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by William H. Benson

August 9, 2012

     Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher of the early twentieth-century, depicted time’s movement—from the future into an immediate present and then settling into a receding past—by describing a painting called “Angelus Novus.” In that painting, an angel faces the past, his back to the future. “His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.”

     The angel would like to turn around and face that impending future, but a storm called progress has “got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them.” He cannot reorient his position. What that angel sees is “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” The angel is prevented from stopping this ongoing carnage. “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But he cannot. 

     Such a vision of history is certainly pessimistic. Benjamin sees the past as little more than a continual series of unfolding disasters, and that the angel, this divine being who is supposedly in charge of time’s incessant flow, is paralyzed from halting the carnage because of a storm called progress.

     Appearing in last week’s edition of Newsweek was a column by the journalist and historian Nial Ferguson that so reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s negative view of history. Ferguson entitled his column, “I wish I were a technoptimist.” Ferguson argues that even though technological advances are spellbinding, they do not always ensure a positive or a progressive future. So he writes:

     “There was great technological progress during the 1930s. But it did not end the Depression. That took a world war. So could something comparably grim happen in our own time? Don’t rule it out. Let’s remind ourselves of the sequence of events: economic depression, crisis of democracy, road to war.”

     Ferguson points out that, “Technology can also empower radicalized (or just plain crazy) individuals and groups.” He then goes so far as to agree with the Chinese in their condemnation of “participatory democracy” as a defective governing model, and next he predicts “a really big war,” an Armageddon, originating in North Africa or the Middle East and drawing in all the major world powers.

     There is a lot of pessimism out there today. One need not look far to find it. The poet agrees, “Hope lies to mortals, but man’s deceiver was never mine.” This negative thinking reminds me of a favorite quote, “I tried to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness kept creeping in.”

     Benjamin and Ferguson may be right. The world’s nations may fall off a cliff, drift into an economic maelstrom, and march off to war, but then again they may not. I ask you, “Where is your optimism? Where is your I-can-do-it attitude?” Conditions in the past have been worse. Franklin Roosevelt faced a Great Depression, Adolph Hitler, and the Japanese Empire. Ronald Reagan faced the Soviets and their immense nuclear stockpile, and yet the Western powers whipped the Depression, Hitler, and Japan, and the Soviets disarmed themselves in the face of Reagan’s determination.

     The historian Stephen Ambrose displayed a far better mindset when he wrote of America’s pioneers. “Nearly every American believed in the future, in the doctrine that things were getting better all the time, for individuals and for the country as a whole.” The reason they believed in a brighter future is because they worked hard to make it happen. “Americans worked because they believed it was godly to do so, because of the vastness of the task facing them, and because the work would be rewarded.”     

     The 19th-century French aristocrat De Tocqueville visited North America and observed, “The first thing which strikes a traveler to the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to emerge from their original condition.” The historian Henry Steele Commager boldly stated that, “Nothing in all history had ever succeeded like America.”

     This difference between pessimism and optimism was clearly seen in the leadership styles of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Where Carter worked fifteen hours a day trying to untangle a series of knots and a host of seemingly-unsolvable problems, Reagan worked at the most six hours a day and sliced through those same problems with decisions that in hindsight were more correct than wrong.


     I believe that America can set things right in the world by first setting things right at home. In other words, America can lead by example rather than by dictating orders to the world’s other nations or threatening to stomp off to war. Americans can govern themselves effectively now, as they have done so in the past, and they can work hard to prevent wars and economic calamity. Yes, Mr. Ferguson, I agree with you. “It’s a dangerous world,” and we must ever be vigilant and alert, but instead of trucking with pessimism and negativity, let’s shoulder instead a positive and optimistic mindset and let the cheerfulness creep in.