Who was the self-described “historical pessimist” who wrote last March-when it was still unclear whether the invasion of Iraq would proceed-“War or no war, things will get worse.”
Oh, right, that was me. (In a March 2003 issue of The Observer .) I still hope I’ll be proven wrong in the long run. I take no satisfaction in having my bleak pessimism-well, I prefer to call it “tragic sense of history”-confirmed. I have taken heat before for pessimistic speculations about the nature of human nature, about the future fate of the Jews (is a “second Holocaust,” this time in the Middle East, possible?), and I probably will take heat for what I’m about to say here in making the broader case for what I’d call informed, foundational pessimism.
Indeed, it may be the last heresy left in America, the last real transgression-to be a pessimist. For all the “transgressiveness” the armchair warriors in the academy claim, they basically believe “unpacking” Jane Austen with addled jargon will somehow shake the foundations of oppressive “hegemony” to make a better world. It’s a delusion, but it’s an optimistic delusion.
But to be a pessimist, to have a tragic sense of history, to doubt the Answers proffered by the various -isms (all variations of optim-ism)- that is impermissible. Our whole culture was founded on optimism, from the commercial to the theological. On the belief that things will turn out all right, that Man will prevail, that Reason will triumph over Unreason, that Progress is inexorable, that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness ….
There’s a reason I brought up that last platitude in particular. I had recently been in receipt of a fax from my friend Errol Morris (director, most recently, of The Fog of War , to my mind a classic of informed, foundational, epistemological pessimism). Errol may be even more profoundly pessimistic than I am, although many of our conversations revolve around who’s really got the darker attitude.
We had recently been talking on the phone about the unexamined assumptions of optimism and such unquestioned clichés as “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” and it turned out Errol had already compiled a list of seven reasons “why it makes sense to curse the darkness rather than light a candle,” which he faxed me.
Some of them were wry jibes: “You could burn yourself …. You could cause a fire …. The candle could be one of those ghastly scented [ones] and you’re stuck with the foul odor that can linger for days if not weeks.”
But then there was one that got me thinking: “The candle provides only minimal illumination. Hardly worth the effort …. “
And it occurred to me that, in fact, illumination is precisely the problem. A candle may provide all too much illumination. In a subsequent phone conversation, I suggested to Errol an Eighth Reason “why it makes sense to curse the darkness rather than light a candle”: Every time one lights a candle, one succeeds only in illuminating all the truly unspeakable things the darkness covers up.
Yes, Errol said, it’s much the same with that other optimistic maxim, “The truth shall set you free.” In fact, as he put it, most of the time, “the truth shall make you horribly depressed.”
The belief that truth is ultimately uplifting, or will lead to uplift, is almost always presumptively imputed to the line, “The truth shall set you free.”
The truth is worth knowing, yes, but is the truth always uplifting?-which is how the saying is most frequently used. The “truth,” like the lit candle, is as likely to illuminate previously unseen causes for an even deeper and perhaps more paralyzing despair rather than deliver some promised hope. The truth may set you free of any false faith in human nature. The truth may stun you with its pitiless and terrifying implications.
But pessimism and pessimists are frowned upon. The worst thing you can say in America is “there is no solution” or “there is no hope.” There’s got to be hope, people will say to you, as if saying it will make it true, the same way clapping for Tinkerbelle will bring her back to “life” again.
Umm, sez who? Why exactly has there got to be hope? Where exactly is it written in the laws of history, the maxims of science or the nature of human nature that “there’s got to be hope”?
People who believe in hope are still attached to the idea that we have made “progress” in recent history, and I guess it’s how you define progress. Sure, I like my 500-channel digital-on-demand cable package, but let’s get real and look at the history of this past century: evidence for optimism about progress? Ten million or so carelessly, pointlessly slaughtered in the trenches of World War I (slaughter brought to you by that exemplar of progress, the machine gun), a war which paved the way for the millions exterminated in death camps in World War II-by very advanced, progressive, industrial means-in addition to the tens of millions who died in the war itself.
And of course, we really learned from that tragedy: Subsequent mass murders in the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, genocides and near-genocides in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and now the Sudan, not to mention the slaughters in the Middle East, 300,000 in mass graves in Saddam’s Iraq prove that, right? Yes, we certainly have progressed, we certainly have moved forward as a species: look how fast bad news travels on our improved cable modems. Digital pictures of torture and beheading are now available instantly.
Pessimism, it should be noted, doesn’t mean not trying to stop genocides: pessimism means genocides are unlikely to stop. Pessimism doesn’t mean passive-ism or pacifism; it can mean the opposite. It can mean the kind of preventive intervention in genocidal situations that comes from expecting the worst, not hoping for the best. Pessimism at its best is watchful skepticism.
Pessimism is often decried as “fashionable,” as if it were like wearing black to be cool. Which ignores the unfortunate, unmentionable fact that the weight of evidence is that pessimism is not arbitrary fashion, but evidence-based realism.
If it’s not decried as “fashionable,” pessimism is often diagnosed as a disease . Pessimists suffer from depression . Uh, not so fast; depression can be defined as feeling bad regardless of the reality of the circumstances. Pessimism is feeling bad because of the reality of the circumstances. Optimists are the ones who are diagnosably deluded.
Pessimism is a heresy because optimism is the true established religion in America. Sometimes the established religion takes the form of the unmerited worship of “self-esteem,” or upward mobility, or Donald Trump.
Pessimism is a heresy because people want to believe things are “under control.” The scariest thing is to think things are “out of control.” Nobody wants to believe things are going to just keep getting worse, despite all the evidence. Because everyone claims to have the solution, to have the answer, to have things under control. Yes, more than anything, to have things under control.
In the course of being a journalist or just a CNN-watcher, one finds oneself more often than one wants a witness at grave sites, memorial services, often in the wake of horrible crimes and disasters. And one gets used to hearing over and over again one particular consoling platitude, repeated by the preachers at the grim site because, obviously, it’s what people most want to-need to-believe. What they say is: “Don’t despair, God is in control.”
And I understand the consolatory function of the words, but it always prompts me to ask, “If God is in control, why are we here at this mass grave in the first place?” If this landscape of the dead, dying and mourning is “control,” give me “out of control.”
But you can’t say that in America. There’s an answer for every problem, a consolation for every tragedy, a redemption for every horror. Steven Spielberg found hope for the human spirit in the Holocaust because one Christian saved a few Jews. Don’t get me started on the unspeakable Roberto Benigni, who got an Oscar for showing us how “life is beautiful” for people like him who make upbeat Holocaust films.
If you need any further evidence that blind optimism is the secular faith of America, take a look at who PBS has anointed as its secular saint: Dr. Wayne Dyer, the self-help guru who made his fortune from a book called Your Erroneous Zones and has become the king of PBS fund-raising marathons.
Now this is PBS, a network that distinguishes itself over and over again by being unafraid to bring its viewers bad news (cf. Ghosts of Rwanda , its genocide documentary). This is PBS, responsible for a good number of serious, unflinching looks at the world (necessary disclosure: I was co-writer of a PBS/ Frontline documentary Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero , which gave voice to heretical questions about whether “God is in control.”)
And yet repeatedly, our “serious” PBS stations give themselves over to marathon fund-raising pitches that-while they may raise a lot of money-are essentially infomercials for Dr. Wayne’s books, seminars, CD’s and videotapes. Yes, they are given away “free” with your PBS contribution, but his appearances endow him with PBS’s aura of seriousness. Come on! I bet there are a lot of people who would pledge money to PBS if they pledged not to inflict Dr. Wayne with his mish-mosh New Age mysticism about “intentionality” and his sappy minor-league Leo Buscaglia uplift act on us.
Well, maybe not. That’s precisely the point: The feel-good pitch works. Optimism sells. People pay PBS good money for Dr. Wayne’s “whole enchilada”-his multi-platform package of incredibly self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, Polyanna-lite philosophy.
But why stop there? Perhaps there’s synergy between the two sides of PBS, Rwanda and Dr. Wayne. Perhaps we could air-drop Dr. Wayne’s “whole enchilada” in mass quantities onto the remaining population of Rwanda, and they could really tune in to their “intentionality”-Dr. Wayne’s latest New Age buzzword-and learn to feel better about that whole genocide thing. It was all “intended” from the beginning of time, from what I can figure out from Dr. Wayne’s shaky theory of “intentionality.”
There just seems to me a radical disconnect here. PBS officially doesn’t take ads (that is, if you don’t count the incessant mention of “corporate sponsors”). But isn’t it doing something worse in making Dr. Wayne the Face of PBS? Isn’t it, in effect, endorsing , in a not-inconsequential way, Dr. Wayne’s “don’t worry, be happy” mystical New Age bubble-head “philosophy”? I’d rather watch a Pepto-Bismol ad.
By the way, it’s not that pessimists can’t feel happy now and then-in fact, pessimists may treasure moments of happiness more intensely, if tragically, because they know it’s something so rare and precious it isn’t going to last. (Pessimists are romantics in the bleak Graham Greene mode.)
And it’s not that I have a particular animus against self-help philosophy. I think it works; it’s even worked for me on a short-term basis. But no matter how much it’s spun as philanthropic, how it’s really about spreading the good vibes to everyone , self-help is a self- ish philosophy: The source of happiness or unhappiness, of health and disease, is always within, your fault rather than the product of political or cultural, forces, the flawed nature of human nature and the societies it gives rise to. Or the fault of the moral order (or lack of one) of the cosmos.
Speaking of cosmology, let me return to my conversation with Errol Morris-which, as a number of our conversations have, ended up with Leibniz’s 18th-century work, Theodicy . Errol, a philosophy grad student before he became a filmmaker, believes Leibniz’s treatise is one of the most underappreciated works of philosophy. Underappreciated mainly because of its misconstrual by Voltaire in Candide -a great novel, but one that compressed and distorted Leibniz’s complex argument about the problem of evil and whether God could have created a better world consistent with free will into “This is the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire painted this as a naïve optimistic statement when, in fact, it could be seen as a deeply pessimistic one: Saying this is the best possible world is not necessarily praising it.
Of course, it would be easier for God to create a “better” world, but not with the same degree of free will. There’s no reason He couldn’t have created a world of happily obedient robot puppets who wouldn’t sin if He wanted to. But where’s the fun in that? There would be no evil and no suffering. It’s free will, human nature that is the problem. (My objection-which I once discussed with Alvin Plantinga, the distinguished American philosopher of theodicy-is that God didn’t have to make human nature so murderously bad.)
In any case, Leibniz’s Theodicy is not necessarily a work of optimism. If it asserts that this is the best of all possible worlds, it can be construed as saying, ” This -this!-is the best of all possible worlds? You’ve got to be kidding!”
Alas, it seems a sad truth. As Sir Thomas Browne, the amazing 17th-century baroque essayist, put it in one of the great proverbs of pessimism: “The world, I count it not an Inn, but an Hospital.” Take that, Dr. Wayne.
Any good arguments against pessimism? The only good one I know is heuristic-if one gets too pessimistic, why bother to seek out the few rare and beautiful moments life offers? Better to deceive oneself with false hope. But to say it’s heuristic is to say one’s chosen to live a kind of lie for the benefits it gives.
One would-be sage of contemporary letters, always eager to demonstrate his deep learning, cited what he called the “great retort to pessimism” by the scholar Simon Rawidowicz. He cited it in response to those who have argued that there may never be a good solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians-and perhaps a terrible outcome. Rawidowicz, we’re told, argued that the Jewish people shouldn’t get all upset about threats to their survival, because in their long history there have been many threats that have led some to see “the abyss” before them, and none of these threats have completely succeeded. This seems like a woefully a priori , nonempirical argument-the logic of which is that the Jews in Germany in 1933 shouldn’t have been pessimistic about their fate, because previously in every generation Jews “saw before [them] the abyss.” Great advice! Every once in a while, alas, there is an abyss.
Pessimism is impermissible because it challenges the American orthodoxy that there’s always an answer, always a solution to every problem. And if there’s an answer, a solution, there’s no need to despair, because eventually we’ll find the answer and act accordingly. As if “acting accordingly” was a given. I know I grew up thinking, in a very American way, this was true. That eventually reason would prevail and all parties in any dispute, however grave, would come together on a compromise. No matter what the dispute, it could be resolved, with patience and good will. Some have called this, after a school of optimistic British historians, “Whig history,” history as inexorable progress.
I don’t believe in it any more. My answer to Rodney King: Sorry, my friend, on the evidence, in fact, we can’t all get along. We’re too twisted by the irresistible push and pull of bad impulses and bad ideas. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that. History is the nightmare we can’t escape from.
I was thinking about the question of pessimism in relation to the photos and the video-the prisoner-abuse photos from Abu Ghraib and the head-severing video of Nick Berg. Not whether it’s right to report on them, but whether it’s right to use pictures that are designed to humiliate the photos’ subjects and increase the potential for humiliation a billion times or so by broadcasting them incessantly.
The Nick Berg beheading video raises some of the same questions raised by the Daniel Pearl beheading video. Were the networks right to broadcast the sanitized version that stopped when the sawing, severing and brandishing of the head began? In the anthology I’ve just published ( Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism , the book from which Cynthia Ozick’s brilliant essay, reprinted here in the May 10, 2004, Observer -www.observer.com/pages/story.asp?ID=9025-was taken), one section is devoted to a discussion of that question in regard to the video of Daniel Pearl’s beheading. Should it be broadcast? Should one watch?
In theory, I believe that people should not look away-as Samuel G. Freedman argues in one of the essays in the book. We shouldn’t look away from evil. But having spoken personally with Daniel Pearl’s father, Dr. Judea Pearl, I still can’t bring myself to watch his son die. Dr. Pearl believes that to watch the video is to become an accessory to the purposes of the terrorists.
With Nick Berg, I can deplore the double standard of the media that will broadcast the humiliation of Muslims to show us how bad the perpetrators are, but will not broadcast the beheading of Nick Berg to show us the true face of terrorism.
But in some ways, I think I’ve resisted watching the beheading because to watch would be to lose the last shreds of optimism left in this pessimist’s soul. Pessimists don’t like being pessimists. We don’t need any more evidence for our point of view. We’ve got enough reasons to curse the darkness to last a lifetime.