Mohsin Hamid on Radical Optimism

It's important to imagine critical radical optimism.

Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid is the author of "The Last White Man".

Asked by DW, "Is it an author's responsibility to create optimism?" Mohsin said:

"It's important to imagine critical radical optimism. Which is not the same as saying that the way things are going is great, we should all relax and go with the status quo. But rather to say that it's entirely possible that if we engage, we can make things better. For a long time, we thought that the task of journalism was to reveal how messed up the status quo was. If you said the status quo was great, it would mean that the powerful people who have created the status quo [would see] their power perpetuated. But now we live in a world where their status and power depend on them telling us that the status quo is a disaster. Take Donald Trump, for example: Trump being a phenomenon depends on the view that America is in a disastrous situation. If you say America is in a disastrous situation, you're actually not diminishing the power of someone like Trump, you're enhancing them.

Asked by the Chicago Tribune,  "How do you maintain optimism?", Mohsin said:

"Optimism has been like a marriage. It’s not just something that happens; it’s something you have to commit yourself to making work. You can’t just say, I don’t feel optimistic, or wait for it to come. Even in the face of real tragedy or real difficulty, we have to find a way to choose that. It’s tempting to allow ourselves to not be optimistic, to say, Oh, things are looking really bad and they’re going to get worse. That isn’t a passive position. In choosing to be “realistic” in this way, we are facilitating a world that looks like our nightmare. There is an obligation to find reasons for optimism — or to become and build the reasons for optimism."

On optimism and  the future, Mohsin has said:

"The first question when it comes to the future is, how are we going to articulate optimistic visions of the future that include everybody, that we find desirable? And that we think can actually come into existence. What's amazing about this moment in human history is the complete lack of any such visions. Instead of optimistic inclusive visions of the future, we hear nostalgic visions of the future. ISIS [another name for the so-called "Islamic State" — Editor's note] is about returning to the caliphate. Brexit is about returning to pre-EU Britain. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, the way it used to be.  When we fail to articulate optimistic new visions, we leave space for those who pedal nostalgia. Nostalgia is very dangerous — we cannot go back in time, and the old days were never as good as we thought they were. One of the important things we need to do as citizens, and certainly as writers, is to begin to imagine optimistic futures that are not nostalgic. Would a world of universal migration be terrifying for us? Yes, but a world where our grandchildren could live in Rio de Janeiro, Beijing or Lahore, if they wanted — would they find this world horrifying? Maybe not."

On 'naive optimism’ v ‘critical optimism', Mohsin has said:

“I think there’s a difference between a kind of ‘naive optimism’ and a ‘critical optimism. A naive optimism is the position that says ‘Look, things are just going to work out, don’t worry about it’. I think that probably is a fairly disastrous strategy. In our current moment, the environment will just sort itself out and polarisation will just sort itself out and inequality will just sort itself out. I’m not convinced that these things are going to sort themselves out.”

“critical optimism” is about recognising that we have to come up with a future that we find desirable and is “more inclusive”.

 “Because if we don’t do this, what happens is that we are left with a kind of fear of the future, that compels us towards a nostalgic politics, and that this nostalgic politics is about going back to what it was like 20 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 1000 years ago, you know, some time when there were less immigrants, or Islam was more pure, or Russia was still part of the Soviet Union.”
“It’s very important for me to not solely sound a warning about where we’re headed, but to counteract it – and begin to suggest other places to go. Because I really do fear the consequences of us not having that kind of optimism. I think that it’s a profoundly dangerous position for us to all agree that the future is terrible, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”


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