Land of the Free and Home of the Cynical


Cynicism is a cop-out.

It is easy to stand for nothing.

It is courageous and hard to stand for something.

Cynicism runs rampant. It springs from the churlish letters I frequently read in the Observer Forum. It blasts from the inflammatory call-ins on talk radio programs. It is confirmed by the abysmal voter turnout in our recent primary elections.

Like a poisonous kudzu, cynicism steadily advances, gnawing at the fabric of our society and body politic.

We are cynical about government and politicians. We don't believe their motives are pure or their actions principled.

We are cynical about our legal system. We believe that plaintiffs get undeserved gargantuan awards, lawyers make windfall profits, and criminals go scot-free.

We are even cynical about baseball! We don't trust our "city fathers" in their efforts to promote sports initiatives such as Major League Baseball or a downtown coliseum.

The irony is that this cynicism grows just as the quality of our lives and the freedoms we enjoy progress. We expect more than ever before, and we want it immediately. The more we have, the more we want to keep - and the less we want to pay for it. Although there are good reasons for us to feel cynical, this increasingly jaded outlook is a cancer on our future.

Let's step back and think. I say "think" because, contrary to popular opinion, cynicism is really not a cerebral activity. It is usually a lazy, knee-jerk reaction to complicated issues. There are many reasons we are cynical:

1. Hypocrisy: Politicians engage in double talk, seeming to promise one thing and do another. Lauch Faircloth derides federal government but sponsors national standards for our tort system.

2. Irresponsibility: We become cynical when sports idols get caught using drugs or beating their spouses, or when President Clinton says he can't tell us what really happened with Monica Lewinsky.

3. Irrationality: To many people, the O.J. Simpson verdict was not supported by the evidence. That lawyers can make billions through the tobacco settlement seems ridiculous. Congressional districts that weave like serpents, dividing cities and counties, seem irrational.

4. Misunderstanding: Rich resent poor, poor mistrust rich. Democrats distort the views of Republicans, and Republicans do likewise to Democrats.

Are these reasons enough to just give up on the system? No. Cynicism is a cop-out. It is easy to stand for nothing. It is courageous and hard to stand for something, for no stance is perfect or absolutely defensible. Cynics enjoy sniping at the imperfect.

We must maintain ideals, for those dreams are the foundation of our American system. By forsaking ideals, we become a world of whiny, polarized curmudgeons. Cynics don't dream or vote.

Voting may be the most telling example. If a person doesn't vote, then what the government does (about taxes, schools, services, crime control, healthcare) doesn't matter. Or that person has given up. We agonize over the example adults set by drinking and smoking; what kind of example do we set for young people when we don't vote? Why should we have license to complain about government if we don't exercise our right to vote? Does anybody (who is not on the fringe) really believe that our choices in electing government officials don't make a difference? Democratic freedom and economic prosperity have a price: participation and engagement in the process. When an increasingly cynical, spoiled society refuses to pay that price, it risks losing its liberty and affluence.

Exacerbating cynicism is our society's increasing expectation of instant gratification. We have become accustomed to immediate access to anything we want (information, cash, telecommunications); government doesn't work that way. Governing is a slow, tedious and cumbersome process. The votes we cast today may not result in tangible change for years. Still, failure to achieve spontaneous results breeds cynicism.

The recent debate about baseball - in the Triad and in Charlotte - also has overtones of cynicism. "I don't want my tax dollars used on professional sports." "I don't want the downtown fat cats dictating policy to me."

Those views are fair. But they need to be critically developed: not the result of impulsive resentment of the business establishment. What if it could be shown that baseball would produce tax dollars? Let's listen, analyze, and then decide.

You may be thinking that some of the very people I am defending are cynics. Commissioners Joel Carter and Bill James hysterically attack downtown leadership.

Though their positions may be cynical, they do have one thing in common with Hugh McColl - they're engaged in the process, and they are trying to make a difference. They, like most leaders, are in honest pursuit of their ideals and vision, at great personal sacrifice.

Vote. Weigh competing views. Sort through conflicting information. Be critical. Embrace realism, but be cynical about cynicism.

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