That famous definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing has come to define this present moment of American politics.
–Bill Moyers and Michael Winship
I know that I criticize you [Bernie Goldberg] and Fox News a lot, but only because you’re truly a terrible, cynical, disingenuous news organization.
To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism–it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
This is an old argument, one that The Nation’s Benjamin DeMott examined in “Seduced by civility,” a 1996 essay subtitled, “Political manners and the crisis of democratic values.” The line back then, which hasn’t changed much in fourteen years, was that progressive politics was caught in a stranglehold of cynicism, meanness and counterproductive finger-pointing.
–Katrina vanden Heuvel
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When I was in tenth grade, I had a habit of making disparaging comments about politicians in my world history class. The teacher got exasperated with me one day and said, “Oh Chuck, you’re just a cynic.” Other kids started calling me a cynic as well. It seemed to make me a little bit dangerous, and for a few weeks I swaggered around with my new identity until it occurred to me that I had no idea what a cynic actually was. So I looked it up in the dictionary and it said, as I recall, “a person who attributes base motives to others.”
That described me accurately enough, but there was also a second definition, something to the effect of, “an adherent of the Cynic philosophy.”
“Wow,” I thought. “There’s a whole philosophy of attributing base motives to others? Why have I not heard of this?”
I charged off to the philosophy section of the library, looked for “cynic” in every index, and discovered a man named Diogenes, who lived in Greece from about 404 B.C.E. to 323 B.C.E. All the anecdotes about his life as the most famous Cynic, all the translations of his sayings, all the assumptions about his meaning were wildly contradictory from source to source–and still are–but somehow I knew I had discovered one of the great human beings ever. I now suspect that all the contradictions occurred because so many of the writers were fans of Plato and Socrates, the two patron saints of bad college professors everywhere, and Diogenes made a point of humiliating them in ancient Athens. A good rule of academic thumb: If your teacher is walking up and down the aisle trying to engage you in Socratic dialogue, the next hour is going to suck the mop.
(The best text I have found on Diogenes and his philosophical descendants is The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy, edited by R. Bracht Branham and Marie-Odile Goulet-Caze.)
Anyway, Diogenes came from a town called Sinope. His father was some kind of banker, and Diogenes started his career as a cynic by either defacing or debasing money. That’s the first big contradiction in different sources. Debasing money means adding base metal to precious metal for the purpose of creating more coins than you could get just from the precious metal. It is an act of greed. Since Diogenes spent the rest of his life with almost no possessions, did nothing for money except beg and was conceded to be ruthlessly honest even by his enemies, I’m guessing that he wasn’t debasing coins.
No, almost certainly, he was defacing coins. There is even archeological evidence for this around Sinope, where coins with the face chiseled off have been discovered. The people of Sinope and, one must assume, Diogenes’ father were outraged, and Diogenes went into exile, eventually taking up residence in an old wine jar outside of Athens.
It is worth digressing at this point to consider one of Diogenes’ most famous contemporaries, namely Buddha, whose life was following almost the exact same plot line in northern India. A prince, Buddha was living a life of luxury when he had some chance encounters with old age, sickness and death on a hunting trip. He had a sudden realization that he didn’t understand anything and had to leave the the big, comfortable, insulating lie that was the royal compound, so he abandoned his wife and child and went to live in the forest and eat dirt. After six years, he decided that extreme asceticism wasn’t the way to live either, and he sat under the Bodhi Tree until he had his moment of enlightenment.
Diogenes went to the marketplace in downtown Athens and jerked off.
What did he mean? College professors discuss the Cynic belief that shame is the great enemy of freedom, that behavior which isn’t shameful in private should not be shameful in public, that we should look to animals as models of freedom without shame.
All true enough, but a little abstract for the specificity of this particular deed. I find it instructive to recall an incident that happened to me some years ago. There was a loud knock at the door of my apartment, and when I answered it, my Greek immigrant landlord screamed at me in Greek and made an unmistakeable gesture, forming a circle with his thumb and index finger and making a vigorous up-and-down motion. After a few minutes, I figured out that my rent check had bounced, and my landlord seemed to be equating that with masturbation, perhaps on the theory that in both activities no one receives the deposit.
I conclude from my former landlord that in Greece, as in the United States, this particular hand gesture means the same thing. Although I am not qualified as an anthropologist or classics scholar, I further suspect that the meaning of this hand gesture is pretty close to a norm across all cultures down through the ages.
Thus, when Diogenes went to the financial center of the first democracy and wrestled the Cyclops, he was calling the Wall Street of his day a bunch of wankers.
There is no record of Buddha pulling his pud in public, but he did come up with the Three Poisons, which distract us all on the path to enlightenment, namely: greed, anger and delusion.
So here we have two of the greatest minds in the first flower of civilization, and they’re saying, “Hey, this money thing we just invented, it’s wrecking our lives. It’s just a symbol. It doesn’t exist anywhere. The power we give it is enslaving us. Freedom is not a commodity that you purchase. When you worship money and the stuff you buy with money, you are enslaving yourself to a symbol of your own creation. This is idolatry, and you are missing your chance for real freedom.”
They couldn’t understand that in ancient Athens, and nobody even bothered to preserve Diogenes’ many books and plays. And we can’t understand it in the United States right now.
The other day I saw a documentary called Casino Jack and the United States of Money. As a character study of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his cronies, it’s quite entertaining. Wankers of the first order, they created a fantasy world for themselves consisting of Cold War spy novels and fundamentalist economics, which they hid under a thin veneer of fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity. But the movie is also a kick in the stomach, because it does what American journalism almost never does: It makes the case that the problem is systemic, not a matter of the Abramoff bad apple spoiling the barrel. All the apples are rotten. Abramoff’s innovation was the conscious application of “free market” principles to politics, which meant the flagrant buying and selling of members of Congress. So the movie has no heroes. Abramoff did go to prison, as he deserved, but he was brought down by hubris, not corruption. Other lobbyists got worried that he was so nakedly bribing politicians that he would wreck the whole evil system, from which they too were profiting but in more demur Ivy League good taste. It was the other corrupt lobbyists who started calling the Washington Post and saying, “Hey, look into this weasel.”
After the movie, the director Alex Gibney came out in person and underlined his point, saying that everything that happened in the movie is still going on in Washington. The only difference is that the Democrats are hauling in the most bribes. “How many of you are paying a 15% tax rate?” he asked. “Did you know that’s the rate that hedge fund managers pay? Do you know why? Because Chuck Schumer wants it that way.”
Yes, Chuck Schumer, the energetic, powerful, wretched hack who represents New York in the Senate and wants to be the next Majority Leader. He views the wankers of Wall Street as his “constituents,” and he wants their tax rates low, so they have more money for more bribes in the form of campaign contributions. That’s the free market, that’s politics, and Washington wants to keep it that way. Even though Abramoff is apparently singing like a bird in prison, the Justice Department has issued no new indictments. Tom Delay, Abramoff’s main beneficiary and one of the foulest humans on the planet, walks around a free man. I can see the sequel now: Casino Barack and the United States of Money.
Which brings me to the epigraphs of this essay. Liberals almost always use the word “cynic” in a way that would make Diogenes puke. Somehow, the word has evolved to mean someone who has base motives and acts on them. It has become a synonym for “Machiavellian.” I suspect that this is one more instance of the triumph of propaganda over the dictionary. The first principle of propaganda is to take all words with a bad connotation and apply them to the opposition and take all words with a good connotation and apply them to oneself, with no regard for the actual definition. So politicians naturally rationalized that any word that is a label for those who sneer at politicians should have a bad connotation. Through repeated misuse, they managed to turn the definition 180 degrees in the opposite direction. The American Heritage Dictionary now says a cynic is someone who “believes that all men are motivated by selfishness.” If that were true, then Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and the whole sick cult of Objectivists who wrecked everything that was good about America would be cynics. And they are not.
In ancient Greek, cynic meant “dog-like,” which referred to Diogenes’ willingness to use any orifice at any time in any place to sneer at wankers who live in fantasy castles of power and money. That’s what the word means, and any other meaning puts you in the service of the wankers.
So when Barack Obama says, as he did in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, “To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism, it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason,” he is exactly wrong, not to mention emitting a towering inferno of bullshit. When a politician wants to invade a country populated by brown people who live over oil, it is precisely a call to cynicism. It is not a call to service. It is not a call to be civil. It is not a call to ask what you can do for your country. It is a call to recognize that this is a President who advertised himself as a peace candidate and then escalated two wars and has constantly threatened a third; who advertised himself as a Constitutional scholar and is now pillaging the Bill of Rights; who had his wife plant an organic garden and then put Monsanto in charge of agriculture…I could go on. And on.
The point is, we’ve got another Ivy League cheerleader for war crimes in the White House, the latest in a parade of them, and nobody with a nanogram of sense is going to feel warm and fuzzy about his symbolism and ability to speak in complete sentences. Obama is owned by the wankers. It’s not time to debate, or write well-reasoned moral appeals to politicians. It’s time to sneer. It’s time to get cynical and vomit and excrete and hock a loogie and whack off and wipe your ass with your money.
Whenever in the presence of illegitimate power–and it’s all illegitimate now– shame the wankers. Blaspheme in the Cathedrals of Wank that are Wall Street. Like the corrupt lobbyists who dropped the dime on Jack Abramoff, the wankers are only going to do the right thing when they’re panicked, and what’s going to panic them is the prospect of getting scapegoated in the same way they’ve been scapegoating the poor for centuries.
Finally, I confess that there are problems with Diogenes’ philosophy. He had one possession for most of his life, an animal skin that he (occasionally) wore. He had a cup for a while, but one day he saw somebody using his hands to drink from a stream. Diogenes threw the cup away and cursed himself for having such a useless, freedom-hindering encumbrance. I fantasize about getting rid of all my possessions that way about twice a week, and then I remember that I like having access to my books and music and I need a place to keep them out of the rain. Thus I am forced to perform labors pleasing to rich people periodically, lest my landlord make hand gestures at me. I also cannot romanticize homelessness. I know a number of people who have lived on the streets, and I wouldn’t wish their traumas on anyone, even the wankers. Going the full Diogenes lifestyle isn’t the solution, even as economic collapse and eco-cataclysm and peak oil move us all closer to it every day.
This is where Buddha comes in. After his enlightenment, he recommended the Middle Way, which allows for eating utensils. You just refrain from getting attached to them.
I sometimes wonder what Diogenes would tell the Greek workers who have chosen to riot rather than surrender their salaries and benefits so the wankers of Wall Street can continue their gambling habit. Would he say, “Hey, you’re missing a chance to achieve total freedom by getting rid of useless encumbrances like food, shelter and clothing”? Or would he be out there throwing rocks, because that’s what the wankers deserve?
I don’t know. But I think he’d say something like this: Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your shame.