Cynicism is easy. Changing the culture is hard.


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.

Solnit writes:

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.)


  1. Jeff Mclarty says:

    In the last post, you seemed to be saying that in order to win, the Democrats must first, as Solnit writes, “shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries”. But I think I get it.

    I have been often guilty of accusing Democrats far and wide of giving away half the farm by not adopting a position of “purity and perfection” as a starting point for any negotiation. I still believe that to be true, but you remind me of the recent history of the GOP.

    They have a long history of doing just what I insist the Democrats do; start from a position of unmovable purity and then move incrementally only after concessions are guaranteed. It is basic negotiation.

    Where the GOP went wrong, is that they presented this face not only to the opposition, but to their own partisans. They embraced the Tea Baggers thinking they could either live up to the hype, or that the people would see the positioning for what it was and be ok with incremental steps in the right direction. That did not turn out to be the case, and over time those Republican realists have been replaced with true believers, who also are crazy and can’t govern a scrabble game, much less the country.

    All of which puts me in a quandary. I feel like the Bernie Sanders phenomenon has made a permanent change in the culture, incremental though it may be. But it is hard not to also be cynical (naive or not) because Damn it all, the corruption is real, and we should not have to spend the entirety of human history accepting that as just part of the deal.

    It also is a real thing that once the establishment Democrats win they will try to take steps to prevent any further Bernie Sanders insurrections. One step leftward, two steps back.

    The only other option seems to be to risk tearing it all apart, and I’m very afraid that the Bernie Sanders hard liners will do just that. I might even join them. The last thing any supporter of Bernie wants to hear at this particular juncture is “take what you got and be happy”, because most of them seem to believe that, except for the corrupt collusion of the Party, the Press and the shady way our votes are counted in general we could have had it all.

    I guess my main question is, which was more impactful, the bus boycotts or the riots that came later?

  2. Tom Sullivan says:

    Nobody’s saying “take what you got and be happy.” The Women’s Sufferage Movement lasted 70 years. The celebrated Long March took over a year and was a strategic retreat that set the stage for eventual victory 15 years later. The Civil Rights Movement began after WWI and took a decade and a half to win its victories. The crushing defeat of Goldwater generated Movement Conservatism that thirty years later led to Bush II. Those kind of lasting successes take commitment longer than a single presidential campaign. I wrote here:

    I used to describe George W. Bush as a Jack Russell terrier playing tug of war with a knotted rope. Once he sank his teeth into something, he simply would not let go. You could lift him bodily off the ground and watch his butt cut circles in the air as he wrestled with his end of it. But in the end you would tire of the game first, let go, and he’d retire triumphantly to his doggy bed with his prize. I was never sure myself whether I meant that as a cut or a compliment.

    This how the right wins and we lose. The thing is, conservatives often beat the left, not simply with money, but with sheer relentlessness. They play tortoise. Liberals choose hare.

    – See more at: http://scrutinyhooligans.us/2015/02/24/relentless/?wptouch_page_template=wptouch-archives#sthash.SptsojV7.dpuf