Friday, August 17, 2012

Some thoughts for the left on hope, cynicism, imagination and power

Today one of the regular commenters here Bill tweeted me a link to this article by Clay Claiborne. It certainly got the tired old synapses in my brain going. I wanted to write something coherent about it. But the synapses haven't settled down enough for that. So I'm just going to expose you to a bit of my stream of consciousness. First, here's Claiborne:
For someone sitting on the very edge of survival, hope is extremely important. Often it is only hope, sometimes even false hope, that allows him to make it to the next day... Cynicism is deadly for someone on the edge of survival. Even in the darkest night, he cannot afford to be cynical. That cynicism just might push him over the edge.

Cynicism is a privilege. When practiced by those in a position to do it well, cynicism allows them to criticize the oppressor and sympathize with the oppressed without ever having to move out of their comfort zone. In fact, one of the main objects of this practice of cynicism is to make the cynic more comfortable. He may not, as yet, be wanting for much personally, but he can see the growing misery all around him so he has to think or do something. The cynic solves this dilemma by thinking that nothing can be done!

Hope is entirely a question of subjective attitude. So is cynicism, but cynicism pulls off its master trick by masquerading as objective reality. The cynic always tends to think things really are the way he thinks they are. Time and again you will see him substitute his subjective understanding, even when he knows it is limited(!) for objective reality.

In the United States, this type of cynicism has gained a strong hold on the left in the past decade or more...

Since the cynic is not looking for ways to attack the problem but for reasons to carry on as usual, it suits this scenario to make the New World Order, the Illuminati, or whoever, virtually all-powerful and quite capable of tricks we aren’t even aware of.

The people, on the other hand, are sheep.

Cynicism springs eternal, so the cynic carries on. He goes to anti-war rallies, he recycles, he does whatever he thinks is the right thing to do, and since he expects things to stay the same or get worst, he doesn’t question whether it is the most effective thing to do.
There is so much wisdom packed up in those few paragraphs, I hardly know where to start. But for those of you like me - who have run up against this kind of cynicism on the left -  I can imagine that it speaks very clearly.

Cynicism is indeed a privilege for those who can afford to embrace it. Those who can't have no option but to hope.

And look at what he did in that last paragraph...cynicism also tends to wed itself to ideology over pragmatism. We do what we've always done regardless of whether it works. Since failure doesn't really affect me in my comfort, it is always an option. 

So my thoughts went to one of my favorite quotes about hope.
What is hope? It is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is the suspicion that the overwhelming brutality of fact that oppresses us and represses us is not the last word. It is the hunch that reality is more complex than the realists want us to believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual...

- Rubem Alves
And then to contemplating imagination.

All power comes from the barrel of imagination.
Al Giordano, February 10, 2011

Since cynicism is the refuge of victims, power fueled by an imagination unleashed by hope is the antidote to cynicism.

14 comments:

  1. WOW! Genius, Smartypants. I never understood cynicism before I read this. Now I totally get it. Thank you.

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  2. I've thought this for a long time. Cynicism is the perfect excuse for the lazy person to abandon the hard work inherent in getting anything done, and instead to sit on the sidelines, feeling and acting superior to those who are doing what they can to achieve something.

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    1. Exactly. Cynics are the people who post stuff like, "Wake up, sheep, nothing you do will ever make a difference because our corporate overlords... yada, yada, yada..."
      Lefty cynics are the reason that "liberal" has become a bad word.

      Maike

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  3. Great piece, SP. Also, I wonder if you checked out the discussion on the North Star page. Now, that's the LEFT! I love it.

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    1. I just went back and read the comments. Here's one thought I had:

      In my line of work the big theme these days is "best practices." The idea is that the more fealty you have in reproducing something that has worked elsewhere - the better your outcomes will be.

      I personally don't buy it. That's because what I know from my own experience is that best practices can be a guideline - but they can NEVER substitute for the quality of the staff who are implementing them and their responsiveness to the client they are dealing with at the moment.

      You many wonder how I apply that. What I miss in many of the kinds of discussions I see about political theory is the importance of the quality of people - especially those in leadership. I care about that about as much as I care about the specifics of what they set out to do.

      That's a hard thing to grasp in this globalized world. But to not grapple with it as an important part of the discussion seems to leave a vacuum in our understanding about how positive change actually happens.

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    2. The thing about "best practices," Ms. Pants, is that so few of the business people using that term understand the point behind it. You're right, their idea is to simply replicate processes and procedures that have been successful elsewhere, but they rarely take the time (or haven't the insight) to study the reasons WHY those best practices actually worked for the organizations WHERE they were used. And the result is they're puzzled when they don't achieve the same successes in their similar but different contexts.

      The practices of 'best individuals' -- the high quality leaders and staff you identify as critical -- are what should really be meant by the term. And in that case, it's a general understanding rather than the specifics that is far more important. And that, I think is where cynicism and hope come into play; it's the sincere belief, the *conviction* of each of those best individuals that they CAN make positive changes and that they CAN be effective and that they WILL achieve their individual objectives to move the organization forward.

      The cynic believes that the right set of rules would solve all the problems (and those are never the existing set, which "rig the system" in favor of the existing bases of power). But there are no rules to reality; it's an open network of systems. Working within each relevant context is not an optional part of existence.

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    3. In my work we've only gotten as far in understanding "best individuals" by saying "we know them when we see them." It's damn hard to quantify it beyond that. I'm not sure that I'm ready to believe that hope and conviction are enough.

      What I do know is that you're absolutely correct that the right set of rules is definitely NOT the solution.

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    4. One more response here, and I'll quit sniping, sit back and enjoy more of your truly excellent commentary...

      I agree that hope and conviction are not enough. Skill, knowledge, creativity, hard work, etc. are essential as well. But if you don't think you're making a difference, that you even CAN make a difference, it's a lot harder to see available solutions. To stretch an analogy, you may be a powerful vehicle for change, but if you think you're only spinning your wheels in the mud, then the direction you're facing is kind of meaningless.

      I guess what I'm sort of rambling toward here (and forgive me for lack of focus and profligate analogizing), is that 'best individuals' all have the same sort of "North Star" you like to quote POTUS talking about, and they base their practices on fidelity to their particular lodestar(s).

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    5. PLEASE don't feel the need to stop. I find this fascinating!

      The "North Star" - YES! That begins to really get at it.

      Where I go with that is that they're strong enough to not have to simply feed their own ego but are able to hitch that star to something bigger/higher.

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    6. I have encountered the "best practices" discourse and found that a given "best practice" could work as a really good suggestion but that it was always down to me to apply it well. The right has in all kinds of microcosmic ways--and maybe I'm seeing a non-political issue through a political lens, incorrectly--has in the last decades tried to introduce a type of centralization into our institutions under the rubric of "leadership." I always felt this was a US version of the Fuhrer Principle, as a principle.

      One of the issues I find little discussed--though discussed increasingly--is the transformation of conservatism from a Burkean anti-idealist (loosely-put, maybe) ideology into its current idealist, "principle"-oriented form. Burke didn't appreciate Jacobins, but Ryan is nothing if not a Jacobin. A dishonest one, to boot.

      We create a series of experts in fields, abstracted from the actual workings of institutions, who create case-studies, data-driven of course, mimicking empirical science in experimental conditions very unlike actual lab science. We get results which indicate that practice a works better than b. Your performance review reflects your adherence to practice a. This is not a recipe for a healthy, growing culture.

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  4. Oh my goodness. Now this is one important article. I'll be spreading it as much as possible and I hope those with Twitter accounts will do the same. By the way, I follow Mr. Giordano on Facebook, and after some time where he's reported that he lost a little motivation in life, just recently he's reporting that he's starting to snap out of the funk and getting back on the horse again. Just in time for election season. Great work, smarty!

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  5. Reminds me of this, as does our President:
    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
    Theodore Roosevelt quotes (American 26th US President (1901-09), 1858-1919)

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  6. Excellent essay: the last line is inspirational: could be our motto.

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  7. "Cynicism is a privilege."

    Finally someone realizes it! And I would add that privilege is a cynicism.

    I have always considered Postmodernism as an attack against reality. But now I realize it isn't that simple. Postmodernism has set up a strawman in which unreal narratives are stereotyped as myths, i.e., stories of the past. Even I, who prides myself on seeing through the artifices of pop-culture, have been led to forget the other type of narrative, imaginations, stories of the future.

    As Rubem Alves said, there is indeed more to reality than we realists want people to believe. But that is merely because we recognize that such belief is an individual right, and we do not want to force our personal version of it onto others. Postmodernists have rigged the debate so that such beliefs are expressed in terms of history, thereby pitting fact against myth, and cultures against each other. They limited discussion of the future to prophecies handed down from the past. As such, every idea brought to the discussion bears the unnecessary baggage of identifying something about the person speaking it. And thus the prejudice stirred up prevents an agreement from being reached.

    However, imagination deals only with the future, not according to any pre-existing prophecy, but according to a brand new culture being woven on the street from the stuff of dreams. And if there is any higher power, that is the only way It can speak to us.

    Therefore, let us hope that the Moral March encourages the development of all that is sorely missing from the world's ideas, in terms of social justice, ecumenism, climate control, cleaner energy, honestly speculative theoretical physics, etc.

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