AN ODE TO PESSIMISM

The optimist’s guide to dealing with merchants of doom

By: Nicolas Bicchi

The Independent[1], The Atlantic[2], three quarters of Americans[3], French writer Michel Houellebecq[4], my dad. What do they have in common? They have all, in the past few years, expressed varying levels of concern at the current global political situation, and more importantly at its potential to lead to war.

Some are concerned with the current nationalism-infused, economic crisis-immersed, identity politics-permeated mess we like to call Europe. Others prefer to focus on Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un’s urinating contest. The rest see the masses of refugees heading for the European Union and our perceived cultural incompatibility with them as a harbinger of civil war. Many openly worry about World War III, and the media is awash with concerned commentators comparing today’s situation to the political conditions of 1913 or 1938.

As a young man who doesn’t really feel like picking up an M16 and jumping into the nearest trench, I cannot help but ask myself several questions, which can all be condensed into one, really. Is World War III truly around the corner?

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Photo credit: torbakhopper on Visual HuntCC BY-ND

To answer that question, as any good constructivist or post-structuralist (don’t worry, I don’t understand those theories either, but let’s just pretend for a moment) would posit, we must first define war. And then determine the interests and backgrounds of those who talk and write about war, and then define our own interests and backgrounds, and then give up on having an opinion and get drunk instead because it’s all too complicated.

Or we can simply solve those dilemmas with some good, healthy and old-fashioned stereotyping. Leaving the weirdo terrorist minority aside, who are the alarmists who most passionately broadcast the afore-mentioned fears? Older people and/or intellectuals. And here’s the thing about old people: it is a well-known and indisputable fact that they hate everything and always think the world is going to end. Intellectuals, on the other hand, notoriously and verifiably don’t get laid much, so it is understandable for them to be a bit pessimistic. Therefore, it is evident that their fears are to be expected.

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Photo credit: jaci XIII on VisualHunt.comCC BY-NC-SA

Furthermore, and please allow me to put my critical theory hat back on, what is war? In the developed world at least, can we really conceive of a situation where a little French man or an Austrian-German with a subpar moustache decide it’s time to conquer some land? Can we really imagine Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus (because equal opportunities) getting conscripted, strapped with a machine gun and sent out to defend freedom? No, right?

Even dumb little invasions like the US in Iraq now seem obsolete and very unlikely to happen. So what forms can war take? Well, without wishing to steal my friend Simone Careddu’s (whose article you can read here) thunder, here are a few ideas:

  • Exactly what’s happening right now all over the world, i.e. losers with no friends randomly attacking innocent people in the name of some loser ideology
  • Nerds hacking into each other’s mainframes and/or playing Star Wars with drones
  • Apocalypse. Nuclear holocaust.

None of the above really reflect the idea of World War III apart from maybe the third option, and surely no world leaders are stupid enough to initiate that? Actually, don’t answer that.

The point is I’m an optimist, I believe in the progress we’ve made as a species and in the constraints we’ve placed on each other to prevent annihilation. Even if I didn’t, I would honestly prefer not to worry about it and just live my life.

And that could well be my conclusion. ‘HAHA pessimists are losers who are unhappy with their own lives, let’s all laugh at them.’ End of story, let’s move on. Except I think there’s more to this.

Let’s go back to the last two World Wars for a moment, or to any financial crisis that’s ever happened. All were (at least in part) caused by excesses of optimism and communal self-belief. It’s true, just think of the appeasers believing Hitler could not possibly be that bad or of the mid-2000s’ belief that the US housing market would forever increase in value. In every single one of those cases, there were voices in the wilderness screaming ‘Be careful! It’s a lot worse than you think!’ and guess what? They were right.

Does that mean we should all go live underground and stock up for the apocalypse? No. But it does mean we should not mock those negative voices (says the guy who just mocked them for three paragraphs), because in a way they’re actually keeping us safe. And you know what the best thing is? Because of them, we don’t have to worry. They’re already doing it for us. So next time one of your grandparents tells you things were better in their day, or a guy with a beard and a PhD starts ranting about the rise of nationalism and how we’re all going to die, don’t laugh at them. Give them a hug, thank them for taking the weight of the world off your shoulders, and carry on living free.

 

References:

Buncombe, Andrew. “Three-quarters of Americans think Trump is going to lead them into war.” The Independent. October 19th, 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-war-poll-americans-think-president-lead-conflict-a8009401.html (accessed December 30th, 2017).

Cohen, Roger. “Yes, It Could Happen Again.” The Atlantic. August 1st of, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/08/yes-it-could-happen-again/373465/ (accessed December 30th of, 2017).

El-Gingihy, Youssef. The Independent. March 3rd, 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/world-war-3-is-coming-a7622296.html (accessed December 30th, 2017).

Houellebecq, Michel. Soumission. Paris: Flammarion, 2015.

[1] El-Gingihy, Youssef. The Independent. 3rd of March 2017.

[2] Cohen, Roger. The Atlantic. August 2014

[3] Buncombe, Andrew. The Independent. 19th of October 2017

[4] Houellebecq, Michel. Soumission. Paris: Flammarion, 2015.

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