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The Wages of Cynicism

June 4, 2010

The Wages of Cynicism

We’ve heard so much about the polarized political environment that we’ve started to take it as a given…an inevitable parameter of politics, like a law of physics or Rush Limbaugh’s penchant for trumpeting ignorance. But it’s important to remember that it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the dominant memes of governance were statesmanship, dignity, and respect for the institutions bequeathed to us by the founders and paid for on the blood of multiple battlefields. The practice was to disagree without being (too) disagreeable; policy was debated, sometimes hotly, but polity was preserved.

About 30 years ago, geniuses like Kevin Philips and Lee Atwater (whose life can be summed up by the fact though he loudly and righteously became a born-again while fighting the brain cancer that killed him, he died leaving a shrink-wrapped bible behind in his nightstand) figured out that you could win elections by exploiting the fear and rage held by that large swath of the populace whose inchoate ignorance had until then prevented it from coalescing into an organized political force.

The Curse of the Once-Starving Class

Until the 70’s the retail nature of politics made it a perennial cottage industry; Philips, of the ‘Southern Strategy’ and Atwater, a profligate political sleaze-ball who would have made even Machiavelli say “whoa there, fella – hang on a minute”, industrialized the politics of retrogression by legitimizing bigotry, and carefully nurturing the vehement solipsism of baby-boomers. In so doing they recast the Republican Party into a natural magnet for a cohort of ambitious-yet-incompetent political opportunists and created the perfect vehicle for their pursuit of undeserved power. The result was the dissolution of 200 years of success of the American experiment in self-governance, a track-record which had made this country truly the envy of the entire world. Thirty years later, this steady erosion of faith and goodwill has gutted our ability to support our elected leaders, and has left the nation virtually ungovernable.

It is tempting to accept that the so-called ‘conservative movement’ is a nothing more than a flawed interpretation of seductive, if deeply-flawed, economic and social theories. One would like to see the beliefs of its members as nothing terribly insidious – wrong-headed, but a sincere and ultimately faithful effort to build Candide’s dream nonetheless. And to be sure, it often sounds that way; it’s not hard for right-wing politicians to toss out elegant-sounding phrases and concepts in their efforts to promote some mythical clean and cohesive worldview. One which progressives “just don’t get.” And it’s certain that much of the rank & file lacks the ability to discriminate between something that neatly explains their continually downtrodden status; a case of the blind(ed by greed and ambition) leading blind(ed by inadequate education & the de-intellectualizing message embedded in their relition).

But the history of their movement and an even passingly thoughtful analysis of “conservative” positions (I use the quotes because the word is misapplied; they’re as radical as any Bolshevik) reveal that the policies – and politics – of the right are little more than a hodgepodge of simplistic impulses, containing little overarching vision beyond stubborn insistences to the effect that “you’re not the boss of me”, and “them smart kids ain’t so smart after all.” High-school animosities regurgitated at a target market of people whose personal development seems to have stopped in June of the year they threw their mortarboards into the air and headed off to get drunk & laid.

Not Everything, The Only Thing

But of course the real driver of conservative policies is something baser: winning elections. The modern Republican Party has mis-appropriated and perverted the philosophies of valid thinkers such as Barry Goldwater, Adam Smith & Thomas Hobbes to such a degree that it more closely resembles a troop of decadent monkeys dressed in cap & gown as it flings feces at onlookers than the founders that it misquotes with such elegance. Just as during the fall of Rome, when generations of atavistic rulers answered every social problem with a heaping helping of bread & circuses or a land-grab, these narrow little men & women realized that playing to the cheap seats works quite nicely if you can pull it off. It quickly coalesced around that stubborn portion of humanity which has been with us since the dawn of time, blind to the value of any animating force beyond its own appetites, and holding fast to the belief that survival is its own end.

Descartes, the father of the scientific method and arguably the guy who is most responsible for setting humanity on the road to its current material bounty, justified his existence with the phrase “cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am. The American Right, like some prodigal son, feels entitled to say “sum ergo inscribo” – I am therefore I am entitled. Such a principle carries with it no duty to self-examination, no obedience to anything outside of itself and its interests. They’ll call themselves Christians as they spew the hatred and intolerance which violates everything Christ taught; Americans while cursing the form of government which still stands as the greatest American innovation of all; leaders as they undermine all respect for leadership and deconstruct the mechanisms of governance. The list goes on – sacred and hard-earned learnings wielded as weapons in the culture wars, or tools for self-advancement.

The rise of the rabble would be more comedy than tragedy but for the stubborn and damning facts that power demands responsibility and complexity requires management. Contrary to what “conservatives” would like us to think, the virtues of society and the bounties of a well-functioning economy are neither god-given blessings nor entitlements. They are, rather, the fruits of the labor of generations of educated, principled, public-minded patriots who committed to building the social, legal and industrial infrastructure which produces peaceful streets, basic human rights, and material wealth. True patriots –  not some sign-waving mob of intolerant bumpkins whose appetites demand satisfaction yet who find the notion of paying the bill intolerable – invested lives and fortunes in creating the greatest existence enjoyed by the greatest number in the history of the world.

The End of the World As We Know It?

Now comes the deluge. The primacy of “conservative” thinking over the last thirty years has resulted in Yeats’ nightmare of things falling apart and the center being unable to hold.

We find ourselves beset by crises engendered by the most banal of causes: a lack of simple hygiene. Like an imbecile wallowing in his own feces, enraged and confused by the violent spasms which cause gut to heave until empty, and heave still.

Our financial system (still!) untethered of prudent regulation, all caution thrown to the winds, and allowed to become pumped up on steroids by short-timers and well-polished greedheads until it inevitably implodes. Our industries are shipped overseas in exchange for short term, insubstantial, financial performance of our corporations & cheap WalMart merchandise (much more effective and immediate opium for a much greater multitude than religion ever was…but of course how nice that the nation’s religious leaders suddenly discovered the gospel of entitlement at just about the same time!). Our media institutions cash in their historical role as the fifth estate for an uptick in the share price of their parent companies, measuring its success not by afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, but by its ability to produce blazing heat in place of the light necessary illuminate a functioning democracy. Even our medicines have become the vehicles for cavalier gambits, transmuting salves into poisons, the mission to heal replaced by a set of tactics designed push products which possess little demonstrable benefit and unknown risks past regulators on gauzy claims of relief from previously unheard-of ailments.

And, to top it all off, the BP oil spill, which will almost certainly become the greatest single environmental catastrophe in history, and will eventually be proven to have as its root cause a series of throw-caution-to-the-wind shortcuts chosen by middle-managers desperate to earn miniscule performance bonuses.

To simpletons, these things are collateral damage, or acts of god, or failures of the government they love to excoriate. Except that they’re not; all of this damage, all of these “crises” are self-inflicted, rooted in the decadence of a generation spoiled rotten by having had so much handed to it, incapable of constraining its gargantuan appetites, and whipped into a frenzy of belligerent entitlement by a coven of opportunists whose self-fulfilling prophecy of incompetent government would give any Greek tragedy a run for its money.

Such is the product of a cynicism which has been carefully engineered by a generation of political and financial opportunists, people who felt no compunction about undermining government in order to prove their ugly, ugly theory that only selfishness can motivate people. That there is no such thing as public service, that there is no such thing as power wielded for the good of the public (or that there is any such thing as a public good). That only greed is good.

If the wages of sin are death, then the wages of cynicism are surely a slow descent into anarchy and chaos.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls. And ask not who’s pulling the bell cord. It’s us. Stupid, stupid us.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. The Center Square permalink
    June 4, 2010 2:06 pm

    Wow, wow, wow. Your magnum opus. Or if not, then reading your actual magnum opus will be quite an extraordinary event.

    More detailed commentary to follow.

  2. June 4, 2010 2:30 pm

    Hitting the nail squarely on the head once again! This article is nourishment for those of us that have been screaming from the rooftops for years! Thank you!

  3. Andrew permalink
    June 5, 2010 9:59 am

    Great read for progressives like us. Left me feeling the appropriate mix of enlightenment and despair. But what about the big unanswered question: What do we DO about this?

    I expect that when Rome was falling plenty of citizens were blogging about it on their scrolls and commiserating with like-minded folks around the water well. But what was actually DONE to try to change the course?

    Or is there no hope? Shall we move now to a new loft in Shanghai and enroll our kids in Mandarin school?

  4. June 5, 2010 3:53 pm

    Well, wow. Great work Adam. The Nixon years – and yes, Kevin Phillips whom I’ve since come to respect – started a process that is now nearly complete as America has become southernized. The poorest, least educated, most militaristic, most bigoted, most religious and least civic minded segment of our soceity was empowered and exploited. And the values which guided us for so long were lost in the noise.

    And as we awaken to what’s happened, corporate power has become so entrenched that I honestely am afraid of the answewr to Andrew’s “is there no hope?”

  5. June 5, 2010 3:59 pm

    . . . and thanks for that Yeats poem – makes me weep, but what a poet!

  6. The Center Square permalink
    June 6, 2010 1:54 pm

    One area where I agree with you wholeheartedly is that Republicans have, for a generation, pursued a corrosive, cynical course to undermine our faith in government. And I share your belief that they have accomplished this by playing to the worst emotions of fear, insecurity, and powerlessness in targeted parts of the citizenry. It has proved to be a successful formula, politically, and because of that, we have reaped the bitter harvests of war and economic collapse and skyrocketing federal debt.

    Personally, I see more of a distinction between Republicanism and conservatism than you emphasize here. The honorable conservative tradition of William F. Buckley, Jr. (well, relatively honorable: I’m not sure Gore Vidal would agree with that characterization) is based on such bedrock principles as social stability and fiscal prudence. As Buckley himself liked to say, paraphrasing here, modern Republicans may lay claim to being conservative, but they are not Conservatives. A Conservative would not spend money recklessly, and lay the bill at the feet of future generations. A Conservative would not whip up nationalistic fervor to enable ill-fated nation-building missions in foreign countries. A Conservative would not systematically and reflexively attack every undertaking of the duly elected majority government. All those are destabilizing courses of action, and thus are fundamentally non-conservative.

    You get it most correct when you write, “The modern Republican Party has mis-appropriated and perverted the philosophies of valid thinkers such as Barry Goldwater, Adam Smith & Thomas Hobbes.” The culprit isn’t “conservatism.” It is the perversion of worthy conservative principles into this thing the Republican Party has become. So, when you write, “the real driver of conservative policies is something baser: winning elections,” I must disagree. That is the goal of the Republican Party, which has almost no conservative bonafides.

    Which brings me to the Democratic Party. All too often, Democrats enable such malfeasance by Republicans, by engaging in the same kinds of behaviors themselves. And for the same base reason: winnipung elections. Democrats do pursue bad policies, specifically to create beholden political constituencies — the very charge you eloquently level at Republicans. For far too long, they put forth bad policies in terms of unionism (even now, with card check), public education, and failed poverty programs.

    However — and this is a huge however — twice in modern times the Democrats have disarmed themselves of this cynical politics-above-policy perspective. That is, they have sent forth Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. These two presidents are the noble (can that be said of Pres. Clinton? *lol*) exceptions. They sincerely and deeply and thoughtfully have sought to remake the public landscape in important, reasonable, pragmatic, moderate ways.

    Republicans have sought to tear down. Democrats, at least Clinton/Obama Democrats have sought to build up. They have attempted to restore and enhance the basic fabric of our public and social systems on which stability depends. In that sense, I would argue that they are the truer descendents of Buckleyesque conservativism than any Republican.

    • June 6, 2010 2:18 pm

      Buckley and Vidal’s clashes are legend because they were so substantial. That is simply gone from our current discourse.

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