how to get it to where they want it to be.

    “Comrade Thälmann never accepted the Versailles treaty, so how could we accept the Oder-Neisse border?” :-D And that was the Arbeiterbund, in relaxed, hedonistic Munich. Don’t get me started on the real hardcore Maoist zombie cults, like the KBW, and their plans to defeat both the American imperialists and the social-imperialist Breshnev (by turning the cars of the bourgeoisie into light tanks)…

    I have not the faintest clue what that has to do with the point that the sort of passionate and expected patriotism that’s seen as a positive and is ubiquitous among the general population that is everywhere in the USA has completely stopped existing in most parts of Europe

  9. johannes says:

    and you’re misunderstanding it. Spengler didn’t even say the West was decadent at all.

    However, his readers among the German eltes and middle classes understood it that way, and acted accordingly.

    Reportedly, few Germans even knew how to sing the single stanza of the national anthem before the football** world championship of, uh, a few years ago.

    Well, Sarah Connor* might, er, re-invent the national anthem ;-), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYHY2kLdJOw – Sarah’s self-made text translates into: Scald in the light of happiness :-D – but the mere fact that something like the singing coati from Delmenhorst exists proves that, since the nineties, Germany has replaced the old universalist popular culture of the Beatles or Madonna with something more teutonic, and has actually become more nationalistic in this respect.

    Who said that?

    If it was the official line of the Arbeiterbund, it was probably the work of Sommerrock, or Schmitz-Bender (who would have loved his Futurama namesake. An industrial worker made of pure steel…)

    My point was that patriotism was seen as a conservative value, and rejected with all of them, by the hippies.

    In Germany the 68ers were, as a rule of the thumb, more anti-American, anti-Semitic (and in some extreme cases more anti-Russian, too) than the average apolitical consumerist. Anti-nationalism in the German left* did not start before 1990, and it stayed in the radical left, never reaching the social democratic mainstream. Mahler and Rabehl did not end up where they are now for nothing, and it should be remembered that the red/green coalition was the first post-WWII German government that officially*** participated in a war. It should be also remembered that, since the fifties, the protestant, liberal elites in the west-German media and cultural industry always complained about the conservative’s alleged lack of patriotism – the “rhineland separatist” Adenauer has sold out to the west, blah blah.

    In France and Italy, several of the Trotskyite, Operaist and other radical leftist groups that rose after 1968 might indeed have been more critical of Nationalism than the old communist parties, who had been generally slightly to the right of the American democrats ;-), but, on the other hand, Debray ended up as Mitterand’s advisor on colonial matters (Hutu power. Fhtagn)

    * Though it got very close in France. Why aren’t the streets of Paris paved with cobblestones anymore? To make it more difficult for protesters to procure cobblestones for throwing.

    Back in 1987, when I was an exchange student in Akron, Ohio, the textbooks in my high school described the 5th republic as an essentially 18th-century system: absolutism moderated by riots :-)

    The left should not fall prey to seeing the world as they want it to be, instead of seeing it as it is, and figuring out how to get it to where they want it to be.

    I agree with you on this one. I have no problem with abandoning whiggish “march of progress” positions, which, IMHO, have no place in a post-Auschwitz world. The trick is to avoid the pitfalls of cultural pessimism while doing so. Read Robert Kurz, but avoid to turn into Colonel Kurtz :-)

    I have not the faintest clue what that has to do with the point that the sort of passionate and expected patriotism that’s seen as a positive and is ubiquitous among the general population that is everywhere in the USA has completely stopped existing in most parts of Europe

    Patriotism in the style of the French or American revolutions is pretty much dead in Europe, that much is true, but this couldn’t be the work of the baby boomer left, which after, all, excisted in the US, too, (in fact it did origin in the US to a large degree) without causing the end of US patriotism. IMHO patriotism in Western Europe already began to decline in the interwar years, when it was replaced by other form of identity politics based no longer on the national state as the product of a Rousseau-style social contract, but on class, race, ideology or völkisch ethnic ties. To name two examples, the average French conservative felt more loyalty to Franco than to Leon Blum, the average German communist felt more loyalty to Stalin than to the Weimar republic. WWI was a war between nation states, WWII was a world civil war between ideologies.

    Anyway, the fact that 18th-century patriotism does no longer exist in the central core of the EU doesn’t mean the end of toxic nationalism, racism or xenophobia in Europe. Frontex still kills people in frightening numbers, or pays Colonel G for doing so. Germans might no longer salute the black, red and gold flag (have they ever done since 1849?) but too many of them still adore black, white and red, with or without green stars, triangles, eagles etc :-(

    * Though there were forerunners in literature, like Pohrt and Geisel
    **no connection with the heroine from Terminator
    ***the former GDR’s role in the Yom Kippur war and Saddam’s attack on Iran – the former, mercifully, irrelevant from a military point of view, the latter quite decisive – was kept secret

  10. David Marjanović says:

    In Germany the 68ers were, as a rule of the thumb, more anti-American, anti-Semitic (and in some extreme cases more anti-Russian, too) than the average apolitical consumerist.

    Fine, I know, I was talking about Austria. :-)

    I’ve never heard of Mahler or Rabehl.

    it should be remembered that the red/green coalition was the first post-WWII German government that officially*** participated in a war.

    That has pretty obvious historical reasons, plus the fact that Schröder isn’t all that far on the left. He’s a Clinton/Blair centrist.

    It should be also remembered that, since the fifties, the protestant, liberal elites in the west-German media and cultural industry always complained about the conservative’s alleged lack of patriotism – the “rhineland separatist” Adenauer has sold out to the west, blah blah.

    I didn’t even know that.

    (Austria lacks Protestant elites, has very few protestants in total, and liberal parties analogous to the FDP are very short-lived and stay very small during their short existence.)

    described the 5th republic as an essentially 18th-century system: absolutism moderated by riots :-)

    Perfect :-)

    than to the Weimar republic.

    Did anybody who wasn’t dead by 1921 feel any loyalty to “the republic that nobody wanted”? :-/

    WWI was a war between nation states, WWII was a world civil war between ideologies.

    Good point.

    18th-century patriotism does no longer exist in the central core of the EU

    Even 19th- and 20th-century patriotism are no longer mainstream, while they are in the US.

  11. Jadehawk says:

    Anyway, the fact that 18th-century patriotism does no longer exist in the central core of the EU doesn’t mean the end of toxic nationalism, racism or xenophobia in Europe.

    nobody claimed otherwise. David made a very narrow point that American patriotism is an example of how progress isn’t inevitable, since the progress away from that sort of patriotism never happened in the US

    Must be because I interact mostly with those Americans that deserve pretty much all the credit I can get. Your average teabagger doesn’t fit through my end-user tube of the Internet.

    “teabaggers” and “people who write for ZNet” are non-overlapping sets.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    ARGH! Jadehawk! It’s irresponsible to direct me towards a timewaster! :-) My dad will love it, however, and fortunately I can’t comment on this article.

    …So I’ll do it here:

    French workers re-learn — and remind everyone else — that, without their work, the economy stops. Corporate executives and politicians bark orders, but nothing happens unless and until workers comply. In their solidarity, the French rediscover the taproots of their political power.

    I don’t think they “relearn” or “rediscover” anything. They know full well that that approach works. They have a tradition of everything from small demonstrations over strikes all the way to successful revolutions. And they’re forced to keep it up: in France, when the government wants to change something, they talk to the corporation bosses, negotiate something, implement it or nearly so, and then the protests start. In Austria, we have the paragovernment: the employers’ organization and the employees’ organization negotiate something that rocks as few boats as possible and then give it to the government, who implement it. “Consensus democracy” as opposed to “conflict democracy”. Austria had a very strong counter-reformation, and the revolution of 1848 was trounced so thoroughly that no such thing has been attempted since. Long-lasting strikes are only done by university students, which means they hardly hurt anyone…

    Was it Lenin who said the Germans will never do a revolution because that would mean they’d have to step on the lawn?

    Anyway, I think my point is that attitudes shaped by tradition are very important in this kind of thing. They are an important reason why different societies develop in different directions (instead of all “progressing” the same way), and they are why the constant attempts of that article to equate France with the US look too optimistic to me. Which means I’m back on topic. :-) :-) :-)

    To leave it immediately, here is an interview with Julian Assange.

    …What was your point of linking to ZNet? To show me that I don’t interact with all Americans who deserve credit and that I should therefore be more optimistic? :-)

    BTW:

    Sometimes you really seem to know a lot about Americans, and other times you seem to give them far too much credit. The contrast is amusing.

    :-) Must be because I interact mostly with those Americans that deserve pretty much all the credit I can get.

    “Get”? WTF? I meant “muster” or “give” or something.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Uh, the font size of the quoted quote is not intentional. It must be part of the CSS.

    Test

    Test

  14. johannes says:

    Did anybody who wasn’t dead by 1921 feel any loyalty to “the republic that nobody wanted”? :-/

    At the time of Papen’s coup in 1932 – which, for all practical purposes, ended the republic as a viable entity – there still were loyal forces: the trade unions, the Reichsbanner militia – 3 millions, 250.000 of them in the supposedly elite Schufos – and the Prussian police, 50.000 to 90.000 men strong, according to source.
    Papen had a well-trained regular army of 100.000, with a super-professional general staff, but with its air force and heavy equipment in Lipetsk, central Russia, separated from Germany by several thousand kilometres and several national borders.
    If I had been Prussian prime minister Otto Braun, I would have at least tried a general strike (it had worked against the Kapp coup in 1920).

    Was it Lenin who said the Germans will never do a revolution because that would mean they’d have to step on the lawn?

    I have heard it this way: German revolutionaries will never storm a train station without buying a ticket before. Given the high hopes Lenin had for a German revolution, both remarks are probably apocryphal – but sadly fitting for Braun’s and Severing’s passive behaviour during the Papen coup described above.

  15. Jadehawk says:

    …What was your point of linking to ZNet? To show me that I don’t interact with all Americans who deserve credit and that I should therefore be more optimistic? :-)

    quite the contrary. you were incredulous that this woman wasn’t sarcastic in her writings, and when pointed out that that was naive, you defended yourself with the claim that you don’t encounter teabaggers much. this woman was no teabagger, and was far enough out of the mainstream to be part of an anarchist website. and STILL, she made comments like this (ok, she was maybe a n00b anarchist in the denial stage, but still :-p )

  16. Paul says:

    and STILL, she made comments like this

    I’ve caught myself falling into the cognitive trap lately of assuming anyone saying things that batshit crazy (or more accurately ignorant or special-pleadingly) are teabaggers, myself. Of course, I’m in an area surrounded by teabaggers and have cut myself off from outside news* for the most part, so it’s not all that surprising.

    *Until the Left stops considering Obama anything other than center-right, I’m done with paying attention to national-level news and politics, I think.

  17. Jadehawk says:

    I’ve caught myself falling into the cognitive trap lately of assuming anyone saying things that batshit crazy (or more accurately ignorant or special-pleadingly) are teabaggers, myself.

    yeah, me too. it’s just all sorts of convenient and comforting to imagine that frustratingly stupid shit only comes from clueless right-wing morons. acknowledging that it can come from supposedly smart, well-educated and knowledgeable people on our side of the culture wars, is also part of shedding this inane optimism

  18. Paul says:

    I’m not sure that inane is the best adjective to describe the optimism under discussion. It’s really more active willful ignorance than simply lacking substance. It’s something people wrap themselves in so they do not have to consider the downstream effects of their actions, or to deal with the world as it really is.

  19. Jadehawk says:

    yeah, you’re right, i guess

  20. David Marjanović says:

    this woman was no teabagger, and was far enough out of the mainstream to be part of an anarchist website. and STILL, she made comments like this

    Oh.

    I do notice it when it’s obvious. I put this insane Democratic candidate (a LaRouche worshipper) into the Readers’ Picks yesterday because what she wants is just so hilarious. (Given the source, you’ve already seen it. Funnily, a LaRouchie showed up in the comments.) But when I hear a statement of patriotism, my European sensibilities still move it to the right. :-/ Even though Pharyngula (and probably Smirking Chimp) has taught me in detail that, um, Second Amendment rights aren’t limited to the right either, not even close.

  21. Paul says:

    I do notice it when it’s obvious.

    This is why I was having a little chuckle at your expense. When I read something like that (especially from an American), I consider it obvious that it’s not tongue in cheek unless there are major cues to imply otherwise. I can’t compare it to citizens of other nations due to insufficient experience, but when an American says that even though we may be killing millions of furriners life is still good because they have nice get-togethers with other ladies over tea, the safe assumption is that they are simply the same sort of people who read Chicken Soup for the Soul and find it inspiring. They simply don’t empathize with people in other societies or stations in life, and make no effort to. It keeps them from having to actually worry about the downstream effects of their/America’s actions. Life is still good because their life is still good, even if the very reason their life is good is because they’re depriving others of the same goodness by their actions or government.

    But when I hear a statement of patriotism, my European sensibilities still move it to the right. :-/ Even though Pharyngula (and probably Smirking Chimp) has taught me in detail that, um, Second Amendment rights aren’t limited to the right either, not even close.

    I’m trying to figure out what you mean by this and can’t quite do it (although I haven’t been reading Pharyngula lately, so maybe being decontextualized is a large factor). What is the linkage between the two sentences that merits an “even though” connection? There’s no intrinsic link between patriotism and one’s Second Amendment position. A lot of the anti-gun control lefties (not that there are a lot) aren’t arguing or emoting from a “patriotic” position.

  22. Jadehawk says:

    I’m trying to figure out what you mean by this and can’t quite do it (although I haven’t been reading Pharyngula lately, so maybe being decontextualized is a large factor). What is the linkage between the two sentences that merits an “even though” connection? There’s no intrinsic link between patriotism and one’s Second Amendment position. A lot of the anti-gun control lefties (not that there are a lot) aren’t arguing or emoting from a “patriotic” position.

    the connection is that for Europeans, both patriotism and right-to-bear-arms are far right-wing positions. David is having culture shock at the fact that both are present on the left (even the REAL left, not just the relative left) in the USA

  23. johannes says:

    Schröder isn’t all that far on the left. He’s a Clinton/Blair centrist.

    Economically and fiscally, pretty much everything that held power in 1999 – from the Gingrich-led US congress to Chavez’s neo-Bonapartism – was to the right of what would have been the default social democratic/Christian democratic/Rockefeller Republican position in 1950. Socially and culturally, it’s a different matter. Schröder’s administration, full of former RAF*-attorneys – including Gazprom Gerd himself – would have been unthinkable during the seventies or eighties.

    *the German boutique terrorist racket. No connections to the Royal Air Force, or the real Red Army

  24. David Marjanović says:

    johannes, good points all over. Consider “neo-Bonapartism” stolen. :-)

    the connection is that for Europeans, both patriotism and right-to-bear-arms are far right-wing positions. David is having culture shock at the fact that both are present on the left (even the REAL left, not just the relative left) in the USA

    Exactly.

    OK, “guns shouldn’t be totally banned for ordinary mortals” isn’t a far-right-wing-only position over here (the British near-total ban is more of an exception than the rule), but I was shocked to find, after every school massacre, left-wing Americans saying “we need more guns to prevent this next time, so that people can defend themselves — concealed-carry permits for everyone everywhere”. Over here, that kind of craziness… may not occur at all, but would be expected from the right fringe if anyone.

    BTW, Paul, thanks for your participation in this thread! I was starting to feel awkward about having this conversation in English. :-þ

  25. “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.”

    I’ve always found this rather amusing! It’s like an emotional version of the Dunning-Kruger effect. As someone who has suffered from chronic depression myself, I occasionally like to think that I might just be one of the rational few who experience ‘depressive realism’ – the sense that people with depression simply have a more accurate grip on reality, and other people support their happiness optimism bias and other superiority delusions.

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