Existential Threats versus Cockeyed Optimism

In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer wrote that “it might be argued that had more non-Nazi Germans read it [Mein Kampf] before 1933 and had the foreign statesmen of the world perused it carefully while there was still time, both Germany and the world might have been saved from catastrophe”. And then again perhaps the tendency of societies is to downplay threats. If that were not the case, would the German non-aggression pacts with Poland and Russia have been taken seriously; would Chamberlain’s piece of paper? Would the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor have caused such a surprise? Would the events of 9/11? On quite a different type of threat, would the United Kingdom have greatly increased its migrant and refugee intake in the decades following Enoch Powell’s dire warnings of impending social unrest?

Threats to societies can be put into two broad categories: one where the threat has a human face and one where non-animate elements (climate, natural disasters, disease) are primarily behind the threat. The latter category of threat—global warming and bird flu are two contemporary examples—is invariably treated seriously. Resolute action is taken to counter or mitigate the threat once it has been identified and “verified”. But threats with a human face seldom seem to result in resolute counteraction unless they become concrete in one way or another.

A first thing to note about threats with a human face, versus those without, is that humans can change their minds. To bring it close to home, you might be able to reason with a mugger (maybe) but you can’t reason with a tornado. This I think is important. Expending our persuasive powers is useless against inanimate threats. We know they will not unilaterally “change their mind”, except, perhaps, in some random unpredictable way. As a result, our first recourse is to action. On the other hand, threats with a human face are inherently more complex and nuanced. They often come with disguised or hidden motives on the part of the “aggressor” and with potentially amenable outcomes. Can Hitler be bought off? Will Gaddafi continue to sponsor terrorism or can he be “persuaded” not to? Will Ahmadinejad proceed with the development of nuclear weapons and wipe Israel off the map, or, will sanctions and diplomacy, and likely pressure from Russia and China, win the day? Through the connivance of elements of Pakistan’s security forces, might Al Qaeda obtain a nuclear weapon and threaten an American city, or, is this threat more imaginary than real? Do Muslims intend to establish a caliphate throughout Europe and supplant established law with sharia, or, is this threat misconstrued or greatly exaggerated; will the so-called moderate Muslims succeed in dampening the ambitions of the fundamentalists?

Complexity and nuance are fertile ground for indecision. This is one reason, and perhaps the major one, why threats with a human face are most often left un-countered until they take concrete form: German troops invading Poland for example; or 9/11 creating a more decisive mindset and corresponding preparedness in the United States to send armed forces into Iraq and Afghanistan. But this, I think, is only part of the story. I suggest that the tendency to defer and delay action is reinforced, particularly in successful societies, by a combination of dispositional optimism and basing the future on the past (inductive inference). This is both a strength and a weakness. Having a greater sense of its influence might allow successful societies to ensure that it does not become a costly weakness.

The costs of deferring and delaying action can be large, as history has shown. It is not hard to imagine such costs being devastating in a world of nuclear weapons and in a world (particularly a Western world) of decreasingly cohesive societies. In these circumstances, it is important to understand the sanguine mindset of successful societies in responding to threats and whether anything can be done to redress the imbalance without at all producing less-optimistic societies.

An optimistic mindset can be described as one that usually anticipates good outcomes from undecided situations. It can be contrasted with the two alternatives: a pessimistic mindset, which usually anticipates bad outcomes; and a realistic one, which strives to assess situations objectively case by case. The psychological literature generally lauds the advantages of optimism. Charles Carver and Michael Scheier (“Optimism”, Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford, 2002) note that the “evidence we have reviewed indicates 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”. They also note that there is “even evidence to think that there was an evolutionary advantage gained by people who thought well of the future or of their immediate prospects … they were more likely to cope and reproduce”. Lionel Tiger (Optimism: The Biology of Hope, 1979) claims that a “hopeful sense of the future may be as important to communities’ welfare as yeast to rising bread”. He cites the case of Buffalo Creek in West Virginia, where a coal slurry dam burst in 1972 inundating and devastating local communities; and which he and others have suggested, in robbing them of their optimism, produced long-lasting debilitating effects on these communities.

Leaving aside psychological studies, we don’t need much persuasion to understand that having a positive outlook on life is a good thing. It accords with our own feelings and intuition. Most self-help books are built around it. Optimism is not something that we would like to see taken from our personal lives or from the communities and countries in which we live. But optimism almost by its very nature has a downside. As Carver and Scheier say, “too much optimism might lead people to ignore a threat until it is too late … optimists may fail to protect themselves against threats”. In similar vein, Kai Erikson (Everything in Its Path, 1977) writes: “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.” 

If we believe there is a strong connection between optimistic societies and successful societies, then the question arises as to whether a mutually reinforcing process tends to occur, with, other things equal, optimism breeding success breeding more optimism and so on. I find this persuasive. What it would mean is that the most successful societies (capitalist Western societies) are likely to be the ones most prone to downplay threats. Moreover, the very success of the past feeds into another common human trait, which is to assume, unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary, that an uncertain future will unfold not too differently from the past. If optimism has therefore been mainly borne out in the past, as it must have been in successful societies, then optimism gets another leg-up from inductive inference as, correspondingly, does the inclination to downplay threats. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, 2004) explains how inductive inference can lead traders astray and into deep trouble when untoward things happen in financial markets. But, when the only hard information available is past information, the inclination to use it as a guide in all walks of life is alluring.

Induction has a problem, as David Hume explained in 1739, so we have no excuse for not knowing. The habitual succession of one event immediately following another does not strictly prove causation and therefore guarantee its future reproduction. To an extent this problem is academic. It has been challenged on various levels (for a commentary see John Vickers, “The Problem of Induction”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010). Certainly it is true to say, despite the problem, that induction provides a reliable, if contingent, methodology to explore the laws of nature. It also guides our daily life. We constantly infer the future from our experience of the past. Life would be unmanageable and intolerable if we didn’t. Putting on the kettle to boil water would need to be reasoned out each time. However, “the problem of induction” becomes of practical relevance in interpreting and predicting complex human and societal behaviour; where the future might not necessarily mirror the past. It may be problematic, for example, to rely solely on inductive inference to inform our opinions about the way potential threats to our way of life will unfold. Let me give an Australian example.

The Cronulla riots in 2005 heightened a concern I’d had for some time about Muslim immigration. I noticed though that there was a predominate view around me at the workplace from those born in Australia that things would turn out all right. It was suggested to me that our free and easy-going lifestyle would prove seductive and that children of Muslim immigrants would eventually become as “Aussie” as previous immigrant groups. I wondered about the basis for such a view and concluded that it was not at all based on any kind of deductive analysis or reasoning, but simply on an inductive inference that since other immigrant groups had assimilated, so would this one. Of course, it is difficult to say whether a general optimism about the future, which is justifiably and evidently present in Australia as a successful society, or inductive inference was more important in forming this view. I suspect that both were influential and worked together.

In most cases, inferring the future from the past is fairly reliable. For example, older generations have always complained about the fecklessness of younger generations, when history shows that when younger generations become older they inevitably manage quite well despite the misgivings of their predecessors. Waves of immigration often provoke anguish among settled populations. In Australia, those concerned about Asian immigration levels some years ago were reminded by others that similar concerns had been expressed about European immigration decades before and had proved groundless. I think opinions generally have now shifted towards the view of those who had a more relaxed view of Asian immigration. This adds weight to inductive inference as a guide to the future; however, it cannot show that it is always valid. And, unfortunately, the quite prevalent implicit assumption that it is valid tends to stymie inquiry and debate and, in successful societies such as Australia’s, adds to the mindset of optimism which puts today’s threats into similar contexts as yesterday’s, which came to nothing.

Life is full of threats for societies, as it is for individuals. Some are internal, some external. In fortunate societies, replete with long-standing prosperity and social cohesion, internal threats predominantly peter out and come to nothing. No one, for example, apart perhaps from Glenn Beck, thinks that any of the “Occupy” protests in the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia might turn into a Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square. Those kinds of things simply don’t happen in our societies. Things turned out well yesterday; surely they will tomorrow. To an overwhelming extent this attitude of mind is not only reliable, it is beneficial; it prevents us—all Western societies—from jumping at shadows and taking premature, unnecessary and heavy-handed action. At issue, however, is whether this attitude of mind might potentially leave us sanguine and inert in circumstances in which a particular threat needs to be countered by preventive or mitigating action.

Knowing that my outlook on life was slightly more on the melancholy rather than upbeat side these days, a friend of mine referred me to an article by Janet Albrechtsen (Australian, June 22). Her article was mainly about a book by Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. I haven’t read the book. Ms Albrechtsen’s approving commentary on Mr Ridley’s thesis unintentionally put me off. According to her, Ridley’s reason for being a rational optimist is that at “every juncture, humans have adapted, innovated and changed in the face of dire predictions”. This seems to me to be true, but trivial if the case for optimism is that there has been progressive improvement in human productivity and welfare over the past hundreds and thousands of years. I replied to my friend, that Ridley’s view was clearly long-term; very long-term, if you happened to be Romans in the fourth century overrun by barbarians; or heretics burnt alive by the Inquisition; or European Jews sent to German concentration camps in the 1930s; or men thrown out of work in the United States in 1929 only to find employment again in the army fighting the Japanese on some inhospitable Pacific island in 1943. In other words, bad things happen. And it is small consolation to think that progress ultimately will be made, if you are in the midst of a steep long-lasting regression of one kind or another. 

There is no compellingly logical reason to believe in the face of threats that things will eventually turn out well in the current era, simply because bad circumstances in the past have eventually given way to better circumstances. Most threats end up empty or easily managed; however, some need resolute counteraction. The problem is how to tell which from which. It would be useful to have a checklist of the kind which points in the direction of action if certain conditions are met; a seldom-used contingency plan kept in the bottom drawer, which doesn’t prevent business as usual. Which, in other words, does not undercut the optimism of Western societies that contributes to making them the most pleasant and prosperous places to live.

At issue is what this checklist should look like. For a start, there seem to be two major pointers that ought to be included. One goes back to William Shirer’s comment. What is the human face behind the threat actually saying at its worst? Second, what is the materiality of the threat; in other words, could it realistically be carried out? When Hitler said that he wanted room in the East (“when we speak of new territory we must principally think of Russia and the border states subject to her”) maybe he should have been believed. When Ahmadinejad imagines a world without Israel and America, maybe he should be taken seriously; after all, a nuclear-armed Iran would have the means to destroy Israel, if not the United States. It would surely be taking optimism too far to think that a nuclear-armed Iran will be simply a lookalike extension of the proliferation of nuclear weapons among India and Pakistan and, more lately, North Korea. That would surely be cockeyed optimism of Panglossian proportions. But don’t write it off as a possibility among the starry-eyed appeasers in the West. Optimism can morph into “bad things won’t happen”, until it is all too late.

Sheriff Bell in Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men knew something about the ability of those around him to gloss over unpleasant developments when commenting on the affairs of his day in the 1970s. 

I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin in the schools … And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework. Things of that nature. So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here comes the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time ever when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I’m gettin old. That it’s one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is that anybody that cant tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger problem than what I’ve got. Forty years is not a long time neither. Maybe the next forty of it will bring some of em from under the ether. If it ain’t too late.  

Few of the sheriff’s homespun commentaries (which, to my mind, were highlights of the book) made it onto the silver screen. I suspect that Sheriff Bell was not politically correct enough for Hollywood; though maybe it was simply a question of having to leave stuff out in order to produce a movie of suitable length. But that is neither here nor there. Sheriff Bell recognised that something untoward and threatening was occurring which required some counteraction. It wasn’t just more of the same. And that, essentially, is the function of the checklist. Is what is happening more of the same—have we seen it all before and it has come to nothing—or is something happening which carries the hallmark of a threat which, if left un-countered, will turn out badly?

In a military parade in Tehran in September 1999, new Iranian missiles were draped with banners stating that: “Israel should be wiped of the map” (see Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran, 2007). You might, by stretching credulity to the limit, put a non-threatening face on Ahmadinejad’s statements over the years, for example, “we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionism”; and one of his predecessors, Rafsanjani, for example, “the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything”; but it is hard to get past that missile and message. We have trouble sometimes getting out of our optimistic mindset and into the mindset of a Hitler or an Ahmadinejad; though they seem to have had no problem getting into ours. As Shirer writes, “Hitler’s calculations were eminently sound … Allied nations took no action.” Ahmadinejad is probably taking his cue from the series of toothless ultimatums which Iran has so far safely ignored. Like us, he probably looks to the past as a guide to the future. One way to make a leap into the mindset of Ahmadinejad, and the current Iranian regime, is to imagine an Australian or United States missile with a similarly threatening message in a military parade; and ask what would be the import of the message.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressed “deep and increasing concern” about Iran’s nuclear program in early November. Shortly after, the United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he would warn Israel about the consequences of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities: “To go beyond [sanctions and diplomacy] raises our concerns about … the economic consequences … that could impact not just on our economy but the world economy.” Clearly any economic consequences pale into insignificance against the consequences of Iran deploying nuclear weapons against Israel. Mr Panetta knows that. His optimistic assumption, therefore, must be that Iran will not succeed in developing nuclear weapons or, perhaps, if they developed them, that “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) would forever deter them from using them. At question is whether it is at all safe to rely on the MAD deterrent when dealing with a fanatical religious regime. Mark Steyn (America Alone, 2006) records a UK Daily Telegraph report of 2006: “Iran’s hard-line spiritual leaders have issued an unprecedented new fatwa, or holy order, sanctioning the use of atomic weapons against its enemies.” At question too, is the applicability of MAD in the context of Israel’s small size and vulnerability. The balance of power and the logistical situation were quite different during the Cold War.

Without saying that the right policy is to take immediate military action (there may be alternative resolute responses) it seems evident, in all of the circumstances, that the mindset of those warning against such action (unless part of a tactical response) is overly optimistic. The Iranian regime is bellicose; it has made it clear it would like to see Israel destroyed; the size and position of Israel make it particularly susceptible to a nuclear attack; there is a firm belief that Iran is developing nuclear weapons under the cover of developing nuclear energy; only guesses can be made as to precisely when such weapons will be ready; and diplomacy and sanctions have proved utterly ineffective. 

Take another threat—the spread of Islam and sharia law. Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics in Iran are part of that threat too. Clearly they do not want to stop with Israel and the United States. “We don’t shy away from declaring that Islam is ready to rule the world … Islam is not confined to geographical borders … We must prepare ourselves to rule the world” (Alireza Jafarzadeh, The Iranian Threat, 2007).

As Mark Steyn points out, “every year more and more of the world lives under Islamic law”. Paul Marshall (Radical Islam’s Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Sharia Law, 2005) likens extreme sharia “to the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism”. Sharia is intrinsically undemocratic. In the West, our laws are man-made, albeit with a religious stem. They can be changed by elected parliaments. How do you change laws “made by God” that, among other things, enforce gender apartheid, dress codes, and standards of morality, discriminately on women; and which persecute homosexuals and people of other faiths?

The spread of sharia law in recent decades is often documented for countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria, Malaysia and Indonesia. The “Arab Spring” also seems destined to increase the reach of sharia. While this is worrying, “creeping” sharia and the advocacy of legal plurality in Western democracies is even more worrying; or it should be. A shadow system of sharia courts is widespread in Europe and North America. Numbers of imams (often living on state benefits) regularly and persistently call for its recognition as a parallel system of justice and, eventually, the only system of justice. Here, with a relatively small Muslim population compared with most European countries, Ikebal Patel (President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils), in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, called recently for the recognition of limited sharia law in family matters.

The threat of sharia law satisfies what might be called the “Shirer test”. Those threatening its introduction are not at all shy about signalling their intentions. We should therefore take the threat seriously if there is any prospect of it becoming concrete. Enclaves of predominantly Muslim populations within Western countries (including to an extent Australia), the continuing high numbers of Muslims migrating to the West, and the fecundity of Muslim populations, suggest that the prospect of the threat becoming concrete is uncomfortably high.

Sharia law represents an existential threat to our way of life, yet you would not know it. “The United States permits the government of Saudi Arabia to proliferate its radical sharia ideology in mosques, schools, and Islamic centers even within US borders” (Nina Shea, in Radical Islam Rules). Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, contemplated the introduction of sharia law into the UK; though he later tried to wriggle out of having said what he plainly said. Noises are made about resisting sharia, but they have that rustling sound of Chamberlain’s piece of paper blowing in the breeze. In play is either a societal death wish or, as I would contend, a cockeyed optimism that seriously underestimates threats, however patent they are.

If optimism is not to be our undoing it must be moderated at times by some objective measurement of the size and nature of threats to our way of life. We need a checklist which tells us when optimism has to give way to realism (and even a touch of healthy pessimism) and resolute action. At times we need to become Frank McCallister in the movie Home Alone, not his brother Peter: 

“There’s no way on earth we can make this plane. It leaves in forty-five minutes.”
“Think positive, Frank!”
“You be positive. I’ll be realistic.”  

For those who haven’t seen the movie, they made the plane but left a child behind. Israel, democracy and rule of law are too important to leave behind.

Peter Smith is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online.

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