Friday, June 05, 2009

Realistically speaking, is your pessimism too optimistic?

(First of all, ignore the title, which makes no sense, at least in the context of this post. I'm just playing around with words.)

One of our regulars sent me a link to this site, which offers plaques, coffee mugs and other gifts that, you might say, are intended as curmudgeonly humorous counterpoints to those silly and simplistic motivational trinkets you see advertised in in-flight catalogs (or you find in that one aisle at Office Depot, where they stock all the "clearance" items and other useless crap). In effect, then, these are anti-motivational sayings and proverbs for all occasions. That's how they struck me at first, and I'm sure that's how they'll strike you. Certainly people like Rho
nda Byrne, Joe Vitale, the recently maligned Oprah, and even the person who programs the music for my gym, all of whom trade in no-limits optimism, would dismiss all this as defeatist and disempowering.

But what's funny is, that's not what these sayings are about. Most of them, if you think about it, are hardly the diametric opposite of blue-sky optimism; they're certainly not in the category of the nihilistic slogan above. They merely represent a cooler, more realistic slant on life (albeit phrased in a clever, sardonic way). And that misperception is itself significant. What it tells you is that the Hopefulness Pendulum in American society has swung so far to the happy-faced end of the scale that we've come to view mere realism as pessimism. What's more, so pervasive and seductive is this tendency that even I
the host of a forum called SHAMblog, for cying out loud!was initially taken in. I reacted the way 95.7% of America would've reacted: "oooh, how snarky." Except that for the most part, there's nothing snarky about what's inscribed on these plaques and mugs.

It's just...the truth.

What's happening here is the SHAMland equivalent of the situation that evolved some decades ago in politics and, especially, media coverage of same. On one side of the aisle you had conservatives (often described by the late Peter Jennings as arch-conservatives, lest we miss the point); on the other side of the aisle you had...moderates. "Normal Americans." So it was that in evening newscasts, reporters would identify all the conservative types as right-wingers, but would never even think of using a phrase like left-winger to describe, say, Ted Kennedy. That's because, to the esteemed paragons of American journalism, Kennedy was not left-wing; his views simply reflected the media's own vision of the way life ought to be. The folks among the GOP's conservative base were radical, reactionary, lunatic-fringers. Why, they didn't even believe in a woman's right to choose! But their counterparts on the left? The folks who argued militantly to preserve Roe v. Wade, and who supported affirmative action, and who loathed school prayer and scorned religious faith in general? They weren't left-wing radicals. Not at all! They were just, in the media's collective eye, The Mainstream.

And so it is, today, with optimism and pessimism. As Barbara Ehrenreich sagely told us a few years back, if you're not a wild raving optimist, you're a no-good worthless pessimist. There's no such thing as being a realist anymore.

Anyway, getting back to the site,
my personal favorite slogan is this one, on "giving up." Consider buying a related item for some annoying person you know who should've given up on his (absurd) dreams a long, long time ago.


Elizabeth said...

Oh, I love this site. Hard to choose which gift/gadget is my favorite, but this is certainly one of them:

Anonymous said...


I view many of these slogans as pearls of wisdom from those who have gone before.

I appreciate intelligent sarcasm and those who are not afraid to tell some simpleton that their lofty expectations are certainly not in line with reality.

But those self-help scamsters have an oft-repeated rule for the simpletons: don't let anybody tell you you won't succeed.

In other words, those with the wisdom - the accurate read on reality - are dismissed as being nattering nabobs of negativity.

I'm going to design a custom calendar from despair - I really like about a dozen of their demotivations.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that website link - too funny. I like "Wishes" and "Teamwork" the best.

Anonymous said...

If you love, wait until you do business with them. The email they send in response to your order is even more amusing thn their merchandise. Some very clever, very witty people working in their customer service area.

Which only points out that humor goes a very long way when it comes to doing business.

Elizabeth said...

The unthinkable continues, Steve: more criticisms directed at Oprah are piling on. Seems that Newsweek's article emboldened people to speak up (of course I remember that you were among the few pioneers here, writing critically about the Oprah-ification of the American life before it was fashionable).

Here is an ending of an article written by David Gorski, a Canadian doctor:

"The bottom line is that, when it comes to medicine and science, (Oprah) is a force for ill. Her intentions may be the best in the world, but that is only why she is the living embodiment of the cliché that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That's especially true when that same road is also paved with no mental filter of critical thinking to keep out nonsense. With great power comes great responsibility, indeed.

Unfortunately, given the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine, I'm having a hard time determining if Oprah is a symptom or one of the causes of the rise of pseudoscience and quackery over science-based medicine."