Soul of a Citizen: What Cynicism Costs
By Paul Rogat Loeb
With over 100,000 copies in print, my book Soul of a Citizen has inspired thousands of citizens to make their voices heard and actions count--and to stay involved for the long haul. I spent the past year writing a wholly revised new edition, which St Martin's will publish March 30, and which I'll serialize for the next several months. I like to think of it as an antidote to the political demoralization, paralysis, and despair that so many people are feeling these days. Here'sthe first excerpt, adapted fromthe chapter called"The Cynical Smirk."
When America elected Barack Obama, cynicism seemed in retreat, beaten back by a wave of ordinary people staking their time, money, and spirit on the prospect of significant change. We seemed to have reached a major historical turning point, offering the chance finally to address our country's root crises. Now, cynicism and despair have bounced back on steroids, as if to mock any new hope that we can help create a better world. Last year's soaring expectations seem distant memories, leaving a bitter taste. Obama's campaign made grassroots participation central, and he's invited us to help him do the right thing in office. But his compromises and the failings of Senate leaders to overcome the resistance of their obstructionist colleagues have destroyed much of the grassroots enthusiasm that existed a year ago. Meanwhile, those of us whose passionate engagement helped elect Obama haven't stepped up to help define our national debates (while the Teabaggers have). Most of us have done little beyond signing online letters or petitions, and watching shell-shocked from the sidelines as the country's politics spiraled steadily downward. Yet I still believe that we can help transform America through what Nelson Mandela called "the multiplication of courage,"as I explore in Soul of a Citizen. But for that resurgence of courage to bloom, we need to get past the cynical resignation that assumes change is impossible.
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What happens when we decide that our politics is so corrupt, bought and paid for, that all talk of ever changing it is naïve? "Everybody lies," says a veteran newspaperman quoted in the Utne Reader, "but it doesn't matter, because nobody listens." In an extreme personal example, imagine a man who tells his young son to jump from the stairs into his arms. The father catches the boy twice, but the third time steps back and lets him fall. "That's to teach you never to trust anyone," he explains, "even your own father."
We've come to expect comparable betrayals when we think about changing our society. A long-powerful strain in our culture posits all businesspeople and politicians as corrupt, all religious leaders charlatans, all journalists hacks--and all who'd dare to try to work to change their society naïve fools. Increasingly, it's come to occupy the mental and psychological space we could reserve for hope--at least for the kind of hope that might inspire us to take larger political stands. Better to expect nothing, in this view, than to set ourselves up for certain disappointment. Taken far enough, this kind of cynical resignation can become as great a barrier to meaningful public action as all other obstacles combined.
Cynicism wasn't always so disempowering. The first Cynics were a group of ancient Greek philosophers, most notably Diogenes, who caustically denounced the established culture of their time. Monk-like ascetics who preached simplicity, self-discipline, and self-sufficiency, they offered a moral alternative to the empty materialism, legalism, and religious hypocrisy that had come to dominate Greek society. Back then, to be a Cynic meant to stand up for one's convictions.
In our time, however, cynicism comes in the guise of an all-knowing attitude that working for a larger common good is the vocation of the terminally innocent, leaving no likely outcome except heartbreak. So what's the alternative? It's not blind trust, as the disastrous regime of Bush and Cheney made all too clear. We need to be skeptical of the lies and distortions that permeate our culture. But too many Americans, convinced that the greediest must always run our country, have responded by retreating into private life, whether the admittedly difficult challenges of economical survival, or the distractions and comforts we embrace as modest respite and recompense. Meanwhile, we bury whatever qualms they may have about our national direction, hoping against hope that someone will take care of things.
Barack Obama campaigned to reverse this course, blasting cynicism as "a sorry kind of wisdom." His message resonated to people hungry for something better. It's still too early to say that he'll inevitably fail, because the outcome depends largely on our own actions. Yet the very expectations he raised have combined with compromises from Afghanistan to health care to the bank bailouts to sour the national mood. The result: pervasive dashed hopes and disillusionment--not just with his administration, but with public engagement in general, particularly in the electoral sphere. Add in the grim results in the Massachusetts Senate race, the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections and an appalling Supreme Court decision that risks making our elected officials even more direct bought and paid hirelings of Exxon. No wonder those who so recently thought they'd begun to reclaim their country are feeling bleak.