"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Best Of All Possible Worlds–Optimism (And Pessimism) In America

Dana Milbank writing in the Washington Post (8.13.14) cites a number of recent studies which show that Americans rich and poor are pessimistic about America.  Why, asks Milbank? Because the political system is broken.

This of course is the most obvious and most facile explanation. Perhaps more important is the bewildering chaos in international affairs.  Sectional, factional, and sectarian violence occurs everywhere, and even the best-read Americans had no idea that Yazidis existed until the atrocities of the Islamic State started massacring them.  In fact few people knew of the Islamic State until they started taking great swaths of territory in Iraq and threatening the stability of the country and its neighbors. 

Who knew what or where Crimea was before Russia flexed its muscles, and who had any inkling about the regional, historical, and cultural importance of this enclave to Russia? Why is an international nuclear giant fussing so much about a tiny spit of land?  Why should the vitally strategic Horn of Africa be riven by disputes over a small, arid, barren piece of land between Ethiopia and Eritrea?

To the uninitiated it must indeed sound like the world is coming apart at the seams.  It doesn’t help that the current American Administration is clueless, clearly unsure of what to do; but to be fair, we have never had to fight an enemy – Radical Islam – whose beliefs are moral inversions of liberal Christianity. 

We could understand the Nazis and the Soviets because they played by our rules.  The German blitzkrieg was far less savage but similar to our firebombing of Dresden.  They both were part of the same military code.  It was hard to understand Stalin’s gulags, but America’s treatment of Indians and African slaves was not much better.  The Islamist terrorist, on the other hand, bombs schools, buses, and public markets.  The wanton slaughter of innocent people seems evil until it is understood within the context of all-out victory, a concept that we lost at the end of WWII.

The point is, the world is not coming apart any more than it ever has.  The Hundred Years War did indeed last a century, and the War of the Roses almost as long.  Europe, in fact, was in constant conflict for centuries.  The English, Spanish, Dutch, French, and the Holy Roman Empire were always battling each other for territory and political influence.  England was rarely at peace and always at war with the Irish and the Scots. Tens of millions of people were slaughtered by Genghis Khan as he thundered out of the steppes to the east and west, and over half the known world was reconfigured because of his conquests.

     Franz II, Holy Roman Emperor

The United States, despite a seemingly indifferent and venal Congress, is in a lot better shape than it was in the years prior to the Civil War, Reconstruction, or the era of Civil Rights.  America was two countries until the mid-Sixties, and many argue that the suspicions and mistrust between North and South still exist.

Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide sums it up nicely:

"Human grandeur," said Pangloss, "is very dangerous, if we believe the testimonies of almost all philosophers; for we find Eglon, King of Moab, was assassinated by Aod; Absalom was hanged by the hair of his head, and run through with three darts; King Nadab, son of Jeroboam, was slain by Baaza; King Ela by Zimri; Okosias by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings Jehooiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity: I need not tell you what was the fate of Croesus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Caesar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II of England, Edward II, Henry VI, Richard Ill, Mary Stuart, Charles I, the three Henrys of France, and the Emperor Henry IV."

In Candide Voltaire satirizes optimists for many reasons.  First, they never bother to look at history.  Even a cursory look at the past reveals the constant disputes, arguments, territorial feuds, and wars that characterize history more than anything.  Second and more importantly, Voltaire satirizes those philosophers who explain away evil and do it in a tortuous and very unbelievable way:

Pangloss and his student Candide maintain that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” This idea is a reductively simplified version of the philosophies of a number of Enlightenment thinkers, most notably Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. To these thinkers, the existence of any evil in the world would have to be a sign that God is either not entirely good or not all-powerful, and the idea of an imperfect God is nonsensical. These philosophers took for granted that God exists, and concluded that since God must be perfect, the world he created must be perfect also. According to these philosophers, people perceive imperfections in the world only because they do not understand God’s grand plan. (Sparknotes).

Augustine and Thomas Aquinas predated Leibniz by many centuries, and both Christian philosophers struggled with the nature of evil in the same way.  They took God for granted and went on from there.  Aquinas concluded that there is no evil in the world, only the absence of good.

Voltaire would have had a field day with American optimism which unsurprisingly was boundless  Persecuted minorities, adventurers, and entrepreneurs couldn’t believe their good fortune – vast, fertile lands; abundant water and game; thousands of miles of coastline; and no kings, lords, and feudal barons to stop them.  The ruling elite – our Founding Fathers – were children of the Enlightenment whose philosophers, like Leibniz, believed in the ultimate goodness of God and our Christian ability to conquer evil.

Tocqueville, a century later writing in Democracy in America observed that optimism is not only common in America, it defines America.

The point is that given Americans’ abiding optimism, faith, and Christian hope, just about any aberration in their anointed path to spiritual salvation and economic prosperity, would give them an irritable turn. 

We Americans are also very practical, hands-on, and fix-it.  We are impatient with complexity, subtle twists and turns, and probabilities.  It is very hard for us, a good guy-bad guy nation, to figure out what is going on in the Middle East.  “Who are the good guys?”, we ask, “and let’s arm ‘em, train ‘em, and fight with ‘em.”

There is no need whatsoever for being pessimistic, let alone to ascribe it to a fractious Congress. A more reasoned approach – far from Leibniz or the pessimism of Voltaire – is a Buddhist one. Early Buddhism declared that there is nothing that is fixed and permanent. Every thing is subject to change and alteration. "Decay is inherent in all component things," said the Buddha and his followers accepted that existence was a flux, and a continuous becoming.  Political philosophers like Machiavelli, political dramatists like Shakespeare, and writers like Tolstoy all expressed the same sentiments in a secular way.  Kingdoms, empires, nations, and territories come and go in the process of ineluctable change. There is no cause, therefore, for either optimism or pessimism, hope or despair.

While I agree with Dana Milbank that things don’t look too good right now; while I like him am frustrated with Congress and the Administration; and while I do not deny that Americans say they are unhappy with America; I do not take it all very seriously. Things will turn around; and who knows but what our hallowed liberal democracy, the bedrock of our nation, may evolve into something unrecognizable and something more akin to the absolutism and cultural factionalism of Europe and the Middle East than anything Jefferson and Madison envisaged.

‘What goes around comes around’ seems a more fitting aphorism than ‘The best of all possible worlds’.

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