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What Does Optimism Look Like Now?

We’re living in deeply dire times. Each day we’re confronted with a new moral crisis. The latest to come in June 2018 had us in an extremely dark place, with children being separated from their parents at the border.

We’ve seen a spike in mental illness, a rise in high profile suicides, and a continued growth of drug overdose deaths.

In this context, it’s hard to imagine finding optimism anywhere. Yet it’s also during these times when people who can afford to will seek out therapy, spa treatments, and massages, saying that these far off stressors are overwhelming them.

Everyone deserves a silver lining, everyone deserves optimism, and everyone deserves the ability to take a break. People who work in activism often struggle to find ways to relax. Looking a little deeper, the ways people choose to relax can reveal a disparity that seems oddly colonialist.

Pull back the blanket and you see that colonial, privileged cultures struggle to find peace and meaning without oppression, without cherry-picking other cultures. Traditional practices are thrown into a gumbo and become great commercial endeavors like Lululemon or Bikram Yoga.  Concepts related to once fundamentally anti-commercial practices are now only accessible to the wealthiest.

The irony of the habitual cycle of taking a concept and squeezing every potential ounce of capital from it is not limited only to goods and services. It can be extended to experiences, which are meant to heal those same muscles that do the squeezing. The spirit of those who experience the most stress have the fewest options for release and restoration and are often the ones who do the most labor to create comfort for the wealthy, without being affored a break themselves.

The latest craze of religiosity among millennials is around a newfound love of crystals and their related energies. However, as crystals are mined as unethically as diamonds, their demand will only make them more coveted. With companies like Gweneth Paltrow’s GOOP using $70 pieces of jade to lend fertility and pleasure, it might well be noted that the jade trade in Myanmar has been called one of the biggest natural resource heists in history.

And again, these gems and stones, mined by the lowest class of people in other countries, are bought by the most privileged westerners in hopes they can restore spirits depleted by the daily grind of accumulating capital. Taken as a whole, the production and consumption of optimism seems like a sick joke.

The Self-Care Industrial Complex

Self-care was intended as a useful reminder to people working high-stress jobs, where they were intended to care for others, that their own health and wellness had value. Without healing yourself, there’s no way to heal anyone else.

It was later taken up as a political act. People who were working in the civil rights and women’s movements in the 60s and 70s needed to heal from the long days of marching, protesting, and fighting for their autonomy. Caring for onesself became a political act against an oppressive society that beat up on the self-esteem and value of black and brown people.  As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela of The New School puts it, it was “a claiming [of] autonomy over the body as a political act against institutional, technocratic, very racist, and sexist medicine.”

Living healthily in a context where medical care was scarce, among queer, poor, black, and brown communities required independent advocacy. It required one to speak on one’s own behalf, on the behalf of one’s community, and to clear out some space physically and psychically for healing.

When Solange sings, in Borderline (An Ode To Self-Care), “Baby it’s war outside these walls”, she’s speaking in a useful and sincere metaphor. Then she sings “Baby I know what you’re fighting for”, softly shifting from a metaphor of the struggles of building a relationship to something more veiled and political. In the context of an America where people still need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter, the veil is thin if there at all.

As inequalities in health care are one of the most reliable injustices in this country, so it goes that over time the concept of self-care was premiumized.

Those among us who have access to the most wealth and resources are able to experience the most relaxing options for self-care. Moving away from the language of spa treatments shifts the experience away from the association with elitism without having to suffer any change to the content. Premium self-care routines are often nothing more than beautification treatments but under the auspices of self-care, they’re legitimized as the supposed result of struggle.

As wealthy meritocrats like to remind us, they deserve the things they have. They worked hard for them and they have the language to prove it.

A Line Without A Voice

Few mediums of remote interaction can lend us the kind of optimism we get from speaking on the phone with a loved one. However, the telephone conversation has died in recent decades. When someone calls now, it’s more common to answer with “what’s wrong?” than “hello?”

Chat bots now give us a view into the future of what texting will become. As robo-calls have destroyed our will to answer the phone, chat bots have virtualized the experience of texting or “chatting” with another person. Chat bots pop up when we enter a site, dinging a familiar sounding notification and asking us how we’re doing.

Social media feeds were once meant to show other people just “experiencing” their lives but now act as promotional venues. Users are constantly being shifted back into their role as consumer, even when at rest, engaged in leisure time, at home divorced from the sales pitch. As smart devices will inevitably begin to offer promotions within our home, we’ll constantly be switched on to a consumer role.

Flirting With Nihilism

The search for optimism is a frequent topic for comedy. Maria Bamford tells a great story of her family’s favorite pastime, a game she calls “Joy Whac-a-Mole”.

In the bit, she says “Dad, check out this new top!” Her dad responds “Oh it’s very nice!”

“Guess how much?”

“Oh I don’t know, fifty bucks?”

“No. Five!”

“Geez, that’s a good deal!”

“You got that right! It’s like ‘five bucks, how do they do that?’”

“Oh I was reading about that…slavery! Yeah, you put the manufacturing out in these countries, there’s no labor laws, human rights violations, no environmental protection and then they pass that savings on to you!”

Optimism doesn’t come pure and uncut the way we might need in this political environment. It can only come with a cynical lining or a wink at the camera. One of the best examples of this is the meme media empire Jerry Media and their Instagram account “FuckJerry”.

As only they can do, they capitalize on millennial and technological angst and to stay afloat sell ads from time to time. Their posts feature simple images, recontextualized with just a few words to describe a contemporary millennial malaise.

Memes may seem like the graffiti of the internet, or a throwaway byproduct, but just as Allen Walker Reade discovered in his study of classic American graffiti, some words (and in this case, images) contain a “racy, human quality” which reveal our deeper nature, our optimism, fears, and pleasures. Just as we contextualize art history in a time and place, most memes speak to a specific time and place, with common cultural images standing in their place. When we reflect our failures with a sense of humor, we heal more quickly and find a reason to try again.

Political Optimism is Possible

Optimism doesn’t need to be naïve. Love doesn’t need to be ahistorical or without memory. You can forgive and never forget.

Optimism is hard work in love, in civil society, or in politics. Radical optimism needs to be accessible to everyone. It needs to be listening and never holding expectations.

As a reaction to the pessimism of conservatives, self-described liberals and Democrats are too cynical to see the pragmatic value of optimism. Cynicism gives political actors the license to privilege apathetic strategy over optimism. That cynicism leads to accepting money from anyone, from doing anything to win rather than focusing on doing everything to win.

One means making whatever deal is necessary to out-fundraise your opponents while the other means tirelessly going out to win every single vote based on your qualities as an advocate. We don’t need to buy the fiction that one single individual has the time to do both.

We can be pragmatic without being cynical. We can understand that elections cost money, but we don’t need to accept corporate money. We can understand that the cycle of commercial production relies on the increased exploitation of foreign workers, but we don’t have to participate in it.

Especially if we’re only participating because we have an inflated idea of just how much we need a break.

Optimism is a spark just asking for some oxygen. Cultural appropriation, so-called pragmatism, and defeated logic can be toppled even with an ironic joke. Optimism can win if given the opportunity to get some air.

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