A Note on Cynicism

Once again, I am working this summer for the same program I do every summer, but this year at the main site in Baltimore. I love the program, but every year I find that it becomes increasingly and unnecessarily regimented, stifling, and even oppressive in its policies. In many ways, I see it as a microcosm of a larger cultural problem that we now face in America; I'll briefly explain why.

There are two related issues here. The first is seen in an increased willingness on the part of Americans to undergo "minor inconveniences" and follow more and more questionable rules, almost invariably justified on the basis of greater security.

When I showed up to orientation this year, I was told by our site director that our primary task here is to ensure the safety of our students. In a word, this is bullshit. Granted, safety is a sort of prerequisite for carrying forth other goals, but it should only ever have an instrumental value. Safety for safety's sake is the guiding principle of cowards, of those who seek to avoid death rather than to live life.

Spinoza writes, simply but truly, "the free person thinks of nothing less than of death." He well understood that any democratic society cannot operate on the basis of fear, but must rely on fear's unfortunately weaker cousin, hope. (I should argue this point further, but my time is limited. Suffice it to say that fear is a potent passion, especially opaque to the light of reason.)

But, unfortunately, the upper-middle class parents of suburbia today are afraid to expose their children to any kind of unpleasantness whatsoever. Children are to be housed in a protective bubble, free from the countless evils of the world that could harm their fragile "self-esteem". So there is to be no cursing, no sexual language or behavior of any kind, no teasing even with good intent, no roughhousing or horseplay, no social exclusion, no disruptive behavior--no fun, no creativity, no growth. The notion that hardship can build character has been lost, especially to otherwise well-meaning people--to self-identified liberals in particular.

So, on the one hand, we have a society of people obsessed with security, willing to follow even the most arbitary and oppressive rule as long as it is said to guarantee some modicum of protection for their lives--even though they be lives hardly worth living. This is bad enough, but the other side of this is perhaps worse: a pervasive and destructive cynicism, even--or especially--among the youth of our nation.

Granted, this is not a good time for progressive causes. November 4, 2004, was devestating to many, including myself. But this omnipresent cynicism among my peers, colleagues, and students merely fuels the problem. We have lost sight of the possibility of collective efforts having any kind of power or influence. So we see, for instance, organized labor is practically in its death throes, more and more people live alone, fewer and fewer exercise their right to vote.

Of course isolated individuals cannot successfully fight city hall or corporate America--but isolated individuals have never been able to accomplish much in the first place. The great movers and shakers of the world rely on so many others to carry forth their efforts, but this is often ignored in a culture in which individuality and the illusion of independence are worshipped as gods. I think it may have been Newton, that great scientific revolutionary, who said, to paraphrase, if I see farther than others, it is because I stand upon the shoulders of giants (e.g., Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, et al.).

I am young, and often sarcastic and snarky. My sense of humor is dark, macabre at times. I criticize more than I construct. I have a tendency of seeing the negative side of things. I do have a sense of "how the world works" well enough not to be naive.

But I am no cynic. I am not apathetic. I will not sit idly by and let incremental changes--each of which taken singly are indeed but trifles--compound until they dismantle the guiding principles and values of our culture.

And so, when I work this job and I find year after year more policies that subvert the genuine goals and ideals of this program, that stifle creativity and distract us from our project of educating young people, I will not "mellow" as my peers often suggest. I won't "chill out" when it would not be so difficult to come together with others who share my distaste for these trends, to find some means of collectively expressing it to those individuals who set the rules for this simultaneously anarchic and bureaucratic institution--I have coined the term "chaocracy" as the best way to describe it--and perhaps having an effect on things.

There's a lot of background I'm leaving out here--former employess of the program will have a sense of what I'm getting at--but my time here is precious, and I must end this entry. As I age, I understand more and more why idealism and optimism are usually confined to the young. But I shudder to think what would happen if even they lost their sense of wonder and hope for a better world.

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