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Cultivating optimism

Dave Belden
21 May 2003

In my 20’s (the 1970s), oppressed by the doom scenarios of my generation – nuclear winter, oil and minerals running out, humans as lemmings in an uncontrollable population explosion, destroying the planet’s life – I had vowed to bring no child of my own into this world. In my 30’s that just seemed wrong, a self-fulfilling prophecy, my own hemlock. By the age of forty I had a wife and child. By then I had retreated from political activism into being a carpenter and writer of stories. I saw the stories I wrote as my contribution to changing the world, but they were set in the far, far future: they were allegories, on broad themes of gender, family, revolution, and religion.

After a couple of decades in this retreat, I realised that the doom scenarios I had believed in were not only not coming true, but many things all along had been going in the other direction. In 1968 the rate of world population growth had peaked and started to slow, but I didn’t know that until 2001. The world population doubled while I carpentered and wrote, but there were fewer starving people. We can now foresee a day when the world population will peak and shrink.

Houston became the most air-polluted city in America, but only because Los Angeles had cleaned up its air faster than Houston: both were going in the right direction. African Americans had an infant mortality rate almost twice that of whites, a horrific scandal, but over 200 years their rate had decreased at a faster rate, and the gap was still narrowing. What large ethnic group has ever improved its life-chances so far, so fast as African Americans? The 20th century had seen the worst wars and genocides in history, and yet the average expectation of life of the world’s peoples had about doubled. People say – oh, but that doesn’t mean life is better. Nonsense. It means millions of babies not dead, their parents not grieving, and not withholding love from the next baby, out of fear of loss; it means a huge shift towards tenderness to children; just read histories of childhood.

The snapshot of today’s situation so often seems terrible; but the long-term trend is so often good.

I was drawn to books which explained why things have improved so over the long term. The left certainly had no explanations worth hearing. They could barely even acknowledge the good news. Yet a great deal of the good news was thanks to the left’s persistent challenge to capitalism to reform itself. The right, on the other hand, seems to have little or no understanding of this. People are talking past each other. All this I have written of in these columns.

Confessions of a pig-in-the-middle

I was having fun writing this column. There is no end to the stories and fascinating conundrums surrounding the topic of faith today. My list of future topics was growing, along with the thrill of researching them. But during the Iraq war, something unexpected happened to me. My fascination with news and commentary evaporated. Every day I found myself watching my people – young Americans like my son or the kids I have taught – put themselves in danger and blow away uncounted thousands of the ‘enemy’, who were just ordinary people inspired by some sad dreams or more likely forced by another’s mad dreams to defend an indefensible dictatorship. There was too much tragedy all around: the African American boy from a town I drive through daily, dead; the Iraqi civilians killed, the children maimed, by our fire; the horrors of Saddam’s jails and torture records; the likelihood that we would never know how many Iraqi people died at Saddam’s hands, or at ours. You saw it too.

Then the commentary. Too many of the right crowing, and paying the barest lip-service to the horrors of war, so eager to justify this war that any damn thing we did wrong was instantly described as Saddam’s fault. Too many of the left – a good example was John Berger’s piece on openDemocracy – went overboard the other way, seeing Bush as equally or more evil than Saddam.

As usual, like many people, I was in the middle, disgusted by both extremes. But my enthusiasm for finding the like-minded in the press, and for tackling these extremes with my own keyboard, just disappeared. Column opportunities went by without my lifting a finger.

Now the commentary of course has moved on, and it’s all about the Bush team’s lack of readiness to rule, and whether they are bold enough and imperialist enough to do the empire thing properly, or whether they will abandon Iraq to chaos as they have done with Afghanistan. But I am still stuck in the horrors of the war. How can people move on so quickly? Why am I still flat on the floor?

What do I have faith in?

It gradually came to me this week that my whole optimism about the state of the world – an optimism that has fuelled my writing on openDemocracy for a year now – was based, in a sense, on not having TV. For cable has only just reached the remote country lane where we have been living for nine years without it. My optimism had grown by looking at the long – term trends, and mostly ignoring the short term.

Losing the silver lining

During the Iraq war I found myself desperate to find the silver lining: to find in today’s news, the evidence of a positive long-term trend. I wanted to believe that the people who pulled down the Saddam statues were joyful Iraqis and not a ‘rent-a-mob’ helped by photo-oportunity US tanks. I am thrilled to see that despicable traitor gone, and relieved that the war was not a tenth as bad as I had feared. I can believe that this will be a turning point for the Arab world, towards realism, democracy, but I can also believe that the Bush team are better at war than peace, that it will be a disaster.

I recall the British soldiers being welcomed into Northern Ireland in 1969 by the Catholics as peacemakers, at first. I have little trust in the Bush team or their motives. When told that they are actually liberal imperialists, truly committed to democracy and universal rights, I am not sure if I feel better or worse – for how can they be so boldly blind as to imagine that these things can be imposed by conquest? And yet, India is still a democracy, and it gained its democracy by using the imperialist’s values and half-heartedly democratic institutions against it. A liberal imperialist is better than a fascist dictator.

You see? I am desperate to keep the good news in mind. But it has been too hard, these last weeks, to convince myself. I am piggy in the middle, but I am not catching the ball.

If the long-term trends are good, then they should show up in the short-term news every day. But that of course is not how news works. We won’t know, perhaps for decades, whether the US conquest of Iraq was a liberation or a disaster, or something in between.

Many compassionate people have become almost addicted to bad news. Like parents who see their neighbours’ babies die, we inure ourselves to the worst happening. For us, we learn to expect the worst from our leaders, our times, our society. It’s psychological protection. Those who are boosters for our society, our times, our leaders often seem to protect themselves another way – by refusing to see or feel the horrors for which we are responsible.

I am a booster: I think that long-term trends tell us that regulated markets, civil society and democracy can bring prosperity and health to all the world’s peoples, and at present rates will actually do so in a couple of centuries. And although these cultural innovations developed their startling power to improve ordinary people’s lives by the millions in small maritime states in one corner of the world, I think they can be merged with any culture. They will transform that culture, but will also be taken over and changed by it: there will be myriad forms of these innovations in time.

Yet we will go through many more horrors on that road. To believe in that future it is not advisable to watch the evening news. How to live with an open heart and optimism about the long-term trends? Don’t ask me. I don’t know.

Want to share your thoughts? Email: dave.opendemocracy@earthlink.net

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