WARNING: The following is a VERY long and rambling essay with many digressions, which is split into five posts. The essay’s summary: Although Rosa Luxemburg, bless her heart, was too optimistic in not predicting that humanity would end about 120 years after her death, at least in the end it was finally the right kind of optimism. We are rapidly approaching the bad sense of the second choice in “Socialism or Barbarism”; if only we had a time machine, so we could approach either the first choice or the good sense of the second choice.
NUMBER ONE FAN
I'm very fond of Rosa Luxemburg. My profile photo that shows me proudly posing at her gravesite* in Berlin was taken after I made the family make a long and freezing pilgrimage in the snow. I actually moved from the United States to the country of Luxembourg over 10 years ago even though I know it is, of course, no relation to Rosa, and the two words aren’t even spelled the same in English (though they are in German). (That’s not the first time I did something like that: back in the 1990s when I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, I bought and moved to a house, even though I was perfectly happy with the apartment where I was and had no reason to move, solely because it was on “Chess Drive”. I’m fond of chess too. At least when I moved to the country Luxembourg, I had other reasons to move.)
*And it turns out that Rosa has probably never been buried there anyway, but instead her body has probably been in storage in a Berlin hospital these 90 years. I already knew Rosa's body wasn't there now, since in 1935 the Nazis desecrated her grave (that's why I say "gravesite" rather than "grave"), but it turns out that it was probably never there in the first place anyway. But not a surprise - the shenanigans around her body supposedly being "discovered" months after her murder in 1919 (reasons were fictionalized in the novel "Rosa" by Jonathan Rabb) had always raised questions about whether that was really her body there.
After her death, Lenin (ungraciously) included in his praise of Rosa Luxemburg a list of all the issues he thought she was “wrong” in. Ironically, on at least two of those issues (the national question and the bureaucratic undemocratic tendencies of the Bolshevik party) subsequent events in the 20th century showed that Rosa was right after all and Lenin was wrong! And probably this current economic crisis increases that number to three (the accumulation of capital). And I believe she was right on all the rest of them too.
By 1919, the Social-Democrat Party, which had over the years revealed themselves to no longer be real socialists and had taken power in the German parliament after World War I, which they had supported (Rosa was in German prison for years for opposing WWI), ordered Rosa's torture and murder after she co-led the so-called Spartacist uprising. If they hadn't done that, there is an excellent chance that Stalinism would have been sufficiently strongly opposed and even a plausible chance that Hitlerism wouldn't have arisen in Germany. In other words, the subsequent events of world history I alluded to might have been completely different!
I always imagine that a piece of classical music, Movement 3 of Shostakovich’s Symphony 11 (“Year 1905”), is like a memorial to her, who participated briefly (and was imprisoned for it) in the Russian Revolution of 1905. A theme in that movement is an old revolutionary song "Eternal Memory" sung at the gravesite of the fallen with the words: "You fell a victim in the fateful battle with selfless love for the people."
Her defiant last written words, in the article “Order Prevails in Berlin”, turned out to be poignant: "I was, I am, I shall be!" Her last spoken words, to the vicious thugs who’d been sent to murder her, turned out to be endearingly sweet: "To what prison are you taking me?"
And by saying "Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden"* ("Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently"), Rosa was even a pioneer advocate of neurodiversity (the rights of people with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome**, who literally “think differently” from neurotypicals (“normal” people))!
*As my 9-year-old daughter delights in reminding me, my French and German language skills suck. But even I can sort of read this sentence.
**People with Asperger’s Syndrome (an Autistic Spectrum Disorder which I share) are in a way the exact opposite of sociopaths: Sociopaths don’t have empathy for other people but act like they do, while Aspies DO have empathy but DON’T act like they do. Sociopaths will smile broadly and engagingly, shake your hand with gusto, look you winningly in the eye, and laugh warmly at your humor. Aspies smile weakly or not at all, nervously avoid eye contact, and look blankly at your humor. As a result, it’s Aspies who are called insensitive selfish jerks and made the butt of jokes on sitcoms like “Big Bang Theory” and sociopaths who become successful politicians and business executives. Institutions and people are pressured in modern capitalistic society to act like sociopaths or else; this observation is far more convincing than an article I saw once that claimed that in modern society institutions and people were acting “autistic” because they were selfish and inner-directed and increasingly atomized and isolated from friends, family, and community. But in a climate that pressures people and institutions to act faster, more “efficiently”, and more selfishly, in a breathless rush of hurry-hurry-hurry, it is obviously sociopaths and those pressured to emulate them who thrive and flourish, not Auties and Aspies.
Ah, Rosa! If it is possible to have a crush on someone who died 50 years before you were born, then I have always had one on Rosa. When I was a teenager, she was certainly the smartest woman I'd ever read or met, no contest. Even today, though now it would be a contest, Rosa might still win. I am bitterly jealous of "Jock-itch" (Leo Jogiches) from Rosa's passing endearments to him in some of her correspondence. And the guy must have been a terrible cad anyway, first since they eventually broke up and second because he had a funny name like "Jock-itch". Oh Rosa, dump him and marry me! Okay, the crush still isn't quite gone. Rosa was one of the two "big name" socialists I know of to have literally died for their beliefs, the other one being Che Guevara. (Poor Karl Liebknecht, who died on the same day as Rosa and for the same reason, but I just don’t think he was as "big” a name socialist.) (And I guess a case could be made for Leon Trotsky, who was indeed a “big name” socialist, but I don’t feel like making it.)
One Trotskyist attack on Rosa’s championing of democracy in “The Russian Revolution” was that Rosa changed her mind since writing it, which is why she never published it and Paul Levi was evil for doing so years after her death,* since she later agreed that a democratic assembly was unrepresentative of the people in Germany, and even in “The Russian Revolution” she agreed with the substance of the Bolsheviks’ decision to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, disagreeing only with the remedy of whether a new Constituent Assembly election should be held. That last part reminds me of the right-wing Americans who argued that the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, which stopped the vote counting in Florida and appointed Bush as President, was really a 7-2 decision since two of the dissenting judges agreed with the substance of the decision but only disagreed on the remedy. Of course, nobody who read the entire dissenting opinions of those two judges and not just isolated sentences could possibly believe for a moment that they basically agreed with the substance of the Court’s decision. Similarly, nobody who read the entire chapter of “The Russian Revolution” that eloquently extols democracy and attacks Lenin and Trotsky for having campaigned for weeks on the basis of having a Constituent Assembly and then turning around and dissolving it as soon as they came into power and not just isolated sentences could possibly believe for a moment that Rosa basically agreed with the substance of what the Bolsheviks did.
*Of course, it had been Paul Levi who dissuaded Rosa in the first place from publishing articles criticizing the Russian Revolution in 1918, convincing her that their support should not be undermined at that crucial time—not that Trotskyists ever seem to praise Paul Levi for having done that!—causing Rosa to write up her thoughts in a draft manuscript for Paul so he could see where she was coming from on those matters. And I’m not jealous of him since he was her lover for only a short time.
I have seen Trotskyist criticisms of Rosa’s increasing antagonism to trade unions or at least the bureaucratic leaders thereof. But again current events amply justify Rosa’s position. These days it is obvious that every union, although its words claim to represent teachers, auto workers, mine workers or government employees, speaks louder through its actions to impose employers’ demands for wage cuts in the name of “saving jobs.” At an August 15 union meeting, hundreds of workers at the General Motors Indianapolis Stamping Plant
shouted down demands by the United Auto Workers leadership (who had just voted themselves a 5% pay raise) that they accept a 50% wage cut to sell the plant to JD Norman Industries (even though in May the workers had voted 384 to 22 to reject any talks with JD Norman) and forced the union officials to leave the building. (And the concessions of the UAW bureaucracy have done nothing to save jobs. Since 1986, the number of jobs at the plant has fallen from 5,600 to 650.)
Most other criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg seem to be what I call “I went to school one day last week”-type objections. When I was a teenager I overheard my mother arguing with my teenage sister. At one point my mother stated that my sister never went to school anymore and always skipped school. My sister bellowed indignantly, “I went to school one day last week!” Hence conclusively refuting that she “never” went to school!
Here is an example of such an “I went to school one day last week” objection: the objection that Rosa was wrong in saying that an independent Poland was impossible because one was created after World War I. But of course she didn't mean that it was impossible for there to ever be a piece of paper like the Treaty of Versailles that had written on it that Poland was an independent country! But Poland was and is indeed not truly independent of the interests and dictates of the great powers, and the tendency of petty nationalisms to insist on forming small breakaway "independent" nations (like the one of Luxembourg itself!) instead of uniting all workers to fight for their common interests is indeed a divisive and reactionary one. So Rosa was basically right, even if you might nitpick the literal truth of her words.
Of course, my admiration of Rosa Luxemburg has nothing to do with whether she was the hottest babe in the history of socialism (though she was!) but with her writings and achievements and her admirable willingness to give her life in her struggle against insuperable odds. Of course.
THE HORROR, THE HORROR
And yet there is one small obstacle between us (other than the fact that she died decades before I was born!), an irreconcilable difference. I’m a pessimist and she was an optimist. Specifically, I would say that humanity (certainly the civilization and possibly the species too) will probably end in around 30 years. I’ll elaborate in great detail later on why I think that, but for right now I doubt it’s a surprise to anyone (if it’s a surprise to you, just look around) that humanity is at least in trouble: “Everybody knows”* deep down in their very heart of hearts that “some THING is wrong on Saturn 3” (a line from an old movie commercial). I remember an old “Peanuts” cartoon strip where Charlie Brown and Lucy have a conversation something like this:
*“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
“Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died”
-- Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”
Lucy: How does it feel to know you’ll never amount to anything?
Charlie Brown: I don’t know that! I might become a great doctor or lawyer or artist or something and accomplish great things!
Lucy: How does it feel to know deep down in your very heart of hearts that you’ll never amount to anything?
Charlie Brown: Terrible!
Like Charlie Brown “everybody knows” at some level that humanity is in trouble and society will probably end soon, but almost everybody on the surface level is optimistic, denying it or at least not thinking too much about it. This, I feel, is exactly parallel to most people’s attitude toward death: everybody knows at some level that of course they personally and their loved ones and friends and everybody will die, but many people deny this by claiming to “believe” in a religious afterlife (in words, but without behaving as if they REALLY believed it), and everybody acts to dismiss or ignore effects of death, both their own and others’, in their everyday lives, with death always happening somewhere else and taken care of by other people and rarely having to be dealt with personally or thought about. But just because “everybody” does this doesn’t mean it’s correct to do so.
Of the many lessons from Rosa's life and death, there is this one: Optimism can kill. For many years she had seen and drawn insights and acted upon them, but if she had acted sooner, then not only might she not have died in 1919, but the whole course of the 20th century might have been different. Specifically, if she had not optimistically waited until the end of December 1918 to form and build a real revolutionary movement in Germany (instead of deciding for years to keep sticking with the increasingly reactionary Social Democrats who eventually sanctioned her murder)*, then there is not only a good chance that the German revolution of 1918-1919 would have succeeded, but a quite good chance indeed that the German revolution of 1923 would have succeeded. Its failure was critical to the consolidation of Stalinism in Russia and Hitlerism in Germany. But instead her attitude for years was this (from a 1907 letter): "Since my return from Russia I feel rather isolated... I feel the pettiness and the hesitancy of our party regime more clearly and more painfully than ever before. However, I can't get so excited about the situation as you [Clara Zetkin] do, because I see with depressing clarity that neither things nor people can be changed - until the whole situation has changed, and even then we shall just have to reckon with inevitable resistance if we want to lead the masses on. I have come to that conclusion after mature reflection. The plain truth is that August [Bebel], and still more so the others, have completely pledged themselves to parliament and parliamentarianism, and whenever anything happens which transcends the limits of parliamentary action they are hopeless - no, worse than hopeless, because they then do their utmost to force the movement back into parliamentary channels, and they will furiously defame as 'an enemy of the people' anyone who dares to venture beyond their own limits. I feel that those of the masses who are organized on the party are tired of parliamentarianism, and would welcome a new line in party tactics, but the party leaders and still more the upper stratum of opportunist editors, deputies, and trade-union leaders are like incubus. We most protest vigorously against this general stagnation, but it is quite clear that in doing so we shall find ourselves against the opportunists as well as the party leaders and August [Bebel]. As long as it was a question of defending themselves against Bernstein and his friends, August & Co. were glad of our assistance, because they were shaking in their shoes. But when it is a question of launching an offensive against opportunism then August and the rest are with Ede [Bernstein], Vollmar and David against us. That's how I see matters, but the chief thing is to keep your chin up and not get too excited about it. Our job will take years."
*Even after August 4, 1914, when the Social Democrats (SPD) voted for war credits in the Parliament and Rosa formed the Gruppe Internationale, later called Spartakusbund, she did not formally break with the SPD. Her slogan was: “Don’t leave the party, change the course of the party.” When the Independent SPD (USPD) was formed in 1917 by SPD members of the parliament who had been expelled from the SPD because they refused to vote for new credits for the war, Rosa and the Spartakusbund joined this centrist organisation as a faction even though the USPD’s most prominent leaders included Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, both of whom Rosa had sharply criticized. She justified this in an article asserting that the Spartakusbund had not joined the USPD in order to dissolve itself in a spineless opposition. “It has joined the new party—confident in a mounting aggravation of the social situation and working for it—in order to push the new party forward, in order to be its hortative conscience… and in order to take the real leadership of the party,” she wrote. She sharply attacked the Bremen Left, who refused to join the USPD and described it as a waste of time, writng: “It is a pity that [their] system of small kitchens forgets the main thing, namely the objective circumstances, which in the final analysis are decisive and will be decisive for the attitude of the masses… It is not enough that a handful of people have the best recipe in their pocket and know how to lead the masses. The thinking of the masses must be liberated from the past traditions of 50 years. This is only possible in a big process of continuous inner self-criticism of the movement as a whole.” It was only in December 1918, in the midst of fierce revolutionary struggles, that the KPD was finally founded by the Spartakusbund, the Bremen Left and a number of other left-wing organisations. Her time-wasting optimism over, Rosa could finally write of the USPD she had earlier joined, “The Independent Social Democracy is innately a weak child, and its essence is compromise.... Its official birth as an independent party is not an act of manly resolution or clear decision on the basis of individual initiative, not a historic deed, but rather the enforced result of being thrown out by the Scheidemanns—an episode of sordid wrangling over ‘party discipline’ which brought shame to the banner of socialism.” In January 1919, just days before her own murder, she wrote: “Today, in view of the bodies of murdered proletarians, in view of the bloody orgies of Scheidemann, et al., the ‘Spartacists’ have a contempt grown tenfold and a clenched fist for this miserable policy of compromise and betrayal of the cause of the revolution. The Haase people’s empty phrases about a coalition ‘of all socialist tendencies’ are in reality a repetition of the former well-known combination: Scheidemann and the Independents. All the USPD’s great to-do about ‘unification’ amounts to is the resurrection of the Ebert-Haase government with a change in personnel.” If only she’d written like that years earlier!
As late as 1913, after a party setback, Rosa published an article ("After the Jena Congress") in which she wrote this: "However unpleasant the situation may seem to some comrades, there is not the slightest reason for pessimism and despondency. This period must, just like every other historically conditioned period, be endured. On the contrary, the more clearly we look into things, the more energetically, vigorously and merrily we can continue our struggle. . . . Every day, the course of events itself is leading with historic necessity towards increasingly vindicating the tactical endeavors of the left, and if this development itself leads to the overpowering of the elements of stagnation in the party, then the minority of the Jena congress can look towards the future with good spirits. That the Jena congress has brought about clarity on the reciprocal power relationship in the party and led for the first time to a self-contained left opposed to the bloc of the swamp and the right, is a pleasant beginning to further development which can only be welcome."
When she finally stopped saying things like that, it was too late. At the very end of 1918, when she had only about two weeks left to live, Rosa told the Founding Congress of the KPD: “In the form that I depict it, the process may seem rather more tedious than one had imagined it at first.* It is healthy, I think, that we should be perfectly clear as to all the difficulties and complications of this revolution. For I hope that, as in my own case, so in yours also, the description of the difficulties of the accumulating tasks will paralyze neither your zeal nor your energy. On the contrary, the greater the task, the more will we gather all of our forces. And we must not forget that the revolution is able to do its work with extraordinary speed. I make no attempt to prophesy how much time will be needed for this process. Who among us cares about the time; who worries, so long only as our lives suffice to bring it to pass. It is only important that we know clearly and precisely what is to be done; and I hope that my feeble powers have shown you to some extent the broad outlines of that which is to be done.”
*So, when Karl Liebknecht later agreed to commit to an immediate revolutionary uprising instead of the long painstaking bottom-up process Rosa had described, she said “Karl, how could you? And what about our program?” Another reason I don’t count Karl among the two big-name socialists who died for their beliefs.
Incidentally, don't get me wrong; Rosa was no airhead and usually did act appropriately, and furthermore spent almost all of World War I in prison for the crime of opposing the war so couldn't personally have done much from there, and it's always easy to criticize from hindsight, and as Lenin said about Rosa and her critics, she was an eagle and they are chickens and an eagle can sometimes fly as low as chickens but chickens can never fly as high as an eagle. Still, I just wish she had done more and sooner, that's all. She saw years earlier which way the wind was blowing.
There are many sayings in English that must have many equivalent sayings in every language: Action speaks louder than words. I would say that there is a spectrum of optimism, with one end being the kind of optimism that encourages inaction or ineffective action and the other end being the kind that inspires action, and Rosa unfortunately wasted too many years on the first end of the spectrum moving slowly to the second end. I would characterize three regions on that spectrum, one on the first end, one still on the first side, and one at the other end, by things that men sometimes say to women. I find the first kind patronizing, the second kind revolting, and the third inspiring though possibly naïve: “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” (e.g. Rosa: “The chief thing is to keep your chin up and not get too excited about it.”); “Lie back and enjoy it.” (e.g. Rosa: “This period must, just like every other historically conditioned period, be endured.”); “You go, girl!” (e.g. Rosa: “I hope that, as in my own case, so in yours also, the description of the difficulties of the accumulating tasks will paralyze neither your zeal nor your energy.”).
There have been verbal disagreements about whether and in what proportion emotions like “hope” and “anger” and “fear” and so on can motivate action and change. For example, Harvard Sitkoff, historian of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, observes that social movements require both “anger” and “hope”: People only rebel when they have some “hope” to accompany their “anger”. Though it seems to me that some kinds of “hope” dissuade action: people fall asleep under Democratic presidents but at least they march against Republican ones. I’m afraid I don’t exclude myself. I marched in Eugene, Oregon, against Bush I, and people all over the world (even here in Luxembourg) marched against Bush II, but I never marched against Bill Clinton, and I don’t remember that anyone else did either, even when his policies like bombing Yugoslavia could have called for it. Was the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999 the only time anyone erupted under Clinton in his whole 8 years? When “anger” is mixed with “hope”, the only examples of street heat I can think of are like St. Petersburg in 1905, when the people marched to petition the tsar to please ease up on the oppression just a tad (like Oliver Twist holding up his empty gruel bowl and saying “Please sir, may I have more?”), which didn’t turn out all that well for them (though Bloody Sunday did at least inspire people for the rest of that year and for 12 years later who no longer shared that naïve hope).
On the other hand, some people say that constructive “fear” (of the consequences of global warming and climate change) is the best friend planet earth has, combined with “hope”, not despondency leading to paralysis and inaction, while others say that the power of “anger” is the important thing and sometimes “hope” can be your worst enemy: with hope, Jewish parents didn’t leave Nazi Germany or, worse, left but later said, “I’m homesick for Germany, let’s go back, they say all is forgiven and to make it up to us they’re offering free Kool-Aid, aren’t you thirsty, kids?”, or with hope, as long as the Americans had “hoped” to win the space race against Russia, nothing important happened; while without hope, truly desperate Jewish parents sent their children all alone into an unsafe, unknown, harmful future, and so their children had better chances to survive, or without hope, as soon as Russia “angered” and offended America by sending Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, Kennedy announced the decision to go to the Moon a month later. Though it sure doesn’t sound to me like those latter parents were “without hope” that their children might be saved thereby (the parents might have been without hope for their own fates, but not for their children’s). After all, if they had been COMPLETELY without hope even for their children’s fates, wouldn’t they have despondently said, “Oh well, there’s no chance that the kids would even make it to England anyway, and even if they did, Hitler would take over there too, so sooner or later the kids would inevitably wind up in Auschwitz anyway, so why bother trying to save them?” And unfortunately, the entire world is already scoffing at the stupid Americans and has been for years, but instead of sparking a sudden change, this seems only to make its government more ornery and stubborn and defiantly obstinate. The 1961-style kick in the pants (and the earlier 1957 Sputnik kick in the pants) worked ONLY because the American government ALREADY cared about whether its space achievements exceeded Russia’s and so in effect already saw itself in a space-race. These days, the American government doesn’t already care (in actions, not words) about what the rest of the world says and does. By the time the real kick in the pants comes that makes the American government unable to deny anymore that there is a problem, then either the Rapture will have come or else the problem will be so advanced that the government will only be able to do “too little, too late”.
But these disagreements seem to be mostly if not entirely verbal. I guess, to avoid confusion, we could use some new vocabulary instead of “hope”*, focusing on whether it inspires inaction or action (the important objective part) and optimism or pessimism (the contingent psychological part). Four terms instead of “hope”, two that justify inaction or ineffective action and two that inspire action: “dope”, “mope”, “rope”**, “cope”. The first and third are optimistic, the second and fourth pessimistic:
*Besides, U.S. President Obama has spoiled the words “hope” and “change” for me.
**You know, like a rope to cling to while you are actively climbing a mountain.
OPTIMISM dope rope
PESSIMISM mope cope
Since in common discourse it seems to go without saying that inaction (or ineffective action, about which I will say much more below) is the order of the day, and since people commonly seem obsessed with the contingent psychological part, it seems in practice that most often by “hope” people mean what I call here “dope” and that most optimism vs. pessimism debate is between what I call here “dope” and “mope”.
The contingent psychological part (pure optimism vs. pessimism) is beyond reason, and arguing about it is a matter of rationalization instead. Just like there's no reason people are divided into "morning people" and "night people" or "dog lovers" and "cat lovers". Of course many "reasons" (rationalizations) are offered by one side against the other side, but I guess it all boils down to what kind of person you are temperamentally and the real reasons are psychological or something.
That being said, here's my alliterative observation: Optimists are Oblivious to the news and what's going on around them, while Pessimists Pay attention to it. So I'm not a Pessimist, I just Pay attention!
More rationalizations occur to me. I have always thought Nietzsche's dictum "That which does not kill me makes me stronger" was especially ironic given Nietzsche's later life. If the young Nietzsche had known that the old Nietzsche would spend the last ten years of his life in an intense state of insanity that (figuratively, not literally) almost left him catatonic, a fate that clearly neither killed him nor left him stronger in ANY sense, he would certainly not have implied that that saying was always true, unless he was (as usual) deliberately exaggerating for shock value. Other counterexamples are easy to imagine: Alzheimer’s, coma, being nonfatally hit by a truck, etc.
So strictly speaking, Nietzsche's dictum, like most advice and proverbs and sayings and so on, should be qualified to only be true "sometimes": "SOMETIMES what can go wrong will go wrong", "SOMETIMES history repeats itself", "SOMETIMES he who hesitates is lost", "SOMETIMES look before you leap", etc. With the "sometimes" these sayings can often be true and useful; without it, they are false exaggerations at best and useless contradictions at worst (e.g., the last two sayings would contradict each other). Hence I propose the dictum: "Always say 'sometimes'." Of course, its failure to take its own advice is intentional. :-)
But then, if you insist on always strictly speaking in this context, always insisting that “sometimes” should be added, then you are raising what I called above the “I went to school one day last week” objection to nitpick what might be profound truths. SOMETIMES false exaggerations can still be profound truths. That is why I don’t take the dictum “Always say ‘sometimes’” too seriously.
On the other hand, if people leave out the "sometimes" and routinely exaggerate, they can even stop noticing that they are exaggerating! My mother was always :-) doing that. "My client was literally climbing the walls." Not unless your client was Spiderman!
So anyway, the whole optimism vs. pessimism debate, that whole rant that people probably go off on several times a year to convince themselves of the correctness, justification, and rationalization of one’s own psychological predilections as part of their struggle with their own inner demons, usually boils down, in my terminology, to whether being a “dope” is good or bad. Defenders of “dope” will say that it is unhappy people who are oblivious to the miracles and wonderment that surrounds us and have no gratitude for the amazingness that is all of creation. Pessimists, they say, just pay attention to more of the bad stuff and optimists pay more attention to the good stuff, there being no more or less of either; you could find just as many things to celebrate as you can to despair over.
However, the distribution of things to celebrate or despair over is like Anne Elk’s Theory of the Brontosaurus (now called the Apatasaurus) in a Monty Python sketch: “The brontosaurus is thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end.” On a scale of significance, at one end where the scale is relatively small, like whether this puppy right now has adorable eyes, then pessimism is “thin” and there is much to celebrate rather than despair over. In the middle of the scale, where there are things involving the suffering and deaths of hundreds and thousands of people and the affairs of nations and so on, then pessimism is “much much thicker” and there is little to celebrate but much to despair over. At the far end of the scale, involving stars and galaxies and the accelerating universe, then pessimism is again “thin”. So it’s not completely arbitrary whether you look at things to celebrate or things to despair over. It’s a matter of which part of the scale you are looking at.
This Theory of the Brontosaurus also applies to time scales as well as to space scales: Only when looking at the short term can things look like successes, inspirational real-life stories like Republic Windows and Norma Rae and Erin Brockovitch and Cindy Sheehan in August 2005 and Oregon passing Measures 66 and 67 (which raised taxes slightly on corporations and the richest residents). When looking at the longer term, beyond those moments into months or years, those things all look like failures. “Happily ever after” only exists in fairy tales. In real life, “happily” is never “ever after”, though “sadly” sometimes is. All success is short-term; failure can be long-term. All good things must come to an end, but some bad things can be endless. As they sang on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (a TV show): “Nothing lasts forever, only love pads the film.” Species, and worlds and stars and maybe even the universe itself must last only a finite amount of time, but extinction is forever. No thing lasts forever, and nothingness can last forever.
Personally, I feel (or like to tell myself) that my pessimism has given me a thick skin or something, so that I can shrug off bad times with a knowing "Yeah, that figures, what else is new" or a sarcastic “Stop the presses, here’s a completely unexpected news flash, I could never have predicted that in ten quinzillion* years” or something. And my superstitions go in that direction too. Instead of visualizing a good outcome and focusing energy on making it happen, my instinct is instead to focus on the bad outcome and so "jinx" it into NOT happening. Kind of like washing a car, expecting that the weather will stay sunny, and then it rains. Expecting one outcome jinxed it into not happening and made the opposite happen. So maybe expecting the worst will make the opposite happen.
*Non-native English speakers needn’t be confused by that word. I just made it up to mean a really big number. It’s not a real word.
But again, action speaks louder than either optimistic or pessimistic words. It is action that creates results, not attitudes that never make their way from your head to your hands. I said above about Rosa that (sometimes) optimism can kill. Of course, another, easier lesson to be drawn from life experience is this: SOMETIMES pessimism can kill too. Just as optimism can be self-preventing, so too can pessimism be self-fulfilling. So you have to carefully steer your mood and actions between the two extremes of hope and despair and not succumb to either one. You learn that from chess, too. You always have to ruthlessly assess the truth and always act appropriately to the correct assessment, neither giving up too soon nor futilely fighting on. Easier said than done, of course! Anyway, I guess the real lesson is: Getting it wrong can kill. Striving to get it right is sometimes helped, sometimes harmed by this maxim: Success can never be guaranteed, but failure sometimes can. (Examples: Nothing you do on the job can ever guarantee that you won’t get fired, but some things can guarantee that you will get fired. Nothing you do in a totalitarian regime can ever guarantee that you won’t get captured and tortured and killed, but some things can guarantee that you will be. Etc.) You have to correctly assess not only what needs to be done, but what can and will be done.
One point Al Gore made in that presentation and movie “An Inconvenient Truth” is that people tend to go from “disbelief to despair” completely missing the intervening steps where you actually do something about it.
Gee, I wonder why that is? Could it be because every single one of the usual proposed solutions requires the change to be either “government-driven or based in Washington” or else come from rich “entrepreneurs”? Yeah, I can see former Prexy* Bush II and current Prexy Oilbama stepping up to the plate any day now. Even George Soros, usually cited as a “good guy” rich entrepreneur, when asked a few years ago whether he would spend a significant portion of his money to dethrone Bush II, hemmed and hawed and finally said something like, “Um, well, if I were sure it would succeed.” Excuse me, but I’m not sure I can see the practical difference between placing hope in these people and having no hope at all….
*Slang for “President”, this word was also used in the prescient classic science fiction book by John Brunner, "The Sheep Look Up", which features Prexy by nickname as a president who first ignores environmental horrors by giving uninspired one-liners on the way to vacations or celebrations and then, when they're too big to ignore, announces the country is under attack by terrorists, declares martial law, and throws the liberals into chain gangs. Pretty good depiction of Bush II almost 30 years early!
So why is it that we can tend to lose hope on these kinds of “gloom and doom” issues (peak oil, climate change, etc.)? Well, it is because you cannot really separate discussing science and discussing politics. Let’s face it -- trying to inspire us to hope while addressing facts like oil supply and glacier melting while ignoring facts like even when 10 million of us worldwide march in the streets we’re just dismissed as a “focus group” and like for the foreseeable future the leaders of the countries and the corporations are a bunch of sh*t* is bound to be a failure.
*I have often wondered: is there anybody on the PLANET who is mollified by the practice of putting characters in place of letters of certain words; that is, is there anybody who is NOT morally offended by "sh*t" and who WOULD be offended by "shit"? It seems to me that everybody is EQUALLY offended by "sh*t" and "shit", so that, either neither "word" offends you or else both do. The practice of printing things like "sh*t" must be an artificial one advised by lawyers.
My reaction to Gore and most other attempts to inspire optimism is “Is that the best you can do? Gee, now I really AM depressed!” In addition, of course, to my negative reactions to “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it” and “Lie back and enjoy it” (the popular book “Pronoia”, judging from excerpts I’ve read, tells its victims both those things at once!). Plus disdain for the infantile wish for “peril-sensitive sunglasses” like in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams which prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you. “Don’t worry, be happy!” “Happiness is a choice!” “I don’t want to waste my beautiful mind on things like that!” “Qué será sera!” “Après moi le déluge!” Etc. (Maybe some day they will repeat the words of the ABBA song Cassandra: "Sorry Cassandra I misunderstood / Now the last day is dawning / Some of us wanted but none of us could / Listen to words of warning". But probably not, and it would be cold comfort if they did anyway.)
Going out of your way to “Always Look on The Bright Side of Life” seems to me like a little child covering his or her ears and shouting loudly, “LA LA LA, you must be talking but I can’t hear you, LA LA LA!” Or like the picture of three monkeys who “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Or like Schultz in the old American TV show “Hogan’s Heroes”: “I see NOTHING! I know NOTHING!” The person is so mentally immature that he or she is comfortable only “Home on the Range”: “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word / And the skies are not cloudy all day.” As the Beatles sang, "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream" and "Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void".
Unfortunately, this message does little to reassure those of us who, gosh darn it, insist on being worried about the problem! Usually understanding the problem is better than denial in order to fix the problem. Nevertheless, it appears that, as T. S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."
But some people, like Henry David Thoreau, are simply unable to disregard bad things and only enjoy the good things. “Suppose you have a small library, with pictures to adorn the walls--a garden laid out around--and contemplate scientific and literary pursuits, &c., and discover all at once that your villa, with all its contents, is located in hell, and that the justice of the peace has a cloven foot and a forked tail--do not these things suddenly lose their value in your eyes?" By being in hell, Thoreau meant the fact that the state government bowed down before the federal Fugitive Slave Law: "I have lived for the last month,--and I think that every man in Massachusetts capable of the sentiment of patriotism must have had a similar experience,--with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country. I had never respected the Government near to which I had lived, but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, minding my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent. less since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. I dwelt before, perhaps, in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell. The site of that political organization called Massachusetts is to me morally covered with volcanic scoriae and cinders, such as Milton describes in the infernal regions. If there is any hell more unprincipled than our rulers, and we, the ruled, I feel curious to see it. Life itself being worth less, all things with it, which minister to it, are worth less." Imagine the “hell” that Thoreau, a famous 19th century Nature-lover, would have made of the environment of today’s world. As the song “Clockwork Black” by Wendy Carlos says, "We are all in hell / All of us in hell / Not afraid to tell / We have made this hell".
Why are people behaving like slowly boiling frogs and enduring rather than acting? Thomas Jefferson answered in the Declaration of Independence that "all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." But he continued that people will (or at least should) indeed finally act when the tipping point is reached: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
So anyway, yeah, “Keep hope alive”, but it’s not always quite as easy to do that as to say that. Global climate change looks like it might be terminal cancer rather than the Lance Armstrong kind you can treat and recover from….
As Richard Dawkins says in another context, "Isn't bracing truth better than false hope?" Isn't one able to act more effectively when one knows the reality, even if it leads to a pessimistic outlook, than when one is basing an optimistic outlook on denial and blind faith?
Hartston and Wason's book The Psychology of Chess in turn quotes Benjamin Franklin's classic (18th century) essay "The Morals of Chess":
“’And lastly, we learn by Chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs; the habit of hoping for a favourable chance, and that of perservering in the search of resources. The game is so full of events, there is such a variety of turns in it, the fortune of it is so sudden to vicissitudes, and one so frequently, after contemplation, discovers the means of extricating oneself from a supposed insurmountable difficulty, that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last, in hopes of victory from our skill; or, at least, from the negligence of our adversary.’
“Sadly, Benjamin Franklin betrays in that paragraph his lack of skill as a chess player. Any stronger player will have learnt precisely the opposite lesson from chess: that a lost position is made no better by a Micawberish* hope that something will turn up. One must fight and preserve as much optimism as possible when affairs are bad; one learns the art of opportunism, but one also learns not to rely on the mistakes of the adversary. Above all, chess teaches us to live with the consequences of our own decisions, whether they were good or bad.”
*Like Oliver Twist, whom I mentioned earlier, Micawber is a character from the 19th century author Charles Dickens.
And I would add that it is surprising that the essay was called “The Morals of Chess”, because Franklin’s recommendation, to always play out to the end and hope that the opponent will make a mistake, is downrude RUDE! It is simply bad manners, extremely bad chess etiquette, to keep playing on in a lost position rather than resign the game. It tells the opponent, “I don’t respect you or your chessplaying ability at all; even though this game is lost I am so confident that you will make a childish blunder that I refuse to graciously resign but instead I will make you play this game out to the final checkmate.”
I also found another interesting passage in that same book (Hartston and Wason), not about resignation per se, but about drawing and settling for a drawn game rather than fighting for a win:
“There are two priorities for any contestant in a chess game: to win, if possible, and to avoid defeat. (For some amateurs, of course, it matters not who won or lost . . . but here we are dealing with the serious competitors.) For most players, the misery of defeat is greater than the elation of victory. ... For some players, the pain of defeat is so high that throughout their careers they appear to strive not so much for success, but for the avoidance of failure. ... Particularly when a player has scaled great peaks in the chess world, a defeat by a lesser man has an element of humiliation. The fear of losing grows as an eminent player grows older. The temptation to settle for a comfortable life of painless draws may become harder to resist. We would cite many cases of grandmasters who in their prime were candidates for the world championship but rapidly thereafter underwent a metamorphosis into 'drawing masters'. The cause is not the peacefulness of old age, but the comparative loss of attraction of glory compared with the suffering of failure.”
The classic (1954 this time) science fiction story "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin, in which a lovable teenage girl stows away on a spaceship and, to everyone's sadness and regret and with great pathos, has to be jettisoned into space because her extra mass was not computed into the limited amount of fuel held by the spaceship, kind of exemplifies the attitude of recognizing when something is inevitable but not liking it much. (The particular situation in that story has been nitpicked for 50 years, for example as "good physics but lousy engineering", but it's the general attitude I'm talking about here.)
Of course, the real “Cold Equations” are those of economics, not physics. Both the fact that profit interests of big corporations demanded cost-cutting even at the cost of safety measures that would save people’s lives, and, more tellingly, the fact that such human-decided (not nature-decided) economic consequences of unbridled capitalism were not even recognized, let alone seriously questioned, by anybody are typical of how capitalism works. The latter precisely parallels such real life situations as today’s Gusher in the Gulf and the discussion of such by politicians, media, and mainstream commentators.
When I read a recent book by Garry Kasparov (former World Chess Champion and arguably the greatest player of all time (yes, we chess fans enjoy arguments like that!)), How Life Imitates Chess, which had finally come out after a wait of two years*, I was especially curious what Kasparov might have to say about whether strong chessplayers are fatalistic about their games. After all, Bill Hartston (whom I quoted above) is a couple titles below Kasparov! Unfortunately, the new K book had nothing specifically about that, though passages like this were intriguing (talking about the loss of his World Champion title in 2000 at the peak of his powers):
*Though the delay was worth it; as cowriter Mig Greengard explained in his blog, "This book is the book Kasparov wanted to write. It's coming out a year later than planned expressly because he refused to put out the ghost-written, commercial version the first publisher expected. He doesn't need the money and he has ideas he wants to get out. Of course Garry will be happy if it sells well, but he was just as uncompromising with the book as he is well known to be in other areas." Incidentally, I'm very glad the UK version came out first, months ahead of the US version, because: "The American edition is relatively streamlined -- much of the chess has been cut out as recommended by the American editor. Fair enough, the US isn't much of a chess country and she thought it would distract from the message and ideas in the book." I'm not so sure I would be as sanguine about that as Mig! Not that there is any "hard" chess content anyway, no games or moves and just one diagram outside the Glossary at the back of the book. Just talking about chess is "soft" chess.
“My years of success had made me vulnerable to such a trap. When faced with a new threat I assumed my old methods would get me through. I was incapable of acknowledging that I was in serious trouble, that I had been out-prepared by my young opponent. When the realization finally hit me it was already late in the short match and I went from feeling sure I would recover to believing it was impossible. I managed to put up a little fight towards the end but it wasn't enough. I lost the match without winning a single one out of the fifteen games while losing two. My loss stemmed from over-confidence and complacency. ... This is what I call the gravity of past success. Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine. There is a very strong temptation to think only of the positive result without considering all the things that went wrong - or that could have gone wrong - on the way. After a victory we want to celebrate it, not analyse it. We replay the triumphant moment in our mind until it looks as though it were completely inevitable all along.”
Doesn’t it sound like he’s talking about humanity’s response to its current crises?
Perhaps the most illuminating thing on the subject of “dope” I found was the very very last sentence, in the Glossary: "Very few professional games end in checkmate as players resign as soon as loss appears inevitable." But the other sentences in the book are also worth reading, of course!
Anyway, it's not just chess in which its players are encouraged to know when to lay down the king and resign. Isn't the song "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" talking about poker? (In a Star Trek episode, The Corbomite Manuever, the ship is in a hopeless situation, and Spock's recommendation is: "In chess, when one is outmatched, checkmate. The game is over." Kirk doesn't accept that recommendation, saying "Not chess, Mr. Spock. Poker!" and daringly bluffs his way out of the situation. Of course, daring bluffs can only work against one or a small handful of opponents; even the greatest poker player in the world cannot successfully bluff every single one of 7 billion opponents.)