Am I a Cynic, or Simply Observant? Both?

Since I am both socially inept and an introvert (not an automatic blend; I’m just a particularly clumsy amalgam of the two) to me, watching from sidelines is altogether preferable to deep engagement. This has made me pretty observant, or at least that’s what I took from it when my mother — reaching for an answer when queried as to why I was “so odd” — said, “well, she’s very observant…

Two really excellent columns by women I admire have crossed my screen today, and in both cases, I found myself reading them and thinking, “man, I was pondering that (or something like it) a couple years ago.”

And that made me wonder about myself and whether I am a cynic — a character trait I dislike in myself and others — or simply observant? Or am I both, a kind of cynical observant?

Megan McArdle’s piece on The New Mandarins got it going. She writes:

. . .to some extent, the current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system, and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses–ones outside glamor industries like tech or design. . . A window that opened is closing. The mandarins are pulling away from the rest of America.

I include myself in this group. Though I completely lacked the focused ambition of the young journalists I meet today, I am a truly stellar test-taker, from a family of stellar test-takers…Nor do I think that these are bad things to have. Verbal fluency, fast reading, and a good memory are excellent qualities–in a writer.

But they are not the only qualities worth having, and the things that mandarins know are not the only things worth knowing. My grandfather had maybe ten books in his house (that weren’t written for children), but he could take a failing service station and make it succeed, while I’m pretty sure that I would take a successful gas station and make it fail. He also, I might add, was very successful at actually running a small town (as an alderman) and a charitable institution (the local Rotary). I’m not sure we’re better off cutting off the paths to success and power taken by people like him, so that we can funnel it all through a series of academic hoops. I’m not sure we haven’t ended up with a class of people who know everything about gas stations except what it takes to make one succeed.

I urge you to read McArdle’s whole piece, because she is ringing a warning bell about the devaluation of broader-perspectives — born of different experiences — in the increasingly narrow-minded world of letters and “ideas” and “solutions.”

She does it better, of course, but I had similar concerns, just about two years ago, at First Things:

It is a wonderful thing to sit in a classroom and grow in knowledge, if one is in fact doing that, but often it seems that degrees should be awarded in going through the motions; they come without a genuine expansion of thought, or an enlargement of wonder. And, to paraphrase Gregory of Nyssa, it’s the wondering that begets the knowing.

Jeff “Skunk” Baxter dropped out of Boston University to start playing guitar in various local bands and became a founding member of Steely Dan and an occasional Doobie Brother. While he still accepts studio gigs, Baxter also chairs the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense and consults with the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and various defense manufacturers. His expertise in the area of missile defense systems and tactics is considerable, and he is self-taught. An interest in recording technology got him to wondering about military hardware, and things took off from there.

As McArdle notes the “mandarins pulling away from the rest of America” I’d ranted in 2010 about the “Credentialed Gentry and the Unpersuaded Yahoos”.

I’m no seer. I’m not a prophet by any means, but I was kind of patting myself on the back for being “observant”, until I read Peggy Noonan’s piece today, on President Obama’s taste for sound and fury:

Obama thrives in chaos. He flourishes in unsettled circumstances and grooves on his own calm. He spins an air of calamity, points fingers and garners support. His only opponent is a hapless, hydra-headed House. America has a weakness for winners, and Republicans just now do not look like winners. They have many voices but no real voice, and no one saying anything that makes you stop and think. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, is a singular character who tells you in measured tones that we must have measured answers. Half the country finds his politics to be too much to one side, but his temperament is not extreme and he often looks reasonable. With this gift he ties his foes in knots to get what he wants, which is higher taxes. He wants the rich to pay more and those he judges to be in need to receive more. End of story. Debt and deficits don’t interest him, except to the extent he must give them lip service.

And so far this seems to be working fine for him. A USA Today/Pew Research Center poll out this week reported half the respondents said it will be the Republicans’ fault if the sequester goes through. Only a third said they’d blame the president.

Well, this was my sheer cynicism, from 2009: “Obama Company Theater: Chaos and Cajolery”, and, “Not Incompetence, Planned Chaos:

The cajolery is almost over. One more election cycle is all it will take to wholly and forever “remake America” so the stage is being set for chaos. And when chaos comes (and it feels like we’re in rehearsals for it, right now) this administration will “do what it has to do” for the sake of America.

Which will probably have little-to-nothing to do with the constitution.

I read that and think, “terrible, awful cynic” and I am ashamed of myself. Then I look around at this administration’s HHS Mandate theatrics, which play with the first amendment, and the demagoguery of our second amendment, and I think, “cynical or just observant?”

And then I realize how grateful I am to Pope Benedict XVI for forcing my focus away from the political arena, where nothing good abides in me, and making me focus on the church arena, where grace might finally penetrate, a little bit, as I really, sincerely do wish it to

When I wrote “I want to love, again”, I meant it. Increasingly I think that means I must just stop writing about or even observing the Kabuki Theater coming out of DC and our most “dire” questions of the day. I’m pretty sure I know how these dramas are going to end, anyway, and I am inclined, finally, gratefully, to put away the busy, anxious things, (because I am really not sure, anymore, how to balance the political interests and the religious ones, without constantly slipping away from mere observation into cynicism) and choose the better part.

My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready.

And anyway, the church is about to provide us with more than enough drama for our tastes, for the foreseeable future. (H/T New Advent)

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Manny

    I don’t find you particularly cynical. There is much in the Obama administration that enduces a jaundice perspective. This is not an up front and transparent administration, despite their claims.

  • Adam

    Hmmmm. McArdle might very well be talking about the legal profession in her Mandarinization analysis. Back in Lincoln’s day, any fool who could read a book and apprentice himself to a practicing lawyer for a year could get credentialed. Now you have to take out inordinate student loans, work yourself to death for three years of schooling (people agree that only two are necessary), pass a needlessly complicated exam dealing with largely unused, archaic legal principles, and then be well-connected enough to secure a job to pay off those loans. Upward mobility from there again depends on how much of your personal life you want to sacrifice.

    You’re very fortunate in that the internet and the world of blogging are a vast, untamed frontier right now. Much like Lincoln, any fool who can read and log into a WordPress account can launch a blog–success depends on skill and merit, not playing some mandarin’s game of connections and slavery-inducing loans. Enjoy your freedom, and hope that nobody starts imposing rules and gateways for who gets to exercise the right to blog.

  • blackjohann

    Regarding McArdle, there’s a passage in Robert B. Parker’s “Hush Money” that always stuck with me:

    “You get a lot of people [i.e., university PhDs] gathered together who, if they couldn’t do this, really couldn’t do anything. They are given to think that they are both intelligent and important because they have PhDs and most people don’t. Often, though not always, the PhD does indicate mastery over a subject. But that’s all it indicates, and, unfortunately, many people with a PhD think it covers a wider area than it does. They think it empowers their superior insight into government and foreign policy and race relations and such. In addition these people are out into an environment where daily, they judge themselves against a standard set by eighteen- or twenty-year-old kids who know little if anything about the subject matter in which their professors are expert.”

  • pgk

    I have sometimes pondered the fact that, according to Marxist materialism and the concept of “cui bono?”, the government offices and the associated class that administers social services have a material interest in promoting precisely the social disorders which they also “cure.” That is to say, if the Democrats enacted social programs which actually led to the creation of a large, self-sufficient middle class, they would thereby also have eliminated the reason to have such social programs for many people. These people would then have no (purely material) reason to vote Democrat.

    Therefore, if we ask “cui bono?” by social dysfunction, the answer is the Democratic Party. Of course, this is a rather cynical oversimplification. There are doubtless many people who support the co-option of the family by the state for “idealistic” reasons. Whether such people should be applauded, pitied, or execrated as “useful idiots” is another cynicistic question. Nevertheless, money is a powerful motivator — that is simply an observation…

  • thule222

    I think it was Amity Shlaes who said that Washington used to be full of successful people from all walks of life, farmers, ranchers, salesmen, industrialists, anyone who made enough money to buy their way in. Committees and cabinets used to be full of people from wildly divergent backgrounds. Now they’re all the same. Upper class family-prep school-ivy league-intern in Washington-work in Washington. They think the same, talk the same, even look the same now.

  • susanna

    A time to be born, a time to die, a time now to be cynical.

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  • Oregon Catholic

    60 years ago my FIL graduated high school and went to work at an entry level job in a large national business. He was a hard worker who was well-respected and he steadily moved from one better position to another all due to his own motivation and hard work. Because he had an aptitude for math and mastering new technology and made a priority of self-study, he ultimately retired from the same company (the only employer he ever had) as a project engineer and his last construction project which he managed was over a billion dollars in cost – all accomplished with nothing more than a high school diploma and a few night classes here and there.

    He was married at 18 and his first child came along at 19. If he was graduating high school today, his talents would be wasted or lost. That is the sad state of affairs in our society today. Instead we are graduating many useful idiots who never belonged in college in the first place but were driven there because they were told it’s the only way to get ahead and make a life for yourself. And many people like my FIL are working dead-end jobs that have no opportunity for them to use their native talents and creative genius.

  • Victor

    (((My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready.)))

    What are ya talking about Victor? You’ve got no heart, ya gave “IT” to US (usual sinners) alone until Christ comes back again in Glory so give “IT” UP cause some of our brain cells were just PULLING YOU CHAIN, I mean kidding like they are doing here bellow with ya NOW.

    Sorry Victor, this is not funny anymore cause you forgot that you were born by an angel who knew your mother well!

    sinner vic! HE is called “Diversity Dad” NOW!

    OK Victor is that Die verse city and/or Die verse sit HE, in which low case “I” want to be “The Chair” who sits on the throne.

    No problem there sinner vic butt you’ll have to get in line and become a stool first and work your way UP if ya get my drift NOW?

    Remember Victor, we want a LOT of CAPS NOW!

    I’ll think about “IT” sinner vic cause that would give “IT” a sort of slam-poetry feel NOW! :)


  • Fiestamom

    I loved McArdle’s article. This line is so telling: “The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve.” The people in DC &NY(whoever came up with the descriptor ‘ruling class’ deserves a medal), have NO idea what people in the heartland are about. They don’t know us. To them, we’re rubes who live in trailer parks, and eat at (gasp) Olive Garden.

    My son just graduated from high school, he’s been working part time at a grocery store,(another point in McArdle’s article, these people haven’t had any menial jobs), and he’s on his second year of Community college. He has a real aptitude for computer programming, and he is not planning on finishing college. He is ready to get a job right now. Computer programming is a field where you can succeed if you’re self taught. He has no desire to incur tens of thousands in student loan debt for a degree he doesn’t need. I am a little concerned with all of this credentialism, and hope he is able to get ahead without a degree, but I can’t argue with his decision about student debt.

    I also need to pull away from the media and their BFF, Obama. They have no shame, it doesn’t matter if we refute all of their lies, they will continue to lie to us. And this week, I saw Chuck Todd on Morning Joe tell America that liberal bias is a myth. I am already having a difficult Lent, and I need to focus on the Lord, not this. I am cynical, but I don’t want to be.

  • Matthew J. Ogden

    Once again, Anchoress, your blog has proved to be one of the most informative I’ve seen in the Catholic blogosphere. No disrespect to the others, of course, but I think you and I are very much on the same wavelength.

    That said, there is definitely a banalization in American society as the general populace focuses too much on the “business mentality,” for lack of a better concern, than on true intelligence. Aristotle said the most useless learning is the best learning because it is pursued for its own sake. True intellectuals, and indeed the happiest among them, realize that higher learning is not directed to something else; it is an end rather than a means.

    Now of course, as Catholics, any created thing, including learning, can at best be a proximate end. But the distinction holds all the same. This is the conflict between the active and the contemplative (to use the latter term more broadly than usual). Society prefers the active because it’s easier to understand; the contemplative is not readily seen, but far better and more influential in life. This is no doubt part of the widespread misery that’s crushing a declining materialistic society.

  • Gail Finke

    I don’t think you’re cynical at all, and if people who understand what’s going on all decide to quit talking about it, where will we be then?