Allegory of the Optimist and the Realist: A Cautionary Tale
By Charles Sullivan
May 30, 2012 "Information
-- Imagine entering a room in which the electrical wiring is
defective. You turn the switch on. Nothing happens. Someone
replaces the bulb but the room remains dark. The circuit breaker
is deemed operational. Most people, after a few attempts at
flipping the switch, come to the realization that the circuit is
broken. They accurately conclude that the light is not going to
come on. This is a rational and intelligent response to the
reality of the situation; one that weds cause and effect to
A few of the people in the room, however, have resolute faith in
the defective circuit. They are confident that the light will
eventually come on. Among them, the belief persists that if one
continues to flip the switch enough times, eventually it will
start working. Convinced that the problem is a defective bulb,
they replace one light bulb with another every few minutes. As
with political elections, one dim bulb follows another into the
socket. Case after case of new bulbs is exhausted. And yet,
despite the best of intentions of the optimists, the room
remains as dark as a sarcophagus.
Suffering from cognitive dissonance, the eternal optimist, like
Joe Hill’s fictitious character Mr. Block, ignores the fact that
the wiring is broken and the circuit can never be operational
without a major overhaul, regardless of how many times the
switch is turned on. They contend that changing the bulb is
easier and safer than rewiring the circuit. The optimists insist
that when the right bulb is found light will dispel darkness and
everything will become clear. This is what they have always
done. It has never worked.
Nevertheless, despite decades of contrary results, the
positivity and faith of the optimists cannot be blunted. In
darkness, they busy themselves trying the switch again and
again. Ignoring the enduring darkness, some outsiders admire the
optimist’s diligence and determination. Light, they insist, like
change one can believe in, is a matter of faith.
Others, seeing the absurdity of these actions, scoff at the
optimist’s foolishness. Having forged a Faustian alliance with
the building’s landlords, the corporate media lauds the
optimist’s determination as a civic duty that is bound to bring
enlightenment, if only they will persist indefinitely in their
endeavor. Both the realists and the optimists want to shine
light into the darkness; however, there is fierce disagreement
about their methodology. Like the reformer and the
revolutionary, their differences are irreconcilable.
Eventually an exulted priest, Reverend Friedman, is consulted,
who advises everyone to ignore the darkness and to obey the
proprietors of the building. “There will be light for everyone
in the afterlife,” he advises the crowd. “One must have faith in
the system and the people it attracts to serve. Do not be
deceived by the lack of results in the present. God will see
that we are not wanting when we are dead. The free market, the
divine oracle of capitalism, will provide a solution to all of
our problems.” The good Reverend admonishes the realists for
their lack of faith and departs for the Big Top, where barkers
are attracting a crowd and organ grinders ply their trade.
The darkened house sits on the corner of Egalitarian Avenue and
Democracy Boulevard in a town called Plutocratville. Thievery
Corporation and Fascism Incorporated, now headquartered in
Capitalist China, were once the primary businesses.
The landlords of the house, The Big “O” and Capito, propose to
keep the occupants in the dark, where they conspire to do their
work, each deflecting criticism from the other. The landlords
cynically use the optimist’s faith and their naiveté to keep
them from making the circuit function as intended by its
designers. Among historians, there is intense debate about what
their real intentions were.
Darkness prevents some of the tenants from seeing the
dilapidated condition of the house as it falls down around them.
This permits the unscrupulous landlords to continue collecting
rent while covertly looting the building of its contents,
including its copper wiring. The optimist’s preoccupation with
the switch and their unstinting faith prevents them from
noticing the pilferage.
Meanwhile, the optimists have become contemptuous of the
realists, who have abandoned the switch and propose to bring in
an electrician to replace the defective wiring with a
functioning circuit. They label the realists as doomsayers,
pessimists, negativists, and conspiracy theorists. Invoking the
language of fear, the most optimistic believers refer to the
realists as socialists, communists, or Marxists. From the
optimist’s perspective, the problem is not the broken circuit;
it is lack of faith in the system on the part of the realists.
Beset with delusion, the most extreme optimists have convinced
themselves that the light is actually shining by refusing to
acknowledge the darkness around them. They create inspirational
euphemisms that substitutes light for dark and dark for light.
Thus, hate becomes love and war, peace. The euphoric optimists
are delighted by the system; however, they falsely perceive
themselves as enlightened. Reality and powerlessness terrifies
them, so they retreat into catacombs of fantasy. Their time-worn
strategies are predicated upon false premises.
Equipped with only vestigial eyes and terrified about the
implications of existing in utter darkness, the optimists refuse
to adopt the more revolutionary strategy of the realists as too
radical and too dangerous. They contend that the people are not
ready for directly confronting the underlying causes of the
Much like reformers during America’s era of chattel slavery, the
optimists reason that directly confronting cause and effect must
be postponed until after the November elections and the
mid-terms thereafter. The reformers hypothesize that The Big “O”
and Capito must be reelected to a second term as landlords of
the tenement, when they will reveal their humanitarian
intentions and make things right.
To accept the darkness as the absence of light would be so
psychologically disorienting that it would cause the optimist’s
mental circuits to shut down, much like the events of 9-11 has
suspended critical thinking and scientific analysis in the USA.
Karl Marx called this state of mind false consciousness.
Although fictionalized, the Allegory of the Optimist and the
Realist raises important questions about human nature,
irrational faith in dysfunctional systems of power, and reality.
For instance, if one continually confounds false consciousness
for true consciousness and illusion for reality, how can one
One must begin by acknowledging reality and accepting it for
what it is, regardless of how painful or undesirable its truth.
Faith does not always serve human need; it often undermines
progress and promotes oppression of the working class, despite
its occasional good intentions. Broken systems of power do not
Ultimately, we can only begin our respective journeys to true
consciousness and thus revolution from wherever are. But we must
have the courage to acknowledge where that is. False hope and
wishful thinking can prevent us from doing what must be done. It
can perpetuate the very inequality we are trying to eradicate.
Reality, no matter how disturbing, provides a solid base from
which to move forward. Take it for what it is.
Charles Sullivan is a naturalist, an educator, and freelance
writer residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical
West Virginia. He does not vote or lend the appearance of
legitimacy to corrupt systems of power by participating in them.