Politics & Media
Oct 31, 2023, 06:28AM

Optimism in Terrible Times

Glimmers of hope in a darkened world situation.

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In 1941, when Erich Silber, my future father, was a 16-year-old Austrian-born Jewish refugee in the Dominican Republic, news came that Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. Many among the refugees reacted with alarm, expecting the invasion to be successful and a step toward Nazi world-domination. One older man was calmer. “The Germans will go like this,” he said, making a slapping motion in the air. “But then the Russians will go like THIS,” and his hand swept back with greater force.

That man was an optimist, and he was right. Moreover, that anecdote, relayed to me by my father decades later, also tells something about the nature of optimism: it’s not the same as complacency, obliviousness to problems, or a bland assumption that everything will be fine. That refugee’s sweeping hand signified battles yet to come that would cost millions of lives; plus, while a prospective Nazi victory brought an unparalleled dread, there was plenty of reason to fear what a Soviet victory would entail. Still, an optimist may perceive, even in the darkest moments, that an unstable situation in a complex world just might lead to outcomes that malefactors didn’t intend and that pessimists didn’t consider.

A recent piece by Lucian Truscott IV, whose Substack newsletter I recommend, concisely sums up much of what’s bleak in the world at present, noting that the Israel-Hamas war is but one of numerous conflicts, and that violence, disease and instability have occurred on a massive scale, including in the U.S., a country that had 1.14 million Covid deaths, loses tens of thousands of lives per year to gun violence, and had an attempted coup. Truscott’s picture is cogent, as is his description of not just the Middle East, but the world more broadly, as a “tinderbox.” And certainly, there’s plenty in human history, including the two world wars, to indicate that things can go from bad to worse precipitously.

Incidentally, Truscott’s piece doesn’t mention climate change, a problem that recedes from public attention when other crises arise, but which acts, as former presidential candidate Will Hurd put it, as a “threat multiplier,” intensifying food and water shortages, population movements, and instability more generally. A piece recently came across my desk for copyediting that described the world as “alight,” which for a moment I thought referred to Israel and Gaza, before realizing the author was talking about heat waves and wildfires. A subsequent sentence made it sound as if world news is currently dominated by climate change; I rewrote that, contemplating that the article was probably written last summer, and that, as I recently noted, even quickly-published writing nowadays can easily be overtaken by events.

Noah Smith, another Substack writer I recommend, tends toward an optimistic perspective that’s persuasive, in significant part, because it includes an unflinching look at problems. Smith, an economist by training, recently pointed out positive trends in Americans’ wealth and incomes, with debt and inequality shrinking. He’s written about varieties of optimism; a recent post on techno-optimism distinguished between active and passive (whether tech advances will happen only with certain policies, or in any case) and normative versus positive (whether advances are just possible or also desirable). As the crisis in Gaza unfolded, Smith considered how the enclave could someday be prosperous. However, he also argues a U.S. war with China over Taiwan is a real possibility, for which we’re not prepared.

I see some causes for cautious optimism that the world situation may become less-troubled over the next few years and decades.

For one, the malevolent ideologies currently propounded by aggressive nations and groups tend to have limited appeal to the public in democratic countries. That was clear recently when left-wing activists’ celebrations of Hamas’ attack brought a widespread backlash. During the early- to mid-20th century, totalitarian nations and movements portrayed themselves as superior societies that would be, in Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s phrase, “the wave of the future”; this had a resonance in public opinion, particularly in intellectual circles. Today, despite affinities for Putin’s Russia or Orban’s Hungary among conservatives such as Rod Dreher, or attempts on the hard-left to cloak Islamic extremism in liberatory rhetoric, relatively few people want to live in societies ruled by such ideologies.

Second, democratic nations have been working together on military and diplomatic matters in the last few years to a greater degree than in recent decades, marking a particular reversal from the every-country-for-itself attitude spurred by the Trump administration. This has manifested in support for Ukraine and Israel and stepped-up efforts to deter aggression against Taiwan. On a visit to Australia early this year, I read up on plans to purchase nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S.; and on a pleasure boat in Sydney Harbor with family and friends, watched South Korean warplanes perform a flyby.

Third, two pernicious avatars of the populist style in Western democracies, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, appear now to be near the end of their careers, whether through prosecution or political rejection. Although one remains in power and the other possibly could return to it, their manifest failures have generated a degree of opposition that will present formidable obstacles to their ambitions.

In 1941, my father and others feared that Hitler would take over the world. It was widely assumed, in any case, that Nazi Germany would remain a foremost world power. The possibility that it would be defeated, and that the Soviet Union too would in time disappear, would’ve seemed impossibly optimistic. Don’t assume that the malevolent forces of the 2020s are here forever. Not infrequently, such entities overplay their hand, revealing their nature to the world and hastening their own oblivion.

—Kenneth Silber is author of In DeWitt’s Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal, and posts at Post.News.


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