For almost as long as I can remember, being a cynic has been one of my favorite identities. It quickly separates the hip intellectual from the earnest sanctimoniousness that so often characterizes the rest of intellectual life. It ensures an endless supply of knowing winks and nods; slick expressions, code words that keep us in tune with the latest eye rolling revelation about "protesters" or "idealists," and gets us all a reputation for sharp tongues and quick wits. It worked for me for years and I wore the moniker like a badge of honor.
But somewhere along the line, shortly after having children, I found the pretense tiring and unfulfilling. Not because I found certainty, (certainly not) or because the world suddenly became Good, (most certainly it didn't), but because I found that appealing to the best in my children worked better than assuming their worst. Thus, I had to experientially adjust my behaviors to laughter from smirking, to positiveness, from morose negativeness.
As I teach them about the world and my values about it, I see how the cynic in me tries to assert himself, but the brightness in my kids eyes tells me to give them hope and joy instead. The attitudes of fatigued knowingness and disdain for hopefulness seem to crush that brightness in children, and I suddenly realized, by extension, the world. Oh, it's all still inside me, I have seen too much pain and evil in my time to forget it, but like an alcoholic, I find that I am now a recovering cynic, dutifully acknowledging my tendencies but working them off one at a time, day by day.
One advantage of being an American expat is I have, because of the occasional exposure via the Left press (This publication, Dissident Voice, etc.) revived contact with friends from afar, some of whom I hadn't seen in many years. The renewed contact is invigorating for me and usually leaves me pensive over how differently we all have turned out. The past few months are no exception. Having sought out and found an old friend B., from my undergrad days in Florida, I have been engaging him on many issues of importance to me and reflecting on we have or have not changed over the years.
B. is an extremely bright, witty and engaging man, a lawyer now, who I remember as a piercing bon vivant 25 years ago with an acerbic tongue but some old World sensibilities (he's Greek) that often soften any too rigid political views, preferring instead good food and good company. We were well matched, he and I, Life-loving cynics, heaping scorn on the silly naïvetés who surrounded us with their good will and good cheer and they keeping us paradoxically as rather popular outsiders, dark, cutting edge, trend setting intellectuals. But let me back up a little.
Having been born in 1959, I was too young to embody the sixties though I had enough older cousins to enjoy the times (and the music). Instead I was part of the Punk generation, a post-sixties, pre-disco group whose anomic disaffection left us nostalgic for rock or pop but too jaded to take either of them as they were. Thus my idols, Elvis Costello, The Clash, Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, XTC, The Jam and Joy Division all took one of those older mediums (rock, pop, funk, pre-disco dance music) and turned them on their heads, usually with a more cutting, bitter edge. It was a savagely wild time!
But the permanent outlook that my generational comrades, all now in our mid to late forties (including B. the lawyer) fell into was one of unbridled cynicism. Though a tiny group found God, a few found neo-conservatism and more than a handful found early graves, most fell permanently into the now hip posture of disdaining activism and retreated instead into the small worlds of mortgages, small businesses or academia and the concomitant disdain for hope.
And that's just it: cynicism, I realized, is a posture.
The cynic occupies a posture, not a position. Thus, they are far wilier than their idealist counterparts for whom many used to be (remember: the last refuge of the idealist is a cynic?) and they seem far more worldly wise. They don't have to believe in anything, they just wittily criticize those who do. And their anger is now more often displayed against the misguided "good" folks who still try to affect change over the "bad guys" we all used to love to hate. Their posture is bereft of ideas because they have come to distrust ideas, seeing them as Ideas. And anything that Big, worth committing Time and Energy into, is just too taxing. So they retreat to scolding those who retain some measure of idealism for not being "realistic" enough. But the deadly corner they pack themselves into reveals the very weakness of their views.
Once hope begins on any front they themselves have long abandoned, the cynic often leaps into the fray with renewed ferocity (conviction dare we say?) and seeks to pummel down any nascently successful movement. Just look at how widespread the condemnation and criticism of Cindy Sheehan is, so much of it by my generational peers. This lady lost a child for f*ck´s sake! Just the thought of losing one of my own precious children is enough to send me into a tailspin of panic and mind numbing pain. But here she still stands, one woman in awful grief, whose refusal to budge, in order to confront the most powerful man in the world has given hope to millions around the world. She remains the single most potent remedy for cynicism: the proof of one person's power. And that is after all is said and done, what the cynic really admits by taking the hip posture they do: they are admitting they feel powerless. They resent the possibility that maybe, just maybe, one person can change something. They resent the hope that it brings, fearing it might spread and challenge their comfortable position of criticizing all those idealists from the outside...
15 years ago, I had a wonderful mentor, another lawyer who was an ex-communist, now working in the entertainment industry. He taught me many things (and he too was a hardened cynic) but one thing stayed with me in particular. "Tirado", he said, "Our cause doesn't need any more martyrs, we need victories." Perhaps the cynic has seen too many martyrs to care too much anymore, (maybe it hurts too much?) but there is some hopefulness in there too. And the only way we can find it is to tap into what is best within ourselves, and work to cultivate it, and draw it out from others. Our time and its many crises, call for nothing less.