Another Perspective

A Necessary Wisdom

A defense of cynicism in the age of false hope.

By 1.27.09

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As a confirmed and committed cynic, I must be high on President Barack Obama's enemies' list. Certainly well ahead of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. One of Mr. Obama's first official acts was to launch an undeclared war on cynics. The president has demanded we shed our cynicism -- which he calls "a sorry kind of wisdom" -- or suffer the consequences.

It's easy to see why. "A cynic," wrote Ambrose Bierce -- another damned cynic -- "is a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be." Mr. Obama wants us to close our eyes and imagine how things might be in some glorious future, after he and Hillary have sat down to tea with Chavez and Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il. After his Merry Bureaucrats have robbed the rich and given what little is left -- after administrative costs -- to the poor.

We cynics are in for four long years. Possibly more. Throughout the long campaign season Mr. Obama castigated us mercilessly. We weren't just any old bad guys -- we gave Osama bin Laden a run for his money. "The biggest enemy I think we have in this whole process…the reason I think it's so important, is because one of the enemies we have to fight -- it's not just terrorists, it's not just Hezbollah, it's not just Hamas -- it's also cynicism," Obama told an audience in March 2007. And month earlier he had warned, "And in this mission, our rivals won't be one another, and I would assert it won't even be the other party. It's going to be cynicism that we're fighting against." Sounds like the whole might and power of the U.S. government and military apparatus will be amassed against us cynics.

Obama's abhorrence of cynics hasn't mellowed even as his power has swelled. Last week in his Inaugural Address he again lashed out: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."

We are not just an enemy, we are a thick-headed, pea-brained enemy. We cannot grasp the simple arc of history, which has left conservatism and libertarianism and other false doctrines behind. One has the image of Mr. Obama expertly gauging the direction of the Winds of Change with his electronic anemometer, while we cynics stubbornly insist on tossing a few blades of grass into the still air.


DESPITE ITS ILL-REPUTE, cynicism has a long and illustrious history. The Greek cynic philosophers, epitomized by that eminent street person and dog impersonator Diogenes of Sinope, were ill-tempered ascetics who believed in living a virtuous life in harmony with nature. Diogenes lived in a barrel and roamed the daylight streets of Athens holding aloft a lamp and informing amused and disgusted passersby that he was "looking for an honest man." One story, doubtless like all the best stories apocryphal, tells how he was visited -- uninvited, it seems -- by Alexander the Great. Asked by the Emperor if he might grant him a favor, Diogenes snapped, "Yes, stop blocking my sun."

Cynics were also anti-authoritarian egalitarians who thought Greeks should reject possessions, fame and wealth and chastised those who wouldn't go along. Obama's supporters would have liked the cynics as they were a blend of crazy homeless person and virtuous scold. But what made the early cynic different from today's Blue State voter was his indifference toward his health, and his belief that most suffering was caused by bad judgment, and not by the policies of the Bush Administration.

Cynicism didn't really get a bad name until the term took on its opposite meaning. This happens more than one might think. "Awful" and "terrific" are examples of words that mean the opposite of what they once meant, i.e., full of awe and causing terror. Anyway, by the late Renaissance, anyone who merely ridiculed human conduct was a cynic. David Mazella, in The Making of Modern Cynicism, says modern cynics inspire fear and loathing because they envision a future without hope of meaningful change. And nobody is more into meaningful change than Mr. Obama and his Stepford followers. It doesn't matter if that change never comes about, as long as one remains eternally hopeful.

It's easy for rich and powerful people like the Obamas to avoid cynicism. Bertrand Russell, a cynic with a foot in both classical and modern schools, once wrote that the holders of power are not cynical since they are able to enforce their ideals. Likewise, the oppressed are not cynical, but filled with rage. It is rather the modern intellectual who is cynical because he alone sees things as they are and insists on telling the truth, consequences be damned.

You see now why President Obama hates cynics. They distrust politicians and are suspicious of big government. They don't share the mania for empty platitudes, clichéd sermons, and repetitive chants about hope and change. (Prophetically, Lord Russell noted that "modern cynicism cannot be cured merely by preaching.") What's more, cynics have studied the dark history of the human beast. All of which evidently makes cynics a greater threat to modern society than terrorists.

Like the early cynics I am anti-authoritarian and pro-equality (of opportunity, not of outcome). I don't necessarily reject possessions, fame and wealth, though I can see how one might get that impression looking at me. I likewise believe most suffering is caused by wrong-headed decisions. Most trusting Americans would be angered and outraged if the president of the United States compared them to terrorists. Not we cynics. There isn't anything this adminstration can say that will bother us.

All we ask is that Mr. Obama doesn't stand in our light.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.