Why I find optimism amid grim news

The Takeaway
The dove, a symbol of peace, flies over a mosque in Afghanistan.

The dove, a symbol of peace, flies over a mosque in Afghanistan.

Peretz Partensky/Wiki Commons

I am too snarky. My wife always tells me it’s bad. I may be a smart-ass, but I’m really an optimist. Hard to believe, I know — I imagine that I sound like a complete cynic on the air, not a nasty one, but a solid cynic nonetheless.

It’s not true. I’m actually kind of a crazy optimist, even in the face of terrifying things like:

1. Terrorism

I actually think that the growth of ISIS is a sign that terrorists are reaching their endgame — they’re becoming desperate and played out. Their capacity to hurt individuals is unabated of course, but their capacity to change the course of nations and history feels like it is diminishing rapidly.

“But what about nukes, Mr. Takeaway?”

To which I’d reply, “Okay, decent point. But as horrible as that would be, once terrorists do that, then what?”

Look at this gang of professional end-of-worlders. Even they have had to move their own goal posts to get any attention, and I bet you haven’t even seen this story anyway.

Look at the Charlie Hebdo event: It may have propelled France toward greater pluralism, not into some race and religion motivated bloodbath.

And looking at the outrageous $200 million demands for the Japanese hostages being held by ISIS, I can’t help but think that they are feeling a little powerless right now, like Putin, or Ebola, or the people of Syria who are maybe more worthy of our attention than ISIS.

2. Washington Gridlock

I think D.C. gridlock is breaking. I think the Tea Party’s profile is shrinking. I think the absurdity of GOP lawmakers sitting down during the State of the Union speech this week indicates an impotent powerlessness, not some confident majority mandate.

I think that President Barack Obama’s much more reasonable sounding rhetoric is also a sign that playing the messianic global presidential healer came off as sanctimonious and absurd for much of his administration, and he’s learned something.

Call me crazy, but you can’t tell me that the stalled government thing is getting worse. I bet there is not a single government shutdown or debt crisis this year. Call me crazy, but that’s what it feels like.

3. Climate Change

Okay, global warming is getting worse but we are adapting, maybe not fast enough but humanity is not ignoring it any more. The adaptation story, whether it is to reduce emissions or to work around the consequences of climate change, is really interesting.

It’s heroic, it’s scientifically interesting, and it doesn’t mean that bad things aren’t coming from our bad choices about the environment. I just think we’ve hit bottom with our blind arrogance. We may still make stupid judgments, but from now on we know what we’re doing.

4. Crime & Violence

Just look at the book “The Better Angels of our Nature.” As author Stephen Pinker points out:

“Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then were suddenly abolished. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago. Rape, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse—all substantially down.”

5. Famine and Poverty

Africa’s economy is rising, and a new middle class is being born. And now some are speculating that we might be seeing the beginning of the end for the continent’s tragic famines. Check this out.

6. Homelessness

No, it's not over or fixed, but I can see our capacity to compassionately adapt without just giving up. Even if we can’t eliminate homelessness with a single program or transfer of wealth (as if that would even work anyway), there are creative ways of dynamically expanding our concept of home to make people without means safer. The Huffington Post has the details here.

7. Cyberterrorism

Our sense of paranoia over the ease by which we can all be hacked or spied on by North Koreans, sociopathic dweebs, or our own NSA is not abated by some impervious concrete firewall bubble.

Instead, it is people collectively saying, “Oh puhleeze, go ahead and hack me if that floats your boat.” Again, I’m not denying the vulnerability we all face from cyberterrorism and domestic surveillance, but are young people deluded or actually smarter for viewing the NSA as less of a big deal than their worried elders? Look at the research and decide for yourself.

A Healthier Outlook: Here's more

A friend of mine once asked, “Isn’t the news worse today than when you began as a journalist more than 30 years ago?”

My answer is no. He wasn’t convinced, and he told me how much he tried to get AWAY from the nasty headlines in his life. I hear that a lot, but maybe my optimism comes from looking too closely. And it's actually easier to be an optimist when you look too closely.

Take a pile of dirt. It looks nice enough in a lovely garden, then filthier and filthier as you get closer. You want to scream with terror and disgust as you plant your face in the mud, but with a magnifying glass and then a microscope, suddenly a strange, wonderful world is revealed in the muck and you stop being repulsed and can once again be as awestruck as if you were watching a sunset. Ask any microbiologist. They hate Ebola as much as the next person, but they never lose their wonder at the workings of proteins, viruses and molecules in action.

It’s time to get Mr. Takeaway’s head out of the mud. There’s an asteroid headed our way. Not a problem, though. Someday we may just be able to hitch a ride, take a break from Earth and get some much-needed supplies for our planet.

I suppose if I talked like this on the air all the time we would probably go off the air. But I think this is a healthier outlook than the persistent predatory “A-Ha” approach to journalism, which is all about screaming fire in the theatre. You end up missing the movie you came to see in the first place.

RELATED: Steven Pinker: How the world got safer than you thought

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