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Thumbs Up
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn
July 30, 2004

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Arriving in America the customs agent stamps my passport. “Have a nice day,” he says and gives me the thumbs up. In a café on Ventura Boulevard the girl behind the counter takes my order and smiles brightly. “Have a nice day,” she says and gives me the thumbs up. Walking out into the blasting heat, a bum holds out his hand. When I give him a buck he smiles widely, “have a nice day,” he says and raises his thumb.

It’s as if these three things: the cheeseburger grin, “have a nice day” and the thumbs up sign constitute the sum total of just about every interaction with a stranger in North America. But it is the thumbs up that transcends them all, the ubiquitous sign language everyone understands. Politicians are especially enamored with it. They raise their thumbs to accentuate the positive, to affirm that all is well, and, I’m convinced, to distract your attention from the reality happening just out of your peripheral vision. The raised thumb of optimism, an ancient phallic emblem for masculine virility, is so common it could be called the quintessential American symbol.

Especially in recent months. Everyone from President Bush to the Humvee driving, social program slashing California governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger [1], to the girl leaning over the ice-packed corpse of a tortured Iraqi, is giving optimistic thumbs up. It makes sense. After all, to be American is be optimistic, as if it were a god-given right to feel good. As a random example, look at the furor recently when author E.L. Doctorow, who penned Ragtime and City of God, gave a commencement address at Hofstra University, sharply critical of George W Bush. After he was booed off the stage the assistant vice-president for university relations Melissa Connolly said, "We feel that first and foremost, the commencement is a celebration of our graduates and their accomplishments.” She went on to apologize that Doctorow’s speech had diminished the day for some of their graduates and their families.

What she was really saying was that campus is not the place to outline harsh realities, especially if it make students unhappy, especially if it pops the bubble of endemic optimism that is de rigeur in America.

It’s as though optimism has become the only state of mind allowable in the land of the happy ending. As though it’s unpatriotic not to have a nice day. The pressure to be optimistic is greater than shame, greater than conscience. You can see the triumph of optimism on the face of Lynndie England as she points to the blanked out genitals of a captive Iraqi (as if the nudity and not the smile was the rude thing).  But as reports surface of similar barbaric treatment of prisoners in jails across the country -- complete with the same souvenir-type photos, the same optimistic grins on the faces of the warders, and always the same thumbs up -- her behavior begins to look like standard operating procedure, less a “bad apple” than a minion at the bottom of a chain that commanded and approved of torture.

But still you wonder, how could they do it? How could she, the new poster girl for all that is wrong with America, have behaved in such a gloatingly depraved way?  Perhaps it’s partly optimism masquerading as moral correctness. The confidence that optimism creates, blinding the individual. Certainly optimism has intoxicated a supremely confident President and fueled a belief in the rightness of his imperialistic crusade and in the infallibility of the leadership.

So strong is the power of optimism that it has become an antidote to that other awkward emotion: doubt. Like a game of rock scissors paper; optimism appears to always trump doubt, no matter what the macro situation beyond an individual’s control. It is doubt, so the ethos goes, that is at the root of our personal failures; not the jobless economic recovery, the sellout of the entire food chain to corporations, the 456 outright lies told or endorsed by the president and his administration [2], the widest gap between rich and poor in the democratic world [3], the twin obsessions of faith and pornography (47% of Christians said porno was a major problem in their homes). [4]

It’s not cancer -- now the leading cause of death in Americans under 65 [5] or the fact that 44 million of them can’t afford treatment of any kind (despite the fact that the US spends more per capita on health-care services than any other OECD country), [6] it’s not a system that is building prisons and filling them with ever lower definitions of criminality faster than it’s funding education [7] or an education that ensures the young are good for cannon fodder or a McJob in the service industry (where, under a new proposal flipping burgers will be reclassified as manufacturing rather than service). [8]

To remain optimistic, in the face of such things, is the most patriotic thing an American can do. It’s become the only way to let the world know you’ve got with the program. Perhaps it’s the only way to convince yourself. Remember in the weeks after 9/11 the president exhorting his people to spend, to proclaim freedom by running up credit card debt, to use consumption as the means of returning to a positive, optimistic state of mind that would then, most importantly, keep the economy pumping?

In 1798 English clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus wrote an essay on optimism. He linked it to the progress that characterized the growing power of the industrial revolution to expropriate the goods and services of the natural environment. It is optimism, Malthus noted, that fuels growth. Today it is the belief in limitless growth that drives not just the United States but also every Western nation.

But is there a tipping point, a time when continuous growth finally outstrips supply in a finite world? In 1978 Malthusian expert John F. Rohe documented the very real downsides of unending growth: loss of biodiversity, the consumption of finite natural resources and the pollution of our environment. We are moving, he said, to the collective brink of ecological collapse from which, even with all our technological solutions we cannot recover. All this on the tidal wave of optimism.

But what about happiness? After all optimism is surely a precondition of happiness, the very mark, in fact, of successful happiness, which is, after all, the ultimate goal in today’s world. If being optimistic, even the fake-it-till-you-make-it variety, makes the difference, then what can be wrong with that?

American social critic Christopher Lasch confronted this problem. “The progressive credo has fostered an “easy optimism,” he said, but noted he saw nothing in optimism to serve as “an effective antidote to despair.” While Lasch, who died in 1994, did not make the connection, perhaps that accounts for the fact that today one in every eight Americans is on some form of anti-depressant.

Lasch had a simple prescription. Americans, he asserted, were missing the traditional virtue of hope. “Hope," he wrote in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, in 1991, “does not demand a belief in progress. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life. It rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. “Those who can ‘distinguish hopefulness’ from the more conventional attitude known today as optimism,” Lasch averred, “can see why it serves us better, in steering troubled waters ahead, than a belief in progress.”

And then there’s Agathism.  Unlike the unflappable smile and the thumbs up of the optimist who blithely believes things will work out or that good is triumphing over evil, the agathist accepts evil and misfortune but believes it is the ultimate nature of things to tend toward the good and improve. In There's A Word For It! The Grandiloquent Guide to Life by Charles Harrington Elster, an agathist is described as being like an optimist, but more rational and profound.

But in contemplating optimism and its elevation to the most important attribute of the world’s most powerful nation, its reliance on conscious ignorance, relentless consumption and growth, on “have a nice day,” on cheeseburger wide grins and of course thumbs up, you begin to feel the desperation that characterized much of Lasch’s work. And you begin to wonder, as Lasch did, if the denouement of the cult of optimism will come only as the result of some ultimate confrontation in the future.  Some event like the cataclysmic climate change portrayed in this season’s blockbuster with an environmental message, The Day After Tomorrow. For all its clumsiness and over explication the film neatly sums up the optimist/agathist split. It is the optimists who perish, drawn to their frozen deaths by a belief that things always work out. Even the President is caught in a fatal climate change of his own making. While the heroes, father and son, are fueled by trust, by a rational understanding of the true situation, by the hope of love and loyalty. A perfect Agathist moment. Imagine if it were true.

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is an award winning freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She has contributed to a wide range of media, and is currently working on a new novel. She can be reached at: Visit her website to read more of her work: © 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn




(1) Andrea Peters, "California Governor announces millions more in cuts," World Socialist Website, December 24, 2003.

(2) See Center for American Progress.

(3) Witold Kwasnicki, Globalization and Poverty
(Institute of Economic Sciences, Wroclaw University).

Family Safe Media, Pornography Statistics 2003.

(5) American Cancer Society,
Cancer Statistics 2004.

(6) Health Affairs, May/June 2004 issue.

(7) Rachel Herzing and Melissa Burch, "Challenging the prison industrial complex," USA Today Magazine, November 2003; Carole Seligman, "No on school vouchers!," Youth for Socialist Action website.

(8) "McJobs mistake: Sorry, but burger flipping isn't manufacturing," Pittsburg Post-Gazette editorial, March 13, 2004.

Other Articles by Barbara Sumner Burstyn

* Euthanasia in the Context of Sick Societies
* Some One Else’s Filthy Backyard
* And Now For Some Good News
* Sating the Monster
* The A Word
* Replying to the American Embassy

* The Breast That Changed the World
* On Not Being Anti-American
* The New Underclass
Celestial Land Grabs and the Demise of Science
When is a Democracy Not a Democracy?

* True Heroes Will Help Beggars Through Another Day
* The Sum Total of My Body Parts
* I Blame God
* Fresh Food Fear
* Starve the Beast
* Smoke and Mirrors: Fatal Weapons in US War Against Reality

* A GM Question or Two

* Hooker Look in Fashion as Porn Becomes de Rigueur

* The Twisted Logic of Mothers Who Abandon Mothering

* Only in America

* We Really are Living on the Dark Side of the Moon

* Viagra for Girls: Medical Light Bulbs Can't Switch off Relationship Woes

* No Room on the Balance Sheet for Truth or Humanity

* Working to Live has Been Overtaken by Living to Work