The Allegory of the Optimist and the Realist

A Cautionary Tale

Imagine entering a room in which the electrical wiring is defective. You turn the switch on. Nothing happens. Someone replaces the bulb but the room remains dark. The circuit breaker is deemed operational. Most people, after a few attempts at flipping the switch, come to the realization that the circuit is broken. They accurately conclude that the light is not going to come on. This is a rational and intelligent response to the reality of the situation; one that weds cause and effect to results.

A few of the people in the room, however, have resolute faith in the defective circuit. They are confident that the light will eventually come on. Among them, the belief persists that if one continues to flip the switch enough times, eventually it will start working. Convinced that the problem is a defective bulb, they replace one light bulb with another every few minutes. As with political elections, one dim bulb follows another into the socket. Case after case of new bulbs is exhausted. And yet, despite the best of intentions of the optimists, the room remains as dark as a sarcophagus.

Suffering from cognitive dissonance, the eternal optimist, like Joe Hill’s fictitious character Mr. Block, ignores the fact that the wiring is broken and the circuit can never be operational without a major overhaul, regardless of how many times the switch is turned on. They contend that changing the bulb is easier and safer than rewiring the circuit. The optimists insist that when the right bulb is found, light will dispel darkness and everything will become clear. This is what they have always done. It has never worked.

Nevertheless, despite decades of contrary results, the positivity and faith of the optimists cannot be blunted. In darkness, they busy themselves trying the switch again and again. Ignoring the enduring darkness, some outsiders admire the optimist’s diligence and determination. Light, they insist, like change one can believe in, is a matter of faith.

Others, seeing the absurdity of these actions, scoff at the optimist’s foolishness. Having forged a Faustian alliance with the building’s landlords, the corporate media lauds the optimist’s determination as a civic duty that is bound to bring enlightenment, if only they will persist indefinitely in their endeavor. Both the realists and the optimists want to shine light into the darkness; however, there is fierce disagreement about their methodology. Like the reformer and the revolutionary, their differences are irreconcilable.

Eventually an exulted priest, Reverend Friedman, is consulted, who advises everyone to ignore the darkness and to obey the proprietors of the building. “There will be light for everyone in the afterlife,” he advises the crowd. “One must have faith in the system and the people it attracts to serve. Do not be deceived by the lack of results in the present. God will see that we are not wanting when we are dead. The free market, the divine oracle of capitalism, will provide a solution to all of our problems.” The good Reverend admonishes the realists for their lack of faith and departs for the Big Top, where barkers are attracting a crowd and organ grinders ply their trade.

The darkened house sits on the corner of Egalitarian Avenue and Democracy Boulevard in a town called Plutocratville. Thievery Corporation and Fascism Incorporated, now headquartered in Capitalist China, were once the primary businesses.

The landlords of the house, The Big “O” and Capito, propose to keep the occupants in the dark, where they conspire to do their work, each deflecting criticism from the other. The landlords cynically use the optimist’s faith and their naiveté to keep them from making the circuit function as intended by its designers. Among historians, there is intense debate about what their real intentions were.

Darkness prevents some of the tenants from seeing the dilapidated condition of the house as it falls down around them. This permits the unscrupulous landlords to continue collecting rent while covertly looting the building of its contents, including its copper wiring. The optimist’s preoccupation with the switch and their unstinting faith prevents them from noticing the pilferage.

Meanwhile, the optimists have become contemptuous of the realists, who have abandoned the switch and propose to bring in an electrician to replace the defective wiring with a functioning circuit. They label the realists as doomsayers, pessimists, negativists, and conspiracy theorists. Invoking the language of fear, the most optimistic believers refer to the realists as socialists, communists, or Marxists. From the optimist’s perspective, the problem is not the broken circuit; it is lack of faith in the system on the part of the realists.

Beset with delusion, the most extreme optimists have convinced themselves that the light is actually shining by refusing to acknowledge the darkness around them. They create inspirational euphemisms that substitutes light for dark and dark for light. Thus, hate becomes love, and war becomes peace. The euphoric optimists are delighted by the system; however, they falsely perceive themselves as enlightened. Reality and powerlessness terrifies them, so they retreat into catacombs of fantasy. Their time-worn strategies are predicated upon false premises.

Equipped with only vestigial eyes and terrified about the implications of existing in utter darkness, the optimists refuse to adopt the more revolutionary strategy of the realists as too radical and too dangerous. They contend that the people are not ready for directly confronting the underlying causes of the failed circuitry.

Much like reformers during America’s era of chattel slavery, the optimists reason that directly confronting cause and effect must be postponed until after the November elections and the mid-terms thereafter. The reformers hypothesize that The Big “O” and Capito must be reelected to a second term as landlords of the tenement, when they will reveal their humanitarian intentions and make things right.

To accept the darkness as the absence of light would be so psychologically disorienting that it would cause the optimist’s mental circuits to shut down, much like the events of 9-11 has suspended critical thinking and scientific analysis in the USA. Karl Marx called this state of mind false consciousness.

Although fictionalized, the Allegory of the Optimist and the Realist raises important questions about human nature, irrational faith in dysfunctional systems of power, and reality. For instance, if one continually confounds false consciousness for true consciousness and illusion for reality, how can one make progress?

One must begin by acknowledging reality and accepting it for what it is, regardless of how painful or undesirable its truth. Faith does not always serve human need; it often undermines progress and promotes oppression of the working class, despite its occasional good intentions. Broken systems of power do not promote justice.

Ultimately, we can only begin our respective journeys to true consciousness and thus revolution from wherever are. But we must have the courage to acknowledge where that is. False hope and wishful thinking can prevent us from doing what must be done. It can perpetuate the very inequality we are trying to eradicate. Reality, no matter how disturbing, provides a solid base from which to move forward. Take it for what it is.

Charles Sullivan is a Master Naturalist, community activist, and free-lance writer residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia. . Read other articles by Charles.