Cynicism is easy. Changing the culture is hard.By
At Political Animal, Nancy LeTourneau comments on Rebecca Solnit’s essay on cynicism in Harpers. She writes that when Barack Obama entered the White House riding on a message of hope and change, that “the Republican strategy of total obstruction was designed to dampen all that with cynicism about the political process.” Cynicism about the political process is not in short supply in 2016. Hope is. But let’s not give Republicans too much credit.
Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.
Anyone who dares venture onto Facebook or Twitter these days knows the posture. Solnit continues:
If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. But expecting perfection is naïve; failing to perceive value by using an impossible standard of measure is even more so. Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards. They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised — but also because the openness of hope is dangerous, and in war, self-defense comes first. Naïve cynicism is absolutist; its practitioners assume that anything you don’t deplore you wholeheartedly endorse. But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.
Watching the Forward Together movement take on conservative retrenchment in North Carolina with its Moral Monday protests, one is struck by how cynicism has no place there. You take your victories where you can find them and take defeats in stride. People volunteer to be arrested by the dozens, by the hundreds. Nothing much changes week to week. Except one of those Moral Monday arrestees, Terry Van Duyn, is now a Democratic state senator and the Minority Whip.
The struggle is never over. The fight for justice is never complete. Moreover, the goal of the struggle is not necessarily winning every battle:
David Roberts, a climate journalist for Vox, notes that the disparagement of the campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline assumed that the activists’ only goal was to prevent this one pipeline from being built, and that since this one pipeline’s cancellation wouldn’t save the world, the effort was futile. Roberts named these armchair quarterbacks of climate action the Doing It Wrong Brigade. He compared their critique to “criticizing the Montgomery bus boycott because it only affected a relative handful of blacks. The point of civil-rights campaigns was not to free blacks from discriminatory systems one at a time. It was to change the culture.”
The Keystone fight was a transnational education in tar-sands and pipeline politics, as well as in the larger dimensions of climate issues. It was a successful part of a campaign to wake people up and make them engage with the terrifying stakes in this conflict. It changed the culture.
The Campaign for Southern Equality led by Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara led similarly “pointless” protests. Day after day, they led gay and lesbian couples in efforts to get marriage licenses in county offices across the South. It was never about this couple or that one. They meant to change the culture. The fight did not end with Obergefell v. Hodges. Now CSE has turned to fighting North Carolina’s HB2 (#RepealHB2). Later this year Beach-Ferrara will be sworn in as a Democratic county commissioner.
How do you change our politics? The same way you eat an elephant.
Solnit takes on cynics not just as defeatists, but as enablers of what they condemn, “The dismissive ‘it’s all corrupt’ line of reasoning pretends to excoriate what it ultimately excuses.”
Changing the culture is work, and change not always as rapid as with the marriage equality movement. Political change is the same. The two major parties are where they are, in part, because people who joined worked and built their organizations over many decades until they wrote themselves into the political structure of their states and set the rules that preserve their primacy. Cynics who don’t like that want things to be different, but few are willing to do comparable work to build rival organizations over time or to take over those already in place. But they’d love for someone else to custom-build a new party to their specifications and work for decades to make it viable for them, then deliver it to them on a platter. Then they’d join. Maybe. It’s why I keep around here somewhere a copy of the Little Golden Book version of “The Little Red Hen” to use as a prop. Florida’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Rep. Alan Grayson, used to prefer a rubber chicken.
(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)