A few thoughts on cynicism

Cross posted on The Obama Diary.
“Cynicism is no more mature than naïveté. You’re no more mature, just more burned.”
― Karl Marlantes, What It is Like to Go to War
I was, in my callow youth, a practiced cynic. Perhaps it was due to the crowd with which I hung out, perhaps due to my own struggles, a combination of the two, or merely the condition of youth where one thinks oneself wiser than one really is. But my view of the world was dark, depressing, and pretty hopeless.

Or, at least, that’s what I put out. At a certain age, it’s quite hip and cool to pose with an cynical insouciance: you know the game, you know it’s rigged, there’s nothing you can do aside from letting “Them” know that you know. It’s your only power.

I, thankfully, grew out of my cynicism. There was no one “come to Jesus” moment to which I can point where I embraced hope and optimism to a deleterious despair. And I didn’t embrace a blind optimism; I’m too much a student of the world to believe that if we just wish hard enough things will magically conform to our ideas of the true and the good. It was when I started to work on all the things which made me unhappy, which stymied me, which made me think I’d never amount to anything, and when the work began to pay off, that it dawned on me that there was nothing “easy” about cynicism, that maintaining that mindset was actually hard work, much harder than evaluating yourself and saying “This is what I’ll change. I can’t stay where I am.” Doing that work—whether on yourself or on society—is much easier and more rewarding than staying in the rut where you’re convinced nothing will ever change because nothing has ever changed in the world’s history.

But we live in a culture where cynicism is the currency of the realm. Not skepticism; a healthy dose of true skepticism prevents you for rushing headlong into a lot of avoidable mistakes. (I differentiate between “true” skepticism, which challenges statements to prove their truth value, with the “skepticism” of, say, the climate-change deniers, who aren’t skeptics, but have merely stuck their fingers in their ears and operate from, yes, a point of cynicism.)

How else can we judge the actions of most of the mainstream media, chasing the non-stories of Administration “scandals”, while ignoring the real damage being done to the effective governing of this country by the opposition party? The media, ever since the days of 1990s consolidation, have made a calculated decision that “Democrats in scandal” sells, and if there is no “there” there, they will still beat it until it becomes farcical even to them. But they know that enough eyeballs will tune in or read, and cynically exploit that ever-decreasing pool of people glued to their outlets, in a frantic attempt to remain relevant. It’s a losing game for them; ratings are down across all news networks, as the public tires with scandal fatigue, while the media shows nothing about what affects their lives directly. And with the proliferation of social media, there are literally a million other places from which to get news and analysis.

How else can we judge the actions of the Republicans in Congress, and in the states, who, for example, deny the Obamacare expansions in Medicaid, condemning large swathes of their populations to lack of consistent, reliable medical care, in some cases condemning them to death. Not even their friends in the medical industry, who are for the Medicaid expansion, can get Republican governors and legislators to embrace ACA as the only thing which will both get people insured and save the insurance companies. These politicians cynically believe that, as before, they will suffer no consequences for legislating in direct opposition to the needs of their constituents, especially as long as Barack Obama is President. I wouldn’t be so comfortable in that belief: once the states that have embraced Obamacare start delivering good care at much less cost, the citizens of those Republican-ruled states will start to wonder why they have to pay more for less coverage. Obama Derangement Syndrome on the Right will spur, not hinder, implementation of health care reform, and other Obama initiatives beneficial to the majority, as people start to see that the only reason they don’t get the same benefits as those in other states is because their elected leaders can’t tolerate “that one”.

How else can we judge the actions of those with the megaphones on the Left, the so-called “net roots”, who have taken a unified front in opposition to Obama because he doesn’t do things the way they would, or he doesn’t do them fast enough, or he’s a dictator sending drones over Battery Park, or he’s a weak-kneed corporatist shill who caves in at the slightest pushback from the GOP. (Yes, cognitive dissonance is rife on the Left.) Sites like Huffington Post and Daily KOS did very well for themselves during the Bush years. There was a clearly defined enemy, those who called themselves leftists, progressives, or liberals were united in opposition, and the clicks and ad dollars rolled in. Barack Obama’s election was probably the worst thing that could have happened to the Left media. Suddenly there was a man in office who was the most progressive President since FDR; the anger and the site views declined; and they could no longer milk the cash cows. So they cynically take an oppositional stance towards the Administration, calling it by turns incompetent and sinister, just to keep the few remaining readers returning. The usual suspects on the Left blogosphere are seeing the same downturn in numbers since the election as MSNBC has seen since 75% of its lineup signed up for “Bash Obama from the ‘Left’”. The true believers will tune in; but they’re a minority; and cynicism is wearying. Tell people often enough that they were wrong for voting for Obama, and you won’t convince them of their error; you will, instead, make them tune you out.

Cynicism and naïveté are mirror images. They both rely on a privilege of accepting the world as it’s perceived to be, and doing nothing about it. The naifs think nothing is wrong, and the cynics see nothing as right. They both operate from a lack of responsibility to others: either “God will provide”, or “nothing will ever be fixed and let me tell you why for $29.95″.

Most people don’t have the luxury of operating from that privilege. Problems are immediate and real, and solutions are hard-fought and hard-won. Tom Coburn’s demands that tornado relief be paid for by cuts somewhere else will get him campaign contributions; they’re simply heartless to a woman who has witnessed her entire life destroyed. But he believes that the victims will forget, and he’ll win another term in the Senate. That’s the epitome of cynicism.

But, eventually, the cynics lose. They have nothing to offer, and people see into the heart of their empty promises. Cynics pretend they’re wise, but are nothing more than street-corner orators, shouting slogans which help no one. Give me a flawed optimist who does the hard, diligent work of change but promises nothing but more hard work, over the man who stirs the heart with sloganeering, but leaves you with no options and no prospects. With one, there’s hope of progress; with the other, there’s the certainty of failure.


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