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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Herbert I. London

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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McLandburgh Wilson once observed, “Twixt the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll: the optimist sees the doughnut, but the pessimist sees the hole.” Since a diet of doughnuts can be deadly, I describe myself as a guarded optimist. The adjective saves me from the charge of being a Pollyanna. As I see it, there are two reasons for hopefulness.

One, pessimism is not a policy prescription. If the world were going to hell in a handbasket, most people would, ostrich-like, put their head in the sand and yield to forces they cannot control. My fear is that pessimism can easily morph into despair.

Two, empirical evidence provides some justification for guarded optimism. 1979 was a terrible year politically: the Iranian revolution deposed the shah and set loose Islamic fanaticism; the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan; the Grand Mosque in Mecca was captured by Wahhabis who were able to extract extortion payments from the House of Saud; the United States was living through a period of double-digit inflation; and the nation was saddled with a bungling president whose only response to the Soviet military action was boycotting the Olympics.

The Cassandras warned of even more dire days ahead. But in 1980, an actor from California who became the state’s governor was elected president of the United States. He exuded hope about the future, and that hope was infectious. Ronald Reagan described the Unites States as a shining city upon a hill and, despite his many detractors, lifted the nation out of doubt.

Analogies are usually faulty. Surely this moment is different from 1980, but it would be a mistake to underestimate national resilience and the role a leader can play in elevating the spirit in the body politic. There are days when gloom is a mist in the country’s air. I understand why so many are convinced the best of times are in our past, but I don’t buy this line.

Paul Valéry was right when he said, “the future isn’t what it used to be.” Alas, the future is what we make of it. An inspirational leader can awaken a dormant national esprit. Notwithstanding all the problems we face, the United States is still a model of liberty for people across the globe.

When those courageous Chinese freedom fighters jammed Tiananmen Square in 1989, they didn’t build a statue of Muhammed or Chairman Mao. They constructed a Statue of Liberty. It is our liberty that they wanted to emulate. From the condition of liberty we often take for granted springs our strength and our endurance.

Yes, I am an unapologetic optimist, admittedly guarded. But my view is grounded in reality. As I see it, in a world of manic pessimism, my realism seems like manic optimism. I wonder if that could be a bumper sticker.

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Herbert I. London is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president emeritus of the Hudson Institute.



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