This NYT piece by Adam Cohen starts with the observation that Americans are feeling pessimistic about the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and so on, then jumps to a recent work on philosophical pessimism by Joshua Dienstag, whose basic argument is summarised in this sample chapter. As Cohen says, pessimism in this sense is not a gloomy disposition, but a worldview that “simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.’ Cohen concludes “Part of Mr. Bush’s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism “.

But if optimism holds that applying reasoned analysis will have a positive effect, the experience of the Bush Administration merely illustrates the point that the converse is also true.

The most plausible basis for pessimism (at least as it concerns historical progress rather than the human condition) is that humans are simply incapable of collectively applying the reasoned analysis necessary to avoid destroying ourselves with the power we now wield.

The experience of the last half of the 20th century seemed on the whole to support an optimistic account. The threat of nuclear annihilation that was ever-present for much of the century receded with the end of the Cold War, and we managed a positive response to environmental problems that would have been catastrophic if we had continued with ‘business as usual’.

The 21st century so far has given support to the pessimistic view, with war, nuclear proliferation and unchecked global warming. But the only conclusion to be drawn is that we need more reasoned analysis and a willingness to act on it.

10 thoughts on “Pessimism

  1. I dont know if it is just Cohen who is feeling pessimistic but in general Americans have continued to dismay pollsters and commentators with their “enduring optimism”

    Latest Pew poll indicates that the public are only pessimistic about GWB but unchanged on other issues, unconcerned in fact. On Iraq, when asked whether the U.S. will succeed “in achieving its goal in Iraq” 54% expected success.

  2. Well regime change and a Marshall type plan to promote democratic civil society in both Iraq and Afghanistan was always a liberal progressive policy. In particular Iraq was to be a ‘Beacon of Light’ project for the ME and perhaps further down the track for places like Darfur and other hellholes in Africa. To ask the $64000 question- ‘Are Iraqis just like WW2 Germans, Italians and Japanese’ was always going to risk coming up with the answer that Saddam was the best option for these people who really need another century or so to ‘evolve’ and become decent civil folk like the EU, US, ourselves and so forth. In the vernacular of the smoko room- these are ‘monkey countries’ where all good intentions will ultimately perish. That is certainly a cause for deep pessimism, particularly if those countries are to continually harbour suicidal ill will towards we who have ‘evolved’ beyond such baser instincts. If these countries also seek nuclear weaponry you can easily add justifiable fear to that pessimism.

    Notice that although Bush and Blair asked the really tough question, they are not largely blamed for its answer because the question was a reasonable one under the circumstances. The burning question is where do we civilised folk go now with our uncivilised answer? That is the quandary of civilised politics as we stare at Iraq and Afghanistan and the emerging Iran, Somalia and the like.

  3. I’d add that in the above link I’d subscribe to Taheri’s reasoned view, albeit he has no rose coloured, half full glasses in wanting to stay the course. For those who reason otherwise, all I’d say is beware of the ‘monkey country’ allies that will jump on board with you, best typified by this commenter-

    ‘I’m bored with Iraq. I understand that it’s nice to be up-close and personal to all the other thugs in the area, but really, why do we need to do that if we end up nuking Iran (and Syria) because their intransigence leaves us no other option?

    I’m bored with Iraq because if there is no definition of failure and we’re there until GWB leaves office, likewise there is no definition of success, either.

    I’ve had it with ticky-tacky little Arab terrorists trying to kill American soldiers because that’s their hobby in life and they have no other job to get up in the morning and go to.

    I’ve had it with blow-hard Iraqi politicians wanting to put American soldiers on trial.

    I’ve had it with what is evidently a huge percentage of the Iraqi public who are active supporters and enablers of Arab Bad Stuff including smuggling, murder, abuse of women, and religious thuggery.

    We have given these people the gift of a better life on a silver platter, and they are too busy with their petty tit-for-tat murders and complaining about their air conditioning to take advantage of it. They knock both the gift and the silver platter out of our hands and then stomp about in macho self-appreciation of their cunning and daring.

    Individual Iraqi’s like Omar and Mohammad at Iraq the Model would make good Americans. But on the whole, I can’t see one single thing about the whole entire country that would make me want any of them as my neighbors.

    And I am bored with having to focus on them, a cage full of savages, simply because of the death they can inflict if we allow them to.

    And now if someone chirps up about how these comments are “racist” – I’m bored with THAT, too!’

  4. I take hope from results of game theory and examples of mutually beneficial co-operation that turn up spontaneously in nature. They imply that reasoning is not actually much of a requirement for individuals engaging in behaviour that benefits the group. If ants and bacteria can co-operate then concious thought is clearly not a pre-requisite for the kind of behaviour needed to act in the interests of everyone. Rather it seems that co-operation is something that is self selecting due to the nature of the universe. There is a constant tension between individual self interest and mutual co-operation, but it seems to be a universal rule that as things get more complicated strategies based on co-operation win out over ones based merely on self interest. The crises of the world that we focus on hide the fact that almost all large scale human behaviour today is based mutual co-operation rather than pure self interest.

    All this implies that we only need a sufficient level of reasoning to be aware of a problem and its solution, which we seem to be the case for problems like global warming. Getting people to co-operate on implementing its solution does not actually require any further reasoning ability at all. Of this I am quite thankful because I certainly don’t believe we are blessed with an abundance well reasoned rational behaviour.

  5. That’s a very good point you make, swios. But I am concerned that the planetary over-crowding today (which, btw, causes the pathologies exhibited by observa, above) has taken us into a place where we have little room for mistakes or delay. Co-operation wins out in the long run – but we no longer have much of a long-run to work within given that we have exceeded the limits of global carrying capacity.

    Humans are in a bubble, and just like the housing market they will go pop. Personally, I’d rather we face environmental challenges than human warfare as the corrective, but the gods typically don’t allow us to choose our nemesis.

    “we managed a positive response to environmental problems that would have been catastrophic if we had continued with ‘business as usual’.”

    We did with Ozone Depletion. But the Montreal Protocol is perhaps an outlier in the history of human global action. Perhaps there were no other options. And substitutions for CFC were easily affordable. With Hydrocarbon Depletion many will see that it makes more sense to fight for the diminishing resource than to reduce dependence on it. With Climate Change there are no cheap substitutions for coal.

  6. “But the only conclusion to be drawn is that we need more reasoned analysis and a willingness to act on it. ”

    I couldn’t agree more.

  7. There is still no evidence that Bush has “robbed America of its optimism” only opinion and conjecture.

    At some point in time commentators will have to realise that they will have to meet the market.

  8. “…there are no cheap substitutes for coal.”

    Well if the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt (completely), it is predicted that the sea surface level will rise by 225 feet (68.5 metres). I wonder how much it will cost to move the most heavily populated regions of the world inland by 50km.

    This is still at least a century away, but exponential growth may tend to making things happen very quickly. A ready made population of consumers in China and India could speed things up a bit. I guess thats the problem when everyone wants to keep up with the Joneses. Isn’t there a technical term for that… Ahh yes… the sheeple.

  9. The intruing thing is that ideas are so fluid and that knowledge can be lost so easily as we move from one generation to another and one place to another.

    Thus we have more talk about sustainability and climate than ever before but build husing with thinner walls, no eaves, no verandahs and glass pointing to the summer sun.

    This is what causes pessimism – that there are so many who would argue that housing design is improving living standards.We would even be likely to give a four star rating for energy efficiency to buildings which consume more electricity in heating and cooling than those of earlier eras. Skills of self sufficiency and creativity are being stifled by the globalisation of products and the environment al costs of transporting goods great distances is to be left to future generations to pay.

    Wha’s more the vision of those in charge is short sighted, arrogant and self serving. Watching the PM extoll the virtues of the small pilot project in Adelaide called Christie Walk was a little like watching the conversion of St Paul on the road to Demascus – except it was only a token effort.

    When the leadership improves then so will the mood and the results. Until then pessimism seems to be a reasonable response.

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