Kid President makes the case for optimism: “We can cry about it, or we can dance about it.”
More Kid President here.
The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
This is from the extraordinary poem “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert — which, I think, elegantly and perfectly makes the case for optimism in the face of all the million ways this world can break. It’s worth reading in full here.
In a similar spirit, Bill Hayes offers an appreciation of aliveness:
What is the opposite of a perfect storm? That is what this was, one of those rare moments when the world seems to shed all shyness and display every possible permutation of beauty. Oliver said it well as we took up our plates and began heading back downstairs: “I’m glad I’m not dead.” This came out rather loudly, as he is a bit deaf. Even so, he looked surprised by his own utterance, as if it were something he was feeling but didn’t really mean to say aloud — a thought turned into an exclamation.
“I’m glad you’re not dead, too,” said a neighbor gaily, taking up the refrain. “I’m glad we’re all not dead,” said another. There followed a spontaneous raising of glasses on the rooftop, a toast to the setting sun, a toast to us.
I suppose it’s a cliché to say you’re glad to be alive, that life is short, but to say you’re glad to be not dead requires a specific intimacy with loss that comes only with age or deep experience. One has to know not simply what dying is like, but to know death itself, in all its absoluteness.
After all, there are many ways to die — peacefully, violently, suddenly, slowly, happily, unhappily, too soon. But to be dead — one either is or isn’t.
The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees. One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats. Fortunately, this is a reversible condition. One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause —- to memorize moments of the everyday.
The rest here.
More reasons for optimism here.
Springsteen wrote about it a few years too early, but last night was a glorious chance to see that envisioned country, to grasp the promise of that hoped-for America made real. This wasn’t just a victory speech. This was a magnificent affirmation of that shining ideal of E pluribus unum towards which we always look: the beacon, in any and every storm, that guides all our ships home.
Are we divided? Perhaps. But Obama, like Christopher Hitchens, gets it — that debate and argument, even vigorous and bitter ones, are the crucible in which you test the mettle of ideas and eventually (painfully, tortuously) arrive at truth. (“Heat not light” is a misguided dismissal of conflict and confrontation; “heat produces light” is more accurate both as science and as metaphor, as Hitchens often observed.) Yes, this campaign was long, brutal, and sometimes petty and ridiculous — and it was frustrating for all of us who think that our own beliefs and values are self-evidently true and should be universally accepted without complaint. But it’s never a bad thing to revisit first principles — to be forced to settle (or at least reconsider) the existential questions that determine how we treat each other and how we make a nation together. In the President’s words:
That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter. It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight. And it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.
The President, of course, points out that argumentation can only be the beginning; that our national debates must never lose sight of the need to seek and find common ground, in order to move forward together. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” said Lincoln after his reelection — and there’s more than a conscious echo of that here:
Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.
But that common bond is where we must begin.
And more than an echo of Kennedy’s “Ask Not” speech as well:
But that doesn’t mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.
He cuts through the clutter and noise to get at the very essence of American community:
This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared, that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.
And, like many others, he compellingly makes the case for optimism — not idle Pollyannaism, but clear-eyed hope with a spine of steel:
I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.
And in a rousing finale that recalls both his own electrifying 2004 keynote speech and Lincoln’s invocation of “the better angels of our nature,” Obama calls us to be our best and highest selves:
I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America.
This speech gave me chills, made me weep, made my heart soar. But don’t take my word for it! Read the entire transcript here. Watch it again. And cherish it. This is one for the ages.
Adding: Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s take — nearly as eloquent as the President himself, and always worth reading:
As for the next four years, there is time enough for that. But I stand by these words. And one felt something tectonic shift tonight. America crossed the Rubicon of every citizen’s access to healthcare, and re-elected a black president in a truly tough economic climate. The shift toward gay equality is now irreversible. The end of prohibition of marijuana is in sight. Women, in particular, moved this nation forward – pragmatically, provisionally, sensibly. They did so alongside the young whose dedication to voting was actually greater this time than in 2008, the Latino voters who have made the current GOP irrelevant, and African-Americans, who turned up in vast numbers, as in 2008, to put a period at the end of an important sentence.
That sentence will never now be unwritten. By anyone.
Also adding: Greg Sargent thinks, as I do, that this campaign wasn’t as petty or trivial as it sometimes seemed on the surface. Rather, it was a consequential battle of ideas about the very nature of American society:
1) What is the true nature of our collective responsibility towards one another?
2) What is the true legacy of the great progressive reforms of the 20th century? Should their core mission — and the safety net they have created — be preserved and expanded upon to meet the needs of those who are still being left behind by the private market? Or does that mission need to be readjusted to deal with dramatically different economic circumstances in the 21st century?
3) What is the best way to guarantee shared prosperity and economic security at a time of rapid economic change? Should we take collective action, via democratically elected leaders, to try to guarantee a good life to as many people as possible, and to defend those who are suffering economic harm at the hands of the free market? Or are we currently at risk of overreaching in that direction, doing people more harm than good?
There were many petty-seeming battles throughout this campaign, no doubt, but you can find these questions lurking just beneath their surface. The battles over so-called “gaffes” and controversial remarks on both sides often turned on deeper questions about the nature of the society we want to live in.
I haven’t read anything by Gore Vidal, who passed away yesterday. But after Takeaway host Celeste Headlee’s fascinating conversation with writer John Nichols about Vidal’s legacy, I’m thinking I probably should. Here’s a snippet:
Celeste Headlee: We’re talking about a man who gleefully said he thought we were watching the decline of American civilization. I wonder if it’s fair to call Gore Vidal a pessimist?
John Nichols: No, I think it’s not. It is true that because of his amazing intellect, his remarkable delight in all things, he contained pessimism within him. Walt Whitman’s line about containing multitudes certainly applied to Gore Vidal. But the truth is, in knowing him over the years, I came to see him as a great optimist. He believed in the American experiment to such an extent that he was still incredibly capable of getting angry about its missteps — of getting angry about when his country did the wrong thing. […] He delighted in impeachment; he delighted in something that most people see as a great political crisis, because he saw it as one of those places where the people rise up and hold a leader to account. And so he was always believing in, always fascinated by, explosions of democracy.
Headlee: So much so that he at one point called for a new constitutional convention to fix the mistakes of the founders.
Nichols: Absolutely. And you know, the funny thing is that if you know about the founders, you would know that they would have been right with him. The truth is that Jefferson suggested that the worst thing that one generation could do to the next was to hand it a constitution and say “You must live by this.” Gore Vidal really believed that.
Fascinating. And yes, this is one of the things I’m always trying to communicate when making the case for optimism: that it isn’t an attitude of blithe happiness, or of ignoring all the grave problems that face us, but rather a commitment to ideals and to the notion that positive change is possible through human agency, on both an individual and a societal level. Optimism isn’t the opposite of anger; rather, it’s the opposite of despair, of the poisonous notion that there’s nothing to be done. Indeed, anger is often the necessary first step towards change. And to believe in change is to be an optimist.
(Image via The National Post)
Maira Kalman makes the case for optimism and expresses what I love most about her work:
The sense that people get from reading my work is that I don’t have antipathy to people. I really care about the people that I’m writing about. And I have a humanistic attitude and a kind of loopy optimism — because I’m acknowledging all the sadness and all the heartache and all the trouble, but I usually come out on the side of: Well, despite that, here we go and on we go, and things can also be fantastic at the same time as they are horrible.
Yes. We can’t choose the facts of the world, but we can choose how to respond to them.
Jo Walton sums up a science fiction panel she participated in, and offers thoughts on “The Future”:
There are ways in which this future, the one we’re living in, is a whole lot better than what we imagined. It has women in it, and it has women who are not just trophies and are not manipulating their way around because they have no power. This future has women with agency. It has men and women who aren’t white and who aren’t sitting at the back of the bus or busy passing. It has gay people out of the closet, it has transgender people, and all over the place, not only in the worlds of Samuel Delany. Beyond that, unimaginably shaping the future we couldn’t imagine getting, it has the internet. […]
[T]he future’s still there. The moon’s there and people have walked on it, the stars are there and extra-solar planets, and I still believe we’ll get there. We won’t get there the way we imagined, but the future is never the way you can imagine. After the panel, I was talking to a group of four fifteen year friends who had been in the back of the room and asked interesting questions. They were local, they had come to the con on their own after one of them had come last year. They didn’t think that we’d lost the future, far from it. They thought it was just that we had too limited an idea of what the future could be.
More reasons for optimism here.
I like how David Biello thinks:
We move more earth and stone than all the world’s rivers. We are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere all life breathes. We are on pace to eat to death half of the other life currently sharing the planet with us. There is nothing on Earth untouched by man — whether it be the soot from fossil fuels darkening polar snows or the very molecules incorporated into a tree trunk. Humanity has become a global force whose exploits will be written in rock for millennia. […]
As in all things, however, it is up to fiction — make-believe, imagination, speculative play — to really show us what the Anthropocene could be. And it is in science fiction that the Anthropocene often plays out, most recently perhaps in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which depicts a Bangkok post-apocalypse, with high sea levels kept out by dikes, an absence of fossil fuels replaced by manually wound springs to run robots or sailing ships, and the routine use of genetic modification and warfare. It is typical of the genre, which features, above all, doom. Yet, in all this dystopia — albeit resilient dystopia where humanity endures against all odds — can no one imagine hope? […]
Ultimately, I’d argue the Anthropocene needs a non-fantastic literature that directly grapples with the problem of managing a planet so that it can remain the sole (known) home in the universe capable of providing life support and a passage through the void to a rich array of animals, plants, minerals, microbes and more. This literature will need [Ray] Bradbury’s optimism and imagination, heralding a new “green morning,” rather than the end of nature we find in Blade Runner’s dystopian portrait of a world whose only hope lies in migration to other presumably, less ruined planets or Frankenstein’s suggestion that we will be undone by our own creation. […]
Things can get better, and there’s a large portion of humanity working towards that these days, a global hive mind connected by the internet. In the end, science will give us clues and cues for the pathways that will either save or destroy us, but it is our own imagination that will light the way.
There is no other planet like Earth, no other home than the one we now run […] The most important literature we write in the Anthropocene will be the words that enable us to ensure breathable air, drinkable water, nutritious food, and the persistence of the abundant life that makes it all possible on this rocky mothership. […] We need an enduring, resilient, hopeful literature for the Anthropocene.
(Photo via Wondering the World)
I’ve been away from this blog recently, trying to devote some more time to fiction writing (but not yet quite comfortable enough to talk about that personal creative process, as I know others do). Working on this blog has been, and continues to be, an interesting writing experience — but a reactive one, a curatorial process of finding and commenting on cool things that others have said or done. It’s rewarding to be plugged in to the cultural conversation on the net, adding my humble two cents; but it’s been a while since I’ve made something of my own, and that’s something I’d like to spend a little more time doing. If you’ve been following my posts, I’m very grateful for your time and attention. I’ll try to keep it up as best I can.
Meanwhile, some things of interest:
1) Gregory Benford writes about the future of space exploration, arguing that the time has come for NASA to give way to commerce-driven space initiatives. Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom my family and I just saw giving a brilliant talk at the American Museum of Natural History) offers a different take on NASA and the vital importance of government funding for exploration. (Tyson videos have been popping up all over YouTube recently, eloquently presenting and sometimes re-editing his arguments: some choice ones here and especially here.)
2) A fascinating talk by author Neal Stephenson on our society’s increasing inability to get big stuff done, and why it’s important to revive that sense of ambition and possibility.
3) Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie has a must-read essay on “The Storytellers of Empire,” asking America why “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.” She makes a compelling argument for empathy, connection, and identity beyond ethnicity: “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.”
4) NPR host Bob Mondello points to a science fiction story by E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” that eerily predicts our (sterile?) virtual culture, our overreliance on technology, and what that says about who we are.
5) Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova asks: “what if we engineered [...] selective attention purposefully and aligned it with our emotional and mental well-being?” She calls our attention to Ruth Kaiser and the Spontaneous Smiley Project, which invites us to see — and photograph — the smiley-face configurations that are literally everywhere around us. Kaiser makes the case for optimism on her blog, and quotes some inspiring Dr. Seuss passages as well. You can also watch her TED talk here.
And now I’m off. Have a great day, wherever you are. Go make something beautiful. Make someone smile.
(Photo via Do Something)
Sam Harris interviews Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, authors of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, as they make the case for optimism (much as Hans Rosling does). Read the interview for all the details of their argument; what’s interesting to me, at the moment, is their view on why we tend to dismiss such well-founded optimism, why it’s so hard for good news to get past the filter of our negativity:
Why aren’t we more aware of these positive trends?
The simple answer is, because we’re hard-wired not to notice. As the first order of business for any organism is survival, our brain privileges information that appears to threaten us. As a result, we tend to focus too much on the bad news even as the good news struggles to get through. The media are so saturated with bad news — if it bleeds, it leads — because they’re vying for the amygdala’s attention.
Furthermore, to handle the massive influx of information we process on a moment-by-moment basis, the brain relies on heuristics. Most of the time these work. Sometimes they fail. When they fail we call them cognitive biases. As it turns out, a lot of our cognitive biases keep us pessimistic as well. The negativity bias is a tendency to give more weight to negative information and experiences than positive ones. Confirmation bias is our tendency to search for or interpret information in ways that confirms our preconceptions — which might not be so bad on its own, but when you add the media’s focus on negative news, you have a recipe for psychological disaster. This list goes on. The result is a brain that believes the end is near and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.
What do you hope people will get from reading your book?
The first is hope. You can’t change the world if you don’t believe it’s changeable.
The second is a vision and road map: a way to take bigger risks, create an innovation culture, and focus on solving problems rather than complaining about them.
Most importantly, we want people to understand that, more than ever before in history, individuals can now band together to solve grand challenges. We don’t believe abundance happens automatically. It’s up to each of us. That’s what makes today so different. We face enormous problems, but we — as individuals — have enormous power to solve them.
Yes. The key thing about rational optimism isn’t that it guarantees a better future, but that it empowers us to recognize our own capacity — and our own responsibility — for making it happen.
More reasons for optimism here.