Few of us fail to appreciate the paradox in Pogo’s insight that “we have met the enemy and it is us.” However, very few of us appreciate the magnitude of the “possum’s” irony, the full implication that all of humankind’s problems and attendant suffering are resident in our worldview and the collective and individual identities determined by that narrative. This is getting to sound too global and vague so let’s get down to the evidence which is where all the fun is.
An alternative title for this essay could have been Paranoid Pogo meets Chicken Little. Many of us feel we are surrounded by enemies and that the sky is falling. Donald Trump fell into this category when he was seeking the Republican nomination to run for president in 2016. He pandered to his constituency with “‘Our country is going to hell’ then declared, ‘we’re becoming a third world country,’ and then by this month [May 2016] it had progressed to the United States [is] ‘losing all the time.’”[i]
In the interest of fairness, Trump was not the only presidential contender who played the Chicken Little card, according to columnist Greg Easterbrook of the New York Times.[ii]
- Republican Lindsay Graham was running “because the world is falling apart.”
- Republican Ted Cruz declared that the United States was “near an abyss.”
- Democrat Bernie Sanders said the economy has been “destroyed” for all but the wealthy few.
Pessimism, it seems has entered the American worldview which shows that many, if not most of us, will believe whatever we are told by social media and cable news (we prefer the drama inherent in negative stories). There is also a prevailing attitude of “it’s cool to be pessimistic.” “Pessimism is now the mainstream, with optimists viewed as Pollyannas. If you don’t think everything is awful, you don’t understand the situation!”[iii]
Most of us have been trained to believe in the dominant narrative that surrounds us even though there is ample evidence to the contrary. Is Bernie Sanders right in saying that the U.S. economy has been destroyed? “Job growth has been strong for five years, with unemployment now below where it was for most of the 1990s, a period some extol as the ‘good old days.’ The American economy is No. 1 by a huge margin, larger than Nos. 2 and 3 (China and Japan) combined. Americans are seven times as productive, per capita, as Chinese citizens.”[iv] So much for Trump’s getting us to believe that we are becoming a “third world country.”
In the past, liberals or Progressives in the U.S. were optimists while religious conservatives tended to focus on the negative and saw the end-times approaching and looked forward to Judgment Day. Now, it seems that more and more Americans are responding to negative demagogy coming from politicians of both parties.
If chicken-little liberals had been accurate in their past predictions then today “petroleum would be exhausted, huge numbers of major animal species would be extinct, crop failures would be causing mass starvation, developing–world poverty would be getting worse instead of declining fast. (In 1990, 37 percent of humanity lived in what the World Bank defines as extreme poverty; today it’s 10 percent.)”[v]
Have Americans always been prone to paranoia and negativity or indeed is it a universal human phenomenon?
Promoters of conspiracy theories (a type of paranoia) “could be found in the 18th century, busily writing tracts and tomes concluding that the French Revolution was plotted by Freemasons working with the Bavarian Illuminati. The hypothesis quickly grew to include the Rosicrucians, the Knights Templar, the Cathars and ancient Egyptian religious cults—ingredients that Dan Brown made lucrative use of in ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ All were said to be players in a secret world history that had been unfolding backstage for centuries, while the masses were distracted like children with shadow plays.”[vi]
What historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style,” showed up in modern times in the entertainment world with the Sci-Fi film “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Other threats from outer space were in the form of UFOs and little green men, or communism and a menacing Soviet Union, the Trilateral Commission, agents of One World Government and Area 51 where the Atomic Energy Commission has had a secret test site since 1955 in Nevada.
What we can say without fear of provoking conspiracy theorists is that no, Mr. Trump, the U.S. is not becoming a third world country; no, Mr. Graham, the world is not falling apart; no, Mr. Cruz, the U.S. is not nearing an abyss; and no, Mr. Sanders, the U.S. economy has not been destroyed. To all the Chicken Little’s of the world we say without any rational contradiction that the sky is not falling.
Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion.
Perhaps we can still appreciate those Americans who had no interest in pandering but were positive and profound optimists. Emerson must have been sensitive to the True-self in each person. “Emerson spoke as a respected seer; his feet were firmly placed on moral ground, his eyes lifted to the infinite potential for good works that he saw in the nature of man.”[vii]
Emerson could not adopt an identity which was not authentically his. He could not feign behaviors to please others perhaps realizing that such reactions were delusional. “‘It is the best part of the man,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘that revolts most against being a minister. His good revolts from official goodness. Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.’ [He] attacked all formal religion and championed intuitive spiritual experience.”[viii]
He also intuited the Great Insight of Oneness among other principles of Simple Reality including the “feeling” of being in the present moment. “Standing on bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”[ix]
Pogo was right after all. Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” of thinking, as a few of us know, is nothing more than the false self trying to cope with a terrifying paradigm and the irrational behavior of fellow sleepwalkers. Walt Kelly, the cartoonist who created the insightful possum was probably a calm and cool artist who knew better than to get too caught up in the mainstream narrative of his over-imaginative and neurotic fellow Americans.
The Pogo Paradox or Chicken Little?
[i] Easterbrook, Greg. “When Did Optimism Become Uncool?” The New York Times. May 15, 2016, page 3.
[vi] Johnson, George. “Still Dreaming of Little Green Men.” The New York Times. May 15, 2016, page 4.
[vii] Davidson, Marshall B. The American Heritage History of The Writers’ America. New York: American Heritage. 1973, page 123.
[ix] Ibid., page 124.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.