19 October 2010

A Blog Off post: I am an optimist at heart

The following post is part of a biweekly blogospheric happening called a Blog Off. In a Blog Off, bloggers from all walks of life write about the same subject. The topic for this Blog Off is: Is There Reason to be Optimistic? Blog Off topics are left vague intentionally so that participants can run freely with their musings. If you's like more information on the Blog Off, check out the website. At the end of this post will appear a table with links to all of the participating blogs and that table's repeated on the main Blog Off site. So excuse me while I take a break from my niche (again) and throw it all out there.

I am an optimist. As skeptical and suspicious as I am, at the end of the day I'm thrown to see the positive way forward in any situation. That's not always been the case, I've trained myself to be an optimist. It took a number of years to get to the point where seeing the brighter side is my default mode but I got there. If I can do it, anybody can. Really. I don't see optimism in the same way a lot of people do though.

To be an optimist is to be a realist. All too often, optimism gets confused with sentiment or nostalgia or naiveté but the key to seeing the positives is to be able to assess and gauge reality as it is, not as I'd like it to be.

We live in troubled times. Though 2010's hardly a uniquely troubled time. Humanity's been watching great civilizations rise and fall for a very long time and in the big picture, that story arc never changes. Our times are no different than times have ever been. Here are some of humanity's greatest hits; Elam, Egypt, Assyria, Minoa, Persia, Greece, Phoenicia, Rome, Byzantium, The Ottoman Empire, the Portuguese Empire, The Spanish Empire and The British Empire. That's just a list of sequential empires off the top of my head. All of them have come and gone and each one followed a similar story arc. That's a simplification of course, but each of those civilizations believed itself to be special, ordained by god (s) even. Each one had a rise, a plateau, a decline and then a collapse.

I believe I live in a declining empire and I don't think that makes me a pessimist to hold that opinion. Believing that the decline of the US and by extension the rest of the West can be arrested and reversed isn't optimism, it's a delusion. It's a delusion to believe that everybody can have a bachelor's degree and a 2400 square foot house on a cul de sac. It's a delusion to believe that we can fix everything if we all speak English, or if none of us are Muslim, or if we keep hounding gays until they all jump off bridges. No one can delay the inevitable by manufacturing new enemies.

Admitting to and owning reality isn't pessimism, it pragmatism. It's only in assessing things as they are, not as they ought to be, that people can then choose to be optimistic. I don't think the current decline can be reversed, but I do think it can be slowed. The US doesn't have to collapse in an orgy of civil unrest and it doesn't have to be conquered on a field of war. Those things aren't automatic but to avoid them it's going to require a rational assessment of things as they are and the positive, optimistic, collective choice to keep the upper hand and maintain the rule of law.

So after all that, the question is Is there reason to be optimistic? I say you bet there is. There are all kinds of reasons to be optimistic. I'm alive and I'm in charge and everything flows from there. I can't fix the problems of the US but what I can do is vote for candidates who show something close to a grasp on reality. I can't fix the housing market, the banking crisis or the dreary jobs picture. What I can do though is shield myself from that stuff as best I can and keep plugging away to keep a roof over my head in a mess of an economy. You can't stay flexible, you can't change with the times, you can't assess a situation accurately until you can see it and then chose to be optimistic. The world as I've come to know may be going down the tubes but I don't have to go with it. You know, life isn't easy but it sure is fun. And if all else fails, I have tickets to go see La Bohème at the Met on December 11th.


  1. I tend to agree with you, Paul. I think capitalism has finally eaten itself. Years back there was a line from one of the USSR leaders—might have been Khrushchev—to the effect that not only would communism eventually win out, but that capitalists would sell them the rope they needed to hang us. Well, as it turned out, it was not a Russian scaffold we climbed, but a Chinese one.

    The people with the MBAs convinced American businessmen that the best way to cut costs was to ship all the jobs overseas. Never mind that you will not then be able to sell your products in this country, or any country, really, because the people getting starvation wages in the countries then being exploited have no money for such things as hundred dollar sneakers.

    However, for myself, I have always been an optimist, and am eternally convinced that tomorrow will be a better day. I just wish we could do something to turn things around in this country so everyone could have the same outlook. Maybe we could appeal to the conscience of those who have created this situation? Or is that delusion?

  2. I don't think it's so much capitalism per se, it's more a problem of capitalism as it's come to be practiced int he US over the course of the last 30 to 40 years. It's a bizarre hybrid of central planning and cronyism that consolidates power and money at the top of the pile to the detriment of everybody else.

    In that sense, the US is doing what every empire has done before it. The center can't hold and the whole thing unravels.

    I doubt the whole thing can be fixed without a whole lot of upheaval but I'm convinced that seeing things as they are and then making informed decisions to move in a positive direction are the only thing that will save us. I know this sounds terribly gloomy but there's hope underneath all of it. At least from my perspective.

  3. I think capitalism has always been practiced the same way. It’s driven by greed.

    At your suggestion I am currently re-reading “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. It’s a novel that could have been written yesterday. Nothing much has really changed in agriculture. They are still looking for cheap labor, which is why illegal Mexican labor is used. When those poor people get tired of being paid five dollars an hour, as opposed to the legally required minimum wage, the people who hired them just turn them in and have them deported. Read “Factories in the Field” by Carey McWilliams, also published in 1939. Read a biography on Andrew Carnegie. Read about any of the robber barons. Capitalism has always been driven by greed.

    FDR did a lot to turn things around, but capitalism is like rust. It never rests. The union movement in this country is now on life support and being increasingly battered every day. Meantime, people like Carly Fiorina who gave the order to send 30,000 jobs to India while she was CEO at Hewlett Packard now has the chutzpah to run for U.S. Senator here in California. Her main plank? Creating jobs!

  4. I'm glad to hear you're rereading Grapes of Wrath. 2010 is the perfect time for a revival of that whole dustbowl school of literature. Our current mess is self-induced as was the dustbowl. People like Steinbeck knew it.

    I think all economic systems are operated by greed when you get down to it. I say greed is just the pursuit of short-term self-interest. I think there's a lot to be said for a government to step in and slow the system down so that instead of short term self-interest, people start looking at long-term self-interest.

    The problem now is that the government is now run by the very people who have no interest in a long-term strategy. The Carly Fiorinas of the world can't see 20 years down the road and there are a whole lot of Carly Fiorinas either already in power or are about to assume the mantle of power.

  5. I love this bit -- "optimism gets confused with sentiment or nostalgia or naiveté but the key to seeing the positives is to be able to assess and gauge reality" -- despite all the notes in your argument, I see you still leave yourself the golden parachute; Love it. escapism -- La Bohème at the Met << enjoy. thx Paul

  6. Heard this the other day: A pessimist says "Things just can't be worse than they are now". An optimist says "Oh yes they can!"

  7. I'm getting this tattooed on the insides of my eyelids:

    "I'm alive and I'm in charge and everything flows from there."

  8. JB: What fun would there be if there weren't any escapist adventures to look forward to?

    Mark: Hah!

    Becky: It's true! It's true!

  9. Oh, who is John Galt?

  10. Altruism really is a myth Sarah.

  11. Fantastic! I think maybe we're all going to hell in a handbasket but I guess I'm an optimist because I think it'll be fun along the way.

    Great post. ; )

  12. Paul, I heard a really good definition of reality recently: "Reality is what keeps happening after you quit believing in it."

  13. Favorite quote of today's post: "No one can delay the inevitable by manufacturing new enemies."

    Indeed, good sir. People that claim to be optimists and advocate changes that favor their opinion will never move the country forward. Such thinking is selfish and arrogant, hardly the ingredients for a happy potluck of hope. You are so right when you say we need to see things as they are, not as they ought to be, before we can set positive motion in action.

    Well, okay, that was only my second favorite quote - really I'm just interested to know if you need a seat warmer on December 11th should you find yourself preoccupied in the lobby for a lengthy period of time, say, the entirety of the show, save intermission - then you can have your spot back.

  14. Thanks. I'm really present to the manufactured enemies thing as we head into another election. I wonder what country I live in when my mailbox is filled every day with election ads that attempt to demonize me and the positions I hold dear.

    So you're an opera buff too?

  15. Sorry to have been so unavailable today for this great - and important - blogoff, but just to tell you how very impressed I am with your bold stance on this. Any spare tickets?

  16. Thanks V. I think I scared people. Spare tickets? Hah! It sold out about three minutes after I got my hooks on the two I have.

  17. Paul, I'm sold on your brand of optimistic realism. well said. and I do want to point out, that even after the fall, we still steal culture from England (I mean, if you consider reality tv culture and I do! not la boheme but...) and relish Roman ruins and Italian operas. wonder what people will still relish from the post-collapse US? surely not jello or Wal-Mart; maybe blue jeans? thanks for posting the whole list, yr the king. cindy @urbanverse

  18. Oh, empires come and go but they leave enormous fingerprints. Birthday cakes and birthday parties are Roman. Flush toilets are Persian. Household plumbing is Greek. The very idea of a nation is Egyptian. Our culture, like all cultures, is an amalgamation of everything that came before it. Wait a minute, it just hit me. If it weren't for the Romans we wouldn't have Christmas every December.

    It's premature to think too far ahead to a post-US time, but to think that it'll never happen is pure folly.

  19. Great post, Paul! "I'm alive and I'm in charge and everything flows from there." You said it. Hopefully, the decline will be very long, but I have my passport ready in case it speeds up! Hmmm, where should we go?

  20. Click on The Bahamas in my keywords. I'm moving to a shack on the beach in the Out Islands.


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