Optimism doesn’t get an easy ride in politics these days, and nor should it. Wishful thinking and trendy platitudes have cost us dearly — at home in power generation, for instance, and abroad in civil wars. However, the opposite point of view can also do great harm and deserves equal scorn. Defeatism about our politics is a luxurious pose.
For years, I thought that the following dialogue in Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road was totally cool:
“…when [Frank Wheeler] said something about 'the hopeless emptiness of everything in this country,' [John Givings] came to a stop on the grass and looked thunderstruck.
“'Wow,' he said. 'Now you’ve said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the Coast, that’s all we ever talked about. We’d sit around talking about emptiness all night. Nobody ever said "hopeless," though; that’s where we’d chicken out. Because maybe it does take a certain amount of guts to see the emptiness, but it takes a whole hell of a lot more to see the hopelessness. And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that’s when there’s nothing to do but take off. If you can.'”
Finally, I get Yates’s joke.
Weird John Givings couldn’t sit still or bear teaching high school mathematics in California in the '50s. He’d just survived 37 electrical shock treatments in the “fun-farm.” So he probably knew what the words empty and hopeless meant. But, bored young careerist Frank Wheeler didn’t; he was faking it. Wheeler was betraying untested literary ambitions, but wasn’t at the end of the line. He hated to be alone and, so, asked America to feel miserable as well.
Thanks to a handful of wonderful American writers, we accept that the '50s were “empty.” We pass, however, on labeling those years as “hopeless” for all sorts of good reasons — including big ones like stabilizing the Cold War, entrenching today’s middle class expectations, and recognizing science and higher education the top investments for future progress.
Today, however, Pew pollsters tell us that North Americans worry about the future, as they did in uncertain times before — but with surprisingly little enthusiasm about doing much about it.
We read about gridlock and our loss of trust in government and the end of the American Dream. We shake our heads in the midst of an economic recovery that includes a technological revolution and an arts renaissance on each coast. We speak of fundamentals and barely mention the burgeoning global middle class that creates, works, and increasingly sees human society in the ways we do. Our leaders worry especially about the morale of young people — in these, the first days this continent has ever been truly secure militarily and at peace with the whole world.
For 2014, let’s be hard on defeatists and vicious toward words like never, disillusioned, and hopeless. Too much is going on to ever reach for “empty.”