THE TYRANNY OF AMERICAN OPTIMISM

Relentless Dogmatic Positivism

vs.

Critical Thinking, Realism, Affirmation and Action

By Kevin

A Personal Rant

The title for this essay is also the name of the illustration – “The Tyranny of American Optimism.” I cannot take credit for the phrase. I don’t know who first said it. I heard it at a time when I was suffering from this peculiarly American drive to suppress rational discrimination and realism in favor of relentless dogmatic positivism. Some family members, friends and work associates were criticizing me for what they saw as my pessimistic views about the world and human behavior – perspectives that I felt were rational and realistic. They were, and still are, uncomfortable when anyone talks about Global Climate Change, or the theft of U.S.elections, or when someone warns of impending economic collapse due to unsustainable financial practices.

There is a tendency toward Orwellian mind control in American society, attitudes and business. We are attempting to spread our thought policing methods of relentless dogmatic positivism throughout the world along with McDonald’s and Starbuck’s. Orwell’s “1984” is especially evident in corporate America. Enron was allowed to bankrupt its investors and defraud the business community and the world without anyone questioning its corrupt ways. Wall Street got away with selling disastrous credit default swaps and poisoned derivatives to us, very nearly pushing the world into global depression, and nobody asked how these impossibly complicated financial instruments really worked. Despite our very close call with total financial collapse since the economic house of cards fell down in mid-September, 2008, we are still hearing demands for total deregulation of the financial industry. Many people even now want to blindly trust the greediest among us with our future. Shouldn’t we stop for a minute and rethink our reckless ways?

What’s Positive about Positive Thinking?

There is a lot that is positive about positive thinking. In order to be spiritually and psychologically and physically healthy one must lead an affirmative life. That is to say, we need to envision, affirm, and focus with gratitude upon what is good in life – Spirit, Love, Wisdom, Hope, Creativity, Vitality, Prosperity – all the goodness within and around us. No practical person would ever suggest, however, that positive thinking means closing our eyes to the greedy, destructive and negative forces also arrayed around us. If we did that we would not be able to prepare and defend ourselves against dangerous elements at work in the world. How do we protect our children against predators? We tell them about bad people who might try to lure them away with candy and promises of fun. We describe what can happen and ask our children to confront these unfortunate realities so that they will not fall victim to them. We have to do the same thing for ourselves as adults. We need to face potential negative outcomes, plan for them and then invent strategies to avoid and overcome them. Even while we face our worst fears we must work hard and enthusiastically to achieve our highest hopes. Ignoring potential adversity is like sending a naïve child into the woods unprepared to identify and respond to the wolves lurking there.

The Dangers of Relentless Dogmatic Positivism

Several years ago I had the privilege of serving as an instructor in an international business training seminar. At one point in our discussion I happened to mention to these business women and men from other parts of the world that in their dealings with the USA they would encounter “the tyranny of American optimism.” I explained that it was characterized by zero tolerance for questioning the current strategies, raising concerns about the business climate or practices, any form of skepticism, and any tendency to prefer autonomy and independent thought over team spirit and group activity. They all thanked me warmly for opening up that topic, admitting that they had often spoken to one another about this peculiarly American business psychology which they simply could not comprehend. They questioned me closely about it: How could it be in any way practical to require positive group thinking to the exclusion of sensible empirical analysis? How do you identify and solve problems if you are not permitted to acknowledge them? What has happened to the American spirit of individualism and freedom of expression? Why is critical thinking and evaluation now viewed as negativity in the USA?

Why, indeed? I have thought about their questions for years. Only a few beginning ideas have occurred to me about why Americans seem hell-bent on abandoning individualism, freedom of expression and personal discrimination and critical thought. I suspect it begins with our Puritan roots. We have a founding tendency toward rigid authoritarian religious dogma that shuns questioning, doubt and intellectual rigor. We tend to mistrust open-minded thinkers and intellectuals. In recent decades there has been a return to those tendencies with the powerful resurgence of right wing fundamentalism in the USA. Many Americans will admit that they like to have all their questions about how to live and think answered for them by religion. They do not want to have to struggle with doubt and questions and problem-solving. They want simple formulaic answers and they wholeheartedly embrace philosophical and religious systems that offer clear recipes for living a good life without having to think or analyze the world around them.

Simplistic dogmatic positivism is tragically dangerous in today’s world which is facing the potential extinction of the human race and other life forms as the earth becomes uninhabitable over the next 100 years due to Global Climate Change caused by human folly. There are other very dangerous and serious socio-political conflicts and problems like nuclear proliferation, terrorism, overpopulation, poverty, hunger, and potential pandemics as well. But humanity will not have the luxury of solving those problems if we don’t first save ourselves from extinction due to Global Climate Change. And yet a large portion of our population believes that all the scientists and climatologists sounding the alarm about global warming are just fear-mongers engaged in a conspiracy to destroy our economy. What possible motivation could they have to commit such a crime? All the experts agree that we are in dire trouble and must act urgently now to reverse Global Climate Change, but our attitude of relentless, simplistic dogmatic positivism keeps us in denial. While we pretend not to notice and insist that everything is fine, both polar ice caps are rapidly melting as is theGreenlandand all the glaciers. Eventually frozen methane beds in the sea floor could be released, causing exponentially accelerated warming. The oceanic base of the food chain may be disrupted, and the Gulf Stream could be altered, throwing Europe into a new ice age. Nevertheless, we ignore all the signs. I am writing this on Feb 27 in snow country, but it is 58 degrees outside and my spring flowers are coming up. Meanwhile, mega-storms spawned in warmer oceans have already devastated the gulf coast, and gigantic tornados are terrorizing American towns. And the games have only just begun. How long can humanity remain in “positive denial?” Wouldn’t it be better to face facts and take serious steps to save ourselves now?

Living a Considered Life and Taking Action

Five years ago, just weeks before the real estate bubble burst, Robert and I sold our big beautiful 5-bedroom, 3-bathroom house in the suburbs where we had lived for over nine years. We bought eleven wooded acres in the wilderness with a half-acre stocked pond, a stream and many springs. We paid off our debts with the proceeds, and we have no mortgage now. We are rebuilding a crumbling old trailer house to transform it into our painting and sculpture studios and woodshop, while improving and adding onto the little hunting cabin that has become our new home. We’re halfway off the grid, but some day we’d love to become totally energy independent. We hope to grow and can our own food. We want to learn centuries of living skills from our Amish and Mennonite farmer neighbors. We have much work to do and a lot to learn, and we are more enthused about it every day.

Some of our friends think we are insane. What we are doing threatens their commitment to the “American Dream.” We were role models. We had achieved that “dream” even though much of it was a nightmare for us, and now we have turned our backs on it in a fit of negativity some people think. How could we refuse to have credit card debts and a huge mortgage and car payments? How could we walk away from a show home that had been featured in local papers and on pond and garden tours? How could we refuse to pretend that that the world is fine, and face financial and environmental crises unprepared, in panic and horror as many people apparently prefer to do? We will just have to allow people to think us mad, for we choose to face obvious realities now and prepare as best we can, rather than to bury our heads in the sands of relentless dogmatic positivism. Meanwhile, we are very excited about our new woodland life. We love it! We do not agree that it is foolish or pessimistic to read the handwriting on the wall and respond with appropriate life changes aimed at survival for as long as possible with the highest quality of life we can create.

A life anchored in Spirit, positive affirmation and gratitude does NOT require that one must become a dogmatically optimistic automaton with one’s head in the sand. We can all live very positive, creative lives without giving up independent critical thought and analysis leading to creative problem solving and strategic planning. A considered life is still the best life. It is not enough just to decide what one wants, visualize it, think positively and wish for it to come true. Childhood words are “need, wish,” and “want.” Adults say, “I will do this” and “I will not do that,” or “I am willing to do this” and “I am not willing to do that.” It is very natural for children to engage in a great deal of magical thinking. Mature adults observe the world critically, analyze the conditions relative to their own needs and desires, and creatively solve problems and invent strategies for achieving their goals. Yes… that process involves a lot of painful confrontation of inconvenient truths, difficult soul-searching and doubt, and long hours of analyzing potential scenarios and solutions. But the alternative is living by default and blindly suffering the consequences. Living a considered life is often hard work, but the result is a rewarding sense of critical understanding, the guidance of inner conviction, and a sense of profound personal meaning in life.