1. One of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers in the 4th century B.C. who advocated the doctrine that virtue is the only good, and that the essence of virtue is self-control.
2. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
3. A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.
Cynicism, to a point, is a good thing. I’m talking about the type of cynicism that fits the second definition above. That’s the type of cynicism that makes us critical thinkers, questioning the motives of questionable people. For instance, when you hear an ad by one gubernatorial candidate slamming another, you don’t take what they’re saying at face value; you look past it to the self-serving subtext: obviously this candidate is slamming his opponent because it may help him get elected. Or when you see a commercial or ad peddling the latest cologne, or beer, or skin-care product, and it features a celebrity like Halle Berry or Madonna, you’re critical about the actual value of the product: are you really spending your money on something worthwhile and life-enhancing, or just buying in to the cult of celebrity?
Moreover, who is using who in this scenario? It would seem to be symbiotic: the label or brand is exploiting the star’s image to enhance their product’s appeal, but at the same time, the star is using the advertising mechanism to project their image. This type of analytical thinking is one of the good things that can come from cynicism, which in this context is a form of healthy skepticism. It’s when a cynical attitude goes too far and becomes pervasive that you get into the third definition quoted above. That kind of cynicism is detrimental to the soul.
When cynicism gets out of hand it becomes linked with jadedness and apathy, and that’s the predominant association of the word today. Hipsters are often described with adjectives like “jaded" and “cynical," the opposite of hippies, the wide-eyed idealists and flower children of the 60’s and early 70’s who actually believed the world could change, that in fact it was in the process of changing, for the better! The hippie dream never came true, and our anger and bitterness about that takes the form of hippie-bashing, a widespread sport these days. Hippies are an unprotected minority, and a week doesn’t go by without either of our local rags, the Mercury or the Willamette Week, aiming a sneering remark at them. Idealism has given way to cynicism, but it’s gone too far, and has gotten to the point of being self-defeating now.
Watching the recent documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon the other day at Fox Tower was a surprisingly emotional experience for me. There was the eerie parallel to our political world today – Nixon refusing to offer a timetable for withdrawal from Iratnam (oops, I meant Vietnaq), his bullshit platitudes about the war going well, accusations from Democrats that his administration was wiretapping and spying on its citizens – and the sense that we’re seeing history repeat itself, which obviously was the point that Leaf and Scheinfeld wanted to hammer home with their film. Except one thing is missing today: we don’t have a John Lennon. Or a Martin Luther King. The Black Panthers are still around, but they don’t have any real political presence. We are in Good Night and Good Luck, but no one’s tried out for the role of Edward R. Murrow. The bad guys are still around – the very same ones; Cheney and Rumsfeld were both part of the Nixon Administration! – but our leaders and figureheads have either self-destructed or they’ve been destroyed. And the Republican corporatists have learned from their mistakes, gotten more ruthless and cunning, and they won’t be making the same mistakes again. This time around, the corrupt president is not going to be forced to resign. We’re on our own.
Naturally, this bitter realization leads to increased amounts of cynicism. The tremendous and original thing about John Lennon was that he used his international fame as a platform by which to preach the gospel of peace. He had the American press eating out of his hand, but instead of merely basking in his celebrity status, he attempted to do something really radical and altruistic with it, disregarding the damage done to his image by those who thought he’d gone off the deep end. The seemingly goofy publicity stunts he and Yoko Ono staged had a serious message behind them, and they were effective, so effective that the paranoid administrations of Nixon and Hoover considered him a serious threat and attempted to have him deported. Who do we have today at that level of cultural visibility and influence that is using their power the way Lennon did?
Given the way things have gone in this country over the last six years, it’s hard not to feel depressed and desperate at times. The Democrats may win one or both houses of Congress in the November election, giving them subpoena power and breaking the Republican stranglehold on our nation’s government, but what if they don’t? V For Vendetta is a nice fantasy (and surprisingly radical, for a Hollywood movie), but it’s unlikely that the French Revolution is going to happen in the United States of 2006. The most we can do is remain stoic and soldier on, without allowing our spirits to be broken. Say what you will about those loathsome hippies, but their movement happened at a time in our nation’s history that was profoundly protean and exciting. I can’t imagine anyone recording a song like “Imagine" now and being taken seriously, but when I watched the segment of John Lennon singing it in the theater the other day, I felt all my layers of cynicism and scorn melt away in the face of a piece of music and a vision too beautiful to be denied. I for one would like to believe that such a world is still possible. I may be a dreamer, but at least I’m in good company.