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In this week’s eSkeptic, Victoria Bekiempis reviews The Case for Rational Optimism by Frank S. Robinson. Victoria Bekiempis is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Bekiempis has written on topics ranging from botched redevelopment projects, to guano harvesting, to reality TV tryouts. She studied philosophy and languages at the University of South Florida. When she’s not working, Bekiempis is probably reading sci-fi or cooking a mean curry.


Optimism v. Realism

a book review by Victoria Bekiempis

SO YOU’VE LOST YOUR JOB. Or you’ve gone through a bitter divorce. Or your house is in foreclosure. Or your 401-K is sapped. Your kids don’t talk to you. You’re balding. You can’t just lose that fat tire around your belly. You’re sad, and life seems gloomy and meaningless at best. You’re in the midst of existential woe. Ennui that’s beyond Sartre (and his wonky eye!). Or maybe it’s just another Monday, and the fluorescents bug you out.

Whatever the case, you stumble upon Frank S. Robinson’s book The Case for Rational Optimism. You say to yourself: “How curious and fortuitous! Here’s a book on why life is generally good … and right when I need it most!” So you start reading, and you keep reading, and you find that your new hope in optimism starts to wane. Not because Robinson advocates anything silly like a glib, Pangloss-like approach to existence. Robinson would have actually been doing us a favor had he done that. Instead, Robinson makes us endure some 300 pages of fallacy and cliché-laden prose — with the occasional sprinkling of sexism.

So let’s begin with the beginning. Robinson’s thesis seems innocuous enough: life has its highs and lows, but it’s generally good. All facts considered, we should have a positive outlook on ourselves and the world. And we should put “individuals and their flourishing first and foremost.” Overall, “we are headed in the right direction.”

This is banal enough. It’s when Robinson leaves some hard-to-answer big questions unanswered, then uses rhetorical questions to solidify his thesis, that his book begins to unravel. One example: after a rather simplified rundown of evolution, Robinson offers the reader a description of the human condition that can be described as “existentialism light” — ultimate freedom meets self help. Lack of cosmic freedom, he writes, does not translate into nihilism. “Our ultimate freedom to create our own meaning is no less beautiful and awesome. You are the center of your own universe,” he writes. Robinson then asks, “well, is the meaning we create worthwhile and worth living for?” His answer is troublesome: “All of us are together on this little lifeboat of a planet, striving to make the best of the human condition. What more purpose could we need?”

As beautiful as this sounds, it remains problematic in a few senses. First, it seems to assume that human-condition pessimists maintain such a mindset because they’re troubled by meaninglessness. There are many more reasons for such pessimism: cancer, rape, genocide, famine, etc. Second, it seems to neglect why philosophers have argued about the human condition for millennia — it’s something we examine, not just pass off as, “It is what it is, cool!” We agonize over what causes us agony, and that’s why emotional unrest is not easily quelled. I don’t know whether a philosophic “Let’s make the best of this!” can mollify pessimists who remain troubled about a dearth of cosmic meaning. And it’s unclear whether even the presence of meaning would resolve pessimists’ very real human-condition concerns.

Another big flaw that occurs throughout the book is Robinson’s assumptions about longstanding philosophical dilemmas. Take evil — specifically, whether the presence of evil postulates certain qualities about the human condition. Robinson writes: “One of our most obsessive questions is why too often in this world wickedness prospers while the good suffer. Why does this torment us so? It is because we are, again, fundamentally moral beings.”

Any reader’s opinion on optimism (mine included) notwithstanding, this does not seem like a proper rejoinder to evil, let alone evidence that human nature makes us more good than bad. Consider: Robinson is essentially trying to ascertain cause from effect. In this case, he has extrapolated a cause of “inherent human good” from “unrest toward evil.” For the sake of mere argument, it is possible that humans might be troubled by evil because of what evil often equates to: property loss, physical damage, societal instability. Evil, at one very basic level, is a pain in terms of day-to-day life. To claim that our dismay about evil is proof of inherent good requires more work, which Robinson does not do.

These issues, moreover, are not isolated incidents — they occur within the beginnings of Robinson’s writing and set the premise for many of his later arguments, making them particularly troubling snags.

But troubles with Robinson’s premises aren’t all that irked me. I’m also a bit peeved by his portrayal of women. Apparently, our genes (bless them!) make us money-grubbing social climbers. “Women are wired to seek mates with high status, because that’s an indicator of good genes their children will inherit,” he writes. Robinson then quotes Aristotle Onassis’ charming quip on the female disposition, that if “women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” In all fairness, Robinson wasn’t saying that women had to act this way. Rather, he said that we’d be happier if we understood our drive toward bling and power. Still, the whole exchange smells a little 1950s.

I’m also wary of any analogy that uses domestic violence to prove a point. Robinson compares people’s veneration of flawed governments to “battered wives who still profess undying love for their abusers.” As well, I was a bit disturbed by a statement he made about single mothers and poverty. Arguing that inequality is temporary among demographics, Robinson writes: “There are many causes: being a student or single mother, illness or disability, divorce, job loss, recent immigration. But many single moms will marry, many ill people recover, most students graduate into the workforce, most unemployed find jobs, most immigrants assimilate and prosper.” Call me crazy, but it seems like Robinson is suggesting that a single mom’s route out of poverty is marriage. There’s that 1950s eau de toilette again.

Of course, Robinson might have a few words to say about this critique. I might be lumped with the pessimists, chastised as a member of, as Robinson describes it, the “bumper crop of carping crybabies” that’s ruining America.

What’s important to remember is that none of what I’ve said about Robinson’s book really deals with the merits of its ideological goal, but rather the strength of Robinson’s argument on it’s own. Unfortunately, it’s a weak one. But I’m optimistic that such a good idea as rational optimism won’t go too long without a better-suited spokesman.


Skeptical perspectives on positive thinking,
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7 Comments »

7 Comments

  1. david says:

    optimism vs. realism: hey Victoria! It sounds like that book was a real stinker that didn’t address a lot of the questions people would ask when thinking about the topic. If you want to see some good writing about positive thinking that *does* address the human condition and the miseries that accompany it, you might want to check out “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert, or even “Don’t Be Such a Scientist” by Randy Olson, which is more about science communication, but also has a hefty dose of advice towards literal-minded data-driven people to have a sense of humor and lighten up a little.

  2. Bob says:

    Until social roles get a lot further toward being dissolved I don’t think it’s intellectually honest to get offended when a guy points out that women are attracted to guys who show signs of success. It rings of empty soapboxing.

  3. Karen Tallant says:

    While reading Victoria’s review of The Case For Optimism, I was reminded of the work of the great Viktor Frankl. In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he states,”…What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaningless of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp it’s unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms…”. Dr. Frankl, who endured the ultimate nightmare of being shunted from one concentration camp to another, never speculated on the nature of evil as much as he worked to take hold of it’s presence and wrestle with his own response to it’s incomprehensible, destructive nature. Meaning must be an individual pursuit. Optimism and happiness can only come from meaning. There are no Pop Panaceas for these dilemmas. Pangloss indeed, Mr. Robinson!

  4. Frank S. Robinson says:

    It is customary for reviewers to review an entire book. Ms. Bekiempis has reviewed perhaps a fifth of The Case for Rational Optimism and seems not to have even read most of it. She dwells almost exclusively upon a few observations concerning the human condition (and her repeated, distortive accusations of sexism); there’s no clue that the book even covers such subjects as the role of science and technology; why we often fear the wrong things; the whole problem of government and politics; individualism and society; America’s economic condition; its global role; race relations; capitalism and corporations; globalization, trade, growth and world poverty; worldwide prospects for democracy; war and peace; the clash with radical Islam; the environment, sustainability, and global warming; modernity and social change; and the nature and meaning of progress. That’s the bulk of the book.

    Not only does Bekiempis disregard all this, she actually implies that I do too – in her mouthing the tired pessimist trope – “there are many more reasons for such pessimism: cancer, rape, genocide, famine, etc.” To falsely suggest that my book fails to grapple with such things is simply outrageous.

    As for the small part of it she did review, Bekiempis tries to make me sound like a purveyor of sappy banalities. Easy to do if you just take a few quotes out of context and forget the substance of the extended arguments in which they are embedded. Or, rather, make up the quotes. Bekiempis’s “It is what it is, cool!” and “Let’s make the best of this!” (notwithstanding her quote marks) are not quotes from the book, and caricature what it actually argues. Flinging the epithet “existentialism light,” she says, “emotional unrest is not easily quelled.” In fact, I said (page 43), “There can be no completely satisfying answer” to the main problem of death. Yet there are ways we can live rewarding lives and escape the trap of nihilistic existential despair. Bekiempis seems comfortable residing there, hence unwilling to deal seriously with any contrary arguments.

    (Curiously enough, two of the comments posted about the review point to the work of Viktor Frankl and Daniel Gilbert as bearing on the these issues. In fact, my book discusses both.)

    Bekiempis quotes my observation that our discomfort over “wickedness prosper[ing] while the good suffer” is indicative that we’re fundamentally moral beings. This, she says, “is not a proper rejoinder to evil.” It was, manifestly, not intended to be. Then she goes on to attack my actual point, saying that, “To claim that our dismay about evil is proof of inherent good requires more work, which Robinson does not do.” No? In fact, the “wickedness” point is merely one small observation within two full chapters examining in depth the evolutionary, sociological, psychological, and rational bases for human morality, with plenty of factual evidence from biology, anthropology and neuroscience discussed, as well as the work of major philosophers on the subject. Bekiempis may disagree with that analysis, but to say I didn’t even perform it is impermissible.

    Perhaps her animus against the book comes from a gigantic feminist chip on her shoulder. Any fair reading of the entire book would see its repeated emphasis on the importance and value of women’s empowerment. For example, on page 298: “the liberation of women has improved society, not just for women, but for everyone.” Yet Bekiempis accuses me of “sexism” by putting a tortured spin on a few quotes. Like the Onassis quote — Biekempis casts me as saying “we’d be happier if we understood our drive for bling and power.” No. I said we should understand that aspect of human nature, but argued — at some length — that we’d be happier if we behaved differently!

    Her point invoking domestic violence is incomprehensible — surely the quoted one-liner in my book says it’s a very bad thing that women shouldn’t accept. Then there’s my observation (re inequality) that “many single moms will marry.” Bekiempis says, “Call me crazy, but it seems like Robinson is suggesting that a single mom’s route out of poverty is marriage.” Well, it’s one route, surely; on average married mothers are in better economic shape than single ones. Is marriage something bad for women, that Bekiempis opposes?

    I’ll let readers judge whether to call her crazy.

    • Justin says:

      I’m glad to see that you took the opportunity to respond to this obvious misrepresentation of your book, although I think its appallingly narrow-minded and slanted reading demands a formal rebuttal in the form of an eskeptic email. You should send an email to Mr. Shermer to request this!

  5. Marko says:

    The only banality I derived from reading the review was from the review itself. Rarely do I see such a one-sided and myopic display of critique, by an “educated” student of philosophy, no less. She criticizes the author’s lack of evolutionary perspective, but is immediately defensive when it is suggested that men and women have evolved to seek different characteristics in mates.

    Her needless invocation of philosophical dilemmas is exactly that: needless. As if long-standing philosophical questions, which are long-standing exactly because they have NO “correct” answer and have thus remained “dilemmas,” are pertinent to the discussion. Any focus on these timeless philosophical puzzles would be a waste of time.

    I am not defending the author of the book, who himself seems to lack much of the same philosophical insight as Ms. Bekiempis, but a review by somebody who has supposedly studied philosophy at the university level should be more professional and well-rounded, along with less ignorant of philosophy! It would be understandable if the book espoused egregious flaws in philosophical thinking, but it doesn’t, or at least, no more so than what currently passes for mainstream “philosophy” In the end, the review leaves me with a feeling of distaste which stems from the profound dissembling of proper critique by the critic.

  6. Cathy Goldberg says:

    Ms. Bekiempis – your bias is showing! She accuses the author of having a “1950s” era bias and sniffed at his brief assertion that single mothers may languish in poverty. It didn’t occur to her to do just a brief bit of research on the topic. If she had, she would have found that this is a reality – not a bias. The smart, financially successful single mom is, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. This makes me question the entire review.

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