A Pox on Optimists!

I’ve had it with optimism. Optimism, at least US style, got us into this mess. It gave us 30+ years of indulgent parenting in which self-esteem was considered to be more important than skill acquisition, self-discipline, cooperation, and learning to cope with adversity. It’s led to widespread magical thinking, that if you had the right attitude, you’d surely get ahead. Notice how everyone looking for a job is obligated to fake that they have passion? The Greeks understood that passion was an affliction, something you got when you were on the receiving end of Eros’ arrow and as a result developed an insane, insatiable fixation on whatever you saw next, which in a best case scenario might be an unattainable but fetching female, and if you were unlucky, might be a goat.

My sense is the issue of motivation is more pressing in the zeitgeist than it used to be due to the how dark things are now and how difficult it appears to be to effect positive change. Over the last few weeks, we’ve had a running sub-theme in the comments section on how to motivate people to make sacrifices for future generations if you couldn’t appeal to religion. And in the last day, in a weird bit of sychronicity, I’ve seen two calls from members of the lonely faith of True Progressives, for Yet More Optimism.

When I was in a less cranky mood, back in 2008, I wrote in the Conference Board Review, apropos the corporate perma-fad for yet more chipperness:

“Negativity,” an awkward coinage, has widely come to be used pejoratively. Magical thinking, too, has become increas- ingly popular as a way to gain the illusion of control in an uncertain world. Rhonda Byrne’s motivational best-seller The Secret, for example, basically says that you get what you wish for. If you don’t have the things you want, it means you don’t have enough faith. In this construct, neither insufficient ef- fort nor bad luck plays a role.

In the business world, we’ve moved from hardheaded to feel-good management. As Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway observed recently: “For people in any position of authority the ability to say no is the most important skill there is. . . . No, you can’t have a pay rise. No, you can’t be promoted. No, you can’t travel club class. . . . An illogical love of Yes is the basis for all modern management thought. The ideal modern manager is meant to be enabling, empowering, encouraging and nurturing, which means that his default po- sition must be Yes. By contrast, No is considered demotivating, uncreative and a thoroughly bad thing.”

To illustrate, Tom Peters’ Leadership offers an impossible, irreconcilable list of exhortations: Be a great salesman, great storyteller, great performer, networking fiend, talent fanatic, relationship maven, visionary, profit-obsessive, and (of course) an optimist. Push your organization; know when to wait; love mess, politics, and new technology; lead by winning people over; foster open communication; show respect; embrace the whole individual. Granted, Peters does give a couple of breaks—leaders get to be angry and make mistakes. But his list is all sizzle, no steak. Not only are his executives reluctant to say no—they don’t develop any of the guts of what managing is really about: making decisions under uncertainty, creating routines, developing (not merely exhorting) direct reports, responding to crises, building in enough slack to deal with low-probability but high-consequence opportunities and risks.

By contrast, the normally sound Gaius Publius tells us that “Action and optimism are critical to progressive victory:”

First, as I’ve said many times, the antidote for depression is action. So when you’re feeling down and hopeless, get up and do something. It’s amazing how much better you’ll feel. All those Action Opportunities you see from me? It’s because I’m concerned about your health, and want you to be happy.

Second, everyone has reach, a world within which we have an effect. Even the so-called least of us lives in a world we influence. Use your reach; you have no idea when a surprisingly good result will come from it.

Third, action is a choice, not a prediction. And except in rare circumstances, when inaction is more powerful, we must act to win. We could win a battle or lose a battle, win the war or lose it. But we must act as though we can win, or we never will win. In the longer interview, Eskow talks about how the Clintons, the Obamas, the Romneys and the Ryans, all want us to feel powerless, hopeless. That’s part of their plan, it shouldn’t be part of ours.

The antidote for mild depression isn’t optimism, it’s exercise (trust me, a lot of research on that), so part of this prescription is not far from the mark. But what good does it do for organizers to pump people up with talk of victory? You might motivate them short term, so optimism to move people forward can work when you can give people specific, attainable targets, like organizing and running a soup kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, this sort of very tangible local action is incredibly valuable. But optimism and desire are the tools of marketers. They create and exploit object or status lust. Look at how Obama’s con was based on sheer hopium, and how in 2012, he still had a remarkable number of loyal followers despite his clear record of dishonesty and abuse of his base.

Optimism and desire are likely to prove inadequate to carry most people through a protracted struggle against powerful and oppressive forces. Were labor leaders in the days of violence against unions (the persistence and savagery of corporate opposition to labor has been airbrushed out of the most histories), rely on happy talk as a major motivating strategy? Did people fighting for causes they thought would not be won in their life, like abolitionists and the early suffragettes, rely on optimism to get them through the day? What you need is tenacity. Getting people to find the internal resources for protracted battles where all they are likely to experience is losses requires a different headset than the sort of optimism that we’ve been deeply inculcated to rely on in America.

A different formulation of the “think positive” school comes in “Political Dreaming in the Twenty-First Century” by Ira Chernus in TomDispatch. It does get high marks for eloquence. Some key extracts:

Dreaming is the realm of pure freedom. In dreams, we can see, do, or be anything. When our dreams are political, they help us sense what it might be like to escape the limits imposed by corporations, the state, the media, the advertisers, powerful forces of every kind. They help us imagine in new ways what is possible. In our dreams, none of the powers that be can touch us….

But a political dream is quite different from the dreaming of sleep because it happens while we are wide-awake. It may even make us feel more awake, allowing us to pierce the pre-packaged version of reality handed to us by the rich and powerful, who demand that we take their distorted version of how this place, this country, this planet works as “realism” itself….

Of course, we should never confuse our dreams and myths with specific policy proposals. That would endanger the chances of achieving policies that could bring us a few steps closer to realizing those dreams. Policies, after all, are always political artifacts, produced by compromises between our dreams and the hard facts of the present.

This sort of thing is likely essential for some people. But I have to say for myself that when the gap between your idealized world and what seems attainable is a yawning chasm, focusing on a remote dream seems like a prescription for guaranteed disappointment. Matt Stoller would often sputter to me that he’d lose his best organizers to organic gardening. My take was that it became too hard for them to keep projecting optimism (organizers are in the business of selling and selling in America requires an enthusiastic persona) and they decided they’d rather do something where they could put effort in and see tangible results.

And this bit troubles me:

It may even make us feel more awake, allowing us to pierce the pre-packaged version of reality handed to us by the rich and powerful, who demand that we take their distorted version of how this place, this country, this planet works as “realism” itself.

That sort of high, which is a variant of the endorphin high of romance, sounds an awful lot like how people who’ve been in cults recount the feeling when they fell under the cult leader’s sway. The loss of personal boundaries in being subsumed in a group can be very powerful emotionally, but it also makes the participants ripe for manipulation.

So what are mere mortals, or the insufficiently dreamy, to do? Victor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, would often start his therapy sessions by asking his patient, “Why haven’t you killed yourself?” He found that what enabled people in concentration camps to endure was either that they had a loved one they wanted to live for, or they had some sort of creative work they wanted to accomplish. The interesting bit about the loved ones is that many of the survivors learned that turned out to be a delusion, that many had assumed they were dead and had moved on to other relationships.

I’m up for a much more fundamental rethink of cultural values. The pursuit of optimism has both a hedonistic element (we want to feel good emotionally) and Judeo-Christian dualism (optimism is a good, safe, nice, clean emotion, we don’t need to think about our nasty chthonic drives). It requires an ongoing, active effort to deny significant parts of our personality and human experience, which is why I’m dubious of its ability to sustain people over the long haul (admittedly, there are some people who are blessed with naturally sunny dispositions, but they don’t have to exhort them, they just seem to have been lucky in the brain chemistry they inherited).

I have to confess I’m not deeply enough read in it to be sure, but Stoicism has gotten a bad rap, and it has a lot to recommend it in times like ours. Stoics have a lot in common with Buddhists, in that they believe in cultivating emotionally equanimity and resilience no matter what your external circumstances. What appeals to me about Stoicism is that they have a non-Christian (as in not driven by fear that God will get you in the afterlife if you are bad) foundation for morality. From Wikipedia:

A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.” This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy,” and to accept even slaves as “equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature.”

The Stoic ethic espouses a deterministic perspective; in regard to those who lack Stoic virtue, Cleanthes once opined that the wicked man is “like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes.”…

Borrowing from the Cynics, the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control…

The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια) or peace of mind (literally, ‘without passion’), where peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense—being objective or having “clear judgment” and the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life’s highs and lows.

In this framework, people like Jamie Dimon are correctly seen as unhinged and destructive.

Stoics also were big on empiricism, as this section of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations show:

Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object that is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.

If any readers can recommend any classics that have decent translations, please list them in comments. I feel we need to find new ways, on a practical and philosophical level, to get out of the mess we are in, and it can’t hurt to see if past schools of thought can provide fresh vantages.

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  1. Steve

    You familiar with the whole Walter Benjamin bit? The angel of history? Pulling the emergency brake and yelling stop? etc etc.

    1. Saddam Smith

      “History is an angel
      being blown backwards into the future
      He said: History is a pile of debris
      And the angel wants to go back and fix things
      To repair the things that have been broken
      But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
      And the storm keeps blowing the angel
      backwards into the future
      And this storm, this storm
      is called
      Progress” – Laurie Anderson

      1. jsn

        “A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
        Walter Benjamin

  2. wunsacon

    >> …which in a best case scenario might be an unattainable but fetching female, and if you were unlucky, might be a goat.

    I could get a goat?

  3. Lawrence Rupp


    Climbing the Ladder of Awareness

    When it comes to our understanding of the unfolding global crisis, each of us seems to fit somewhere along a continuum of awareness that can be roughly divided into five stages: (snip)
    New Article:

    Paradise Lost

    Many of us who have been paying attention to the state of the world over the last half century have now begun to realize with growing horror that the progressive deterioration we have been tracking shows no signs of resolution In fact, to some of us it looks as though there is no way to resolve this deepening crisis. The end of the track is in sight. The planetary factory is in flames, and all the exit doors are barred. (snip)

    1. Banger

      Well, well, well…. I’ve been waiting for people to realize the exits have all been blocked–the system is now in place and it is very robust and there is no way out of it–or I should say no way out if we use our current ways of thinking.

      The future is neofeudal. If the citizens want power they will have to band together in tightly knit bands or become peons. The normals will do just fine–they will mostly have jobs, lots of drugs, endless amusements and will be easily spayed and kept on as pets and work animals. It is the dissidents that are in big trouble and we still insist on perishing separately. I’ve been going on for years about this and no one wants to move to essentially match up with the oligarchs who now have their own gangs. We have to form gangs if we want influence.

      Having said that there is one other opening–it’s called “magic” alluded to here in this article. I will call it spirituality meaning that we open up our consciousness to include unexplored dimensions Western man has been avoiding.

      1. jrs

        Popular in environmental and transition circles is Joanna Macy, I’m only moderately familiar but suffice to say her “Active Hope” is not the hope of people who think they are likely to win, but it is meant to be active.

  4. Skeptic

    Many of the people who stayed in Berlin in the Thirties were optimists. They paid the ultimate price for their unwarranted and misguided optimism. Optimism can be very costly. On the upside, the Third Reich only lasted a measly twelve years. Yes, things can change and Regimes can crumble.

    As far as Cynics, most people who accuse others of being one, do not know that it is a branch of Greek Philosophy commonly accociated with Diogenes:

    “The most illustrious of the Cynic philosophers, Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 B.C.E.) serves as the template for the Cynic sage in antiquity. An alleged student of Antisthenes, Diogenes maintains his teacher’s asceticism and emphasis on ethics, but brings to these philosophical positions a dynamism and sense of humor unrivaled in the history of philosophy.”


    It is quote appropriate that a shallow, uninformed Society such as ours should use the word cynic in a disparaging manner. So when called a cynic, be proud not ashamed.

    Hello and good day to all cynics, skeptics, pessimists, dissidents, resistors, realists……..

    1. Saddam Smith

      “Yes, things can change and Regimes can crumble.”

      Change is the only constant, and all regimes/civilisations crumble. Nothing lasts forever. Whether this is grounds for optimism or despair is another matter entirely. I’d say its grounds for both.

        1. Saddam Smith

          “Death is nature’s best invention.” – Steve Jobs.

          I suspect a big part of having a chance to allow a new paradigm to emerge robustly and birth a new culture will include that rejoice thing you mention, as part of embracing limits, one of which is beautiful death, as you rightly imply. If my spying between you words does not include too much projection on my part.

          1. Flying Kiwi

            I’d suggest Jobs, as so often, is wrong.

            The best way to learn from the past is to have lived it: the elderly attained wisdom that way but then die and unless we have the humility to listen to them that wisdom is lost.

            But when have the young ever been humble?

        2. Saddam Smith

          I suppose I should add that all things “simply” are (or rather ‘inter-are’), but this is hardly the end of the matter. While I try to be on the “Be” side of “To Have or to Be”, I like to think there is a lot more to reality than simply Being.

          Not that (Inter)Being is simple.

    2. John Glover

      “The power of accurate observation is often called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

      – G.B. Shaw

    3. russell1200

      I hate this idea that the Jews who stayed were optimists. It makes for a decent talking point, but doesn’t fit what happened.

      After the very early encouragement of Jewish emigration, the Nazis put a break on it because they were leaving with too much hard currency. So they set up a system that was so confiscatory that most faced ruin if they choose that option.

      So for most it was not optimism, but a balance between known ruin, and possible ruin. I guess you can call the being “optimistic”, but I think it pushes the definition beyond the rose-tinting it is normally associated with.

  5. Ken Johnson

    Swallow your antidepressants and buy a house with an addition. ‘You’re never fully dressed without a smile.’

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Wow, I hate sounding churlish, but is this a statement of your personal biases or projection? Not being an optimist does not mean being depressed. But most Americans seem to think everyone must look happy, so medding them up is warranted if they are non-compliant.

  6. Ken Johnson

    “”In the most extreme characterisation, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance – it is a “gift”, deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude. One survivor writes in her book The Gift Of Cancer: A Call To Awakening that “cancer is your ticket to your real life. Cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live.” And if that is not enough to make you want to go out and get an injection of live cancer cells, she insists, “Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say that again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine.”” – Barbara Ehrenreich

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I’m told all the sages say it’s easy to find enlightenment (once they’ve gotten there), although then they all say the way they did it was really hard.

      I do like this story:

      In the Indian epic Mahabharata, Yudhisthira goes looking for his missing brothers, who went searching for water. He finds them all dead next to a pond. In despair, but still parched, he is about to drink, but a crane tells him he must answer some questions first. The last and most difficult: “What is the greatest wonder of the world?” Yudhisthira answers, “Day after day, hour after hour, countless people die, yet the living believe they will live forever.” The crane reveals himself to be the Lord of Death and, after some further discussion, revives the brothers.

      1. docg

        Thanks for that one, Yves. Excellent.

        On second thought, however, I do believe all living things do live forever. Because first of all, according to Parmenides, nothing existing can ever not be. And he makes a pretty good case.

        Also, in order to be dead there has to be time for you to be dead. But when you are dead, time dies along with you, so there will never be time for anything to be dead.

        1. Ven

          Parmenides had something in common with the Bhagavad Gita:
          “That which is will never cease to be; that which is not has never come into being”.

        2. Joe Jubb

          So to my theory that time travel is only possible after you are dead, when the constraints of aging are removed.

      2. citizendave

        One of my favorite philosophy jokes (which my mind thinks it wrote):

        I’m trying to live forever. So far, it’s working.

      3. rexl

        Which could mean, Yudhistera (who I will call Joe) actually perished also, and joined his brothers in the other (place).

        He had not met the Lord of Jokers, or Lord of Bringer Back, or Restorer, but rather the Lord of Death (Change).


      4. Thor's Hammer

        You’ve been one of the leading whistle blowers exposing the criminality and fraud that forms the basis of our financial system. Investigating this sewer is certainly cause for anyone to become pessimistic. So try looking at it this way. Bankster control of the entire political spectrum from Congresswhores to Obomber is in principle reparable. One can at least imagine reforms and a system of justice that would put a stop to the most egregious actions of the financial system and punish the worst of the criminals.

        Here is my suggestion. Look at the larger picture of how industrial civilization relates to the world ecosystem within which it has grown like a cancer. Study the history of every other species that overshoots the carrying capacity of its environment. Visualize a world so much warmer that it has lost its polar ice. Observe human psychology and its tenuous relationship to the facts of the real world.

        In comparison financial chicanery will seem to be but a minor concern, and the possibility that it can be reformed grounds for optimism.

        Are humans smarter than lemmings?

      5. didhe2

        Finding Yves’ work brilliant and relentless in its truth-seeking, I felt I must contribute, even after-the-fact, to this post and wonderful thread.

        Looking back at the original post after going through the beautiful and amazing comments, many of which could bear reply to in one way or another, in the end will point out that Stoicism may be an aspect of esoteric teaching. The quotes in the post are evocative of a teaching sometimes known as The Fourth Way.

        For this perspective on esotericism, suggest GI Gurdjieff and PD Ouspensky. Their work speaks of a possibility of development of higher consciousness and conscience, and a way to objectivity. It is a long work.

        In the context of this post, suggest PD Ouspensky’s What is Yoga chapter in his book Tertium Organum. This can be found in fairly faithful pdf online. It was originally written before he met Gurdjieff, before World War I, later revised at least in the last paragraphs of that chapter. Not directly referencing the Stoics, it does address asceticism in certain practices.

        I personally found religion or philosophy impossible to understand without the context of esotericism.

    2. Wendy

      I was going to mention Barbara Ehrenreich; her book “Bright-Sided” is the long version of this essay, and a good read (although not one of her very best, imho).
      The cancer communicty’s exultations about dealing with cancer are especially enraging, as is the refusal to allow anger, rage, sadness, or direction of any of these emotions at real causes, increasing prevention, improving treatment, etc, which Ehrenreich provides surprising information about. Glad you quoted some of her work here.

      1. peace

        Exactly my recommendation too, Wendy. The positive psychologists and positive organization behavior researchers that I know of do not have a good response to her criticisms. I particularly liked the reader comments in response to the Times Magazine feature in March on positive organizational behavior. The comments can be summarized as, “yeah, positivity and selfless-giving may seem to be good strategies if you are high status, have a stay at home unacknowledged wife, a nanny, a housekeeper etc. You give the appearance of giving yet so many people are giving to you already.” Unacknowledged priviledge.

        Despite this, my parents let me know that “people only care about themselves.” So, my survival skill was to smile to avoid violence, bullying, etc. I am a skeptic etc. but I don’t have Chris Hedges’ or Yves’ status and popularity to survive in this city or country without being pleasant to most people. Maybe the definition of optimism Yves is discussing is different from the positivity movement.

        I will also reiterate somehting I’ve posted about before. Psychology research on prevention focus and promotion focus (regulatory focus theory) is related to this issue. Some people focus on threats (skeptics and possibly stoics too) while others focus on gains (pure optimists).

        Lastly, Yves, you appear to be a relative optimist in interviews when compared to Hedges and Chompsky. You seem like a “hopeful” optimist in the way Moyers is always hopeful.

        My sarcastic childhood motto was “Life gets better and better and then you die”

    3. Ms G

      Thank you for this Ehrenreich “beauty.” Whoa Nellie, what a doozy. Insulting and idiotic in too many ways to count. But this is has become such a common “doctrine” in our Age of Oprah (remember her?!).

    4. Tom Denman

      If cancer, or any other malady, is a “gift” does that mean there’s some place one can return it?

  7. LAS

    Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom …

    Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?

      1. tim s

        @Ran, don’t confuse organized religion with spirituality – they are potentially polar opposites, the former an opiate and a method used often to control, while the latter is perhaps the only true freedom, which puts the spiritual one outside of all worldly control

          1. tim s

            Absolutely not true. Freedom begins and ends in the mind. After all, the american people by and large have become enslaved in the mind first, through debt, fear, and the other various manipulations we are subjected to. Yet our bodies remain free.

            i understand where you are coming from, given that a body thrown in the dungeon can hardly be called free. still, it is debatable who is more enslaved: either 1) the typical citizen who has fallen for all of the entrappings of our current civilization yet is allow perhaps to take a vacation a couple of times a year to wherever they want to go in body, or 2) the political/spiritual person who has a clear mind and conscience who is in the jail (or cross) of their oppressors because of their principles.

      1. AbyNormal

        HA! wunsacon im all tangled up…this CAN’T be Beard: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

        maybe its ZenBeard an BluBeard’ll show up after midnight with clapton

        1. F. Beard

          Here’s a Zen-like Scripture verse, I think:

          If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him. 1 Corinthians 8:2-5 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

          except for the part about loving God.

  8. Michael M. Thomas

    From the age of sixteen – that’s 71 years now – I have loved the poetry of A.E.Housman. This, in particular, seems relevant to Yves’s shrewd post:

    “The thoughts of others
    Were light and fleeting,
    Of lovers’ meeting
    Or luck or fame.
    Mine were of trouble,
    And mine were steady;
    So I was ready
    When trouble came.”

  9. Michael M. Thomas

    I also coined my own apothegm.

    In an age of euphemism, a realist will be called a cynic.

  10. Eugene Gant

    I actually managed to get into business school many years ago despite citing one of the greatest of Roman stoics in my application essay:

    “In my freshman year, I had heard the younger Seneca say, in the Thyestes, that a true king was one who could rule his own soul, not the souls of his subjects.”

    In hindsight I think I was probably a diversity admit.

    1. F. Beard

      He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. Proverbs 16:32

  11. pwndecaf

    I have to wonder – why haven’t you killed yourself today, Yves?

    I have followed this site for several years now and appreciate it very much, but at times I cannot read it because it is so depressing. I find sometimes I can only look at the antidote of the day.

    I want the greatest “sinners” to get their just desserts now and not in an afterlife I don’t believe in. I do not have it in me to be a stoic. Exercise or a round of golf where I can whack a ball silly may be the only cure for me.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Outlets for hostility help a great deal. I have the blog, weight training, and the occasional ice cream. Oh, and bitching to sympathetic types, although I try not to overdo that.

      Anger is a very useful emotion (I am a recovering repressed WASP) but I now would like to become more Zen, which I suspect will just prove to be an idle aspiration.

      1. Banger

        Zen is far easier than most people imagine at least in principle. What you find out is that, in fact, one may aspire to some kind of enlightenment but that aspiration is part of the problem and perhaps the most fatal one. The realization we come to, and some of us can do something about it and others can’t let go, is that we are addicted to our narratives and believe they are “real” when they are, from an empirical pov, clearly fiction. Zen is realizing that our identity is not that narrative or “my story.” What our real self, and here Zen and other mystical teachings all converge, is that point of awareness which we all share is always present and is “the real.” That doesn’t mean you drop the narrative or reject society. Zen is very specific on that–you go back to society without the anxiety of having to protect your ego, your reputation, your story, your “roles” in life. You just play the part as you deem necessary at the time or you don’t.

        Another way of looking at it is the example of the Zen influenced martial art of Aikido. By accepting the situation and not being particularly worried about whether the blow will hit you or not you relax into your “center” or “one point” and will find the right technique to redirect that blow or disarm your attacker–by not being filled with anxiety you allow the body to marshall its resources and strengths and deal with the situation.

        I remember a few times being in solidly dangerous situations when I was able to do just what I described–and that was before I “knew” anything about Zen.

        1. tim s

          easier in principle, sure – in practice, not so much. Succeeding at a zen mindset (perhaps even moreso for a westerner) is very difficult indeed, and many eastern texts admit as much. To relinquish desires the future for your own well being at all times is difficult enough, although there will be natural periods when it will be easier, but try having similar thoughts about your children when you look in their young eyes and try to maintain it. It takes a special mindset that can do this. Nature takes over in situations such as the dangerous one you noted, and you are lucky you aren’t someone disposed to crap their pants and cry like a baby – their’s may be their natural reaction to the same danger. Good luck choosing your deepest nature and good luck choosing to maintain a Zen mindset day in and day out.

          1. Banger

            I don’t know quite how to describe it but, in my case, life itself forces me into a Zen mindset by necessity. In other words, it’s either that or blowing my brains out or taking hillbilly heroin–I have a lot of sympathy for addicts and suicides.

            1. tim s

              I understand, and am of a similar mindset. I find I’m most at peace when things seem to be at their worst. It is in the anticipation when things are not yet at their worst (which is the day to day reality) that I am anxious. It is most fortunate to be of a Zen/Stoic nature. Anyone who is so lucky may have one of the greatest gifts of all. My point is that it is not easy for the vast majority of people to CONSCIOUSLY maintain a mental outlook where one has no desire for any particular outcome for their selves/children/family/culture on a continuous basis. This lack of desire for self or anything relating to self, but only for (will of the) supreme is the basis for all forms of spirituality deep down. Most people want something, which according to Buddhism, is the source of all suffering.

              1. psychohistorian

                GAG! I am wading into this comment thread w/ 250+ comments…I am never going to bed….

                Anyway…..a pox on budda because while I can give up most, I get stuck at wanting to feel like I have lived ….at least a life of self manufactured meaning, if nothing else.

                Interesting comments. I am backing into Zen w/ both TBI and PTSD background.

                Like Yves says of those that get there, the path is hard. At least it has been for me. Within the past year I innovated a mindful meditation exercise called the Letting Go Breath that helped me and may help others shed trauma, anxiety, fear and a life of hurt. I still have a residual physical twitch that is keeping me from being able to do the zen meditation that I used to do but suspect that when I get there this time, it will be a totally different experience.

                On to more comments…..

          2. peace

            For focusing on the real I currently enjoy a free audiobook of Hesse’s “Siddhartha” especially chapters 4, 11 and 12. Hesse accentuates oneness and what we all share in common.

            Mindfulness meditation also helps me; at least my interpretation involving relaxing and quieting my thoughts. I usually meditate while in the subway; it’s contagious. I also sometimes repeat to myself “loving kindness” while walking among judgmental or schadenfreude-ish or inconsiderately competitive New Yorkers.

          3. Moneta

            zen is impossible with children. The Dali Lama is part of the 1%ers…. the peasants carry the stress of reproduction and producing the food and thanks to their sacrifice, he has time to meditate. If we all meditated, we’d get taken over or die of hunger.

            It’s the same thing with all the great philosophers. They enjoyed the good life and had time to ponder because the slaves toiled away.

      2. jfleni

        Yves: You should not despair, even a little bit. You are having an outsize influence on the discusion and discourse about out-of-control plutocracy. Many thanks from all of us who often had nothing but despair.

      3. lee

        As a literary person you might find R.H. Blyth’s book, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, of interest. He wrote it while interned in Japan as an enemy alien during WW2 and it is the English literary canon of his time with some other European examples, such as Cervantes, that were used for his cross cultural comparisons.

        In one chapter he compares Zen to other mystical traditions and concludes that Zen has much more in common with Existentialism than with any of them. I found this personally resonant.

      4. The Black Swan

        This may be lost in all the comments, but I would recommend to everyone in the world that they try Vipassana meditation. It is a completely secular method of meditation, that is the direct teaching of the Buddha. It is not Buddhism, but a practical technique to train and purify the mind. I started a little over two years ago and since then have gone from a life of much misery and unhappiness to one of increasing happiness, Love, and Compassion. It is hard work, the hardest work, but the benefits are real. I could go on for a year talking about this, but I thought I would at least post a little comment and get the name out there and hopefully lead a few others onto the path of liberation.

        may all beings be happy.

        1. AbyNormal

          H/T Swan!

          “Vipassana” means clear insight into the real characteristics of body and mind. Vipassana bhavana (insight meditation) is sometimes called mindfulness meditation. The technique of vipassana uses mindfulness to note every detail of our mental and physical experience from moment-to-moment, with an unbiased attitude. By practicing mindfulness meditation we can see and actually remove the causes of suffering, which are within ourselves.

          Guided Meditation on Awareness of the Body (Breath’)

          We live thinking I am right, I am wise. Herein lies the cause of human delusion.~Ko Kamei

          The object of Zen is not to kill all feelings and become anesthetized to pain and fear. The object of Zen is to free us to scream loudly and fully when it is time to scream.
          ~Francis Harold Cook, How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Including Ten Newly Translated Essays

          1. peace

            Yes! It is at the least a salve for me that endures for a while after each use. I am not a regular meditator and am more of a taoist socially (return to society and do what you do best) than a committed Bhuddist on “the path.”

      5. Lil'D

        I strongly disagree with your statement that anger is useful. Anger is substantially destructive. I suppose it can trigger action, and the action might even be correct… But the likelihood is a poor outcome

        1. Moneta

          Stages of grief.

          If you use your anger efficiently, you can move to the next phase.

          It’s only if you stay stuck in that phase forever that anger is bad.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          No, societies need individuals who will take it upon themselves to discipline other members who misbehave, even if it comes at some cost to them. Societies that fail to discipline cheaters collapse or disintegrate. So you need some pissed off people to make the miscreants toe the line, or at least increase the cost to them of cheating.

          Social animal species all exhibit this behavior. I don’t think there is a standard term for it, but I’ve heard it called “altruistic punishment”.

          Anger is a spur for that, or at least it’s a productive use of anger.

          Therapists tell you if you deny an emotion, you can easily be manipulated by your refusal to go there. And there’s a huge New Age “don’t be negative” school. Not being negative means you can’t criticize or otherwise oppose bad behavior. It is profoundly disempowering.

  12. Dan Kervick

    Yves, there is also the sort of high that can be obtained by being just another angry person ranting on the internet about how everything is fucked up and bullshit. The intertubes are filled with a movable feast of co-dependent sad sacks, whose entire emotional balance is dependent on maintaining a comfortable level of indolent and useless despair and rage.

    I agree that the attitude that is needed is tenacity, not some kind of sunny-side optimism, as well as a constant attempt to think realistically about the changes you want to pursue, and what would actually be required to achieve them. The reason for engaging in political effort of some kind is not to indulge an emotional taste for optimism. It’s just that attempting to improve things, even a little, is always better than purposeless wallowing in despondency and anger.

    1. from Mexico

      The marriage of “indolent and useless despair and rage” with “sunny-side optimism” is a dangerous combination, as Hannah Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

      The whole hierarchical structure of totalitarian movements…could be described in terms of a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism…

      A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

      1. peace

        I would guess imho that Arendt is correct if the zeitgeist is of the correct nature (cynical and respectful of hierarchy and status). Otherwise, irreverant folk might just laugh off these attempts or just smile wisely and compassionately.

        SNL’s sardonic Seth Meyers; Jeunet’s Amelie; the Onion; George Carlin; Hesse’s Vasudeva the ferryman in Siddhartha; the jocular Bernie Sanders.

  13. jefe

    Best breakfast read in months. Thank you for the grist! I am thinking Goethe has some good information on the genius of the bold step- acting.

    Exercise: newest ‘ fast active walk’ for me is disc golf- can’t recommend it enough… but for god sake leave the walkman/I-whatever at home and listen to the bird song.

  14. madrona

    For some reason, the first thing that came to mind upon reading this post was the scene in Grey Gardens where Edie and Edie are seen listening to Norman Vincent Peale on the radio.

    1. Philosophy Grad

      Lucretius was actually an Epicurean, of a school that clashed with Stoicism, insofar as the Epicureans gave a place for “chance” (what Epicurus himself called “the swerve” in the otherwise predictable motions of atoms). Some Epicureans tried to wed chance to freedom (what we might now call “free will”). Unlike the modern connotation of “epicurean”, however, Epicurus and his followers were far from what we would consider “hedonists”.

      In contrast, the Stoics were much more deterministic, believing the universe to be fundamentally rational, free from chance. “Randomness” merely reflects our ignorance. Freedom in stoic thought means recognition of what we can control, primarily our reactions to external circumstances. And for many stoics, human happiness did not require pleasure, a view now totally foreign to modern Utilitarian sensibilities.

      Interestingly, Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman emperor, was much more eclectic in his views, with an understandably greater interest in politics than, say, Epictetus who was born a slave and was disfigured with a club foot. Epictetus had a more constrained view of freedom, as one would expect. That said, Aurelius might be the best bridge for those of a more optimistic bent to enter into stoicism.

      I studied the Stoics alongside the American Pragmatist tradition in an excellent seminar I attended in grad school. There are some fascinating parallels in these very different traditions, though I would need to revisit the syllabus to make specific suggestions on texts. I seem to remember that George Santayana, not quite a pragmatist but in a related vein, in particular had sympathies with the Stoics, but also with the Epicureans. (And the nice thing about these “pre-optimistic” American philosophers is that no translations are necessary–well, some of Santayana’s writings were in Spanish, but besides that.)

      One final suggestion I’ll make is a modern work by psychologist Jon Haidt called “The Happiness Hypothesis”, which explores how wisdom traditions’ varying takes on happiness are reflected in empirical studies. Haidt is somewhat affiliated with the “positive psychology” movement, totally symptomatic of the American optimism obsession, but he himself was surprised by how the Stoics and Buddhists seem to get much correct with respect to human happiness.

  15. Eric Patton

    Very good article. However,

    What you need is tenacity.

    Tenacity is not enough. If a wall blocks your path, and beating your head against it isn’t getting you past, beating your head against it more tenaciously is unlikely to as well.

    What you need is strategy. The left never engages in strategic thinking. It has no theory. It has no vision; it doesn’t know what it wants beyond vague references to some “better world” that it insists is “possible.”

    Even Obama, Boehner, Hitler, and Stalin want(ed) a better world. It’s all about how one defines “better.” Put another way, if you had a magic wand, what would you do with it? What kind of world would you create? Be specific in your thinking. What would people’s day-to-day lives look and feel like? What would their work life be? Again, be specific. It’s not enough to say we’ll all just work together and be happy. You have to think deeply about what large workplaces are, how they’re organized, and how you’re going to organize them with your wand.

    The same logic applies to education, culture, the family, law making, law enforcement, adjudication of disputes, and so on.

    I think it was Einstein (though it may have been Planck) who said that problems can’t be solved at their level of understanding. To solve a problem, your level of understanding has to go beyond your understanding of the problem itself. That requires a humility that the left shows little evidence of having.

    1. Dan Kervick

      I agree this characterizes a lot of the contemporary left. But I don’t think it will be permanent.

    2. Gaianne

      “The left never engages in strategic thinking.”

      To true! But I’m sure you are not supposed to mention it.


    3. jrs

      I agree what is needed *is* STRATEGY, it needs to be front and center if we are ever to be any more than a despair cult (mind you I like despair cults but ..) or anything more than engaged in futile actions that change nothing. But I don’t think what is needed is a fully fleshed out vision of utopia. You don’t need utopia when what you are trying to oppose is about as dystopian as can be imagined (discussed daily). It’s only IMO compulsive optimism that who would call for it.

      1. Dan Kervick

        On a liberal blog I used to visit, I once asked people to produce wish lists of how the world would look in 30 years if there most ambitious political desires were realized.

        I sort of thought I might get some stuff like:

        4-day workweek

        CEO-to employee pay ratio under 10

        Full employment

        75% lower fossil fuel consumption

        Triple the current rate of union membership

        universal health insurance with a 50% reduction in total health care costs.


        Instead I got almost 100% stuff like “there will be no racism and no sexism” and “no religious bigotry”. In other words, rather than thinking in terms of ambitious but practical policy goals with clearly defined criteria of success, the liberals on that blog thought about progress entirely in terms of worthy but extremely vague psychological transformations of the population with no definite criteria of success.

        1. GDC707

          Chris Hedges has been addressing this very deficiency. All actions must be concrete. They may be fueled by a moral imperative, but they must be able to show something, not just be dreams.

        2. Ms G

          Oh brother. This is an interesting bit of empirical evidence. This is exactly the product of the replacement of History with “Social Studies” and what I call “Rainbow Curriculum” nonsense in high schools over the past 30 years.

          I remember being in shock during a very brief time in an American junior high school at having a “social studies” class (which was a mish mash of whatever the teacher thought was “neat”) instead of history and geography. Then I got to college and there was actually a major in “Women’s Studies”: WTF!#$ And guys were doing that major too.

          All this is partly the dumbification of americans through edjamacation has been achieved.

          The results of your survey speak 1000 words. Thank you for that.

          1. Nathanael

            “Women’s Studies” is usually a much more rigorous major than a lot of the bogusness floating around.

            The analysis of social class structure which you’ll find there is more incisive and more useful than you’ll get in a fuzzy-headed “social studies” class or an old-fashioned pre-1950s history class.

            Don’t generalize about subjects you haven’t studied.

        3. hunkerdown

          Fascinating anecdote. It’s almost as if the thought leaders in the liberal-brand camp are trying as hard as they can to *avoid* politics and success.

    4. Malmo

      Well put, Eric.

      My vision isn’t your vision or anyone elses. Families don’t agree on whst’s best. Socities agree far, far less. Consensus is a pipe dream in a world of 7 billion people. That’s depressing. Of course one can auger to force their “way” down everyones throats: Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot…..

  16. John Ware

    Man, life is so short. I used to be a high-powered exec in Silicon Valley. I’d be the first to say that a lot of it was luck. Had a good life, was involved with things, etc. Then a string “bad luck” hit me. So my life changed professionally.

    I was lucky in that I had/have many interests. After a lot of philosophizing, I decided to buy a town in Italy which had declared bankruptcy. I moved over there and, while I am still rebuilding the town, I am learning a different coda of laws, attitudes, cause and effect, and so on.

    Solution to depression: chuck it all and start over.

    1. RanDomino

      Think of how many anti-foreclosure organizations, social centers, community newspapers and radio stations, and other things that actually make a difference you could have funded with that kind of money.

    2. JEHR

      A question for you, John: where do you think you obtained all that money that allowed you to buy a town? You don’t suppose that someone else had to do without because you took so much? I do not want to know you.

    3. kemo sabe

      I’m happy that you’re able to others while doing something you enjoy. Yes, being depressed is a wasted exercise. Good luck to you.

  17. from Mexico

    Yves said:

    Optimism and desire are likely to prove inadequate to carry most people through a protracted struggle against powerful and oppressive forces.

    Eric Hoffer argued that hatred was a far better organizing tool for mass movements than optimism:

    Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil.


    Common hatred unites the most heterogeneous elements. To share a common hatred, with an enemy even, is to infect him with a feeling of kinship, and thus sap his powers of resistance.

    –ERIC HOFFER, The True Believer

    “The average person is a facultative sociopath,” argued David Sloan Wilson in Evolution for Everyone. “There is ample psychological evidence that we are hardwired to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and to behave inhumanely toward ‘them’ at the slightest provocation, as science journalist David Berreby recounts in his book US and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind.

    We spend a great deal of time speaking about the godless and selfish individual, but the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society argued that societies (groups of individuals) are far more immoral:

    As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.

    I would add corporations to the groups Niebuhr listed above.

    Yesterday, Tim Mason linked to an outstanding lecture by Shadd Maruna, “What are psychopaths for?”


    It seems humans go to great lengths to deny the psychopath within, and to focus on individual psychopaths (to which I would add psychopathic out-groups), which they scapegoat and project their own immoral acts upon.

    As Maruna points out, defining the “out-group” is an exercise in social constructivism, a completely arbitrary and artificial act. The out-group can be psychopaths, it can be black people (as with Richard Nixon and the racist propagandists at TalkLeft or emptywheel), or it can be Muslim Terrorists (as with President Obama and Rep. Mike Rogers).

    As far as TPTB are concerned, I think they are happy if the out-group is anybody, just so long as it isn’t them.

    1. Lambert Strether

      On emptywheel: Emptywheel is a group blog that’s heavily commmented. So when you say “the racist propagandists at emptywheel,” do you mean all of the bloggers? One or more of the bloggers? The blog and its commentarist?

      1. from Mexico

        I’m specifically talking about posts like this one by bmaz:


        The post is riddled with empirical claims that are simply untrue. For what reason are all the distortions, half-truths and outright lies put forth by bmaz, other than to deny the role that anti-black racism played in Trayvon Martin’s death, as well as the role it played in the criminal justice industry’s reaction in its aftermath? With Zimmerman, the police, the prosecution and the judge all taking their cues from the same playbook, what chance did Trayvon Martin have of getting justice in Florida courts?

          1. from Mexico

            Well unfortunately I know of no one who has undertaken to go through bmaz’s post and debunk her talking points one by one. To do it right would require a great deal of research, including going back and listening to actual testimony. It would also require filling in the information that bmaz has left out. One of the forms of dishonesty that bmaz uses is lying by omission, so setting the record straight would require furnishing all the information that bmaz omits.

            However, I did go through bmaz’s post and followed her links. And you know what? Not even those support her claims. I found not one single exception to this rule. They all rely, at best, on exaggeration and sensationalism, and at worst on outright lies.

            I’ll give a couple of examples. (If you want more examples, just ask, because like I say, there’s not a claim that bmaz makes that is not a distortion, half-truth or outright lie.)

            For instance, bmaz asserts: “Did any of you see the parade of witnesses that laid the foundation for the fact Trayvon Martin was the aggressor in the actual critical physical encounter between him and Zimmerman, and was on top of Zimmerman, and beating Zimmerman, both moments before, and at the time of, the key gun shot? My guess is you did not. But that, too, is part of the evidence in the trial record. ”
            bmaz gives two links as evidence. The first says this:

            Defense witness Eloise Dilligard is sworn-in for testimony via teleconference in the George Zimmerman trial in Seminole Circuit Court, in Sanford, Fla., Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Dilligard was a neighbor of Zimmerman in 2012 and testified that she thought it was his voice on the 911 tape.

            The second link bmaz offers as evidence says this:

            John Good testified he saw a man in dark clothing on top of a man who was wearing red or light-colored clothing with lighter skin. Zimmerman, 29, was wearing a red jacket the night of the altercation, and Martin was wearing a dark hoodie. However, Good testified that he didn’t see the person on top smashing the other person’s head into the sidewalk, as Zimmerman claims Martin did before he fatally shot the teen.

            For those interested in what John Good actually testified, it is available on Youtube. The testimony which is germane begins at about minute 18:00

            Of course Good, the only witness to see part of the altercation, never testified that Martin was “beating Zimmerman, both moments before, and at the time of, the key gun shot” as bmaz alleges. bmaz’s claim is an exaggeration at best, and an outright lie at worst.

            Here’s another example. bmaz charges that: “Did you know that the state, by and through Angela Corey, relentlessly engaged in Brady violations with regard to discovery and evidence disclosure and that, as a result, discovery and depositions thereon have been ongoing even during the trial, all to the detriment to, and prejudice of, Defendant Zimmerman?”

            The link bmaz furnishes is the transcript of the hearing where defense attorney O’Mara makes these allegations to Judge Nelson. But Judge Neson didn’t buy O’Mara’s allegations. “So it seems that the State’s response is that they have provided everything there is, and they understand that they’re on a continuing obligation, so unless and until there’s specific things that need to be addressed,” she tells O’Mara. “I think Mr. Guy just said that he has given everything.”

            This was followed by this exchange, in which O’Mara concedes that he has indeed examined all the evidence, but he also wants copies of the FDLE file:

            THE COURT: I don’t need to hear all that, but did you go to FDLE?

            MR. O’MARA: Yes, I did.

            THE COURT: Okay. So I just want to know what it is that you think you don’t have that has not been provided to you, and now we’re talking about FDLE.

            MR. O’MARA: Okay.

            THE COURT: And you said that you went there. And while you were there, did they open up their files to you?

            MR. O’MARA: No.

            THE COURT: Okay.


            THE COURT: So you’re allowed to go back to FDLE — and if you want that in the court order, that’s fine. You can go back to FDLE and inspect their entire file on this matter and ask them to provide you with copies of whatever you are seeking to have copies of.

            MR. O’MARA: Agreed. And what I’m asking for is electronic copies, which is not —

            THE COURT: Whatever is in their files.

            The FBI and DOJ were running their own separate investigations, and the prosecution testified they were not privy to this information. Nevertheless, O’Mara demanded this information. To this the judge replied: “Okay. Here’s what I’m going to rule on that issue with the FBI: If you provide the State with a list of the things that you think the FBI has done, Mr. De La Rionda will then call the FBI and ask them do you have this information, and if you do, provide it, and he will pass it on to you. That’s the best –”

            So how does one get from that to “the state relentlessly engaged in Brady violations with regard to discovery and evidence disclosure and that, as a result, discovery and depositions thereon have been ongoing even during the trial.” The evidence that bmaz cites does not substantiate his allegations, far from it.

            The most egregious zinger which bmaz spins, however, is this one:

            State of Florida v. Zimmerman is a straight up traditional self defense case. It has never been pled as a Stand Your Ground defense case, irrespective of all the press coverage, attention and attribution to Stand Your Ground. It’s never been Stand Your Ground, and certainly is not now that the evidence is all in on the trial record. It is a straight self defense justification defense, one that would be pretty much the same under the law of any state in the union including that which you are in, and that I am in, now (so don’t blame “Florida law”).

            What bmaz omits, of course, is how Stand Your Ground affected the instructions given to the Zimmerman jury:

            Zimmerman waived his right to the Stand Your Ground immunity hearing, a pre-trial event that’s not spelled out in statute. But he was afforded the protections of Stand Your Ground, which is embedded in Florida’s self-defense laws. Its language, found in statute 776.013, was tailored to the Zimmerman trial’s jury instructions and said the following:

            If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

            Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/07/16/3502481/juror-we-talked-stand-your-ground.html#storylink=cpy

            If one does a web search what one finds is that 776.013, even though it is not part of the 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law, is nevertheless touted by the pro-SYG forces as a legislative victory and as being part and parcel of the SYG suite of laws. For example, from the Self Defense Florida.com website:

            Florida Statutes 776.013, 776.012 (adopting the “Stand Your Ground” law written by the N.R.A., and since 2005, adopted by 30-odd other states)

            And on FloridaStandYourGround.org’s website, two of the NRA’s legislative triumphs — 776.013 and 776.012 – are displayed front and center:


            So bmaz’s assertion that “State of Florida v. Zimmerman is a straight up traditional self defense case” and “one that would be pretty much the same under the law of any state in the union including that which you are in, and that I am in, now (so don’t blame “Florida law”)” is a glaring half-truth, if not outright lie, because it completely omits how Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws affected the instructions given to the Zimmerman jury, or that these laws are of recent vintage, brought about by the lobbying efforts of ALEC and the NRA.

            1. readerOfTeaLeaves

              Granted, I didn’t read this comment too closely, but:
              – I’m pretty sure bmaz is a ‘he,’ not a ‘she’ FWIW
              – Im pretty sure bmaz is a criminal defense atty
              – bmaz has been writing at emptywheel for some years now, and often has interesting insights into legal cases, legal documentation, and the justice system.

        1. monday1929

          Pretty sure that was a typo, and should read, “INadequate”, since that is the main thrust of her piece.

    2. Joe Miller

      ““There is ample psychological evidence that we are hardwired to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and to behave inhumanely toward ‘them’ at the slightest provocation, as science journalist David Berreby recounts in his book US and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind.”

      What a monstrously stupid book title. If we are hard wired to discriminate between in- and outgroups because of this propensity’s supposed adaptiveness during the Pleistocine, then why do the Hadza take pains to accomodate strangers? Why is warfare unknown in their society? Why aren’t they more territorial? The short answer is that you’ll have to be willing to challenge the received wisdom about how small scale societies operate in order to find out.

      This article will help you to begin probing these questions in earnest. http://www.peacefulsocieties.org/NAR13/130725gen.html

  18. allcoppedout

    The critical literature is vast. A good book that compares Greek tragedy and comic approaches is Barbara Kellerman’s ‘The End of Leadership’.
    Here are a few papers that more or less explain themselves from the title:#
    Abrahamson, E. (1996) ‘Management Fashion’, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 21: 254-285.
    Ashforth, Blake (1994) ‘Petty Tyranny in Organizations’, Human Relations, Vol. 47, No. 7: 755-778.
    Burchell, Graham, Gordon, Colin and Miller, Peter (eds.) (1991) The Foucault Effect,
    Cruikshank, Barbara (1993) ‘Revolutions within: self-government and self-esteem’, Economy and Society, 22(3): 327-44.
    Dixon, J; Kouzmin, A. & Korac-Kakabadse, N. (1998) ‘Managerialism – something old, something borrowed, little new: Economic prescription versus effective organizational change in public agencies’, The International Journal of Public Sector Management, vol.11(23): 164-187.

    A classic source book for pessimists about management is Peter Anthony’s (1986) ‘The Foundation of Management’.

    Plato was pessimistic on corruption after seven books.

    My own contribution concerned “language on holiday” – a kind of ironic despair on writing critique in complex language. This is a bit of it from 1990.

    Debate in which the speaker signals there is no intention to hold the views expressed absolutely and contributions are openly invited, the very business of debate, is increasingly rare. Managers crush the very spirit of this whilst ostensibly inviting this very kind of debate. Rhetorics of empowerment, excellence, human resource development and participation are everywhere, and everywhere a lie. It is as though the ideologies of Soviet imperialism, The Great Leap Forward and The Killing Fields have not been destroyed, but carry on undead in the messages of triumphal managerialism. The hard-liners speak in gentle tones and fine words: the smiling assassins of the murder of ideas, social capital and the potential of human dignity. A Wittgensteinian (1958) deconstruction would start by establishing what ‘triumphal managerialist capitalism’ shared with Soviet, Chinese and Religious managerialism. The obvious shared set is ‘management’. Taking Latour (1993) to heart, we would risk being unintelligible or ridiculed by those who seek to reduce all to epistemology and keep our talk ‘mixed up’. We would look for what current managerialist practices share with the premodern (slavery, lying leadership, miserable treatment of human beings as resources – the examples are legion).

    The irony was we were able to talk like this, understand each other and change nothing. The academy was fast sliding into its own immorality. I was able to teach management from such perspectives and no one really wanted to stop me. The system could do this simply enough on resource grounds by simplifying the curriculum to core, options and textbook teachers.
    Yves’ alternative is already in place. The classic text is Burrell and Morgan’s (1979) ‘Sociological Paradigms in Organisational Analysis’ which clumps intellectual traditions into 4 paradigms. If you want a track into Greek directness Anderson is yer man:

    More important is an understanding (also Greek from Sextus Empiricus) that equally powerful arguments can nearly always be made (paradigms) – what we need and lack are means of rational decision between the incommensurate. This is really tough work – Gunter Ludwig is a start – but I think the quest a mistake. We end up in language on holiday.

    What is our ‘talk’ of marxism and psychology, or whatever ersatz blend when we stretch our perspectival horizon to include the glib globalising managerialism colonising events, and capitalism collapses its rules to shape-shift for further conquest? Such ‘talk’ could well be ‘language on holiday’ and as meaningless as indulgent Cartesian doubting. Who needs to care what psychology and marxism can do to or for each other? Concerned ‘Volvo driving academics and clinical psychologists’? What division of labour has taken place to value this ‘talk’ and the marketing of the products of such language-games as yet more commodities in a long history of fetish (Lukacs 1971)?

    Our pessimism may well be because we have had the alternatives in language and done nothing to change much, and fear our own motivation may be to succeed in a niche market. The Greeks lived on a slave economy. The rich are returning us to that. The best book to read is Joseph Heller’s ‘Picture This’. At least you’ll laugh.

  19. JGordon

    “and they decided they’d rather do something where they could put effort in and see tangible results.”

    And later:

    “I feel we need to find new ways, on a practical and philosophical level, to get out of the mess we are in, and it can’t hurt to see if past schools of thought can provide fresh vantages.”

    You say that, but I’ve been sitting on the answer for just about a year now, and relating it to you all from time to time when the mood strikes me. Frankly it’s absurdly optimistic to believe that economic, ecological, and cultural collapse are not going on around us. In fact, it takes such a herculean effort to suppress the knowledge of our ongoing collapse that I have to believe that those who refuse to recognize it are institutional-worthy delusional.

    While taking up organic gardening is not such a bad idea, I’d suggest going a step further than organic gardening, directly to forest gardening, since even organic gardening is not especially sustainable and doesn’t really do a good job of building soil or control pest without an irrational amount of effort, which agroforestry projects based on ecological principles largely does away with.

    Anyway Insulating yourself from a dying culture that is 100% garanteed to fail is not pessimism, but real optimism. Once you get yourself away form the delusional fantasy that society is not going to collapse, you can start making actual plans the will do some good for you and the people you care for.

    1. from Mexico

      JGordon says:

      Anyway Insulating yourself from a dying culture that is 100% garanteed to fail is not pessimism, but real optimism.

      It sure is. I think the idea that one can insulate onself and be secure within his own private little castle died with the invention of gun powder.

      1. diptherio

        Yeah, thinking that you can insulate yourself from our crumbling civilization is indeed optimistic…delusionally so.

        Not that learning to grow your own food isn’t valuable, but as they say, “no man is an island.”

        1. jrs

          If the only thing one was trying to insulate from was economic collapse well … in the Great Depression the factories sat idle but there were factories. Raw productive capacity existed even if the economic situation made it unusable.

          Well not only are the factories not here, but insulating against environmental collapse is a whole other ballgame, grow your own food but hope that climate change induced droughts don’t make it impossible to water (the case in many places in the U.S. – many people have experienced HAVING to let crops die due to water shortages). Grow your own food but hope that colony collapse disorder doesn’t get the pollinators (you also raise your own bees right?).

          I actually do believe a lot of issues can be worked on in some form locally (mostly in groups – not as an individual), I don’t believe that all of them can.

    2. sd

      Frankly it’s absurdly optimistic to believe that economic, ecological, and cultural collapse are not going on around us. In fact, it takes such a herculean effort to suppress the knowledge of our ongoing collapse that I have to believe that those who refuse to recognize it are institutional-worthy delusional.

      Nailed it!

  20. Patricia Marino

    Love this post, which is brilliant as always.

    I think it’s important, though, to focus also on the ways our society is structured to reward optimism, making it not so much a fundamental cultural value giving rise to other things, but a response to societal organization. Yves touches on this issue in mentioning the rewards for optimism – but when she says “I’m up for a much more fundamental rethink of cultural values,” maybe that change would require first a change in policies, laws, etc. Of course this site discusses these potential changes frequently. We should remember that making the world safe for pessimism and melancholia might help foster those as modes of living.

    As for the philosophy of human existence, I favor that found in the P. G. Wodehouse book _Something Fresh_, in which the main character declares that “Life is a mutual aid society.” As for the meaning of life, it doesn’t get better than that!

  21. McKillop

    I’m not sure that your comments concerning optimism and pessimism can be answered without re-presenting the marketing for which business in the U.S.A. is famous.
    Or religion. Or sports.
    Any and every endeavor seems to have been stained by the ideas you’ve mentioned being appropriated.
    It’s all in the definition isn’t it?
    Yesterday I took my 9 year old foster son to a group of kids who meet twice weekly to practice and play instruments to be in a rock band. The man sponsoring and directing the gang has been playing for years to provide kids with time and instruments and actual public exposure in order to counter various negatives.
    His work, before retirement, was as a court stenographer dealing with juveniles offending and offended.
    I imagine his pessimism over the steady parade of kids up for assaults and break, enter, and theft, or theft over and/or under, custody battles and cases that dealt with the harm done to children.
    My own kid, although younger by a few years, was welcomed, given a guitar and set to ‘shredding’. The others practiced some and glowed with pleasure when the new kid, asked for his opinion, declared their efforts to be “awesome”. He himself is liked for his simple presence. Of mind – enough to voice compliments.
    It may be overly dramatic to claim that Joel’s efforts will help to keep kids from being swallowed in the maw of our justice system, or their own despair and depression, but the actual experience was certainly positive.
    My presumption (after all, I’ve read your ideas for a bit now, and even had your book ordered for the public library _two, (two) copies!_ ) is that you have spent much of your time and effort dealing with all of the policies and practices of the current wheelers and dealers, the ones with enough money to pretend that their values and actions are worthy. I think you might be ‘burnt out’ by the liars and thieves that you oppose. Especially because they seem to be winning and worse, supported by consent or apathy.
    Hell, I’m not anywhere near as involved as you, am not even a citizen of the u.s.a. , and yet I mourn the apparent loss of what the country once represented actually (in some cases) and mythically. I don’t ‘just mourn’, and I’m sure that some of the support I show causes headshaking and eyerolling but I do a bit. While you obviously do more I’d ask you to realize that ALL that you do will never be enough to warrant optimism but is certainly enough to dispel pessimism.
    It’s a big nasty machina that they’ve spent years creating – a tad like the British Empire, the R.c. church, the . . . , the. . . And our own failings and weaknesses are used against us but we don’t have to give in. And I believe that you are right to change the definition, especially as the liars need to be called to account.

  22. McKillop

    Ha. Ha.
    When I began my reply there was one comment. It took quite a while for me to come with my banalities but I console myself with the belief that the effort was worthwhile because of the motive.

    1. Leeskyblue

      There is nothing banal in sharing an experience that evidently did some good.
      Some good comments net no response because none is needed.

  23. squasha

    You might try: A Guide to the Good Life The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy


    or listen to a discussion with the author:


    also, if you’ve never read Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen you might find the parallel rush of positive thinking (along with a boom in Floridian mortgages) in the 1920’s quite interesting

    1. Lil'D

      I heartily endorse Irvine’s book!

      One can also get some versions of Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca and of course Marcus Aurelius

      On the Buddhist side, I’ve been working slowly through “Bodhisattva’s Brain” by Owen Flanagan. Attempts to extract the wisdom without the woo-woo

      Stoicism and Buddhism are pretty compatible.

      Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are inspiring since each was deeply active in his society.

      Never give up!

  24. The Dork of Cork.

    For Stoics – it helps if you live in a simple small country where the chains of command are pretty clear to see & centralized.(without sophistication)

    You can thus get close to forming a grand unified Irish theory at the very least.

    It can get to the point of high comedy in Ireland where apparently there is a water shortage……….


    This is a classic means of control which we have seen in a progressive manner since Suez at the very least.

    Make domestic goods and services expensive so as to free up resources for further buying of external goods – helping globalization and destroying whatever internal cohesion or redundancy remains within these sad little Euro nations.

    Despite the propaganda water is not a scarce resource in Ireland.
    However external sources of energy is …..much of it burned via private cars.

    The ongoing agenda to destroy what remains of the nation state remains.
    The function of these new “workers” is to transfer rents to financial centers now in control of very basic utilities.
    Not to build core capital in primary industry as this would reduce scarcity and thus rental flows.
    London & other financial centers simply cannot grow without the exponential rise of the absurd market state.

    It will continue until it cannot.

    The general characteristic of the British monetary system and its modern India (the EU) is how completely pointless it is ,at least from a physiocratic perspective.

    But is not pointless if you look at it from a different angle – creating scarcity is a success if your lifestyle depends on rental income.

    I can clearly observe Paul Volckers: A controlled disintegration of the world economy in action as seen on a micro comedic Irish scale.

    The Anglos have created a wonderful entropy machine.
    At least its a wonder to observe from a distance…..not up close I am afraid.

  25. from Mexico

    Yves said:

    The pursuit of optimism has both a hedonistic element (we want to feel good emotionally) and Judeo-Christian dualism (optimism is a good, safe, nice, clean emotion, we don’t need to think about our nasty chthonic drives).

    I think that’s describes only a portion of those who operate within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr certainly acknowledges the existence of the type you describe within the Judeo-Christian ranks:

    While our modern children of light, the secular idealists, were particularly foolish and blind, the more “Christian” children of light have been almost equally guilty of this error. Modern liberal Protestantism was probably even more sentimental in its appraisal of the moral realities in our political life than secular idealism.

    –REINHOLD NIEBUHR, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness”

    However, he certainly doesn’t include that sort of pie in the sky thinking within the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition:

    If anything further were required to complete the self-destruction of modern optimism we have it in the tragic events of modern history. They have negated practically every presupposition upon which modern culture was built. History does not move forward without catastrophe, happiness is not guaranteed by the multiplication of physical comforts, social harmony is not easily created by more intelligence, and human nature is not as good or as harmless as had been supposed. We are thus living in a period in which either the optimism of yesterday has given way to despair, or in which some of the less sophisticated moderns try desperately to avoid the abyss of despair by holding to credos which all of the facts have disproved.


    The qualified optimism of an adequate religion will never satisfy the immature minds who have found some superficial harmony in the world in which the evils and threats to meaning are not taken into account. Nor will it satisfy those who think that every ill from which man suffers can be eliminated in some proximate future. It will nerve men to exhaust all their resources in building a better world, in overcoming human strife, in mitigating the fury of man’s injustice to man, and in establishing a society in which some minimal security for all can be achieved. But in an adequate religion there will be a recognition of the fact that nothing accomplished along the horizontal line of history can eliminate the depth of life which is revealed at every point of history.


    These paradoxes are in the spirit of a great religion… The tragedy of life is recognized, but faith prevents tragedy from being pure tragedy. Perplexity remains, but there is no perplexity unto despair. Evil is neither accepted as inevitable nor regarded as proof of the meaninglessness of life. Gratitude and contrition are mingled, which means that life is both appreciated and challenged. To such faith the generations are bound to return after they have pursued the mirages in the desert to which they are tempted from time to time by the illusions of particular eras.

    –REINHOLD NIEBUHR, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith”

    1. MikeNY

      Great comment, from Mexico.

      ITA that the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition is deeply nuanced, starting with the Wisdom Literature in the OT. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil (in addition to Niebuhr) seem relevant to your post, Yves.

      Of course one must strive to be realistic; but despair is the sickness unto death, and accidia never founded, or lead, a social movement.

    2. Doug Terpstra

      Yeah, I think faith nails it, not willfully blind Pollyanna optimism. Faith is painfully, mournfully, often angrily aware of evil yet holds a higher vision beyond it, the consciousness of a higher emotive power in the quantum soup, of alternate universes. Faith is the indispensable foundation for love, which casts out fear, and faith is embodying the change you want to see in the material world (Gandhi). From Hebrews (11:1-3) ISV”

      “Now faith is the assurance that what we hope for will come about and the certainty that what we cannot see exists…
      By faith we understand that time was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are invisible.”

      Faith is not playing the happy idiot, drunk on the neoliberal Kool-Aid. It is knowing that the universe is infinite, a timeless quantum realm where matter itself is created from nothing but energy and information (the word of God).

  26. Gray Hat

    James Stockdale wrote some good essays on the value of Epictetus’s insights as verified under torture in a P.O.W. camp.

    1. black hat

      Epictetus! Flunked a couple b-school assignments, way back when, by coming at them from the ethics of Epictetus. Marketeers hate that shit. Epictetus even includes a chapter on, ‘now once you start thinking objectively, the first thing that will happen is everybody’s going to think you’re an idiot, so here’s how to deal with that.’

      To deal with my residual happy-clappy acculturation, every day I try to do a little something to fuck this rancid state up and help it collapse. Cheers me up.

    2. readerOfTeaLeaves

      I believe you are referring to “The World of Epictetus”, by Adm James Stockdale. It was an essay originally printed in the late 1970s in Atlantic magazine. Stockdale began by recalling that, while a POW in VietNam, the thing that got him through was not technical knowledge, but the ethics he’d had… IIRC, at the US Naval Academy.

      Here is a good link: http://www.yorktech.com/l-tool/Secure/The%20World%20of%20Epictetus_Stockdale.pdf

      Stockdale later ran as VP with Ross Perot, and ended up looking sadly daft. But “The World of Epictetus” is well worth a read for it’s pragmatic perspective.

  27. Salieri82

    Have you read any Voltaire, Yves? Candide (or The Optimist) is probably the best literary savaging blind optimism ever got. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it’s funny as hell. I’ve read it at least once a year for the last decade, and I get something new out of it every time.

    “Optimism is the mania for insisting that all is well when we are miserable.”

    1. RanDomino

      I wanted to write a shorter version shredding apart cult-of-Obama optimism a few years ago with the title “Candidate” but I couldn’t quite get it together. Imagine the characters bouncing from Iraq to Katrina-wracked New Orleans to a ruin-in-process American city etc and you can probably fill in the gaps.

        1. Salieri82

          “But have you no politicians to lecture, and govern, and intrigue, and burn those who are of a different opinion than themselves?”

    2. Jeff N

      Candide – one of the small handful of books I did not sell back to the bookstore, during college :)

  28. F. Beard

    Having been raised Catholic and having despaired of ever confessing all my mortal sins (even lustful thoughts counted), I rejected Catholicism (and thus Christianity, I thought) and tried various philosophies. What a waste of time except I DID look under that stone. There’s no time to look under EVERY stone so one must make strategic choices. For numerous reasons, I decided the Bible was my best option and I’ve not been disappointed. If nothing else, I’ve confronted the greatest possible fear – everlasting disgrace and contempt*.

    * Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Daniel 12:2

    1. from Mexico

      So let me ask you, F. Beard, do you believe there will be Paradise on Earth, as the millenarialists and dispensational pre-millenarialists believe?

      Or do you believe God promises paradise not in this world, but in another world?

      According to the PBS special on early Christianity, it is not known whether Jesus believed in millennialism or not:


      And according to Mark A. Noll, writing in The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity, perhaps a quarter of churchgoers are full-fledged end-times believers, with up to 50% or so who relate to the symbolism when holy wars or tsunamis dominate the news.

      Reinhold Niebuhr explains the exaggerated this-worldliness of much of evangelical Protestantism:

      All the “this-worldly” emphases of modern culture, which culminated in the American experiment, were justified protests against the kind of Christian “other-worldliness” which the “Epistle of Clement,” written in the Second Century, expressed in the words: “This age and the future are two enemies…we cannot therefore be friends of the two but must bid farewell to the one and hold companionship with the other.”

      …Ideally the Christian faith strives for a balance of “a sufficient other-worldliness without fanaticism and a sufficient this-worldliness without Philistinism.”

      Whether it was this ideal balance or the defeatist distortion which was challenged in Renaissance and Enlightenment, inevitably the decay of traditional and unjust political institutions and the remarkable success of the scientific conquest of nature unloosed the hope that all impediments to human happiness would be progressively removed…

      These hopes of the past centuries have not all been disappointed. But the irony of an age of science producing global and atomic conflicts; and an age of reason culminating in a life-and-death struggle between two forms of “scientific” politics must be admitted.

      –REINHOLD NIEBUHR, The Irony of American History

      Niebuhr wrote that 50 years ago, and to those things he noted that challenged the realization of an earthly paradise we can now add others, including the way science via technology has facilitated the destruction of the biosphere, and the depletion of natural resources.

      1. F. Beard

        I believe Christ and the most faithful of Christians will reign on this Earth for 1000 years but it won’t be Paradise (but I’m sure looking forward to a new body which ALL Christians get!) since drought and heat, to name just two nuances, will still exist. And during the 1000 years, Satan will be locked up. But at the end of the 1000 years, Satan will be released for a while to lead a short rebellion that will be summarily crushed and then God will create a new heaven and a new Earth:

        Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

        And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Revelation 21:1-8 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

        1. jonboinAR

          Man, I consider myself a Christian but not a “millenialist” of any kind. I don’t believe in a thousand year reign or anything. For me, those passages in Revelations and stuff are fairly well impossible to interpret as to whether they are meant to be taken literally, figuratively or whether they represent something more or a little like a spiritual world that exists in more or less of a parallel way to our physical one. IOW, literalists on the meaning of Revelations as it regards end times and the predictions they try to make, to me, are obvious fools or charlatans who are out to dupe the gullible. In so doing they drive away many who might be attracted to the Christian faith but who dislike the idea of making themselves stupid.

          I don’t mean to attack your belief, but that’s how I see it. I go to church because the Bible directs me to worship regularly with other believers. I keep quiet because my views on this would likely cause dissension.

  29. Charles Yaker

    Because “press” is not free it is hard to know who to follow. However there seems to be only Staff involved and no Line. Everyone writes about issues nobody provides realistic answers. The movement has no managers. Therefor vote Green or vote Libertarian ( Gary Johnson)) it may take time but when “They” lose VOTES “They” will move to co-opt third parties. It has happened before and may happen again.

  30. pdooley

    Pessimists are always happy — if right, because they were right; if wrong, because things went well.

  31. profoundlogic

    Great post, particularly following the Prasch piece, or should I say POS.

    I would suggest that anger is underrated as a mechanism of change. American’s have simply become compliant tools. Requesting/hoping for reform isn’t going to get the job done.

  32. Ilga B. Winicov

    Cheap optimism and cheap grace are delusionally comforting without ever giving one the opportunity for actual achievement, or true recognition of reality. Unfortunately – too true!

    1. F. Beard

      The Grace is free (but not cheap) yet it cannot be abused indefinitely lest the Lord say to us: “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”

      Some people the Lord knows before birth (e.g. Jeremiah); others require more time; some are never known and thus can never be trusted.

  33. skippy

    This is an expanded version of Manchester Plan C’s Workers Against Work Working Group brief introductory statement.

    In 1930, considering the possibilities of 2030, the liberal economist J.M. Keynes expected that

    “man [sic] will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

    Despite bounding leaps in productivity, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century the pressing economic cares of perpetually disagreeable wage labour retain their grip on human life.

    Keynes’ visionary excitement about the future possibilities of humanity has abandoned public discourse. Whenever the crisis is discussed, we hear the same miserable demands for work or jobs, and the same dull promises mouthed by politicians, think tanks and trade unions. “The future must work” they insist, wistfully condemning future generations to endless drudgery. Meanwhile, the short sighted focus remains on the mischief of highrolling ‘banksters’ and vicious, bovine politicians. But, the indisputable depravity of these individuals aside, they are the ugly symptoms of this crisis, and not its cause. At the root of the present impasse is a profound crisis of the activity which structures both the intimate details of our everyday lives and the system of production and distribution which governs the world’s economies: work.

    Soaring production hasn’t liberated us from work. It has made our lives more insecure, more precarious – balanced on the slippery brink of temporary contracts and suspended above an abyss of psychological and financial torment at the hands of the jobcentre. As technological innovation and global economic integration have transformed the global economy, here in the global North, unemployment has burgeoned, and wages have stagnated or fallen. To mask this crisis, work is “created”, or at least allowed to continue existing despite the possibility of its elimination by automation: witness the silent life-sapping of millions of office workers sitting quietly at their screens playing Solitaire in between bouts of frenzied management-driven target-filling activity which they know is pointless. Or the online order fulfilment warehouse ‘pickers’ toiling away filling trolleys in the middle of the night, because human labour is for now cheaper than the cost of automation. But this ‘solution’, the preservation and perpetuation of mind-numbing busywork, is unsustainable. Soon enough, the machine will prove cheaper, more reliable and more efficient than the human drudge – whatever the hue of their collar. Human activity – whether manual or intellectual – is quantified, broken down into its constituent gestures, digitised, mechanised. The brave innovation of workfare may slow this process, but it will not be stopped.

    The government’s ‘Plan A’ is to ‘make work pay’ by attacking the social security programmes which enable us to survive in an increasingly workless economy, and demanding that we become ever more ‘flexible’; that is, contort our lives ever more painfully to the demands of work. Whilst those of us without work struggle, under the constant and increasingly savage threat of punishment by destitution, to find any kind of work, those with employment struggle to make ends meet, as the rising price of food, fuel and rent make a mockery of our wages. Meanwhile payday loan companies flourish in the boarded-up ruins of our high streets. We work longer hours for insult-wages, smiling peppily throughout the workday, before returning to homes we struggle to afford, piles of domestic chores we struggle to have the time for, and loved ones we struggle to have the energy for after the gruelling emotional labour of smiling at punters and not punching our bosses all day. The gains of feminism have secured for women the right to underpaid, insecure, undervalued care and service work in the day, before a second shift at home doing all the work of a housewife on the evenings and weekends. Moreover, as the cuts scythe through the public sector, increasingly the burden of care work (childcare, care of the elderly, nursing, even education) which is cast out of the public realm and made the private problem of overworked, unpaid, usually female individuals.

    Our only means of survival, our only access to the things we need and desire, is waged work. Yet work has always been a means of survival contingent on the caprice of profit; during recession after depression after slump, millions are ‘made redundant’ and cast into poverty. What is different about our present situation is that the upturn does not materialise. We are seven grinding years into this crisis, and the cycle appears to have slowed to a halt; or rather, it has spun out of the ordinary calendar of capitalist boom and bust and into a strange new normality of stagnation-crisis. Heralded recoveries are pale, fragile and jobless. Austerity, meanwhile, unfurls ever further into the future, and entrenches itself as a political consensus unlikely to be ousted whichever blank-eyed career boys stumble into office at the next election. Work, as our means of survival, isn’t working. Things need to change, and to change fundamentally.

    So what are the alternatives? Despite the increasingly desperate cries of some commentators we can’t go backwards to a halcyon ‘Plan B’ of full employment, where final demand (the amount people buy, hence the amount of profit companies can make from consumption) is pumped by rising household wages. This deal, which characterised the post-war period, was predicated on the universalisation of work; a historically specific state of affairs that has been rendered obsolete by automation. It is impossible, unnecessary and most urgently of all undesirable that we rearrange things such that everyone can savour the bracing charm of a 40-hour work week.

    The inevitable failure of Plan A and Plan B demand that we begin to construct Plan C; or, much better, several Plan Cs. We want to incite processes that move from an ethics against work (which can at times stagnate into a stultifying dropout-ism) and towards an active politics beyond work. This implies a fundamental transformation of our relationship to productive activity and resource distribution – so we don’t have a blueprint. But we do see demands and struggles for a shorter working week, an unconditional and universal basic income, and the fight to defend and improve our social wage (i.e. the free payments and services we receive from the state) as indicative of ways to move beyond the current domination of the world and human life by the chokehold of work. We want to instigate and amplify politics which don’t just react to mutations in capitalism but create them, whilst challenging the logic of solutions to foster economic growth, and attacking the necromantic solutions which attempt to pump ever-more human gore into the zomboid maw of the work economy through the creation of unnecessary underpaid and (more recently) unpaid work. For us, an anti-work politics challenges the dead rhetoric of both the right and the left that calls for a return to full employment, along with the fever-dream of recovery.

    An anti-work politics is not a rejection of productive activity. On the contrary, we hate work because it precludes the possibility of meaningful, creative work to produce beautiful and useful things. An anti-work politics is a springboard from which we may begin to rethink the basis of the activity of our lives, and boldly imagine a form of life not stunted under the grinding heel of the wage relation and the vampiric demand for profit, but enlivened by the pursuit of human flourishing. – snip


    Skippy… Personally I blame drunken vineyard owners that are ethnically challenged… from antiquity

  34. posneg

    Thank you for making me feel positive about my negativity. In other words, for putting a smile face on my cynicism.

    All kidding aside, this is a good piece.

  35. Tom Finn

    “Maya Yoga” Keith Dowman’s translation of Longchempa’s “Finding Comfort and Ease in Enchantment”

  36. killben

    “cultivating emotionally equanimity and resilience no matter what your external circumstances.”

    Hindus have the Bhagwad Gita which basically says “Everything is not in your hands. So do your best in whatever is in your hands and do not think of the results” indicating that results could vary depending on external factors but thinking about it will distract you from doing your best.

    As you get older you are likely to agree with this!

    1. diptherio

      “You are entitled to your actions, but not to the fruits of your action” is how Krishna puts it, IIRC.

      The future is unknowable and ultimately uncontrollable. To think that we can control the future (even our own personal futures) is a delusion.

      Attachment to the ends of action also has the paradoxical effect of making our actions more difficult. Take a surgeon: she is skilled and confident in her actions…until her daughter lays on the operating table before her. Now her hand trembles and she doubts herself, because now she has an attachment to the ends of her action that wasn’t there when she operated on strangers.

      And then there is a diminution of freedom stemming from attachment to the fruits of action. I wrote this for a sermon I gave to our UU congregation some years ago:

      When we are attached to the fruits of our labor, when we look forward to the goal and desire its attaining, we also become slaves to something, slaves to the goal. To be attached to the goal, to the fruit of our labor, is to begin, even if ever so slightly, down the slippery slope of ends and means thinking. We will end by declining to do good things if they don’t seem to further our goal, and by consenting to do bad things, if they do. Attachment to the fruits of labor puts a constraint on present action, and so binds us and negates our freedom. By renouncing the fruits of labor, we allow ourselves to act always in accord with our highest, that is to say, our most loving, impulses, without thought for a future that was never more than a dream anyway.

  37. Tokai Tuna

    I’d like to see a peaceful overthrow of our current Government, that would boost optimism, probably solve more than a few problems, but might backfire horribly.
    Unfortunately, you can’t get a security clearance if you call for open rebellion.

  38. Brick

    Bit off the reservation with this post, which if I was an optimist would see as a good thing, or even a good thing because I am synical about the world today (tongue in cheek).

    From my point of view the good thing about Stoicism is the tendency to judge by actions rather than words. Do you beleive the man who says he loves cats is an animal lover or do you think the man who calls a cat a flea bitten monster while stroking the cat and giving it fuss is an animal lover. Seems to me the world is full of companys, politics and people with vast claims that really fail to deliver with only certain types of failure have consequences.

    The problem I would have with Stoicism is that there is a conflict between the idea of being in harmony with nature while seing no need for negative emotion. Negative emotions are part of nature in a way and can sometimes lead to out of date concepts being challenged. A stoic acts for himself but might not act on behalf of others. Maybe its a little unfair of me and I have not fully grasped what Stoicism is about, but it feels a little too laid back about the plight of others to me and may lack engagement.

    Perhaps Epicureanism, seems a little closer to Buddhism, if you can accept their ideas on pleasure. A healthy dose of Skepticism occasionally does not go a miss either. I have sympathies with Jainism and the concept of gaia, but all in a way have targets for what is moral and would in some ways constrain choice without regard to circumstance. How about just having a good sense of humour and being able to laugh at yourself.

  39. Furzy Mouse

    I highly recommend the 8th C. Indian scholar, Shantideva’s, “A Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”, and the Dalai Lama’s “The Universe in a Single Atom”. I quote the backcover, “…the Dalai Lama presents a brilliant analysis of why all avenues of inquiry – scientific as well as spiritual – must be pursued…Through an examination of Darwinism and karma, quantum mechanics and philosophical insight,…neurobiology and and the study of consciousness, the Dalai Lama draws significant parallels between contemplative and scientific examinations of the world around us”.

    1. diptherio

      I haven’t read anything by the Dalai Lama, but I can second your recommendation for the Shantideva text. It’s one of those books where you can read a page (or a paragraph) and then spend years trying to fully understand and incorporate it into your life. Kierkegaard is like that too.

  40. arthur and mitsuko

    Maybe you should listen to that Work In Progress CD we sent you. Then read the “unspecialized” page of our website untravelledpath.com.
    The key to beauty in this dull modern world is following an untravelledpath. If you do things the way they’re supposed to be done, as you point out it’s hopeless.

    1. tim s

      Similarly, I recall reading that the arts tend to flourish as societies decline. The soul has to reach out for something else. Arts in this case can be broadly expanded to mean anything that is spiritual in nature.

  41. Chris Maukonen

    Ives…sometimes you are just too funny. But seriously though, I absolutely 100% agree.

    And who you discribe in the last paragraphs is what the ZEN masters would call the path to enlightenment.

    What the Finns call Sisu.

    1. bob

      Fundamental rethink of how we do society?

      still the rose-colored optimist.

      “This sucker is going down.”

  42. Spring Texan

    Well, amid all this, let us not neglect to praise Gaius Publius. Some of those (not Yves) who trashed the post seem determined to wallow in despair. And while I like what Yves says about Stoicism a bit better than what Gaius says, I SO appreciate how Gaius Publius does routine provide useful things I can do — which congresspeople to call or fax, etc — that DO have a chance to help a bit and sometimes DO help a bit.

    And he’s absolutely right about the desirability of actions — actions like Yves’ blog, and other simpler stuff like he proposes.

    He’s someone I’m very grateful to, and who has his eye on the ball. And even with all the problems, there are and can be victories, and every even small victory can make a big difference to SOMEONE.

    1. Gaius Publius

      Thanks, Spring Texan, for the upvote. I try.

      That said, I’m proud to be “the normally sound Gaius Publius” and will wear it proudly.

      That also said, the cult of “if you think it, you can create it” (aka magical thinking) is rightly criticized here. (In my own defense I said that “action is a decision, not a prediction.”) Yves is correct in her disdain of that crew.


  43. Furzy Mouse

    Here’s some fuel for your pessimism, Yves:

    According to Hindu and Buddhist teachers, we are now in the Kali Yuga, the age of degeneration and vice, new diseases,pollution, mass warfare, etc…this 4th and final cycle/aeon started about the time of Christ and Buddha


    A discourse by Markandeya in the Mahabharata identifies some of the attributes of Kali Yuga. In relation to rulers, it lists:
    Rulers will become unreasonable: they will levy taxes unfairly.
    Rulers will no longer see it as their duty to promote spirituality, or to protect their subjects: they will become a danger to the world.
    People will start migrating, seeking countries where wheat and barley form the staple food source.
    “At the end of Kali-yuga, when there exist no topics on the subject of God, even at the residences of so-called saints and respectable gentlemen of the three higher varnas [guna or temperament] and when nothing is known of the techniques of sacrifice, even by word, at that time the Lord will appear as the supreme chastiser.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.7)
    With regard to human relationships, Markandeya’s discourse says:
    Avarice and wrath will be common. Humans will openly display animosity towards each other. Ignorance of dharma will occur.
    People will have thoughts of murder with no justification and will see nothing wrong in that.
    Lust will be viewed as socially acceptable and sexual intercourse will be seen as the central requirement of life.
    Sin will increase exponentially, whilst virtue will fade and cease to flourish.
    People will take vows and break them soon after.
    People will become addicted to intoxicating drinks and drugs.
    Gurus will no longer be respected and their students will attempt to injure them. Their teachings will be insulted, and followers of Kama will wrest control of the mind from all human beings.
    Brahmans will not be learned or honored, Kshatriyas will not be brave, Vaishyas will not be just in their dealings.

    Furzy here…I’m not advocating acceptance of this degeneration at all, (I rail against it every day), but a realistic appraisal of our human condition. If most of the food in the fridge is spoiled, how do we cook a nourishing meal? We need some fresh ingredients, true direction and leadership, instead of propaganda.

    1. RanDomino

      I don’t see how that description wouldn’t apply to every other era since the start of civilization. People always seem to have this whitewashed idea of history, as if prostitution didn’t exist in the Middle Ages or States don’t have their origin in mafia-equivalents. Pretty much all vices and sins that exist today which are commonly blamed on human nature or an analogue also existed in the past going back as far as can be seen. As did millenarian cults and movements which pointed to then-contemporary degeneracy as a supposed sign of the end times.

    2. diptherio

      It should be noted that a Yug (era) is said to last 432,000 years, so…

      Kali Baba, my guru, once told me this (in his adorable broken English which I will not try to imitate):

      Now it is Kali Yug, the era of collapse and degeneration. But it hasn’t always been thus. Before this age, there was another. One of the things that was different in the previous age was that parental blessing were effective. When a father said to his son, “may you grow up and become a doctor,” the boy would inevitably become a doctor. Every time.

      Why were blessings effective in the previous age? Was there some magic in the world then, that made the blessings work? No.

      How difficult is it to become a doctor? A person needs books, and supplies and time to study; many things. In the previous age, all the people in the village supported one another. If a person was to become a doctor or a lawyer or anything else, everyone in the community pitched in to make it a reality. Nowadays, each person must do everything for themselves, and this is why blessings are no longer effective; this is why we now live in the Age of Kali.

      Also, I wrote an essay some time ago for a local rag about the things we have lost in this Kali Yug. Here it is:


    3. tim s

      Consider also that we are supposedly at the turn of the 5000 year era to a new era according to the Mayan calendar. Of course, destruction must preceed creation, so it’s all in how you look at it

  44. Banger

    From a political POV you have to be pessimistic if you realistically look at power-relations. There is no hope there–the trend is established and it is written in stone. We are headed for a neo-feudal future. This could change if someone can break open the mind-control regime.

    Having said that I think the pessimist v. optimist POV is a false dichotomy–both positions are false because it just isn’t that simple. Both attitudes are necessary in all its varieties from deep despair to bliss. We humans have to open up to all this and not keep ourselves in narrow categories–each set of feelings has its proper place in our lives. When a loved one dies we should feel deep despair and hurt, if we haven’t lost touch with our emotions and should express that even ritually if necessary. When we achieve deeply we can exult. When we feel the spirit in us we can shout praises to God or Goddess or just the Real. When we are in love we should be falling with open eyes knowing we are fools–which we are at that point. Foolishness can be good medicine for the soul as can cynicism. Cynics, after all were the Sufis of the Greek world–they were the wandering holy fools that were once common throughout the civilized world.

    The forced optimism you are writing about is poison as is the gloomy depression that so many of us fall into because things don’t go as we expected. It is not the world that is the problem but our projections of what the world ought to be. For example, our view of the world is that it should conform to a particular picture of how it should be. We carry within us pictures from high school civics or whatever movies we have watched and fantasies of how the world should be with liberty and justice for all. But that is utter BS–things don’t work that way or even remotely that way. It is utterly abnormal for politicians to mean well in a complex alienated society like this one–why would people expect someone like Obama to be on the level? Such a notion is almost insane! Yet, millions put their faith in this guy. It’s like believing Bruce Willis will rescue us from disaster–that’s not Obama’s role–he’s a politician and he is a power-broker–he’s like the manager of a real estate office–he is not the property he brokers.

      1. Banger

        I’ve tried. People don’t want to be organized–they want to stay, despite words to the contrary, within the culture of narcissism. They will organize as long as they can have their toys and self-indulgence–I’m not really much different but I’m trying to move in that direction.

    1. Nathanael

      The feudal society has a lot to be said for it.

      In a feudal society, personal loyalty is everything.

      The current crop of CEOs who cheat their workers will be the first to die if a feudal society is really set up.

  45. Andrew Watts

    I occasionally wonder if modern civilization is capable of promulgating any cultural/moral values at all. Our society seems devoid of any values except for the pursuit of pleasure seeking and warm fuzzy feelings. It is through faith that this cynicism is overcome. Positive thinking is a poor substitute for faith. The virtue of faith is that it can spare us the misery of despair when confronting tragedy. It is impossible as well as futile to maintain a positive attitude while enduring long periods of suffering.

    Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe has dedicated itself to re-creating the unity it enjoyed under the Caesars. This ideal of unity has never been realized since the Roman era. With recent events only serving to help destroy the faith that European unity is possible. In the United States we have always believed in a series of myths that made this country unique among the annals of history. Only to be confronted with the disgrace of our country’s inevitable decline. The importance of faith under these circumstances cannot be understated. It provides a necessary defense against a destructive nihilism that will easily overwhelm us if it remains unchecked.

    My faith has been nurtured by Christianity and Reinhold Niebuhr. This being despite the fact that I am not a particularly religious person. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that “what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”. It is a promise as well as a warning. Which history has validated numerous times. While the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr has provided the necessary historical context of this statement.

    In terms of how faith leads to action, I appreciate Martin Luther King Jr’s perspective:

    “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

    1. Banger

      Our moral values are confused because we are confused. We live at a time that has no reference in history we are in a completely unique world where the old narratives simply do not and cannot apply and new ones are only mumbles and squacks. Considering the situation we aren’t doing that badly. There are avenues open to us that we have to bravely step out and walk on. Your general direction is just what we need–faith, spirituality is central. I suggest the path Aldous Huxley suggested–the Perennial Philosophy suggested by the name of the the book he wrote.

      1. Dan Kervick

        No, you are confused. Stop projecting your feeling of doom on your crumbling belief systems on society. A lot of people have a reasonably clear idea of where they want to go.

        Humanity has always been perplexed and confused. There was no Age of Certainty. Grow up and do something useful.

        1. Banger

          How can I argue with such certainty about certainty? I don’t see that at all. I’ve been around traditional people and they have traditional answers for everything–we are rapidly changing in almost every area of life, education, diet, sexual politics, racial attitudes, basic morality. I really don’t get your POV other than you’re pissed off at what I said.

          1. Dan Kervick

            My point of view is that there is always uncertainty in every era. There is always change. People’s traditional beliefs are always under threat. We never know any answers to so-called ultimate questions. We always have been adrift and always will be.

            But you don’t need those things to live, to make your life better, and to work with others on things that they can all agree would make their lives better. In the midst of millenia of spiritual turmoil and confusion, people have built roads and cities and schools and gardens. They have built machines and passages to make the water flow so they didn’t have to carry it. Despite all their anxieties and spiritual dreads, most people seem to prefer longer lives to shorter ones, and so they have developed medicines and devices to cure their ailments and extend their lives. And when groups of people have found themselves under the oppressive thumb of some would-be ruler, they have sometimes succeeded in banding together to subdue or kill the tyrant.

            So I’m just saying that it strikes me as misguided to think we need some kind of confidently held total theory of the universe before we can move on to make progress in the everyday conditions of life.

            1. Bangr

              Ok I get it now. I believe this is a totally unique historical moment and you don’t. There has never been a combination of changes that we’ve seen in recent decades. Never TV, computers, gay marriage (at least in recent history (other than a few tribes), feminism (maybe in the very remote past) ideas of racial and cultural equality, industry, antibiotics, science, nuclear weapons, and games games games games games and the most massive distribution of porno with content few of us would have imagined possible. That’s just off the top of my head. Nothing remotely similar has ever happened in the history of human beings–unless of course you believe in Lemuria and Atlantis but I know nothing about that.

              1. Dan Kervick

                In the Tudor era of 16th century England, the country entirely lost its ancient religion. The king declared himself the head of the church and throughout the century he and his successors dismantled customary forms of worship and imposed a new one, broke up monasteries, destroyed art works and relics, leaving the country fragmented, confused, bitterly divided and tormented by espionage, plots, government spying and terrorist conspiracies – fragmentation that culminated in regicide, civil war and years of revolutionary foment in the next century.

                The growth of the new technologies of printing and publishing spread ancient texts and radical ideas all over Europe contributing the the sense of breakdown, chaos and confusion. Whole new forms of literature appeared, including the plays of Shakespeare that dramatized the fluidity and fragility of identity and the melancholy confusion of its mirror-minded heroes. By the end of the century, Montaigne’s profound skepticism spoke for many in its despairing sense that nothing was knowable.

                While all this was happening, a new continent was being settled, great trading companies were assembled, the power of parliament was expanding, popular voices of all kinds were making their way into the new public sphere, England was getting much richer, and new ideals of equality arose that left their stamp on the next 400 years of European history. There was ceaseless political agitation. The confused skepticism of the era of Montaigne was gradually transformed into a bold new positive science in the next century by the Royal Society and others. Forms of progress were taking hold even in the midst of turmoil.

                Gay marriage?? Please. Did you ever read a Shakespeare comedy with its manifold and multiplying forms of gender-bending and cross-dressing. Take a look at this picture of Shakespeare’s patron/lover Henry Wriothesly, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Wriothesly became a military man during Essex’s Irish campaign but the gender crossover in this portrait is so strong some scholars thought it was a portrait of Queen Elizabeth!


                Nothing is new under the sun. It’s all twisted up and dark all the time. Great movements come and go, making what sense they can of the current scene and battling for some present common hope of improvement. Look at the people who fought in Spain during its civil war – every kind of avant garde thinker, worker, peasant. What does a surrealist writer and a half-literate superstitious farmer have in common? Only a common goal of not being ruled by fascist titans and feudal aristocrats

                If you think everything has to be metaphysically clarified before we can begin making progress, you are going to be waiting a long time.

                1. psychohistorian

                  I want to discuss and change tenets of our social organization like inheritance and accumulating private ownership of property.

                  The plutocrats that continue to declare relevant Western bloc religions (Xtianity) want people to have faith instead of to be comfortable not knowing.

                  Faith breathers give up the right to critical thinking and because of their faith don’t think they have ultimate responsibility for their actions……optimism based on core delusion.

      2. Andrew Watts

        “We live at a time that has no reference in history we are in a completely unique world where the old narratives simply do not and cannot apply and new ones are only mumbles and squacks.”

        That part of your reply provided an excellent example of the “In the United States we have always believed in a series of myths that made this country unique…”. I refuse to believe the answer is to double down on a belief system that cannot be reaffirmed. It will not be justified in the future by events yet to come.

    2. from Mexico

      ANDREW YOUNG: His death (Martin Luther King) was not the end, and his words and his spirit have moved all across the earth. It points to the fact that this is a religious universe. Most people, particularly most educated Americans, get uncomfortable when their emotions and their spirituality get the best of their intellect. But there are times when intellect can’t handle it.

      The truly religious moments in our Civil Rights movement didn’t make any intellectual sense. Nobody in their right mind would do some of the things that we did, but we did it because we were caught up in a spirit.


      1. tim s

        Somewhere it is said that a person dies twice – once when the physical body passes and then again only when the last person to remember them dies. That said, many of those that sacrificed greatly before (and leading to, perhaps) their 1st death are still very much alive. I would say that they are more alive now than when they had a body.

        Our failing is by placing too much emphasis on our selves, our 1st life, and neglecting our 2nd. In doing so, our culture decays.

        A decayed culture often corrects this flaw, since a person living in it has no choice but to do something that is greater than themself. One can find optimism in this….

      2. Andrew Watts

        @From Mexico

        To echo the spirit of that sentiment in a different context:

        Even if the United States implodes with it’s empire our history and it’s ideals will live on in the hearts and minds of those individuals who still choose to carry it.

  46. madopal

    Shocked that it hasn’t been mentioned, but William Irvine’s book “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” is right up the alley of this post. Irvine muses much the way you do, Yves, at least about why Stoicism isn’t more popular these days.

  47. Tokai Tuna

    What we need are brain scans a la the BBC article on ‘criminal psychopaths’ yesterday. We just need to tweak the definition a bit, most of us are criminals with a few changes, and psychopath is just a DSM entry away from clinical cynicism.
    Once the Psychiatric apparatus grows stronger (within Homeland Security) we’ll give the CCCP era a run for it’s tyranny. Remember, those were the days when the complainers were taken to Siberia and given enough lithium to forget all of their worries.

  48. washunate

    Wholeheartedly agree with the post.

    But I gotta ask about the intro:

    “It gave us 30+ years of indulgent parenting in which self-esteem was considered to be more important than skill acquisition, self-discipline, cooperation, and learning to cope with adversity.”

    Woah, the Millennials ain’t the problem. In fact, those characteristics are frequently how Millennials are characterized. More team-oriented, more diverse, more comfortable with technology, more driven to make the world what it ‘should’ be, etc. What is less important to Millennials are things like big cars, big houses, or legislating morality. Whatever faults our leadership caste of Baby Boomers have, the general parenting of Millennials by Boomers (and Xers) has gone pretty well over the past 30+ years. It’s the public policy side that’s the problem.


    1. wendyedavis

      Thank you for highlighting that quote, washunate. I worked my way three-quaters down the comment stream to see if anyone had challenged it.

      That trope is a right-winger anti-teacher one, as far as I’m concerned, and more involved with students and people as ‘producers’ than as acutalized human beings who learn to love to learn.

      Schools built in the past two decades at least, look like prisons, window slits, not windows. Ugly, Bahuaus looking buildings that make sure that kids don’t even get to spend a moment in reverie looking out the window, and possibly imagining, or thinking.

      My kids sweated homework every night sonce they were in third grade. My grandchildren had homework starting in first grade. The backlash will come when they’re in about seventh grade, and their hatred of school will be absolute, at least for those the factory school doesn’t revere. *The easy ones*, who can parrot facts, ace tests, score well in standardized testing, and graduate high school with honors.

      Cooperative learning, in contrast, has actually allowed kids to succeed through peer-learning and teaching. If we need to learn one lesson well, societies that value cooperation over competition are healthier and more egalitarian in the long run.

      1. Nathanael

        The kids who can ace the tests with no trouble — I know, because I was one of them — will have even LESS respect for the schools than the ones who hated it.

        Because the schools made us do mindless busywork, which was easy but *didn’t teach us anything*. This doesn’t generate respect, this generates hostility.

    2. hunkerdown

      Behind every whingeing screed about the defects of the Millennials stands a Boomer self-entitled to the respect and treasure of the next generation nervously contemplating their IRA and middle-management job.

  49. Deloss

    I feel that anything I add to the discussion will be trivial or arrogant, said he, and proceeded to comment.

    I am, to my son’s dismay, a gradualist. I do not disagree with anything you’ve said. We are in a terrible struggle, always have been, always will be, and we have no way to resign, even though we know the odds are against us.

    Paul described them: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” –Ephesians 6:12

    But bizarrely enough, once in a while we beat them. If that’s annoying optimism, I apologize.

  50. hpschd

    “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

    — Augustine of Hippo

  51. Malmo


    The patholigies you decribe at the beginning of your post were not necessarily derived fromn “indulgent” parenting. If anything these maladies were the result of absentee parenting caused by historically high and unprecedented rates of illigetimacy and divorce. On the other hand, many two parent families are forced into daycare providing almost as soon as their young ones are born so they can both pursue dual employment to aquire material necessities in our broken economy. Of course there are those parents who daycare not out of necessity, but materialistic cravings. And I won’t even touch on the mass drugging of these little ones before and after they reach school to help mask the damage done to them by these arrangements. No matter what the exact reasons be, the fact remains that fragmentation of families–not families in and of themselves–is behind these lost young souls of today. Everyone is a victim in this dysfuctional economy. The broken family is largely an effect, not a cause from said dysfunction. Two parent wage slavery is a massive fail.

    1. anon y'mouse


      my unguided opinion on the empty self-esteem promotion that Yves referenced is that this had ultimately good intentions. you need children to know that, even if they do fail at something, they are still loved and secure. also, someone above mentioned that overemphasis on “results” can damage the result one aims for. I think that both of these threads were combined into the much-mentioned “everyone gets a blue ribbon” meme. those responsible for children were just trying to get them to try, and to participate without too much judgement on whether they did well, in the hope that perhaps the enjoyment of the process would take over rather than obsession over how lacking one’s performance was.

      the possible solution to this is how to parent so that displeasure and standards can be addressed, and how to appropriate gauge whether one’s achievements are worthwhile, neither giving up in advance in despair nor thinking that whatever one does, it’s perfect as-is. that’s a hard balance to achieve.

      1. Min

        “I think that both of these threads were combined into the much-mentioned “everyone gets a blue ribbon” meme. those responsible for children were just trying to get them to try, and to participate without too much judgement on whether they did well,”

        They forgot — or never learned –, the rule of thumb that children should get their ribbons about half the time. If everyone gets a blue ribbon then children learn that getting a blue ribbon means nothing, and it ceases to be an incentive or encouragement.

        1. Malmo

          I teach kids for a living–high school kids. The blue ribbon meme is complete nonsense in most of the country. NYC’s Upper East Side? Maybe.

      2. jrs

        There’s nothing wrong with self-esteem. I say this as someone who has suffered from lifetime low self-esteem. Self-esteem is tolerating and accepting yourself as you are (rather than beating up on yourself for all you lack). It’s not a bad thing at all. It’s the calm of ceasefire in an inner war (unfortunately it’s a hard peace to keep). I know we live in a culture that says we need to drive ourselves with a whip but …

    2. Joe Miller

      The disruption of the *extended* family is easily the most egregious development to have occured within the past 50+ years.

  52. Joe

    Mark Fisher’s book “Capitalist Realism” is really good on this theme. Here’s a brief quote from an interview that gives a taste of his argument:

    “Since there are so many people who are depressed – and I maintain that the cause for much of this depression is social and political – then converting that depression into a political anger is an urgent political project….Anti-depressants and therapy are the opium of the masses now.” – Mark Fisher

  53. diptherio

    Matt Stoller’s comment about losing his best organizers to organic gardening hit home with me.

    During my college days I worked in non-partisan politics (with the Montana and Alaska Public Interest Research Groups). I worked my butt off on a number of campaigns over the years and finally got burned out. Sure, we accomplished some good things (banning cyanide heap-leach mining and limiting corporate campaign contributions [later overturned]), but 99% of the time I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. Once you figure out that politics, at every level, has essentially nothing to do with what is logical or ethical, but is driven rather by money and personal ambitions for power, it becomes damn hard to keep “fighting the good fight.”

    I might have lasted longer than my five years being a politico, but the final straw came when I finally realized that a good portion of the people on my side of the issues were amoral power-mongers as well. Very few people in politics actually seem to care what is best for the majority: most simply rationalize whatever course of action will benefit them personally as also being the one most conducive to the public good. Trying to have policy discussions with these sorts of people (who form a majority on both sides of the aisle) is incredibly frustrating.

    So I dropped out of politics, went to Nepal, and ended up getting involved in building a community school there with a holy man. That has also felt like banging my head against a wall (our first two committee chairman both tried to sabotage the project, for different reasons), but I have to say, knowing that my hard work is allowing a few kids to get an education is much more rewarding than anything I accomplished in politics.

    My personal analysis is that our national government (and most if not all of our state governments) are hopelessly corrupt and entirely owned by large, moneyed interests. So what’s a body to do? My personal answer has been to stop trying to save a lost cause (our government) and put my energies instead into doing things (however small) that I have more control over and that I feel make the world a more livable place to be.

    The main problem I see is that people get fed up with politics and end up turning off to societal action all together (as if working in politics were the only form of social action). I think a lot of people retreat into self-centeredness when they become jaded with politics, figuring that if they can’t change the world for the better, at least they can make their own life as comfortable as possible.

    1. LifelongLib

      But isn’t the art of politics bringing together people with disparate (and often selfish) motives to do some sort of good (and admittedly, often to in some way benefit the politician at the same time)? Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ come to mind. All loved power and the process of getting people to do what they wanted, but also had a moral vision of what they were trying to accomplish.

      1. diptherio

        But isn’t the art of politics bringing together people with disparate (and often selfish) motives to do some sort of good (and admittedly, often to in some way benefit the politician at the same time)?

        I would say that the art of politics is the bringing together of people with selfish motives for the benefit of politicians and those who fund them. An argument as to why any given action is “some sort of good” can be (and often is) constructed after the fact.

        Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ come to mind. All loved power and the process of getting people to do what they wanted, but also had a moral vision of what they were trying to accomplish.

        They were power-mad, manipulators who wrapped their ambition in “a moral vision”…somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better. In fact, this is the problem: left or right, most people working in politics are concerned first and foremost with their own careers and “getting people to do what they want.” Their professed moral vision is simply PR spin for public consumption, as well as psychological cover so that they don’t have to admit to themselves that they are, in fact, dreadful human beings.


      2. diptherio

        I might also add that your comment, to my mind, is an example of “a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism” that from Mexico points out above. Just sayin…

    2. Nathanael

      Local politics — and specifically issue-oriented local politics, such as the anti-fracking movement — is much more akin to “building the school” than it is to the more hopeless state-level wastes of time.

      Pick a local issue where you *already have* majority support — such as “clean drinking water” in the case of the anti-fracking movement — and where people are already ready to go to the barricades for it. Then you have the tenacity.

      Then you can start doing all the legal things short of going to the barricades: elections, by-laws, court cases, protests, etc. And you will win a lot of them. And eventually the bad guys, who are lazy, will give up. Either that or they’ll send in the army, but that will reveal weakness and allow for a redoubling of people’s efforts.

  54. Adroit

    Conservatives get in line behind an idea and start marching.

    Progressives form a circle, start nitpicking details, each pointing out a different direction for the group to march. In the end they can’t agree and go home.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Actually, I think it’s worse. I don’t think any of the participants have a vision that all or even a majority can share, so no wonder they propose different directions to march in. TINA again.

    2. citizendave

      A common view of conservatism is dedication to maintaining the status quo. They don’t need vision, they only need to ward off those who want to make progress. It’s easy to talk about it, and the echo chamber works well because everyone is familiar with the ideas.

      Progressives and reformers have a much more difficult task. There are examples of what life can be like in the real world, but to conservatives those examples come across like science fiction. We can realistically push for gradual, incremental change. But if the vision of what is possible — or necessary to avert the destruction of Earth — looks too different from the relic of the industrial revolution we all know as the modern world — then it looks like pipe dream magical thinking and will be summarily dismissed by most, including those left of center.

      I see many people doing the things I wish everyone would do: growing organic food, working toward public banking, installing renewable energy infrastructure, permaculture, fair trade, reforestation, to name a few. I wish we could stitch all those together into a coalition, a movement, and give it a name, like Occupy Earth, or The Movement, or something. We could then work individually on the things we find do-able and have the feeling of working in concert with others, as though shoulder-to-shoulder. I, for one, love that feeling. But I feel disconnected. I suspect some people feel quixotic about their small efforts. The goal would be to make it easier for everyone to see what is possible, thereby making it easier to find common cause to stop the hell-bound train short of the brink of disaster.

      1. Lambert Strether

        I like this definition better; Avedon cites to it periodically:

        Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:

        Q: What is conservatism?
        A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

        Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
        A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

        These ideas are not new. Indeed they were common sense until recently. Nowadays, though, most of the people who call themselves “conservatives” have little notion of what conservatism even is. They have been deceived by one of the great public relations campaigns of human history. Only by analyzing this deception will it become possible to revive democracy in the United States.

        1. citizendave

          Your definition of conservatism is appropriate. I was trying to say that however we define it, it’s easy for them to rally around it because of its well-known historic roots.

          The current political reality wouldn’t seem so hopeless if we could entertain for one second the idea that some political leadership would emerge to guide us toward what we could all agree would be a better world. On the positive side, we’re better off when Congress is inert if all we’re going to get out of their efforts is a slightly different, or worse version of what we have now.

          In the sixties the Republicans and Democrats could fight all day long in Congress. But they would stop at the water holes on the way home and they were friends again, laughing and joking, with an obvious sense of all being in it together. That disappeared sometime in the mid 70s, IIRC.

          For the past 18 years I’ve lived in the town where a prominent American conservative was born and lived. Paul Weyrich was a co-founder of The Heritage Foundation and ALEC, among other conservative think tanks and organizations. Modern conservatives mostly don’t like public transportation. But Paul Weyrich and William Lind wrote a series of papers, collected into a book, Moving Minds (info online at freecongress.org) . Both were fans of public transportation, and their articles examine all the arguments against public transportation advanced by conservatives, with very well-reasoned rebuttals. These articles were published as recently as 2009. I offer this as an example of how a lion of conservatism could swim against the current in his own party. It’s rare these days, but it is possible (or was – since 2008 Mr. Weyrich no longer walks among us).

          The conservative push toward feudalism can succeed if we serfs and vassals acquiesce.

          1. Nathanael

            Honestly, I could qualify as a conservative *even by that definition*, if we could get an aristocracy which was not defecating in its own drinking water supply. Which we can’t.

            The biggest problem as I see it is that we have a system which promotes the worst, stupidest, most short-term-thinking, least enlightened idiots to the aristocracy. This can *never* work. Veblen describes our completely defective system very well.

            Notably, the more successful aristocracies of history had some rather brutal elements of meritocracy about who made it to the top. The earlier Roman aristocracy frequently *adopted* their heirs, reducing the decay tendency which happens in most aristocracies due to inheritance.

    3. citizendave

      I have a vision of the future, inspired by the story called Which Way to Millinocket, told on a Bert and I album.

      A tourist stopped down at the gas station and asked Old Albert “Which way to Millinocket?”

      Albert said “Well, you go out on the road here and turn right, and go about a mile to the next intersection.

      No, that’s not it.

      Go out on the road here and turn left, and go until you see an old barn on the left.

      No, that’s not it.

      Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here.”

      Any future society we can envision will be a version of the society we have now. We seek the ineffable through a filter of the known. We’ll need to survive long enough so that our new world can grow organically. Our political efforts, and economy, should probably be geared toward long term sustainability and survival. Restore Nature and wildness. Leave the minerals in the ground. Reverse desertification and reforest the land. Green growing things covering the planet will incorporate carbon dioxide.

  55. docg

    I’m enjoying reading all these thoughtful posts. Here’s my contribution, from one of the world’s great optimists:

    Praise ye the night and the darkness of night all around you.
    All ye come nigh!
    Look at the heavens on high!
    Your day is already over.

    Praise ye the grass and the beasts that both live and die with you.
    And see how the
    Grass and beasts live as do ye
    And how they die just as you will.

    Praise ye the tree that from carrion shoots whooping from heaven!
    Praise ye the tree!
    Carrion that feeds it praise ye!
    But never cease to praise Heaven.

    Rejoice that the Heavens have such a poor memory
    And cannot place
    Either your name or your face.
    No one knows you exist.

    Bert Brecht

  56. Susan the other

    Well. I’m on a crusade to banish cars. Father forgive me for I have sinned. I drive around every day doing all sorts of stupid errands just to distract myself from seeing how awful things have become. Sometimes, when I’m feeling optimistic, I think I can actually drive to a new, perfect place and just stay there. Yes it is a sin to drive a car my child. Do not believe the auto makers when they say they are manufacturing high mileage cars for they only want to make more of them. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning. Now go and drive no more.

    1. Susan the other

      Something interesting about wisdom that I see in Generals. Marcus Aureliius was amazingly eloquent: “Make for yourself a definition…” And I flashed back on the letter published here a couple of years ago by Wm.Tecumseh Sherman which was the most thoughtful thing I have ever read.

      1. AbyNormal

        Susan, i too will help you with your burden…i gave my car to a mother of 3 with no childsupport etc. im still enduring that act of care…living in a city that drives everywhere is a real headache. im not complaining…i could be that struggling mother of 3. (struggling mother of one was enough to leave me battered)

        and while we’re on the subject/thread, i’d like to take this moment to inform you…your post are so very meaningful to me. your approach to the chaos leaves me feeling like a path has been swept…tho its still up to me to trudge thru it, there’s less chance of paralyzing pain ahead. From Toes to Lashes…my Heartfelt Gratitude.

    2. craazyman

      If you want, I’ll take your car off your hands for free. You shouldn’t have to suffer like that.

      My old car got killed in the flood last winter and it wouldn’t be bad to have another, but it’s so much effort I haven’t gotten around to it.

      I’ll drive your car responsibly to the beach and back, but gaurantee I won’t use it for errands since there’s a supermarket, wine store and a drug store two blocks away as well as a bodega that sells cold beer.

      1. Susan the other

        It won’t make the trip. It’s a clunker with the stuffing coming out of the seats. But you just gave me a great idea which I’m sure some web site has already organized. A take-it-and-leave-it association for anything you need.

    1. Lambert Strether

      I’m not a determinist, and I think science tells me not to be. So I guess I have to be an Epicurean.

      So perhaps moving to France (in my “Privilege Escape Pod,” as RanDomino put is) is the right idea!

        1. Lambert Strether

          Does your definition of determinism make a place for random events?

          Adding… I am a materialist, in the sense that there is nothing “super-natural,” ever.

          1. Malmo

            If you’re referring to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the answer is they are not related. I’ll quote Peter Gill:

            “To “determine” can have two, unrelated meanings. One meaning is to cause (the force of the thrust of a jet determines how quickly the airplane will accelerate). The other meaning is to ascertain (let’s determine the location of the runway before we try to land). I am concerned with the former definition, and explain the philosophy and ramifications of determinism, a belief that human behavior is 100% caused. Heisenberg’s principle involves the other meaning of “determine.” That principle is a theory that we cannot ascertain both the precise location and speed of a quantum particle.”

            Everything we do has a cause, determinants, if you will. Those determinants (most of them are not known by us) yet we act because of them. That’s logic 101: every effect has a cause. I know I do what I do, but I know not exactly why.

            Even though I’m an agnostic, I was always very impressed with Jonathan Edwards’ treatise on Freedom of the Will. It is the most thorough debunking ever written on the subject. I also very much enjoy David Chalmers’ view of consciousness. “You” is not what you think it is.

            1. Nathanael

              Rather, consider the “butterfly effect”. I don’t think determinism is useful if it doesn’t lead to predictability, and “butterfly effect” situations mean that often it doesn’t.

              1. Lambert Strether

                Thanks (dropping in briefly) that is exactly where I was going. Since I don’t believe in the supernatural, everything (in my mind) is caused. But causality doesn’t mean predictability (and yes, I would argue — though I’m not prepare to do this seriously — that there are observer effects in the study of consciousness; I think Soros called this reflexivity).

          2. Malmo

            …and I guess my determinants have also spared me of the fatalist condition. I desire to use my rational side to be the best person I can be. I desire truth over superstition. I can continually evolve from where I am at present, or so I believe. I’m excited about my future and at the same time disheartened at some of the awful possibilities that potentially lay ahead of us.

          3. Malmo

            As Shopenhauer put it, “a man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills.”

      1. RanDomino

        I get the feeling that over the course of the next two years or so, everyone who can move, in the search for greener pastures, will have done so, and will find that it’s not better elsewhere. Then maybe they will finally be forced to make a stand.

  57. Miguel Gustav Jones

    Yves, If one is not optimistic, is depression or anger the default position? Both are more or less logical in the face of overwhelming odds, (which I think applies here). Nonetheless, if one is to begin to hope to address the underlying political, sociological and psycho-spiritual constructs that have brought us all to this particular confluence of events and the concurrent feelings of powerlessness, we need to be able to laugh. Real hard, and real long. It’s the only response that makes sense in a world in which powerful and “serious” people propound ludicrous solutions to very real and very serious problems. That said, my own take is that if you’re not feeling a bit depressed, angry, or pessissimistic, you’re not really paying attention. The crux move here IMO is to not let it paralyze oneself into innaction. In the words of one of my personal teachers, “Suffering is universal, but misery is optional”. So feel however you feel, (and know that you’re not alone), then think, speak, and act as your intelligence and conscience guides you. Again, know that you’re not alone. There’s a lot of power in that knowledge alone. BTW, I very much enjoyed this post, and think it addresses something which many of us are feeling.

  58. Bam_Man

    Always ahead of his time, Tom Wolfe was onto this 15 years ago with “A Man in Full”. Not one of his most popular novels, but IMHO one of his best. It’s just as timely today – if not more so – than when it was first published.

  59. craazyman

    Faaaaakk, if more people started thinking like this there’d be good reason for optimism!

  60. Jeff N

    yes, this is so timely for me! Just this week, I have been wondering if the Buddhist/awareness/meditative concepts of positive thoughts/optimism/etc are actually *hurting* us, when evil is at work against us. Were these concepts actually put forward by those with power to sedate the masses subservient to them? scary thought.

    But as my psychologist would have said, “how is that [negative thoughts] working out for you?” Not good, I mean, enough negative thoughts will take me on a BAD depressive spiral. This is what I was diagnosed with: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysthymia

    Is there a better way than the two extremes of your “head in the sand” vs worrying about everything?

    1. jrs

      Buddism and the like isn’t the problem, the problem in the U.S. is the social POLICING as it were of negative thoughts – by which I mean the shaming and social shunnning that goes on if you aren’t always upbeat (one hears it when they hear people express that they don’t want to be around negative people?).

  61. Art James

    Old joke: What is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? Answer: The pessimist is better informed.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Another joke: The pessimist says “The glass is half empty.” The optimist says: “The glass is half full!” The opportunist says: “Hey, I’ve got your glass!”

    2. F. Beard

      When things go better
      than we think they should
      has reality been misunderstood?

      When things are better
      than they’ve a right to be
      is it just blind luck
      or was it meant to be?

      Are the adults right
      and the children wrong?
      Should we crush their hopes
      and still their songs?

      When things go better
      than we think they should
      has Reality been misunderstood?

    3. Min

      Viet Nam War joke:

      Medic: This poor soldier has lost half his blood.

      Nixon: I say he’s half full.

  62. Tyler Healey

    Buzz Killington here. In defense of optimism:

    – Voting Rights Act of 1965
    – End of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
    – We had a Great Recession instead of a Great Depression
    – Naked Capitalism
    – Paul Krugman has one million Twitter followers
    – End of DOMA
    – The Supreme Court has only four right-wing extremists

  63. Hugh

    Du port obscur montèrent les premières fusées des réjouissances officielles. La ville les salua par une longue et sourde exclamation. Cottard, Tarrou, ceux et celle que Rieux avait aimés et perdus, tous, morts ou coupables, étaient oubliés. Le vieux avait raison, les hommes étaient toujours les mêmes. Mais c’était leur force et leur innocence et c’est ici que, par-dessus toute douleur, Rieux sentait qu’il les rejoignait. Au milieu des cris qui redoublaient de force et de durée, qui se répercutaient longuement jusqu’au pied de la terrasse, à mesure que les gerbes multicolores s’élevaient plus nombreuses dans le ciel, le docteur Rieux décida alors de rédiger le récit qui s’achève ici, pour ne pas être de ceux qui se taisent, pour témoigner en faveur de ces pestiférés, pour laisser du moins un souvenir de l’injustice et de la violence qui leur avaient été faites, et pour dire simplement ce qu’on apprend au milieu des fléaux, qu’il y a dans les hommes plus de choses à admirer que de choses à mépriser.

    La Peste, Albert Camus

    From the dark gate, the first rockets of the official celebrations rose. The town greeted them with a long, low exclamation. Cottard, Tarrou, those and that one whom Rieux had loved and lost, all, dead or guilty, were forgotten. The old man was right, people were always the same. But that was their power and their innocence and it was here that, beyond all pain, Rieux felt he became one with them again. In the middle of the cries which redoubled in force and length, whose long drawn out echoes reached even to the foot of the terrace, as the multi-colored bursts rose ever more numerous in the sky, the doctor Rieux decided then to write the narrative which ends here, in order not to be of those who kept silent, to bear witness in favor of the victims of the plague, and to say simply what one learns in the midst of plagues, that there are in people more things to admire than to despise.

    1. Hugh

      Sorry, I left out a rather important line in the translation:

      the doctor Rieux decided then to write the narrative which ends here, in order not to be of those who kept silent, to bear witness in favor of the victims of the plague, to leave at least a memory of the injustice and violence which had been done to them, and to say simply what one learns in the midst of plagues, that there are in people more things to admire than to despise

    2. jrs

      Yea I remember that book being about fighting without expectations of ever winning either. The book being alternatively about the black plague or the Nazis of course.

      1. jrs

        Maybe I used the word fighting too loosely, while it’s one mechanism for dealing with Nazis, to deal with plauge you just tend to the sick, who keep dying anyway.

  64. Greg

    Yves, consider the following:

    The highest to which man can attain is wonder; and if the prime phenomenom makes him wonder, let him be content; nothing higher can it give him, and nothing further should he seek for behind it; here is the limit.

    – Goethe

    You might want to read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity



  65. Dan Kervick

    I think I’ll go pick up a copy of Zen and the Art of Being a Loser or How I Learned to Endure Daily Ass-Fuckings from the Man with Equanimity and Peace.

  66. William Neil

    “All he could do was struggle on, fighting off moods of depression and battling against a sensitive distaste for disagreeable people and sights that made him more human than any other antique Stoic. Left far behind are the bright classical incentives to material achievement, the sunny sense of unlimited power. But in terms of humanly decent principles, translated scrupulously into a consistent way of living, Marcus Aurelius’s creed was the culmination of ancient paganism and of Rome.”

    Thus writes Michael Grant in 1978 in his “History of Rome.”

    I went to good histories of Rome for different reasons, Yves, than your hunt for the good classics, although it seems you’ve found one. I went to a review of “Rome and Romans” to see if the our “Founder’s” Roman obsessions were leaving something out, and I was prodded on by contemporary conservatism’s obsessions with our Founders. Grant’s work is not flashy, but I found it worthwhile for these reasons and discoveries.

    There were two great revolts of the underclasses in Rome, earlier and aside from the Spartacus Slave Revolt of 73-71 B.C.

    Americans didn’t and still don’t hear much about them, but they are heartening in this sense: long before contemporary history and the ideological formulations of the 19th Century, debtors – small landholders, citizen-soldiers and the lower classes (not the slaves) were forced to revolt. The first, Grant tells us, was in the early 5th Century BC – a time well before all the Roman history familiar to us and obsessed over by the founder. The “plebeians” actually physically withdrew from the City – seceded and set up a parallel society. Since they contributed the backbone to the Roman army, attention was paid to them and eventually, what unfolded was “the tribune” (almost of the people) and better consideration for their economic needs and representation.

    And then a long span of time to the Gracchi brothers revolt in the second century BC. Here, to whet modern appetites, is how an economic revolt, using novel political avenues, was blocked by the outraged and oligarchic dominated Senate (ahem.):

    “When therefore, the Assembly began its electoral meeting on the Capitol, a violent quarrel broke out concerning the legality of the proceedings. Physical brawling soon followed, and a crowd of senators and their clients, with an ex-consol at their head, marched on the Assembly and clubbed Tiberius (Grachhi) and three hundred of his supporters to death.”

    I wrote in the margins that this, and not the much later and more famous period of the civil wars leading to Caesar, marked the death of the Roman Republic, such as it was.

    There was something else I learned from Grant, which I had never heard from the handling of Rome in American political science hands – which I have since come to see with a great grain of salt. And that was the Roman’s “informal” system of clientela, with powerful patroni and their dependent clients. It reminded me so much of the way “The Beltway” works that I had to chuckle: Here’s Grant’s description:

    “The client was a free man who entrusted himself to the patronage of another and received protection from him in return. the client helped his patron to succeed in public life and furthered his interests by every means in his power, and in return the patron looked after his client’s private affairs and gave him financial or legal support.”

    Robert Rubin and successors, anyone?

    But please, I’m not sure, if I were to recommend a model for democracy to cure our ailments today, I would embrace the Rome described by Michael Grant. Pick up the small volume written by a great classical scholar, M.I. Finley “Democracy: Ancient and Modern,” (1973) for a description about how democracy worked in Athens, and the state of democracy in the modern world, c. 1973. Finley, bhy the way, was driven out of Rutgers and the US during the McCarthy period, fled to England, and was honored and somewhat restored by delivering formal lectures, one at Rutgers, decades later. This book is the published form of his lectures.

    And then two of my favorites, to keep our minds on contemporary problems and their roots.

    Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time,” the other great book from 1944, the anti-Hayek.

    And to help Paul Krugman out, in his poor understanding of what he criticizes as the “Great Morality Play” of the Right (its actually built into “The American Dream,” or the main version of it, at least, James A. Morone’s “Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History,” from 2003. While the title and ostensible subject matter may make NC readers cringe a bit, with all due respect to their secular sensibilities, it’s not what you think. Morone is secular, and modern; he’s trying to understand the Right and the mainstream of social and economic morality in the US. It’s a wonderful read, every, chapter, and I maintain you can’t understand either the American Dream or neoliberalism without its take on economic morality.

    Enough. Enjoy.

  67. Min

    Slightly depressed people make realistic assessments. Or people who make realistic assessments are slightly depressed. ;)

    But we create our reality to a greater extent than we realize. Optimism works. Our problem is not optimism, but its abandonment. Obama shouted out, “Yes, we can!” He was right. But somehow he lost that optimism. Instead we got No you didn’t.

    When I was a kid I saw Eleanor Roosevelt on TV reading the verses to “High Hopes”. That’s the right attitude, and it was tested in the fires of the Great Depression and WWII. The Can Do spirit is the American Way. Yes, we can. We really can. :)

  68. NotTimothyGeithner

    Many people who might seem like optimists aren’t. They are lazy cowards with their heads in the sand. Star Trek is a optimistic view of humanity because it pushes the message change is possible. We here can aspire to be like Captain Kirk and McCoy, not Spock or the other non-humans who represent 20th/21st century humans.

    The true optimist doesn’t think things will just turn out better but believes change and a bright future are possible and worth discussing. The first step is to point out the “be happy twits” aren’t optimists. They are just cowards and fools.

  69. Ven


    It is hard not to conclude that this century may well be the fatal one for our civilisation, given the challenges of plutocracy, runaway climate change, increasing food / water scarcity, peak oil etc etc. The lives we live are profligate and selfish, and nature does indeed bat last. Capitalism as a system inevitably leads to the greed and self-interest that has led to the existential crises we now face. Given vested interests, it is hard to see how we can change course . . . though it is probably too late in any event.

    The interesting discussion around this post seems to run at two levels – firstly, the way one should live life, the attitude one has (ie optimist, pessimist, stoic); and secondly the underlying philosophy of life and who we are.

    Advaita vedanta and buddhist thought sets out a “non-dual” philosophy, which urges the “individual” to understand and see (by mindfulness, meditation, etc) that the “I”, the ego, is just a thought construct which appears in consciousness. As such it is an illusion, for we are all fundamentally of the same essence. And this essence boils down to consciousness which in itself has no attributes, cannot in itself be know, and is universal. Hence the great Advaita saying “You are that” (funnily enough very close to the Christian “I am that I am”). I’m sure I haven’t explained it well, but hopefully you get the gist.

    From this philosophical understanding of non-duality, non-separation, inter-connectedness with everything . . . from this your approach / attitude to life then flows. Interestingly this approach to life then has much in common with the Stoic / Cynic view.

    The Bhagavad Gita (a wonderful synopsis of Advaita thought) is nothing but a dialogue at the inception of a war, between Krishna (“God” or more accurately an enlightened consciousness) and Arjuna (“seeker”): to teach Arjuna, who at the last minute does not wish to fight, this non-dual philosophy, and hence how to act in / respond to life. In order to gain this enlightenment (and once enlightenment has happened), acts will be guided by the insight that the seeker is one with everything . . . and so he is as concerned about “other” beings as he is with “himself” . . .which logically has to mean no self-concern.

    “He attains peace who abandons all desires, acting without attachment, free from ‘I’ and ‘mine'”. Bhagavad Gita

  70. Joe Jubb

    Reminds me of the old joke of the man seeking enlightenment by discarding all his worldly goods and undertaking a life-long pilgrimage in search of the true word. He winds up, in his final days, exhausted, sick and nearing the end, at the top of a mountain where he has tracked down the dali lama. With his final breath the man asks of the lama: “What is the meaning of life, oh holy one?” The lama replies;” Life is a beanstalk, my son.” At this, the man rears up with his final strength and replies, angrily: “What do you mean life is a beanstalk?” (wait for it…) The Lama looks up and says: “You mean it isn’t”?”

  71. Min

    “Today is an average day: Worse than yesterday, but better than tomorrow.”
    — Russian saying


  72. Rehabber

    from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy [Ch.5], his view on optimism/pessimism/Stoicisim:

    “But this is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. If a man came to this world from some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view. But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.

    The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises — he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things. What is the evil of the man commonly called an optimist? Obviously, it is felt that the optimist, wishing to defend the honour of this world, will defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, “My cosmos, right or wrong.” He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing every one with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.
    The last Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.
    On the other side our idealist pessimists were represented by the old remnant of the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius and his friends had really given up the idea of any god in the universe and looked only to the god within. They had no hope of any virtue in nature, and hardly any hope of any virtue in society. They had not enough interest in the outer world really to wreck or revolutionise it. They did not love the city enough to set fire to it. Thus the ancient world was exactly in our own desolate dilemma. The only people who really enjoyed this world were busy breaking it up; and the virtuous people did not care enough about them to knock them down.”

    1. F. Beard

      That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Rehabber

      After looking inward for decades for the truth, I came to the solid conclusion IT WASN’T THERE. That was around 1998.

  73. Gaianne

    “Matt Stoller would often sputter to me that he’d lose his best organizers to organic gardening.”

    And they were his best, too: They figured out that no one was going to revolt while depending on their master’s food.


  74. allcoppedout

    One important feature of Greek thought was the attitude towards work. Hard work scarred the soul and was for the bronze people. Recent research at the LSE makes it clear we don’t like work and spend most of our time there wanting to be somewhere else.

    Work really is a disutility as economists traditionally conceive of it, one that requires some form of monetary reward to induce effort.

    The weather is good here at the moment and we have lots of teens loitering and doing nothing in particular other than making noise. I’m just about to take the dog to a lovely nature spot the teens are too idle to get to and ruin. There are five or six such sites in walking distance, al maintained by a combination of council and volunteering. The kids outside are decent enough, but nearly all would need a month of fitness training to be able to complete Army basics. I don’t think we need philosophy to sort a lot of this out, Greek or otherwise.
    If we made work available to all at a fair rate and thus made employers have to attract labour lots of attitudes would change. We lack the courage to do this, perhaps beaten down so far we can’t even believe we can be other than slaves to the scarcity regime. I’d like to see some philosophy after action.

  75. XO

    My ol’ Uncle Joe once said:

    “Never be too happy, because things won’t be very good for very long. Never be too sad, because things will never be very bad for very long.”

    I have found some comfort and some truth in it. OTOH, bad times do seem to last longer.

  76. tim s

    This Absurd Optimism thread reminds me of a passage in Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy & Hope about the French General Staff’s views going into the 1st world war about how to conduct battle:

    QUOTE: Much more extreme and even mystical fashion. Under the influence of Ardant Du Picq
    and Ferdinand Foch, the French General Staff came to believe that victory depended only
    on attack and that the success of any attack depended on morale and not on any physical
    factors. Du Picq went so far as to insist that victory did not depend at all on physical
    assault or on casualties, because the former never occurs and the latter occurs only during
    flight after the defeat. According to him, victory was a matter of morale, and went
    automatically to the side with the higher morale. The sides charge at each other; there is
    never any shock of attack, because one side breaks and flees before impact; this break is
    not the result of casualties, because the flight occurs before casualties are suffered and
    always begins in the rear ranks where no casualties could be suffered; the casualties are
    suffered in the flight and pursuit after the break. Thus the whole problem of war resolved
    itself into the problem of how to screw up the morale of one’s army to the point where it
    is willing to fling itself headlong on the enemy. Technical problems of equipment or maneuvers are of little importance. :UNQUOTE


    1. JCC

      This seems to be the same sort of logic that supports “the Wealth Effect” and numerous other optimistic reasonings today.

  77. david

    I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.
    – Antonio Gramsci, Letter from Prison (19 December 1929)

  78. AbyNormal

    late tonight i will make a hardcopy of this entire thread. Thank You Yves & Comrades for another meaningful work of art…a true gift.

    Here’s something I hand write on every yearly date book. I hope it offer’s a bit of comfort…when & where needed:

    And so with all we find in each other
    I walk with those I choose to see
    Who seek a life of Purity & Love
    Found only from with in ourselves

    Thou many mistakes we make
    Always in Love I find
    The answers to all I ponder
    Great and Small without reason
    Never shall I return to the Darkness of Self
    Seeking to Find the Truth of Life

    I give without Want or Desire
    Finding my soul during this walk
    I struggle No more at Heart
    Knowing I choose the Right Path
    That leads me to what I believe

    The regrets I have to Live with
    Do not change who I am at this moment
    The best I can be today
    Until tomorrow comes
    I Shall Continue…

    Thomas Springer

  79. allcoppedout

    The Greek notion of freetable, stripped of slavery and elitism, strikes me as something we could do. The Royal Navy caters for its people at about $4.00 a day and the food is pretty good.
    One obvious thing here, when you look at capitalism (whatever we call this mess) is its need for vast over-pricing or lousy quality (think Maxime’s and school meals). I tend to think of freetable as less about food and more about social opportunities and new ways of accounting.

    However we look at optimism-pessimism, we can hardly discount madness – and it is mad to consider the world as it is is working properly. We seem scared to death of a situation in which people don’t have to beg for work and put themselves in subservience to employers.

  80. dWayne

    I believe optimism has to do with the will to resist. With industrial capacity for warfare, a concept emerged called “total war.” Since waging war on an industrial basis involved everyone in the opposing states, all those “civilians” became lawful combatants since defeating another nation’s capacity to make war involved defeating the enablers of war, not just the enemy forces on the battlefield. To stop you from fighting me, I have to stop you from making weapons back home. Thus, it became necessary to thwart the efforts of the civilians, a task that was easier to do if you defeated their will to resist. Consider two countries: Haiti and Viet Nam. Haiti of course is the doormat of the western hemisphere. Everyone who invades would go through that country. Viet Nam is the Asian answer to Afghanistan – the place where empires go to die. Consider this: If Haiti had been full of Vietnamese people, would it be the Haiti we know today, or the Viet Nam we know today? My point is: The Vietnamese people will never give in. The Haitian people will never resist. If you were going appropriate a small country, which would you choose? If you’re trying to defeat opposition forces, you must defeat them in their heads first.

    I agree with your comment, we need to have a fundamental shift in mindset, when you said “I feel we need to find new ways, on a practical and philosophical level, to get out of the mess we are in, ….” If we take our lead from people that offer feel-good optimism as a solution to the real problems we face, then we give up our chance to ever make a change. Making changes requires optimism, defined as your belief in your ability to accomplish a goal you set for yourself. How many people ever set out to accomplish a task believing they were unable to ever complete the task?

    1. scraping_by

      I think the opposition here is not ‘optimism/pessimism’ but ‘optimism/realism’.

      There’s a school of thought or an approach to the world that claims all obstacles can be overcome by enthusiasm and redefinition. It’s not a problem, it’s a challenge.

      A challenge that might bring things to a halt, but never mind.

      You can travel hopefully without painting everything in pastel and blanking out the rest. But it takes confronting the problem without wishing or blinking.

    2. Moneta


      I’ve done a lot of stuff not thinking I would succeed.

      I did it to learn, to see how it was to walk in someone else’s shoes. Curiosity.

      It’s quite amazing the percentage of people who can not empathize, really understand why someone else is doing something.

      In my 20s, I was figuring myself out. It’s only in my 30s that I could start understanding what made other really tick.

      Some people have this talent in the teens and 20s but they are rare. IMO, this is a skill that is acquired closer to your 40s. However, a large number of people never acquire it.

      It’s no wonder that humanity has trouble moving ahead. And the US culture which promotes youth is far behind IMO.

      1. AbyNormal

        WoW Moneta…you zeroed right in on the crux of the American Dream (marketed to every orifice of our being)

        “And the US culture which promotes youth is ‘so’ far behind”


  81. kris

    As a former atheist I can tell you that Christianity is not about optimism at all. As a matter of fact, it’s not about happiness either.
    It’s about fulfillment.

    Atheism didn’t fulfill me and I tried islam, protestanism, catholicism, budhism but finalized as Orthodox Christian.

    The only way to get on that road is to try everything with an open mind, everything, just about everything
    Go to mosque, shia, sunni, go to church, protestant, catholic, orthodox, try zoroastrianism, stoicism is ok, anything, but…..here’s the clue….you have to try.

    Just try everything, you’ll get somewhere, guaranteed.

  82. craazyman

    Contemplations From the House of Deep Thoughts

    the obvious risk is that people revert back to optimism when things start going well.

    it’s hard to stay focused and disciplined — never letting your guard down & always reminding yourself that things suck and will forever — no matter how good things get. When things start really clicking and you’re scoring right and left, that’s when you have to realize things are at their worst since they can only go downhill from there.

    that’s what separates serious thinkers from frivolous dilettantes.

    this is why they wore hair shirts and slept on nail beds. Even John the Baptist ate locusts, probably not because he couldn’t score a meal, but because it kept him hard. Then he ended up with his head on a tray. See, he was right.

  83. Dr. Brian Oblivion

    In my experience it seems one can certainly wish oneself ill but not smile oneself to health.

    Negative thinking can lead to failure, a self fulfilling prophecy, but a sunny disposition does not necessarily lead to success.

    As a defensive measure the subconscious can get one into patterns where one sabotages oneself because self-imposed failure is less disheartening than striving for something with all one’s might only to fail. Failing on purpose from the point of view of the subconscious is in itself a form of success. A bit twisted but logical in its own way.

    So the whole “think positive” dictum has it backwards.

    While this is only my opinion, I happen to be correct. :-D

  84. Justicia

    Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

    Vaclav Havel

  85. ScottS

    I found in my study of philosophy that the Epicurians had the right idea. They were given a bad rap by Christians as being hedonistic, but they were actually quite moderate. Epicurians advocate enjoying the simple sensual pleasures of the natural world around you. A nice breeze, the scent of flowers, a simple meal made of quality ingredients. Though really, what Epicurianism boils down to is that a person in pain isn’t free to do what they want. It’s an early precursor to Maslo’s hierarchy of needs.

    I’ve also been trying to live by Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues, which I think are quite excellent:

    1. “Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
    2. “Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
    3. “Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
    4. “Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
    5. “Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
    6. “Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
    7. “Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
    8 “Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
    9. “Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
    10. “Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
    11. “Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
    12. “Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
    13. “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

    These are my favorite philosophers with no taint of Christianity’s Manicheanness.

    1. tongorad

      Good stuff, I’m glad someone mentioned Franklin’s “little book of virtues.” I have also used this, and even made a facsimile of Franklin’s book to carry around with me at one point.

      Franklin was deeper than most give him credit for. His Autobiography used to be a staple in the American curriculum.

      I was suprised to read that he at one time proposed a cap on wealth…

    2. F. Beard

      The overlap with the Bible is enormous but I know the Bible is the Word of God so I’ll stick with it and not Ben Franklin.

      Also, Franklin said “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” yet Scripture enjoins us to lend freely and without interest, at least to one’s fellow countrymen.

      Close only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades, I often heard in my youth.

      1. Nathanael

        Ben was smarter. Rather than borrowing and lending, he believed in gifts.

        He has a point.

        1. F. Beard

          Maybe I was a bit harsh. But on second thought, no. As a child I was NEVER exposed to the Bible (my religious education was left to the nuns and they used the Baltimore Catechism) but instead got “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Huh? Not according to the Bible.

          Just who the heck did Franklin think he was?

          1. ScottS

            He signed personal correspondence as “Ben Franklin, Printer” well into his diplomacy and Postmaster General days.

            He was quite wise, in my opinion, to eschew grandiose titles.

            BTW, I didn’t take a swipe at the Bible itself, or even Jesus. I was quite careful in saying that Epicurianism and Ben Franklin don’t engage in Manicheanism — the struggle of absolute good against absolute evil. We’ve been arguing moral absolutism versus moral relativism in various guises for thousands of years with no sign of progress. Time to move on.

  86. Jim in MN

    222 comments and counting. Kind of hit a nerve here, eh?

    Personally I live off of Marcus Aurelius, Zen (‘Cave of Poison Grass’ is a good one), Rumi’s discourses (not the poems, the Sufi sermons), and lots of dissident American culture–Zappa, Hunter S Thompson, punk rock. That and lots of nature.

    I am going to send you a post you might like to share here, called ‘Maintaining Values in a Time of Evil.’ Maybe this community is more ready for such things.

    Been a long slog since trying to piece it together in the 2008 ‘shipstorm’…..I remember when it seemed worth it to have discussions in Paul Krugman NYTimes comment sections. LOL how times have changed.

    Oh, a couple more key books:

    Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
    Tibetan Book of the Dead
    Salk and Salk, World Population and Human Values
    Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action
    Don Quixote

    Peace n Love in the Neofeudal Ghetto!

    1. JCC

      Ahh… Zappa

      “The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”
      — Frank Zappa

  87. RBHoughton

    There’s a little chap here in Hong Kong bowing in your direction Yves.

    I have sent the link to this article to all those friends who need it (all of us).

  88. vachon

    Gah! I absolutely cringe when I hear my boss saying “We have to work to Yes!”. I have a better idea. How about actually getting on the sales floor where the great unwashed are and, you know, selling something.

    1. scraping_by

      Your boss, or someone in his upline, went to a seminar, or was given a hardback book. And now, like it or not, it’s time to justify the expense.

      Good luck.

  89. Paul Tioxon


    This song with lyrics is called The River, from Springsteen’s album of the same name. His first 5 albums came out the 1970’s and this was his last effort before his rise to superstar status. Of course, in NJ and Philly, he was already the biggest and the best. And then, the rest of the world caught on. By the time The River came out in 1980, a lot of the songs were already familiar from his live shows, of which there were plenty. Interest rates were hitting 20% and the long downward decay of the rust belt had become an evening news cliche. Except that it was may life and my city and my section of the country that was getting hit hard.

    I find that much of the New Age activity from the 60’s and 70’s served many people well in helping us to cope with life without becoming debilitated potheads, pill heads or other substance abusers. Others, not so lucky. But one thing that I have always seen in art, such as the lyrics in popular music that portrayed life as I saw it lived around me and not some product that posed as what I was supposed to take in as the voice of my generation because the reviewers said it was the voice of my generation, was the creation of self awareness that gave me the critical space to see myself from a steady perspective that was not intellectual, emotional or ephemeral. I have learned to see myself from the history of where I came from and know that I can direct myself much as character in song can be conjured up. I have some control over my identity and can build a life from there of my own choosing. I know what the firm limits are and what the possibilities might be.

    I saw Bruce and the band perform this song last Labor Day at the local ball park in Philadelphia. It is song he does not do that much because it is a song from so long ago, before he became such a superstar, that he does not have time to do much, other than new material, some covers and favorites. But, in the high priced section, right in front of the stage, people hold signs with requests for songs. So, he does old stuff depending on the audience. And a woman, whose husband was in Afghanistan somewhere, wanted to hear “THE RIVER”. She was moved up by people in the crowd when they heard this story. The woman was on the jumbo screens, tears rolling down her eyes. The whole place was applauding her, which she did not realize til later, being up close to the stage and could not see the big screen up close shot of her.

    The next day, on the local philly.com site, a review of the concert included this moment as a highlight. The man who served overseas pops on the comment section after seeing the youtube clip of the show that it was his wife! It was at that moment that the internet got a soul, as far as I’m concerned and I could make it through another week of where it only rains bullshit when it’s not always sunny.


    The above clip is the title track to “DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN”.

  90. tongorad

    Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus have gotten me through some tough times. I keep coming back to them again and again – and I keep turning away again and again, because there’s something ultimately disatifying about them. It’s as if they are the TINA of reflective ethics/philosphy. We must accomodate ourselves to Nature, there is no alternative. Acquiese and obey – the problem is within you, external reality is just as it is.

    We must accomodate ourselves to precarity, wage slavery and a market economy – there is no alternative. If you can’t adjust, the problem is entirely between your ears, and not with the great God market/Nature.

    Perhaps our optimism has been merely misplaced and distorted by shrewed marketeers and propagandists. Time for a new optimism that is about exploring new frontiers of cooperation and solidarity, and not founded on us accomodating some inevitable TINA horizon.

    1. scraping_by

      Pagan stoic acceptance is a courageous stance against the unavoidable. Which works in the short term, and concerning acts of God.

      But once you allow that Christian notion of equality into your head, you see the acts of men and women much like yourself. That the choice that damages you and yours could have gone the other way. And should have, had they your conscience.

      We are not cogs in a cosmic machine, any of us. Go ahead and hold the great and grand to the standard of morality.

      1. tongorad

        Yes, in times of turmoil and chaos, it’s helpful to have the kind of baseline that stoic acceptance provides.

        However, it can lead to rot. I spent 10 years living in SE Asia. There are many parallels between stoicism and buddhist thought. Elites are very happy to have the masses be content with their lot and obediant and compliant to status quo power.

      2. Joe Miller

        “Christian notion of equality”

        Isn’t this oxymoronic, considering that the Christian faith entails the seperation of the goats from the sheep, the elect from the reprobate?

  91. seabos84

    Cook on a fishing boat with more than 15 crew, so you are ONLY a cook, for a 90 day contract.

    You’ll go nuts at first … and then you learn to start preparing a little of lunch for tomorrow at dinner today, and a bunch of breakfast tomorrow at dinner today, and just get dinner done cuz it is already ready.

    And you see how well that chow went over & what is in the freezer & will this crowd like fruity kind of chicken OR gravy kind of chicken –

    by my 3rd job I really really got good at living in the moment. Of course, it probably helped that I get motion sick on city busses, never mind 130 or 290 foot boats in the Berring Sea, so I was taking this stuff scopolomine and I was kind of high as a kite …

    and I help with local campaigns. I can’t stomach the big campaigns anymore.

    bon voyage.

    1. vachon

      All the effing optimism in the world is not going to put bags under the registers, put away the go-backs, and re-hang the piles of clothes in the fitting rooms. Maybe mangement should go to a seminar entitled, “Screw the optimism and keep your damn store clean!”

  92. scraping_by

    I first ran into weaponized optimism during the Reagan years, when every objection to trickle down economics was met with shouts of “Doom and gloomer! Doom and gloomer!” And indeed, we’re talking shouting here.

    Since then, the bullying has grown more subtle, but no less an insider/outsider split. Deluded insiders, but never mind.

    Optimism is also an industry. It’s a symptom of Christianity without Christ, direct sales, pyramid schemes, and various fascist social theories. Indeed, it’s even invaded sociology and psychology, the latter with the takeover of NLP by Tony Robbins and the former the bizarre ubermensch of Reason magazine.

    Pessimists are provably more realistic. It’s a rare situation when optimists succeed in overcoming the odds, but it makes a great story and that story is published far and wide.

    I’ve noticed all optimists depend on “asking for help” or “gathering resources” or “finding agreement”. In other words, finding realists to do the work.

  93. Moneta

    There are 2 types of optimists: the deluded and the realists.

    The deluded are those who think everything will turn out OK just by thinking happy thoughts and the realists try to achieve something despite barriers. They move ahead knowing that they might not succeed but they do it because that’s what needs to be done to give their life meaning.

    I find it comical that humanity hates problems because the vast majority of jobs are created to generate or fix problems. Problems are what gives our life meaning. When I look back, I can say that problems are the reason why I understand the workings of the system.

    All my life, I’ve been a little offbeat. I’ve learned to follow the crowd but know when to stand back. Often, I’ll end up choosing a route that is permitted but to get through it, I need to use a machete. Why? Because there are many ways to do things. Because successful people put barriers to protect their turf and when I know I don’t have the specified skills to beat the crowd, I use my own skill set to get to where I want. Everyone thinks I am nuts and many even try to stop me because they want me to stay at the end of the line and accept that fate. Whatever the reason is, I just follow my will.

    I’ve failed and succeeded but my sense of accomplishment is tremendous even if many people have accomplished much greater things than I ever will. So I find it annoying and sad when people call me a pessimist.

    Yves, I would listen to all your rants. I am one of those rare people who does not get depressed listening to negative stuff or repetition. It actually energizes me and gives me a reason to be useful instead of planning my next vacation.

    I even stay away from the deluded optimists because they are dangerous to my well-being.

  94. JTFaraday

    Well, anytime I start to feel a glimmer of unfounded optimism, I go revisit that great neo-noir cinematic puzzler, Mulholland Drive. Clears that rash right up.

    As for classical schools of philosophy, if one really believes that “passion is an affliction” one needn’t resort to Stoicism as pretty much all the classical schools define the human good substantially in terms of ataraxia.


    In light of that, I prefer Phyrronism to Stoicism as a philosophy of life, although the skeptical suspension of final judgment and the resulting delay to action is likely to prove frustrating to “optimists of the will.” In such an instance, I could revisit the Epicurean school, properly understood.

    But, sadly, today is not that day.

  95. GlassHammer

    I think its interestingness that we have moved from “A Defense of Defensive Pessimism” to a “A Pox on Optimists!”

    Perhaps we have grown tired of the restraint we must exercise when bringing a pessimistic view to a discussion.

  96. Basia Yoffe

    In Jewish Law outside of the land of Israel there is no obligation to keep the laws of the sabbatical year. However, Jewish farmers in North America are looking to Shmita (laws of the sabbatical year) as a means to renew our economies and the land. Not a new idea as Michael Hudson and David Graeber have looked at ancient debt relief. We don’t have to be pessimistic or optimistic. We are in crisis and it makes no sense to me to do anything else but find a way out of it.

    Gib a kik:


  97. Tilly

    My husband left me due to some reasons on 19th of June 2010, I was such a bad girl on that day, I accept, I blamed my self a lot of times for that but I really love him enough that I felt like killing myself just after every thought of him, frustrated, devastated. I can say I was dead cause the experience was as much as that of hell… Just few days after that he throw me and the my kids and our stuffs out of the house and moved in with another woman his co worker at work.., I felt like killing myself. I’ve tried different spell casters and went to different temples to pray but all to no avail. My life was very bitter and sorrowful. Then one day, a very good friend of mine told me about a Doctor that is very good, I didn’t believe at first, cause I have tried a lot before but she shared her experience with me and cried, I felt for her too but mine was killing also. I remember she will always Whisper “Dr.Wala the door of all things”… She said anything and everything you bring to him is done!!! Immediately I didn’t know what came over me, there was this force in me I became so interested and we talked about it, she gave me more testimonies about her friend and said he gave him some lucky numbers that he played in a lottery and he won.. I contacted him and I gave him the necessary information. He only ask me to provides the items or i pay for the items that will be needed to cast the spell, So I asked for the contacts of this Dr.Wala , contacted him, I was surprised, he knew what I was going through like I told him and then he asked for some necessary requirements like pictures and the date you last saw and other stuffs and then he cast the spell immediately and behold the next 3 days which was on the 26th of July, 2010 I received a call and it was my darling husband Kelly. He apologized to me and the kids and came back to me. He even gave me a romantic gown and a diner with him alone, and was even begging me!!! Wow… That was my best yuletide season ever. I’m now a very a happy woman. My big thanks to Dr.Wala, I will forever be grateful to him. You can reach him on his email:wildernessofspirit@gmail.com He can solve any problem. Try him today and you will also give a testimony like i did.

  98. Minor Heretic

    Back in 1988 I visited Berlin, or to be more accurate, West Berlin and East Berlin. I went through Checkpoint Charlie, with all its totalitarian rigamarole, and spent a day in a grungy not-quite-Orwellian reality.

    If you had asked me then how long the Berlin Wall would stand, I would have guessed a century, or some time period measured in generations.

    Of course, the whole thing came down within a year.

    It can be argued endlessly, but I’d attribute much of the credit for the collapse to energy economics. A temporary oil glut lowered prices and weakened the Soviet State.

    I’ll paraphrase Rany Udall and say that politics eventually yields to physics. As does optimism.

    But consider: The optimism of our opponents also yields to physics.

    The more we base our plans and actions on the often unpleasant realities of geology, chemistry, and empirical psychology, the better our chances of success.

  99. JoanSoWhat

    This whole issue of optimism is especially important and difficult when your clientele is teenagers who need and deserve hope, but who don’t need and deserve lies. I want my high school students to look forward with some sense that good things are possible, but I worry that too many of them think “making it” is primarily about attitude. My students have very interesting ideas about what “luck” is . . .

    Enjoying all the poetic excerpts in others’ comments.

  100. Gregory Ardison-gArdner

    If you would like alternative views and schools of philosophical thought, I can recommend one somewhat obscure modern philosopher coming out of the Eastern tradition–Professor Alan Watts. He wrote a book entitled “The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”.


    It presents an Eastern philosophical approach to life influenced by Hindu and Zen Buddhist thought together with Western scietific thought. His classroom recordings also found their way onto Youtube as well, if you want samples of his thinking:

    “Stop Trying to Change the World”

    “Life is a Hoax”

    There’s also Erwin Schrödinger’s “My view of the World”, also drawing much from Hinduism, as well as his knowledge of Quantum Physics.


    And lastly, Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness”, which is not as sugary sounding as its title may make it sound.


    Those were all good starting point for me. Frankly, I have issues with empricism, as I do rationalism, and what alot of those texts offers is a different approach of epistemology that I think overcomes the traditional rationalist/empiricist perspective.

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