Practical Philosophy

The Difference Between Optimism and Delusion

Optimism has a bit of a rap against it. Too many people, my former self included, cast aside optimism as a sane perspective on life because they’re making a simple and obvious mistake: conflating optimistic delusion with optimism itself.

I raise this not to make the pedantic linguistic point — I assure you I refer to no dictionaries. Nor an impotent philosophical one — I hate those. But I think there’s an important thing that past-me and far too many people I know and have known in the past make regularly.

What is optimism?

Before we clarify why this error is hard and problematic, lets get on the same page about what optimism is and what value it has. Optimism isn’t seeing someone’s life ruined before you and telling them that it’s all part of God’s plan. That’s fatalism. Optimism isn’t seeing something bad happen to a friend and telling them it’ll surely work out for the best. That’s optimistic delusion.

Optimism is seeing a great building fall and being willing to envision and hope that a better one may eventually rise in its place. And optimism can include the willingness to help that brighter better building rise because you believe in its possibility.

The value of optimism is that you’re cultivating hope. Hope is great and powerful and so long as delusional certainty is kept in check, one of the primary drivers of every good thing that happens in the world. Without optimism, one typically reverts to either pessimism — the belief that things will most likely get worse — or a sort of fatalistic impotence — a belief that things can turn out good or bad but that it’s unlikely that anything you possibly do will have the least influence over it.

I hope you can understand without explanation why I think neither a constant fear for the worst or a cultivated sense of your personal impotence in the world is all that useful. But I’ve defended something like them before. The logic was that if I envisioned the worst, any improvement would pleasantly surprise (rather than inevitably disappoint) me. And this is what I’m driving at: what argument that was for pessimism was actually an argument against delusional optimism, not mere optimism.

And what of this “delusional optimism”?

Delusional optimism feels certain that things will improve. It feels certain that things can never go from bad to worse. Delusional optimism does not honor the crazy and terrible unpredictability of the world. Delusional optimism says that you’ll never have to visit the hospital to see your dying wife. Pure optimism just has hope that it won’t happen soon.

Delusional optimism makes your water heater breaking the day after you had a plumber in to fix your leaking kitchen faucet into a catastrophic rebuff of all that you believe. Optimism just sees that you’ll end up with a new kitchen faucet which is better than the old, and a new water heater that’s a bit more efficient and under a new warranty.

The answer: Optimism without the delusion

It’s not that optimism without delusion is easy. But it is the case that optimism is worth the effort, and delusion is a problem when it’s combined with anything, not just optimism. Understanding the difference between the two is important. Hoping for a bright future and feeling certain you will get one are not the same thing. But hoping for a bright future, and seeing that you do have some power to shape it is hugely valuable.

I wish you the ability to be optimistic. I wish that your optimism be free of delusion.

USA, world

Kenya and International Impotence

DEMOSHMwai Kibaki

The world recently celebrated a rather unceremonious “monthiversary.” Kenya–which up until a month ago was often described as the brightest spot in East Africa, if not the whole continent–is still in chaos. See some of the haunting reports and photographs of The Vigilante Journalist if you doubt that fact.

A month ago Kenya’s president, Mwai Kibaki (at right), “won” reelection. After this incredibly questionable result was announced, “tribal” violence “erupted.” Estimates are that by now at least 800 have been killed and 300,000 displaced. Though many forces–best known in America are presidential candidate Barack Obama and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan–have attempted to reach some accord between President Kibaki and the oppositions leader Raila Odinga, none have succeeded, or even produced much externally-visible progress.

If one pairs this sad story with the continued mess of Darfur, you’ve got a good base for a pessimistic soup which proves that the international community is unable or unwilling to help create lasting peace on the continent. Even worse, you could find proof that Africans themselves are incapable of living in peace.

But I wouldn’t say that. Nor would I interject the ever-growing messes of Somalia, Zimbabwe, and the ever-simmering border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea as proof that East Africa’s the bad side of the continent. Or that nothing can change.

We could reasonably say that all of this makes a strong case for a reconsideration of priorities at the United Nations and other international bodies. That it also shows signs that Africa’s still growing and maturing, and though it may sound (or even be) patronizing, the current problems on the continent are necessary growing pains for young nation states with limited resources.

Before that though, I must admit something. On nearly every topic I’ve written about thus far and will write about through the rest of this piece I know enough to appear–to most–to know what I’m talking about but not enough to actually know what I’m talking about. It’s an admittedly dangerous fact that means I should probably be barred from talking about it at all. Alas, I’m not.

And so I can tell you that though we could make this to look like a strong case for the United States to disengage from the impotent United Nations, it’s not. And that I remain hopeful that though progress in Africa and elsewhere is slow and all UN actions are encumbered by the veto power of self-serving states like China, Russia, and the United States I think the organization shows progress.

Surely the Bush presidency and the farce that was made of international law in invading Iraq was bad. Surely it is troubling that both Russia and China are willing and able to stand up against even the most well-intended efforts to intervene for human rights.

But in the broad stroke of history, progress is unquestionably toward greater openness, greater rule of law, and greater democracy. Surely there are a number of painful steps left–many ugly and troubling steps–before the world arrives at the place I’d like it to be. But as long as and as strong as I can, I’ll hope that someday soon the world will be more like the hope for Kenya from last December, and less like the pessimism engendered by the Kenya of this January.

politics, review

Review: Obama’s SC Victory Speech

In my younger years, I was given some advice that I’ve always taken quite seriously: Never have any heroes who remain above ground. And though that may sound like a claim that a person should only make heroes of sewer rats, subway conductors, and water sanitation engineers; it’s not. Depending on who you ask, it is either a realistic or pessimistic statement that all people still alive have the power to show themselves to have been untruthful. To fail. To disappoint.

And so I’m full of reservations about the positive feelings engendered by Mr. Obama’s soaring and hopeful speech. He’s shown himself to be vulnerable to the same cynical campaigning that his statements so often derides. He’s shown himself to be willing, sometimes, to take the easy potshots and low blows that he argues against so often.

I’m also worried about attempting to review one of his speeches. Whenever I write an unconventional review I feel like I’m (especially) out of my depth. My review of raking leaves, for example, feels novel but not particularly interesting. And then my review of Joshua James’s excellent album–album reviews aren’t unconventional, but I’ve made no habit of writing them–made it sound average at best.

And I also don’t want to support any politician explicitly. All politicians play a game that I find both fascinating and disgusting. They change things, but they often sacrifice principle to do so. And that’s got well defined positives and negatives.

Senator Obama’s oratory is truly breathtaking, and this speech is just one that I was able to watch and easily find a transcript. In my–admittedly short–political history no politician has spoken with such clarity. Such a hopeful vision. Whether or not he lives up to this vision in day-to-day life is an open question, but that his speeches can inspire those who agree with him is hard to doubt.

And Mr. Obama begins well. He skillfully weaves together his optimism and the political message he needs to make: that South Carolina was indicative of his power as a presidential candidate, not of his power as a black presidential candidate.

Well, tonight, the cynics who believed that what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina.

After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates, and the most diverse coalition of Americans we’ve seen in a long, long time.

He goes on to list the elements of his coalition. And all of this is important for two reason. First, he’s making the point that not only does he have more delegates than Mrs. Clinton–he does, but they’re also “better”–whatever that is.

Secondly, this beginning is important because unlike Mrs. Clinton, he’s making the clear statement that this isn’t about him. Senator Clinton’s best known speech so far has been after her New Hampshire victory in which she said, “Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process found my own voice. … Let’s give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me.”

The jarring distinction, unveiled within the first few minutes is this: rhetorically Mr. Obama speaks of ideals, unity, and hope. Mrs. Clinton speaks of herself and her candidacy. And though both of the candidates clearly needed the victories at the time, you wouldn’t know it from a comparison. Senator Obama argues that his victory represents a comeback for his platform while Senator Clinton speaks as if it’s a comeback for herself.

This is not exactly a novel observation, but it’s an important one. People seem stunned by Mr. Obama’s skill, but the simple rhetorical device of saying “us” instead of “I” and “we” rather than “me” is a crucial part of his oratorical ability. By doing so he’s got a room of compatriots rather than supporters, a room of helpers rather than those that need to be helped.

Even in referring to himself, Mr. Obama doesn’t speak explicitly of himself or his campaign.

But here’s what I know. I know that when people say we can’t overcome all the big money and influence in Washington, I think of the elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day – an envelope that had a money order for $3.01 along with a verse of scripture tucked inside. So don’t tell us change isn’t possible.

Certainly he knows things. He’s seen things. But what he’s seeing is the power of the people to whom he speaks.

But I also have to say that Mr. Obama–or his speech-writing team–has a way with words. And that’s what I’ll leave you with. The closing paragraphs of his speech last Saturday night were truly beautiful:

And as we leave this state with a new wind at our backs, and take this journey across the country we love with the message we’ve carried from the plains of Iowa to the hills of New Hampshire; from the Nevada desert to the South Carolina coast; the same message we had when we were up and when we were down – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope; and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people in three simple words:

Yes. We. Can.