It's A Wonderful Life!

By David Payne
Volume 7, Number 3 (Spring 1997)
Issue theme: "Restraining the American brain"

Do you know the difference between an optimist

and a pessimist? A pessimist is better informed.


Paul Gigot has outdone himself. He has written an article in The Wall Street Journal that could very well become a classic - a classic, that is, of twisted logic that attempts, by means of vague and faulty argumentation, along with various superficial rhetorical techniques, to show that the Republicans have erred in their move toward immigration control. Senator Spence Abraham (R- MI), chairman of the Judiciary Committee's immigration sub-committee, is held up as the knight in shining armor who is attempting to rescue Republicans from themselves. I can't let this pass. It's just too juicy.

First, let's look at the big picture. The overall gist of Gigot's article is captured in its title, "Getting the GOP Back to Reagan on Immigration." Here are the two arguments in a nutshell:

(1) Political positions that resonate with optimism are preferable to those that do not.

(2A) The anti-immigration position does not resonate with optimism.

(C1) Therefore, the anti-immigration position is not the preferable position.

(1) Political positions that resonate with optimism are preferable to those that do not.

(2B) Ronald Reagan's position on immigration resonated with optimism.

(C2) Therefore, Ronald Reagan's position is preferable to other positions.

Premise (1), which is the basis of both arguments, is unstated but clearly implied within Gigot's article. I will return to it in a moment. Premise (2A) is shown when Gigot tells us that "the GOP's anti-immigrationists have sent voters a cramped, pessimistic message better suited to the declining nations of Europe." Hence, the anti-immigrationist message does not resonate with optimism. In the second argument, premise (2B) is shown when Gigot tells us that "Ronald Reagan celebrated immigration because he knew it resonated with the American sense of possibility. As usual, the Gipper had it right." Hence, its optimism. The "because" in this quote also gives us the clue to the implied premise. It is just because it resonated with optimism that Ronald Reagan celebrated it.

There is nothing wrong with the logical structure of these arguments; that is, as I have set them up, the conclusions follow logically from their premises. It is the premises themselves that are suspect, and to these we must now turn.

"Republicans and Democrats,

conservatives and liberals

alike should recognize

that the advice given by

Paul Gigot here boils down

to a disregard for the facts

of the situation."

The problems arise with the terms "optimism" and "pessimism." Any complex situation is deemed to be optimistic or pessimistic based upon certain features within the position that are underscored accordingly. This makes optimism and pessimism notoriously subjective characteristics since the features that are underscored at any particular time are completely up to each individual. Thus, the same situation, viewed from different perspectives, might be labeled both optimistic and pessimistic, respectively. I happen to think, for example, that the anti-immigration position does resonate with optimism and that the pro-immigrationist position exudes pessimism. But what do I know? And that's the question. Given the subjective nature of optimism and pessimism, who is to say which is which? Gigot has an answer-he has found a touchstone to reality: Ronald Reagan.1

Over and above any other problem, then, we have what seems to be an appeal to inappropriate authority (argumentum ad vericundiam). Why is Ronald Reagan an authority on what is optimistic? This is like saying that Ronald Reagan likes jellybeans, therefore jellybeans are the preferable snack food for all Americans. Optimism, like the taste of jellybeans, is a completely subjective psychological state, as is pessimism. Or maybe there is a hasty generalization here: Ronald Reagan is optimistic about immigration, therefore we should all be optimistic about immigration. Whatever fallacy you see, they are all generated from the subjectivity of the words "optimism" and "pessimism."

There is a more serious problem at the heart of Gigot's arguments, though, for they turn on a kind of schmaltzy if-you-believe-with-all-your-might-that-something-will-come-true-then-it-will-come-true kind of idea. This is made insidious by painting it in patriotic colors and turning it into an American ideal. All hail to optimism and Norman Vincent Peale! I have no beef with it or him as far as that goes. All things being equal, it is better to be optimistic in a bad situation than pessimistic, but that should not become a blinder in the face of stark reality. Optimism in the face of overwhelming odds may make you more gleeful in your demise, but if the odds are truly overwhelming you will nonetheless be crushed, albeit with a smile on your face. This because, despite the power of positive thinking, it can only accomplish so much. The skipper of the ship of state confronted with mine-infested waters, although supremely optimistic in his abilities to steer the ship safely through, should not think that, simply because of his optimism, he can disregard the mines. Yet this, according to Gigot, is Abraham's broader political point.

If I were Abraham, and Paul Gigot attributed to me such a trite and trivial viewpoint, claiming such to be my "broader political point" on immigration or any other issue, my only response would be to say: "Paul who?" For who (I was going to say "in their right mind," but I don't want to beg the question) would wish to be saddled with a position that dictates we should put our heads firmly in the sand and disregard all problems with a position simply because we don't want to be labeled pessimistic? Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals alike should recognize that the advice given by Gigot here boils down to a disregard for the facts of a situation. Even if you are convinced that immigration is overall beneficial to America, it would be foolish not to seriously consider the obvious problems it brings - yes, even if they call you a pessimist.

Case in point: Malthus.2 The overall point of the neo-Malthusian viewpoint is that we should take a hard look at whether or not we will be able to feed the burgeoning population of the world in the future, i.e., whether or not we can avoid the misery and vice that Malthus thought would accompany rampant overpopulation. Even if you believe that famine and starvation will never occur due to overpopulation, is it wise to refuse to think about the possibility? Yet Gigot dismisses Malthus by saying that his name "now defines human pessimism." At least Gigot is consistent - he practices what he preaches. But those who are supremely optimistic about technology's ability to avoid the fate of mass starvation in the future should realize that it is only consciousness of the possibility of that bleak future that gives us incentive to find ways to avoid it. But on Gigot's advice, we should not be so pessimistic as to even consider such things.

Imagine, if you will, the members of the first Congress discussing someone's proposal to attach a bill of rights to the constitution in order to insure that the government cannot run rough shod over the individual. The response to the proposal is disdain: what a pessimistic view of mankind! To think that anyone would ever deign to tread on our rights. And because no one wanted to be labeled a pessimist, the discussion was dropped and no bill of rights was eventually adopted.

I say: blessed are the pessimists of the world, for they are the ones looking past their own noses, disdaining the use of rose-colored glasses, and thereby helping us to avoid future evils. At the very least, a smattering of pessimism should be required of everyone. I would much rather see the leaders of the country walking around with long, gloomy faces than furiously tapping their ruby slippers and repeating desperately "There's no place like home, There's no place like home," in a futile attempt to convince themselves and others that this is and always will be the best of all possible worlds.

This brings to mind pictures of Don Quixote, bravely tilting at windmills, bringing into our language the word "quixotic" meaning "romantic without regard to practicality." Maybe what we need is a new word, "gigotic," which would mean "optimistic without regard to reality." If the new word caught on, maybe it would help push us Americans to look more closely at the policies our politicians are foisting on us in the name of patriotism and humanity. Pundits would sneer at the politicians' gigotic attempts to persuade the populace to accept absurd solutions to problems at hand. We could hope for such at least.

But I, for one, would not be overly optimistic of the results.


1 Notice the restraint shown by this author in not jump-ing to the obvious ad hominem here, saying something like, "Scary, isn't it? Ronald Reagan as a touchstone to reality?" [Notice, too, the author's inability to restrain himself from the obvious ad hominem here by claiming restraint in not jumping to the obvious ad hominem.]

2 Notice the restraint shown by this author in not pointing out Gigot's silly ad hominem remarks against Dr. Tanton. [Notice, too, the author's inability to restrain himself from pointing out Gigot's silly ad hominem remarks against Dr. Tanton by claiming restraint in not pointing them out.]

About the author

David G. Payne teaches logic and philosophy at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Michigan. He is a frequent contributor to THE SOCIAL CONTRACT.