Monday, September 01, 2008

The Alphabet Backwards: C is for (Toxic) Cynicism

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.


Akelamalu said...

I so agree with you. There is suspicion of everything, people don't seem to recognise a good deed these days - cynicism sums it up well. Isn't it sad? :(

Carletta said...

Hi Raven,
I've been over to my Mom's all day and you hadn't posted before I left.
The media really do look for the bad first. I know you're not on McCain or Palin's side but I felt sorry for her today having to defend an unborn child to a unmarried daughter and I heard on the news investigators were going to Alaska - "what else don't we know about Palin" - a lot probably - but did it have to be the first thought - that there were other things perhaps she was hiding. You're right. As a society we do think first and foremost about the negative.
My daughter will be telling something somebody said to her or something nice they did they don't ordinarily do and I've done exactly as you said -"what does she want." It's done quickly and without thought- I'm cynical - thanks for pointing that out. I'm going to be better. :)

Quiet Paths said...

I truly appreciated this essay and I'm going to read it again.

Kathi said...

"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."

Wow, I wholeheartedly agree! Nice essay - I found you through Michelle's blog!

Linda Murphy said...

This is a really wonderful essay and I am also guilty of cynicism creeping in more often than I am proud of.

Robert said...

You're wise to recognize that the media is not about truth and will often lie. What you fail to mention is that the media is largely liberal. Obama is the hero and everyone else is the goat according to the media's take. Look what they did to Palin today. So her daughter messed up; does that disqualify her from eligibility for office? I must say I was quite pleased with Obama's response to this.

You say the George Bush's of the world make us easy prey for liars. If this is an implication that Bush himself lied, please tell me what he lied about. If you're referring to the war, PLEASE research this. There have been something like 17 independent investigations (not republican) that have ALL concluded that he did not lie. This cannot be ignored just because you don't agree with his stance on the war.

You talk about hope with Obama. What specifically? He talks about "change" and "hope." The only changes I see him proposing will weaken us (just because you are opposed to all wars doesn't change this fact) as a country. He also proposes change that will bankrupt this country with trillions of dollars in new spending proposed. He talks about being for the people in the middle and wants to tax the rich. What do you think the rich will do to us consumers to make up for what he does to them? Yup, WE pay. His plans weaken us a country in security and financially. I "hope" not to "change" in such a manner.

tt said...

Brovo sister!!
Very well written and very enlightening. Who among us does not have a bit of cynisism lurking in our brains?? it's sad really.
Great post!!

Raven said...

Thank you everyone.

Robert - I'm not sure what planet you are living on if you don't believe that George Bush and his administration has lied repeatedly on any number of subjects, the war being only one of them. There is ample and undeniable evidence that the administration intentionally and consciously misled the nation. There's the Valerie Plame business. There's the issue of torture in which the administration claimed first that we didn't do it, then that if we had done it that they didn't know about it and then shifted yet again when evidence arose that they had actually sat in meetings and discussed it. I could write three page post just LISTING the lies of the Bush administration.

As for taxes... tax cuts for the bulk of the nation are mere slight of hand. The main cuts serve the wealthy who don't cut prices for the rest of us or raise anybody's salary just because they got a tax break. The rest of the tax "cuts," trickle down in the form of state and local taxes or untended infrastructure.

Bush claimed that he was going to tend to environmental issues. Uh, not so much.

There's recent credible evidence that the administration attempted to fabricate evidence to support the advance to war.

Here's some more detailed information regarding Iraq.

Article from The Nation

Here's another excellent source of information for you.

Regarding your 17 investigations clearing Bush. Uh, not really. There have been at least as many investigations - none yet very thorough - providing significant evidence that Bush and his administration lied, misled and misinformed us KNOWINGLY.

As for the press being liberal - again, I ask what planet you are living on. That was never really true and has certainly ceased to be true since Rupert Murdoch owns the bulk of all media in this country. Even you surely don't think of Fox News as "liberal." The press has hardly been particularly pro Obama. They are very soft on McCain. They have barely challenged any of his claims and give him rather generous coverage on the whole. Last night a number of them referred to him as President McCain and to Cindy McCain as the First Lady. Seems a touch pre-mature unless they know something I don't know about the voting machines. The allegedly anti-lobby candidate has a campaign being run almost exclusively by lobbyists. While the press has gleefully tried to smear Mrs. Obama, no mention has been made of Mrs. McCain's brush with the law some time back. In regard to that, I have no problem with the tragedy of her becoming addicted to pain killers. That can happen to anyone. I do have a problem with how she chose to deal with that... by stealing drugs from a charity and trying to cook the books. I have trouble that she was simply allowed to repay the money without being charged with a crime too. I'd have trouble with that history on the part of ANY wife of any candidate.

Bush's war and policies have turned a large surplus into the largest deficit in the country's history.

Obama has offered quite a number of specifics. Wars don't and haven't made us stronger.

While Obama's tax cut proposals offer some relief to the poor instead of the rich, they take care to shield and support SMALL businesses which truly need the help from going under.

The country is already bankrupt thanks to Bush. Obama can't bankrupt it. Mission accomplished by the previous administration.

As to Obama's proposed outrageous spending, you'll have to be more specific as to what these horrors are.

If you're talking about providing medical care for people who don't have it, that will ultimately balance out and pay for itself.

Contrary to Republican hype. Businesses don't thrive in an economy where the population can't pay the rent or feed their families. Businesses go under when there is nobody around to buy their products far more quickly than when they have to share some of the profits with their employees.

For more detailed comparisons of McCain and Obama's tax proposals, see my responses to your friend Dillo - down under the Wake Up America post from a few days back.

Guess I'll leave it here at the moment. I could go on and on.

Obviously, you are an intelligent man, Robert. It baffles me then, that you can continue to defend an administration which has brought so much harm to so many people and to continue to ignore the simply massive amounts of evidence that many - even in your own party - now concede to.

Kaylia Metcalfe said...

Raven, great essay and great rebuttal as well. I see this whole “look for the bad” rather than “look for the good” in many places in our society, not just the media’s dealings with politics but also in how people deal with each other. Perhaps I am sensitive (or cynical myself) but as I am currently looking for a new/different/better job… all my interviews have been really dwelling on the bad. “tell me what you don’t like about your boss… Tell me about a time when you failed to meet your goals…. “ And while I feel those things might be important I would love the opportunity to showcase some of my strengths… instead I leave the room wondering why in the world I am even trying.

Of course the cynicism is prevalent in other areas as well.. art, music, religion… but I think you hit the nail on the head in regards to the media and when/where/why the change happened.


Dillo said...

I think you are onto something here, but you miss the forest for the trees. We have strayed from truth, but it's the truth that there is a God, that he desires relationship with us, and that there are standards for an ethical life (and sanctity of life) that flow from Gods' standards. AS we've wandered from that TRUTH, we get confused; we think the murky waters are clear and the clear are murky. As one prophet said, we "substitute darkness for light and light for darkness."

And we look to men for "hope"; when true hope comes from God.

Raven said...

Dillo - I have a deep Spiritual connection to God/Divinity. I have trouble with people who think they are in a position to decree what God's "ethical standards" are. You - I gather - believe that the life of a non-viable embryo beats the value of the life of a grown woman or a post embryonic child starving in the ghetto.

Sanctity of life for me includes medical care for all people. It includes decent housing for all people.

Sancity of life includes not dropping bombs on innocent human beings who just happen to live in a country whose oil we want.

Sanctity of life includes not electrocuting people when imprisoning them works just as well keeping them off the streets.

Sancity of life includes rehabilitating people rather than tossing them in jail and throwing away the key.

Sanctity of life includes doing unto others as you'd have them do unto you.

Sanctity of life includes protecting other species and keeping the earth a viable environment so that everyone can survive.

Sanctity of life includes enforcing laws that protect the environment, even if I have to go without or pay a little more to have them.

Sanctity of life includes a lot more for me than protecting an unwanted egg in someone's womb.

Sanctity of life involves not hawking untested products like Gardasil in the name of saving girls lives when in fact it may be putting them at more risk.

Sanctity of life involves judging not lest ye be judged and wanting a good life for every human being on earth, not just myself or my little clique of friends.

Sanctity of life involves not trying to impose my own morality on anybody else. I've always thought that God could handle that stuff him/herself and doesn't need me sticking my nose in. As far as I'm concerned, only God actually knows God's mind. The rest is interpretation. I also think God may quite possibly have different messages for different people. I do assume God is really smart and deeply loving and compassionate. According to Jesus, love seems to trump all other things.

Sanctity of life for me involves always being kind even to people I don't much like.

Sanctity of live means I work towards a world where nobody goes hungry.

Sanctity of life to me means not ever aiming a gun at any living thing - animal or human - for any reason whatsoever.

Sanctity of life... well, presumably, I've made my point.

As for hope. For me, God is love. Unconditional love. My particular faith doesn't require me to find hope in God. I have absolute faith in the grander future of all of us. And I feel perfectly comfortable finding hope from many sources, including human actions.

Dianne said...

Oh My Raven!!

How you do it is beyond me, I no longer have the time for people who just don't get it nor do they want to get it.

I just pray AND hope that their voices will be silenced by a far more decent and intelligent majority.

And I do believe it IS a majority. It's just that the right yells louder and is better at frightening people so they get more coverage.

I also despise the hypocrisy. I think Palin's daughter should NOT be a subject. Period! For both sides, all sides. Obama said children of candidates are off limits and then the right wing jumps in and uses this child as a poster child for anti abortion and so called family values and encouraging marriage. So THEY use the child, her MOTHER allows it, perhaps encourages it? and still people think the media is liberal!!?

I agree with you overall about toxic cynicism - its roots, its uses and its sources. What I will participate in is "educated cynicism". The more right wingers who come out to applaud Palin and her daughter the more I think they intended to leak it this way. Then they could distract from the state police probe and they could make it look as if the liberals are picking on this poor pregnant child.

By the way - just to end on a funny note - funny to me anyway - did you see McCain introducing Palin the other day? He had to look at a card to get her name and basic info right.
Then she shows up at the convention dragging all her kids behind her. The littlest girl was waring a tiara and all the other girls were wearing wrist corsages. If this isn't a feeble attempt to make McCain look like less of an old rich man who could care less if all our children starved or died in a war I don't know what it is!!
Now that I finished writing that last part I see it's not funny, just disgusting.

Brava Raven!!

Rambling Woods said...

I just typed this very good response and lost it. GROAN..since my fingers tend to get messed up at this time of day, I will say, I agree with you. I have hope for the first time in a long time and to those who don't agree, go write it on your own that sounded cranky.

Shrijnana said...

I agree with you 100%. You managed to take what I had been thinking about inarticulately for so long and express it so eloquently. I have seen cynicism become more and more valued to the point where it is considered intelligent to be cynical and naive and foolish to think otherwise. As an educator I have seen children become cynical at younger and younger ages, until now we have 6 year-olds acting like jaded teenagers, teenagers unable to muster passion for a cause, and adults unable to effect change in a country that so desperately needs it. Thank you for expressing this so well.