Thursday, October 02, 2008


Barbara Ehrenreich posts to Alternet: “How Positive Thinking Wrecked the Economy” ( The title says it all.

Michael Winship posts to Truthout: “Franklin Roosevelt, a Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You” ( ). The title calls Us to consider whether it might not be a good idea to phone any very old relative who might recall his first Inaugural Address – assuming that said relative was paying attention to FDR and not Mae West at the time (although Mae, even in her sass and jokes, was a pretty reliable source of wisdom in her day – or evening). (

“Positive thinking” and “optimism” – like “loyalty” – are very much context-dependent. An SS officer could be very loyal – “Loyalty is our honor” was his motto, after all – but you wouldn’t want the guy teaching your kids, or knocking on your door at 3AM.

The gist of the articles is that there’s been too much of it for Our common weal around here recently.

Yes. Because to really work, “positive thinking” has to be firmly anchored in reality. You can’t stand on the bridge of the Titanic after she’s churned beyond the berg and “be positive”. She’s ripped open like a tuna can, there aren’t near enough lifeboats, so the only thing a person might realistically be ‘positive’ about is that he’s positively getting himself – and maybe his friends and his relations – a place in one of those boats. That’s a kinda focused type of “optimism”, and in its way could require more than a little ‘courage’: pushing past other folks, making sure that the vast sweaty masses in steerage – and their nursing mothers and infants – are kept safely locked up below so as to ease the traffic up on the boat deck. Let them be nearer to God; you’ll have time for church when you get to New York and have had a good stiff tot to celebrate the mysterious workings of Providence – helped along by your own guts and wits. Onward then! And cue the band. Although there probably won’t be room for them either, if they play all the verses of the hymn. God worketh in mysterious ways; He giveth and He taketh away – best to be ready to deal with that.

The whole thing has somewhat to do with ‘context’, as aforesaid. If you are realistically taking stock of your situation, then a certain amount of ‘optimism’ and ‘positive thinking’ is a good thing: there’s nothing worse than the passenger in the airplane who, at the first sign of turbulence, starts bawling “Omigod, we’re all going to dyyyyyyyyyyyyyye!” Better to try to keep your head and not scare folks; and if the pilot is incapacitated, well … maybe even have a stab at the controls. Anything to help; anything to ‘do your bit’ as an older, less enlightened generation used to say, before ‘doing your bit’ was derided as merely being the willing pawn of historical and social forces.

When you have yourself done something wrong, and realize it, and try to make the situation resulting from your actions better, that’s thinking “positive”. But that’s a pretty stern ‘context’; most folks would rather find a less strenuous alternative.

Like not admitting , even to yourself, that you have done – or are still doing – anything wrong. So you keep doing it – and it does feel good – but you convince yourself that with enough ‘positive thoughts’ you can avert danger, or at least avert the thought of things going wrong. But this is – as the young shark specialist told the mayor in “Jaws” – simply ‘setting yourself up to be a hot lunch’. And, like the mayor, you’ll be setting a lot of other people up to be a hot lunch too. Or instead – since mayors and folks on the top of any particular heap tend not to wind up actually getting eaten by their own consequences. Getting eaten is what happens to littler folks – the Lord working in mysterious ways, but always respecting the sanctity of those who have used their gifts to climb to the top. Selah.

Thus – as many have mentioned recently – the ‘optimism’ of the likes of Angelo Mozillo, CEO extraordinaire, hobnobber of the guardians of the common weal, as his junkisch mortgages attacked Our economy like plague-bacilli. He refused to ‘think negatively’, i.e. that what he was doing was going to snooker a lot of poor folks and maybe even wreck the national economy. Consequences are for chumps (didn’t somebody in Washington say that ‘we’ were the ones who ‘make history’ and not the other way around?) And people who think about consequences – except for those outcomes where our little party turns up roses for everyone, or at least for everyone that ‘matters’ – are being ‘negative’, and are not ‘team players’, and don’t deserve to be employed on the Great Gravy Express. After all, even guys like the Chief of Staff of the Army can get canned for ‘thinking negatively’, for ‘not playing on the team’, and for darkening the brassy light of high-noon with talk of what could go wrong if there aren’t enough troops or if people fight back or if in any one of a hundred ways the collective dampdreams don’t turn out to be History’s chosen outcome.

To really work at its best, “positive thinking” has to be deployed early on.

And, actually, it has to be working in the service of a Larger thought, in the service of what Lincoln called at Gettysburg “a larger sense”. Not only did “positive thinking” not help the late unlamented Fuhrer as things began to go south in the East, but it really didn’t help him much when he discovered that his whiz-kids had figured out a more efficient way to run the Final Solution.

Because you have to think positively not only of what can-be, but of what should-be. Otherwise, you’re just another Ozymandias, strutting on History’s stage, “dress’t in a little brief authority”, wowing the crowd with this or that bit of fancy footwork, but just a two-bit hoofer, ultimately, and running out of stage. And hurtling into the darkling abyss beyond the footlights. Where be dragons.

I was impressed by that scene in “Ben Hur” (the 1959 version) where the Roman governor said to young Judah Ben-Hur that he was well-advised to forego his ideals and cut a deal with the powers of this world “and that power, for now, is Rome”. That “for now” struck me as something remarkably serious, far too serious for anyone to think about if they wanted to climb the ladder of this world’s success, for a Roman apparatchik. It wasn’t quite in character. But it was, I think, the screenwriter’s – maybe the studio’s – way of reminding a then-superpower of 1959 that it’s always “for now” and that there will always be a “later”, an “afterwards”.

And that the wise young person is well-advised to think about that. The Romans even had somebody ‘authorized’ (as We might say now) to walk behind a successful general in his triumphal parade and whisper constantly “remember thou are mortal”; it was not only moral, but it was hugely realistic, and it was civic-ly practical: if the great ones could recall their mortality, they might retain a sense of balance and proportion in their ambitions and in their “optimism” and in their “positive thoughts”. Win-win. If you keep ‘mortality’ in mind.

Now them Kathliks – they had the same thing, though too often lost in the miasm of repetition. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics go to church to have the priest plant a daub of ash on their forehead and say “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. It’s actually a very positive thought: it reminds you that time is passing, that you’d better make the most of it, but also that when you return to dust, a very significant part of you – called the ‘soul’ – is going to be moving on to a place of judgment. That being the case, then when you “think positive” you’ve got to be operating within a personal vision that includes what you’re going to be saying when an angel intones something along the lines of “Heah kom da Judge”.

Much of this grave wisdom has been lost of late, in the feverish fundamentalist daydreams of being God’s deputies, empowered to separate the sheep from the goats and then keep the goats’ assets – which, come to think of it, was the Nazi plan as well. Funny how the night moves. Funny how the benighted all move the same way in the end. The Fool on the Hill sees it all. How oh how did the Boomers forget that?

Mr. Mozillo was no doubt thinking rather positively that the goats were an untapped resource, and that they could have a little piece of the action – for a time – while he got a nice big piece of it for himself. And that people are certainly sheep, even if they aren’t goats – and he was a sort of shepherd, herding them along to green pastures that he owned. Win-win. For a time.

“Thinking positively” with an insufficient grasp of the whole Picture is a recipe for serious unhappiness, in the fullness of time. Thinking that the Picture is only two-dimensional, Flat, is like trying live life only using the gestures and perspectives seen in Egyptian paintings: as if real people could actually survive in a world where they were always walking sideways, with both eyes on the same side of their head, like halibut. And holding their arms in those weird bent positions, front and back.

What use is “positive thinking” when you’ve stuck yourself in a world like that?

Funny how both ‘postmodern thought’ and fundamentalism have both collapsed the world into Flatness. The pomo’s and deconstructors say there is no Beyond, and the fundoozies say that the Beyond is easily and totally seen in this world, and works through the powers of this world. Either way, the ceiling drops on you as sure as it does on Indiana Jones – and squashed flat is squashed flat no matter how you look at it; you wind up looking like an Egyptian stick-painting for real.

And We have made a mistake that is becoming far too characteristic of Americans: We think a good thing can be had on the cheap. To think "positive" you first have to make a very comprehensive assessment of the situation, the good aspects and the dangerous aspects. And do some serious deliberation. None of which seems to be what citizens are supposed to do these days - neither the Security State nor the Nanny State want Us to be doing any of that, nor the corporate bottoms from either of the Parties taking up seats on Capitol Hill.

We as a nation have been thinking too positively, too optimistically for Our own good. We live now in a Flattened world, and one with no Beyond, and thus with no consequences. And no ‘judge’. It’s odd to see that a nation that incarcerates a larger percentage of its citizens than China (still Communist) and Russia (formerly Communist), doesn’t really have a solid grasp on the idea of consequences and judgment. Or rather, like with ‘bombing’, We think it only happens to other people. Where in the wide world of sports or the Bible did We get that idea? Or lose that idea?

“Social construction” was one place. This is the theory that there is no reality except for what people imagine it to be. So if you can get enough people thinking such-and-such, then such-and-such will be ‘reality’. It was a great little gambit to help the Identities along: if you just think such-and-such, instead of the old way you used to think, then such-and-such will be real. And if you don’t, then ‘you just don’t get it’. And if you persist in not-getting-it, then you most certainly are going to get it – right in the keyster. This was the basis of Political Correctness (borrowed from the Commies): make people see what you want them to see, and make sure that life gets tough for them – and maybe a whole lot shorter – if they don’t ‘see’. If they refuse to ‘see’ – in which case they deserve whatever they get, which will be whatever the government decides to give them as a punishment for such mule-headed stubbornness.

And it’s not hard to see how ‘Correctness’ leads to a lot of government intrusion, even into what you ‘see’ or don’t ‘see’. Lots of Germans (Hitler borrowed the idea from Lenin and Stalin) didn’t “see” and were sort of honestly surprised when a ‘judgment’ arrived and made them look at what had been going on all along.

But only sort of ‘honestly’; on some deeper level, they knew. They all knew. But they hadn’t wanted to ‘see’. They wanted to stay ‘on the team’; they wanted to stay ‘optimistic’; or they wanted to stay out of the camps, and off the lists and the registries kept on those little 3x5 death-white file cards kept by the Gestapo. They just wanted to get on with their lives. But their government made sure that its crimes were theirs. And judgment came, as it inevitably does. History, God, God through History – take your pick. In that sense, History most surely has not ended. Although their part in it had ended, at least in any shape they could recognize.

So ‘realism’ is a many-splendored thing. You have to really turn the thing around, like a hot diamond, to see all its aspects. A diamond is not a two-dimensional thing, nor is it Flat. And unlike a diamond, History is alive. And seems to know when it’s been dissed. And it doesn’t take kindly to that.

It’s funny how a country that can glue itself to TV or go to a stadium to watch football doesn’t get that idea: in the last second before a two-hundred-plus-pound defenseman lands on your anatomy, no amount of ‘constructing’ is going to get save you from pain.

‘Constructing’ works on one level of human activity. On the basic myths and fundamental beliefs, it works. But some things are ‘beyond’ belief; they have a life of their own. That’s reality. And even on the level of myths and beliefs, if there really is a ‘Beyond’, and ‘consequences’ thereby imposed, then your myth is not totally disconnected and free-floating from that reality. So if you put to sea in a ship that you and all your fellow and sister passengers have ‘socially constructed’ as ‘unsinkable’, well – not all the constructing that the whole of you can muster is going to change the destructing that the iceberg will do if you give it half a chance.

We’ve been subjected to a lot of social constructing these past umpty years. And a lot of social destructing in the service of creatively making space for the constructing. I’m going to imagine We reached a point where We couldn’t tell what was reality and what wasn’t, and certainly not on an ultimate level.

But I don’t want to be negative. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson: Though I never had time to stop for Reality, Reality kindly stopped by for me. Perhaps it is a ‘kindness’ on the part of reality, this awefull “fiery trial through which We pass” now. Lincoln ‘constructed’ the Civil War as a ‘trial’, and that can be taken on any number of levels. So that’s “positive”, but in a mature (and un-American, alas) sense: We are facing a great trial, but it is a trial and not the end, and so We must pull Ourselves together and make the best We can out of it, and hope to come through it better people than when it started.

FDR said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. True enough. But he did not then smile and say ‘Y’all just go shoppin, now!’ No. We must ‘construct’ the purpose of the trial, and thereby steel Ourselves to go through it to the far side. Because no matter what happens, and much ‘bad’ and much pain and suffering may indeed happen now, We believe that We can handle it. I will add “under the goode Providence of God”, although I am not forcing that on anybody. They will come to it themselves, or they will not – but belief cannot be imposed.

This is Our rendezvous with destiny in the Year of Grace Two-Thousand-and-Eight, and of the Independence of the Republic the Two-Hundred-and-Thirty-Second. We may not be the ‘greatest generation’, and God knows We’ve let a lot go to hell on Our watch, but We may have it in Us yet to reclaim a true democratic politics and a robust – and more humble, chastened – Republic.

It’s not a bad ‘construction’. And Our children and descendants, and all the world’s peoples, would be the better for Our having passed this way. There is still time.

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