Captain Smith & Amelia Earhart, pathological optimism

There appears to be a chasm between those of us attempting to face our situation squarely and everyone else, we’re seen as doomsayers, walking reminders of a great big downer.  It’s just socially unacceptable.  Cassandra was never the life of the party.  Even those whom we would expect to be natural allies balk.

We’re coming off a period when optimism became an extreme sport.  As part of the New Tribalism, if you weren’t a booster for the “Home Team,” then you were a traitor.  In a medicalized society, if you weren’t up-beat you were depressed and should be on drugs – if not for your benefit, then at least “so the rest of us don’t have to put up with all that moping!”  In a corporate environment, we were back into the sports metaphor, “boosters, can-do, everything to win.”  Even if you were a dissenter – unless you belonged to the Great Self-Pity Party, GSPP, previously the GOP – optimism again was in order, “The next election will change everything! Wait until our guy gets in there!” on down to “Hey!  Don’t make waves!  Sure it was bad when they did it, but….”

And on and on, even those who really should have known better, environmentalists, who’ve followed the slide for at least a hundred years now and saw what’s at stake way before anyone else.  Many of them have, in their exhaustion, fallen into the optimist’s camp these days.  “Hydrogen, wind, batteries! Get these on-line and we can just keep on going and the Lattes will keep on flowing!”  There’s something manic and really depressing when we see someone like Stewart Brand touting globalism and Nukes as our last chance.

It’s a cranky time.  When you’re tired and scared it’s easy to revert to a childish view that either “Everything is wonderful!” or  “It’s all terrible and I should give up and hide under the covers until Mom relents and lets me have my way.”

I still remember the first time I heard the term consumer used in place of citizen in this country.  It rankled from that very first time.  That was the day the complicity of our citizenry reached a tipping point.  We gave up, and assumed our expected roles as infantalized consumers.  Citizens have responsibilities, they desire to assume adult roles, and see themselves as final arbiters of their own fates.  Consumers suck on the pacifier of consumer culture and smile contentedly as they settle into passivity and entitlement.  At some point, this snake ate its own tail.  Now everyone involved, whether leader or a follower, has the same attitude about their personal need to be coddled.  Come to think of it, this was probably a top-down contamination, where once only Kings could behave as children in public and get away with it, now all aspired to that goal.

Polarity.  This notion that, if it’s not one thing then surely its opposite must be the only single truth, has been at the heart of what I call the Reductivist Age, modernism extending from 1500-200….  It’s the most basic reduction, on which the general pragmatism, what passes as our common-sense is built.  It’s behind the digital, zeros and ones.  It’s behind capitalism and all its variants including Marxist communism.  It’s behind drug trials – That’s why the placebo effect, a no cost, no side-effect method of treatment, with a fifty percent efficacy rate in many cases, is never considered as an option.  It’s behind Prohibition and the War on Fill-in-the-Blank.

It’s no wonder there’s such resistance to a message that says, “The basis of what you’ve considered common-sense, what your parents and grandparents considered common-sense, is wrong.”  Neither optimism nor pessimism is an appropriate response to the predicaments of the human and planetary conditions we face.  We need to turn against the long easy slide into passivity, AND reject our highly tuned fearfulness; so that we can deal with the way things really are, not how we wish them to be.

“It’s just so hard!  I’d rather get mad than listen!  More of the same will work this time!”  If they keep saying these things loud enough, long enough, the good old days will come back.  Won’t they?

Captain Smith was the avuncular smiling face of modern patriarchy in 1912.  He was optimistic.  He’d had a long career at sea rising to Fleet Captain with White Star and had never had an accident, found the whole idea ludicrous “In this day and Age!”  He’d seen Progress rise to its apogee and commanded the first of the “Too big to Fail” line.  “God Save the King and Captain Smith will take care of everything else!”

Amelia Earhart was the darling of the new marketing game in the late twenties and thirties.  She epitomized an optimism that would pull us through those dark days.  She didn’t actually do much of substance, but she did provide us with a photogenic media icon – one of our first.  She did risk her life repeatedly and worked hard to help others from her pulpit of advantage.  Yet her own personal struggle with unlimited growth,  the notion that “Next year’s projections should double last years…” put her into a corner.

In aviation its called the “coffin-corner,” where stall speed approaches the speed at which your plane will tear itself apart.  This happens when you try to fly too high.  Icarus’s NTSB report would have found this the initiating factor in his crash.  For Amelia it wasn’t this literally that did her in, she did just “run out of gas” in the end; but this was how she ran her life.  She had to continually escalate her stunts, and repeatedly push the “envelope” –  the ragged edge of that container is the “coffin-corner.”

Regarding her around the world attempt, there were signs all along the way that she was heading into disaster.  Listen to those who were there, those who decided not to go, or who left the project before its end.  As with all such things, it’s not a failure of imagination that leads to disaster, but the willful blindness to what is plain to those willing to look past the “all or nothing,” the “can-do,” the “pragmatism.”  There are always some people who have the imagination to see where it’s heading.  Effort taken to the point of exhaustion combined with an attitude that, “It’s always worked out before.” ultimately leads  you to push yourself off into thin air…

The Shuttle Disaster, the entire Space Shuttle Program for that matter, is another distinct, sharp example of this.  As are many others.  The point is, when do we wake up to the dangers of pathological optimism?  I first heard the term from the man who turned down the job of Earhart’s navigator.   “Get there-itis” is a more familiar phrase used specifically regarding those who’ve rushed on to their ill-Fates simply because they could imagine no other course of action.

Talking someone out of their pathological optimism, telling them, “No, you don’t have to get there right now.  You’re ignoring potentially devastating conditions.” and “Hey!  Is that really where you want to go?”  None of this is ever popular, especially if you refuse to couch the alternative in a pessimism as dark as the optimism is rosy.  Have a cry with Glenn Beck if that’s what you want.

Still, this is our only real hope.  We get there by dropping the facades of “terror” we hide behind, and finding our own courage.  It starts with the courage to say, “No.”  It proceeds to grow apace as we learn to see what’s really “out there” and “in here.”

Hope is not confidence.  Confidence is propped up by optimism.  Hope is sustained by courage.

We do no one a favor by coddling the wish to hide from this equation.  Whether we wish to hide ourselves, or put it off as the need to “Keep ’em all happy, they can’t handle the truth!”  In either case, we do everyone a disservice.  The hardest part is getting past the awkwardness and facing things squarely.

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