Soul of a Citizen: What Cynicism Costs Us

By Paul Rogat Loeb

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.

Corporations like Exxon, Goldman Sachs, and UnitedHealth do profoundly deform our public discourse. Too often politicians follow their lead. But once we decide that we’re powerless, our passivity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a habit of mind that’s harder and harder to shake. We decide we can do nothing about key common issues, large or small. Then we withdraw from public life before giving it a serious shot. If enough of us withdraw, we hand power over to the greediest.

A “radical” political scientist once explained to me loftily, “We’re fooling ourselves if we think government doesn’t serve powerful economic interests.” True enough, for the moment. But he framed this as inevitable, as if history were something that only happens to us, rather than something we can have a hand in making. He gave his students no vision to fight for—only only the prospect of joining him in the ranks of the all-knowing witnesses to human folly.

The political scientist also gave his students an all-purpose excuse for inaction and resignation. If nothing worthwhile can be done about the economy, climate change, global violence, or those suffering in our communities, then we bear no responsibility. Like the Kafka creature tunneling ever deeper in his story “The Burrow,” we retreat into smaller and smaller spheres of private life, hoping the rest of the world will somehow muddle through.

Ironically, such resignation can happen in people who aren’t personally cynical. We still try to be caring toward family and friends. We may even volunteer at a Big Brother/Big Sister program or help at a soup kitchen. And those are good things to do. But when we look at the larger issues, like global climate change, why so many people in America are hungry, or how to fix a greed-driven health care system or America’s strip-mined economy, we throw up our hands in frustration. Taking them on just seems too daunting, and our chances of success too elusive. It seems wiser and more practical to narrow our horizons.

Cynical resignation salves the pain of unrealized hope. If we convince ourselves that little can change, we don’t have to risk acting on our dreams. If we never fight for what we believe in and aspire to, we’ll never be disappointed. We can challenge destructive or duplicitous leaders with contrary information and counter-examples, stories about how the powers that be have misled us. But what can possibly challenge an all-encompassing worldview that, in the guise of sophistication, promotes the bleakest possible perspective on the human condition—the notion that our world has become so irredeemably corrupt, that whatever we do, we cannot change this?

As an alternative to this impotent “realism,” I’d like to propose a clear-eyed idealism, which recognizes that these are bad times but refuses to accept that the bad times are inevitable. I’m not promoting a culture of happy talk, nor will I in the Soul of a Citizen excerpts that follow. It’s important to dissect institutional arrogance and greed, to assess how it damages lives, neighborhoods, communities, and the most basic life systems of the earth. It’s critical to hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable, including political leaders like Obama who we may have worked for, voted for, and may still support in many ways. But too many social activists almost delight in rolling around in the bad news, like dogs in rancid fish. If that’s all we do, we’ll foster mostly resignation and despair. So along with the bad news, we need to convey that which is capable of inspiring hope.

It may always feel more than a little absurd to think that we might be able to change history. Especially when our efforts don’t go as planned, it can be useful to recognize that fact—and appreciate the irony in our situation,. But that same sense of irony becomes dangerous when it justifies passivity. It becomes what poet and essayist Lewis Hyde calls “the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Accordingly, we might think of a modern cynic as someone who’s given up all hope of finding a door, much less a key. As I’ll be exploring, there are better ways to live.

Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin’s Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, Soul has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it “wonderful…rich with specific experience.” Alice Walker says, “The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love.” Bill McKibben calls it “a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity.” Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin. Feel free to forward or post so long as this copyright notice remains intact.

Loeb also wrote The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, the History Channel and American Book Association's #3 political book of 2004.

For classroom use clear rights through the Copyright Clearance Center.

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