Monday, February 04, 2008

Politics and an Exploration of Cynicism

Most generations think that the one they are enduring is the worst. Taxes are high, the war will never end, virtue is all but forgotten, and the young kids just don't get it anymore. These are common sentiments uttered in one way or another through the previous centuries as well as this one. It's as though there is a built-in sense of pessimism that we find alluring and attractive, a safeguard against our hopes being dashed and a fallback position when our best intentions don't pan out. These days, I'm hearing more and more about the role cynicism, though, as opposed to pessimism, especially in politics, but also our culture.

Certainly, for me, cynicism is an outgrowth of Post-modern relativism, the by-product of boredom, angst and ennui. In a vacuum of truth and the general fear to commit to an ideology that is "bound to fail," a great deal of posturing has come about, and it looks like a leaning cynic. Just as sarcasm is a way to avoid a certain level of intimacy with other people, cynicism is the posture one takes to avoid political or social intimacy. So instead of cheering on Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, the cynic may disavow themselves of all politics, declaring that none of them are good enough to deserve their support. Better to be a cynic than a broken-hearted activist, the sentiment seems to be.

Cynicism is different from mere pessimism, however, in that pessimism assumes a value system. So the old curmudgeon who doesn't like the way things are going, bases his opinion on a value system that is, in his opinion, being ignored or denigrated. Bitter that taxes are too high? It's because your value system tells you they should be lower. Don't expect them to be lowered anytime soon? History has told you they tend to go up, not down. This is pessimism, a camp I often fall into. Cynicism doesn't complain about taxes being too high or low, but rather might hope the government will use your tax dollars to punish those who disagree with you, by de-funding the military because you oppose war, for example.

Cynicism does not have the type of value system that pessimism has. In fact, it doesn't have one at all. It uses people, it pits them against one another, and is driven by fear of real human contact. I often heard cynicism in jokes about marriage when I was engaged. Sure the jokes were considered harmless, and contain an element of truth. Jokes about how my freedom will be lost and how my wife would be running my life were common until I hinted that those jokes weren't appreciated. (Maybe I have a bad sense of humor, but I found them pedantic and boring after a while, if not offensive.) These are the types of jokes that seemed to suggest marriage is hardly worth it, relationships are doomed to fail, and it’s the best of a bad situation. To me, the pessimist says, marriage is at times hard work and there will be some days that are worse than others. The cynic sees it as the last refuge against what is destined to be a mostly lost cause anyway.

Politically, the Clintons seem to epitomize this sense of cynicism. They've used race explicitly throughout their careers, promising the "disenfranchised" a seat at the table of government. But now that an African-American is running against them, they've done everything they can to pit his race against him. They are the masters of making promises they know they can't keep, or keeping them knowing they'll make the problem worse. They accuse President Bush of being secretive, but are among the most secretive politicians to date. These are the ways they are the gods of supreme cynicism, pitting people against each other, waiting for humanity to fail so they can promise to pick up the pieces.

Obama is at least honest, or he comes across that way to me. He might even be optimistic, even if his form of optimism strikes me as either naive or uninformed. (His brand of populist socialism is either the result of a true optimist who believes the absolute best in humanity, or a Clinton-esque cynic who also hopes he will be able to pick up the pieces when his plans produce misery.) Obama himself highlighted Clinton cynicism when he advertised that the Clintons will "say anything" to get elected. So don't just take my word for it.

Now, I'm not going to say that only one side of the political aisle is prone to cynicism. The failure of Republicans to own and enforce conservative spending habits and legislation has generated a great deal of cynicism where optimism and hope was only a few years in the past. But I would be remiss if I didn't say that liberalism ultimately embodies cynicism more than conservatism in many ways. Liberalism, and its legislative life, are built on a certain assumptions about humanity, mainly that we are in need of a government to do what we cannot do: keep ourselves healthy, educated, or in good financial shape. At its heart, liberalism assumes the worst in people, and may even hope for their downfall to prove their biases correct. While conservatism embodies the belief in original sin, and the consequent need for limited government, property rights and the rule of law, this is born more out of fundamental anthropology that might lead one to doubt our potential, but not lose all hope. A basic lack of trust in humanity, fickle and unpredictable though they may be, is what drives much liberal ideology, and leads many a politician to unknowingly embrace cynicism.

Finally, I don't know that merely being "positive" is the antithesis or solution to cynicism. If I bought this theory, I might be a big fan of "The Power of Positive Thinking" or other self-esteem preachers/writers. Cynicism and this sense of positivism are both based on a false understanding of the human person, which is a being plagued by sin but created in the positive image of God. We can be a people of hope and be mindful of our limitations without drifting too far to either pole. Can we elect politicians that espouse a similar worldview, or is this message too nuanced for the global stage?

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