What’s wrong with cynicism


A few years ago, Taco Bell took out ads in USA Today and other major newspapers. The fast-food company had bought the Liberty Bell, the ad explained, and would now call it the Taco Liberty Bell. The bell would stay at its same location, still accessible to the public, but under new ownership.

The ads turned out to be an April Fools’ Day parody, but it felt too real for comfort. Congressional leaders already talk seriously of turning national parks over to Disney. Channel One broadcasts commercial-laden “infotainment” into public schools, along with suggested class projects in which students write commercials for Snapple and design art for Pepsi vending machines. Why not auction off America’s historic monuments to the highest bidder?

Cynicism takes the notion that every institution and every person is for sale, and enshrines it as an eternal truth. It insists that human motives are debased and always will be. Cynicism implies that no institutions, truths, or community bonds are worth fighting for.

Cynicism wasn’t always so disempowering. The first Cynics were a group of ancient Greek philosophers, most notably Diogenes, who caustically denounced the established culture of their time. Monk-like ascetics who preached simplicity, self-discipline, and self-sufficiency, they offered a moral alternative to the empty materialism, legalism, and religious hypocrisy that had come to dominate Greek society. Back then, to be a Cynic meant to stand up for one’s convictions.

To fully appreciate the corrosive effect of contemporary cynicism, imagine adopting the same approach toward our children, spouses, lovers, and friends that we often do toward public life. Pretend for a moment that instead of placing our trust in them, and forgiving their lapses and flaws, we greeted them with derision, suspicion, and indifference. How long would hope, love, or joy survive under those conditions? That’s precisely the reason we resist cynicism in our personal relationships. We take chances on people, risking disappointment and heartbreak, so as to encourage their best qualities. Otherwise, decent relationships become impossible.

Cynicism in the public sphere is no less destructive. Take electoral politics, toward which our pessimism and contempt are more thoroughgoing than in any other aspect of American life. As National Education Association president Bob Chase worries, “We’re coming dangerously close to believing that nothing is possible, except for a nation of corruption and greed. People in media and politics should be promoting integrity. But they give us a sense that everyone’s on the take, that everyone’s out for themselves, and that working for a larger common good is impossible.”

More and more, cynicism occupies the mental and psychological space we once reserved for hope - at least the kind of hope that might inspire us to take public stands. Better to expect nothing, in this view, than to risk disappointment. Yet this very detachment renders us impotent, and thus eternally cynical.

What’s the alternative? It certainly isn’t blind trust, which though less self-defeating and socially irresponsible than cynicism, is dangerous in its own right. I saw both during my three-year study of Washington State’s Hanford nuclear complex, the largest in the world. Hanford’s founding generation came in during World War II, producing the plutonium for the first atomic bomb (exploded in the New Mexico desert), as well as for the one that fell on Nagasaki, and later the raw materials for a quarter of all the atomic warheads in the world. They were proud of their work. The high school football team, the Richland Bombers, displayed a miniature mushroom cloud on its helmets, pep club banners, and school commencement programs.

To me, nuclear work raised troubling moral questions. Hanford’s repeated releases of radioactive gases, some deliberate, have left a trail of cancers and related health problems in communities as far as two hundred miles downwind. Hanford waste tanks, intended to be temporary, have leached hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive liquids into the ground. Bombs made with Hanford plutonium have risked the potential annihilation of our species.

First-generation workers avoided these questions, choosing instead to immerse themselves in their jobs. “I could just as easily have been working in a coal plant,” said one. “Or making lightbulbs.” “My job,” explained another, “was to make the machines work.” Ultimately, Hanford’s founding generation passed moral responsibility to those they referred to as “the men who knew best.”

A blend of inflated skepticism and pervasive resignation was evident in a new generation of workers that arrived at Hanford in the late 1970s and early 1980s to build three new commercial reactors. (Only one of the plants limped to completion, saddling Pacific Northwest ratepayers with a multibillion dollar debt load, greater than the national debt of Poland.) Unlike their older counterparts, most of these young men and women mistrusted the nuclear enterprise, but still showed up to build the plants every day. They cultivated an attitude of detachment, treating their work as an elaborate con game with an excellent paycheck.

“When these reactors go on line,” several told me, “I’ll be long gone - as far away as possible.” One computer scientist whose world-weariness seemed particularly terminal joked, “Maybe the human species is like a company past its time - simply due for extinction.”

Other young atomic workers rationalized their jobs by saying that since everyone else in the community accepted the reactors, they might as well accept them too, despite their personal qualms. “If this was somewhere else, where they didn’t want these plants,” said one, “I’d be the first to start protesting. But this is a nuclear town and it always will be.”

“If I was back east and they were building reactors,” said another, “I’d be throwing rocks, climbing fences, and getting arrested. Here, where else are you going to work? I tell you, I don’t like that breeder, though, and when they start that sucker up I’m moving.”

The young Hanford workers often voiced misgivings about the results of their labor. But they quickly brushed aside higher ideals like so much smoke from the high-priced dope they smoked. They joked about neophytes who bought their way into skilled jobs, underground pipes that led nowhere, improper welds, and other shoddy practices with potentially catastrophic consequences. Then they laughed, shrugged, and said that they might as well get the money, since someone was going to.

Since I first wrote about Hanford in the early 1980s, America’s cynicism has grown more insidious. We’ve come to equate moral conviction with delusion, and mock those who dare act on their beliefs. “It’s nice that you’re idealistic,” we respond. “But what makes you think it matters?”

Even if we believe in some core notions of right and wrong, we often portray the unjust structures of our time as immutable, and that produces a sense that they can never be changed. A “radical” political scientist once explained to me loftily, “We’re fooling ourselves if we think government doesn’t serve powerful economic interests.” True enough for the moment. But he framed this as an inevitable state, as if history were out of our hands. He gave his students no vision to fight for, no foundation for action, only the prospect of joining him in the ranks of the all-knowing witnesses to human folly.

Cultivated or crude, cynicism is treacherous. It converts the sense of not wanting to be lied to into bitter protection against dashed hopes: if we never begin to fight for our dreams, there’s no risk that we will fail.

Any problem whose magnitude seems overwhelming can produce resignation and self-absorption. Think of population growth. In 1700, there were fewer than 700 million people in the world. By 1900, that number had slightly more than doubled, to 1.6 billion. It grew to two billion in 1945, despite two world wars and a global influenza epidemic. Since then, global population has nearly tripled, and may reach nine billion in our lifetimes.

The bad news keeps coming. Antarctic penguins now have PCBs in their body fat. The rate at which we extinguish species is comparable to the great “extinction spasms” that doomed creatures like the dinosaurs. For decades the advanced industrial nations have been consuming a vastly disproportionate share of the planet’s resources. Now the poorest and most desperate countries are asking, reasonably enough, why they should be denied an equivalent share - which is to say, a similarly wasteful way of life.

Just reading these descriptions may make you feel more overwhelmed. It’s understandable. Yet make no mistake: solutions exist to address these problems, as well as others, from global warming to the depletion of the ozone layer to deforestation. They’ve inspired countless people to get involved in environmental issues.

I don’t want to make the picture sound too rosy. Even the mildest forms of social commitment imply that our actions make a difference, and that if we want a more humane future we’re all going to have to help create it. That perspective can be threatening to those in a position to influence opinion. It suggests that they have a moral responsibility to listen to voices that don’t necessarily originate in Washington, DC or the corporate suites, and to question the actions of the powerful. Insouciant cynicism’s more comfortable.

Cynicism salves the pain of unrealized hope. If we convince ourselves that nothing can change, we don’t have to risk acting on our dreams. But the more we accept this, the more we deny core parts of ourselves. We deny even the possibility that our choices can matter.

As an alternative to this impotent realism, I’d like to propose a clear-eyed idealism, which recognizes that these are bad times for many people, but refuses to accept that the bad times are inevitable. I’m not promoting a culture of happy talk. It’s important to dissect institutional arrogance and greed, to assess how it damages lives, neighborhoods, communities, and the most basic life systems of the earth. But too many activists almost delight in rolling around in the bad news, like dogs in rancid fish. If that’s all we do, we’ll reinforce the belief that efforts to change things are doomed. We’ll foster resignation and despair. So along with the bad news, we need to convey that which is capable of inspiring hope.

It may always feel more than a little absurd to think that we might be able to change history. Recognizing that fact, and appreciating the irony in our situation, can be useful especially when our efforts don’t go as planned. But that same sense of irony becomes dangerous when it’s used to justify passivity. As the poet and essayist Lewis Hyde points out, it becomes “the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Accordingly, we might think of a modern cynic as someone who’s given up all hope of finding a door, much less a key. And we might remember that there are better ways to live.

Excerpted from Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time, St. Martin’s Press, 1999

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