Most politicians and their followers are not cynical enough about politics. They hate the players but not the game. Unlike me, they are cynical sentimentalists, i.e. they idealize politics yet are cynical towards any suggestion human beings should be set free from political control.
Though it may smack of paradox, I consider myself a hopeful cynic – hopeful in man’s spirit but not his politics. Accordingly, my political cynicism flows from my disappointed sentimentality.
Most politicians are not cynical enough about politics. They hate the players but not the game.As Oscar Wilde wrote in Lady Windermere’s Fan, a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing” and a sentimentalist “is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.” Together the two bring harmony.
Torn apart, they are blind in their own unique way, and in this way, the 2016 political season has rendered much of the American populace sightless. Some wish to present this presidential election as a clear-cut contest between cynical pachyderms and sentimental jackasses, but the truth, to steal another line from Wilde, is rarely so pure and never so simple.
As much as they will deny it, political factions are motivated by a mix of cynicism and sentimentality, sometimes within the very same individuals.
Even the most sentimental nincompoops – those who shed tears or fall into fits of hosannas upon hearing the most platitudinous political speech – turn cynical and stone-faced when confronted by their political opponents.
Even the most cynical demagogues – those who spit piss and vinegar in response to the most innocuous statements from their enemies – turn sentimental and misty-eyed in the presence of a president they love.
It seems one politico’s hopes are another politico’s fears. They appraise their enemy’s price as too high yet see absurd value in their champions.
The Donald’s Sentimentality
For example, even Donald Trump is not cynical enough about politics. Trump may very well be cynical and downright churlish towards, well, almost anyone (even babies) on any given day, but he is certainly a believer in the need for strong government leadership. Trump has, indeed, boosted his popularity by stoking the flames of resentment, but the essence of this resentment is the betrayed sentimentality of “the people.”
Trump and his supporters idealize America just as much as the next group. Holding true to a golden age image of the country, they are disappointed by an ever-changing world that continually shatters their “perfect” picture of the nation. They are cynical of what they see as “un-American,” and they have hitched their hopes to Trump’s politics to save their culture as they see it.
Thus, Trump’s slogan may not be “Burn America Down” as Democrats would have you believe, but he is certainly a flaming nationalist. His program may not be great for many people living in America, but “America” is, indeed, the ultimate standard of good and evil on the Trump train. One cannot be cynical about politics qua politics and a nationalist at the same time. No, nationalism is for the teary-eyed evangelicals and patriotic bomb throwers, Trump being the latter. But how about the former?
Enter Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton, like most progressives, prides herself on her forward-looking and optimistic approach. She and her ilk apparently claim to loathe cynicism. As Senator Cory Booker said at the Democratic National Convention surrounded by a friendly mob of fellow sentimentalists, “Cynicism is a refuge for cowards.” Of course, by “cynicism” Cory, Hillary, and their do-gooder cronies mean anyone who does not wish to consent to their progressive plans to save the world. To hear them speak about peace, love, and community one would think such things were impossible without the imposition of the state.
What makes progressives so sentimental about people using state power yet cynical towards people acting voluntarily, I will never truly know.What makes progressives so sentimental about people using state power yet cynical towards people acting voluntarily, I will never truly know, but I suspect they do not trust the motives of many of their fellow men, especially not Donald Trump. Their assessment of Trump may be correct, but their appraisal of their own sentiments is utterly lacking. Their worship at the altar of state power seems to have turned them blind to the ironies of the “progressive” history and project.
For instance, of all the ways Hillary could take down Trump’s fear-mongering, she chose to say this in her acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention:“Well, a great Democratic President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, came up with the perfect rebuke to Trump more than eighty years ago, during a much more perilous time. ’The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”
Yes, Hillary, how wise of you to quote a man who brought us Japanese internment camps, turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, and set the price of gold based on “lucky numbers.” But, I suppose, since FDR is a demigod in the progressive civic religion, his cynicism and quackery can be overlooked, as can the ugly, cynical history of progressive policies such as the minimum wage.
Again, if only Hillary, Donald and their respective acolytes were more cynical about politics qua politics, we would all be better off. But what about the most cynical bunch in American politics today, the alt-right meme team? How could a group of folks who “pretend” to be Nazis ever be helped by more political cynicism?
And why would one ever want to pretend to be a Nazi anyway?
Pretend Nazis Need Cynicism Too
Enter Charles Bukowski:
“At L.A. City College just before World War II, I posed as a Nazi. I hardly knew Hitler from Hercules and cared less. It was just that sitting in class and hearing all the patriots preach how we should go over and do the beast in, I grew bored. I decided to become the opposition. I didn't even bother to read up on Adolf, I simply spouted anything that I felt was evil or maniacal.
However, I really didn't have any political beliefs. It was a way of floating free.”
This is how Bukowski’s short story, “Politics”, begins, and his reasons for his posing as a Nazi – ”boredom” and “floating free” – sound quite similar to those prescribed to the alt-right “meme team” by that frivolous troll, Milo Yiannopoulos, and his colleague, Allum Bokhari, in their crash course on the alt-right:
These young rebels, a subset of the alt-right, aren’t drawn to it because of an intellectual awakening, or because they’re instinctively conservative. Ironically, they’re drawn to the alt-right for the same reason that young Baby Boomers were drawn to the New Left in the 1960s: because it promises fun, transgression, and a challenge to social norms they just don’t understand.
If this parallel continues into the future, things will probably not end well, at least not with mere lulz.
As Bukowski later relays in the story, his Nazi antics earned him disciples, but his acolytes took the whole charade much more seriously than he. After stumbling upon a Communist speaker outside of campus, one of his followers approached him with a bag of rotten tomatoes. Upon being told to put the tomatoes away, his follower said, “I wish they were hand grenades.”
“It occurred to me suddenly that my disciples hadn't been listening to the speaker, or even if they had been, nothing he had said would matter,” writes Bukowski, “Their minds were made up. Most of the world was like that… I lost control of my disciples that day, and walked away as they started hurling their rotten tomatoes.”
The alt-right don't want to get rid of the establishment; they want to replace it.I must hand it to the alt-right trolls – they are quite creative and prolific and, at times, hilarious in their cynical pose – but there is a difference between political cynicism and a general cynicism about the culture at large. One must be careful not to let those rotten tomatoes turn into hand grenades. Sadly, the alt-right purveyors of “ironic bigotry” may think they are simply having a little cynical fun, but their actions seem directed only towards the political establishment without rejecting the whole paradigm of political action.
They don’t want to get rid of the establishment; they want to replace it. In particular, if one is to fight, say, the excesses of political correctness for the sake of liberty (a worthy endeavor in my opinion,) the focus should be on neutering the “political” aspects of that equation rather than letting basic human decency fall into the abyss of reactionary nonsense or a babyish nihilism, all the while serving the ends of just another political faction.
Politics Pollutes Culture
Yes, politics may often be downstream from culture as Andrew Breitbart said, but it can also pollute the river of culture if allowed to become too permeating. Once politics comes to define a people, all that is left is an impending battle over whose culture will be imposed through the power of the state. In the face of such a looming war, it is understandable that people often despair only to hurl invective and material threats towards “the others” seen as the source of their angst. In such a world dominated by political power, it is understandable that politicos see anyone who is cynical about their projects as a threat to human solidarity.
But the true root of the problem is not the other nor political cynicism; it is the lust to dominate and control others within each of us. The tyrant in you is the tyrant in me, and if we are not careful, even our so-called reactions against tyranny can mutate into movements to destroy something beautiful for destruction’s sake.
What if we all become hopeful cynics – cynical of man's lust to dominate his fellows, yet lovers of man all the same?That said, we should recognize even our enemies’ capacity for creative action and fellowship in their darkest hours. If such qualities can provide solace, even in sardonic and sadistic forms, to a select few in their most despairing moments, what can creative action and fellowship provide when we direct our cynical pose toward politics in general instead of just our opponents? What if we all become hopeful cynics – cynical of man’s lust to dominate his fellows, yet lovers of man all the same?
If I am being honest, I do not know what this pose would bring about, but this is exactly why hope is a virtue. Bukowski might disagree; he wrote in his short story, “I promise you, this will hardly be the last war. As soon as one enemy is eliminated somehow another is found. It's endless and meaningless. There's no such thing as a good war or a bad war.” Maybe he’s right, and the war of all against all is inevitable, but I hope not. Nor do I wish to save the world. That is much too idealistic. As our dirty old man poet says elsewhere in his novel Women, “You begin saving the world by saving one man at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.”
Maybe, just maybe, each of us can first save ourselves and then others, one by one, with a hope in the uncertain beyond for man’s society if not his politics.