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Cynical about cynicism

The whole world is falling apart, but we've forgotten how to be good-spirited cynics.



The only people I know who aren't cynical are the most annoying head-in-the-sand Pollyannas, people who spam kitten videos and use "partner" as a verb.

I mean, these are trying times---the economic, resource and climate challenges we're facing would be enormous, even if we had the very best imaginable political and managerial classes, but, unfortunately, we're also having a crisis of politics and management.

Moreover, many of the problems we face are the creation of the very people who control the show: the global financial collapse, for example, was the direct result of the failure of American regulators to properly control the industry they were charged with overseeing, and with bankers creating absurd financial instruments that they themselves couldn't understand, nor even keep track of.

I can't think of an institution that hasn't failed in deeply fundamental ways: yes, the media, but also churches, universities, the PR industry, oil companies, airlines and on and on and on.

How could you not be cynical?

But lately, I've been getting cynical about cynicism. It's not that cynicism is unwarranted---like, say, financial regulation, cynicism plays an essential part in our modern society. It's just that, like financial regulation, we're going about our cynicism all wrong. Like the other institutional failures, our cynicism has been corrupted by self-interest, a failure to think of long-term consequences and plain old-fashioned meanness.

Look, the human condition is ridiculous. We fuck things up: it's who we are. Shakespeare had it right, and so did The Wire---the best art shows how fundamental human conflicts, both internal and across society, play out tragically on the large scale.

Still, even though it seems like in our present situation we're about to careen right off the cliff, and even though in the end some flavour of failure is a given, there are degrees of fuckupedness: here and there, things are marginally better, maybe only for a while, but still, better for that while. Sometimes we manage, after a fashion, to take care of the frail and vulnerable a little better than we do at other times. Sometimes we build something of a civil society, with values that, while corruptible, keep us on an even keel in a storm. And of course, the opposite is also true: sometimes we aren't just the usual fucked up, but majorly fucked up, and millions go to gas chambers.

We can go about our cynicism in a couple of ways. We can laugh at the human condition, which includes us cynics, fucking up things just like everyone else; from that comes satire, and a good-spirited understanding of the foibles of people who can't help themselves from being people, and who are reflective of the larger ridiculousness of humanity. Or, we can be mean old cusses, thinking we have a personal exemption from human fuckedupedness, and special knowledge about the world that eludes those stupid people we're being cynical about.

The mean-spirited cynicism ends up in hatred of the institutions that, however fallible, are necessary for civilization. We're seeing that expressed in the US presently, with self-destructive attacks on government that might actually bring about the end of everything good in western civilization. Its ultimate expression is Somalia.

I worry that my Twitter liveblogging of Halifax council @TwitCoast sometimes falls into the mean-spirited cynicism category, but I like to think that my liveblogging is rooted in the good-natured desire to help better inform people, bring about civic engagement and, here and there, maybe suggest some solutions. No doubt I fail more often than I'd like.

I'll use just one example to further illustrate the point: the council pay raise that has become cause celebre of the Chronicle-Herald. I too think the pay raises were not warranted, but I can't really fault councillors---they did everything right: they left the issue to an independent commission, which, being composed of fallible humans, failed. The correct response is to identify the failures, regroup and try again, move on down the road with one headlight, with a new commission, which also will not get it exactly right, but maybe better than last time.

Instead, it was personalized as an individual councillor failure, and councillors were attacked as greedy sons of bitches.

Let's not be mean old cusses.

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