The News Summer From Hell and the End of Optimism

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Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, June 16, 2014. (AP Photo)
Demonstrators in favor of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, June 16, 2014.(AP Photo)

This post originally appeared at The Jewish Journal.

By this point in the summer, a sane person could reasonably conclude that the world is going nuts. Spiraling out of control, descending into darkness, making optimism a delusional last recourse — that kind of feeling.

“What fresh hell is this?” — the question Dorothy Parker asked when her doorbell rang — now applies to the news. If you’re staying informed, you’re licking the razor. Unfortunately, not following what’s happening in the world isn’t really an option. These horrors seize our lizard brains; we’re hard-wired to pay attention to danger.

No wonder we’re nervous wrecks — just look at what we’ve been processing.

In June, we learned that 10,000 immigrant children a month, many alone and under 13, had been crossing our border, creating a humanitarian crisis and a political circus.

In early July, the Gaza war began. Some saw it as a necessary response to an existential threat. Some, including me, were heartbroken by its human cost and despondent about losing all hope of reaching a two-state solution.

The next week, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile fired from Ukrainian territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. You did not need to be a conspiracy theorist to connect the dots from its 298 dead passengers and crew to Vladimir Putin.

Then, in early August, came a vertiginous four-day run of horribles.

On Aug. 8, we discovered we were living in a real-life zombie movie when the World Health Organization declared Ebola — Ebola! — an international public health emergency.

On Aug. 9, an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. We barely had time to be outraged by the injustice when, on Aug. 10, the police turned out in Ferguson to do crowd control looking like the US Army in Fallujah, and the national conversation about race we had been urged to have just the day before was superseded by a call for a national conversation about the militarization of police.

On Aug. 11, we learned Robin Williams had committed suicide, and along with our shock and grief came a call for a national conversation about depression and mental illness.

Last week saw the release of the video of James Foley’s decapitation, making it clear, if the plight of the Yazidis had not, that ISIS is even scarier than Ebola, and raising the specter of worse-than-9/11 terrorists who travel on US and EU passports.

And then this weekend a 6.0 earthquake struck Napa, which was enough to rouse from denial, at least for a moment, anyone who lives near a geological fault.

(Speaking of denial and news from hell, did I mention climate change? With every other miserable thing going on, droughts, record temperatures and the melting of the polar ice caps could barely muscle their way onto our summer radar screen.)

We who experience these events through the media are infinitely better off than people for whom they are life-or-death reality. But even at our remove, it’s hard not to feel beaten up and helpless. This feeling is amplified by the media’s economic self-interest in keeping us anxious and riveted, and by our addiction to our ubiquitous screens. Steven Pinker’s argument — that this is actually the least violent time in human history — may be factually accurate, and there are plenty of genocides within living memory to put today’s torrent of rotten news in perspective, but that’s cold comfort when all you want to do is pull the blanket over your head.

It’s stunning how steep a dive our optimism has taken since the start of this century, when a Pew poll reported that an “overwhelming” 81 percent of Americans felt optimistic about the future. But this month an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll said that 71 percent of us think we’re on the wrong track, and Gallup reported that 76 percent of us are dissatisfied with the way things are going — and that comes on the heels of a Penn Schoen Berland poll, headlined “Americans Are No Longer Optimists,” which found that two-thirds of us question whether we’ll be back on the right track even 10 years from now.

Optimism, long a topic of philosophy, is now also the province of scientists. (Check out Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog for an overview.) Pessimists can train themselves to be optimists, says psychologist Martin Seligman. Neuroscientist Tali Sharot says optimism — not realism — can lengthen your life. “Although the belief in a better future is often an illusion,” she writes, “hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress and improves physical health.” If you believe the glass is half full, what it turns out to be half full of is serotonin, cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin — the feel-good neurotransmitters that get us through the nihilistic night.

The existence of evil — which is the subtext of the news in this summer from hell — is corrosive of optimism. But Helen Keller, in her book Optimism, wrote that the struggle with evil is one of life’s greatest blessings: “It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail.”

I’d be glad to turn my attention to “the preponderance of good” in the world. But that will be damn near impossible until as much good news as bad news is Breaking News.

The views expressed in this post are the authors’ alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Also follow him on twitter @martykaplan.
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  • Ruth Eve

    “The only thing to fear, is fear itself.”

    I refuse to give in, or give up.

    There is no real reason not to be optimistic. Whether or not it is clear to us, there are so many things to be grateful for (its not like Vikings are raping, pillaging, or dismembering our family members. We can order out artisan pizza and go the movies if we need a break from the happenings of the world, for heaven’s sake).

    But in one sense, it is true that those of us of a certain age …are on our way “out.” (For us, there is truth to the idea that our world is coming to an end). Yet, that does not give us the right to give up trying to make the world a better place …or to not model the characteristics of hope, perseverance, integrity and joy…. for those who are only now at the beginning of life.

  • Anonymous

    While somethings are out of our hands, I’d argue that 60% of the “hell” we’re processing is of our own manufacture, and is solvable without creating drama. For example the border crisis could have been dealt with rationally in the beginning if we didn’t have to deal with the xenophobic, anti-immigration, wing nuts strapping on their rifles and hyperventilating whenever there was a camera around. Similarly with Detroit, Ferguson, Staten Island, incidents that highlight important problems in our society, didn’t need to spiral out of control had there been solid leadership out front. Congress is one giant drama show of our own manufacture, I would hold Congress and the partisanship as a big cause of the “hells” we digest everyday.

  • Ruth Eve

    I agree that we do not need to create drama. We need to solve problems.

    Rather than becoming overwhelmed, we need to dig in deeper to find real and meaningful solutions. These sorts of problems (and much worse) have plagued humanity throughout time –and in reality, we have solved many many many of our challenges.

    Change is disruptive. We can either fold …or emerge with greater clarity and skills sets.

    We must to learn to collaborate (not compromise), communicate, and continuously improve ourselves if we are to survive.

    Every problem is driven by solutions that are ready to be realized and enacted.

    When we have tackled the problems that we currently face, the world will be a much more peaceful and brighter place for all of us.

  • muktuk

    Global human over-population is the culprit here. The increase in social conflicts from racism here in the USA, to the religious strife in the Middle East (well really worldwide), to political polarisations worldwide…there are simply too many people on this shrinking planet. John Calhoun had it right and nobody is listening!

  • proletariatprincess

    yes. Always. It is as if the majority of the population that happens to be female, is just irrelevant to anything that is happening in their world.

  • Eric of Brooklyn

    Misandry Alert! Misandry Alert!

  • Veteran

    “Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed by a surface-to-air missile fired from Ukrainian territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists … you did not need to be a conspiracy theorist to connect the dots from its 298 dead passengers and crew to Vladimir Putin.” No, you just need to be taken in by US/NATO propaganda to believe this. How about connecting the dots instead to the disarming honest Victoria Nuland and her personally selected brand of Ukrainian coup neo-Nazis.

  • SuzanneK

    ….”war,”……yeah,uh-huh…….name me ONE female with power in government who has come out consistently against war?

    NOT, Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, Susan Rice or any of the other war witches in the Demopublican/Washington War party today.

  • Guest

    the sad state of news disappointing i suppose, otherwise what was disappointing? the article is pretty accurate to the reality and its message in quoting the poles-if anything the author could have gone more extreme and it’d be more true than not re pessimistic modern times

  • Rory Conrad

    the majority of the “ones on the way out” gave up, or were corrupted long ago and have produce/contributed to the sad state of affairs today, albeit some by innocence and naivety- it is easy/convenient to be an optimist when u don’t have to think of the realities of living in 2050, let alone 2100, and the direction the world is heading. Your “there is truth to the idea that our world is coming to an end” philosophy says what? the “ones on the way out” mentality-it was nvr your world, its not mine or anyone/things-your subsequent statement after is idealism-it is not as bad as what your describe what the Vikings did, however police brutality and racism are dismembering families-bc taking a break, going to the movies and eating apathy isn’t that bad for heaven’s? sake-yeah, we need more of that mentality

    -from a millenial

  • Ruth Eve

    I apologize if I was not very clear, Rory. And, I understand that it is difficult to be optimistic when it seems the world is falling apart around you.

    But practically all studies show that effective problem solving shuts down when we engaged in negative thinking, and that little innovation can occur unless there is hope that it will be used. Throwing in the towel is practically a sure bet for defeat and failure (making pessimism itself a self fulfilling prophecy). My post was meant to chastise older people for projecting their own sense of mortality onto younger generations, because I believe it is neither healthy or helpful.

    My comments about Vikings (and movies, going out to eat, etc) were an attempt to offer some perspective. Representational bias is a mental shortcut that often leads to mistakes in judgement. We tend to think that just because we see something often … that it represents reality (in other words, we incorrectly apply the information everywhere instead of only where it actually applies). My point is that even though we are bombarded with images and slogans that suggest that the world is falling apart, that we need to pay attention to the way our perceptions are being manipulated (whether it’s intentional, or not).

    I know that it may seem like ancient history to you, but my grandmother road to Dallas with her parents in covered wagon because in 1904 there were only 10 miles of paved roads in America. Of the 13 children, five died before adulthood. There were no child labor laws, so many children worked long hours in coal mines and factories. Only about 9% of Americans at that time held even a high school diploma. It wasn’t until the 1920-50s that most homes got electricity and indoor plumbing. Antibiotics were not discovered until the middle of WWII, a war which claimed 60 MILLION lives. Jim Crow laws were legal and considered normal and natural by more than a few, and redlining was legal until 1972. When I was raised, there were few opportunities open to women. The news then was full of assassinations, riots, wars, suffocating pollution and social chaos.

    Yet, here many of us sit — in air conditioning, with computers, cell phones, access to healthy food, and a culture that has the luxury to claim “family first” as a priority –while so many complain loudly about horrible they have it. It is definitely true that there are complex challenges that must be faced, and that it falls upon us to take action (instead of just getting to sit back, and watch TV and live “the good life”). But when was anyone promised a rose garden? Do we think that George Washington had it easy? WHEN was there a time when life was simply a walk in the park?

    I also find it especially surprising that just as we have a person of color in the White House, and women begin to experience positions of power in any real numbers, that suddenly we decide we just can’t go on.

    It is only our lack of imagination, and the mental prisons that we have allowed other to impose on us, that paralyze us from taking meaningful action. Optimism then is not idealistic or foolish. It is the courage to continue to move forward despite what we see. It is the insistence that we remember both those who came before,and those who will come after …and not give up.

  • Rory Conrad

    good reply- cool story bout ur grandparents and Dallas-namaste

  • Ruth Eve

    I think millennials are awesome –and wish you all the best <3

  • Ruth Eve

    thanks, and btw I think millennials are awesome —and I wish you all the best!

  • JC

    Ebola and earthquakes are natural phenomena…ISIS isn’t. These near-do-wells, criminals, and pretenders of Islam, are a bigger threat to us all (the world) than anything currently facing us. If I were Muslim, I would be enraged at the wanton murder of innocents, children, women and anyone who doesn’t follow these miscreants. Where in the Koran does it say “Kill anyone who disagrees with you” or stands in you way? Answer: it doesn’t.
    I am hoping and praying that Obama can convince the world that there is a very dire need to eradicate these vermin from the face of the earth. They are not true believers and, they certainly are not religious in the truest sense of the word. What do we do with rats?

  • Joan Harris

    Life is difficult…for us all. We may choose to suffer neurotically or legitimately. All the bad news fed through the media whether accurate or not is bound to influence exaggerated behavior neurotically. Fact is, there is evil in the world. Some of it has been or will be managed but some of it is beyond our own control. I believe 9-11 has traumatized our nation and we haven’t healed. If we, as a nation, could come together instead of battling it out politically and otherwise the rest of the world just might take us seriously. Then and only then will we stand a chance to be effective. One thought about President Obama….he is our Commander-In-Chief and with it comes responsibility not to do harm and at the same time defend our country. He is not a macho-in-chief and for that I am grateful.

  • Glenn Havinoviski

    I am not sure Obama is himself convinced they are a terrible threat. If he were, I think there would have been a much more forceful response already. It doesn’t have to be “macho”, they just need to be reminded of who they’re dealing with. And if they willfully want to sacrifice themselves for those 72 virgins, no reason we shouldn’t help them – on their turf, not ours.

  • Glenn Havinoviski

    The fact is IS is a threat now and we cannot ignore them, no matter how wrong-headed our response to 9/11 may have been.

  • JC

    I agree…..only, somebody should clue these guys in: there are no 72 virgins where they’re going to wind up.