by the Night Writer
Peter Bell, Chairman of the Metropolitan Council, had a commentary on the Strib’s editorial pages today with the headline “America Needs a Little Less Cynicism”. Being kind of a cynical person myself when it comes to the appointed bureaucrats of the Met Council, I expected some hand-wringing about how the toxic discourse in the public square has poisoned the people against their well-meaning political overlords, and my initial cynicism was validated in part by one of Bell’s first statements:
Of all the political challenges we face today, perhaps the most difficult is the depth and breadth of cynicism in America. This attitude, from across the political landscape, is a contagious virus limiting our trust and confidence in institutions both big and small, public and private. In February, a New York Times/CBS survey found that just 19 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing, matching the all-time low and well below the level of trust in government in the aftermath of Watergate.
I will say, however, that the article turned out to be fairly even-handed in its hand-wringing, citing examples of how all sides are equally guilty of both earning and fomenting cynicism, even touching lightly on the fact that some of the most cynical people in the whole equation are the politicians themselves.
Left out, however, is the fact that cynicism is an American right and custom, born out of a system fundamentally designed to “speak truth to power”… and one that perhaps causes Power to toss sops, instead of truth, to the people in order to stay in place. In some countries, however, mocking your leaders will get you arrested, even killed. Here it will get you a late night television show. In some countries, the people’s only recourse is bloody revolt. Here, our leaders are swept from power with handsome pensions and lifetime sinecures in the lobbying and punditry classes (or is that too cynical of me?).
The American heritage of individualism and self-reliance has historically bred its people to look suspiciously at a government that promises something too good to be true, even as our individualism and self-reliance is continually seduced away from us. Some credit Ronald Reagan with coining the sarcastic phrase, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you,” but I’m sure I heard it when I was growing up in the 70s, and it may have been born in the 1930s when expanding Federal programs and powers started to come in to save us from ourselves, all while Will Rogers became the most famous and beloved figure in America by making political commentary a mass- (and multi)-media entertainment form.
Here’s another old joke: what is the motto of the terminally cynical?
And What is the motto of the terminally naive?
I suppose that too much cynicism can be corrosive and when there’s an abundance of something it tends to become devalued, but cynicism also brings accountability. And, as Will Rogers said, “Chaotic action is better than orderly inaction.” The way I read Peter Bell’s column, he’s suggesting that cynicism undermines good government; I think undermining cynicism leads to bad government. A certain distrust and feistiness toward one’s government is healthier than fatalism (though fatalism, too, is becoming more seductive).
I do heartily concur with one of the statements he made in closing, however:
The surest way to reduce cynicism in America is to rely less on major institutions to do for us what we can and should do for ourselves.
One can perhaps wonder where Greece (acclaimed as the birthplace of democracy) might be today if its people had been a bit more cynical – or empowered – the last 50 years.
Speaking of our American heritage of skepticism and satire, here’s a fun video I saw over at TechnoChitlins; it’s kind of a VH1 “I Love the (17)70s” take: