by John Q on August 30, 2006

This NYT piece by Adam Cohen starts with the observation that Americans are feeling pessimistic about the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and so on, then jumps to a recent work on philosophical pessimism by Joshua Dienstag, whose basic argument is summarised in this sample chapter. As Cohen says, pessimism in this sense is not a gloomy disposition, but a worldview that “simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.’ Cohen concludes “Part of Mr. Bush’s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism “.

But if optimism holds that applying reasoned analysis will have a positive effect, the experience of the Bush Administration merely illustrates the point that the converse is also true.

The most plausible basis for pessimism (at least as it concerns historical progress rather than the human condition) is that humans are simply incapable of collectively applying the reasoned analysis necessary to avoid destroying ourselves with the power we now wield.

The experience of the last half of the 20th century seemed on the whole to support an optimistic account. The threat of nuclear annihilation that was ever-present for much of the century receded with the end of the Cold War, and we managed a positive response to environmental problems that would have been catastrophic if we had continued with ‘business as usual’.

The 21st century so far has given support to the pessimistic view, with war, nuclear proliferation and unchecked global warming. But the only conclusion to be drawn is that we need more reasoned analysis and a willingness to act on it.



C.J.Colucci 08.30.06 at 4:16 pm

How can anything the Bush administration does about anything constitute evidence against the efficacy of “applying human reason to the world’s problems”?


Michael Sullivan 08.30.06 at 4:29 pm

The reason I am pessimistic is not because of what Bush has done, but because the people in my country somehow found reason to vote him into office again 2 years ago despite it being done.

I am also pessimistic because the main opposition party seems to share many of the same key flaws. At least most of them want to get the heck out of Iraq.

In the last 20 years or so, both parties have headed in directions that are severely anti-liberty, and the very policies of each that I consider most abhorrent are some of the most cherished reasons that people quote in support of them. I am pessimistic because I believe the vast majority of people no longer do enough thinking about issues to have a reasonable opinion, or even to know when their intuitive sense should be considered suspect.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the efficacy of applying human reason to the world’s problems. I’m having trouble imagining such a radical idea getting any popular support.


albert 08.30.06 at 4:44 pm

“…we need more reasoned analysis…”

But the whole problem is that what counts as ‘reasoned’ is always contested. I’m certain the Bush administration and its supporters would claim that they did apply human reason in their attempt to improve world problems. But it’s their claim to competence and good intentions which generates the pessimistic response.

For those that believe their claim, good acts do not make good consequences. For those that do not believe their claim, Bush’s actions produce pessimism because it appears the democratic ‘we’ are unable to act in a rational manner. Both result in pessimism.

Americans have been pessimistic before though, the question should be “will the pessimism and malaise be permanent? Will Americans accept ‘not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments?'”


Cheryl Morgan 08.30.06 at 5:16 pm

Actually I find the blogosphere far more depressing with regard to the future of reasoned analysis than anything Bush has done (although I conceed that many bloggers are simply apeing Ann Coulter so we might be able to track it back to Bush in the end).


mpowell 08.30.06 at 5:54 pm

I know a lot of people are dismayed at Bush’s reelection two years ago, but I am a little more optimistic. Two years ago, things were not as clear (no, please- even if they were clear to you then, they are more clear to more people now) and his presidency has been highly unpopular for nearly a year now. Republicans chances in congress are looking worse and worse… there will always be the hard-core supporters & Ann Coulter’s of the world, but opinion is shifting. It may not move in the best direction, but at least it is moving in a better direction.


bruce 08.30.06 at 6:19 pm

I often wonder if people see Bush’s message as having a tone of optimism about it. When he talks about transforming the Middle East and making the world safe for democracy – it sounds like optimism, but I think once people stop believing what he says they turn towards a more pessimistic attitude.

Of course it all depends on the goals that one has for this administration. For the strident pro-life people there is a reason to be optimistic with the recent supreme court appointees. For the corporate types and the ultra-wealthy there is the reduction of their tax burden with further reductions possibly on the way. There is more political power being given to a fewer number of people as well. They are surely optimistic about that as well.

I suppose if you’re looking forward to a nation of oppressed poor people ruled by a thin class of elites in the name of god then there is much to be optimistic about.


bob mcmanus 08.30.06 at 6:42 pm

““simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.’”

Ya know, one can accept just a slightly weaker version of this that is not refuted by the human race surviving til the morning.


bob mcmanus 08.30.06 at 7:31 pm

I am grateful you linked to the sample chapter, which I am finding quite enjoyable, even tho you gave it little credit.

“While pessimists may posit a decline, it is the denial of progress, not an insistence on some eventual doom, that marks out modern pessimism. Pessimism, to put it precisely, is the negation, and not the opposite, of theories of progress.” …Dienstag

Progress is divisible:material,economic,moral,political…etc.One might imagine the problems of “war, nuclear proliferation and unchecked global warming” completely solved yet remain pessimistic. Orwell and Huxley gave us scenarios that apparently would fulfil your optimism.


John Quiggin 08.30.06 at 7:57 pm

I found the sample chapter interesting also. My relatively brief mention wasn’t meant to slight Dienstag; it would take longer than I had to respond adequately to him, and he certainly has some insights that are new to me.


David Sucher 08.30.06 at 7:58 pm

My spin is that elections matter and even marginal differences between parties and candidates can have major impacts on the world.

That is the lesson of ’00 for me. (Claims that Gore would have also gotten us into a war in Iraq are such fantasy that no one even bothers to make them.)

So the lesson of Bush is not all pessimism because elections make a difference and leaders are important (no I am not a neo-Carlylist) and that “there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats” is nonsense.


Richard 08.30.06 at 8:29 pm

re 3. above: “their claim to competence and good intentions” weren’t so much in evidence after Fallujah, Abu Ghraib etc (and here I mean Rumsfeld, Bush and Ashcroft, all of whom, when accused of deliberate malfeasance, pleaded the incompetence defence instead).

After both the ’00 and ’04 elections there seemed to be some conspiracy theories floating around that fraudulent voting might have tipped the result: I don’t hear much about those any more, even though no arguments or evidence were presented to refute them. Certainly it seemed that large irregularities were observed in the handling of votes from certain districts and in the use of hackable Diebold voting machines which were mysteriously given (unnecesary) internet connections on voting day. I found the 2002 mid-term fiasco in Florida, in which the entire voting record apparently disappeared without trace shortly after the election, especially disturbing. It illustrated exactly why doing away with the paper trail might be dangerous/useful, but after a brief episode of weary head-shaking on the part of NPR reporters, it, too was ignored.


bob mcmanus 08.30.06 at 9:29 pm

“Rousseau, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Weber, Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Freud, Camus, Adorno, Foucault, and Cioran—to name just a few in what could become a very long list. It could be said to have precursors in figures like Montaigne, Lichtenburg, Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld. And it could be said to have close associates in writers like Sartre, Arendt, Benjamin, Wittgenstein, and Weil. The list would grow considerably longer, of course, if one included poets and fiction writers (e.g., Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, et al.)”

Like home it was, like mother’s milk, these are my homies, this article speaks to me and for me.
Just Monday I asked in a comment:”But is knowledge good?” I have dared to question the Renaissance and Enlightenment as liberations. I have expressed sympathy with some of the most reactionary elements, in both the Christian and Islamic traditions. I have tried to explain why opposition to Evolution and support for ID or even more extreme ignorings could be plausible, supportable choices with predictable responses. I have tried, weakly, to explain my skepticism that liberal capitalism will necessarily create Utopia.

Only pessimism is a full-flavored universal humanism. Every other philosophy is simple ressentiment.

Thank you, Professor Quiggin.


ed 08.30.06 at 9:39 pm

I’m not sure how anyone intelligent can be anything but pessimistic these days, and yes, the blogs make it worse since intelligent people tend to be drawn to them.

For a middle class person in the industrialized West, things are definitely not so bad that you can’t live out your day to day life in an optimistic manner. There is a case, though its getting weaker each year, that “we have never had it so good”. If conditions were like, say, Russia in the 1990s too many people would be too focused on day to day survival to be pessimistic.

But if you pay attention, median income in the US is declining, health care coverage is declining, the US government is starting to attack other countries without provocation than lie to it, we are less free in all sorts of ways (try flying or crossing the Canadian border if you don’t see this), we’ve elected the first dumb person President in eighty years, then reelected him by an increased margin, both high and low culture are becoming incresingly bland and derivative. And this is without taking into account any of the environmental problems, or the shakiness of an economy (in the US) that has basically stopped producing anything.

OK, you can make a case that one or two of the items on that list are not really so bad or are fixable, but its a long list.


j.l. 08.30.06 at 10:24 pm

Pessimism? As if a largely ignored alternate path isn’t staring us right in the face …

When will intellectuals start taking seriously the idea of non-violent conflict resolution, applying the same academic rigor towards new methodologies of peace for peace, instead of war for peace?

When, in politic theory classes, will the professors, instead of merely questioning the decisions and motives of the powerful governments of the world and their lust for wars, begin to question the very need for such powerful governments in the first place?

I am thankful that there is a growing worldwide movement of pro-active peacemakers, motivated by the liberating promise of a world governed by its occupants, instead of by an elite group of men who are defined by greed.

Stop whining and start doing! There is much to be done, and there is even more to be hopeful for.


Matt Kuzma 08.31.06 at 12:31 am

I think that societal pessimism and optimism operate on far less analytic bases. I suspect that society becomes optimistic when the ‘good’ news outweighs the ‘bad’.

This is why I’ve held that Scaled Composit’s winnin of the X Prize last year was one of the most positive turns of events for liberals. As we see more success and possibility expand in front of us, our society becomes more optimistic and more liberal. Engineering marvels are nicely concrete in thier affirmation of the good that can come from human endeavors.


roger 08.31.06 at 12:34 am

J.L. — I have to disagree. There is way, way too much doing, and way, way too little whining. Whining should be universal. Whining and wailing should greet the complete inability to meet the really amazingly big environmental threats coming our way (many of which have to do with the too much doing — too much driving, too much pumping out CO2s, too much production of junk, too much fishing, etc., etc.). Whining and wailing should meet every evening of tv, which actively tries to cretinize the viewer, make prepubescents into sex objects while stirring up moral panics about pedophiles, and which definitely tries to create — too much doing. Whining should be more than about the poor choices in the last election or the last one, but the horrifying destruction of the constitutional system in favor of perpetual, unblocked aggression at the whim of the president. As the New Yorker financial guy, James Surowieki, casually stated in his last column, the Defense Deparment’s auditors admitted last month they don’t know what happened to 1 trillion dollars — it just disappeared. I would think that deserves at least, oh, a hundred thousand manhours of whining — and more if you are the population that the weapons bought by that trillion are used against.

Let’s not have any petty whining, but choruses of it, millions of mouths of wailing. Lets have street demonstrations of it. Let’s have whining for months in malls, in public places, everywhere. Because we really are fucked.


felix 08.31.06 at 12:57 am

Don’t be pessimistic. Just fucking fight.


abb1 08.31.06 at 2:09 am

…we need more reasoned analysis…

I don’t think ‘reason’ alone is a panacea, you probably also want a bit of decency and common sense.

Mr. Bush himself is, of course, quite mad, but a lot of his mouthpieces and allies do reason and reason skillfully. They write long articles reasoning for wars, for brutality, for social darwinism, for American empire, for torture, etc.

“Reasoned analysis” doesn’t necessarily mean “analysis we like”.


bad Jim 08.31.06 at 4:27 am

Since, for any of us, personal extinction is guaranteed in the near term, and for our planet in the longer term, pessimism is entirely unwarranted. Life is short, live it up, celebrate!

We Americans have every reason to feel angry and frustrated that our model nation seems to be stuck in a state that Twain ridiculed a century ago, and is replicating a history from which one might have thought we could have awakened, but look: there is progress.

A lot of people died in the invasion of Iraq, and a great many more continue to die during the occupation, but the totals fall short of the deaths racked up in the Civil War or the Great War or the next war or the one after that, or even a few of the next wars.

At least take heart from the fact that things aren’t getting worse as fast as we used to think they would.


bob mcmanus 08.31.06 at 8:35 am

“Life is short, live it up, celebrate!”

Read the linked article. This is not necessarily incompatible with philosophical pessimism, which is not an disposition. Or to quote the lead epigram by Camus:

“The idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea, but one that needs too long a refutation.”
—Albert Camus

I would be too polite to use the word “puerile” to describe some of the above commenters.

“proceed through a series of propositions that pessimists subscribe to in greater or less degrees. These propositions, which to some extent build on one another, are, in their bluntest form, as follows: that time is a burden; that the course of history is in some sense ironic; that freedom and happiness are incompatible; and that human existence is absurd. Finally, there is a divide between those pessimists, like Schopenhauer, who suggest that the only reasonable response to these propositions is a kind of resignation, and those, like Nietzsche, who reject resignation in favor of a more life-affirming ethic of individualism and spontaneity.” …Dienstag


bob mcmanus 08.31.06 at 8:58 am

“That history is in some sense ironic” …Dienstag

“Pessimists do not deny the existence of “progress” in certain areas— they do not deny that technologies have improved or that the powers of science have increased. Instead, they ask whether these improvements are inseparably related to a greater set of costs that often go unperceived. Or they ask whether these changes have really resulted in a fundamental melioration of the human condition.” …Dienstag

The neocon project of bringing freedom, peace, and prosperity to the little brown peoples of the world by blowing them up is not refuted, is in fact aided and abetted by the neo-liberal project of bringing freedom, peace, and prosperity to the little brown peoples of the world via globalization. And gee, in point of fact, people like Hitchens and Friedman switched from one program to the other at the wave of a cheerleaders baton.

The pessimist does not say that freedom, peace, and prosperity cannot be brought to the little brown peoples. The pessimist simply says there will very likely be a terrible cost, something sacrificed, and that no net gain in general happiness is likely.

The pessimist may be wrong, but also may be quite useful as a restraint on ambition.


Slocum 08.31.06 at 9:07 am

The experience of the last half of the 20th century seemed on the whole to support an optimistic account. The threat of nuclear annihilation that was ever-present for much of the century receded with the end of the Cold War, and we managed a positive response to environmental problems that would have been catastrophic if we had continued with ‘business as usual’.

But that’s just nuts. The second half of the 20th began with the images of piles of emaciated corpses from concentration camps and nuclear bast victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki fresh in the mind of the world. While Stalin had already killed most of his tens of millions, Mao was only getting going. Also just beginning was the nuclear arms race and cold war. This was the era of backyard bomb shelters, ‘On the Beach’, and ‘Dr Strangelove’ (The threat of nuclear annihilation was a feature of the 2nd half of the 20th century, not the 1st half). And that’s leaving aside the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, and environmental damage that reached its nadir (burning rivers, dead Great Lakes).

We might be able to make the case that the last decade of the 20th century gave reason to be optimistic (but only if we avert our eyes from Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and pretty much the rest of Africa, from the Taliban’s Afghanistan, from the terrorism of Al Queda, from Chechnya).

The 21st century so far has given support to the pessimistic view, with war, nuclear proliferation and unchecked global warming. But the only conclusion to be drawn is that we need more reasoned analysis and a willingness to act on it.

Also nuts. Global warming is no more unchecked now than it has been since the industrial age began. We’ve been trying to do something about it for less than a decade (during much of which the science was less than conclusive), and doing something meaningful is likely going to require global cooperation on an unprecedented scale. The idea that this is going to happen quickly and smoothly is completely unrealistic (think, rather, of the time scale of the cold war).

Nuclear proliferation is a mixed bag. N Korea is a problem carried over from the 90s. Libya got out of the game, and Iraq has been taken out of it. But Iran probably will not be stopped. I’m not terribly optimistic, but overall, there’s no more reason for pessimism than in the 90s. (Five years ago, I’d have predicted that the sanctions against Iraq would ultimately collapse and Saddam would ultimately have his bomb).

And war? I’m assuming you mean Iraq (and maybe a bit of Afghanistan). But as wars go (and, yes, keeping in mind all wars are horrible), these are just not very calamitous — not only by the recent historical standard of Vietnam, but by the contemporary standards. Somehow, Iraq robs us of our optimism, but our optimism was untroubled by a war in the Congo that killed roughly 50 times as many people in the years immediately preceeding.

C’mon, let’s have some perspective.


bob mcmanus 08.31.06 at 9:22 am

Global warming might not quite as large a problem if a hundred years people had listened to the likes of Henry Adams and William Morris or G K Chesterton

Chesterton on G B Shaw:

“After belabouring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr. Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense, that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being with two legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake. If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.[7]”


kharris 08.31.06 at 11:41 am

John Quiggen argues rightly that Cohen misses the point. Michael Sullivan shows very nicely that John Quiggen went to far and also fell of the path of logic. If half the country voted for Bush, where is the evidence that enough of us are using the noggin to justify optimism?

I will just embellish on Sullivan’s point. Few if any of the trends that Quiggen finds pessimism-inducing in the 21st century find their origin in this century. Our ability to deal with the threat of nuclear war and global poisoning was laudable in itself, but we had reason to understand global warming prior to Kyoto’s rejection or Katrina’s arrival. We had reason to understand that nuclear proliferation needed more attention back when Kissinger warned that we might not like the world better after the Cold War ended – and the idea was not original with Kissinger.

The Hudson Institute has recently published an article in “Policy Review”


that makes Albert’s point painfully obvious, too. The author claims that the internet and education will allow for a flowering of empiricism, that we will stop getting things wrong so much and start making better choices, so that partisans and demagogues will lose their grip. All along the way, the author is disproving his own point, citing only those cases in which rightwing causes are shown to triumph due to the flow of facts, claiming that cases in which the right has not prevailed are not vulnerable to empricism, and I suspect, claiming victory where the result is in dispute. The author is a walking advertisement for pessimism, as defined here.


bob mcmanus 08.31.06 at 12:06 pm

To respond to kharris, sort of, to the extent I understand his point, by referring to Mr Sullivan (the honorifics indicate I am having fun) this:

“It’s not that I don’t believe in the efficacy of applying human reason to the world’s problems. I’m having trouble imagining such a radical idea getting any popular support.”

…does not really reflect “pessimism, as defined here” if “defined here” references Dienstag’s sample.

“A crucial element of this deception is the contention made by optimistic philosophy that our capacity to reason is something that gives us power over the world and thus a means of alleviating our suffering. In order for this to be true, the world would in some sense have to be aligned with or amenable to the force of reason when, to the pessimists, it simply is not. Thus, to Nietzsche, the “optimism” of Socrates is contained in “his faith that the nature of things can be fathomed, [he] ascribes to knowledge and insight the power of a panacea””

“This is not to deny that reason exists or that it has certain powers; but in order to know in advance that our powers of reason could ensure our happiness (that is, in advance of the day, yet to arrive, when it actually did so), we would also have to make assumptions about the nature of the world in which reason finds itself.”

“Put another way, we can say that there is a kind of pragmatism buried so deeply in Western philosophy that it is almost impossible to root out. This is the notion that there must be an answer to our fundamental questions, even if we have not found it yet, and that this answer will deliver us from suffering.”

“But the pessimistic critique helps to make visible how widely such a pragmatism is shared. Even modern liberalism, which offers no grand narrative like Hegel’s, assumes that justice is the achievable object of political philosophy and that the patient application of reason to human society will result in political structures that increasingly approach such a condition.”

All Dienstag.


airth10 08.31.06 at 12:11 pm

Imagine, the American people were so gullible to elect Bush the second time around. But I believe the American people deserved Bush from the beginning. People picked him on the flimsiest of reasons, because he was more likable than Gore.

During the 2000 campaign people felt so complacent about America’s premiere status in the world that they gave little thought to the idea that America still had to be run by responsible and capable people. Many thought that America didn’t need running, it ran itself.

Perhaps America got too optimistic about itself during its salad days and its winning the Cold War. That is why this bout of pessimism, because of a laziness and a arrogance that developed, which didn’t translate into utopia.

America has to go through these episodes now and then because it has to relearn the lessons of its past, lessons it forgot, what works and doesn’t work. In electing Bush it got lazy and complacent. But Bush and his antics is now reawakening America.


albert 08.31.06 at 12:56 pm

…Bush and his antics is now reawakening America.

I’ll check in with you again in 2008 & 2012 when Americans again elect the leaders they deserve.


Kang de Veroveraar 08.31.06 at 3:09 pm

Dienstag’s attempt to reappraise the contributions of “pessimistic” philosophers is surely not without merit. Nevertheless, I have a problem with the whole premise. The criterion of philosophical classification he applies lends itself to all the fluff that is associated with the optimism/pessimism dichotomy to begin with.

Riffing on the opposition between Darwin-influenced taxonomy and the pre-eminence of teleology in the Aristotelian study of living beings, I’d say that the distinction between “pessimists” and “optimists” is not nearly “morphological” enough, and too “functional”.

Now, Aristotle had a keen eye for the morphological traits of animals, and the “ghost” of teleology will never be exorcized completely from the language of biology. And separating mood from discourse in philosophy is far more difficult and far less useful. However…

According to Dienstag, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, say, are both pessimistic “land-dwellers”, distinct from and opposed to optimistic “flyers”. That’s perfectly fine, but when you try to delve a bit further you’ll be tempted to say that pessimists are furred and optimists feathered, and then you’ll be frustrated by the hen, the bat and the penguin. Schopenhauer’s metaphysics have a lot in common with Berkeley’s, whom I wouldn’t rate as pessimistic on a number of issues.

To study the relationship between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche you get more mileage in the traditional fashion (i.e. Wille/Vorstellung vs. Dionysus/Apollo and all that) than with references to their pessimism. First you notice the morphological similarities and differences between elephants and rhinos. Then you mention that they both live in the savannah.

The opposition between optimism and pessimism is (rightly) deemed to have moral implications, yet the differences in the moral philosophies of e.g. the above two pessimists (re: Mitleid) are arguably far more profound.

The debased use of the term “optimism” (mostly, but not exclusively, by Americans) does not make me want to rehabilitate its less cheery vis-à-vis. I don’t take issue with Thomas Friedman’s optimism. I take issue with the fact that his are the musings of an overblown simpleton.

The rejection of utopianism has both “pessimistic” (people are just too recalcitrant) and “optimistic” overtones (people are too complex, too “big”, to fit into your ideological narrative).

And so on.


John Quiggin 08.31.06 at 3:25 pm

Slocum, a hint. Attempts to bolster weak criticisms by calling the argument you are criticising “nuts”, don’t usually work. Show, don’t tell.

A second hint. Lists of events don’t work as a criticisms of claims about trends.


etat 08.31.06 at 4:28 pm

Seems to me that the distilled version of Dienstag’s work and Cohen’s analysis of it is that reason has got us into more trouble that it has gotten us out of.

The Luddite spin on this is that reason gives us all those splendid technologies like nukes, life-extending medicines, and global communications that extend our reach into places they don’t belong.

The nihilist-pessimist political spin on it seems to be that humans lack the political and moral capacities to deal with the effects of our reasoning. Among these failings are that we choose inept leaders because they reflect our own sense of frailty. We are less interested in canny problem-solvers.

On this basis, pessimists understand that the mass of humanity is self-deluded, and wants to remain that way, despite the consequences.

The irony is that ‘pessimist’ is the word chirpy Pollyannas use to describe anyone with a considered (cf. ‘reasoned’) perspective on the situation. (As pointed out above, ‘reason’ is subject to politics, where the Rush Limbaughs and Ariel Sharons, the proponents of ID and opponents of abortion all have their reasonings set out in the supermarket of ideas.) Pessimists are disadvantaged because they’ve already lost the labelling game. Better that we be known as pragmatists, or post-Enlightenement rationalists, or bloody-minded people who care enough to change our ways.


tom bach 08.31.06 at 5:23 pm

I don’t think it is “nuts” but the idea that any part of the events in teh 20th century give rise to or support an optomistic world view strikes me as an assertion in desperate need of detailed evidentary support. It is true that Slocum provides on a list but, if I read this right, on the opposite side I find only three items, at least two of which (nuclear anhilation (aren’t there still all manner of “unsecured” ex-USSR bomb-dealies still about; environmental disasters, well the Cayahoga no longer goes smokin’ to the sea, but I mean really) may well still be with us. One can always find some awful something or another that is fading away but some equally awful something or another always seem to leap up and take its place; plus and what is more most of the awful something or another that appears, to paraphrase J. Cash, like a fades rose one day returns to its full bloom the next. To one furrther to insist that “trends” in a 50 year period of human history support anything is to use, given the length of time humans have been behaving badly and — I might add — doing so with glee, a profoundly limited data set, if that is the phrase I want, as those trends support.

But than again, what on earth do I know?


Martin James 08.31.06 at 8:00 pm

If holding that “the absurdity of human existence” is philosophically pessimistic, then philosophical pessimism is a good cure for dispositional pessimism.

In my experience people feel bad when things don’t go how they like. One the other hand, if one like things absurd, one is rarely disappointed.

I mean have you ever met someone who really, truly believed that things are SUPPOSED to be absurd, that wasn’t having a grand time in life?


abb1 09.01.06 at 2:18 am

Well, you’d have a point if it always was a Monty-Python-style absurd, but unfortunately quite often it’s the Kafka-style stuff.


Slocum 09.01.06 at 8:24 am

Slocum, a hint. Attempts to bolster weak criticisms by calling the argument you are criticising “nuts”, don’t usually work. Show, don’t tell.

Which is why I supported the statement with a rather lengthy (for a blog response) explanation for why I think the theory is ‘nuts’.

A second hint. Lists of events don’t work as a criticisms of claims about trends.

There were two points to the lists of events — first to show that the idea of the last half of the 20th century as a unique time for optimism is unsupportable. The second point was that even with respect to trends it doesn’t work as the 1990s was rather full of dismal, pessimism-inducing events — to recap:

The 1990s featured the wars/genocides in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda. The extraordinarily deadly war in the Congo also started in that decade (in 1998). And it’s hard to remember them all, but didn’t the brutal Algerian civil war also take place in the 1990s? Yes it did (a side effect of which was terrorist attacks in France — one thwarted plot was to crash a jetliner into the Eiffel Tower). Throughout the decade Al Queda grew in reach and lethality. The Taliban took over Afghanistan (which, of course, was closely intertwined with Al Queda). Clinton’s failed ‘Blackhawk Down’ intervention in Somalia was in 1993 (a failure that emboldened Bin Laden).

The 1991 Gulf War, initially a reason for optimism in the ability of the international community to respond to aggression turned sour with first, Saddam’s wholesale slaughter of Shia opponents and then a sanctions regime that did not weaken Saddam’s grip on power but caused a great deal of misery for Iraqis and produced the corrupt ‘oil for food’ program. In the U.S. the 1990s featured Waco, Oklahoma City, and the rise of the militia movement. The stock market boomed, but the boom was, even at the time, known to be frothy with absurd market valuations that defied all logic. The question was not if but when the bubble would burst (as, of course, it did). Or we could look at Russia where initial dreams of liberal democracy couldn’t stand the ‘shock treatment’ and we saw nationalist authoritarian politics, oligarchs, and the brutality in Chechnya. There’s plenty more (we could talk about currency crises, or in the U.S., about “don’t ask, don’t tell”, the “defense of marriage act”, and impeachment), but I think what we have so already is probably overkill.


airth10 09.01.06 at 8:51 am

*slocum* said that Clinton’s failure in Somalia emboldened Bin Laden. Can he prove that.


Martin James 09.01.06 at 8:58 am


But Kafka (and Faulkner) are so much more fun once you realize that they are realist writers.

Life is Beautiful.


John Quiggin 09.01.06 at 4:12 pm

Slocum, you’re still missing the point fairly comprehensively. The sentence you objected to was about the possibility of nuclear annihilation. You responded with a grab bag of bad things that have happened, the relevance of which ranges from peripheral to non-existent.

But even as a defence of a general pessimistic argument, lists of bad things fail. Showing that there were wars, currency crises and so on doesn’t work – you would have to show that these were worse in the second half of the 20th century than in previous times.

Comments on this entry are closed.