The Corner

Happy Talk

It’s not the least bit surprising that Rocco Landesman is saying fatuous things about Barack Obama being the most powerful writer since Caesar, or whatever it was. The man is – yecch! – an optimist.

But here’s the thing. The rational and appropriate response is the wrong one. The right response is the irrational and inappropriate one: Optimism. I will elaborate.

My first interview in the White House for the job of Chairman of the NEA was with Valerie Jarrett. I did a rather odd thing. I brought to the interview a prop (I’m a theater guy), which I placed down on the table in front of me. It was a book written 3 decades ago by a zoologist, Lionel Tiger. The title was: “Optimism. The Biology of Hope.” This book made what now seems to me to be an obvious point: that optimism is a core survival mechanism of the species. . . .

Which brings me to President Obama, our Optimist in Chief. He is a writer, an artist but we’ll come to that later. His second book had a title that would resonate with Lionel Tiger: The Audacity of Hope.. This is much more than a felicitous phrase that he found in a sermon: it is the manifesto of this presidency and will lay the groundwork for the most arts-supportive administration since Roosevelt.

What a heap of piffle! I wonder how carefully Landesman read Tiger’s book? (And yes, since everyone asks, his actual name is Lionel Tiger; it is not a nom de plume.) I have it here on my shelf as it happens. It is by no means a one-sided paean to optimism. Tiger gives both sides of the matter. Sample (p.204):

I think that one of the critical problems facing the human species arises from this possibility: that in the absence of the natural constraints on consumption imposed by the hunting-gathering system the genetically based optimism of people produces a desire for ever-increasing consumption of goods.

Again, from p.283:

Private optimism is a public resourse. Public optimism is a private facility. Both can and have and will become disasters when there is too little fit between the vision and the facts of heat, cold, up, down, fast, slow, rich, poor, old, young, living, dying. It is dangerous to offer entrée to charlatans expert in illusion and big or little demagogues practiced in worthless promise …

Dangerous, indeed. Optimists – pah!