It’s alphabet backwards day and I’m down to the letter “C.” There are lots of cool “C” words: chocolate, of course, is a popular one. Then there’s charisma, character, coincidence, calendar, colander, crocus, clavichord, chronicle, concept, corridor, congestion, congregation, church, chemistry, claustrophobia, Christmas, crutches, Crucifix, Christianity, California, concrete, camp, Clue, crafts, Colorado, companionship, company, creation, Creationism, country, cluster bombs, Clintons, clip art, cavities, Chaucer, choir, chorus, Columbia, Cyprus, cognitive learning, chess, cauliflower, crispy, crap shoot, cylinder, cysts, cancer, Cancer, coat tails, Cold War, cold, conundrum, codicil, creepy, crepe, Chinese, Chinese food, chili, cornbread, cranberry sauce, children, candy, chopped liver, cinema, cartwheels, cabaret, cucumber, cheese (almost forgot cheese, one of the holy foods), chestnuts, chimera, celebration, celebrity, compliments, Congress, conspiracy, Constitution, camera, … well there are lots and lots of really cool “c” words (certainly camera and Christianity were both mighty tempting), but I knew from the start that I want to write about cynicism.
I have a theory and I almost never get to tell anybody about my theories. Now here you are - my three or four avid readers - ready to be dazzled by the brilliance of Raven's Theory of Toxic Cynicism. Hopefully, anyway. I have one or two brilliant theories that rumble around in my head and that I've tried to share from time to time without any success. But enough introduction. Here goes.
I think that one of the reasons our society is in such a terrible mess - one of the reasons that people sit back and do nothing while Rome burns, why they don't vote, and particularly why the media has gone so far astray - is that we have fallen victim to a profound and toxic degree of cynicism. I'm not talking about the clever, wry wit of someone like sweet (sorry big guy) Jay the Cynical Bastard. I'm talking about a pervasive and toxic way of thinking.
I think the problem started with Watergate. America was in a state of flux anyway, but we were still profoundly idealistic... maybe as a nation we were in our pre-adolescence. Nixon and Watergate did two things. It shattered our innocence to a large degree and - this is the important part - it changed how the media pursues news. After Watergate, everybody wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. Reporters stopped looking for truth and started looking for lies. This is a very different pursuit and it produces very different - and very skewed - results. Because when you are looking for lies you are looking at the world through a very distorted lens. Everything becomes suspect... even the truth... and as a result truth gets lost in a sea of speculation and distortion. Over time truth actually becomes irrelevant, though it's name is bandied about by those (like Karl Rove et al) who have learned to use toxic cynicism to their own advantage.
There are a number of reasons that this kind of cynicism is dangerous. First, it is pervasive. I first became conscious of it about 25 years ago, I guess. I'm about as airy fairy, optimisitic, trotting through the daisies singing by nature as you can get. I look for the good. It's who I am. That said, listening one of those rare stories about someone doing something good on the news one night, I heard these little whispery thoughts in my head: "yeah, sure... I wonder what's in it for him." This is not me. This is what toxic cynicism has done to us without our even being aware of it.
I always think a good example of how far from news reporting the media has come - without even knowing it - is an example from the Clinton years. It was a petty news story. Bill Clinton went to a prayer breakfast and said that he repented his sins and prayed for forgiveness or something like that. Now THAT should have been the story. That's a fact. That's not how it was reported. It was reported that this was probably advice from his handlers. The media not only reported Clinton's words, they assessed his motives - cynically, of course. I think much of the media problems are because it's a tool of the right wing. But I also think that the media is composed of human beings, many of whom have now grown up in a world where everything is filtered through the lens of toxic cynicism. Many of them don't know they're doing it, which is why it is so toxic. Many of them are not acquainted with the concept of truth. It became irrelevant - because in toxic cynicism - the pursuit of lies has become confused with the hunt for truth. In today's world, if Angels floated down from the heavens with bags full of gold and food and a cure for all diseases - rather than receiving them joyfully, I can almost guarantee you that most of us would question their motives. Without thinking, without even being consciously aware that we are doing so. This is the price of toxic cynicism. As a nation we are paying a heavy price for it.
Toxic cynicism saps the spirit and damages the capacity for hopeful action. Toxic cynicism allows the Karl Roves and George Bush's of this world make us doubt our intuitions and to question truth on those rare occasions when it is offered to us. We have been taught to no longer believe in truth and as a result we let tyrants and bullies manipulate us. Perversely, toxic cynicism makes us easy prey for liars.
I hadn't thought of this until writing this essay this morning, but I think the power of Obama's voice, the appeal of his message is that it is the first phase of what is hopefully antidote to toxic cynicism. The Bush administration's failures are so overwhelming, their abuses of power and decency at home and abroad so great that they have begun to awaken many - alas not all - people from the haze of perpetualy cynicism. The idealism and particuarly the unshakable decency - of Barack Obama - are food for our starving souls. I hope he wins not just because I have been starving for hope and idealism for years now - but because I don't think the nation can survive the alternative.
I don't know that electing Obama will be a cure for toxic cynicism, but surely it is a start. He has broken through the haze and that gives me hope. But it isn't going to be that easy even if he's elected. Toxic Cynicism is a form of addiction and like any addiction the first step in recovery is accepting that you have a problem. Obama's candidacy has at least shone some light in the darkness and proven that decency can be as powerful as graft and greed and soulless ambition.
I'm almost done. I promise. Just one last thought. I personally believe that truth has an auditory and biological resonance. It can be felt in our bodies. We recognize it when we hear it. It's time now that we reclaim that instinct and become consciously aware of the little whispery voices of toxic cynicism that think of truth as a myth. It's not. Time to move back to a world where we look for truth instead of lies. The hunt for lies creates a world of shadows. When we hunt for truth, we shine light into the darkness. That is how to drive the shadows out.
I'm not going to re-read this. I'm just going to post it. I don't know if I've made a lot of sense. I do know that I'm right about this even if I have not expressed it well. I hope we can stop our search for lies and start becoming seekers of truth once again.
Have a great week. Happy Labor Day.