Monday, January 31, 2011

Redemption songs


I don’t know any of the people in the pictures and images I’m seeing from Egypt. I’m not sure what my connection to them is, or should be, or could be. But I am pretty sure that, yesterday, I was glued to Al Jazeera’s live coverage of what was happening in Tahrir Square – that means “Liberation Square” in Arabic, it seems — because I needed to be, and for me. A word like “Liberation” should not have become such a dead letter in my mind. I have become too cynical, too jaded, too hopeless. We become spiritually dead inside when we accept injustice, when we think that expecting it is “realistic,” and watching and being realistic about the world around me has made me a much more angry, frustrated, and bitter person than I would like to be, need to be. I suspect there are a lot of holy things I’ve forgotten how to dream, a lot of words for “freedom” that I’ve lost or misplaced.

Cynicism is an important tool, but you have to know how to deploy it.  You can't just shoot from the hip at everything. There are good reasons for being cynical about the world, but they aren't evenly distributed. In my view, the people who use cynicism to best effect already know where they are most likely to hit their mark.

I think we always want to draw that line between the monopolists and the people. There will always be many more reasons to be cynical about people in power than there will be about people like you and me. I'm not saying there aren't any reasons to be cynical about people like us: we know them better than anybody!  But there's an important difference: while power may chart a predictable course, we don't have to. So I believe it is always to our benefit to keep an open mind in matters concerning each other, and to try to contribute to one tendency as opposed to another.

Many possibilities evolve behind what we think we know, or what we think we can see.  In this sense, cynicism is important, but limiting: it confines us to ourselves.  I think this is why in most traditions of wisdom, salvation or transcendence happens in community with others.  We can never place on ourselves the expectation of saving others, but we should never rule out the possibility that they might be saving us.


Anonymous said...

You can't just shoot from the hip at everything.

Says who? (-m?)

Honestly, though, doesn't it depend on the cynic's intent? Seems you're arguing for the Holistic Man and his keeping cynicism in check, but what about The True Cynic? Such people exist, have existed since the first knuckledraggers contemplated the futility of social organizations!

I think it better to say, leave cynicism to the cynics. It's not believable, and not compelling or magnetic, to witness a kind soul being cynical -- no more than it would be to see Donald Trump come onto The Apprentice and announce that he is going to live in poverty in a cave, and give all his money to Haiti.

Regardless, I was thinking of some of our past conversations when I posted something earlier this AM about Benjamin Kunkel's review of a couple of David Harvey books. I still can't figure out whether I agree with Kunkel.

Richard said...

Kunkel's essay is excellent.

Anonymous said...

The cynic's questions ("who benefits?" for example) are useful especially when looking at political leaders. But there are greater forces working than an individual's motivations. Often the choices seem limited and personal benefit may be less important than the cynic might think. What is clear to me though, cynic or not, is that Barak Obama has a great deal more say in what goes on in my world than I do in his and he has many more paths available to him (options on the table, he might say) than he lets on. We need to keep an open mind about these larger forces and unspoken options regardless of any particular benefit.


JRB said...

Here's the link. Thanks, guys.

Charles F., Drip:

I don't know a lot about it, but I feel like the original Cynics don't have a lot in common our "cynics" of today. What I understand about nihilism is kind of the same. Perhaps Mr. Crow or someone else could illuminate.

Bruce said...

This is not in direct reference to your post, but I'm wondering if you have ever read the work of Andre Gorz?

Anonymous said...

I was certainly speaking about cynics in the modern sense which I think means looking for personal benefit as motive. Some opportunity for personal gain exists in most cases, but I'm not convinced that any individual's motivation makes all that much difference. The way things work, no one would be in a position to benefit by authority were they not the sort of person who could be so influenced. Every corner shopkeeper has monopoly on his mind, right?


Beth E. said...

Thanks for posting the link to the LRB review....excellent piece.

ya know, Murray Bookchin called a lot of this (adding the ecological dimension to Marx) forever ago. Check out "The Ecology of Freedom", etc.

Anonymous said...


Well if you take Diogenes as the exemplar and origin of Cynicism, there would be a stark difference: Diogenes eschewed the comforts of his then-modern society, and lived as a gadfly intentionally.

Perhaps a good chunk of those who might be called or might fancy themselves "cynics" today are guilty of bourgeoisie membership. I'd say most of them don't understand cynicism any more than they understand irony, and they employ one, the other or both at random to merely be provocative, to add to their social cachet in whatever circles they inhabit.

One of Diogenes' points was that people ARE more like dogs, and would be wiser to live accordingly, instead of surrounding themselves with "luxuries" that provide only a false palliative for life's anxieties.

Jack Crow said...


If we understand that Antisthenes and Diogenes were deliberately styling themselves as curs, as outcast dogs, their conduct and methodology (Cynicism doesn't really become a philosophical waste of time until the Stoics got a hold of it and added Romish dross) might make more sense. They were enemies of the first Western iterations of civilization, especially of the early Platonic form which has colonized our heads for two and half millennia.

The original Cynics weren't modern cynics, like Alanis Morissette isn't and never had been ironic. Somewhere along the way, the reasoned, principled rejection of comfort, power and privilege in service of a "good life" was lost, so that cynicism became associated with world weary rejection of good intentions, noble purpose and everyday life.

Or something like that.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, being a Cynic today would be hard to pull off. Living in a bathtub on Pennsylvania Avenue, shining lights in daylight looking for an honest man or biting friends to save them, would get you some time in the pen today.


JRB said...

In defense of Alanis Morissette, I don't think she ever claimed she was ironic.

I believe she clearly stated that irony is like "some good advice -- that you just cannot take; or, perhaps "a free ride, when in fact you have already ponied up the dough."

Now tell me: Is that not ironic? Do you not think?

Jack Crow said...

I think Alanis confused "disappointing for someone with fame and money" with "ironic."

Anonymous said...

I like this thread and I thank Jack for giving a more thorough answer than my brief tour of my own memory of Diogenes and his view.