Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reflections on Cynicism and Hope

In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama returned to a theme he talks about quite often.
But my hope is that over time that debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if … all we are talking about is based from fear. Over the short term that may seem wise—cynicism always seems a little wise—but it may lead Israel down a path in which it’s very hard to protect itself — as a Jewish-majority democracy.
You might recall that last summer, the President's stump speech always concluded with something like this:
So just remember this: The hardest thing to do is to bring about real change. It's hard. You’ve got a stubborn status quo. And folks in Washington, sometimes they’re focused on everything but your concerns. And there are special interests and there are lobbyists, and they’re paid to maintain the status quo that's working for somebody. And they’re counting on you getting cynical, so you don’t vote and you don’t get involved, and people just say, you know what, none of this is going to make a difference. And the more you do that, then the more power the special interests have, and the more entrenched the status quo becomes.

You can't afford to be cynical. Cynicism is fashionable sometimes. You see it all over our culture, all over TV; everybody likes just putting stuff down and being cynical and being negative, and that shows somehow that you're sophisticated and you're cool. You know what -- cynicism didn’t put a man on the moon. Cynicism didn’t win women the right to vote. Cynicism did not get a Civil Rights Act signed. Cynicism has never won a war. Cynicism has never cured a disease. Cynicism has never started a business. Cynicism has never fed a young mind.

I do not believe in a cynical America; I believe in an optimistic America that is making progress.
Of course, this isn't something President Obama just started talking about recently. Back in 2005 when he was still a Senator from Illinois, he wrote this:
I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
The idea of cynicism as a tool for "those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government" is something that former Republican Congressional staff member Mike Lofgren confirmed for us back in 2011.
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
But the President is right...cynicism can sound wise and be very tempting to embrace. That's why - for me - it was the words of Clay Claiborne that finally ended it's appeal.
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!
Interestingly enough, it was only a few years ago that I came to the conclusion that it was my optimism that was fueled by my white middle class privilege. But that was all based on the kind of false hope that Tim Wise wrote about.
Sometimes I think we both oversell and undersell the notion of fighting for social justice. Oversell in that we focus so much on “winning” the battle in which we’re engaged, that we often create false hope, and when as often happens, victory is limited or not at all, those in whom we nurtured the hope feel spent, unable to rise again to the challenge.

Yet we undersell the work too, in that we often neglect to remind folks that there is redemption in struggle itself, and that “victory,” though sought, is not the only point, and is never finally won anyway. Even when you succeed in obtaining a measure of justice, you’re always forced to mobilize to defend that which you’ve won. There is no looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle.
That is why Brazilian theologian and philosopher Rubem Alvez defines hope like this:
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...

...So, let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see.

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