Monday, November 04, 2002

Thought of the day: when is cynicism too much of a good thing?
Tomorrow is Election Day, when Americans from coast to coast remember our country's democratic ideals, consider their chance to choose our next batch of leaders, and cannot help but observe that the word "citizen" sounds a lot like "cynicism." How useful is cynicism? To me, a Nader voter, it's merely being realistic: politics is a game in which the agenda of the powerful is to maintain their power--repay donors with favors, avoid originality just enough to appear generically pleasing to an independent-leaning voting public. In that sense, politicians are among the few people whose sole job duties are to keep their jobs--who exist for the purpose of continuing to exist--and whose job performance is so hindered by their job duties (intriguing P.J. O'Rourke essay on this in the latest Atlantic, preview only available free online). You call it cynicism, I call it refusing to be sentimental and naive. As I wrote in RedEye this morning, it would take some authentic, passionate, relevant rhetoric (did you see West Wing last week?) to re-capture the hearts and minds of the public. Until then, politicians don't deserve any higher turnout than they get.

How useful is cynicism? Part of me wants more people to be more cynical, so that they wouldn't be so swayed by the televisual brainwashing of commercials, or so Lemming-like follow social myths about wealth, sex, religion, and patriotism. But how much is too much? Why does no buzzer go off when you step on the tissue-thin line between healthy skepticism and dysfunctional cynicism? A truly unpleasant world would be populated by everyone always walking around questioning everything, always rejecting social assumptions. Again, to quote Nicholas-Sebastien Chamfort: "The contemplative life is often miserable. You should do more, think less and not watch yourself living." And worse, consistent cynicism is an act of self-absorption--you say, OK, social mythology cannot be trusted...but I can. What sense does that make? If societies are capable of collective error, naivete and delusion, then so are individuals.

Besides, there is, to both our moral peril and mental health, a functionality to some level of cultural conformity. It is difficult, if not downright depressing, to endure the cognitive dissonance that comes from a continuous rejection of the values of one's cultural context. There is a function to people walking into voting booths tomorrow and voting, even if the people they're choosing are petty, their proposed policies inconsequential, and the likelihood of getting them passed next to nil. There's a function to it even if it's an empty ritual--to perpetuate a social system. So I'll vote. Still, we're left to search for the reality that lies between the possibility that society is deluding itself and I know better, and the possibility that I am deluding myself and society knows better. Feeble humans cannot consistently tell the difference, which makes life such a mystery.

Footnote one: I dig into the thick of these themes in a Books&Culture review of David Dark's Everyday Apocalypse.

Footnote two: Ryan, a good and sharp-witted friend of mine from WBBL Radio in Grand Rapids, once spouted this piece of passionate political rhetoric in response to a column I wrote. I disagree with over half of it, but Ryan is so authentic and intelligent in his rhetoric (as with West Wing as I mentioned above) that I'd be inclined to vote for him if he ever runs for office).

Footnote three: William Safire says today that the electoral problem is mechanical and logistical, not cynicism. The Atlantic breaks down the numbers to back him up (preview only available free online).

Earlier thought: Would we be better off with lower voter turnout?
Previous thought: What is truth?

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