The Case for "Optimism"
Occasionally, I experiment around a bit with different formats for this newsletter, adjusting it to fit the nature of the news I'm covering and also to fit better into the flow of my other work. So below I'm going to try out a way of sending out a larger number of links that requires less commentary by me.
Then again, this was the original idea behind my "Five Things You Need to Read Today" format, but as I got into doing it, I basically ended up writing five op-ed-length articles—and then publishing them less frequently because they took so long to write. So I'm going to make a new try at this approach and really attempt to hold myself back to the least amount of commentary. Wish me luck.
The Case for "Optimism"
"The term 'solutionism,' usually in the form of 'technocratic solutionism,' has been used since the 1960s to mean the belief that every problem can be fixed with technology. This is wrong, and so 'solutionism' has been a term of derision. But if we discard any assumptions about the form that solutions must take, we can reclaim it to mean simply the belief that problems are real, but solvable."
The only disagreement I have is that he proposes "solutionism" as an alternative to "optimism."
"But while it can be rational to be optimistic or pessimistic on any specific question, these terms are too imprecise to be adopted as a general intellectual identity. Those who identify as optimists can be too quick to dismiss or downplay the problems of technology, while self-styled technology pessimists or progress skeptics can be too reluctant to believe in solutions."
To the contrary, I think that a general concept of confidence in progress is precisely what we need. A proper, rational concept of optimism captures the idea that it is normal, natural, and to be expected that humans will discover solutions to our problems, as we have always done. I think we need such a concept for precisely the reason so many people are reluctant to embrace it. We need "optimism" to dispel the current cultural bias in favor of negativity and self-doubt that makes us so stubbornly reluctant to acknowledge or accept progress.
The Real Opioid Crisis
An example of this bias in favor of finding monsters hiding within scientific and technological progress—I once called it "The Curse of Frankenstein"—is the long-running attack on a new generation of safe and effective opioid painkillers. These drugs and their manufacturers have been blamed for widespread abuse and addiction and for a steep rise in deaths from overdoses. But I am increasingly convinced they have been framed for it to fit an anti-progress narrative and more specifically a narrative about the "greed" of big business.
In effect, the companies that brought us opioids have been targeted by the same people complaining about the profits of vaccine makers.
The most complete summary I've seen of the case is here, though I will emphasize that this is at a Substack newsletter and, well, for good or ill, Substack has revived the good old days of blogging. That means that you get interesting, long-form, in-depth article by amateurs—complete with plenty of typos and the necessity that you, as the reader, be careful to assess the accuracy of the information. The case presented in this post generally coheres with my own exploration of the issue.
I would sum it up this way. Opioids were in fact a huge advance in the management of pain, with many beneficial effects. The drugs were inevitably abused, largely by people who were already addicted to something else. In reaction, advocates whipped up a hysteria about "over-prescription" of opioids—the blog post I'm recommending criticizes some of the people behind this—which in turn led to under-prescription of opioids, to the detriment of people dealing with real chronic pain. Then came an inevitable crackdown based on the drug war model, and from what I've seen this is the real driver of the big wave of overdoses. Without access to relatively safe opioids, users go to the black market where they get dangerously powerful substances like fentanyl, mixed for them by lowlifes who failed high-school chemistry.
It's a classic drug war story, in which the government sets out to protect people from a dangerous drug and ends up driving them toward a much more dangerous drug.
"Free Black Thought"
I've been tracking the resilient growth of new liberal institutions, and here's one I find especially heartening: the Journal of Free Black Thought, a new publication dedicated to hosting black writers who dissent from the current orthodoxy on race. Check out the inaugural essay by one of today's leading dissidents, Glen Loury, which has this very promising beginning.
"'For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.'—Ephesians 6:12
"I am no longer a Christian, but this passage in the New Testament continues to speak to me. As I interpret it now, the Apostle Paul is saying that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, not against people. Rather, it's against bad ideas. Bad ideas are the 'principalities and powers' that reside in the heads—the 'high places'—of flesh-and-blood people. These bad ideas need to be combated and overcome by good ideas. It's my pleasure to contribute this inaugural essay to the Journal of Free Black Thought, which is dedicated to the principle that in a liberal democracy, viewpoint diversity and the airing of ideas—all ideas, even ideas that we're told aren't properly 'black'—are essential components in the struggle of good ideas against bad."
Pair that with this blockbuster essay by Bertrand Cooper about how the great new wave of "diversity" in entertainment turns out to be mostly about hiring and promoting the same kind of person: upper-middle-class Ivy League grads.
"By January, #OscarsSoWhite was issuing a clarion call for popular culture to do something, and six months later, the culture's victories were being tabulated. Essence Magazine dedicated its May issue to five black women who were said to be 'changing the game' in Hollywood: Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy), Ava DuVernay (When They See Us, Selma), Debbie Allen (A Different World), Issa Rae (Insecure), and Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends). Between them, at least three attended private high schools, at least three had parents with college degrees, and all of them attended college themselves—Stanford, Northwestern, Dartmouth, and UCLA are on the list. Had the Essence article come out a few years later, Courtney A. Kemp (Power) would have assuredly made an appearance; Kemp received her bachelor's at Brown University and her master's at Columbia, attending not one but two Ivy League schools."
Consider Cooper's brutal takedown of Donald Glover.
"Both of Glover's parents worked; his father was a veteran and a postman while his mother was a daycare provider. The family rounded out standard middle-class bona fides with a strict religious faith and years spent fostering troubled youth. When given the chance to produce a passion project, Glover chose to make Atlanta. Discussing the show's success, Glover said, 'as a black person, you have to sell the black culture to succeed.' Atlanta draws heavily on poverty, policing, prison, violence, rap, and the culture of the black poor. It's not the environment Glover grew up in or the culture he practiced in high school or during his 20s, or 30s, but it is the one he sold to gain two Emmys and sold again to get a Grammy for This is America."
In effect, Cooper's argument is that our current racial politics is, in part, a ruse by upper-middle-class black intellectuals to compensate for their relatively well-off, "privileged" backgrounds.
The Wars of the Tribes
The background for that piece is an internal war within the left between the old-fashioned types who emphasize "class" versus the cutting-edge types who emphasize race.
This is echoed in another such internal war between the old feminists and the new "gender identity" activists. Check out a long lament about "The Progressive Erasure of Feminism" by an old feminist who finds herself locked out and ignored in the new system.
The problem, of course, is that the old feminists accepted the framework of collectivism and of group "identity." They started the wars of the tribes and like many a revolutionary movement before them, they discovered that once the struggle for power had begun, they were not guaranteed to win it.
Scenes from a Moral Panic
I have decided not to cover every little outrage of wokeness as it happens, because at some point it gets old.
It would probably be good for my career if I did so. There is a good living to be made from continually having your hair on fire about the issue that one side of the political debate has decided is currently the big issue, and to butter your bread with the Outrage of the Day. But I got my hair on fire about this all the way back in 2014, and at some point it becomes repetitive and no longer intellectually engaging.
Yet all of this is still going on, so let me direct your attention to a few of the most recent and gaudiest examples.
There is the case of a medical school lecturer forced to apologize to his students for using the phrase "pregnant women." His apology is notable for this line: "The worst thing that I can do as a human being is be offensive." This is such a ridiculous overstatement—one could make an extensive catalog of all of man's inhumanities to man, all of which are worse than offending someone—that one suspects it was deliberate irony, spoken through gritted teeth.
But look, every era has its moral panic, and this is ours. In the 1920s, it was Demon Rum; in the 1950s, the Red Scare and Reefer Madness; in the 1980s, it was an imagined wave of Satanism and maybe also Tipper Gore's campaign against sexually suggestive song lyrics. And so on. Now people are imagining phantom racism and bigotry everywhere.
Take a brief (but fortunately short-lived) panic over a baseball fan shouting the name of his hometown team's mascot, "Dinger." Some people thought he was shouting something else—but then again, back in the day, there were people who thought they could hear Satanic messages when they played heavy metal songs backwards.
Maybe the top example of this moral panice is the University of Wisconsin-Madison's campaign against a politically incorrect rock which was condemned as a "racist monument" because it was referred to by a racially insensitive name in a single newspaper article 100 years ago. You could not make this up in fiction.
It is the supreme silliness of this moral panic—its endless mockability—that will be its ultimate undoing, just as with all those previous panics.
The Phantom Menace
There is no shortage of real, actual problems in the world to worry about. For example, somebody is creating fake data in a system used to track ship locations in order to prevent collisions.
"According to analysis conducted by conservation technology nonprofit SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch, over 100 warships from at least 14 European countries, Russia, and the US appear to have had their locations faked, sometimes for days at a time, since August 2020. Some of these tracks show the warships approaching foreign naval bases or intruding into disputed waters, activities that could escalate tension in hot spots like the Black Sea and the Baltic. Only a few of these fake tracks have previously been reported, and all share characteristics that suggest a common perpetrator."
As for the "common perpetrator," guess who the likely suspect is.
"Just two days after the HMS Defender had its AIS track faked, Russian forces allegedly fired warning shots at the destroyer during a transit close to the Crimean coast. 'Imagine those shots hit their mark and Russia claimed to show that NATO ships were operating in their waters,' says Humphreys. 'The West might cry foul, but as long as Russia can flood the system with enough disinformation, they can cause a situation where it's not clear their aggression was wrong. They love to operate in that kind of nebulous territory.'"
This is just a little reminder that the authoritarians are growing bolder, the US is projecting weakness, and things could get really messy.
Problems of Their Own
I don't place a whole lot of stock in Olympic medal counts and do not take them as a fundamental gauge of national power or greatness. But you know who does treat them this way? Authoritarian regimes, who are hard up for any source of legitimacy.
That's why I've been having fun watching the Russians have a meltdown over their underwhelming performance at this summer's Olympic games.
"'Tokyo Olympics are the clearest example of total Russophobia. These Olympic Games stink. Global sports forever ceased being an honest competition, turning into a cheap political farce,' Skabeeva raged on Monday's broadcast of 60 Minutes. She baselessly alleged: 'At the behest of Americans, the International Olympic Committee took away two gold medals from Russia.'...
"Oleg Matveychev, a member of the Russian Expert Institute for Social Research, claimed that Olympic judges' decisions had been swayed by Russophobic propaganda.... He proceeded to assert that American Olympic victories are 'worthless' and likewise are 'achieved by cheating,' calling for all US athletes to be allowed to compete only in the Paralympics, because so many of them are 'sick.'"
Given the Russians' own history of massive cheating, this is obvious projection.
The Chinese are having their own meltdown after being nudged out in the overall medal count by the US, with state media and online propagandists attempting to pad out their count by claiming the medals won by Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The lies are brazen, but this is also a reminder that authoritarians have big problems of their own, and it can be hilarious to see how easy it is for ordinary events to set off their profound insecurities.