Where have all the optimists gone?
Americans like optimists. On our dollar bills you can find little motto: “Annuit Coeptis” which translates as “He (God) approves of our undertakings.” Traditionally we have believed that what we are about in settling this continent, in developing democratic political institutions, and building a formidable capitalist economy is good. God smiles on us.
When the head of BP recently told the world that he is an optimist, no one calls him a stupid fool who does not see the seriousness of the Gulf oil disaster. Everyone approves of the optimist.
But American affection for optimists is in sharp contrast to our national mood. Yes there are some upbeat messages about the economy but they come either from the government, or from people who want to sell us more stocks. Both have an interest in making things look better than they are. Neither of them can be trusted to tell us the full truth. Their optimism is feigned to manipulate us.
For the rest, people are frightened about their economic future. Our economy is shaky; the prospects for a robust recovery dim. Those who take a larger view of the country are afraid that American power is waning. We are in the process of losing two more wars and they are not the first we have lost.
When people are frightened, they tend to become very conservative. Their present condition is bad but it is familiar and they think they know how they can manage to survive it. Change threatens to put us into new and unmanageable situations. Therefore change must be resisted.
That is the opposite of the optimists’ position. Optimists are eager to take on new challenges, confident that they will be able to improve present conditions by working hard, persevering, and drawing on their considerable ingenuity. If there are problems in the present, the optimists accept the challenge confidently and make changes wherever necessary. The pessimists, the conservatives, instead deny the seriousness of the problems and resist any change with enraged pertinacity.
One example, of many, is the continuing resistance to building a set of windmills in Nantucket sound as one small way of reducing our dependence on oil. If anyone is still in doubt that we need drastically to reduce our use of fossil fuels, let them look at the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, at the shrimp fishermen and their families whose livelihood is being threatened.
The Nantucket sound wind farm is one small part of a national effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels. First the Kennedys and other good liberals who have summer homes on Nantucket sound tried to kill the project. Today, after 8 years, the project has all the necessary state and federal permits. Now some people go to court against the windmill project because the power generated will be slightly more expensive than power is today.
But that suit is not just about cost of electricity which will only see modest increases. It is really about change which in the present national mood people want to resist at all costs.
There are many other examples: Congress barely passed a bill to try to prevent future economic melt-downs; the very mild health care reform is greeted with great fear as if it threatened two hundred years of American liberty. A climate control bill is stuck in Congress. Obama came into office promising to close Guantanamo. So far the project is stalled. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan go on--UNCHANGED.
Today change--of any kind--puts many people into a complete state of panic.
This pessimism bodes ill for our country. If the dominant response to real problems is to deny their seriousness and to continue doing what has gotten us into trouble, our future looks bleak.