Friday, August 29, 2008

So, somebody gave a speech or something last night?

I thought it was a good speech in the overall, more specific than I'd expected, although the guy sometimes lapses into a cadence that reminds me uncomfortably of Jim Jones (or at least Powers Booth, the marvelous character actor who played the ranting reverend in the 1980 biopic). I thought Obama sounded highly intelligent and yet also highly empathic/emotive, a duality one seldom finds in public people, and that, in any case, is hard to bring off in a football stadium. I thought his words were full of vision, though I'm sure McCain and company would end that line with a different noun. Overall, and as strange as this may sound, there's not really much I feel I can say about the substantive part of it, because regardless of what the man would like to see done, much of that is simply going to have to come out in the wash, if and when Barack arrives in the Oval Office. I can easily foresee a very bitter, contentious climate in Washington following an Obama victory, no matter how hard he tries to cling to his idyllic notions of post-partisan government.

But it still bugs the hell out of me that even a man like Barack Obama, a man of independent mind, capable of producing a great book like The
Audacity of Hope, nonetheless feels compelled to pay homage (as he did again last night) to that cloying maxim that goes, "In this great country, you can do anything you want if you really put your mind to it." Why in that one case and that one case alone does he throw nuance and critical thinking out the window?

This is not a small point, folks. Because, you see, one can argue quite plausibly that it was positive thinking that got us into Iraq in the first place.

Now hold on a minute, let me finish. As it happens, I just turned in another long piece for Michael Shermer/
Skeptic; I called it "Positively Misguided," and it focuses on the logical and empirical fallacies that underlie positive thinking (or at least, the variety of positive thinking that came of age with the advent of the self-esteem movement and is now culturally entrenched). Michael tells me that it should run in the winter issue.* I assume it'll go up on the site a bit sooner.

It's hard to summarize 5349 (reasonably) well-chosen words in one blog post, so I'll just invite you to examine the words in the finished piece when it runs, if you're so inclined. For today, I want to emphasize two things. 1. It is a serious mistake to assume that only pos
itive things result from positive thinking; it should be clear that positive thinking can easily be (and often is) diverted to ends that many of us would consider negative. By almost every commonly invoked benchmark, Hitler was a pretty positive thinker: He was sure of his aims and never doubted that he would succeed. He thought he was right. 2. We've said this many times before, but today's Secret-style positive thinking is portrayed as self-fulfilling prophecy: Being confident and optimistic about a plan is considered a sure-fire way of making that plan work. Too often nowadays, in settings from Little League to the workplace to the White House, confidence is the plan.

So then. What is the American "can-do" spirit, after all, but PMA-on-steroids? We're Amur-ikuns, dadgabit, and Amur-ikuns don't fail! Positivity has a way of expressing itself, in practice, as hubris. In situations large and small,
we rush into things at will, assuming that our vaunted PMAs will carry the day for us. Let's just get it done; we'll work out the details later. Worse, positive people, put in positions of authority, tend to expect their positivity to be taken at face value, as an IOU of sorts for actual results. If they're positive, they expect you to be positive, too. And they interpret (thoroughly legitimate) questions and concerns as "naysaying" or, worse, disloyalty.

Hence, Iraq. As I wrote in a piece for somebody** a while back, "Confidence starts wars. But it takes competence to finish them."
This is why optimism, in certain settings, isn't just foolish. It's dangerous. I hope that Barack Obama, who certainly suffers from no shortage of confidence, can avoid that pitfall, should his quest for the White House end in triumph.

Oh, just in afterthought, you gotta admit: Wouldn't it be nice to see kids running amok in the White House again? It's been a long time. (Note: Jenna Bush running amok on the beach and elsewhere doesn't count.)

* Skeptic is a quarterly.
** I've churned out so many words on self-help, positive thinking and related matters in recent years that I long ago gave up on keeping track of it all. Such tracking becomes even harder when articles I write for one publication are later reprinted in others.


Elizabeth said...

one can argue quite plausibly that it was positive thinking that got us into Iraq in the first place

It was greed, hubris and political manipulation based on delusions of grandeur that got us there.

Positive thinking in the service of humility, empathy and compassion is an asset. Grandiose and arrogant (or, if you insist, "positive") thinking in the service of greed and selfishness is a recipe for suffering and disaster.

So it's not positive thinking as such that is a problem, it is the values in the service of which this kind of thinking is employed.

Mike Cane said...

Since I see the Palin post has attracted more Comments, I'll restrict my Comment here to this: Defensive Pessimism: Part Of The Real Secret

RevRon's Rants said...

The flip side, Steve, is that while positive thinking alone does not guarantee success, the absence of a positive attitude - tempered by common sense and a healthy dose of reality - goes a long way toward guaranteeing failure.

My perception of what Obama was saying is that with a positive attitude, along with commitment and hard work, an individual could realize their goals. Not pie-in-the-sky goals, which would be precluded by common sense, anyway.

RevRon's Rants said...

I also have to agree with Elizabeth. It was cynicism, greed, and short-sightedness that got us in the current mess. Selfish ambition does not constitute positive thinking, except as defined by the selfish-help hustledorks and partisan extremists.