When Optimisim is a Strange God

“Optimism is a matter optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don’t want to see. Hope, on the other hand, is a Christian virtue. It is the unblinking acknowledgment of all that militates against hope, and the unrelenting refusal to despair. We have not the right to despair, and, finally, we have not the reason to despair”
― Richard John Neuhaus, The Best of the Public Square

Shortly after I wrote this column discussing Mark Steyn’s book, After America, I got an email from a reader named Frank, who complained that I (and for that matter, Steyn) were becoming “too pessimistic” for his taste and reminding me that as a Christian it was my duty to be hopeful.

It was a nice note; he wasn’t haranguing me, and I wrote back that it is because I am a Christian that I am deeply optimistic that in the end all shall be well; but I also have the crucifix ever before me, which teaches that getting there — to the “all” part — means facing and accepting the difficulties of other road before us, and being realistic about them.

Since then I’ve had other notes — less nice ones — also complaining about my pessimism for the church. In the comboxes, too, people take issue with my idea that the church will grow smaller through schism and persecution. Again, I don’t see myself as pessimistic about it; I see it all moving toward something that is ultimately victorious, my optimism is all focused on the long view.

My column at First Things today jumps off another Steyn quote:

Last week Mark Steyn wrote, “America is seizing up before our eyes,” and that is a spot-on image. She is like a brilliantly conceived machine that, poorly maintained for more years than any of us cares to admit, has gone too long untuned; the oil of her invention has thinned out and broken down and now bit-by-bit, gear-by-gear—economically, socially, spiritually—she is making an ungodly noise and grinding to a halt.

And yet people want optimism. They crave it, especially when a president is telling one half of the country that it is “time to eat your peas” while simultaneously encouraging another half to take to the streets and demand more dessert. “Where is our Ronald Reagan,” is a phrase that rises with alarming frequency, in some comboxes, and it always unsettles me to see it, because it seems so determinedly obtuse; if we can just find someone exactly like the president from thirty years ago, we will be alright. If only someone will smile and tell us it is morning in America, again, and the city has not slid down the hill!

There are probably ten thousand articles to be found on the Internet all fleshing out their theories of what is behind America’s swift collapse. Curiously, most of them will touch—all without realizing it—on the seven deadly sins; Capitalist Greed; Spiritual Sloth; Physical Lust; Nationalist/Military Pride; Consumer Gluttony; Partisan Wrath; Class Envy. Good arguments can be made blaming some are all of these sins for our current dire straits and for the sense that we are standing upon a precipice.

But I wonder if it is not the first and greatest sin named by Yahweh and given to Moses, that is most at fault: the sin of idolatry.

You can read it all here

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Lewis Kapell

    Good article, Anchoress. I am surprised that Christian readers criticize you for being too negative. The evil trends are all around us, and the virtue of hope does not consist in pretending they’re not there.

    While I was praying this morning, it came to me that the saints rejoiced in sufferings and persecution, knowing that these things would unite them more fully to the Crucified Lord. I think that defines the attitude we need to take as we see Western civilization self-destructing around us. We give glory to God by striving to remain faithful, and rejecting despair, even at times when it is easy to say that the Evil One must have gained the mastery over our world. By practicing the virtue of Hope even as we reject superficial optimism. By remembering that our true happiness is in Heaven, the treasure which does not rust and which thieves cannot break in and steal.

    By the way, thank God for Mark Steyn. He makes it possible to laugh while contemplating the horrors around us. I loved this bit in particular: “It’s more like an open-mike karaoke night of a revolution than the real thing”. That almost made me laugh out loud while eating my lunch.

  • http://whiterosebrian.deviantart.com Brian A. Cook

    Aren’t there legitimate concerns about the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer?

    [Everything is legitimate in its season and measure. I'm writing about taking things to a different level entirely -admin]

  • http://breadhere.wordpress.com Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    As Catholics we start from the good – so while we need to be aware of evil, it is never our starting place. And add to that, the differences between the Cross and evil. Not the same thing.

    As Brian Cook notes, we need to keep in mind the concerns about the disparity between rich and poor, along with the trend that keeps each moving in its own direction.

    [I'm mystified that anyone is drawing a "rich/poor" connection to what I wrote. I was writing about idolatry -- of ideas and ideologies, and our own gratification -- and the seven deadly sins. But whatever. If that's the connection you and Brian are making, then there it is. :-) admin]

  • Jake

    ‎”The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control, and outnumbers both of the other classes.” Aristotle

    When the disparity of rich and poor reaches critical mass, the middle class disappears and society does indeed “seize up”. With the article addressing a nation “seizing up” it seems natural to look at rich/poor as a reason and to comment on same.

  • Carl

    The problem of this rich / poor discussion now becoming popular with Democrats who desperately do not want to run on the record of what they have delivered in the last three years, is that many then assume that something should be done by government to take from one and give to another. There is no history of any society that has done this on the scale some would suggest that created a better life for the poor.

    What we are seeing is a total lack of real leadership by the President of the USA whose only real experience is as a community organizer. When a community organizer shows up, their first task is to see what issues are bothering those in the community and then find a way to motivate them to action and this usually entails finding an enemy to focus the anger and hatred upon. When Obama wanted healthcare passed, the enemy was the doctors, the hospitals, the insurance companies, and always the republicans. When he wanted to pass legislation to reform finance, it was the banks and wall street. When he wanted to pass massive spending, it was Bush and the Republicans even as he signed the extension of the W Bush tax reductions just last December rather than leave them expire. At that point, don’t the so called Bush tax cut of 2000 become the Obama tax cuts for the rich of 2010? It is his name on the tax cuts now, not Bush. But immediately after signing this, he started blasting what he had just signed and still attributing them to Bush.

    Every issue divides this country further and creates more dissension and hatred and I do not remember in my lifetime a President so lacking in leadership skills.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    I guess I had three reactions to this.

    Reaction one: Oh that’s just semantics: optimism/hope, the distinction is in the eye of the beholder.

    Reaction two: After it settled in, I thought, perhaps there is some merit to Neuhaus’s distinction. Optimism has a certainty to it, whether justified or not, but hope has longing but not necessarily certainty. Ok, I’m on board.

    Reaction three: Well isn’t the distinction of whether one is pesimistic or optimistic based on the results? Both the optimist and the pesimist see their vision as realistic. The determining factor as to whether one was justified in their optimism or pesimism is how the reality turned out.

    So in fifty years if the Catholic Church is small and insignificant, Anchoress’s pesimistic vision will have been justified, or if the Church still has a billion Catholics then my optimistic vision will have been justified.

    Not sure if we’ll be around in fifty years, so we’ll have to meet up in heaven (if I should make it there) and see who’s right. ;)

    [But you misunderstand me, Manny. I'm not pessimistic at all. I'm full of hope. I'm just hoping with a long, long view! ;-) admin]

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd

    Too much punditry in place of evangelization. It’s not really our host’s place or any of us to muse about what sort of Church will be smaller, more pure, or whatever. The sins we are most qualified to comment upon are our own, not somebody else’s.

    It’s the task of every believer to spread the Gospel, not to posit who or what will receive it. Personally, I don’t think Elizabeth is too pessimistic. I just think the small-church-getting-smaller meme is a distraction.

    On the other hand, the problem with the US can be summed up quite easily: we’ve shifted from democracy to plutocracy.

  • Carl

    Todd, you talk about pessimism and then throw out we are no longer a democracy but a plutocracy. How is that true?

    First of all, the United States is a republic, not a democracy. Lets compare our country today versus back at the time of say Jefferson.

    At that time, one male property owning citizens could vote. Today, men and women, black and white, people with property or owning nothing can vote.
    How are we now more of a plutocracy now than in our early years?

    I think we are moving closer to a socialist state than toward a plutocracy. You really are buying into that occupy mantra. I voted today and found the polling place suprisingly crowded. We had a number of issues on the ballot where the people could vote on issues put in place by our elected leaders. We had issues to block a bill voted into place by the federal government trying to give states the right to opt out. We had issues of when life begins. We have issues to vote on concerning taxes.

    To me, you Todd are the pessimist. I hope we move back away from a socialist anti religious government but that will only happen if we are able to get Obama and his team out of office next election with a large majority. maybe then we can move to a country that is once again One Nation Under God.

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd

    “How is that true?”

    Money in politics. Lots of it.

    “I think we are moving closer to a socialist state than toward a plutocracy.”

    Jeez, you Republicans get spanked in one presidential election and suddenly it’s three years of gray skies and V. I. Lenin. Get over yourselves. Y’all are starting to sound like 9-11 Truthers. Was the country in bigger danger in 2001, and wasn’t that a darker, more uncertain time? Or have you bought into Mr Bush’s meme of greed-as-usual?

    Personally, I hope we don’t get that much religion in the federal government. As a Catholic, I’ve seen what happens when a rural public school gets praying, and you can bet the rosary is not high on the list of approved utterances.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    Money in politics is free speech, Todd. Most money is by individuals pooling toward a cause or individual. We spend more on potato chip advertising than we do on a presidential election.

    Todd – May I ask why you keep using the word “meme”? I don’t mean anything by the question; it’s a rather odd locution. And I don’t think you’re using it correctly:

    meme   /mim/ Show Spelled[meem] Show IPA
    a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

    Seems like you’re considering any individual thought or expression as a cultural item, when a cultural item is way more than that.

  • http://www.friendsofportia.blogspot.com Judith L

    Wow! I’m amazed at the direction this thread has taken. How a discussion of the difference between optimism–The Power of Positive Thinking?–and Hope–a major Christian virtue–evolved into a discussion of macro-economics puzzles me.

    As does the equation of Church growth with Church health.

    I suggest that reading Neuhaus’ American Babylon and Metax’s Bonhoeffer will put what the Anchoress is saying in context.

    [Thank you, Judith; in fact it was American Babylon that I was thinking of when I wrote it! -admin]

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd

    “As does the equation of Church growth with Church health.”

    I don’t know about the Anchoress’s other correspondents, or the particulars of their objections. My problem with SCGS is more with what I perceive to be the attitude behind it.

    It’s not that a Catholic Church of seven billion would necessarily be healthier than a Church with one-seventh the members. It’s that when believers expect that the results of their shouldering the mission of Christ will result in seven billion Catholics, the Body is much more fit and hopeful.

    Evangelization is a very important ministry in the Church, and one entrusted to all believers. It doesn’t involve waiting for the six billion to come to us with ready-made conservative political views and values.

  • fiestamom

    Thank you for writing this article. I’ve been ticked off at Mark Steyn b/c I’m mad at his pessimism. I didn’t send him an email, though. But deep down, I know it’s true. I love this country, and I’m worried for my kids’ future. Before the 2008 election, I was an American first, Catholic second. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I have to remind myself that this country and world are falling away, but as a Catholic Christian, I’m not of this world. And neither are my children.

    I appreciate the tone of your article as well. Thank you for not beating up Conservative Catholics and listeners of talk radio.

  • Greta

    Yes, it was a good article by Anchoress which had nothing to do with the disparity between the rich and poor but it was immediately questioned by Brian, Fran, and Todd because they suddenly see everything as an issue of disparity between rich and poor which to them translates into support of the Occupy crowd and the Democratic high tax big government solutions.

    One thing to think about when we look at the disparity between rich and poor in America.

    1. Many of the private sector union jobs in America are no longer here in this country. The unions with their endless attacks on each of those business eventually priced them out of this country. Look at the overall decline of union private sector jobs and you can trace it to folks now who cannot find a job. They are now doing the same thing to public sector jobs where folks are earning high wages, huge benefits and pensions, and paying very little into those same pensions or benefits as in the private sector. End result will be the same with the workers pricing themselves out of the market. Their protection based on seniority rather than merit also does not serve the workers or those paying the bills. Unions of course are tied by the nose to the Democratic Party in a very unholy alliance in public sector jobs.

    2. The Democrats and again the unions have created a real mess in education especially in the inner city. Any attempt to create a better school system with vouchers or measurement of results by the Republican Party has met with huge resistence. So we now have generations who have come out of schools where billions have been spent without any worthwhile skills making them permanently unemployable.

    3. the Democrat mantra of ever increasing minimum wage has finally hit the point that others have warned about and that is a place where the workers coming into those jobs do not make it profitable to hire them. Instead of a place where the business could justify spending some money and giving unskilled folks entry level jobs to learn how to show up each day on time and work, we now see massive numbers of teens out of work, especially in inner cities.

    4. the ongoing regulations favored by Democrats from ever increasing big government and the idiotic lawsuits have also led to much higher cost and driving jobs from our country. Try buying a product without idiotic warning labels all over them. There is a complete lack of personal responbility for using your head and when we screw up, finding a lawyer to go after someone that has made it unhealthy to do business in this country.

    5. Ever increasing healthcare costs which have come about with the massive intrusion in that industry by the federal government starting in the 1950′s and climaxing with ObamaCare have hurt employers big time. Unions have also been a part of this mess as well as they went after employer paid healthcare insurance during the time of wage and price controls after WWII.

    Everything the Democrats have done above and a lot more have created a permanent class of poor they want dependent on government handouts and solutions to keep power. If we made this country the place to manufacture with the same type of regulations and protections we had in our heyday of the 1960′s, you would again create a place where the lower classes could improve their overall incomes. If you fix the schools and insure that the money is being spent to produce people that companies need with close ties to the business, you would also improve the lower classes. And if you create a government that encourages business growth, stops frivolous lawsuits, and really created solutions to drive down healthcare costs, you would see this disparity reduce.