As I continue to think about optimism vs. pessimism, I remember several terms from a long-ago psychology class. The first one was the difference between having an internal vs external locus of control, which refers to whether you see yourself as mostly controlling your own life, or as primarily impacted by larger forces beyond your control.
Like the half empty or half full glass of water, both of these outlooks are partly true. It doesn’t matter how determined or self-actualizing you are: if you are born in a socialist hellhole like Venezuela or China, or if you have a severe genetic disease, or are born to alcoholic, dysfunctional parents, your life is going to be very much harder than someone’s who is born in a thriving country, healthy, and with world-class parents like my wife and I.
But even at those extremes, and especially in between, people who see themselves as in control of their own lives will make decisions every day – work hard, don’t buy things on credit, acquire a Wonder Dog, stay off the heroin – that will make them successful. And people who think the opposite will make decisions – work minimally, produce mostly excuses, vote for politicians to fix your life, mmmmm, heroin – that will ruin their lives.
The other psychological term is “learned helplessness,” which originally comes from some very depressing experiments on dogs and rats. A creepy psychologist repeatedly shocked an animal when there was no way for it to escape; later, when a means of escape was provided and the animal was shocked, it did nothing to escape, because it had been conditioned to not try.
Human parallels abound. A child who has trouble with math, absent any intervening teacher or helper, soon learns to give up on math tests. An adult who thinks “the little man can’t get ahead” doesn’t do the things (working overtime, getting an education or job training, delaying gratification) that help little folks all around him get ahead every day.
Learned helplessness is very tightly associated with depression, as you might guess. The self-destructiveness of others who have learned helplessness is extremely obvious, and frustrating, to those who love them. The eight-times divorced woman says, “All men are abusive drunks.” You ask where she met all of her ex-husbands. She says, “in a bar.”
The career criminal says, “No employers will give an ex-con a chance.” You ask what he was convicted of. He says, “Stealing from work.” You ask how many job training programs he went through in the joint. He says, “None, because nobody will hire an ex-con.”
In my previous column, I pointed out that some nations tend to produce populations who are mostly optimists or mostly pessimists. But even more than that, the two main political schools of thought – leftism and conservatism – tend to attract more pessimists or optimists, respectively, and also to inculcate and reinforce those views in their adherents.
Conservatism emphasizes each person’s responsibility to improve his or her life. “That government is best which governs least” assumes that you are better able to run your own life than the government is. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a mocking reference to the conservative tendency to emphasize the necessity of individual action. Cliches from self-help books such as “If it is to be, it’s up to me,” ring true to most conservatives.
Liberalism/leftism, on the other hand, focuses on the need for collective action, and the extent to which each individual needs help (by which leftists inevitably mean government help) to achieve his or her full potential. You can’t be a great parent on your own, because “it takes a village.” Even if you’ve created a business by working your arse off for decades, it turns out that, “you didn’t build that.” (Says the translucent lady who never built even the simplest campfire or tepee. #wemustneverstopmockingher)
Leftism teaches that there are ONLY external loci of control (and yes, I’ll take “Latin plurals” for 500, Alex). Systemic racism, and endemic sexism, and ubiquitous patriarchy will do way more to shape your life than any insignificant efforts on your part. So stop beating yourself up for your failures, and don’t bother trying to improve yourself in our evil system wherein that is not possible. Just vote for us – your benevolent, external locus of control – and we’ll fix your life.
Now obviously, neither outlook is completely, 100% correct. Larger forces clearly do affect individuals, and we must try to achieve some large goals together, like whipping Nazis, or stopping jihadi domination of the world. As a society, we need to make provisions to help those who truly cannot help themselves, such as the physically disabled, mentally handicapped or elderly and infirm.
But the tendency of leftism is toward mission creep, due to underestimating the importance of an internal locus of control. They initially create a social security system that costs little, and is a supplement for most people, and necessary for only the hardest-hit few who make it to old age without having saved anything. Ninety years later, it costs trillions and is going broke, and most old people feel dependent on it, and desperately fear losing it.
Leftists initially created disability payments for the very few who lose a limb or their vision, or suffer some other traumatic injury, and cannot survive without such payments. A few decades go by, and millions of people are on the dole for such “disabilities” as sexual addiction, alcoholism, or impossible-to-confirm-by-any-objective-physical-test maladies such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome or ADHD. (Because who could possibly be tempted by the chance to get drunk, have sex and sleep-in the next day?) (And no, I’m not saying that none of those exist – only that they are at best wildly over-diagnosed, and at worst fraudulently diagnosed, to attain a variety of monetary and non-monetary benefits.)
I wouldn’t argue that having an internal locus of control necessarily means that you are an optimist. (Many times, having a sense that you are surrounded by boneheads making stupid decisions could make the most pessimistic among us even MORE determined to exercise control over everything they can!) But I don’t see how you can be an optimist if you have an external locus of control. Because if you are at the mercy of large and small forces beyond your control, what’s there to be optimistic about?
Look at the way that minorities have fared under leftism (in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, etc. etc.), and you’ll see decades of identifying external loci of control (white supremacy, racist cops, uncaring rich people, Jewish interlopers, malevolent capitalism), resulting ultimately in learned helplessness, and the devastation and blighted lives that inevitably follow.
The best case study that comes to mind is New Orleans in the lead up to Hurricane Katrina. I grew up in Illinois, where the problem was tornadoes rather than hurricanes. The average warning for a tornado was a minute or two; the town siren would go off, and you had to get to your shelter or the garage or the closest bathtub pronto.
But hurricanes move slowly, and with modern forecasting, people knew for four days that Katrina was going to make landfall somewhere around where it did, and when it did. Optimistic people with a healthy internal locus of control might wait a day or two, but within 24 hours of landfall – with the predicted site and time firming up all the time – they’d get out of town.
And don’t tell yourself that poor people were trapped there. Even the poorest of Americans either own an old car, or know friends who have one, or could buy a bus ticket. (The average hurricane travels around 30 miles per hour. In my life, I’ve owned a 30-year-old, rusty Silverado, a mid-70s Chevy Monza with a sewing machine engine, and a decade-old Buick landcruiser made out of a ton of American steel and a problematic head gasket. All of them leaked oil and had the get-up-and-go of Bernie Sanders before his nap. And all of them could go faster than 30 freaking miles an hour!)
Ray “Schoolbus” Nagin, the Democrat mayor of New Orleans, earned his nickname because instead of using the gigantic fleet of school buses at his disposal to ferry poor people to certain safety, he left those buses parked in gigantic lots, so that they could be immersed in floodwaters and ruined.
Apparently, when you elect corrupt and incompetent leftist politicians for decades, the wheels on the but do NOT go round and round in your town.
By the way, Nagin is due to be released from prison in 2023. He wasn’t jailed for incompetence — because if that were a crime, our entire Congress would be doing the jailhouse rock – but for corruption.
So the black and white and brown poor people of New Orleans, suffering from stage 4 government-induced learned helplessness, sat and waited for days, until a slow moving hurricane finally slammed into them.
In the aftermath, just to show the persistence of the external locus of control habit, whom did most of the survivors blame?
- Themselves, for being over-run by a storm that Betty White could have outrun?
- Their decades’ worth of Democrat city officials, who took millions in federal funding to reinforce levies and spent them instead on hookers and blow?
- Their current Democrat mayor and city council, who spent the days and hours before the storm executing an Olympic-gold-medal-worthy cranial-rectal inversion maneuver? (And oh, did they stick the landing!)
- Their Democrat governor, Kathleen “oh so” Blanco?
No. They externalized the hell out of the blame, pushing it 1086 miles to the northeast, to GOP President George Bush’s White House.
Please tune in Friday, for the final part of these musings…
Avenatti/”Schoolbus” Nagin 2020!