Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Screw optimism and screw 'sanity'" (Ian Welsh)


I found this painting, "Optimism," by John Slaby, illustrating an October 2007 blogpost by John Fenzel called "Your Brain on Optimism. . . "

"I do know that when I want to have good time at a party, or I need a good salesman, I look for different abilities than I do in good analysts and good leaders. That the person who runs my nuclear plants should not be Mr. Fucking Sunshine, 'it’ll all work out for the best!'"
-- Ian Welsh, in the blogpost
"Screw Optimism and screw 'sanity'

by Ken

Let me say first that I'm not sure I"m prepared to accept the characterization of George W. Bush as "eminently sane" -- unless, of course, he attempts an insanity defense when he's called to account for his much-worse-than-waste of a life. (By the legal definition, he's certainly sane.) And if there's an implication here that, as has often been suggested, George W. Bush would be fun to have a beer with, I think the idea is preposterous -- again unless the only purpose in having that beer is to get quickly sloshed enough that you don't care about the absence from his mind of perception, curiosity, sensitivity, and imagination.

That said, I can certainly imagine there are people who might well make convivial drinking pals who would nevertheless be as disastrous as Ian argues in any position of leadership that requires a realistic perception of problems and dangers.

Of course I haven't explained yet what the hell we're talking about. Here's Ian:
I recently stumbled across a book on the link between leadership and what we call madness. From the Amazon review:
Take realism, for instance: study after study has shown that those suffering depression are better than “normal” people at assessing current threats and predicting future outcomes. Looking at Lincoln and Churchill among others, Ghaemi shows how depressive realism helped these men tackle challenges both personal and national. Or consider creativity, a quality psychiatrists have studied extensively in relation to bipolar disorder. A First-Rate Madness shows how mania inspired General Sherman and Ted Turner to design and execute their most creative-and successful-strategies.

Ghaemi’s thesis is both robust and expansive; he even explains why eminently sane men like Neville Chamberlain and George W. Bush made such poor leaders. Though sane people are better shepherds in good times, sanity can be a severe liability in moments of crisis. A lifetime without the cyclical torment of mood disorders, Ghaemi explains, can leave one ill equipped to endure dire straits. He also clarifies which kinds of insanity -- like psychosis -- make for despotism and ineptitude, sometimes on a grand scale.

"Ordinary people, what we call 'sane' in our society," Ian says,
are really shitty analysts. Really, really shitty analysts. Their bias to the upside is tiresome, predictable and makes them wrong, over and over and over again. They don’t know what real threats are, they constantly are confused about what is really dangerous. They think stranger pedophiles are a big danger to their kids, while it’s their family members or their own driving. They think terrorism is dangerous, when almost no one dies from it, as opposed to crossing the street or eating too many Big Macs. They fear “Osama” when the men who are most likely to cause their death or impoverishment have names like Bush, Paulson, Geithner, Obama and so on.

Ian understands why people gravitate to optimism and optimists, which he says is fine --
as long as optimists aren’t your leaders or analysts, and don’t run your nuclear power plants, or plan your economies, or make any decisions about anything which if it goes wrong can go catastrophically wrong. Optimists are happier, they live longer, they’re healthier, they “get up and go”, blah, blah, blah. Optimism is good for optimists and hey, they’re generally more pleasant to be around, too. There are time periods when they’re even right a lot (say during the 50s). But basically, they’re blind. One imagines conversations between cows. “Hey, they feed us every day, we get free health care, no real responsibility! The dog makes sure the wolves don’t bother us. This is great! I do wonder what happened to Thelma and Fred, when they took them away in that truck? But I’m sure it wasn’t anything bad, and if it was they must have deserved it, and anyway, that’d never happen to me, because I’m a good cow and this is the best herd in the whole world!”

And you can tell people what will happen, in advance, and be right, over and over and over again. And what that will do is get you marginalized. “Oh, he’s so negative! Such a downer. He should make us feel good about ourselves and our future, and if he doesn’t, we won’t listen. Let’s watch some TV!” The stuff that makes you a good everyday person, a pal at the pub, the best husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, mother or father, does not make you a good analyst or a good leader. Choosing other sheep to lead you, to guide you, gets you what you’re getting right now, good and hard.

"Likewise," Ian says, "I am beyond tired of the excessive stigmatization of anger and hatred."
It is appropriate to hate some people. If you don’t hate a man who has killed tens to hundreds of thousands of people (you don’t know because he refused to count) for a war based on lies, while gutting your civil rights, you are either a saint or your values are so fucked up I don’t even know what to say. You hate some people (yes, you do, don’t deny it), why don’t you hate the people who are actually doing evil on an industrial scale and who directly threaten your prosperity and your good life? And why, exactly, aren’t you angry? Again, don’t tell me you don’t get angry (unless you’re a saint), so why aren’t you angry at the people who are destroying your future and the future of your children?

Oh, right, because most people suck at threat analysis. They don’t even know what or who is really dangerous. They don’t /want/ to believe that people who look like they’d be great to have a beer with, or Uncle Fred, or driving their beloved automobile, or the food that they eat, is what’s actually going to kill them, make them sick, or hurt the kid they profess is just the most special and important person in their life, except when it comes to making sure the kid will have a world worth living in.

So folks. Hate can be awful, it can lead to awful crimes. But you’re going to hate someone, so learn who to hate. Anger can be terrible, few people know that better than I do, as my father’s temper was the terror of my youth, but you’re going to be angry, know when and with who to get angry with, and stop displacing your anger.

And screw hope. Screw optimism. Really, seriously. Hope is like pride, you should have exactly as much hope as the circumstances dictate, and no more.

But you can’t live that way. I know. You need your hope. You need to believe.

Ok. That’s fine. I understand. Variety is good.

But don’t insist that everyone else be like you. And understand your own weaknesses. Know what you suck at. Find the people who don’t suck at those things, figure out which ones to trust (that’s a whole other essay) and listen to them. No one is good at everything (I sure as hell am not), but a wise person knows what they are bad at.

Who is mad? The pessimist, the depressive, who accurately understands the world around him, or the hope filled optimists who are blind to real threats, can’t predict the future worth a damn and who select their leaders based on “wouldn’t it be great to have a beer with him?”

I don’t know, and I don’t even really care. But I do know that when I want to have good time at a party, or I need a good salesman, I look for different abilities than I do in good analysts and good leaders. That the person who runs my nuclear plants should not be Mr. Fucking Sunshine, “it’ll all work out for the best!”

Just, no.

Ian concludes with an admonition to "stop drugging your kids en masse. Ok? Just stop," referring back to comments on the habit of dealing with childish "differences" by drugging them away, which I've omitted above, along with a good deal of other material for which you really should read the full post.

But the basic point seems to me a dreadfully important one.


There've been terrific pieces yesterday and today, which I'm hoping we'll have a chance to come back to, called "Innocents were already being hurt in Britain" and "The monopoly of violence and simple solutions to supposedly insoluble problems." But scroll through the blog itself ( for his earlier comments.

Not surprisingly, Ian takes a noticeably different tack from the Cameron-clone American right-wing commentators, who think they've said something when they declare that what's happening is criminality "pure and simple," which needs to be dealt with by pure-and-simple crime-busting.

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At 7:20 PM, Anonymous me said...

He's full of shit. Bush is not "eminently sane". He might be considered sane in comparison to Michelle Bachmann, but that doesn't mean much, does it.

No religious person can be considered completely sane.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

Thanks Keni, More books to read & EXCELLENT cartoons.

Bush a Leader? I suppose he is now a leader in his little gated compound in Texas, where he cannot leave the US for fear of arrest by most of the civilized world.


From "Young Frankenstein".

"Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [to Igor] Now that brain that you gave me. Was it Hans Delbruck's?
Igor: [pause, then] No.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Ah! Very good. Would you mind telling me whose brain I DID put in?
Igor: Then you won't be angry?
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: I will NOT be angry.
Igor: Abby someone.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby someone. Abby who?
Igor: Abby... Normal.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby Normal?
Igor: I'm almost sure that was the name.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [chuckles, then] Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA?
[grabs Igor and starts throttling him]
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Is that what you're telling me? "

At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Screw Ian Welsh for putting "srew sanity," online. And screw you, me, for claiming that no religious person can be considered completely sane.


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