Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

Let's have a little negative thinking

When it comes to believing official pronouncements about things that are happening right now, I'm a cynic. I don't think either political party is less likely than the other to manage the information it disseminates in order to cast the most positive light on its own actions.

It's just what they do.

When the Obama administration releases wildly optimistic figures about job creation, I think it's a good idea to be dubious and ask for more information. When I expressed that opinion in a debate over at Tosa Town Square, one of the more thoughtful participants wrote:

You sound as if you've fallen victim to the nut cases on both the far right and far left who who have been screaming so loud at each other for the past 30 years or so (I blame it all on Reagan for starting it, of course) that everybody's become cynical about everything.

Sure, we've got dishonest politicians, criminal kids, lazy bums, and greedy CEOs, but I think the key to staying optimistic and engaged is to know that there are still way more of us good guys.

That sounds nice. And really, nice is so very . . . positive. And nice. But when it comes to knowing what's going on, a little pessimism is in order. After all, if we can't speak the truth about what we see happening with our own eyes, right now, how will we ever be able to understand the truth about things that happened in the past, leading up to the current event?

Being dubious about the first round of job statistics is just as legitimate and important today as being dubious about claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a few years ago. The only way to get to the truth is to examine evidence from more than one source, paying attention to who's providing it and what's in it for them.

Thursday evening I had the pleasure of hearing James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Teaching What Really Happened , at UWM's 13th Annual Urban Forum. Loewen's passion is showing  us how misinformed we are about our own history and what we can do about it.

You won't read about the presentation in the newspaper. That's verifiable. But we can only guess at the reasons for the omission. Maybe it's because the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is skeletally staffed these days. Maybe it's the journalistic notion that something that's already happened is old news and not worth reporting, unless it happens to be an arts performance. Or maybe it's the notion that history is dull.

Loewen shows vividly that history isn't dull when you learn the truth (or, better, the truths) about it. But we seldom do. Why learn about what really happened, which is almost always complex, when we can have vigorous opinions, especially those that are easy and picked up from someone else?

And the someone elses who wrote the history books we and our kids learned from aren't much better than the info-tainment celebs we generally prefer to get our misinformation from.

The night before Loewen's talk at UWM, Barbara Erenreich spoke at Alverno. I missed that, but I know  the topic of her new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  After her diagnosis of breast cancer, Erenreich was "shocked and horrifed" to be fed the pink-ribbon party line: "you must be positive and that your disease can be a good thing."

It was the same as the messages given to us laid-off white collar workers she had studied earlier: this is a new opportunity!!! Be glad and positive and cheerful--and  market your brand like the devil -- and things will be better than they were before!!! (And if they aren't, well, it's because there's something wrong with you. Couldn't be biology or social structures at work.)

These messages, Erenreich realized, are a way of quelling dissent. From Mike Fischer's phone interview with her earlier in the week.

Q. Are you upholding suffering and pessimism as virtues?

A. No, but positive thinking is not about being happy and finding joy. It's about faking it - about learning how to conform and putting on a smiley face. We can't change things through artificial optimism; we need to see things as they are. And to change them, we need to draw on other values, such as determination and courage.

Being cautious about accepting extreme claims is just about being realistic. It might mean you have to do more work, or you might be uncomfortable. But a lot of life is like that.

As Independent commentator Christina Patterson wrote:

There's a lot to be said for negative thinking. Not only because it spares people the tooth-grinding irritation of Pollyannaish predictions of eternal sunshine based on precisely nothing (and usually coupled with the aggressive assertion that they're "good") whose chief aim is to imply that you're rivals in a competition that they're winning, but simply because it makes the world a better place. It makes the world a safer place and a nicer one.
And the experts, apparently, agree. "Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, co-operation and reliance on mental shortcuts," says a professor of psychology in this month's
Australian Science Journal, "negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world." People "in negative mood", he concludes, can cope with more demanding situations than their sunny neighbours and are "less prone to judgmental errors, more resistant to eyewitness distortions and better at producing high-quality, effective persuasive messages.'"

So for now, I'll cope, and leave the shortcuts up to someone else.


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