There is a strange dissonance in the air. I was in town yesterday, going by empty stores, struggling businesses, a surfeit of street people huddled under their blankets trying to keep the chill out. Young men with tattoos of pot leaves on their forehead. Folks that I recognize from my time working in the local jail. The bail bondsman open on New Year’s Eve. Tweakers who cross the road without ever looking up to the traffic swerving around them, folks muttering to themselves on the sidewalks. Wonder if they know it’s a new year. Are they dreaming of popping the bubbly, getting a kiss and shooting fireworks? Do they know too that there are five empty houses for every homeless person in America? I wonder sometime what a martian would think about this situation upon visiting Earth. Would the martian think it strange that a culture accepts as normal having bums sleep on the ground outside of the gated mansions? I get a text from someone “happy new year!” What does that mean? Happy? New? Year? What is this alien force of optimism? What is this injunction in such insane juxtaposition with these despairing times? Why not say to each other “try harder next time?”
One disease our culture suffers from is unwarranted optimism. It’s basically an inter-generational disease in America. We fancy ourselves as a “city on the hill,” a place of spiritual renewal, God’s country. We tell ourselves a story about how this country is blessed, is exceptional, is free. We tell ourselves that our country is a meritocracy, that rewards the worthy. We view ourselves as the frontier of humanity. We expanded West, then to the seas, then globally, then we put man on the moon. Who else could have put a man on the moon but us, the eternally optimistic, eternally progressive, eternally blessed?
As a nation, our crowning moment was at V-J Day, having vanquished the Japanese and the Germans, rose to the status of world power. Only the Russians had anything resembling a rivalry. USA became world champs and would greatly desire to defend the championship, created a permanent war economy. An extreme military industrial complex, armed with the threat of nothing less than naval and air superiority, and the atomic bomb. We told ourselves it was a noble war, a war and a moment in which we’ve been trying to repeat ever since if there were only a worthy enemy to vanquish. As Chris Hedges reminds us “war is a force that gives us meaning.” And whoa daddy, what a great meaning that one was. It’s like a touchdown dance that won’t end – an eternal celebration of all things America, the need to make everyone an American. Any blight on this triumphalism – say Vietnam, Iraq, bombed children, poisoned the water, systematic poverty and violence, Jim Crow laws, the KKK and gun thugs, paranoia, the drug war, icecaps melting, deforestation, piling up the extinction list, acidifying the ocean – should not diminish this dance. Reagan told us so – it is “morning in America.”
We tell each other that our reality is what we make of it, that if we just knew The Secret, we could generate our own prosperity, that God would meet us halfway and provide. We’ve mesmerized ourselves, told ourselves that everything was possible. This is the utopia of self-determination, where we could all be winners. We encouraged each other’s self esteem, told ourselves bromides about our own pride. We told ourselves not to focus on the negatives, only the positives. We were superstitious of negative thinking, told ourselves that it wasn’t okay to be down. That depression was negative, not a normal human feeling indicating that something was wrong. We treated the symptom, took some pills and a dose of pop psychology, never asked what was wrong, never figured it was a sick culture at work. We, without basis, told ourselves that we should be happy, think positively. We put up signs in our houses, “live, laugh, love,” we prayed away negative thoughts as sinful. We went to Tony Robbins seminars, Joel Osteen, Amway, Creflo Dollar, bought books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
We all became Norman Vincent Peele, entertained with the Power of Positive Thinking. One of the heroes of this philosophy was Donald Trump. Peele was his spiritual mentor, and presided over his first marriage to Ivana. Donald told himself that he was special. He never took no for an answer. He only got what he wanted. He ignored everything else. Trump is the eternal optimist. He never looked at his flaws, never thought he needed to know more, never bothered to read. Donald Trump would not be like his older brother, Freddy. Freddy struggled with the expectation to wear his father’s gold watch. He was an airline pilot. He was an alcoholic, a chronic depressive, who would never meet father’s expectations. Freddy was a loser. Freddy killed himself. Donald would not be Freddy. Donald would make something of himself. He would not let bankruptcy or a bad hairline keep him back. He would be a winner. He would make his family great again. He would, like Reagan, make America Great Again.
This eternal American optimism has a problem. It’s based on horseshit. It is what Jungians call an inflated ego. And like the laws of physics, what comes up must come down. Or, to put it Obama’s way, “Look … uh … reality has a way of asserting itself.” I like that. Reality. Asserting itself. A reality check.
It is perhaps telling that the best selling self help book this last year is called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. In short, it is about being real. It asserts that in life you only get a certain number of fucks to spend, and you best spend those fucks wisely. Learn what not to give a fuck about. It’s kind of the anti-self-help-self-help book because it does not do the whole cliché of “believe in yourself, never mind that you have no reason to believe in yourself.” It says, in particular, that you must precisely focus on the negatives – “Everything worthwhile in life is won with surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.” (pg 11) And “the problem with the self-esteem movement is that it is measured by how positively people felt about themselves. But a true and accurate measurement of one’s self worth is how people feel about the negative aspects of themselves.” (43) Counter-intuitive, right?
Remember Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club? “We are not special, we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes. We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the earth,” and “Only when you have lost everything are you free to do anything.”
We need no optimism, for our brand of optimism tends to be highly ungrounded, dissociative even. We need more reality checking, for robust selfhood has no need for tall tales. We need a practical enlightenment that does not sanitize our great social inequalities away under the dissociative banner of our inflated narratives. Words like reality, sustainability should be valorized. Zero growth. Small is beautiful. Our fucks are precious and we have none to waste on fantasies.
I imagine a world in the not too distant future that America will stop winning. That it will be like Europe, defeated, nearly annihilated in war, smashed to bits, having encountered its own limits and the demons within. That it will be the opposite of what Donald Trump wants, yet paradoxically what he will help create. America will be a loser. It’s economy will falter, its international influence will diminish, its empire wither away. It will no longer grow, but begin to maintain. It will become deflated. It’s the only country in the world that hasn’t lost. It has to lose. It will lose. It’s baseless optimism must, and will be, tempered by reality asserting itself.