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The Case for Cultural Optimism

The Case for Cultural Optimism

10 Mins
July 6, 1996

Description: Pessimism is a self-fulfilling and self-defeating attitude, in one’s own life and in cultural activism. In this excerpt from a 1996 talk, Robert Bidinotto finds many reasons for optimism.

Most of us, at times, become depressed when we compare the world of our ideals with the world as it is. Today, I'd like to leave you with something of an antidote to despair.

The dictionary offers the following about "optimism": the "disposition to hope for the best; [the] tendency to look on the bright side of things. The belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world."

By contrast, "pessimism" is the "disposition to take the gloomiest possible view. The doctrine that...all things naturally tend to evil. The belief that the evil and pain in the world are not compensated for by the good and happiness."

Optimism and pessimism are related, respectively, to the "benevolent" and "malevolent" sense-of-life premises Ayn Rand discussed in her essay "Philosophy and Sense of Life." As you know, Rand endorsed a "benevolent sense of life." In Unrugged Individualism, David Kelley elaborated on what she meant:

In saying that failure, loss, and suffering are not metaphysically important, Rand meant that knowledge, success, and happiness are the to-be-expected. Bewilderment, failure, and suffering are the not-to-be-expected; they should not form a part of one's conception of what life is like or about; when they occur they should be dealt with and if possible dispatched without dwelling on them.

His words "without dwelling on them" suggest that sense-of-life choices are intimately related to our cognitive focus.

Our basic metaphysical premises serve as cognitive filters and lenses, directing and focusing our vision. If we expect the positive, we'll characteristically seek out opportunities, possibilities, and values, and tend to notice them when they present themselves. However, if we expect the negative, we'll be worried about and focused upon life's risks, obstacles, and evils, and that's what we'll tend to notice.

So our internalized sense-of-life premises, optimistic or pessimistic, direct our cognitive focus; our cognitive focus defines our self-expectations; our self-expectations determine what we'll attempt to do; and what we'll attempt to do, in turn, will determine how much we'll achieve. Our metaphysical value-judgments, whether optimistic or pessimistic, can become self-fulfilling prophecies for our lives.

Optimism or pessimism also reflects our self-esteem. To see a world filled with possibilities is to imply our own efficacy; to see ourselves in a hostile, inimical world implies our own helplessness.

The relationship between our image of the world and our image of ourselves is thus reciprocal. Life's obstacles and opportunities seem to grow or shrink in relation to our self- esteem. In our eyes, problems loom large when we do not; opportunities loom large when we do.

Our sense of life similarly influences our sense of self- responsibility. For many, fatalism about the world actually is an excuse: the pessimist need do nothing to alter what he thinks is his fate. A cynical attitude says, in effect, "I can't help it—so please don't expect anything of me." In the literal sense of the term, then, pessimism is demoralizing.

Finally, our sense of life will impact our persuasive efforts. We're attracted to those who manifest hope, a positive program of action, and a can-do spirit By contrast, who's attracted to those who exude cynicism, passivity, and alienation? A movement led by pessimists is moving nowhere; a crusade of cynics is a contradiction in terms.

Yet pessimism still plagues many Objectivists. Why?

First, most of Ayn Rand's fiction was built upon the Prometheus myth—the ancient Greek story of the Titan who loved Man, and brought to Man the fire of the gods—only to be chained to a lonely rock and tortured for his act of pride and independence.

In Anthem, the hero rediscovers the electric light, and brings it as a gift to his fellow men—only to be denounced and abused. At the story’s end, he renames himself Prometheus. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, another exploited benefactor of mankind, explicitly alludes to the Prometheus myth at the beginning of his trial speech. In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt is described as "the Prometheus who changed his mind," and, once again, the story concerns society's exploitation of its independent thinkers.

The Prometheus story is a kind of leitmotif to Rand's work, the key to its power and timelessness. But there is a negative side to her adoption of this classic myth as her personal anthem. Subtly, subconsciously, it has linked in the minds of many readers the idea of heroism to the idea of martyrdom.


There are actually two clashing messages one can absorb from Rand's fiction. Her explicit philosophical message is that virtue is the pathway to personal happiness. The symbolic, inferential message, however, is that virtue is the road to social hell.

Is this fictional depiction of an irredeemably malignant society a valid one? No. Rather, it arises in Rand's fiction from the artistic requirements of dramatization.

Art is a selective re-creation of reality, not an exact copy of reality. Art isolates, stresses, and focuses certain ideas and themes, to the exclusion of anything thematically or dramatically irrelevant. As such, art doesn't present the kinds of disclaimers, qualifications, mixed cases, or mitigating circumstances that invariably exist in real life.

By doing this, the artist attempts to prove that his theme is true "all other things being equal." But to do so, he selectively eliminates "all other things" from his work, so that his theme alone can be seen operating in isolation.

In her repeated use of the Prometheus myth, Rand offered a compelling re-creation of social relationships that stressed the martyrdom of heroes. Her goal was to show the importance of the creative innovator, and how society sometimes wipes out its greatest benefactors. To convincingly and effectively dramatize that message, Rand the artist had to portray only those events and characters that put the creative innovator in constant mortal conflict with his fellow men.

That's why in her novels, heroes must suffer, fire-bringers must be martyred, virtue must lead to excruciating conflicts—or else there would be no drama and no story. In reality, though, life in society is far more benign. Heroes are seldom in life-and-death battles, and virtue is not constantly punished. If that were the case, human survival would be impossible; Ayn Rand would never have existed; and we wouldn't be here discussing this topic.

Good novels create a convincing world of their own, an imaginary world in which only the artist's preoccupations exist. We lose ourselves in such worlds, sometimes forgetting that we're experiencing not reality but the dramatist's alternative universe. That's why Ayn Rand's powerful depictions of heroic rebellion against pervasive irrationalism may lead readers to the mistaken conclusion, "Such is life."

Observe that Rand's novels appeal especially to intelligent young people. It's during adolescence that many bright young minds first experience the intense pain of social alienation—the feeling that they're alone and misunderstood by a hostile and unsympathetic world. For them, Rand's courageous, rebellious heroes and potent Promethean symbolism resonate deeply, confirming and justifying their social alienation.

Another factor has contributed to the streak of social fatalism among some Objectivists: the influence of rationalism. Severing reason from experience incapacitates the rationalist from dealing effectively in the real world, and likewise contributes to social alienation. Rationalism also entails an almost obsessive habit of deduction from floating abstractions.

For example, some Objectivists worry that economic and cultural decay may not give us enough time to complete the job of persuasion. Forces are at work, they argue, that logically must lead to a collapse. This view, borrowed from Rand's "Anatomy of Compromise" essay, is that in any mixture of ideas and premises, as in a culture, the irrational ones will invariably undercut and destroy the good ones.

This misinterpretation, though, is a variant of determinism. It ignores a crucial factor human volition.

Premises don't exist as disembodied ideas, or operate automatically by deductive logic. Premises are held by human minds. Yes, the logic of an irrational premise might imply further irrationalism, just as the harmful consequences of interventionism might be an incentive for further interventions. But it's not predetermined that anyone must follow the logic of an irrational premise to its dead end. How else to explain the overthrow of the communist empire, which was a move away from controls and toward freedom?

There is one more factor that tends to filter our perceptions of social reality. That factor is the news media.

"News," one must remember, is almost always bad news. Every day, many millions of Americans conscientiously get up, go to work, and produce the greatest abundance of goods and services the world has ever known. None of them is praised for this on the evening news. But if one nihilistic bum living in the woods mails a bomb to one of those workers, he'll make headlines.

The news and entertainment industries are driven by the need to get public attention; and for them, the cheapest, easiest forms of attention-getting are people and events that shock, outrage, and offend.

So: combine this constantly negative news input with Ayn Rand's grim Promethean mythology and harsh dramatizations of society, stir in some youthful alienation, and perhaps a pinch of residual rationalism—and is it any wonder that the Objectivist movement includes its share of cultural pessimists?


But the people and institutions of American culture aren't predominantly evil or irrational: they are mixed. Americans are torn between good and bad ideas; between bad philosophy and a relatively good sense of life; between the competing pull of personal self-interest, and the nagging push of altruistic duties.

Their political preferences are similarly confused. A common error is to assume that voters favor interventionist policies and politicians solely for bad motives. But when, for example, they voted for Bill Clinton over George Bush and Bob Dole [in 1992 and 1996, respectively], they were not choosing socialized medicine or radical environmentalism over less government. Compared to Bush's and Dole's tired, rudderless, empty campaigns, Clinton's seemed to represent energy, direction, confidence, and content.

When the choices are ideologically clear-cut—as in the elections of Reagan, and Bush's 1988 campaign against Dukakis—voters tend to do the right thing. When the choices are philosophically muddled, they may not; but that's not their fault.

A few years ago, William Bennett, the moral oracle of the conservative movement, wrote a book presenting an "index of leading cultural indicators"—a statistical case that the quality of cultural life in the United States is getting worse.

It's true that trends such as youth crime, illegitimacy, drug abuse, school dropout rates and poor test scores, and much more, are bad and not getting any better. But there's yet another way to look at such numbers: not as indicators of general cultural decline, but rather of growing cultural polarization.

Our "mixed-premises" society is becoming Balkanized— not just demographically, but philosophically. People are being pushed by circumstances and dragged by logic to the extreme implications of their premises. This polarization makes the irrational and irresponsible more vocal and visible. But the rational and responsible also are asserting themselves more and more, and that's becoming measurable, too. The mixture of logically opposing forces in America is slowly sorting itself out into pure, fundamental philosophical alternatives.

Need I point out that this works to our advantage?

What are today's fundamental philosophical alternatives?

Forget about contemporary academic philosophy: it has unilaterally withdrawn from the battlefield of ideas. The "conventional ethics" is a stale stew, composed of a hodgepodge of ingredients picked from the shelves of other, more basic alternatives. Relativism, skepticism, hedonism, and subjectivism don't offer people guidance: they're what people turn to when left without guidance. Marxism has collapsed and withered away.

Only theism and Objectivism remain to fight for the hearts and minds of the people. The winner will be the one that best serves their philosophical and spiritual requirements.
But in addressing those needs, we can't attack and attract people at the same time. A first step would be to follow the prescriptions in David Kelley's path-breaking Unrugged Individualism, and begin practicing the virtue of benevolence.

We tend to be too harsh when judging ordinary people. Most aren't evil. They're trying to do the right thing, but are confused about what the "right thing" is. What they need isn't philosophical denunciation, but philosophical direction.

I’ve argued that there’s no rational basis for cultural pessimism. But is there a rational basis for cultural optimism? Absolutely.

Pessimists simply haven't internalized the fact that evil is negation. It's self-defeating. The small minority of truly evil people in the world are destined to lose. An optimist has fully internalized the principle that the good and the rational are one. The good is the rational—and the rational works.

So my first reason for optimism is philosophical. We've got reality on our side.


A second reason concerns what is going on right in this room. That is, the growth of Objectivism as a cultural force. Sometimes we forget just how new this philosophical alternative is. Prior to 1957, it didn't even exist. Historically speaking, Objectivism isn't even out of its diapers.

Yet millions of Ayn Rand's works have been sold, and The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged each year account for sales exceeding 100,000 copies. Those are bestseller numbers, for books that are [in 1996], respectively, 53 and 39 years old.

Objectivists have moved into schools and universities as students and teachers, and into a wide range of professions, quietly spreading their values, ideas, and influence. They are writing cutting-edge books that span the sweep of the humanities, articles for major magazines, reviews and columns in major newspapers. They give speeches to scores of audiences here and abroad, and appear before broadcast audiences of millions on talk shows. They are publishing monographs, tapes, pamphlets, film documentaries; they are setting up Internet Web sites and circulating manuscripts; they are forming clubs and holding meetings. They are getting active in theater, film, television, painting, sculpture, fiction writing, music, dance.

Those who have followed politics over the years know there's been a sea change in the ideological debate. Ayn Rand's ideas are quoted regularly by congressmen and nationally-known talk show hosts; they are cited and discussed in countless books; they are influencing political arguments on a wide range of issues.

This is due largely to the enormous impact that she has had in inspiring the modern resurgence of classical, or market, liberalism. A host of think tanks and journals have sprouted from the fertile ideas she planted, and these in turn are having a huge impact on the political scene.

Is it any wonder that major magazines and media comment regularly on Objectivism's growing following and impact?

But perhaps more important than these quantitative measures of success are the qualitative ones. Objectivism is maturing as a philosophy. It's moved from early stages of doctrine and dogma, to a new plane of sophistication, embodied in new works characterized by unprecedented levels of subtlety and scholarship. It's done so largely within the past five years, and chiefly because of a handful of dedicated visionaries, many of whom are seated in this room.

I want to offer another reason for optimism. Cultural change is not a numbers game. The spread of ideas isn't a matter of numbers of followers: persuasion is a matter of the quality of one's ideas and their spokesmen. As Ayn Rand herself demonstrated, one writer and one book can change the lives of thousands.

There was a time when the spread of ideas could be slowed or suppressed. No longer. Today's means of communication—satellites, syndicated programs, the Internet, desktop publishing—make it possible for one lone voice to reach millions. Before long, we'll be penetrating every forgotten village on earth, reaching every searching intellect with our message of reason and individualism.

And there's no place on the planet where the grounds for optimism are more justified than here, in America.

Ours is the one nation that grew from classical liberal roots, and was forged from individualist traditions. Ours is the nation where men are free to realize any dream. Ours is the nation known worldwide for its can-do attitude of hope and creativity. Ours is the nation where we can pursue persuasive efforts without restriction. Ours is the nation whose core values already include common sense, a sense of justice, and the desire for personal happiness.

Like an exuberant, unruly adolescent, America is filled with all the promise and foibles of youth. It's big and strong and brash, but generous—sometimes to a fault. It loves its freedom, sometimes indulging to the point of irresponsibility—loves its pleasures, sometimes indulging to the point of intoxication.

The adolescent that is America needs only the guidance of a mature, rational perspective to channel its energies and realize its potential. It needs what our philosophy has to offer.
I could go on, but the point is clear. We’re making great progress. There’s every reason for cultural optimism. And if we can eradicate the vestiges of pessimism from our outlooks, we'll remove also the cognitive filters that are preventing us from spotting even more opportunities.

To that end, let me suggest that we foster in ourselves three habits.

First, let's reshape our personal attitudes by immersing ourselves in the positive. That means surrounding ourselves with positive influences and people, and eliminating the negatives from our lives. Most of us don't need daily debilitating doses of CNN or MTV. To stay motivated and keep up our spirits, we need instead the presence of great books, great films, great music, great art, great friends.

Second, let's make a habit of value-seeking rather than fault-finding. Ours is a constructive mission; it's not to negate negatives, but to assert positives. Conceding that most people and institutions harbor mixed premises, let's start looking for, and encouraging, the positive elements in the mixture, rather than simply damning the negative ones.

Finally, let's make a habit of building bridges to the outside world, instead of dynamiting them. As David Kelley points out in Unrugged Individualism, the riches we can obtain from others can be enormous, so nurturing positive relationships with the outside world is to our selfish interests. The American people share many of our core values. Our aim should be to seek grounds of cooperation on the basis of these shared values. It shouldn't be to look for petty reasons to avoid or end potentially fruitful relationships.

In my youth, I was trapped in a straitjacket of social fatalism. But once I managed to struggle out of my self-imposed bonds, and give the world half a chance, people responded in kind, no longer put off by the sight of the chip on my shoulder. My career began to take off, with doors opening before me rather than closing in my face. Anything I've accomplished in the past fifteen years has been entirely due to that change of attitude.

Not all of us have the inclination or the means to become activists in a cultural revolution. But even should we not choose to bring our convictions into public arenas, in the end, Objectivism will make its greatest cultural impact by the positive personal example we set for others.

We'll begin to set that example when we cast off the remaining chains of pessimism and hostility—when we no longer embrace the Promethean symbolism that links virtue with punishment—when we jettison the vestiges of rationalism.

When we do, we'll come at last to realize that the world we desired can be won—it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's ours.

This article first appeared in IOS Journal Issue 6 Number 5

Robert James Bidinotto
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Robert James Bidinotto
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