Politics & Policy

Cynicism À La Mode; Keep Your Eyes Peeled


A few years ago, it seemed apathy was the watchword of respectable political hand-wringing. Low voter-turnout, the “professionalism ” of “voluntary” organizations, and the general reluctance of these-kids-today to participate in the gitchy-goo causes that babyboomers and their intellectual progeny considered noble, contributed to the chattering angst over “apathy.” It was certainly the case at my college. Earnest young women with little or no intention to make a career out of “doing good” were consistently outraged by the apathetic refusal of their classmates to help them with their green hobbies.

Well, we’ve moved on. Now the fashionable worry is “cynicism.”

“I’m here to plead with you, to beg you to reject the siren song of cynicism,” James Carville told students at a commencement speech at the University of Maryland. “I want to sell you on the attitude of optimism and involvement.” He was fighting the “people [who] are going to tell you the cynics are going to rule the roost.” The eminent presidential historian, Robert Dallek recently told a National Public Radio audience, “Well, I think the legacy of Watergate, … is part of a profound cynicism which has gripped the country, more or less, for the last 30 years. People don’t go out to vote very much anymore.” John McCain is constantly denouncing “widespread cynicism, bordering on alienation.” I could get a dozen more quotes but you get the point: Cynicism bad, yada yada yada….

The working modern definition of cynicism is the belief that everyone does things out of selfish reasons. There are at least three problems with the whining about America’s “widespread” cynicism.

First, that’s not what cynicism means. Cynicism also known as the “Dog Philosophy” was probably founded by the Greek philosopher Diogenes (He was nicknamed “Dog” which is what cynic literally means). I say “probably” because none of his writings survive but he usually gets the credit. Another problem with explaining the original meaning of cynicism is that it’s really not so much a coherent philosophy as an attitude. From a cynical perspective, the politics of ancient Greece and Rome were perceived to be not so much corrupt as profoundly hypocritical (one could waste a lot of time trying to figure out whether hypocrisy bred corruption or vice versa). Social customs and elite rules were seen as inherently self-serving. For cynics, the truly noble man would live his life in a way that repudiated that system, doing good deeds which were good by his own reckoning, and mocking those who made a big deal about their own altruism. For example, rather than live in luxury or even amongst the social poseurs, Diogenes purportedly lived in a tub.

There is a story that a young Alexander the Great sought out the famous philosopher. He found Diogenes lying in the sun getting a good tan. Alexander wanted to prove what a generous man he was. He offered to grant any wish Diogenes could imagine. The cynic’s response to the offer was, roughly, “I wish you’d stop blocking my sun!”

Cynicism came in and out of fashion throughout Ancient times, eventually influencing stoicism. It’s chief advocates had bad names now only found in late-night episodes of Xena or reruns of Conan: Crates of Thebes, Cercidas of Megalopolis, Bion of Borysthenes (Bion was the first philosopher, it’s been written, to “tart up” philosophy by popularizing the diatribe. Hence Bion is something of a G-File hero. The couch likes to be known as the Bion of Borysthenes of contemporary casual furniture). My favorites thing about these names is how they could easily be reversed. I could have written Thebes of Crates or Borysthenes of Bion, and not received more than a couple letters.

Anyway, Cynics were far more like Thoreau than Puffy Combes (for a modern pop culture example, think of Mickey Rourke in Rumblefish as a modern cynic. Or, if your one of these people who prefers real people, Mitch Snyder, the homeless activist who had nothing but contempt for politicians, was a great cynic). But sometimes cynicism went too far, perhaps because the hypocrisies went too far. In A History of Western Political Thought, J.S. McClelland writes that the “cynic’s response was to snarl at the world’s attempts to impose acts of rules which were so empty of all meaning.” I’d quote The Cynical Society by Jeffrey Goldfarb except for the fact that the book is so damned turgid and dull, the only good morsel I could find was the Diogenes tanning story.

As a philosophy, one can easily see how this could slide down the slope to existentialism or even solipsism. If you think no laws, conventions, or rules are based on goodness, then goodness itself can quickly degenerate into something utterly unrecognizable. Still, if you plant your feet on the good end of the slope, Cynicism is simply a philosophy dedicated to living the good life and doing good deeds regardless of social reward (Hercules was a big hero to the cynics because he accomplished all those nifty tasks).

The second and third problems with the current vogue over cynicism are deeply and closely related, but let’s take ‘em one at a time.

First, there’s this assumption on the part of the media that accusing politicians of selfish motives is somehow deeply disturbing, if not plain un-American. That’s just dumb and predictable. I’ll save the predictable part for the third leg of the critique.

It’s dumb because America was the first successful nation to be created on the assumption that rulers will be selfish. The US Constitution, that glorious cathedral of intellect, is a radical document. Indeed, just as cynicism was the most radical philosophy of the Roman Empire, the US constitution represented the most radical invention of the millennium: a cynical Republic. In the words of John Adams our system was designed to “make it advantageous even for bad men to act for the public good.” The Founders believed that power changes people, or at least that’s the way you should bet. Sounding much like Diogenes, Thomas Jefferson observed, “Whenever a man casts a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.”

Thanks to our cynical government, if a politician steals, lies, cheats, or simply screws up, we can get rid of him without storming his castle. That’s huge. After all, monarchy, dictatorship and “scientific socialism” — the three main alternatives to Democratic Republicanism – leave very little room for the idea that rulers can be wrong, let alone corrupt and deserving of removal from office. And it should be noted that unquestioning trust in the political leaders on the part of a mass of people is a precondition of tyranny. According to the Founders a cynical citizen is an educated citizen.

Which brings us to the predictable part. America is thankfully returning to normalcy. There are no pressing issues that require massive and sustained national attention. Camelot is as over as the Cold War. Americans don’t care much about politics and nine times out of ten they shouldn’t.

Ironically, a lot of credit should go to Bill Clinton. Precisely because his tenure has been such a disgrace; because he mouths pointless and transparent pieties; because he so yearns for the people to rally ‘round, him his appeals sound farcical. Americans were slapped out of their Cold War reverence for the Federal Government. Torches are no longer being passed, people are no longer asking-not, no president is ich-bin-ein-jelly doughnuting. We are like hypnotized drones who were slapped in the face by the cold wet fish of his metaphysical tackiness. (Golly, I hope no one finds out I plagiarized that sentence from James Joyce).

What makes the concern over cynicism so predictable is that politicians of the left and, regrettably, of the right as well, feel more and more compelled to read from old scripts. The babyboomers, especially, offer platitudinous drivel that worked for John Kennedy and they stand there dumbstruck when the same phrases don’t work for them. Their egos are the same but the receptivity of the American people to their claptrap is a fraction of what it was. These politicians are like kids, who, having just returned from a magic show, don’t understand why the dove won’t appear in mom’s pancake bowl when they yell “abracadabra!”

But if we believe in choosing sides (and by Bion of Borysthenes we at the G-File do!), the Left has become the truly cynical faction –-of the pernicious kind to boot. When the cynics took it upon themselves to mock the reigning orthodoxies, the reigning orthodoxies were often corrupt. Other times they were simply the popular arguments of Aristotle. Either way, “civilization” was a pretty new and malleable concept. Today a full blown Cynic of old would need to reject the civilization that grew on Aristotle’s foundation. That would include, notions of truth, merit, and even the Judeo-Christian ethic.

That is precisely what the Left today does — with near total abandon. From poo-pooing sexual norms to ridiculing religion. One need not recount the thousands of PC stories about porn studies and affirmative action gobbledygook. A single example should suffice. Pat Kennedy is the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He’s been raising money to take the House back from the Republicans. He says Republicans have to beaten because “they tried to put the Ten Commandments in the schools.” This is one of his big money-raising lines.

This is the putrid, festering cynicism that we should all despise. This is the cynicism which says that the fundamental rules of the civilization somehow are somehow illegitimate. It is simply caving into the gross cynicism of the ACLU, et al. If you think the Ten Commandments are merely akin to the rules of decadent Rome, then you’ve given up on Civilization and America.


One of the new rules at NR online is that essays as long as the screed above never get published. Well, rules, as we now know, are merely the engines of hypocrisy.

Unfortunately, despite my appointment as NR Online poobah, I ran into a previous engagement. I will be in Seattle until the middle of next week. I am going to a wedding. I will, of course try to file from out there. In the meantime please keep checking the content of the embryonic New NRO. Already we’ve got piles of new exclusive content about the Iowa Straw Poll and other intellectual nummies. Rich Lowry, is putting on the old hip boots and wading out in the Ames muck himself. He’ll be reporting in over the weekend.

In the meantime, yes, the movie quotes from yesterday were from Night of the Living Dead and Pretty Woman respectively.


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