Leaves from the Notebook of a Not-So-Tamed Cynic
I have a confession to make that won’t surprise people who know me well. I struggle with cynicism. But I think if you knew some of my life experiences with powerful people I should have been able to trust but who turned out to be totally unworthy of trust, maybe you’d forgive me. As I said, I struggle. I try not to give in, but I find it a daily task and rely on God’s love and grace and my wife’s unfailing cheerfulness about almost everything to keep me from giving in to a cynical view of the world.
My struggle with cynicism began very early—somewhere around fifth grade. A person I was supposed to be able to trust absolutely to look out for my well-being let me down in an act of shocking neglect that resulted in a very serious illness and lengthy hospitalization. After that, even though I forgave the person, I knew what Reinhold Niebuhr meant by “love everyone but trust no one.”
When I “graduated” from junior high school my fellow freshmen (ninth graders) voted me “most cynical” of them. I had a sneaking suspicion that what they really meant by “cynical” was “sardonic,” but they didn’t know that word. It’s easy to confuse the two things. Or perhaps they saw through my sardonic wit to my budding cynical interior.
Part of my struggle with cynicism is the sneaking suspicion that, in this world, anyway, one is not wrong to be somewhat cynical. There’s a lot to be cynical about! Especially when it comes to power and those who have it. And yet I know most people consider cynicism a vice.
Now what about cynicism and Christianity? Is cynicism a sin? Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear me say I don’t think so—at least not necessarily. Like all things normal cynicism can become sinful when taken to an extreme, when not tamed and controlled. However, insofar as cynicism is simply a kind of constant suspicion of powerful people’s motives and of the systems that dominate society, it seems to me it’s at least justified by two realities: original sin and the way things are.
My kind of cynicism is like defensive driving. I’ve avoided numerous automobile accidents simply by expecting other drivers to do the wrong thing. Where I live one should never “go” when the light turns green without checking to make sure other drivers aren’t running their new red light. It’s simply routine for people to keep on turning left through controlled intersections well after their green arrow has turned yellow and then red. Similarly, I simply expect insurance companies, for example, to try their best to avoid paying claims. When I get a clinic’s bill with unexpected charges because my health insurance company declined payment I never just pay it. I call my health insurance company to find out why. As often as not a bit of arguing gets them to see that they should have paid the claim. (I could give examples, but most people I’ve talked to know very well what I’m talking about and don’t need to hear my stories; they have enough of their own to tell!)
I think there’s a difference between hard core cynicism that arises from misanthropy and soft core cynicism that arises from belief in original sin and life experience. I don’t hate my fellow human beings, I just don’t trust them. I mean that I don’t trust their handlings of power or money. And I especially don’t trust institutions. My experience tells me that many very nice, well-meaning people become monsters when they get behind the wheels of their cars and that many very nice, well-meaning, even loving people do mean and unethical things in their positions of power in organizations and justify their uncharacteristic (for them) behavior as “just doing business.”
The other evening I had trouble sleeping so I sat up late and watched a movie on cable television. It was a black comedy and a very ingenious one. In fact, I’d say it was the best political satire I’ve ever seen. Perhaps you’ve seen it: “Wag the Dog” starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. Only a somewhat cynical person can really enjoy it! Whoever conceived the plot and wrote it has to be a master cynic. Of course, that’s only true insofar as one thinks it is meant to have a serious message and not meant as sheer fantasy! But during this second viewing of the movie (I saw it when it first came out), I became convinced by little things scattered throughout it that it is meant to have a serious message—for those who can handle it. I suspect many, perhaps most, viewers can’t handle the serious message beneath the humor.
Throughout the movie I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and ended up doing both! Hoffman’s performance is so amazingly funny one can’t help but laugh at some of his lines—such as when he rants “This is my show!” referring to the fake war he’s “producing” and, for example, the CIA’s attempt to “shut it down.”
My cynicism towards contemporary politics causes me to view the movie as more than comedy; it’s trage-comedy. We, the United States, have been almost constantly at “war” (whether an officially declared one or a war by another name such as “police action”) for as long as I can remember. Why? Because we are really defending our own national interests or weak and helpless people or because war takes people’s minds off what the politicians are doing otherwise? Even politicians who talk a good talk about civil liberties and human rights authorize or defend the government’s “right” to assassinate U.S. citizens, to operate “secret courts” and detain people without charges or trials indefinitely. The public falls for talk of “our freedom” when the countries we attack are no threat to our freedom at all.
Yes, I have lost faith in our government. Not in America, a great dream, but in its government that says one thing and does something else. It is more concerned with its own power than the common good or citizens’ rights. It uses fear of terrorism to gain the power to operate as a “national security state” (police state) if it wishes to. And fearful people permit it. And it doesn’t seem to matter which party is in power; the same behaviors apply.
I can hear someone crying “Traitor! Un-American!” but my answer is—no. It is un-American not to be suspicious of government power and not to demand that it be limited. Every true American ought to be demanding the dissolution of “secret courts” and blanket spying on America’s own citizens. Better yet, every true American ought to be just cynical enough to expect people in power to behave in such ways unless they are constantly monitored and checked.
If safety and security require a police state, or even the apparatus for one, then the idea of America is dead.
What’s the solution? The deeper cynical side of me says there is none—that isn’t eschatological. My “sunshine self” (not very vocal) says—vote for independents and third party candidates.
I probably shouldn’t watch movies like “Wag the Dog.” But one positive side effect of watching it was therapeutic—it showed me I’m not alone. Whoever wrote it thinks like I do.
I’m getting out from a bottom drawer my bumper sticker that says “If You’re Not Outraged You’re Not Paying Attention!” and putting it back where it belongs—in my car’s back window!