Oscar Wilde said that a cynic was someone who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. The dictionary says a cynic is someone “who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view”. Those are both pretty negative definitions. Yet there’s another aspect of cynicism, a positive one, that rarely gets any press: a cynic is someone who assumes that anyone who tries to sell him a pig in a poke is a crook.
It’s that aspect that we might consider re-energizing in America after 30 years of being conned, manipulated, lied to, and asked to swallow mountains of shit they told us was chocolate pudding. We have lived through an era in which the worst one could say about a person was that s/he was negative, pessimistic, untrusting, and had no “faith” in his/her leaders; that that lack of faith meant s/he hated America and was at the very least a terrorist cheerleader who wanted to see America go down the tubes because how could s/he doubt that everything s/he was told was true unless s/he was a faithless, pessimistic doom-monger? Everything was the best in the best of all possible worlds and anybody who didn’t believe that was a) a worthless liberal/Commie simp and b) a TRAITOR.
Only it turns out we weren’t. It turns out that even the most cynical of us nevertheless underestimated the greed, mendacity, arrogance, and cruelty of the leaders we were expected to put absolute faith in, were supposed to trust with our country and our lives. It turns out that expecting what we considered to be the worst possible outcomes, we missed the mark by a mile-and-a-half. Skepticism wasn’t enough. We should have been much more than skeptical. We should have been cynical. As much distrust as we had, we should have had more. It was justified.
It’s true that for the most part even confirmed cynics don’t like being cynical. There’s something uncomfortable and unsettling about cynicism, as if it were a debilitating venereal disease. It feels a bit as if one is choosing, despite sunlight and birdsong mere feet away, to live in a land of darkness and perversion where priests are child molesters, degenerate moral hypocrites pretend to sanctity and grace, and wars are begun for the profits of a few and on bnehalf of a bankrupt ideology that was debunked decades ago. Sounds awful. Is awful.
But that’s the world we live in. To deal with it successfuly we need a healthy dose of cynicism. We must learn to see the pretenders in the lists and scorn them. We need to recognize scams before they break us, liars before they lure us into idiotic decisions, and misdirection masquerading as information. And we need to do all this without becoming so cynical that we quit the whole parade in disgust.
This isn’t as hard to do as it sounds. In fact, it boils down to a willingness to ask ourselves – and our so-called “leaders” – a few cynical questions: Who benefits? What evidence is there that anything this political official/media pundit is saying is true? Does this proposal/assertion/rumour/charge make any sense? And oh yes, one more requirement: we need to become very suspicious indeed whenever someone is telling us exactly what we want to hear.
Cynics look under rocks, look for the tricks, the hidden traps, the hidden agendas. They assume there is a personal motive because there always is a personal motive and you can’t alwayas trust the motive you’re given as an explanation. When someone spends a lot of time charming you and agreeing with everything you say, that’s when you look for the dagger they’re holding behind their back where you can’t see it.
But the most important function of cynicism is as the antidote for dangerous naivete and the corruscating blindness created by optimism. We can no longer afford such childishness. Blind faith belongs to children, not adults. Adults question. Adults refuse to be gullible marks for ambitious con artists. Look out the window: without cynicism (which the con artists have spents the last 30 years trashing in favor of “don’t look at that man behind the curtain” politics) we let the thieves loose to loot as they please and wind up living in a country that ought to be rich but isn’t, ought to be admired but isn’t, ought to be fair but isn’t, ought to be generous but has turned stingy as a miser and mean as a snake.
Cynicism doesn’t have to be corrosive. It’s only a tool and it may be the tool we need to develop to take our country back from the Scrooges and the Caligulas.