There's a time and place for every ism. And right now, cynicism is fashionable.Actually, having come into this world in 1971, I don't remember a time when cynicism was not the in-thing. It just seems to be at an all-time high at the moment - to the point where it's not just popular but obligatory, though I can't provide you with any longitudinal studies to back me up.
The lament is not a new one and it certainly won't be the last either. And a good argument can be made for why we need cynics. They are the yang to the ying of American optimism.
Cynicism can be traced to Diogenes, who didn't have quite the following of Socrates, Plato or Aristotle, but managed to make a name for himself in his own right. They called his followers "dogs," and they didn't mean it in the "that's my friend/homie" sense of the modern vernacular either. The ancient Greeks used the word kynikos (cynikos), which literally means "dog-like."
According to my trusty Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, Diogenes' dogs were "ancient Greek philosophers who sneered at wealth and personal comfort." Robert Hendrickson's Word and Phrase Origins says the Original Cynics "believed that independent virtue formed the sole basis for happiness, scorning freedom, honor, art, learning, health, riches - life itself. Insolently self-righteous, this small but influential band of ascetics derided all social customs, even sleeping in kennel-like quarters."
And Diogenes was hard-core with it, too. He went around begging, like Buddha, and when he was asked why he was begging, Diogenes said: "To get practice in being refused." That's that Old School Cynicism. It's what Alexander Pope was talking about when he said: "‘Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed' was the ninth beatitude."
There's something to be said for classical cynicism. But the stuff many of us are on now is a bad drug. And I'm hooked, even though I know where this road leads - right to Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Somewhere along the way a cynic went from being someone who sneers at wealth and illegitimate power to being a know-it-all who snarls sarcastically at everything and everyone in the guise of realism.
But a funny thing happened. My wife and I were in the capital of cynicism last week, ya know, Washington, D.C. With family and lots of friends in the area, I've been there many times before. But this was the first time my wife had actually set foot in the city. So we did the tourist thing, on foot (D.C. is a great place to walk).
We hit up all the monuments and museums we could in two days. And when we came back home, I realized something shifted inside me. I just can't say exactly when or where. It wasn't when I stood on one of my favorite thinking spots in the world, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. It wasn't when I visited the Vietnam Memorial wall. And it wasn't in seeing the many involuntary Diogenes sleeping on the streets of downtown D.C.
I don't even think it was in seeing the creative mind on display in the museums, or encountering so many genuinely nice people - many of whom were government workers or public service employees.
I think it happened when we were walking up F Street toward 14th Street behind these two guys in suits chatting about politics. I don't remember what they said but it was all cynicism, with a heavy dose of fatalism. It was revolting. And I loved every minute of it.
But enough already, I thought to myself. This is far too commonplace. Cliché. And I'm an addict. Why can't you be firmly planted in reality without being cynical? Isn't it possible to be skeptical without being cynical?
Nowadays, it's easy to be cynical. It's endemic on the right, pervasive on the left and everywhere in the center. But now I can't get Sartre's voice out of my head: "Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth."
Truth is supposed to inspire; not make you want to disengage. Back in dog days of Diogenes, being cynical was hip. Cutting-edge. Needed. Now, it's not only merely popular and counterproductive, it's boring and predictable. Can't say I'm going cold turkey, but isn't the first step to recovery admitting you have a problem?
I've got to get in touch with an old acquaintance, Paul Rogat Loeb, who just re-issued his anti-cynical book, Soul of a Citizen. Maybe he knows of a good 12-step program. Either that or I'm going to have to up my cynical game and get committed like Diogenes.