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Confessions of a repentant cynic

By Barton Wong
web posted November 26, 2001

It has become increasingly clear over the last few months since September 11th that my generation is facing a reckoning; a reckoning that will ultimately involve a shift in our fundamental moral values. It seems that the ever-so-superior cynicism that my generation grew up with and which it adopted as its attitude toward great geopolitical events and toward life in general just isn't adequate. To the horror of this most fashion-conscious generation ever, their cynicism just isn't very fashionable anymore. We are adrift in uncertainty. Could it be that the nave schmucks we use to mock, those who stupidly believed in God, country, patriotism, and defending "Western values" be right? It is possibility that we can't even face right now.

Pundits say that the World Trade Center bombings killed the "Age of Irony," but I feel that they're using the wrong term, since irony will always be with us in so far as events will always turn out contrary to all our expectations. The entire history of the world is one long "Age of Irony." No, the period of 1989-2001 which depending on who you talk to, is either celebrated as one long party unprecedented for its prosperity and peace for us in the West or dammed as an never-ending period of complacency, hedonism, and moral decay was the "Age of Cynicism," and those of us who came to age in it, took in and eventually, came to embody its easy, glib values. I was one of those young people.

After all, if we had plenty of money, well-paying jobs awaiting us, an unprecedented amount of leisure time on our hands, and no threats, what ideals were left for us to defend and fight for? If we were really at the end of history, where our values, those of liberal democracy and capitalist prosperity had triumphed once and for all, what harm would one long wallow in self-indulgence, self-absorption, and moral nihilism do?

Even the conflicts that did come up in this period seemed unreal and far away. The Gulf War? That was less a war than a video game waged against a scarecrow of an enemy all in the noble name of cheap gas prices. The half million dead in the genocide in Rwanda? Something that happened in some jungle of the Dark Continent. Chechnya? Yugoslavia? The Middle East? Well, if those ignorant people insist on killing each other, why should we bother to waste our time and resources caring about them? We, the enlightened cynics in the West knew better than any of them, didn't we?

Up to September 10th 2001, if you'd ask what attitude I took toward the outside world, I would have proudly proclaimed myself a cynic. Why would have I done this? Well, the short answer is that everyone I knew, those who were popular, intelligent, and well-respected had, to a person, the exact same perspective on life. Cynicism was intellectually fashionable among those in the know and like most of my generation, I was, if anything, a great follower of fashion. When a few months ago, a correspondent wrote in to declare that my pronouncement that "Social Conservatism Is Dead" and that traditional values were irrelevant was the encapsulation of the life views of "an aspiring yuppie," he cut deeper than he knew. At times, it seems like my entire generation's highest goal in life is to aspire to be happy and wealthy yuppies or bobos.

Not that anyone around me seemed surprised that someone so young was so worldly-wise. I remember well that my parents, sisters, teachers, friends, and acquaintances all remarked that I had developed an extremely negative view of life very early on. No one particularly minded this or even noticed. After all, it was the de riguer attitude. The older generation seemed to almost expect that we'd all inevitably turn out to be profound moral nihilists.

I was also a cynic because I was lazy. It is an extraordinarily easy way to be feel superior and above-it-all toward very complicated subjects. It made you feel like a true intellectual, when in fact, our cynicism made us simplify and stereotype both everything and everyone relentlessly.

For us, politics was not a civic forum where our society groped its way through a minefield of ethics, economics, and other tiresomely complex issues; it was a grotesque black comedy where vicious, lying opportunists all tried to scramble for the pork, the bribes, and the interns, as quickly as possible while trying to stab everyone else in the back as best they could. Not one of them really meant what they were saying. Everyone was either Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton. It was no wonder then that voter participation went down and the public discourse correspondingly coarsened, but we cynics expected this from the very beginning, even though we were the ones who were causing it. We thought only a fool would listen to all the lies and then go out to actually vote for one of them. We cynics just couldn't be bothered to take the time to examine the issues and/or exercise our democratic rights. Nothing really mattered and nothing really changed, so why should we care?

Our cynicism made us feel that we were more perceptive and had sounder instincts than the common herd.

Underneath the shield of worldliness, it was just reinforcing our glib self-esteem. Ultimately, it became a mask for both our true ignorance and a justification for our refusal to participate in society. In this way, cynicism is really nothing more than a lazy man's "intellectualism." The true intellectuals however, were off laboring away in obscure corners on topics that would make us cynics yawn and turn back to our cappuccinos and cosmopolitans.

I have come to realize that my cynicism was not just ignorant and lazy, it was moral idiocy on a grand scale. Reading over my "Social Conservatism Is Dead," a product of only a few months ago, I was struck not only by the sheer pompousness of a 19-year old college student attempting to sweep away hundreds of years of accumulated moral tradition in only a few pages, but by the profoundly shallow view I took of that tradition. I realize that I dismissed traditional morality mostly not on its own merits, but because I thought young people took it to be "uncool" and because I thought it was not politically viable. This seems to be a quintessentially late 90s, almost Clintonesque view of morality; I discard what many take to be eternal values because I thought they were vote losers. In the end, though I think I made several valid points in declaring that social conservatism is dead, I think that I am now just one in the endless line of young people who go out of their way to prove their cleverness and ability to break the "chains" of traditions by rejecting the values of their parents. Yet those values seem to last far longer than the clever glibness which seeks to replace it. I have realized that there's a good reason for that.

My oddly conflicted attitude toward President Bush was another example of my moral nihilism. Now, I greatly respected the President and all that he's done so far, but since he was after all, in my cynical worldview, just another power-seeking politician, I could never really take him at face value. I just couldn't comprehend how someone with a BA from Yale and a MBA from Harvard could say that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. It had to be either naiveté, a failed attempt at wittiness, or a ploy to get votes from the Religious Right. And despite all the proof we have Bush's genuine and transparent religious integrity, it shames me to confess that I actually thought that his pronunciations of faith were just catch phrases designed by White House spin-doctors to raise his popularity in Middle America. The fact that Bush might actually have meant what he said never occurred to me.

My cynicism was born in the 1990s through my experience of watching politics, especially Bill Clinton. Politicians don't get more cynical and corrupt than that. While I do not believe that political leadership is the sole cause for cynicism and moral decline, (President Reagan, that great defender of traditional "family values," presided over an era which gave us coke-snorting yuppie Wall Streeters, junk bonds, and Michael Jackson) the horribly fascinating spectacle that was Bill Clinton's America had to be a special case. The untold wealth that was made and spent now seems to only add to the stink of moral corruption of those years. That unprecedented prosperity allowed us all to indulge in making everything small and petty. Programs such as Survivor, Temptation Island, and Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire? were not inherently damaging, but their sheer popularity tells a lot about the era we've just gone through.

Even apart from mere television shows however, on matters of life-and-death and national importance, the cynicism and the rampant celebrity culture that accompanied it made everything a spectacle to be consumed. News broadcasts seemed less like information and more like scurrilous versions of Entertainment Tonight. Liz Grubman ran over people she considered white trash, so we get swamped with New Yorker-style profiles of her and her family. Chandra Levy disappears, Gary Condit stonewalls, and all everyone can talk about is the sex. The fact that a young woman is quite possibly dead and that an United States Congressman is impeding the course of justice never seems to occur to anyone. The OJ Simpson trial was, in the end, less about justice and more about the entertaining spectacle of watching millionaire lawyers grandstanding for press notoriety and book endorsements. Simpson's guilt in the murders of two people was a mere subplot. And so on. Worst of all was the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, where everyone, both Republicans and Democrats, from the press to Kenneth Starr, seem to gravitate and linger over the endless details of Clinton's unusual sex life, while conveniently forgetting the fact that the leader of the free world was a nauseatingly mendacious creep and a man who had repeatedly committed gross abuses of his power. That proved more than anything else to me, that this society had lost its sense of priorities and that since I couldn't change a thing, why not join in with the flow? This was the culture that produced an entire generation's cynicism.

If eternal values such as patriotism and loyalty to your country no longer mattered or were the purview of only nave ignoramuses, than actions such as Clinton's alleged sale of American military secrets to the Communist China in exchange for campaign contributions no longer seemed to matter a great deal either. The fact that Clinton got away with this and a whole lot more, ending up with a 69% approval rating at the end only seemed to prove to me that you could have your cake and eat it too: you could be a manifestly corrupt and immoral person, and the public would love you for it. But cynicism cuts both ways as it turns out. After the cave fell in for Clinton with the revelation of the pardons scandal, his former supporters, with even more astonishing cynicism, manned the lifeboats and steered clear of the sinking boat of his reputation. Ironically, Clinton's destruction at the hands of his former defenders only reinforced my cynicism and my increasing feelings that the world was morally empty.

Even now, there are those who will not learn. Right after the attacks, an aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair sent out an e-mail saying that it would be a good day to bury disconcerting news items. After her discovery, the predictable public outcry, and the equally predictable apology, Blair ended up retaining the spin-doctor's services. Charlotte Beers, the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, a career advertising executive, whose new job is to improve the image of the United States and her people in the Mideast recently declared that American foreign policy was "definitely the most elegant brand I've ever had to work with." Such are the consequences of turning government and the state into one giant PR firm whose sole goal is keeping up popularity ratings.

There are those who will argue that while cynicism has certain negative aspects, it still isn't as bad as idealism. After all, idealists were the ones who gave us the bloody massacres of the French and Russian Revolutions, and the social disruptions of the 1960s. Cynicism, they will argue, is not at fault for September 11th, but idealism is. After all, what are those Islamofascists, other than particularly misguided and fanatical idealists, yearning, as all idealists do, to improve the world? By putting such arguments in this way, I hope to make clear their repulsiveness and playing at moral equivalence. Yet, in my more cynical phase, I might very well bought into such arguments.

When Susan Sontag wrote in her infamous New Yorker essay right after the bombings, that we could not call the suicide bombers cowards, because she defined "courage [as a] morally neutral virtue," my first instinct was to agree. After all, that little phrase had everything a superficial, glib, and clever, but not wise cynic could want. It downgraded a traditional moral value and attributed it to terrorists. It had all the force and precision of a memorable aphorism useful at cocktail parties whenever you had to sound well-read. And it had the stature of being a product of one of America's most respected and formidable intellects. Its moral repulsiveness simply didn't occur to me at first. Perhaps, this is because I've never known or experienced what real physical courage is. I've only got it secondhand through news reports or else, witnessed it in its debased form through Hollywood movies. As Mark Steyn has pointed out, most of my generation hasn't experienced what real courage is, since our society has deliberately shielded us from having to put ourselves in any situations where we might actually require it. If such traditional moral virtues are not experienced, then it becomes all too easy to dismiss or distort them, as Sontag does.

Cynicism isn't about partisan party allegiances (though the hate-America Left has proven remarkably cynical about our motives so far) nor is even about playing the great game of moral equivalence. A cynic ultimately doesn't believe in morals or which side is "right." In his or her view, every side is equally degraded, opportunistic, and treacherous. The side that is "right" is the side that wins, nothing more. But in degrading morality, the cynic ends degrading himself. I used to put a stop to any conversation by mischievously saying to people who upheld traditional morality that if Hitler had won the war, we'd all be sitting around saying how great he was and how horrible the Jews were. I thought I was being clever.

But there is one thing that my cynicism could not survive and that was the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. All the superficially clever witticisms in the world cannot answer the eloquent silence of the thousand of dead bodies lying in that rubble. There is simply nothing adequate to say. To remain cynical even after that, is to leap into a realm of such heartlessness and moral nihilism, that even I was not prepared to go into.

Yet even now, when I've come to realize that my previous cynicism was slowly destroying any sense of right or wrong I had left, I cannot help but be glibly cynical about things. Cynicism has infected me to the core. How am I to explain that when President Bush was giving his stirring speech to the joint Houses of Congress right after the bombings, I found myself not listening to the words, but wondering whether he'd poll-tested his speech beforehand or not? When Rudolph Giuliani promoted several firefighters after entire companies of the Fire Department had been wiped out in the collapse, I actually said out loud that I thought at least some of the men must have been glad that the bombings has occurred since they got their promotions early. This was entirely unconscious on my part. The words just came out. It was only later that I realized what a truly horrible thing I had said. A lifetime of cynicism has given shape to such views. I realize they cannot change overnight.

Will cynicism make a comeback? I have little doubt that it will. After all, it is trying, yet idealistic times such as these when we set out to vanquish our enemies that let us have those long years of peace and prosperity which allow us all to be self-absorbed, glib, and cynical. When the "War on Terrorism" is over and the economy picks up again, it'll be back to business as usual. You might think this a sad, pessimistic or even a cynical kind of view, but realistically, I honestly believe that a long self-indulgent splurge might be the best way for Americans to forget the horrific events of September 11th.

Finally, I do not think you can fight the true cynics. If they are really are cynical as they profess, they will simply hold their finger in the air, realize that post-September 11th, cynicism is no longer fashionable and that idealism and patriotism is, and like the opportunistic trimmers that they are, will set themselves up as idealistic patriots. You cannot win against such people. The best you can do is watch and learn never to trust them. But hopefully, a few young people of my generation, have learned once and for all, that the glib, easy answers of cynicism are no answers at all

Barton Wong is a regular commentator at the Texas Mercury and studies Literary Studies and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

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