Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Truthful Optimism"

Is it actually possible?

Can it really be done?

Though I never heard it discussed specifically, evidence of this conundrum is popping up everywhere. On cable news. In The New York Times. In my head. I’m aware of my tendencies. They’re not so positive. I have to factor that in as I work this thing out.

Optimism and the truth. Can the two of them actually co-exist?

In the Op-Ed Section of last Sunday’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd captured one side of the issue, while simultaneously taking a swipe at former President Clinton, who himself, was taking a swipe at President Obama, who beat out his wife in the primaries, obliterating his post-Monica promise: “Stick with me and I’ll make you the president.” (That last part, I made up. But can’t you kind of imagine…)

Maureen Dowd characterizes Clinton’s rebuke of Obama thusly:

The Man from Hope whose Missus castigated Candidate Obama for raising “false hopes” is now criticizing President Obama for not peddling more gauzy hope.

Quoting her quote from the former President:

It’s worth reminding the American people that for more than 230 years everyone who bet against America lost money. I just want him [President Obama] to embody that and to share that.

In other words, “Hey, Guy Who Beat Out My Wife In The Primaries, show us more optimism.”

It’s tough being against that. You need optimism, especially in difficult times. Hence, the proliferation of “sunny” songs written during the Depression. “Keep Your Sunny Side Up.” “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” “Sonny Boy.” (That was different. The kid in the song died. I just needed a third “sonny.”)

Who exactly is against optimism? Well, I’m not a fan, but, as mentioned, I’m congenitally negative. New York Times’ columnist Frank Rich, though not an opponent, offers an illuminating warning.

In a column in the same Op-Ed section as Dowd’s column, Rich reminds us that it was a denial of reality (a reality optimism frequently “re-imagines” in order to “sunny up” its message) that led us to this mess in the first place, as well as parallel messes, such as the steroid era in baseball, and Iraq.

Rich writes:

One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news.

That could be a problem.

Americans are reluctant to absorb bad news, demanding optimism instead. On a tangible level, we know that optimistic consumers and investors are essential for our recovery.

So, optimism it must be. Even if it’s, as the former president seems to be suggesting, an obligatory optimism, whether the situation warrants it or not.

Fine. Except that Frank Rich warns us that irrational optimism (or as former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan called it, “irrational exuberance”) delivered us to the spiraling hole in which we currently reside.

So what exactly do we do? Or, more immediately, as the president addresses the joint session of Congress, what precisely does he say? (This post was written yesterday, before the president’s address.)

“Well,” you may wisely opine, putting the pieces together, “you have to be honest while remaining hopeful.”

In a catch-phrase, you need to display

“Truthful Optimism.”

The question is, under the conditions that prevail, is there really such a thing? When things are okay, it’s easy to be truthfully optimistic. You just say what it is, and everybody’s happy. That isn’t even optimism. It’s simply telling the truth.

The problem arises when things are terrible. You want to stay truthful, but you’re encouraged, by no one less than a former president, to be optimistic. Can you really do both?

As Frank Rich further observes, each position comes with its own brand of trouble:

If he [President Obama] tells the whole story of what might be around the corner, he risks instilling fear itself among American who are already panicked…But if the president airbrushes the picture too much, the country could be as angry about ensuing calamities as it was when the Bush administration’s repeated assertion of “success” in Iraq proved a sham.


Rich is encouraging the president to find a respectable middle ground. But what if there isn’t one? What if “truthful optimism” is not an actual thing? What if it’s an oxymoron – two words, which, barring ironic implications, do not belong side by side?

Think about it. What does it mean to be “truthfully optimistic”?

Doctor to Terminal Patient: “You’re dying. But your nurse is a knockout.”

Airline Pilot: “The plane’s malfunctioning. But we haven’t killed any ducks.”

Investment Manager: “Since your fee structure’s pegged to how much you have invested, your tremendous loss of net worth means you don’t have to have to pay us nearly as much.”

Am I wrong, or are these things not helpful?

Oxymoron or not, the president has to say something. But what? If he tells the truth, he scares people, which immediately makes things worse. He presents an upbeat fa├žade (with little to back it up), and they resent him later for lying (should things deteriorate even further).

How does he pull it off?

I really don’t know.

But I’m feeling kinda shaky.

So I hope he can.


Jon88 said...

First recommendation to make you feel better: Stop reading Maureen Dowd. A better version of your sentence would be "Maureen Dowd *mischaracterizes* Clinton's rebuke of Obama thusly," since, well, she did. If you can ignore Somerby's standard foam about the mouth, see

Anonymous said...

Pretty sure Greenspan was Chairman of the Fed. Or was that Sinatra?

Truthful optimism at the Fed.:

Alan Greenspan to Ayn Rand: “Hey, my first marriage to the artist Joan Mitchell was pretty much the happiest 10 months of my life, until the annulment. From now on, whenever I get married, I’m going with Mitchells. What’s not to like?”
Alan Greenspan to wife, NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell: “Just one more time, would you mind wearing the Ayn Rand wig?”

Review, Alan Greenspan memoir, Age of Turbulence, USA Today, 9/18/2007:
“He includes details of his relationship with wife Andrea Mitchell. After their first date, he invited her back to his apartment to read an economics paper he had written. They've been together ever since.”

Federal Reserve Human Recources Director:
We have a nice window office for you Mr. Bernanke, really close to the ledge.

Hey, if you can’t kid Alan Greenspan and Benny Bernanke, who…?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and have you ever been in a position to have to send an obligatory birthday card to somebody you happened to have been displeased with at the moment over some "issue?"

Have you been equally unsuccessful in finding a card that said something to the affect of:

"Acknowledging your birthday."
"Here's hoping you have a reasonably appropriate birthday."

Jess Kiley said...

I don't think Bush's brand of optimism equates Obama's brand. Bush isolated himself from the rest of America, it was a sort of authoritarian optimism. Obama's optimism is inclusive, and I believe that makes all the difference.

Bush was in denial because he resisted the feedback around him. He was going to create "our reality" whether we liked it or not, and he was invigorated by the mirror of people like Cheyney, who were immorally motivated.

Obama remains open to the feedback that echoes around him, and he factors in that energy. He requests challenging feedback because it makes him a better leader. Obama is an integrated personality, Bush had some growing yet to do.

Earl, I know you've been hurt, but it's okay to trust. Cowboys can forgive, can't they?