I’ve always been skeptical of anyone who liked politics. Politicians are crooks and liars, brownnosers and frauds. The world is vast with injustice, and those with the power to fix it are motivated only by self-interest. My Kevlar in the war of modernity has been cynicism. “I’d rather feel anger than feel pleasure,” said Antisthenes, the original cynic. Simone Weil wrote: “How can we distinguish the imaginary from the real in the spiritual realm? We must prefer hell to an imaginary paradise.” Pleasure is fleeting, a drug of the weak; anger comes with low expectations and therefore less disappointment. Disappointment is the natural corollary to excitement, so why be excited at all? You buy a box of cookies and eat the cookies and then the cookies are gone.
There is no better breeding ground for cynicism than a capitalist society. In a 2006 interview with the Russian journalist Ostap Karmodi, David Foster Wallace described how the age of consumerism-by-government had altered America. “You end up with this increasing distortion of American values where everything becomes about money and selling and buying and display,” he said. “We’ve reached a point with the current president and the current administration where corporations have so much influence and so much control and are doing so much damage that’s obvious to everybody that there may be a backlash, a kind of spasmodic reaction against it.”
That counteraction didn’t really happen under Obama, Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding. Consumerism became even more tightly woven into daily life, threaded there by technology. In many ways, the last eight years were ridiculous, a postmodern fragmentation of life out of a Nicholson Baker novel: toilet paper delivered by drone, the salaried position of Snapchat editor, the regulation of emotion by social network. It’s easier to be cynical when everything you do is filtered through screens. Detachment propagates distrust.
At the beginning of his 1999 novel Generation π, the Russian writer Victor Pelevin writes of a time there when “there really was a carefree, youthful generation that smiled in joy at the summer, the sea, and the sun, and chose Pepsi. ... Even the peaceful word ‘designer’ seemed a dubious neologism only likely to be tolerated until the next serious worsening in the international situation.” A life’s course was more or less predetermined: school or army, job, family, old age, death. But then the USSR fell, and the book’s protagonist, a graduate student named Babylen Tatarsky, found himself in an unfamiliar state. “No sooner had eternity disappeared than Tatarsky found himself in the present, and it had turned out that he knew absolutely nothing about the world that had sprung up around him during the last few years.” It is then Tatarsky begins his quest to truly understand reality. (He also starts doing lots of drugs.)
There is no better breeding ground for cynicism than a capitalist society.
As I have written again and again to my wonderful newsletter readers, who for some reason remain subscribed to this newsletter when they could unsubscribe at any moment thanks to MailChimp’s convenient unsubscribe feature, I find a perverse comfort in the horribleness of history. Perhaps it’s my belief that feeling anger rather than pleasure staves off complacency; in any case, it’s a way to cope with reality. But last week I found myself without a volume of history to comport with current events. On Saturday, I walked around my neighborhood doing my normal things, but everything felt grim and pathetic. There was no light in the sky. Sleep wasn’t any respite.
I went to Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, where people had swarmed to wait for a federal judge’s decision to stay the executive order stymieing refugees from coming to the U.S., signed by Donald Trump the day before. My friend made me a sign: “FUCK TRUMP.” I hadn’t been to a protest since Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution, where I saw a woman’s clothes ripped from her body by a mob of men and was pummeled to the ground by a benevolent stranger when someone fired a gun in our direction. I was leery of last week’s Women’s March as a vehicle of feelings rather than ideas — a show of who could protest the best and wear the most pins. But what fomented over the weekend, at JFK and in Cadman Plaza, at other airports across the country, in Battery Park, was not contrived or goalless. The mandate was clear. There was no internecine bickering between groups. In fact there were no groups at all, just a mass of people spontaneously drawn together by a common objective. The stakes had been raised because eternity was gone.
What fomented over the weekend was not contrived or goalless. The mandate was clear.
In an essay for MTV a few weeks ago, Brian Phillips wrote about irony in the age of Trump. Our dominant attitudes — for Gen X, disaffection, and millennials, nihilism — are incongruent with our new reality. Phillips: “One thing that seems clear is that resisting Trump through comedy is going to demand some new technique. Satire so far has been worse than useless. We keep hitting him with what feel to us like devastating haymakers, and they keep kloodging right off him, because jokes that are grounded in reality can't move an audience that doesn't believe in it and can’t hurt a target who thinks he controls it. Irony implies a contrast between what appears to be true and what’s really true; if it’s a contrast between two appearances, irony loses its force.” And what if we have no truth? Irony does not equip us to deal with that situation, either. Phillips, with a poet’s heart, suggests that “decency, clarity, care for one another, and good intentions” could perhaps “renew our commitment to fact, and salvage the conceptual bases of good jokes.”
How should a person be in the age of Trump? When everything is bad, it’s not mentally helpful to think that the bad things are even worse than they appear. Cynicism can be the lye to the grease of neoliberalism, but under schizophrenic despots with fascist tendencies, it doesn’t effectively function as an antidote to the absurd, dangerous, or terrifying. In the Karmodi interview from 2006, a brittle David Foster Wallace conveyed his disdain for cynicism. “One consequence of what American scholars call a postmodern era is that everyone has seen so many performances, that American viewers and American readers, we simply assume now that everything is a performance and it’s strategic and it’s tactical,” he said. “It’s a very sad situation, and I think the chances are that nations go through periods of great idealism and great cynicism, and that America and Europe, at least Western Europe right now, are in periods of great cynicism.” He then went on to make what has turned out to be a salient prediction. “Either American voters will figure out that there need to be some counterbalances to corporate and capitalist forces, and that balance can be achieved through political process. Or we may very well end up here with a form of fascism,” he said.
Ten years later, here we are. The director Errol Morris tweeted yesterday: “I’m disappointed in myself. I like to think of myself as a cynical person. But it turns out I’m wrong. I care deeply and am horrified.” My mode of coping with the world must change because there is no other option for going forward. I suspect I will always be a hater of stupid shit and the powerful, but over the weekend it became clear that it was possible for the locus of power to shift to those presumed to be powerless. Like Babylen Tatarsky, I found myself in the present and I did not recognize the world around me.
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