The End Of Cynicism?

Is this the end of cynicism?

Obama’s soaring victory speech in Chicago last night was an oratorical flourish of positivism, such as has been missing in public discourses in America for years.

The breathless New York Times reported last night’s events not as an election victory but as a zeitgeist shift for America, a change long coming now finally here; a revolution achieved. That tone was echoed in major papers and broadcasts everywhere. It’s not just here at home. There is global excitement about the resurgent American ideal. In the euphoria Norman Mailer called himself a “born again American”, and I’m sure that Erica Jong is feeling same way over in Europe.

“Hope”, “Change” and “Yes We Can” are ringing out across the airwaves. It is a welcome and cathartic relief from the rancorous tone delivered by the media for decades. Certainly the Obama victory has been an affirmation of principles long held by the academic left which have seeped into our collective philosophy. For them the revolution is won.

But what does this victory mean to the future tone of discourse in America? Is this the end of cynicism, the tone of voice which has become the best way to identify a speaker, entertainer, writer, researcher, artist or academic as American? Now that the revolution is over how will we speak, casually and formally, without the ability to mock, snark or deride the archetypes built since the 1960’s? Certainly the old rebellion is over, we saw Jesse Jackson’s tears. So what will replace its messenger, the sound of sarcasm and cynicism in our voice?

The Defeat of Cynicism

Being factual rather than emotional for a moment, there may still be much to be cynical about. It’s clear that Obama can not deliver on all the expectations of his campaign. No one could.

Two weeks ago his campaign began the process of reducing those expectations. It seemed the empty vessel had filled to overflowing. CNN said on Tuesday that Obama has been like a national Rorschach test, we see in him what we want from the ink blots on a card. Our reaction is almost all projection and to win the election Obama allowed those projections to accumulate unchecked. He was famous for saying to his economic advisors in the heat of the credit crisis “Just tell me what the right thing to do is. I’ll figure out how to sell it”.

It seems somehow petty to bring up these fact now, perhaps even cynical. Obama will certainly be given a pass on most policy issues because of his age (young), historical significance (great), and symbolism (refutation of the alternative). So with concrete policy off limits, all that will be left is the impact from the feelings of positive expectations, even if the fulfillments of everyone’s personal blank canvases are postponed into some time in the future.

The feeling of positive expectations reported are real. John McCain’s eyes spoke of it in his concession speech last night as he scowled at booing supporters, because he too wants to believe; and the throngs in the streets were legitimate, as were the celebrations in foreign countries.

So too is the sense that this is a moment where all the word can believe again that, somewhere on the planet there is a place where great things happen, and that place is America, a place “where dreams can come true”.

Even if you discount that the Obama vote was boosted by the economic crisis, all that disappeared in his victory oration, speaking about the progress of technology and history during the course of one, hundred year old woman’s life and as he used that as a base for the expectation that such progress will continue.

His words were soaring, and inspiring, and meaningless except in one real way, that it was comprehensively positive, and that change in tone will be profound.

An Institutionalized Tone of Voice

So where does that leave the tone of current discourse in America? We have been cyclical for so long that cynicism itself has become institutionalized.

Over the past decades our leaders have been convincingly portrayed as bumblers, or crooks or secret conspirators. In popular culture cable comedy has been on the rise since Reagan, mocking even the best intentioned public officials. On the screen anti-heros flourished. Made up fictions called mocumentaries drew huge crowds and were reviewed as if they were legitimate reporting. Musicians from Springsteen to The Offspring spent decades calling the establishment corrupt. Operas and classical plays were redefined to undermine traditional leadership. Whole academic disciplines were founded to refute the current power structure, dissenters were sent to reeducation programs or had their careers terminated.

For decades our media has been pitted against the establishment, our academics pitted against our history. Now they have triumphed, so where will all that bitter post modern angst go? The tonality of our discourse, whether in news, media, art or academics came to the point that it was only defined as successful when termed “snarky”. That was until last night. Right now it feels as if an archetype is being erased, or at least minimized to irrelevance. What’s to replace it? In short, what will Jon Stewart be doing come the summer, because his collective psychiatrist couch of ridicule will soon look painfully dated.

Of courses he (as a stand-in for the dialogue of our country) could mock the opposition. Republicans will have difficulty embracing what happened last night, and may think that all this will change once the economy improves. (They would be wrong, but hey did Karl Rove sound like a total ass last night calling Bill Cosby America’s first black family?) If the Republicans take that stand then the ship’s guns of the left will just continue to target them as an anti-christ fueling the cynicism industry for a few more years. But even that would be short lived and unfulfilling because it will not matter. It would be the twilight of aging careers, not the place to be if you are fresh, and young and new and trying to tap in into the emerging voice.

Or he could turn on Obama. Eventually policy will catch up with expectations. The world is not a free and democratic place and it is filled with jealousy of success. Obama will have to take actions that he would have denounced as a candidate. Already the party is spreading the word that closing Guantanamo may be harder than anyone expected, so we may just have to wait. And the economy’s bad, so program expansion may just have to wait. And there is a deficit so… you get the idea. But there’s no script of revolutionary anger in an unfilled agenda. “It’s on the list we just haven’t got to it yet” is an absolute defense against such attack.

So I can’t see cynicism becoming resurgent in the costume of Obama or Republican mocking. The only possibility in public, private, and scholarly discourse is to embrace the Obama positivism. It’s a Faustian choice because by doing so the themes of revolution which have been percolating since 1968 will be destroyed. Anger is out, positivism is in. Even as I write this I feel the power of cynicism slip away, a sense that it has lost it’s legitimacy.

The Happiness Train

“It’s time to get on the happiness train” my partner said to me this morning as the glow of Camelot 2 burned on the TV. Even before she said that I heard the rebellion ending with Obama’s words of Hope, and the train loading up.

The happiness train is not going to to sound like the old bitter war train that brought us to this point. The voices raised will be speaking in a different tone, not snarky, not bitter, not twisting with resentment.

I expect that at first the tone will be highly constructive, filled with project based verbiage, “how we will do this, or that” almost engineering like or soviet in its imbued usefulness, and I’m not saying soviet as in socialistic, but as a collective of industrialized action. The tone will be decidedly utilitarian, because as Obama told us last night, “there is much to be done”.

But eventually that will give way, because that “can do”, Peace Core village water project manual stuff lacks a deep soul. Once the sweat is off the brow of the new WPA, and as the American People’s Army March ages, we will wonder where the emotional core of our dialogue went.

That’s when the whole tone of discourse in America will change, again and solidify. I don’t know exactly what the result will be, but I have a good sense of what it will not be.

It will not be the Chomskyan, anarchist, deconstructionist anger that boils from the academy today. That speech which was institutionalized and protected by academic discipline committees, that found its way into the arts and the sudo-intellectuals of the media and finally into entertainment production is yesterday’s sound. Obama is making that all irrelevant, or at least historical.

What comes next will be vastly different. It will be something else, something perhaps softer, more romantic, and perhaps utopian.

Certainly it will be forward looking, not retrospective. It will be optimistic, and will have a favorable view of the collective. It will be of possibility and fulfillment. There will be a retelling of struggle, but it will be heroic not anti-heroic, and to a large extent it will be devoid of suspicion, an affirmation of completion and of dreams fulfilled. It will be very sensual. Perhaps, it will be the dawning of new aesthetic of naivety. And it will last for a long time.

So here’s the new coming issue for the those who make their contribution by pen, brush, or pixel. How to relearn to talk in tones like this, or perhaps something else, but certainly not the razor blade in your mouth dialogue we have had in these radicalized years. I don’t think it’s going to be easy since that cynicism is all that we remember, but certainly writing for the revolution is over.

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  1. Posted November 6, 08 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m a positivist. I believe that we (collectively, as a people) are far more successful at accomplishing the things we wish when we focus on what we want.

    I am thrilled to give it a try, even if it doesn’t work right away. Life will be happier, and if there’s any other purpose in this life besides being happy, I sure as heck haven’t figured it out.

  2. Doug
    Posted November 6, 08 at 1:45 pm | Permalink


    It seems like after being Against for so long, many “institutions of voice” will have an adjustment to make to adopt your disposition.

  3. Posted November 6, 08 at 3:16 pm | Permalink


    As an historian, I look at these events and don’t necessarily see “Camelot 2”, but perhaps an end to the political supremacy of those whose idealism was dashed so horribly by Vietnam and Watergate. Young voters did not live through that, but did experience the bitter cynicism of presidential attack, from Reagan and Iran/Contra to Clinton and Whitewater/Lewinsky to the crony-ist no-bid debacle that has been the Bush Administration. (Does that sound cynical??) In the face of such relentless, prosecutorial attitudes, who can blame people for grasping at something hopeful for a change?

    Still, many I know are waiting for the other shoe to drop. The pressure on President Obama will be great, because once hopes have been dashed, even in politics, people always sleep with one eye open.

    • Julia
  4. Posted November 7, 08 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    The election is already over. It is already in the past, so we should forget about it already. We can’t change what has already happened. We can only change what is yet to happen, so we need to look to the future clear-eyed with realism about the risks which will face us and with clear heads and optimism about what we can do. I would rather we were able to enthusiastically disagree about the direction we want to take as we all put our collective efforts together to influence change than sit back and idly get angry about our different subjective interpretations of the past in our distaste at the actions of others. The election of Obama is not the end of democracy – it is a sign that it still lives. The election of Obama is the start of something new – but only if we start pulling on the levers of power which we’ve put back in our own hands. If this is now our time, it is now time we made use of it.

  5. Doug
    Posted November 7, 08 at 8:36 am | Permalink


    I’m not suggesting an end of democracy, just an end (possibly) of cynicism in discourse.

    My article was about how the symbolism of the new administration, and its affirmation of academe and media goals, will cause a change in tone since the “outs” are now the “ins” and throwing bricks is best done from the street not from in the house.


  6. Posted November 7, 08 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Hi Doug, speaking from the other side of the Atlantic I can definitely say that cynicism is alive and kicking over here. Obama’s victory hasn’t done anything about the elected officials who supposedly represent me! I’m glad you’re optimistic and I agree this election has opened a window of opportunity in political and social discourse for people around the world as well as in the US, but I also think it is a constant challenge to stop legitimate scepticism spilling over into cynicism – one vote every four years doesn’t amount to an engaged society and if we aren’t engaged we will only ever grow frustrated at our continuing powerlessness. I’m in agreement that politics is a serious business and the serious issues affecting all our lives need to be treated with consideration. The gung-ho approach based on instinct is vainglorious and counterproductive, but symbolic change isn’t enough in the long run – we need real change!

  7. Posted November 9, 08 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I am also across the pond and I can say that I have witnessed a genuine buzz of hope certainly in the capital). Obama’s victory shows us what is possible. It brings those marginalised back into the room. It gives us courage to be part of change, but it also shows us the power in new media democracy. The internet has bought us lots of bad things, but at last it has revealed how it can harness the postive.

  8. Shannon
    Posted November 16, 08 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I’m puzzled as to why the equities markets have not reacted as positively to the outcome of the election as your readers, Doug.

  9. Doug
    Posted November 16, 08 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    As I have said, one of the groups is right.

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