I believe that pessimism gets a bum rap. Optimism is nice, but the unchecked variety leads to bad government (“Mission accomplished!”); divorce (“Love conquers all.”); and dental problems (“One little caramel won’t hurt you.”).
As the child of Holocaust survivors, pessimism comes naturally to me. You could call it an inherited trait. I still view my parents’ experiences in the Lithuanian ghetto with a child’s incomplete comprehension of horror, but I’m adult now and everywhere I look the irrational lives on. Why fear all Muslims? Why detest every Frenchman? Why trust Dick Cheney? Why did Hitler hate the Jews? Who knows. In a scene from the film “Ship of Fools,” a Jewish passenger politely listens to a hate-spewing German.
“The Jews are to blame for all society’s ills,” the German pronounces.
“Yes,” the Jew agrees. “The Jews and the bicycle riders.”
A blank settles on the German’s face.
“Why the bicycle riders?” he asks.
The Jew shrugs. “Why the Jews?”
So, I am never surprised by betrayal, by dishonesty, by selfishness, by greed, by corruption. As a pessimist, I expect the worst and I feel kind of sorry for anyone who doesn’t.
Pessimism prepared me perfectly for the election of George W. Bush in 2000. I believed that he was capable of stealing the election. I believed that as an oilman he would bring his cronies to power. I believed that as a privileged frat boy he would care nothing for the poor, the disenfranchised and the weak. I believed that he would lie about his past (his military service), his intentions in Iraq (where does one begin?), that he would sanction dirty politics (the Swift Boaters) and try to prove he was a better man than his father by bringing down Saddam Hussein.
Before the 2004 election, an Army veteran told me he preferred the service-evading Bush to the military hero Kerry. He’d rather be led by a spoiled Old Boy than by an educated multi-lingual man of the world. Abu Ghraib is another reminder that terrible things happen, and seemingly decent people commit horrific acts, all of a sudden, for no good reason. The Valerie Plame case underscores the fallacy that bad guys get punished. If I ever wavered in the past, I am now permanently settled into pessimism-cruise control.
Recently, a study on pessimism posited that optimists generally do better in life because they have Many Little Things going for them. They have better relationships with friends and co-workers. Their family lives are more fulfilling. Optimists live as if tomorrow will be better, and when it isn’t, they think the day after will be better. Apparently this does wonders for one’s cardio-vascular well being and inter-personal relations. Pessimists, on the other hand, have only One Big Thing going for them: they’re usually right.
I am not a proselytizer. I have never felt the need to promote pessimism as a living philosophy, but today, with another two dangerous years of George Bush ahead, I feel the time is ripe. Widespread pessimism would have saved us from Bush. Expecting the worst would have prepared Al Gore’s campaign for the illegal post-election Republican assault on the Florida Supreme Court and vote-counters. When Bush was elected in 2004, I consoled myself in the hope that his administration would be racked with scandal, embarrassment and revelations of fraud and corruption.
And now that Scooter Libby is awaiting a new trial, or an appeal or a pardon, and U.S. Attorneys have been fired for bucking Republicans desires, and 20,000 more troops are facing risk in Iraq and sub-par health care when they return, and the true nuclear threats, Iran and North Korea, are thumbing their noses at us, and Bush has admitted that global warming might exist, and most of the world has lost faith in the fairness, goodness and probity of the United States, I feel bad. On the other hand, I do have that One Big Thing going for me, but there is no joy in it.
Thanks for your consideration.
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