A few years ago I asked philosopher/novelist Rebecca Goldstein, one of my favorite thinkers, if optimism is a moral requirement for an intellectual. She mulled the question over before shaking her head. “No,” she replied, “realism is a moral requirement for an intellectual.”
Through most of my youth, I was a pessimist. My Mom called me Eeyore, after the gloomy donkey in Winnie the Pooh. I knew I’d live to see the end of the world. Over the past few decades, I’ve become increasingly optimistic, emotionally and as a matter of principle. First the Cold War ended, and the threat of a global nuclear holocaust receded. In the mid-1990s I became a father, and in 2005 I started teaching college kids. I began to see my old pessimism as juvenile and self-indulgent. I grandiosely thought, If people listen to me, as a teacher and writer, it’s my duty to give them hope.
The trick is being realistic as well as optimistic. I can be harshly critical, bashing cancer care, psychiatry and medicine in general, and harping on social blights like racism, sexism, inequality and war. But I’m a critic because I believe things can be better. Given the progress humanity has achieved--just in my lifetime!--optimism is justified. We’ve become healthier and wealthier, freer and more peaceful. These trends should continue, as long as we keep striving to extend them. Americans even elected a black President. Twice!
And just as wishful thinking can be self-fulfilling, so can pessimism. For example, the widespread belief that war is a permanent part of the human condition thwarts efforts to create a peaceful world. That’s the upbeat message of my book The End of War and other writings.
Being an optimist has gotten complicated lately. The left, with which I identify, has become increasingly gloomy, while the right declares, Chill, capitalism will fix everything! Some green progressives suggest that any hopefulness about climate change, and more generally humanity’s future, is counterproductive, even immoral. They downplay progress, whether past or prospective, and rub our faces in worst-case scenarios. I disagree with this stance. Fear and despair are more counterproductive than hope--as long as that hope has a basis in reality.
And that brings me to our current crisis. As with climate change, the debate over the coronavirus has become politicized. Trump and his Republican allies, early on, downplayed the threat posed by the coronavirus, in a manner reminiscent of their stance toward climate change. Recently, Trump has acknowledged the seriousness of the pandemic while assuring us that he’s handling it.
I don’t blame Trump for being optimistic in and of itself. The job of a leader during a crisis like this is to assure people, to keep them from panicking. I do blame Trump and conservative pundits for being unrealistic or simply wrong about many details of the pandemic. That is, Trump’s optimism about the coronavirus hasn’t been based on facts and expert analysis. It has been based on crass political calculation and willful ignorance.
But just because Trump et al have indulged in irresponsible optimism during this crisis doesn’t mean that all optimism is irresponsible. Optimism in a time like this is crucial. As with climate change and war, we need to be realistic, to face the problem squarely, while resisting fear and fatalism. We need to retain our faith that human intelligence and decency will prevail. Trump, for all his missteps, at least has the sense to rely for advice on Anthony Fauci, who since the dawn of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s has been a leading authority on infectious disease.
Now let me spell out, in this dark time, some of my hopes:
*The coronavirus crisis will bring about the end of the Trump era. In November, voters appalled by the incompetence and mendacity of the Trump administration will vote for Joe Biden, who will win in a landslide.
*Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will convince Americans, and Congress, that we need universal health care coverage to handle future epidemics, as well as to boost the effectiveness and slash the costs of American medicine.
*In response to the economic turmoil triggered by the pandemic, Biden and Congress will pass tax reforms and other legislation aimed at decreasing inequality and poverty and strengthening social safety nets.
*Biden will get Congress and the public to support aggressive measures for countering climate change, in part because of growing evidence that global warming is making pandemics more likely.
*Just as it did following the 2008 recession, fossil-fuel consumption will plummet in response to the economic downturn. The decline in emissions will give the U.S. and other countries more time to make the transition to a low- or no-carbon future and hence avert the worst consequences of climate change.
*The pandemic will bring about a new era of international cooperation, even, or especially, between rivals like the U.S. and China. World leaders will recognize the impracticality, and immorality, of military spending. Led by the U.S., which spends more on arms than the next seven biggest spenders combined, nations will start diverting resources away from defense and toward measures for reducing climate change and poverty and improving health care and education.
*If Trump gets re-elected, helped perhaps by federal payments to voters, things will still be okay. Chastened by the pandemic and subsequent economic depression, freed of the need to appease his right-wing base, yearning to go down in history as a savior, this narcissistic, amoral bully will turn out to be just the leader we need to guide humanity toward a green, just, peaceful future.
Okay, that final prophesy is delusional, but I’m serious about the others. Stay safe, and hopeful.
Comment from my friend and colleague Lindsey Swindall, an authority on African American history:
I've seen a similar trajectory in myself regarding optimism. Especially in grad school, it seemed that being optimistic demonstrated that you were not thinking critically enough and were, therefore, not very smart. But, like you, I feel differently now. I believe it actually takes more courage to be hopeful. And I definitely agree that we have a responsibility when young people listen to us to convey truths, which are sometimes difficult, but to always remind them that when we learn about something like history (or race or gender or class ...) these are human constructions and can thus be deconstructed and replaced with something more egalitarian. Maybe we CAN create something new in the aftermath of this crisis. James Baldwin, one of the smartest AND most critical intellectuals of the twentieth century, once said that he had to be an optimist because he was alive. Thanks for contributing some positivity to the world today!
See also my free, online book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are.