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Friday, April 27, 2007

Corrosive Cynicism (Change One Mind)

The irrepressively wordy Glenn Greenwald (because, you know, I am just so succinct) has a post on Beltway cynicism and its attendant lack of comprehension of people who actually care about things.

He makes an interesting and plausible case that the sniffy sophisticates above us not only consider "reasonableness" to be of the highest value, but that they also consider actually believing in things to be unhinged behaviour (OT - I want to preemptively point out that my use of the word "believe" here has absolutely nothing to do with my philosophical takedown of belief. Here I use it as shorthand for doing the right thing in the face of known facts).
...when Feingold stood up and advocated censure -- based on the truly radical and crazy, far leftist premise that when the President is caught red-handed breaking the law, the Congress should actually do something about that -- the soul-less, oh-so-sophisticated Beltway geniuses could not even contemplate the possibility that he was doing that because he believed what he was saying. Beltway pundits and the leaders of the Beltway political and consulting classes all, in unison, immediately began casting aspersions on Feingold's motives and laughed away -- really never considered -- the idea that he was motivated by actual belief, let alone the merits of his proposal.

That's because
they believe in nothing. They have no passion about anything. And they thus assume that everyone else suffers from the same emptiness of character and ossified cynicism that plagues them. And all of their punditry and analysis and political strategizing flows from this corrupt root.

That is exactly right and it's worth going over there and reading, even if it is characteristically wordy ;).

I bring it up here because Glenn's analysis so very well reflects my own experiences with people. While he focuses on the cocktail-weeny pundit circuit, I find it very true as well with so-called "moderates" down here amongst us hoi-polloi. While the thuggish and unreflective right are a problem, they are at least walking cautionary tales to the thoughtful - you, too, could look like a knuckle-dragging mouth-breather, after all. "Reasonable" people, however, are probably the biggest danger to the enactment of transparent, effective and moral public policy.

I can't tell you how many times during spirited discussion, when my blood was well up and my outrage on display, that I have been marginalized by versions of "Oh, well, it would be nice if things were that way, but they're never going to change," with thoughtful bobble-heads all around. You know - nutty Petro is just too naive to understand the wisdom of practicality and realpolitik.

We live in a noosphere, and whether or not you grok the more esoteric theories which have grown out of that simple fact, it must be acknowledged that we live in an environment which is fundamentally driven by human thought. We are also primate mammals, and reflexively we care about what our fellow humans think. There is a constant check and re-check of the zeitgeist going on, for this is how societal coherence is achieved. If we didn't care what others' opinion of ourselves was, well, it could be bedlam (I of course am waiting for that evolutionary leap in consciousness - The Hundredth Monkey Effect - where such considerations become beside the point, but I am here being "reasonable" myself and reluctantly acknowledging that we are, as a whole, not there yet.) However, cohesiveness would be absolutely paralyzing if we do not remain open to the possible as well. Cynical dismissals along the lines of "that's just the way things are" are corrupting perversions of our natural tendency towards group-think.

I love debate. Or, more precisely, I love honest expositions of principle and morality, and I enjoy contemplating and discussing how these virtues may come to flower in general society. Much as I should know better, I am always stunned anew when I see an unprincipled and indefensible cynicism, posing as sophistication, take the last word in these conversations. Once I am marginalized as the naive dreamer, group-think takes over and the "wise ones" all go back to business as usual, satisfied that all that fruity hard-thinking stuff that Petro is obsessed with is completely unnecessary and there's no need to hurt their brains any longer with foolish "possibilities." Oh, and hey, did you see the game last night?

It is extremely critical that people be infected with possibilities. No meaningful change in society will take place "top down" - that is a medieval paradigm which we should be long past entertaining, but it is the prevailing one. All change happens from the ground, the street, the people. Even when we are organized with ostensible hierarchical authority structures, the truth is that all government happens by consent. Even dictatorships disappear without so much as a whimper if "the street" has had it with the despot. It is what people accept as real, as "the way things are," that shape our relationships and our society.

It is easy to make the argument that I am tilting at windmills by giving a shit enough about the world around me that I am constantly engaging in ostensibly fruitless and distracting discussions (Tucker Carlson to Jon Stewart: "What's it like to have dinner with you? It must be excruciating. Do you like lecture people like this or do you come over to their house and sit and lecture them; they're not doing the right thing, that they're missing their opportunities, evading their responsibilities?" Stewart: "If I think they are.") But my counterargument is consistent with my view of how human society is structured.

The most valuable important thing any thoughtful person can do is to change just one mind.

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