Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Musings: On Cynicism

A reader took me to gentle task this morning for yesterday’s post on Obama’s inauguration, noting:

While I appreciate your blogs, this one proved far too cynical, particularly the opening paragraphs. "America" has a LONG way to go but...Look, an Afro-American man got elected president! Bush and his ilk are out! I'm just saying for one day, one day when almost everyone from Kauai to Mississippi unites, there is hope warranted, not cynicism.

That reader is not the only one who feels that way. During a phone consultation yesterday afternoon with my doctor, who now practices in California, he expressed surprise that I wasn’t jazzed by Obama’s inauguration. He’s a very progressive man, politically, medically and spiritually, and he’s looking at the Obama presidency as “a pivotal time in our country. Our country will lead the world into a new age.” In fact, several of his friends moved from the West Coast to D.C. to devote their talents and energy to Obama’s Administration.

And when I was shopping in Kojima’s, where the radio was tuned to KQNG, I heard a woman call in, tearfully asking Ron Wiley to replay the inaugural address because she couldn’t afford cable TV service anymore, and she'd been so moved by the President’s words that she wanted to hear them again.

Meanwhile, a friend got a TV specifically so she could watch the inauguration and another friend sent an email with the subject heading: “out of the Bushes!”and a message that read: “welcome to the new era.”

Then I glanced at The Advertiser this morning and saw an AP story that reported:

From the boisterous streets of New York to the suddenly silent casinos in Las Vegas and virtually everywhere in between, Americans celebrated Barack Obama's inauguration by answering his call for national unity: They gathered together.

"I knew I had to be with people for this moment, not just sitting at home by myself," said Amanda Hoff, 32, who skipped work to watch Tuesday's ceremonies with hundreds in a Philadelphia skyscraper. "It's the kind of moment where you'll always remember where you were when it happened."


Clearly, I’m out of step with millions, perhaps tens or even hundreds of millions, of people around the world, and it’s not the first time I’ve been in that situation, or that it’s given me reason to pause.

I’m not sure where my cynicism comes from, but I do know I recognized it back in sixth grade, when as punishment for some infraction the teacher required me to copy a page out of the dictionary. Cynicism was one of the words, and its definition — “Believing or showing the belief that people are motivated chiefly by base or selfish concerns; skeptical of the motives of others” — resonated with me.

Being a reporter and seeing people lie and posture and backstab and pander for nearly 30 years hasn’t helped matters, either. Yet I recognize the paradox in this way of thinking, because nearly every week I interview people who care deeply about this community and are dedicated to improving it and give selflessly of their time, money and manao. They invariably inspire me, humble me and motivate me.

In fact, meeting these folks often makes me wonder how it is that so many individuals can be so good, and yet our systems, which, after all, comprise individuals, are generally so bad, whether they’re political, religious or charitable.

So when I hear a president call for unity, I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a good thing, especially if the reason for the unification is to perpetuate the imbalance that America represents in the world, and when I listen to a speech, I can’t help but search, reporter-like, for the contradictions and the platitudes and the hyperbole.

Yet I’d be the first to say yes, I welcome a new era; yes, I want people to care; yes, I’d like to see people get off their asses and get involved; yes, I do believe that change is not only possible, but essential; and yes, I think people are tired of feeling disillusioned and cynical, me among them.

And if Obama is the catalyst for making that happen, if he can inspire people and motivate them and give them a reason to get out and make a difference, then more power to him. I wish him, and all those who still have hope, well.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm pessimistic, not cynical. The problems facing America and the world seem to be beyond solution. But, I never thought that I would see a person of color elected President, so who knows.

Anonymous said...

As Oscar Wilde said, a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

I'm so relieved Bush 43 is gone, and hopeful for Obama. This first day of the Obama administration seems to have a lot of good omens: orders to suspend the secret trials at Gitmo, orders to suspend the midnight regulations, orders to make presidential & vice-presidential records harder to hide.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, that was an excellent blog and also shed some light on yourself. Very good point on so many individuals being so good...hopefully we can harness that into a collective. ps: Obama would dig your blog, it searches for the true story and presents differing opinions

Dawson said...

As a liberal I was moved to tears when Obama put his hand on the same bible that was used to inaugurate Abraham Lincoln, and took the oath of President of the United States.

But simultaneously I was wary and skeptical of the gushing tone -- and the almost childlike language -- that journalists and others were using to describe what it meant.

In skimming the TiVo of 6 hours of CNN, and scanning a dozen online newspapers, just one journalist (someone on CNN, I forgot who), said something I agreed with. He thought that if Martin Luther King were alive today, he would be thrilled by Obama becoming president, but would shake his head in dismay at the giddiness of the celebration, and say it is not yet the time for celebrating.

What makes me uncomfortable (besides the blatant elitism of the coronation balls) is that I don't think the country is actually listening to what Obama was saying in his inauguration address. We seem to be swept up in a national paroxysm of joy and relief, focused on a fantasy figure we've collectively conjured: The Leader Who Will Save Us All.

We seem to have gone beyond hope and reverence, to revel like high schoolers whose team has won the homecoming game -- ignoring the reality that their school is in danger of being closed for lack of funding, condemned as structurally unsound, and razed.

I think that as a culture we've still got a lot of emotional growing up to do. In the meantime, I wonder what this tidal wave of emotion will do to the intellectual process of repairing our wounded nation.

Anonymous said...

Good points Dawson but I think the giddiness comes from years of feeling so poorly and helpless under the Bush administration. A ray of hope came thru to a starving people and they responded..haven't seen America do that in awhile. Plus, the speech was quite somber I thought, played down to the serious issues. The new president will, at the least, bring intellectuality to an office sorely in need of thought, not blind idealism. Miles and miles to go for sure but gotta start somewhere.

Dawson said...

> Good points Dawson but I think the giddiness comes from years of feeling so poorly and helpless under the Bush administration. <

Believe me, I understand that, and I feel it myself.

It's not people having the feeling that worries me. It's when the feeling changes the perceptions of the movers and shakers of our culture. The people writing our history as it happens. The people who we (passively) permit to synthesize and voice our feelings: community leaders, government leaders, religious leaders, media mavens and, especially, journalists.

I'm not saying I'm right, I'm saying I'm concerned. Concerned that a national "yah hoo!" is emotionally two steps in the same direction as "Battle Over"... and points toward the same, slippery slope.

And I'm most concerned of all that the number of MSM non-rightwing journalists voicing what Joan voiced is nearly nil.

Anonymous said...

“So when I hear a president call for unity, I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a good thing, especially if the reason for the unification is to perpetuate the imbalance that America represents in the world, and when I listen to a speech, I can’t help but search, reporter-like, for the contradictions and the platitudes and the hyperbole.”

RE ...” especially if the reason for the unification is to perpetuate the imbalance that America represents in the world”

...come back to earth...and re-review that last 200 years

and as to the "blatant elitism of the coronation balls"...yes, the dances are designed to suppress the third-world masses. it is a plot

anyways, this guy is not magic, he is just a smart guy that grew up all over the world who has a sound blend of idealism and pragmatism and is without the baggage of any culture war, etc. he listens and can lead, and is a pretty good political animal. i am glad he is at the helm. and yes it is a nice footnote, point of fact, and point of usa pride that he happens to be a black guy. so smoke a marlboro and relax

Jaded said...

Joan,

Nothing wrong with cynicism, esp. when you are right.

The problems are too big to be solved in an orderly manner. Obama has already indicated by his appointments that he is willing to be manipulated. The best solutions have already been ruled out.

Anonymous said...

"he is willing to be manipulated. The best solutions have already been ruled out"

by not releasing area 51 files or legalizing pot?

feel free to offer examples of your assertions

Anonymous said...

"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply." Barack Obama 1/20/09

I can't add anything to that!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I think both of you would gladly rationalize a whale dying for the cause of bringing down the Great Satan of your creation.