Yale is the perpetual first-semester freshman, forever undaunted by the obstacles the world presents, sure that through a little more work and effort and a bit of luck even the worst of situations can turn around for the better. It is hard to imagine an institution more sure of itself, more certain of its purpose in the world, more confident of its eventual success in whatever endeavor it chooses to pursue, than our venerated university. But Seymour Hersh, the cult journalistic hero and uncoverer of Vietnam and Iraq war scandals, can think of one: The White House and its current Yale-educated inhabitant.
Here to, in his own words, “spread [his] little piece of gloom,” Hersh had no interest in couching the current political situation in optimistic shorthand (for Hersh, “the situation in the Middle East” is probably the most inappropriately bland euphemism in recent history). Speaking to a packed audience in the Law School auditorium Wednesday afternoon, Hersh told the stories behind his political-landscape-altering stories, recounting his more interesting interviews, his opinions of the Bush administration, which ranged from denigrating to outrightly fearful, and how he came to his chilling realization that things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.
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“Let me see if I can give you some optimism,” Hersh was wont to say, before pushing forward in his clear-eyed, weary account of the oligarchic state of U.S. government, its bloody interventions in the rest of the world and the intractability of the Iraq war. “Some optimism,” for Hersh, turned out to be statements such as, “The Iraqi army will not stand up no matter how we do it.”
An earnest student in the back of the lecture hall asked what we as a school or a country can do to improve things; after ridiculing her overblown sense of Yale’s importance, Hersh brushed off the question, confirming what the audience had come to realize in the preceding hour: In Hersh’s world, there is nothing to be done. Later, in a more private meeting with a dozen campus journalists, Hersh expressed his thoughts on the futility of his own writing and the discouraging state of the American newspaper. Desperate to hear words of encouragement, confirmation that they are pursuing the right career in the midst of their investment-banking, law school-attending friends, campus writers intent on becoming muckrakers are by definition optimists; Hersh sensed that hope, and refused to validate it.
Is Hersh right? Are things really this hopeless? Is the world this revolting? Or have all of us just been reading too much Schopenhauer lately? A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “You Are What You Expect” by Jim Holt, presents evidence that optimistic people tend to live longer than those more realistic about their chances for success. But optimism is also the flip side of hubris; it is what leads us to believe we really can get that impossibly out-of-our-league guy/girl, that we should quit our safe but boring day job to pursue our artistic passions, and, in Hersh’s view, that we can invade a country and destroy its infrastructure, and then be greeted as liberators. With a little less Eli optimism and a little more of Hersh’s brand of wide-eyed pessimism, we would probably be a bit more unhappy. But those around us, Hersh would argue, would be a hell of a lot better off.