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January 06th 2018 print

Peter Smith

A Glass Half-Full of Delusion

As a pessimist, I'm part of that small but vitally important segment of humanity congenitally disposed to anticipate the worst. Yes, we live in an age of 'progress', but how much comfort can be drawn from our age of marvels when youths of African appearance are kicking in your granny's door?

Our parents’ generation, inferior to that of our grandparents, brought forth ourselves who are more worthless still and are destined to have children yet more corrupt
                                                                                           — Horace, 65 – 8 BC

optimism IIClearly Horace was pessimistic about progress. So was Malcolm Muggeridge, who Paul Phillips in Contesting the Moral High Ground quotes from an address to a Catholic assembly. Muggeridge, he wrote, went on, rightly or wrongly, to assume that “no notion of such a ridiculous thing as progress has ever been put in your heads. If it has, dismiss it at once. There are various things that human beings can do; but there is one thing they can’t do, and that is progress.”

Let me put Tom Switzer in this exalted company. Writing in the SMH (“Gloom, doom and optimism,” 26 December) he expressed an exuberance of positivity. Prominent in his mixed bag of auspicious happenings were declining world poverty, the collapse of the Soviet Union, medical advances, and increased life expectancy. Surprisingly, for a conservative, he trotted out the canard that even when ISIS was in its pomp “you were more likely to drown in the bath than die in terrorist violence.” At least he avoided scary falling fridges. But that is by the way.

Let us go back to 1928, with economic collapse imminent and Hitler, Tojo and human misery on a vast scale only a decade or so away. Economies were booming, Alexander Fleming had just discovered antibiotics, the Ottoman Empire had collapsed, you were more likely to drown in your bath than be killed by an anarchist bomb. My point: potted accounts of progress are seriously deficient in informing us about the state of play and, more particularly, about the near and not-so-near future.

You can look at today and find promise. Equally (more than equally), you can find omens of gloom and doom without looking too hard. Think of the threats.

North Korea, and probably soon enough Iran, with nuclear arsenals. The inundation of Europe with Muslim refugees and the rise of Islam more generally in and outside the West. Chinese expansionism. Russian imperialism. According to the UN (July 2015) the world’s population will have grown by 2.4 billion as of 2050, of which half will come out of Africa. And ‘come out’ a lot of them will, seeking refuge in the West. Anyone who finds any of this promising is definitionally a cock-eyed optimist.

And if this isn’t enough, we have Christianity, the foundation of our civilisation, falling away. We have self-loathing leftists running schools, universities and most of the media. Our politicians, apart from Trump and a few others, have a fetish for putting their citizens second to whatever is the international cause du jour (e.g., global warming or accommodating the never-ending hordes of refugees). Children are being presented with untoward sexual material as part of their “education”. The list goes on. Optimism doesn’t cut it for me; though I see it around me unaccountably. Why? Well, perhaps, because it is part of human nature.

There is evidently a predisposition to optimism among the human race. This might be an evolutionary personality trait which allows us to deal better with life’s difficulties. Psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, who have written widely on the subject, suggest in the Handbook of Positive Psychology (Oxford, 2002) that “optimists are less distressed when times are tough, cope in ways that foster better outcomes, and are better at taking steps to ensure that their futures continue to be bright.” However, beware: “Too much optimism might lead people to ignore a threat until it is too late … optimists may fail to protect themselves against threats…” This is backed by author Kai Erikson in Everything in its Path, which tells the human story of a West Virginia town devastated by a flash flood and its aftermath:

“One of the bargains men make with one another in order to maintain their sanity is to share an illusion that they are safe, even when the physical evidence in the world around them does not seem to warrant that conclusion.”

Obviously, I have avoided this evolutionary trait of optimism, as apparently did Horace and Muggeridge and as, say, did the writer of Ecclesiastes. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of the spirit.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if bouts of pessimism are needed to save the day, which is why evolution as orchestrated by God keeps the trait alive, albeit among a distinct minority to prevent populations falling into a perpetual funk. Compare Churchill with many of those around him who thought war could be avoided.

I will come to the beginning of the end with one of my favorite Churchill quotes.

“If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”

Warding off threats while they are manageable seems like wise advice. While Churchill was clearly referring to military threats – put North Korea and Iran in today’s frame – his counsel has wide application. Nip problems in the bud is one prosaic way of putting it; ‘broken windows’ theory, a fancier way.

It is already late in the day. Think of Muslim migrants undermining the values and character of Europe and potentially America and Australia. Think of the opioid epidemic in America, with something similar now gathering pace in Australia. Think of the infiltration of history courses by those interested more in pushing a narrative than in finding the truth. Think of pornography on the internet. Think of the decline of Christianity and the sexualization of schoolchildren. Think of concrete bollards and Sudanese crime gangs in Melbourne.

How does this cultural unravelling stack up against smart phones and flat screen TVs?  How much progress have we really made? Is Australia a better place now than it was fifty years ago? Is there now more cause for optimism than there was then? Are we happier and more fulfilled now having made material gains? Just asking.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

Comments [20]

  1. Geoffrey Luck says:

    Brilliant, and beautiful too. Plus ca change!

  2. necessityofchoice says:

    Having spent the morning viewing the WW1 exhibit at the Queen Victoria (and weren’t those the days !) Museum in Launceston, one is left in the pile of glasses half empty.
    Mechanised slaughter not glimpsed in the ‘over by Christmas’ period, gathers pace as the conflict progresses through the exhibits.
    Today we have no illusions regarding

  3. necessityofchoice says:

    the slaughter that would be the consequence of a conventional? war.

    What is not generally accounted for is the disembowling of a culture where Granny’s door doesn’t get kicked in.
    We are now the Eloi, and the Morlocks are arriving in broad daylight at a pedestrian crossing near you.
    God help us.

  4. Warty says:

    Unlike Peter, I’m a half glass full individual. I say ‘individual’ to avoid falling into the trap of calling myself a white heterosexual male, otherwise known as a ‘bloke’, but that’s politeness for you. So yes, I do feel there are grounds for optimism, in that there are a growing number of alternatives to the MSM, and even within the schlick of sludge there are journos writing for The Australian who show integrity. And The Australian is also mounting the beginnings of a relentless campaign against the latest scourge, that of South Sudanese migrants some bone-headed immigration minister allowed into the country.
    When ignorance rises, as in the 1920s and early 30s, the opposite often rises up to meet it. When it becomes utterly beyond the pale, and we’ve got a way to go yet, the Visigoths enter stage right and clean out the kennels, leading to the Dark Ages which were not quite as dark as people make out.
    The problem today is that far too many of us believe that this is all there is, and that we are not part of a continuum; there are even those who believe there is no heaven or hell, despite the illusory meliorism of John Lennon’s song of diversity.
    I’m shaped more in the mould of an Edmund Burke, without the profundity; or his American disciple, Russell Kirk, again without the depth of learning. And there are so many conservative writers in this publication, with wisdom reflected back by so many of the readers, who have there own background in genuine learning, so unlike the deleterious stuff being churn out in schools today. These are schools, nearly all, more interested in cultures other than our own, traditions that pale into insignificance when compared to our Judeo Christian foundations.
    There are distant rumblings of disillusionment amongst those thoroughly dissatisfied with the stale offerings of today. My optimism lies in the belief that this will become a roar, perhaps a while after I’m dead, but that’s alright. As Burke said: ours is a compact between ‘the living, the dead, and those yet to be born’.

    • Jody says:

      How can the conservative right win any arguments when Google is ‘de-monetizing’ anything put on U-Tube in Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro, which is what happened with this discussion. Trump needs to engage in some serious trust-busting legislation against Google. This is interesting and no wonder the Left is like the bunch of mosquitoes trapped in a bottle for that Aerogard commercial years ago:


      Peterson is coming to Australia this year!

    • LBLoveday says:

      A lesser Sudanese problem exists in SA, at least from my empirical evidence, and at least for now.
      I brought my Asian wife, 150cm on tip toes, 43kg clothed, to my old home for a month sojourn.
      At shopping centres in Munno Para, Elizabeth and Rundle Mall (I go to the pub while she spends hours in the malls), she has had 2m+ black men demanding, not begging, money from her; when someone that size blocks the path of someone that small and says “You give me money”, I’d class it as demanding money with menace.
      Not once has a Caucasian, Asian or female from the many in the shopping centres asked for anything from her, just 7′ black men from the tiny population of them in SA.

  5. Bran Dee says:

    What you say is all too true Peter and I do like the Muggeridge wisdom quoted ‘—there is one thing they [human beings] can’t do, and that is progress’. Now it is clear why the ‘progressive’ political party fails in every Utopian effort.
    Recall the damage done by the ‘progressive’ Whitlam as Prime Minister: universal welfare/sit-down money, remove the radio/TV licence fee and stack the ABC with cronies, oppose refugees fleeing communism and open the borders to the welfare prone via family reunion [chain migration], run big budget deficits, campaign to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, easy-divorce laws, etc.
    Why would one not want to be a conservative!

  6. Julian says:

    Here, here – great article. (And remember our moronic prime-minster “There’s never been a better time to be an Australia” “We are going for jobs and growth” – Did he never consider that people do not want more growth and demographic change, but what they want is less diversity, and their country back? a la Brexit, etc)

    The problem many Leftists and other knuckleheads make is that the equate scientific and technological progress with moral/ethical and political progress. To take an example – the Japanese today have better cars, stereos, medical treatment, apartments etc than they did in, say, the 1950s, with essentially the same demographics and general societal structure/ethos; as for us, we have better cars, stereos, medicine etc than we did in the 1950s + we have Sudanese gangs, terrorist attacks, Muslim rape gands, ethnic riots (e.g. Moomba, Cronulla, etc) a rorted wages system, bollards, a lack of social trust, overcrowded transport and skyscrapers instead of the quiet beauty and grandeur of some of our older Victorian and Georgian buildings.

    And, has any politician apologised for any of this? Where has Amanda Vanstone, and the other Howard-era politicians who brought us sub-Saharan African immigration, been this week? Have any of them apologised to people like Kevin Andrews etc who warned us against such things? Seriously, what a bunch of historicist idiots.

  7. oldsailor says:

    I don’t subscribe to the glass half-full/half empty rubbish; the glasses in the land of Oz have been emptied and used for pisspots for a long time now.
    It’s always the little things. Like when a Liberal MP, a highly qualified medical specialist, apparently sees nothing untoward in dipping into the public purse for a $15k family jaunt. Maybe it’s covered by the “guidelines”‘ but it fails the pub test miserably. Have we ever been ruled by such a bunch of feckless charlatans, at all levels of our bloated government? Not in my 75 years.
    That’s enough whingeing for today, I need to get Blackie the dog out before the unbearable, unprecedented, life-threatening 39 degrees forecast. I’m surprised they haven’t reverted to the old scale; 101 sounds much more deadly.

  8. Keith Kennelly says:

    Just be pleased you don’t live in Florida. It’s so cold even the sharks are freezing.

  9. whitelaughter says:

    Yes, we live in a vastly improved world. That is why our problems can exist.

    50 year ago, a police force as wet and useless (what would the PC term be for their soft members? ‘engorgement challenged’?) at the current Victorian mob would have been slaughtered, removing themselves from the gene pool. Decades of peace allowed them to exist.

    The gay lobby exists because they aren’t dying like flies from STDs – but they’re still getting infected at 15 times the rate of the rest of us, the difference is medics are keeping them alive (using resources that could be more productively used elsewhere if they’d just keep it in their pants).

    We’ve got used to the idea that you don’t have to be Christian to be charitable and compassionate; forgetting that Indians don’t need to be Hindu to support widow burning, Africans don’t need to Muslims to support genital mutilation nor Arabs Muslim to support stoning rape victims, Japanese don’t need to follow Shinto to be more likely to commit suicide. We’ve taken the social norms of Christianity for granted, forgetting that those norms need the ‘salt of the earth’ to maintain them.

    Still – every solution creates new problems.

  10. Biggles says:

    ‘…population growth of 2.4 billion by 2050…’ Might I suggest you read David Archibald’s book Twilight of Abundance? The earth is cooling. The ‘extreme’ weather now being experienced in the Northern hemisphere will seem mild in years to come. Forget population increase; mass starvation, especially in Africa, will ensure it will not happen.

    • whitelaughter says:

      Biggles, Africa has a lower population density than Asia, Europe or the Americas: which is why they’ve had famines in the past, you need a large population to maintain the infrastructure of a modern civilization.

      Meanwhile, the technological and social capabilities that we will depend on to protect us against global warming will be equally effective against global cooling. The oceans will retain their abundance, and we will continue to develop new techniques.

  11. Keith Kennelly says:


    I think you are right. The coming cooling will kill millions of people on third world and emerging nations.

    Let’s hope to god we in Australia, won’t regress that far, backwards.

  12. Jody says:

    I think this is the best bit of political/social commentary I’ve heard since Milo:


  13. Biggles says:

    Dear Whitelaughter,

    Population density in Africa (and the ME) has nothing to do with it. Large swathes of these countries have populations with IQs of 70 or less. You cannot build prosperous, scientifically & technologically andvanced nations with such people. Go on; call me ‘racist’.

    • whitelaughter says:

      [shrugs] Sure, if you want to be called a racist. I’d rather point out that Africa and the Middle East *have* produced great civilizations, so you must be wrong. The Sao Civilization dominated central Africa for 22 centuries.

      Further, I’ll point out that the reason most Arabs look half-European is that they *are* half-European: *millions* of Europeans were enslaved by Muslim raiders. The armies of Turkey and Egypt claim descent from the Jannisaries and Mamluks: Christian, European slaveboys. The wealthy bought the women and children as sex slaves. A grim reminder that ‘European’ is a Greek word meaning ‘good to rape’ – a far more offensive term than any the snowflakes complain about.