The Case for Pessimism - The new book the philosopher wrote about the history and utility of pessimism bumped up against current events…
On a hot day in Los Angeles - it hit ninety-nine downtown early in the afternoon - the only thing to do was sit quietly in the office under the big ceiling fan and browse the net on global warming matters. So on Tuesday, September 5, as the asphalt streets here in Hollywood got gooey in the full sun, while reading about peak-oil and the end of civilization as we know it, this comment shimmered on the computer screen - "Global pandemic is considered a certainty by lots of smart people with good credentials in that area. Some other brilliant people think we're in for a religional [sic] clash of civilizations. Other well-qualified people foresee environmental collapse. War seems ever present in its changing nature. Most of the large fish in the ocean are already gone. Oceanic dead zones are on the increase. Tundra is thawing in vast stretches of northern latitudes, releasing methane in a positive feedback loop driving climate change. Human population is supposed to increase by fifty percent in the next couple or three decades while global energy consumption is supposed to double or more. And so on and so on. We live in interesting times. What's a person to do?"
One could choose an alternative life-style, one not so energy dependent, but selling the car and raising chickens on the balcony isn't going to help much. Feeling noble that the air-conditioner in the wall is dead and you don't feel like having someone fix it seems a bit silly. Things are too far gone. Pour another Diet Coke on ice, fill another pipe with that nice Danish pipe tobacco, and let's think about this. One could think about it down by the pool in the courtyard, but that's mad, in the "mad dogs and Englishmen" way - no one is down there, not even the sweet young things who move in and out of the building hoping to become the next Katie Holmes or whatever - the concrete would blister your feet and the pool, in the full sun for months, is a warm blue-green bath smelling of all the extra chlorine needed to kill the bad stuff that wants to grown in there. The cat in the shade next door looks boneless - a poured, fur lump.
It was a day for pessimism of course.
That seems to be back in vogue. In fact, Joshua Foa Dienstag, a political science professor at UCLA, has that new book on the matter Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit - Princeton University Press (July 3, 2006) - ISBN: 069112552X. It's hot.
Here's the deal -
Pessimism claims an impressive following - from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault. Yet "pessimist" remains a term of abuse - an accusation of a bad attitude - or the diagnosis of an unhappy psychological state. Pessimism is thought of as an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. Bad for the individual, worse for the species - who would actually counsel pessimism?
Joshua Foa Dienstag does. In Pessimism, he challenges the received wisdom about pessimism, arguing that there is an unrecognized yet coherent and vibrant pessimistic philosophical tradition. More than that, he argues that pessimistic thought may provide a critically needed alternative to the increasingly untenable progressivist ideas that have dominated thinking about politics throughout the modern period. Laying out powerful grounds for pessimism's claim that progress is not an enduring feature of human history, Dienstag argues that political theory must begin from this predicament. He persuasively shows that pessimism has been - and can again be - an energizing and even liberating philosophy, an ethic of radical possibility and not just a criticism of faith. The goal - of both the pessimistic spirit and of this fascinating account of pessimism - is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for life in a disordered and disenchanted universe.
Okay then, pessimism can be liberating, and fortifying.
Who would have guessed? Things are as bad as they seem, or maybe worse. That's the way to approach the world.
Thursday, September 14, at seven in the evening, the author will be at Dutton's in Brentwood - the fancy bookstore not far from where Arianna Huffington lives, the woman with the celebrity blog, and not far from the site where OJ didn't murder Nicole - for a reading from the new book.
But what's the point in driving all the way over there? What good would it do?
On the other hand, that Dutton's is supposed to be a hot pick-up spot for a certain class of literate left-wing singles. But then, who would be interested in the fat old guy from Hollywood?
Nope, better to listen to Joshua Foa Dienstag interviewed about pessimism on BBC4 here, from mid-July. It's better for the environment than driving across Los Angeles. Or maybe that's looking at things too pessimistically.
But then, consider that chapters in his book -
CHAPTER ONE: The Anatomy of Pessimism
CHAPTER TWO: "A Philosophy That Is Grievous but True": Cultural Pessimism in Rousseau and Leopardi
CHAPTER THREE: "The Evils of the World Honestly Admitted": Metaphysical Pessimism in Schopenhauer and Freud
CHAPTER FOUR "Consciousness Is a Disease": Existential Pessimism in Camus, Unamuno, and Cioran
CHAPTER FIVE: Nietzsche's Dionysian Pessimism
CHAPTER SIX: Cervantes as Educator: Don Quixote and the Practice of Pessimism
CHAPTER SEVEN: Aphorisms and Pessimisms
CHAPTER EIGHT: Pessimism and Freedom (The Pessimist Speaks)
Let's see - consciousness is a disease which Don Quixote conquers by engaging in pointless battles for the right reasons, and Camus should have read Cervantes more carefully - or maybe Sisyphus could just as easily have tilted at windmills instead of pushing that stone up the hill over and over. Same thing. Got it. Schopenhauer and Freud admit we're all screwed. Fine.
What's the point in reading the book now, anyway? Do authors who write such things not know that true pessimists understand that there no point in even buying the thing?
Of course pessimists are not the target audience. The target audience - those who will buy the book - consists of "angry" pessimists (an odd concept when you think about it logically) who are feeling defensive, and those who these days, after six years of being told we're winning the great war (that would pay for itself, where we'd be greeted at liberators, and where our military would be home in a few months), and that New Orleans would be rebuilt, that this and that would be wonderful, are mightily puzzled.
We're told to be optimistic. Our leaders are.
What's up with that?
So, is there something inherently stupid about optimism? That seems to be the argument here. An audience that might accept this idea is possible.
They said - "This will work out wonderfully if you just trust us."
And what did we get?
Immediately you trust your leaders less and less. But then Joshua Foa Dienstag suggests going deeper. Leaders of any sort in America say they're optimistic about just about everything, save for Jimmy Carter. It's what you do. It's what people expect. But maybe the whole problem is optimism itself. That's about as subversive and un-American an idea you'll find anywhere.
As still, the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, September 3, published Dienstag's op-ed piece, Oh, to Be a Country of Pessimists Again, with the subhead - "Too much optimism can leave us stranded in our rose-colored illusions."
This opens with references to the president's second inaugural address where he said he had "complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom" and "history has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty." Then in August he was saying at a press conference - "Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated. Rarely surprised. Sometimes I'm happy. This is - but war is not a time of joy. These aren't joyous times…."
The question posed is clear. Are we finally ready for some pessimism? Are we?
The problem is clear -
Americans of all stripes tend to treat pessimism as if it were a psychological impairment or rare tropical illness that inexplicably befalls others. Jimmy Carter was widely criticized when he dared to suggest that there existed a U.S. "crisis of confidence," a mistake Ronald Reagan exploited when he announced "Morning in America." During the presidential race of 2004, the candidates of both parties competed avidly for the title of most optimistic. But Bush's verbal fumbling on a question about the Iraq war indicates that there are some situations - unfortunately, very common ones - for which the language of optimism is not helpful.
It isn't? There's not an election consultant alive who would agree with that contention.
But there is history -
The first modern pessimists were dissenters from the Enlightenment notion that the world would be remade according to reason. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example. He is often remembered as a precursor to the French Revolution, but he was in fact deeply suspicious of what became the revolutionaries' alternative faith: inordinate belief in their own rational powers.
What Rousseau sought to emphasize was simply that we lacked the tools to master history and bring it to heel. "Everything is in continual flux on Earth…." he wrote. "All our plans for felicity in this life are idle fancies." Politics, like personal life, was a place where grand strategies could and often did go awry. We should celebrate the good that happened but not delude ourselves that the overall pattern of the universe is pre-made in our favor.
This doesn't mean that reason is useless. Rousseau had a variety of philosophical inheritors and, though they disagreed on many things, one point they generally had in common was the idea that reason served humans best by divesting them of politically dangerous illusions.
But illusions not grounded in reason, some would argue, are what made America, the land of big dreams, the wonderful place it is. Is it now more useful to think about what is actually possible? That's not very inspiring.
But it may be necessary -
The president's claim that he is "rarely surprised" doesn't ring true; it seems like a particularly desperate effort to assert some control over a situation in which every supposed sign of progress in Iraq is undercut by more violence. Optimists, expecting things to go well, are constantly surprised and disappointed when their illusions are punctured. It is the pessimists, expecting little, who are rarely surprised.
It is sometimes claimed that pessimism retards political action, that one must somehow be an optimist in order to get out of bed in the morning. This is not only silly but dangerous. If one looks at the writings of, say, Albert Camus or Vaclav Havel, both philosophers who also were active in resistance against tyranny, it's easy to see that they had no expectations their actions would defeat what seemed like an overwhelming foe. They were as surprised as anyone when the regimes they opposed collapsed. They acted not out of optimism but out of a sense that opposing dictatorship was the only decent thing to do, the only way to live with dignity in dark times.
Camus liked to say that he wasn't interested in the future at all: "He who dedicates himself to … history dedicates himself to nothing and, in his turn, is nothing." Instead, we should engage in "giving all to the present," which meant dealing with the problems that appear on our doorstep rather than trying to vindicate an idealized destiny, the "visible direction" of history. (Perhaps if this administration had paid a little less attention to the tides of history, it might have had more time to deal with the actual floodwaters.)
So Camus and Havel never expected to win. No illusions. No blind faith the best would probably happen and everything fall into place, and that thinking otherwise was defeatist. They only did the right thing at the moment. Fine, but can we use a Frenchman and a Czech fan of Frank Zappa as models here?
Not in this country - "Though the Bush administration may be the latest and most extreme version of the compulsory optimism of American politics, matters will not improve if we simply replace it with an equally optimistic administration from the other party. The problem is that the vocabulary of optimism itself distorts our understanding of the world and leaves us lost in illusions."
Why was the president recently reading Camus? It didn't sink in. Next he'll be reading Babbitt and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." It won't help. He's locked in that "optimistic mode" - the slang term is "stuck on stupid" - just like most everyone on the left. That just the way it is, and, ironically enough, there's just no fixing it.
But it can tie you up in some odd logic.
That's what happened Tuesday, September 5, with the second in the series of speeches to sell the Iraq war and all related policies on terror, and the need to do something about Iran and North Korea, to the American people in the run-up to the November congressional elections, where the president could lose control of the House if not the Senate and then be dead in the water for his last two years, or worse. And the theme itself was mixed - "America is safer, but we are not yet safe." Everything worked out fine, but it didn't.
The speech, before the Military Officers Association of America, is here and the accompanying twenty-nine page "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" here.
It's all very curious - Iraq is not a big deal any longer, nor is al Qaeda and that Osama fellow. The problem now is Iran, but really everyone who opposes us, or opposes Israel, as they're all in this together. The idea is we now have one giant problem no one but this administration, backed by a Republican congress, can solve.
Here's some compact framing from Dan Froomkin in the Washington Post -
The White House today is battling to control the journalistic narrative in the days before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
There are so many ways that journalists could help the public assess the last five years.
We could, for instance, trace the dramatic expansion of executive power in the name of fighting the war on terror.
We could expose the failures that have plagued the administration's initiatives to coordinate homeland security and emergency response.
We could write about Iraq, the most conspicuous, costly, deadly, and arguably counterproductive byproduct of President Bush's post-September 11 mentality.
We could expound on America's dramatic loss of moral authority, prestige and influence on the world stage.
We could reflect upon the administration's continued stoking of Americans' fears for political purposes.
But that's not what the White House wants, of course.
And while the White House can't exactly prevent journalists from writing whatever we want, the president does have a great way of forcing us to take notice of whatever it is that he wants. It's called a "series of major speeches" on the "Global War on Terrorism."
And the Post's account of the speech is here -
President Bush today renewed his pledge to accept nothing less than "complete victory" in the war on terrorism and delivered a strong warning to Iran, which he described as the leader of a strain of Islamic radicalism just as dangerous as that of al-Qaeda.
In a speech in Washington following the release of an updated strategy document on combating terrorism, Bush repeatedly quoted statements by Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to highlight the radical Sunni Muslim group's "totalitarian" aims, which he said recalled the "evil" ambitions Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler. He said the centerpiece of those aims is the transformation of Iraq into the capital of an Islamic caliphate spanning much of the globe.
So this is a big deal. They're trying to take over the world. Lenin! Hitler! Iraq is only part of it. This could be the end of everything.
And there are the anti-American goals of the Shiite Muslim "extremists" - leaders of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. (Don't think about the Shiites we have put in power in Iraq.) And then there's the specter of an industrialized world subject to blackmail from nations awash in oil and nuclear weapons "if the radicals achieve their aims." People just aren't scared enough.
And there's this - a captured bin Laden letter, saying al-Qaeda intended to launch a "media campaign to create a wedge between the American people and their government."
So if you listen to our own press you're being fooled and manipulated by the bad guys - most American reporters are with the terrorists, doing the terrorists' work. (See one press guy's reaction here - Olbermann was having none of it.)
It went on and on - "History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake… Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen?"
He also called on Americans to "imagine a world in which they were able to control governments; a world awash with oil, and they would use oil resources to punish industrialized nations. And they would use those resources to fuel their radical agenda and pursue and purchase weapons of mass murder. And, armed with nuclear weapons, they would blackmail the free world and spread their ideologies of hate and raise a mortal threat to the American people." He vowed he'd never to allow this.
The Post quotes Wesley Clark -
"What I hear is the beating tom-toms of another military action taking form against Iran. And I think it's time that the American government stepped forward and talked to people we disagree with, before we start dropping bombs on them."
Clark called the invasion of Iraq "a strategic blunder" that has been "counterproductive in winning the war on terror."
As a result of the Bush administration's policies, "we've lost over 2,600 soldiers and Marines in Iraq," Clark said. "We've spent over $300 billion, with maybe $1 trillion or more on the line. We've seriously damaged our armed forces. … We've reduced our diplomatic leverage around the world. And despite all the trumpeting of patriotism by this administration, this administration and the Republican leadership in the Congress have weakened our country and made Americans less safe at home."
John Kerry is more succinct here -
Afghanistan is slipping back into chaos, Pakistan is one coup away from becoming a radical Islamic state with nuclear weapons, Iran is closer to a nuclear arsenal, and Iraq has become a recruitment poster for terror.
Yeah, well, thing are tough all over. And the president was on a roll. The problem is much bigger than ever - he never says why - and he can fix it if everyone would just shut up and let him do it. And stop saying he made the problem worse - that doesn't matter now. What difference does that make? We could all die.
But people foolishly want to make sense of this all, like Tim Grieve, reading the "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" and noting this -
Iraq isn't exactly at the center of it. The word "Iraq" comes up just nine times in the 29-page report, and at least a couple of those are attempts to minimize the role the Iraq war plays in the president's "global war on terrorism." "Countries that did not participate in coalition efforts in Iraq have not been spared from terror attacks," the report says. "The ongoing fight for freedom in Iraq has been twisted by terrorist propaganda as a rallying cry," the report says.
What about Iraq as the "central front" in the war on terror? Oh, it's in there, too - as in, "Terrorists see Iraq as the central front of their fight against the United States."
So what's the central front in the GWOT now? Well, you might think it would be the hunt for the man who masterminded the attacks against the United States five years ago. But Osama bin Laden gets just a single mention in the report, and even then only as an example used to make a larger point: Arguing that terrorism isn't "an inevitable by-product of poverty," the report notes that "many terrorist leaders, like bin Laden, are from privileged upbringings."
It would all be so surprising if it were surprising at all. The president said long ago that he doesn't spend much time thinking about bin Laden, and the CIA last year quietly disbanded the unit that had been assigned to hunt for him. As for Iraq, the White House has some delicate detangling to do. If the polls are to be believed, the fight against terrorism remains the Republicans' sole strong point with voters. At the same time, a substantial majority of the public disapproves of the way Bush is handling the war in Iraq. Having spent the better part of the past four years linking 9/11 to Iraq and Iraq to the overall war on terrorism, the GOP now must find a way to cash in on voters' fears about future acts of terrorism without tainting the argument with the reality that has already come to pass in Iraq.
So just like that, Iraq becomes the central front in the war on terror only in the twisted minds of terrorists. The real central front? It's in Iran, in Syria, in North Korea, on the Internet and in small, decentralized terror cells. "Terrorist networks today are more dispersed and less centralized," the report says. "They are more reliant on smaller cells inspired by a common ideology and less directed by a central command structure." Translation: Forget Iraq. Forget bin Laden. The terrorists are everywhere now. And if you want to keep your family safe from them - unless, of course, one of your family members happens to be serving in Iraq - you'd better vote for the Republicans on your ballot in November.
One would think folks might just get tired of it all.
In Newsweek Fareed Zakaria certainly is -
Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall - and crazy. During the cold war, many hawks argued that the Soviet Union could not be deterred because the Kremlin was evil and irrational. The great debate in the 1970s was between the CIA's wimpy estimate of Soviet military power and the neoconservatives' more nightmarish scenario. The reality turned out to be that even the CIA's lowest estimates of Soviet power were a gross exaggeration. During the 1990s, influential commentators and politicians - most prominently the Cox Commission - doubled the estimates of China's military spending, using largely bogus calculations. And then there was the case of Saddam Hussein's capabilities. Saddam, we were assured in 2003, had nuclear weapons - and because he was a madman, he would use them.
See Kevin Drum here -
It is not quite right to say that "Washington" has a habit of doing this. Zakaria should instead say that "hysterical Republican hawks" have a habit of doing this.
Accuracy is important in these matters. For the record, then: "Team B" was a creation of George H.W. Bush and included such members as Richard Pipes, Paul Wolfowitz, and Edward Teller. The Cox Commission was the brainchild of Congressman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). And Saddam's nuclear bombs were the fantasy product of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, et. al.
This quibble aside, the column is very good. The fever swamp hysteria floating around right-wing circles has become increasingly desperate in recent weeks, and Zakaria does a good job of showing it up for the infantile yowling that it is. Democrats who want to be taken seriously on foreign policy could do worse than have it stapled to their foreheads.
Infantile yowling? That'll do.
And, for a minor digression, see Charles P. Pierce here -
Every now and again I give the president the benefit of the doubt, try to see things from his side, walk a mile or so in his manly brush-clearing workshoes as it were. So, I'm George W. Bush, right? I have launched a war that I have repeatedly said is a critical response to an existential threat to Western civilization that is as serious as were those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet empire. Things have not gone well. And most of the country doesn't trust me when I tell them why I'm doing what I'm doing. (Most of the country doesn't trust me if I tell them the sun rises in the East, but that's a whole 'nother mile in them workshoes.) Nevertheless, the threat is real and it is growing and I can't get the country to see it.
Why, then, do I give all my speeches to captive audiences of people who either already believe what I believe or who get paid to serve under my steady hand as commander-in-chief? Doesn't the seriousness of the threat, and the requirements of my job, mandate that I go out into the most skeptical parts of the country and do my convincing there? After all, when confronting the Depression or the growing threat in Europe, FDR didn't send out the fireside chats by subscription only. When Lyndon Johnson wanted to convince people on the need for civil rights legislation, he didn't bring Hubert Humphrey over from the OEOB for a chat. He brought in George Wallace, and damned near got him, too. Shouldn't I have had Cindy Sheehan in for BBQ? Shouldn't I be making my speeches in those places where the war is the least popular? Shouldn't I be convincing the people who most need convincing? Shouldn't I be speaking in Boston or Berkeley? Shouldn't I be talking to town hall meetings in Vermont and Oregon? Aren't I president of all the United States? These shoes are not comfortable at all.
One assumes he likes speaking to fellow optimists. Who needs the others?
See Thomas DeFrank in the New York Daly News, quoting his White House sources here -
"We'll lose the House," one of the party's most prominent officials flatly predicted, "and the President will be dead in the water for two years." Even a perennially optimistic senior Bush strategist conceded, "I'm pretty worried about it. The House is not looking good."
Pessimism. And more than three years ago they couldn't imagine anything going wrong - get rid of Saddam, install the convicted embezzler Chalabi, secure the oil, and get out. Now they're pessimistic. How odd. Well, their political survival is on the line. Now it's serious.
But we will have total victory or nothing.
How did the pessimism man put it? There are some situations - unfortunately, very common ones - for which the language of optimism is not helpful.
Define victory here.
Let's get real. But that's pessimism. No, it's realism. Maybe they're the same thing, but optimism unfettered by any sort of reality has gotten us nothing, or less.
Joshua Foa Dienstag is onto something. But he'll never sell that idea in America.