The Optimism Of The Will

“My name is Benjamin Wagner,” I said, firmly shaking Bill Moyers’ hand. “I am the young man with the fire in his belly who has been doggedly pursuing you for my deep and simple documentary about my relationship with Mister Rogers.”

“Oh yes,” he said, looking up from under his glasses. “Oh yes.”

* * *

I was leading a meeting on viral marketing late this afternoon when the email hit my inbox. “Seems Bill is taking action on the UWS!” Abbi wrote. She had happened upon a blurb about the PBS documentarian’s activism against Upper West Side development (see “Historical Society Throwdown on the UWS”), revealing in the process that the PBS documentarian (and elder statesman for all that is good and right) is also my neighbor.

“And,” she followed, “It seems he’ll be at Barne’s & Noble tonight!”

I cancelled my plans (“I’ve just learned Bill Moyers is doing a reading on 17th Street at 7pm,” I wrote Chris, Tony and Ryan. “I HAVE to go for my film; we’ve been trying to interview him for months“), and raced through the remainder of the day nervous like a schoolboy after learning of a pop quiz.

The moon was full and buffeted by billowing clouds as I walked through Union Square. As I approached Barnes & Noble, I spotted a sign in the window that read

The New School Presents:
Democracy In Media
Moderated by Bill Moyers
Walter Isaacson, Michael Massing, and Ann Deavere Smith

Just inside the door, a display touted Mr. Moyers recent book, “Welcome To Doomsday,” as well as his best seller, “Moyers On America.” I grabbed copies of both, and then climbed three flights where a gathering of two hundred PBS die hards were already seated. I found a seat in the front row, took off my jacket, pulled my notebook and camera out of my bag, and waited.

The panel, featuring former CNN Chairman and current CEO of Aspen Institute Walter Isaacson, Columbia Journalism Review editor Michael Massing, and playwright, actor and Stanford professor Ann Deavere Smith, took the stage mere moments later. I smiled to myself when I spotted Mr. Moyers, certain that, as the youngest audience member in the front row, if not the room, he would think right away, “There’s that pesky documentary kid.”

The group tackled the weighty subject of the role of media in a democratic society, the risks of that role, and its recent failures, with insight, enthusiasm, and humor.

“Media exposure,” Mr. Moyers said, “is the common denominator of ambition.”

“Real news,” he followed, quoting playwright Tom Stoppard, “Is the news we need to keep our freedom.”

Through the panel’s exploration of consumerism (“In a business society as we are, commercial considerations infiltrate and subvert almost every institution,” Mr. Moyers said), media consolidation (“Are we too obsessed with what may be an obsolete form of mass communication?” he asked), poor reporting (“I really believe the dearth of good reporting is the greatest danger to journalism,” Isaacson said), consumer disenfranchisement (“Maybe we’ve grown to comfortable?” Ms. Smith mused), and the subtleties of post September 11 censorship (“I call them the “patriotism police” Mr. Isaacson said), I kept asking myself, ‘What are you doing still working for The Man?’

When the panel yielded the floor to questions, I fantasized about dashing for the mic, identifying myself to Mr. Moyers and asking, “So what do I do?” When I turned to spy a line of questioners thirty septuagenarians deep, I reconsidered. One audience member asked, “What do you tell young journalists?”

“The opportunity to be creative and signify are fewer and fewer,” Mr. Moyers responded. “But if you have the fire in the belly and you feel the fire by reporting upon that which you see around you, then stay with it. Never give up hope.”

As the panel wound down, it revealed its disparate perspective: Issacson, the technological optimist; Massing, the academic pessimist; and Smith, the hopeful centrist.

“I have to first differentiate for you between hope and optimism, because I think there¹s a difference,” she said. “And this is from someone some of you know fairly well, Cornell West, the scholar? He says,

Optimism and hope are different.

Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there that allows us to think that things are going to better, much more rationale, deeply secular. Whereas hope looks at the evidence and says it doesn’t look good at all, says we’re going to make a leap of faith, go beyond the evidence and attempt to create new possibilities that become contagious to allow us to engage in heroic actions, always against the odds, no guarantees whatsoever. That’s hope.

Mr. Moyers, then, supplied the final word.

There’s an Italian philosopher who’s had a big influence on me, his name is [Antonio] Gramsci. He talked about practicing pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the will, and by that he means — and I take this as a journalist — my job is to look around and describe the world as it is without any whitewash or illusions or romance. To say, “This is how the world looks. This is what’s happening in the world.” That’s the pessimism of the mind. To look around and see that all the signs add up to potential calamity, whether it’s global warming or the clash of civilizations or the uncompromising nature of present American politics.

But, as a human being, as a father, as a husband, as a citizen, I don’t know how to live in the world except to expect a more confident future and then, get up every morning and try to do something to bring that future about. That’s the optimism of the will. I will myself to try to change the realities that I see that are so disturbing.

Moments later, when the applause gave way to a dull chatter, I was third in line for Mr. Moyers’ signature. My heart was in my throat as I repeated my introduction over and over in my mind. Soon, I was standing before him — the man whose wisdom and insight I have been seeking for months — extending my hand.

“My name is Benjamin Wagner,” I said, firmly shaking Bill Moyers’ hand. “I am the young man with the fire in his belly who has been doggedly pursuing you for my deep and simple documentary about my relationship with Mister Rogers.”

“Oh yes,” he said, looking up from under his glasses. “Oh yes.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I followed. “And to hear you speak tonight.”

“Well, thank you he said,” scribbling in my book.

“I hope you can understand my tenacious pursuit,” I said.

“You know,” he replied almost sheepishly, “I just don’t know that I have anything to say.”

I paused a beat, speechless, then squawked, “All right. Thank you.”

“Talk to… talk to…” he said, looking at the line behind me.

“All right,” I said stepping away. “Thank you.”

“All right,” he finished.

I walked away swearing at myself. ‘Talk to whom?’ I wondered, navigating the crowded room. ‘Talk to whom!?!’

I rode the escalator three flights, paid for the book, and pulled on my jacket, all the while assaulting myself for being such a coward. ‘Speak truth to power!’ I said to myself. ‘You idiot.’

On the street, I put on my headphones, but didn’t push play. ‘Mister Rogers called for daily reflection,’ I thought to myself. ‘Don’t drown out your thoughts with music.’

I beat myself up all the way to the subway, frowning when I caught glimpses of myself in car windows. ‘You failed,’ I thought. ‘You failed.’

Waiting for the 1 inside the 18th Street station, I opened my copy of “Moyers On America,” and read the inscription.

“For Benjamin,” it read.

His cursive was thin, long, and as unreadable as a doctor’s. I puzzled. An allowed spirit? An alloy spirit? An aligned spirit? And then it hit me.

For Benjamin,
A kindred spirit
Bill Moyers

I continued beating myself up as the train headed uptown. Somewhere between Times Square and 72d Street, though, I thought, ‘You should have asked Mister Rogers what to say. You should have asked Mister Rogers for help.’

And then, staring out the window through my reflection I head his voice in my head.

“You’re doing fine, Benjamin,” Mister Rogers said. “You’re doing fine.”