Inching Toward Cynicism

Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.”  — Mike Royko

Cynicism gets a rough knock these days — it seems trendy to dismiss as merely sarcastic world-weariness the disposition to express the truth without varnish. Read up on quotes about cynicism; overwhelmingly, the aphorists seem opposed to it. Apparently everyone wants to seem positive, as if mere positivity were some sort of enlightened state of consciousness that allows its adherents to pierce the dark mist of bad attitude and thereby chart a pothole-free course to happiness, love and success.

Yet dismissing cynicism out-of-hand may be more irony than prudence. Royko probably captured it best: Relentless optimism in the face of experience isn’t virtue, it’s ignorance. Of course, a “been there, done that, doesn’t work” demeanor — the core of caricatured cynicism — may be taken to extremes. To bitterness, even. Such should be avoided. Nevertheless, an authentic cynicism that views the world as it is, without the artificial flavor of either saccharine or bitters, proves more helpful than harmful.

Cynicism, I think, is experience with (and acknowledgement of) the negative. When you’re working on a project that consistently fails, for example, merely being positive isn’t going to fix the problem. When the problem’s roots draw nourishment from politics, or other barriers sourced from human behavior, the temptation to overlook those barriers and instead find some external problem that can be wished away with magically happy thoughts isn’t going to affect the real world.

Cheerleaders for positivity frequently overlook human psychology as a contributor to failure or conflict. The optimist sees nothing but good intentions and assumes that problems relate to poor communication. Never is the possibility acknowledged that the public pronouncements and private motivations of others may not be in sync. Never is the possibility acknowledged that pre-rational conflicts in long-term goals or ethical paradigms affect people’s behavior. Never is the possibility acknowledged that things that are hard may well prove not worth doing.

Instead, we must always smile, be cheerful and remain optimistic. Even when experience screams for an alternate course.

I’m not a negative person by disposition, but when I see the same people making the same mistakes and pretending that happy thoughts will conquer all, then … I’m left to doubt whether they really understand what the heck is really going on.

Several Rejoinders

A few news stories of late have caught my eye.  Herewith a few comments:

  1. Former Democratic press secretary Terry Michael penned “Lies of the Ethics Industry,” published at on April 30. Michael’s money quote: “Four groups now work to convince us we have the worst government money can buy: (1) an ethics industry spawned in Washington by Watergate, which features nonprofits lobbying for regulation of speech they don’t like; (2) journalists who collude with ethics purveyors, writing cheap-and-easy stories fitting a corruption narrative they create; (3) politicians, especially Democratic Progressive Era throwbacks, who think evil-doing can be stopped with new and better rules and who pander to the ethics industry, the media, and (ironically) to citizens convinced that Democrats are just as sleazy as Republicans; and (4) citizens, frustrated by the budget-busting consequences of the free lunches we accept from politicians.” The bigger point Michael makes, and with which I happen to agree, is that the old journalistic adage to “follow the money” is as lazy as it is cynical. The confluence of money and policy is not, ipso facto, a negative event that threatens Joe Sixpack or undermines American freedom. Money is a tool, and fetishizing the role of money as a chiefly nefarious motive for action is less a statement of fact than an admission to an overweening cynicism that makes every politician a crook and renders every campaign dollar a cut to Democracy’s carotid.
  2. Peter Luke, a columnist and analyst covering Michigan politics, recently penned a defense of Michigan’s new bans against texting-while-driving and smoking in a bar or restaurant.  Luke’s conclusion: “Just about everyone has a cell phone with a keyboard and those of a certain age think there’s nothing wrong with using it anywhere. Just like a smoker who would never light up in the office thinks nothing of doing so after work in the bar down the street. Distilled to their essence, the smoking and texting laws are a simple two-sentence response: You can’t. Not anymore.” Well, OK.  His argument is that both texting-while-driving and smoking in bars generate negative externalities that some other citizens may occasionally bear — the fender-bender from inattentive driving, or tobacco scent on a sweater. The problem, though, is that the proper role of governmental regulation is not to preserve citizens from potential negative consequences. If I happen to be fiddling with my radio while driving, and I cause an accident, then I’m liable for my inattentiveness. I’d rather see a penalty for careless driving, such that contributors to carelessness are recognized in a citation, than to categorically assert that a lawful action is unlawful in a specific context merely because some people are occasionally negligent. Likewise with smoking: If I prefer not to be subject to a smoke-filled bar, then I will find a bar that has no smoke. Why must people who enjoy a cigar or cigarette while drinking be punished because non-smokers believe themselves entitled to go anywhere, anytime, and not encounter smoke?
  3. Victor Davis Hanson, writing in National Review, penned a nice essay on the use of euphemism and dysphemism by the Obama administration. In a nutshell: The lecturer-in-chief has a penchant for using positive locutions for things he favors (e.g., “undocumented workers” instead of “illegal immigrants”) and negative ones for things he disdains (e.g., referring to principled opposition as “phony smoke and mirrors”).  Words mean things. Amen, brother.

All for now.