Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Sponge and Cynicism...

Mr. Sponge over at Minvolved posted a thought-provoking piece yesterday. In it, he discusses a lot of the problems with contemporary political discourse. He theorizes that middle-class economic anxiety—the dawning realization that we no longer live in a world of unending prosperity—has provoked an era where cynicism and pessimism have largely supplanted other, more hopeful frames of reference. This leads to a mindset in which, to quote the Sponge, “the traditional solutions to our interests/concerns inhabit mechanisms that no longer exist as valid options in many, many people’s minds. Media, government, well-established (and accepted) social bonds like the separation of church and state: these things are now treated with a surprising amount of insincerity and, in some cases, outright maliciousness.”

Mr. Sponge then comes to the conclusion that this widespread condition cannot be overcome by more insincerity and more maliciousness. He writes “we began to realize something that we should have realized long ago: cynicism/irony many not be the best way to go about our business. It’s not working and it’s only good for choir preaching.” He then concludes by promising to leave the snark and ridicule behind, in order to focus on “things like policy and communication strategy”.

I have some thoughts on this. First off, I never considered Mr. Sponge’s work to be excessively negative or ironic. To me, he’s always put thought before invective, argument before insult, and analysis before angry ranting. Sure, he’ll call a boob a boob, but he’s a million times removed from those bloggers who thunder and rage day in and day out. He’s got a nuanced, intelligent take on local and national politics, which is why it’s a good thing that he’s going to turn his talents to encouraging positive change instead of simply commenting on how dumb the dumb shit we’re all swimming in is. He’s good at that too, of course, but that gets dull for people with the ability and inclination to do more.

The thing you realize pretty quick when writing about politics is this: bitterness is boring. Getting outraged every day is boring. Mocking some new moron is boring. It’s boring to read and it’s boring to write. It never ceases to amaze me how many websites out there, both on the right and left, are little more than complaint-a-thons. That’s a dead end. It’s the McDonalds of writing—it’s quick, it’s cheap and sometimes it even feels good going down, but it’s still bad for you, it’ll still turn you into a gassy, blubbery boor. That’s no way to live.

And I say that as someone who can be incorrigibly cynical, at least where politics are concerned. It might sound odd, but I consider political cynicism a viable alternative to partisanship. I hate that bullshit where otherwise intelligent people will act like their candidate has decency, honor and vision in a headlock. I also hate that tendency to reduce differences in ideology to a war of lifestyles (Mr. Sponge writes about this today)—a football match with Volvo driving liberals versus Hummer-cherishing conservatives, each with their own “see-no-evil” cheering sections. Cynicism strikes me as a better, more honest, option than that. Expecting universal corruption seems to me a more realistic and honorable approach than defending a particular ideology or cast of mind as universally virtuous.

But that doesn’t mean that cynicism is the ideal approach. It’s more of a defensive maneuver than anything else, and the knee-jerk cynic is just as ugly, if not uglier, than any other knee-jerker. What’s the best option then? Well, it’s probably standing up for what you believe and working to make the world a better place, without gullibility or too many illusions, but also without resentment, anger or self-righteousness. An easy state to imagine, but a difficult one to attain. Mr. Sponge has already made it, though, so you should just read his website for some tips on how to get there...