Psychological factors have always played a decisive role in the assessment of political trends. Yet until recently they have not been analyzed. Now neuroscientists (rather than political scientists) are talking about optimism and pessimism bias. According to their findings, most people tend to see the political glass as at least half full. As Tali Sharot writes in her recent book The Optimism Bias, “A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired to the human brain.” Another school of cognitive scientists sees the main danger in being too much influenced by negative conclusions when faced by ambiguous social and political situations. In the words of a recent issue of American Scientist devoted to the subject of optimism and pessimism, “A negative bias can construct a more hostile worldview than if a person’s focus tends to lands of friendly faces.”
The “science” of optimism is of very recent date. Only relatively few people have been interviewed on their quotient of optimism over a few years, and these were prosperous and optimistic years. The people interviewed were mainly students from Britain, Holland, and Western Australia, not, it would appear, people in China, Russia, Africa, or India, or believers in Islam-all of whose worldviews might certainly differ. The belief that optimism is not eroded as the result of violent conflicts, high unemployment, and other threats and failures is not borne out by other public opinion polls that reached different conclusions. Whether it is Pew or Gallup or Eurobarometer, they all reached the same conclusion that over the last five years belief in future progress (personal as well as social) has markedly gone down. The number of suicides in Europe since the outbreak of the crisis of 2008 has certainly increased, along with palpable depression among the young generation. It’s dangerous and often misleading to speculate about “national character” and other demographic assumptions, but in certain times pessimism makes itself apparent.
Yet these strictures notwithstanding, Western reactions to the Arab Spring seem to justify the conclusions of the optimism bias theorists. When the spring first bloomed in the winter of 2010-2011 it was welcomed by jubilation on the part of the young revolutionaries congregating day after day in places such as Tahrir Square in Cairo, but also by the foreign correspondents who would carry the good news about the fall of tyrants to the rest of the world. The air of freedom was intoxicating, as one young Egyptian wrote; the lion-hearted Egyptians were risking their lives to overthrow the corrupt and cruel dictatorship in an uprising such as the world had not witnessed in living memory. It was people power at its best and it was a shining example for the whole world. The rebels told the foreign correspondents that they had been inspired by America’s example of freedom, and that it was therefore a great shame that America and other Western governments, blinded and paralyzed by unreasonable fear of Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood, had not given full support to these freedom fighters.
What followed is well known. There were elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis received an overwhelming majority. A new constitution was prepared according to the rules of Islamic sharia law. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi successfully sought to grab more power in order to incorporate religious fundamentalism as the constitution’s guiding light. It was not what the freedom fighters had hoped for.
The retreat from optimism followed these events closely. Some argued that the revolutionaries had been joined by backward elements who had to be educated (or eliminated). Others pointed out that revolutions do not proceed in a straight line and that all progress is necessarily followed by temporary retreats: there will be one step backward for every two forward. As it became clear that the lion-hearted young men and women from Tahrir Square had been outnumbered or sidelined or simply disappeared, some of the earlier optimists conceded that they and the ideal for which they stood had indeed been subordinated by the majority, meaning the religious zealots. But, on the other hand, the optimists maintained that there was no reason for despair because the bad old regime could not possibly be restored. The Muslim Brotherhood, which quickly became the leading political force, was still better-if only because it was more representative of the popular will-than what it replaced. We were told that the Brotherhood was a pragmatic, popular force that would combine Islam with the modern world as Turkey had done, and the movement ought to be supported by the United States.
The European revolutions of 1848 were invoked in this context even by historians usually suspicious of such comparison because of the unique character of each movement. There had been bitter disappointment in 1849 when, after initial enthusiasm, the revolutionary movements were defeated. But eventually the ideas of 1848 prevailed, even if as in the case of Germany it took a century, two world wars, and Adolf Hitler to reach this stage. There would be a similar process in the Middle East, some of the more sanguine commentators predicted, except that progress there would probably be much quicker since it was not even certain that the revolution had in fact been defeated-perhaps it was only a temporary setback.
There were plausible reasons for the optimism prevailing in the Western media during the early months (and in some cases well beyond) of the Arab Spring. For a long time the Middle East had produced only bad news-about economic and intellectual stagnation, corruption, oppression, fanaticism, social unrest, civil war, assassinations, and so forth. How refreshing, even if the initial hopes were dimmed somewhat by what followed, to witness a spontaneous mass movement toward freedom and progress.
Under the circumstances it seemed churlish to sound a note of doubt, to play Cassandra at the time of universal rejoicing. Forebodings arose for a number of reasons, such as the absence of democratic traditions in most of the region that could serve as a model for the revolutionary forces that had been unleashed in Tunis and Cairo. And since the sources of the revolution (if this indeed was what it was) were social as much as political, how would the new elites of Egypt, Tunisia, or Yemen solve the problems of poverty and development more efficiently than the old ones had?
Egypt is a country of more than eighty million and it seemed that the foreign correspondents who transmitted euphoric reports about the happenings at Tahrir had not been to economically desolate places like Mahalla el-Kubra, Kubra al-Cheima, Manshiet Nasser (a.k.a. Garbage City), or other slums, let alone to the countryside where most Egyptians live. They totally ignored Upper Egypt and the border governorates where overwhelming majorities, ninety percent and more, voted for Morsi and his constitution.
Nor did they pause to wonder what the revolution would mean for women, ethnic and religious minorities, and secular Egyptians. And ultimate questions tended to go unasked, perhaps most pertinently the one posed recently by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books: “Was the last century an aberrant deviation from the Arab world’s inherent Islamic trajectory? Is today’s Islamist rebirth a fleeting anomalous throwback to a long-outmoded past? Which is the detour, which is the natural path?” But they asked this pertinent question only after a delay of two years; earlier on they failed to express such doubts.
Oddly, optimism has not entirely disappeared in the two turbulent years since the Arab Spring. Gordon Gray, a former US ambassador to Tunis, speaking at the Washington Middle East Center in autumn 2012, was very upbeat about the country’s transition toward a democratic system. Writing for Bloomberg, Noah Feldman expressed similar views. A Harvard Law professor, proficient in Arabic, who had been involved in preparing the new Iraqi constitution, Feldman acknowledged that there had been violent conflict in the streets of Tunis, arrests and a bit of tear gas, but otherwise the situation was normal; the press was free, the Islamic democrats in the government could be trusted. He did not comment on the limitations on the rights of women in the new constitution.
The same syndrome could be observed with regard to Egypt. Nicholas D. Kristof, the New York Times columnist who had been among the first to welcome the progressives of Tahrir Square, was still enthusiastic two years later. However, the enthusiasm no longer concerned the prospects of the progressive forces themselves, but the “mutually beneficial relationship” which had developed between the American Embassy in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafis who had been the main beneficiaries of the redistribution of power. Such encouraging views were not shared by secular Egyptians and Tunisians.
The exultant reception of the Arab Spring is a particularly poignant example of the triumph of hope over experience in international affairs. But it is by no means an isolated case. One could have equally referred to the misjudgments of the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties or the false optimism, until quite recently, surrounding the European Union. It was the rough consensus of Western experts some three decades ago that the Soviet system in the Brezhnev era (which later became known as the zastoi, the years of stagnation) was gradually developing into a welfare state “providing to its citizen massive economic security.” The predictions by a minority of Sovietologists of a coming breakdown or revolution in the country, the imminent revolt of the nationalities and the Soviet internal empire, were regarded as nonsense: “The country will not in the next decade face a systemic crisis endangering its existence.” Less than ten years later the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.
Such optimistic predictions were the rule rather than the exception and they were made at a time when inside the Soviet Union there was a marked turn from relative optimism to a pronounced pessimism, among not only the general public but also members of the party and the establishment up to the very top.
In the 1990s a virtually systematic overestimation of the achievements and prospects of the European Union became conventional wisdom. True, the momentum had become a little weaker and there were some dissenting voices. But by and large there was immense optimism regarding Europe’s emergence as a new superpower. This was most pronounced at the very top: European presidents and prime ministers, at their meetings from Lisbon to Maastricht, were confident in their predictions that the twenty-first century would be Europe’s, and that the continent would serve as a shining example to the rest of the world morally and in virtually every other respect. There was nothing wrong with their vision, but the idea that the brilliant future could be achieved without a far closer political union for which there was neither desire nor readiness made it a daydream, not a basis for statecraft. These daydreams were accompanied by a confident literature supporting their vision. With all this a strong case can be made in favor of optimism at a time of crisis. As a nineteenth-century cynic once noted, a crisis is the period between two other crises. History is a sequel of crises but most of them have not been fatal. Voltaire’s pessimism about human progress and that of many of his contemporaries of the Enlightenment was generated by the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755. But there has been no similar natural disaster since. Crises have their undoubted use. Important decisions in the life of nations, especially if they are painful, are usually made as the result of a crisis, for in normal conditions there does not seem to be a cogent reason to opt for change. Jean Monnet, the father of the European Union, rightly noted that crises are the great federators.
The danger is of course that overly optimistic assumptions will lead to disastrous miscalculations, in our private life as well as in politics. This has been observed by Tali Sharot, who was quoted above. One of the dangers of false optimism is that it easily turns into dejection once the illusions have faded. Opinion polls in late 2012 reported a massive disenchantment in the West with the Arab Spring. This could have been prevented had news reporting and commentary during the early months been more realistic. A similar disappointment took place following developments in Putin’s Russia despite the fact that it was, all things considered, a great step forward from Stalin’s or Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Expectations simply had been far too high. And yet, how helpful can abiding pessimism really be in a time of crisis?
If optimism and hope are indeed hardwired to the brain, as the neuroscientists tell us, there seems to be a similar connection in the turn to escapism when things are bad. “Happy Days Are Here Again” was composed a short time before the Wall Street crash of 1929. But it was only thereafter that FDR made it the great hit song of the period by making it his campaign song in 1932.
Escapism was the universal reaction at that time. In German-speaking countries, The Congress Dances (a musical comedy set during the Vienna peace congress of 1815) and The Great Waltz were the outstanding movies of the period. As the clouds of war gathered, millions enjoyed Tino Rossi singing about the great charms of the Isle of Capri. The great success on the stage was White Horse Inn, shown first in Berlin in the summer of 1930 and soon after with equal success in London, Paris, and New York. On the Kalininskaya line of the Moscow subway there is to this day a station named Chaussee Entusiastov-Enthusiasts Highway-even though the age of the enthusiasts in the Soviet Union belongs now to a distant past.
It is still true that unless it is carried beyond obvious limits of reason and reality, optimism is a better guide to action in bad times than despair, lethargy, and what psychiatrists many years ago defined as abulia (absence of will). It took Germany a mere fourteen years to rise again as a major power after the defeat in World War I, and Russia about the same time after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. These are not perhaps the most encouraging examples; fervent nationalism was the main element involved in both cases and a high price had to be paid, or will eventually be paid, for success.
There have been more encouraging cases of spontaneous recovery even if one cannot account for the “objective reasons” that caused it. The history of France in the second half of the nineteenth century serves as an example. There had been a national depression even under the rule of Napoleon III, and after the defeat by Prussia in 1870-1871 the feeling that the country was finished became fairly general. The country was assumed to have fallen irreparably into decadence. The number of books that appeared which belonged to the “Finis Galliae” genre was striking even to contemporary observers. Some of them believed that a recovery, though improbable, was not impossible, but the majority thought the process was irrevocable: France was finished. A great many reasons were adduced: demographic trends and economic stagnation (birth rates were down and the French economy had been overtaken by Germany and Britain), along with military weakness, alcoholism, prostitution, and cultural exhaustion.
This defeatism reached its apex in the last decades of the century and then suddenly, at first imperceptibly, gave way to something quite different. Alcoholism and prostitution continued to be social problems, there were some foreign political setbacks (Tangier and Fashoda), and not many more children were born per capita. But astute observers noted a profound change in the public mood. It manifested itself in many ways: the upbeat repercussions of the 1900 Paris World Exhibition, for example, and the construction of the Eiffel Tower, built in a few months by a mere three hundred workers-the advent of La Belle Époque. Louis Bleriot in 1909 was the first to fly over the English Channel. Young people became interested in sports and physical exertion, and religion made a comeback as part of a new, even exaggerated, self-confidence. Was it just the emergence of a new generation bored by the pessimism of their elders? No one could explain why this about-face was happening.
In the case of the Arab world, too, a reversal of the present mood is not impossible even though it is highly unlikely to happen in the near future. The present fundamentalist wave will probably have to run its full course, and only after showing its inability to provide answers to the social and economic challenges of this world as distinct from the next will its legitimacy fall away. Those who draw comfort from past cases of spectacular recovery in European history tend to forget that the Middle East and Europe are two different worlds.
In the meantime Western assessment and Western policy have to be based on the assumption that a great change for the better has not already taken place but is still a possibility. Hope springs eternal is one of the most frequently quoted lines in English poetry. But the man who wrote it, Alexander Pope, was a prudent person. He had many enemies and we have it on the authority of his sister that he never went on a walk unless accompanied by a great fierce-looking dog, and that he also carried two loaded pistols.
Walter Laqueur is the author, most recently, of After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent.
Editor’s note.The following postscript has been added by the author since the print publication of the article:
Since these lines were written, reports in the media about Europe and the Middle East have been ranging from the depressing to the very bad. But comments expressing an optimism bias have not significantly diminished. In “The Fall and Rise of the West ” (Foreign Affairs), Roger Altman predicts why America and Europe will emerge stronger from the crisis (which is likely-but when, and by how much?). Anne Marie Slaughter argues in “The Coming Atlantic Century ” (Project Syndicate) that this century may belong to the West after all. Altman and Slaughter were highly placed officials in recent administrations. Sheri Berman, also in Foreign Affairs, writes about the promise of the Arab Spring, expressing the belief that there is no gain without pain, and upbraids the skepticism of conservative reactionaries-the conservatives, as she sees it, are not to the Muslim Brotherhood but their critics. Such optimism bias, however counterintuitive, is admirable if the intention is to stem a tide of despondency when things are bad. Perhaps something should be said even in favor of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), which advocates that we neither see nor hear nor speak evil. But there is the distinct danger, as stated by those who have investigated optimism bias, that playing down or ignoring the dangers facing us could have very dangerous consequences indeed.
Photo Credit: Mariam Soliman